Nixon’s War 10

For a brief moment, Nixon appeared to have checked domestic dissidence. In September he announced a second troop withdrawal as well as a reduction in draft calls, the latter calculated to quell antiwar protests by students returning to college campuses. He also labored to convince legislative critics of his sincerity, silencing even Senator Fulbright. An opinion poll conducted in October gave his approach to Vietnam in extraordinary approval rating of 71 percent.
Still, opponents of the war on Capitol Hill soon renewed their demands for fresh initiatives—some persuaded that Ho Chi Minh’s death offered an opportunity for a faster peace, others spurred by purely partisan motives. On September 25, Senator Charles Goodell, a maverick New York Republican, proposed legislation to bring all the GIs home by the end of 1970. Ten similar resolutions were intro¬duced in Congress over the next three weeks by such senators as Mark Hatfield, Frank Church, Claiborne Pell and Jacob Javits, and Fulbright started to speak out again. Nixon denounced their gestures as harmful to his bargaining posture. But despite considerable public support, he could not stop the antiwar momentum from spreading among the vocal elements of the population—the press commentators, educators, corporation executives, labor leaders, clergy and other prominent per¬sonalities, whose attitudes get into the newspapers and onto television screens.
Late in the summer of 1969, various different antiwar factions were contemplating nationwide protests. Sam Brown, a twenty-five-year- old former divinity student who had campaigned for Senator Eugene McCarthy, concluded that moderate antiwar sentiment ought to be concentrated in communities rather than on campuses so that, as he later explained, “the heartland folks felt it belonged to them.” He and other young militants thereupon organized a series of “moratoriums,” to begin in various parts of the country on October 15 and to be repeated during the following months. This plan quickly won en¬dorsement from university faculties, religious associations, civil rights groups and others, including national and local political figures. The North Vietnamese, acknowledging the importance of the U.S. home front for the first time, broadcast a letter signed by Pham Van Dong acclaiming the protests as a “noble reflection” of the American public’s desire to save its sons “from a useless death in Vietnam.”
Despite Nixon’s dream of commanding a tight ship, his entourage responded diversely to these forthcoming demonstrations. Laird, anxious to ease the tension, declared that Vietnamization had become the administration’s “highest priority.” He also invented new jargon to signal a decline in U.S. casualties, saying that American troops in Vietnam were shifting from “maximum pressure” on the enemy to “protective reaction.” By contrast, Vice-President Agnew inflamed passions. He flayed the protesters for their refusal to repudiate Pham Van Dong’s letter, implied they were Communist dupes or worse, and, in a barrage of sophomoric adjectives, later called them “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
Nixon’s outlook was not far from Agnew’s. According to Raymond Price, one of his closest aides, Nixon fancied himself a victim of the same “fashionable” Eastern establishment that had undermined John¬son. He believe, as Price put it, that “he was defending the traditional values of Middle America against the media and academic elites who were glorifying rebellion.” Nixon feared as well that the demonstra¬tions would undermine his credibility, since he could not plausibly meet his November 1 deadline to resort to “measures of great con¬sequence and force” against North Vietnam without sending the United States into convulsions. He had to rally American public opin¬ion behind him dramatically.
The first “moratorium,” as Time remarked, infused “new respect¬ability and popularity” into the antiwar resistance. It was largely a sober, almost melancholy manifestation of middle-class concern, with none of the violence that had attended the Democratic convention in Chicago. A quarter of a million people converged on Washington, thousands of them following the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a candlelit procession through the capital. Huge crowds assembled peaceably in New York, Boston, Miami, Detroit and other cities to listen to speakers ranging from familiar opponents of the war like Dr. Benjamin Spock and David Dellinger to former supreme court justice Arthur Goldberg and Ambassador Averell Harriman, who told a gath¬ering on Long Island that Nixon “is going to have to pay attention.” But Nixon feigned indifference. “Under no circumstances will I be affected,” he had said earlier, adding that policy, “made in the streets” equaled “anarchy.” On October 15, he directed an assistant to put out the word that he had been conducting “business as usual.”
In fact, behind his pose of casual contempt, Nixon was alarmed. Besides preempting his ultimatum to North Vietnam—or at least the bluff—the demonstrations had besieged him in the White House, just as dissidence had beleaguered Johnson. His term had more than three years to run, and he had to extricate himself. He ordered his staff to draft a rebuttal, to be delivered on November 3, 1969, nearly two weeks before the next “moratorium.”
The quintessential Nixon speech pulled him through the crisis with flying colors. In it, he succinctly spelled out his “plan to end the war.” He Would strengthen the South Vietnamese to defend themselves as American forces were gradually withdrawn. He was ready to com¬promise with the Communists, on condition that they recognize the Saigon government and warned that he would take “strong and ef¬fective measures” if they intensified their military actions. But all this required time, which brought him to the core of his address—a plea for public backing. The world’s confidence in American leadership hinged on the outcome in Vietnam. “And so tonight,” he intoned, “to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support. Let us be united for peace. Let us be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”
The response to the presidential address, orchestrated by the Re¬publican party apparatus through its county machines, was over¬whelmingly favorable. Telephone calls of sympathy jammed the White House switchboard, and thousands of positive telegrams and letters flowed into Washington. Deluged by similar messages, a bi¬partisan majority of Congress registered approval of the president’s Vietnam strategy. Nixon’s ratings in the polls soared. Delighted, he told his aides: “We’ve got those liberal bastards on the run now, and we’re going to keep them on the run.”

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