Chilling Lessons from the Vietnam War Resonate Today

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick spent more than a decade researching and creating their recently premiered 10-part 18-hour documentary chronicling the history of United States involvement (and, less exhaustively, earlier French engagement as well) in Vietnam. The Vietnam War has been warmly received and has even been dubbed a “masterpiece” by conservative Washington Post columnist, George Will.[1] While I have not yet seen all of the film, I have seen several episodes, including part 7 (covering June 1968-May 1969), in which the filmmakers report a deeply disturbing series of events concerning then presidential candidate Richard Nixon. During that segment, the documentary’s narrator reports that at Nixon’s personal direction, a representative of his campaign contacted the South Vietnamese government and urged President Nguyen Van Thieu not to participate in peace talks in Paris, to which he had previously agreed, and which were set to begin in the week before the November 1968 American Presidential election. The campaign representative purportedly promised that Nixon would give the South Vietnamese a “better deal” if they complied with the request and he won the election. This allegedly occurred in the closing days of a very close contest in which Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, appeared daily to be gaining ground. Whether as a result of that request or for other unknown reasons, Thieu withdrew suddenly and unexpectedly from the talks.

The film provides a short excerpt of an audio-taped conversation between President Lyndon Johnson—who had learned of the Nixon campaign’s purported role in this turn via the Central Intelligence Agency—and Senate Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) on November 2, 1968. During that recorded conversation, Johnson suggested that “this is treason,” and Dirksen agreed. Thereafter, Nixon called Johnson and indicated, again on tape, he had heard such was being alleged and that he had not so acted and would never do so. Johnson did not say he had reason to believe otherwise during their conversation, having decided not to reveal how he learned of the apparent treasonous duplicity. Here is the relevant narration from the film:

NARRATOR (Peter Coyote):

Nixon was lying and Johnson knew it. But to go public with the information, the President would have to reveal the methods by which he had learned of the Republican candidate’s duplicity. He was unwilling to do so.

Nixon’s secret was safe. The American public was never told that the regime, for which 35,000 Americans had died, had been willing to boycott peace talks to help elect Richard Nixon. Or that he had been willing to delay an end to the bloodshed in order to get elected.[2]

The Richard Nixon Foundation has argued the documentary’s claims are inaccurate, but Burns and Novick stand by their finding, and clearly Johnson and Dirksen were persuaded it had occurred, as the film recounts.[3] If true, it suggests an individual so desirous of power as to sacrifice American military personnel’s lives amorally and cynically to obtain it. If matters occurred as outlined, this alarming episode shows a would-be President willing to commit treason and thereafter to lie flatly and outright to the President of the United States about his action.

But there is still more in the film concerning Nixon’s lack of a moral compass and his near absolute mendacity. In episode 9, the documentary recounts the horrific and costly failure of the March 1970 American air-power-supported South Vietnamese army incursion into Laos, an effort to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail by which North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were moving soldiers and material to the South for attacks. In the documentary’s account, the narrator states, “Although individual RVN (Republic of Vietnam) units fought bravely, the invasion was a failure.”[4] Casualties were very heavy, as were the numbers of South Vietnamese soldiers captured. Nevertheless, on April 7, 1971, following an additional American-backed RVN intervention into Cambodia as part of his administration’s continuing policy of giving the South Vietnamese more responsibility for the war, Nixon appeared before the American people in a nationally televised address “to report that Vietnamization has succeeded.” One of the pieces of evidence he employed to buttress that claim was the “success” of the Laos effort.

Following footage of the speech, the documentary provides an audio recording of Nixon speaking with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in which he tells the Secretary that his overriding concern as he considered the conflict was his reelection in 1972, and the war was a stone around his neck in ensuring that possibility. As he and Kissinger discussed the speech, Nixon remarked, “I will tell you one thing, this little speech was a work of art … it was no act, because no actor could do it. No actor in Hollywood could have done that that well, don’t you think?”[5] Whether it had been delivered by Nixon’s hypothetical actor or, as in this case, offered by America’s President, the speech completely and deliberately sought to mislead the U.S. public concerning events in Vietnam.

I was a youth as this history unfolded and was unaware of, or do not recall, these specific examples of Nixon’s duplicity and willingness to mislead the American people (and likely, worse) to secure election and reelection. When I learned of them while watching the film, I was shaken. Nixon resigned from office in disgrace on August 9, 1974, in the face of certain impeachment arising from his direction and attempted cover-up of the Watergate conspiracy. What most Americans—and one supposes, the 24 percent of the citizenry who, according to a national poll, continued to support him just prior to his resignation—did not realize was that Watergate was not an isolated episode. It was only one example of a pattern of behavior revealing Nixon’s willingness to lie and conspire and even allegedly treasonously to sacrifice soldiers’ lives to gain and retain power.[6]

I share these historical incidents for two reasons. First, most leadership theorists today define that phenomenon in a fashion that demands that it be ethical to be regarded as leadership at all. By these lights, for example, Adolf Hitler was not a leader, although he exercised power. Nixon knowingly and repeatedly failed this test, and revealed himself in so doing as morally bankrupt at his core, irrespective of his specific policy initiatives or programs. He was, as the film and Watergate alike illustrate, an utterly unethical actor, and therefore in no sense, despite his election, a democratic leader.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the nation was fortunate that the break-in at the Watergate was bungled and led to broad awareness of the moral bankruptcy of the individual who ordered it. The country was lucky, too, that its governance institutions worked to force his ouster. Nixon’s presidency stands as a modern warning to the American citizenry of what can go wrong when an individual without scruples, and without moral or ethical moorings, gains office and is interested only in power and self-aggrandizement.

If this is so, it illustrates my second rationale for sharing these historical examples of venality and moral corruption by an incumbent president. Chillingly, President Donald Trump’s campaign is under investigation as I write for conspiring with the Russian government to undermine the candidacy of Trump’s general election opponent. The parallel to Nixon’s alleged actions and treason, if shown to be true, is both appalling and instructive. More, Trump has almost daily and shamelessly lied to the American people about matters large and small. That is, unlike Nixon, he has not sought to obscure his venality and shame, but has instead argued that the media are misrepresenting him, and claimed they are partisan or simply corrupt. In fact, those institutions are neither, and the President is an amoral demagogue bent only on aggrandizing himself and his power. In this he resembles the disgraced Nixon very closely. And very like Nixon, too, Trump is maintaining the steady political support of a minority of the citizenry, irrespective of the many moral outrages he has committed in his eight months in office and continues to perpetrate.

Nixon left office under the certainty of impeachment, but, as I noted above, almost a quarter of the American public continued to support him notwithstanding. In light of Trump’s present support of roughly 36 percent of Americans, and in the face of his much more public display of lies and efforts to undercut democratic norms, I am left with two difficult questions. First, will today’s Congress and Supreme Court act to hold the President accountable as his behavior continues? And second, what will it take to convince those individuals now supporting a rudderless demagogue of the dangerousness of their complacency? History teaches that their stance, however rationalized, could prove very costly indeed.

 

Notes

[1] Will, George. “‘The Vietnam War’ is a masterpiece¾and a model for assessing our history,” Washington Post, September 15, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-vietnam-war-is-a-masterpiece--and-a-model-for-assessing-our-history/2017/09/15/18536ab4-9984-11e7-82e4-f1076f6d6152_story.html?utm_term=.a28d5558db2f Accessed September 15, 2017.

[2] Burns, Ken and Lynn Novick: “The Vietnam War, Episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization,” http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/episodes/episode-7/ Accessed October 5, 2017.

[3] The Richard Nixon Foundation’s comments on this episode and narrative may be found here: “The Vietnam War-Errors and Omissions,” The Richard Nixon Foundation, September 25, 2017, https://www.nixonfoundation.org/2017/09/the-vietnam-war-errors-and-omissions/  Accessed October 1, 2017.

[4] Burns, Ken and Lynn Novick: “The Vietnam War, Episode 9: A Disrespectful Loyalty,” http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/episodes/episode-9/ Accessed October 5, 2017.

[5] Burns and Novick, Episode 9, Accessed October 1, 2017.

[6] Coleman, David. “Nixon’s Presidential Approval Ratings,” History in Pieces, http://historyinpieces.com/research/nixon-approval-ratings Accessed October 6, 2017.