Last night’s segment of the Burns-Novick PBS series, among other things, told the story of how Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers and got them published. This was significant, because one of the gripes about the series that seized social media even before the first segment was shown was that Ellsberg had been left out. Between that and the fact that Bank of America and David Koch donated money to produce the series, there has been a regular anti-Burns movement on social media among self-identified lefties who badmouth the series and call it a whitewash, which is why they are refusing to watch it.
It’s true that the current Ellsberg hasn’t appeared on camera (there’s one more segment to air), but the series told his story and quoted things he said in the 1970s about why he leaked the documents. The segment also reported the time the Plumbers broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to look for something incriminating to use against him. That part of the story, and the significance of the Pentagon Papers, was covered, in other words. Note that PBS produced a whole separate 90-minute film just on Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers that was released in 2010. I wonder if the gripers noticed.
The other aspect of the series that has put many knickers in a knot is that it hasn’t told the story of how the glorious and noble antiwar movement helped end the war. But the sad fact is, I can’t say that it did. I believed at the time, and still believe, that the only real accomplishment of the antiwar movement was to re-elect Richard Nixon in 1972. And last night’s episode underscored that point.
Most of us who participated in antiwar demonstrations — notice that I include myself — in those years were not violent. Most of us didn’t break windows or set fires or wave North Vietnamese flags. But there were enough who did do those things that it destroyed the effectiveness of the movement. The antiwar movement replaced the war itself as the big, hot-button issue of the day.
Remember, most Americans alive at the time grew up and had lived their lives believing that America never did anything wrong, and that the government knew what it was doing and wouldn’t lie to us. These were people who came of age when the New Deal was bringing the economy back to life after the Great Depression (and it did, right-wing propaganda to the contrary). They had fought World War II. They — white people, anyway — had benefited from the great economic growth of the post World War II era. To them, the U.S. and its government was glorious and always right.
These Americans, few of whom had any clue why were in Vietnam except to “fight Communism,” may have disapproved of the handling of the war, but they hated the antiwar movement more than they disapproved of the war. And Nixon and Agnew played that like a fiddle. The broad backlash against the antiwar movement actually caused people to rally around Nixon and support whatever he was doing in Vietnam at the time.
In short, Nixon and Agnew used the antiwar movement to deflect attention from the war itself. This took pressure off of Nixon to end the war quickly.
In last night’s episode, a segment of the old David Frost show was shown in which Agnew spoke to some campus activists. Agnew kept trying to turn the discussion into students being violent, and an articulate young woman speaking to him, who clearly was not making excuses for or advocating violence herself, asked him why he was trying to make Americans afraid of their own children. That was powerful. Maybe you had to live through those days to appreciate what was going on, but that’s exactly what was done. A large part of the Greatest Generation turned on their own children.
Some people today were shocked to learn that a majority of Americans approved of the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State. I wasn’t shocked by that at all, at the time. That’s how it was then. I’m not sure the country has changed all that much, considering the way many people still support unjustified police shootings.
By the time we got to 1971, the one segment of the antiwar movement that was having a good effect, in my opinion, was Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Last night’s segment covered the April 1971 encampment of the VVAW on the National Mall, featuring John Kerry’s testimony and the veterans who threw their medals over the fence erected to keep them off the Capitol steps. This was very powerful; I thought at the time that, just maybe, this would put a crack in people’s knee-jerk support for the war.
But no; a few days later some jerks showed up in DC to set fires and threaten national anarchy. Nixon and Agnew were delighted, the narrator said, because it took attention away from the VVAW. I don’t doubt that for a minute.
And remember Nixon’s lopsided victory over George McGovern in 1972? The one where McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia? There were several factors working against McGovern, but IMO the biggest reason it was that lopsided is that people associated McGovern with the antiwar movement and the New Left generally.
Yes, the war actually ended, but I strongly suspect that if the antiwar movement had been more disciplined and less of a freak show, it would have ended sooner. Public opinion was actually turning against the war as early as 1966.
I acknowledge that the people who turned it into a freak show were a minority, mostly younger white men who were self-indulgent and immature. It has been widely believed (although not mentioned on PBS) that some of the jerks were on Nixon’s payroll, and I don’t rule that out. But such young men always seem to show up at big demonstrations to hog the megaphones, microphones, and attention, to which they clearly believe they are entitled. That was true during the anti-Iraq War demonstrations I attended, also. Some things don’t change.
This is a big reason I get very twitchy about leftie demonstrations generally; they so easily become counter-productive. The young folks seem to use the antiwar movement as a template for how demonstrations are to be conducted, not realizing what a colossal failure the antiwar movement actually was.
I have not been critical of antifa in the recent anti-Nazi demonstrations. Charlottesville showed us that peaceful people can’t count on the police to protect them from right-wing violence. A lot of people who were there have said that, were antifa not there, the bloodshed would have been worse. But I caution them that they must be very disciplined and very cautious, and never initiate violence.
There is one more segment to be shown of the Burns/Novick documentary. If you haven’t been watching it, I strongly suggest going to PBS.org and watching the whole thing from the beginning. This is especially true if you weren’t around back then. It’s all been very honest. The Vietnam War permanently changed the country. People need to know what really happened. The series, in my opinion, shows what really happened. Note that it will be available for free streaming only a few more days.
In a film format especially there are always going to be some details and perspectives left out because of time limitations. When dealing with a complex piece of history, there are always infinite variations in how to explain it. But on the whole, I have no serious criticism of how Burns and Novick told this story.
And for the critics — beside the showflakes who think the series was being mean to the antiwar movement, my favorite comment so far was from a guy on Facebook who accused Burns of red-baiting because he portrayed the government of North Vietnam as Communist.
Not enough face palms in the world.