When Lefties Are Their Own Worst Enemies

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.

30 thoughts on “When Lefties Are Their Own Worst Enemies

  1. That’s exactly how I remember it. There was an anti-war movement back in ’65 with the Gulf of Tonkin, and I remember the early protests as being relatively calm and serious. But the protests stopped getting sympathy as they drew more and more on the street theater of the absurd.

    If you look at the civil rights protesters, they were amazingly dignified in comparison. Other than the dark skin color, it was hard to see the protestors as anything but ordinary people doing something they felt was important, so when the police unleashed the dogs and fired the water cannons, it was hard not to sympathize with the protestors. I’m not saying everyone did. Some people simply cannot imagine that someone other than their own genetic clone is a human being, but a lot of people believed their eyes. (Hell, google up some photos of union workers on picket lines from the era. They were mainly white, but easy to sympathize with.)

    The street protests that started in the late 1960s and continue to this day seem to have borrowed more from Mardi Gras with each group trying to be more self expressive and outlandish than the next. I was on their side for the most part, but protests were increasingly looking like clown shows. I remember some footage of a SANE anti-nuclear protest from the early 60s that was shown in around 1970, and thinking how much more rhetorically powerful they were. They were just ordinary people, many in their work clothes, who were worried about nuclear war. I think they were right and wrong, depending on the issue, but it was easy to imagine hashing out ways to cut the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust.

    I know that the media tend to seek out the more outlandish as it makes for better footage, but that’s something that protestors have to deal with. I remember my high school having anti-war protest. Everyone was chanting “end the war” or whatever. Then the cameras arrived, and the chant turned to “Fuck CBS”. As a high school wise ass, I thought it was pretty funny, but in retrospect it was counterproductive.

  2. One issue: if the protests are not, at the least, flamboyant, they are not covered.

    How many of you remember [coverage of] the widespread and massive protests before the Second Gulf War (and even the first one)? They never saw the light of day in any significant way in the mainstream media, largely because they were quiet and organized. Tough razor blade to ride when the opposition has major control over broadcast media…

    • “if the protests are not, at the least, flamboyant, they are not covered.” Sometimes that’s just as well.

      I very well remember a couple of massive protests in Manhattan in February and March 2002 that were not covered, one of which began in Times Square just a couple of blocks from the New York Times building. I don’t think lack of flamboyancy was the issue. I suspect they’d been ordered to not cover them. There actually was tons of flamboyant stuff going on all over Manhattan in the next few years that received no coverage, either.

  3. Someone help me remember when Paul Harvey turned against the war. He broadcast a message against the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, but I do not remember whether he had any growing reservations about the war prior to that. It might have been earlier but I am not a Paul Harvey scholar.

    Regarding the antiwar movement: I never once heard anyone at the time say what should have been said, which ought to have been framed like this:

    “Look, this is war, and that means that the burden of proof is not on the opponents to show that we should not be sending our soldiers into combat over there. The burden of proof is on the supporters to show that we should. Slogans don’t count as evidence. ‘We’re already in there’ is not good enough, any more than it is good enough for the government to hold an innocent man in jail just because he is already locked up. We citizens need to act as jurors in the case. We have an obligation to scrutinize the evidence just as closely as we would if we were on a jury that could send a man to prison for life, and not send men to their deaths on anything less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Does anyone remember anything of this nature being said by any antiwar activist at the time?

  4. Just curious, as I haven’t had a chance to watch, but did Burns cover Eisenhower offering deGallle the bomb to waste Hanoi?

  5. BTW the entire archive of I.F. Stone’s Weekly is online at ifstone.org, and if you want to see what one man could do with no internet connection back in the day, it is worth a look. He patiently documented the facts that undermined the lies of the Johnson administration and did so in a non-flamboyant fashion.

    For example, on July 31, 1967, he quoted a Washington Post story thus: “South Vietnamese Chief of State Nguyen Van Thieu today ruled out a general mobilization of South Vietnamese because of equipment and training problems. He said that what was needed was more American troops.”

    That kind of thing did not get the attention it deserved until much later, but even the people who said “We have to stand by our allies in South Vietnam” would have had a hard time disposing of it if they had been confronted.

  6. IMO, one of the main factors in the US getting out of Viet Nam was putting the war on TV. The Pentagon learned not to let that happen.

    By the early 1970s the Anti-War movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the renascent Women’s movement had merged into what was simply called The Movement. I think that that characterization is correct. Did The Movement end the Viet Nam War? I think that it had some influence. I also think that it sowed seeds that led, with some help from George Wallace, to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The White Male Working Class, because of their opposition to The Movement, renounced the Democratic Party before the Democratic Party renounced them.

  7. I missed the first two episodes of the Ken Burns program; thus, I haven’t watched any of it. We have another PBS station which hasn’t run it yet; and, I hope to catch it then. I have a grandniece who asked me about Viet Nam about five years ago. After giving it a try to explain it to her and further thought, I told her I think that the Viet Nam experience is one of those experiences that you had to be there to truly understand it. Also, the civil rights marches and women’s rights marches were going on at the same time, which kept my generation very busy. At the same time in the Pacific Northwest, American Indian tribes were fighting for fishing rights with the non-Indian population. My tribe was very deeply involved in those battles. It had gotten to the point where I remember my Mom worried about my activity in the women’s rights marches that I joked with her that the way things were then I could get arrested for just fishing. My Mom failed to see the humor in that. Even now, I still believe you had to be there to understand it.

  8. I think the most important factor in the Viet Nam years was the draft. I wonder how Ken Burns handled that.

  9. Excellent piece. On a micro level, a protest for healthcare where I’m at locally back in May ended up broken up by police because of idiots who started throwing garbage around a parking lot at cars. It would be nice to say they were sabatours, but they weren’t. One guy was a local Green Party activist. What they hoped to achieve was beyond me.

  10. Criticisms I’ve seen: glossing over the civilian casualties who made up the vast majority of the war’s victims, repeated references to“retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin,” and emphasizing the “good faith” of American leaders.

    So I read different stuff than you, obviously. Anyway I’d watch the thing if I had a TV I guess.

    • Freetofu — Let me say emphatically that all of the criticisms you list are complete horse shit. I think people are just making shit up because they want to get in on the criticism bandwagon.

      For a limited time you can stream the series from PBS.org.

  11. We dropped the ball. We stopped The War. Our War. Vietnam. But we didn’t stop War. We held Nixon accountable. Whoopie! Nixon quit! Let’s finish our law degrees, cut our hair buy million dollar houses on the High Desert!

    We dropped the ball. We stopped The War. Our War. Vietnam. But we didn’t stop War. We held Nixon accountable, but left the machinations in place, notably Cheif of Staff Dick Cheney, to become what we have become.

    We dropped the ball.

  12. The anti-war movement had the unfortunate effect of putting the focus on the movement as opposed to the war. And there was a circus aspect to many of the larger protests. I remember as a grade school urchin running the streets in DC back then, a “fun thing” my friends and I would do was to go down to Federal Plaza, the Mall in DC and other areas to “see the hippies” as there would be all kinds of (to us) crazy stuff going on that didn’t seem to have anything to do with “stopping the war.” These demonstrations were peopled with a lot of young white kids, many of them privileged, who would act out at these demonstrations as a way of rebelling against their parents and authority, not realizing (or maybe not caring) the impact these acts would have on the stated goals of the movement.

    This history is repeating itself, in these respects, today with antifa, truth be told. While white supremacy /Nazism definitely needs to be pushed back on, lacking discipline and sense of purpose undermines the cause and tends to highlights the groups and actors rather than the larger social goals.

  13. I was born in 1988 and am a fan of Ken Burns, so seeing this documentary for me was a no-brainer. It seems like a decent introduction to the topic, and if it’s missing something I’m sure there are other sources out there to learn more about them (like the Pentagon Papers example). I’m a little over half way through and still looking for some mention of Hmong people and their involvement, since the Vietnam War would dramatically impact their lives and the lives of their descendants, many of whom I grew up with in Northeast Wisconsin. I wouldn’t blame Ken Burns and Co if they didn’t get to it. It looks like there’s another project coming out soon about “America’s Secret War”, so there’s that to look forward to. pbs.org/americas-secret-war

  14. KC – Please Name Names: I’ve been involved with the Green Party for decades, often trying to push back against the sillier trends and people. If I run into that wise-ass at a national/regional meeting, I want to be able to confront them with the results of their actions. Where was the protest (State or City)? (though I don’t want to push for info which goes beyond your privacy preferences)

    Maha – I agree that the anti-war movement did not end the war, but I do believe that it was instrumental in ending the draft. Born in 1954, turning 18 in 1972, mine was the first year of that era which had no draft, and I’m damn glad of it. I hadn’t completed my pupation from Boy Scout to Hippie at that point; I didn’t resist when my mother insisted that I register for “Selective Service” (which WAS still mandatory). I like to think I would have gone to Canada if it came to that; in recent years, I sometimes wish it had.

    Finally got my new TV plugged in, just in time to watch the segment on Kent State. THAT was a key moment in my political evolution: as a college-bound HS Sophomore, I identified strongly with the killed & wounded students, and it turned me against the US Government and (largely) US Society.

    The PBS episode brought out one detail that was new to me: it was Ohio Nat’l Guard Troop “G” that turned & fired on the students. But why didn’t/couldn’t Burns & Co find out more about what the hell happened there? There must be people alive from that Troop; why no interviews, etc?

    Can anybody here point me to more detail on Troop G?

    I was dismayed & baffled that Burns & Co didn’t/couldn’t get more details about “Troop G”, the Nat’l Guard troop which fired on the students.

    • “But why didn’t/couldn’t Burns & Co find out more about what the hell happened there? There must be people alive from that Troop; why no interviews, etc?”

      This was 10-episode documentary about the Vietnam War, not the antiwar movement. The antiwar movement was a sideshow. In the context of the entire war, Kent State was only a small part. There have been a number of books written about Kent State. The only one I’ve read myself is the one by Philip Caputo. The James Michener book is supposed to be exhaustive, but I’ve only read parts of it. I don’t remember if any of these mentioned Company G specifically, but I don’t think this is new information.

      I was in college when the Kent State and Jackson State shootings occurred, and they affected me deeply also. But I still think the antiwar movement needs to get over itself.

      If you didn’t watch the PBS series from the beginning, please do so. PBS.org

  15. Thx, Maha. Already found some good sources for more details about May 4, 1970, and the details are so muddled that I can see why Burns & Co didn’t try to clarify.

    I strongly agree that leftists need to be much more careful about demonstrations as a tactic for political change. For many people, “protests” are more about the feelings of expressing a grievance & getting attention (and reinforcement) for it. Saner heads rarely prevail in anarchic situations; radicalism is always more exciting. As Kaleberg (Comment#1) points out, the Civil Rights organizers got it right; us Hippies didn’t.

    And sadly, younger generations of leftists have followed the Hippies. It’s easy to understand – it’s an easy way to feel important, and it’s just plain FUN. That’s what I saw at Occupy Wall Street – young [mostly white] people enjoying the illusion of importance. I retained some hope that they would discover some new ways to truly make things better, but haven’t really seen it yet.

    Discipline doesn’t come naturally to people who value true Freedom. We gotta work on it.

    • “Discipline doesn’t come naturally to people who value true Freedom.” I disagree. The Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King was very disciplined. In most leftie demonstrations of my experience, the worst offenders usually — there are exceptions — are privileged young white guys. Discipline doesn’t come naturally to people who feel they are entitled to the earth and have never been told no.

  16. 1. I’m too young to remember much of the war.
    2. I haven’t yet watched the series.
    3. I buy that the DFHs induced a backlash but I don’t buy “If only it weren’t for them.” arguments. It’s magical thinking. You protest with the protest movement you’ve got not the one you’d like to have. We’ve been at war continuously since 2001. Is it a coincidence that there’s no significant anti-war movement, DFHs or otherwise? I don’t think so. And I don’t buy for an instant that Vietnam would have ended sooner w/o anti-war protests. Without anti-war protests it would have been N more years of “out of sight is out of mind” just like it’s been since we went into Afghanistan. Belated happy 16th anniversary BTW.

    • Chris G, you weren’t there. I was. I am convinced that stupid protesting is worse than no protesting. Are you familiar with the Bigger Asshole rule?

  17. > Yes, you were there and I wasn’t. I still don’t buy it.

    A little more thoughtfully: Your post suggests to me that you believe, given we live in an imperfect world, the best we can do is to let nature run its course – that we have no agency. No. There are limits on our ability to influence and our efforts to change things of significance will often inspire backlash but I don’t believe that protesting Vietnam prolonged the war. When jingoism and militarism go unchallenged then the war doesn’t end, see, e.g., USA since 2001.

    • I am not saying the war shouldn’t have been protested. I am saying that the manner in which it was protested worked to Nixon’s advantage and provided him with political cover. I don’t understand why that is difficult for you to grasp.

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