The Tide of Protest Rises
More and more Americans, always a minority, according to polls, but a large and
influential minority, began to oppose the war openly, a war that was coming
home to them on their television sets. Between 1965 and 1968, in hundreds of
cities and towns across the nation, millions of people took part in
demonstrations against the war. And as the tide of protest rose, people in
authority began to regard everybody who opposed the war as "the enemy
Lyndon Johnson seemed hardly aware that his efforts to win the war had led him
into the very undemocratic practices of lying to the public and spying on the
American people. Support for, or opposition to, the war became a test that
divided friends, and families, and generations, and classes. Young people
raised in comfort and optimism looked at Vietnam, at the waste of the chance to
solve so many problems at home, and they became angry and disillusioned.
While a minority of antiwar activists moved toward more militant politics and
even violent anti-government activities, most simply melted away from the
movement. And they took consolation in new consumer pleasures: sex and drugs
and rock 'n' roll. Vietnam brought the violence of the war into the nation's
streets. And broken by his efforts to win an unwinnable and indefensible war,
Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968.
Johnson: "I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become
involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year."
It was a devastating year. As Tim O'Brien, one of the finest chroniclers of
the Vietnam War, recalled, 1968 was a year in which "smart men in pinstripes
could not agree on even the most fundamental matters of public policy. The only
certainty that summer was moral confusion."
The nation looked on stunned as first Martin Luther King, and then Robert
Kennedy, who was running for the Democratic nomination on a peace platform,
were assassinated. Protests became more frequent, and more violent. By a
plurality, a deeply divided country elected that old Cold Warrior, Republican
nominee Richard Nixon, to be President of the United States.
Nixon: "We are
going to enforce the law, and Americans should remember that if we're going to
have law and order."
Nixon and the Watergate Scandal
Nixon had run a curious and brilliant campaign. He promised he had a "secret
plan" to end the war. And he pounded away at the idea that something had to be
done to restore law and order at home. Even as he moved to extricate the United
States from the war, President Nixon took official deception to levels nobody
had ever imagined.
He ordered a huge secret bombing operation against Cambodia, Vietnam's neighbor
and a neutral country. And Nixon and his White House staff also began to plan a
massive campaign to control all sources of information about the war. Anybody
who dared question American policy became, in their eyes, an enemy, and enemies
could legitimately be spied on, bugged, and arrested.
Early in the morning of June 17, 1972, Washington, D.C. police caught five
burglars at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the fashionable
Watergate Complex. One of those burglars, James McCord, was security
coordinator for CREEP: The Committee to Reelect the President. When two
Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, pursued the story,
they uncovered conspiracy at the top.
The White House had threatened corporations with legal problems if they didn't
contribute to CREEP, and then used the millions in illegal campaign
contributions to hire "dirty tricksters" to sabotage opposition candidates, to
create a "plumbers' unit" to break in on and wire-tap political enemies. They
also used the Internal Revenue Service to harass more than four thousand
so-called "enemies." They spied on, subverted, and harassed a variety of
Nixon and his men worked hard to cover up their crimes, but as each new
revelation broke, pressure mounted for a Congressional investigation. The
Watergate scandal eventually led to a vote in the House to impeach the
News footage: "Signify by saying `Aye,' all those opposed, `No.'
Mr. Flowers - Aye,
Mr. Mann - Aye,
Mr. Drinan - Aye."
But before Nixon could be brought to trial, he resigned in disgrace, on August
Nixon: "To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to
every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interests of
America first. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon
President Nixon, like America in the 1960s, had discovered the limits of power.
The price both paid was enormous.