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The Sixties
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Page 1234

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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 within."

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.

[picture of Johnson announcing his decision not to run for re-election]

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.

[picture of the Watergate]

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 American dissidents.

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 President.

News footage: "Signify by saying `Aye,' all those opposed, `No.'
Mr. Flowers - Aye,
Mr. Mann - Aye,
Mr. Drinan - Aye."
[picture of Nixon announcing his resignation]

But before Nixon could be brought to trial, he resigned in disgrace, on August 8, 1974.

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 tomorrow."

President Nixon, like America in the 1960s, had discovered the limits of power. The price both paid was enormous.

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