The Movement and the Madman, recently broadcast on PBS as part of its American Experience series, claims that anti-war protests in 1969, called “The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam,” prevented President Nixon from escalating the Vietnam War, including nukes. The claim is dubious though the story is fascinating.

Nixon was elected in 1968 wanting honorably to end the U.S. war in Vietnam, knowing it had destroyed his predecessor and deeply divided the nation.  The PBS documentary recalls Nixon contrived a “madman” theory about himself that would scare North Vietnam and their Soviet patrons into concessions.  Nixon, banking on his reputation as a fervid anti-communist, wanted these adversaries to think he was capable of anything.    

These “madman” warnings would potentially be followed by Operation Duck Hook, a planned escalation against North Vietnam that included increased saturation bombing, mining harbors, destroying dikes, targeting bridges between North Vietnam and China, and potentially nuclear weapons against economic and political targets.

Duck Hook was opposed by the Secretaries of Defense and State, and ultimately by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.  Nixon abandoned it by the end of 1969.  The documentary credits the massive anti-war protests mobilization for cancelling Duck Hook.

Nixon was very conscious of the protests even while publicly insisting they would have no influence on him.  But the documentary likely overdramatizes the role of the protests, in which students and religious activists like Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin were especially prominent. Reinhold Niebuhr even attached his name to The Moratorium.  

People like Coffin and Niebuhr, much less the student protesters, were not Nixon’s constituency, of course.  He expected and disdained their opposition.  But middle America was increasingly impatient with the war.  There was also little evidence that much of Duck Hook would be militarily decisive.  Blasting the dikes potentially would kill hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese, as would nuclear weapons, neither of which was politically palatable.       

Nixon had hoped that Kissinger’s warning about the “madman” to the North Vietnamese at the secret Paris negotiations, and to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, would suffice.  But neither was evidently persuaded.  The North Vietnamese were confident of their stoic ability to absorb whatever destruction America could unleash.  And the Soviets knew Nixon too well to believe he was seriously a madman.  The “madman” gambit was probably mostly a psychological exercise in Nixon’s own head.  The documentary quotes a Nixon aide saying he disbelieved his boss was capable of truly following through on the mass destruction that he threatened.

The empty threats recalled a warning by Eisenhower, under whom Nixon served as vice president, to his young grandson who suggested threatening North Vietnam with nukes:  Don’t ever threaten what you’re unwilling to carry out.  Nixon did not heed this insight.

Big threats about Operation Duck Hook gave way to Operation Giant Lance, in which Nixon dispatched nuclear armed B-52s to patrol the Arctic Circle.  The operation was kept secret from the public and was designed for detection by the Soviets, who were supposed to be intimidated.  But in fact, they were not, and there was little to no impact on Soviet support for North Vietnam.     

The documentary credits The Moratorium with blocking Operation Duck Hook, with Operation Giant Lance a frightening postscript. It laments the tragedy of Nixon continuing the war until 1972, portraying him as indifferent to the human suffering.  Nixon could be caustic in his private trash talk.  But these claims are superficial and unfair.

His bluffs and threats having failed, Nixon settled into a slow Vietnamization of the war, which withdrew U.S. troops while strengthening South Vietnam forces.  Nearly all U.S. forces were out by 1972, by which time a peace accord was finally reached with the North Vietnamese after Nixon’s landslide reelection. Nixon hoped South Vietnam could survive, even though the accord left North Vietnamese troops inside South Vietnam.  Kissinger more coldly only expected a decent interval between U.S. withdrawal and South Vietnam’s fall. 

Both Nixon and Kissinger believed that America’s Cold War credibility required the U.S. not to suddenly abandon its southeast Asian allies to Soviet-aligned communist forces.  From their perspective, the antiwar movement only prolonged the war by giving hope to North Vietnam that America would surrender and withdraw without any meaningful concessions by North Vietnam. 

The Movement and the Madman faults Nixon and Kissinger for needlessly prolonging the war without considering that North Vietnam, by refusing any concessions on its demand to control South Vietnam, also prolonged the war. This intransigence cost North and South Vietnam hundreds of thousands of lives.

Also absent from the PBS documentary is any sympathy for South Vietnam, most of whose people did not want control by communist North Vietnam. Nixon, for all his coarseness, felt a genuine moral obligation to South Vietnam.  He also feared the global strategic consequences of direct U.S. military defeat.

The documentary faults Nixon’s rallying of pro-war opinion against The Moratorium, especially with his 1969 “Silent Majority” speech.  In that broadcast, he recalled that the communist takeover in North Vietnam had resulted in the murder of more than 50,000 people and hundreds of thousands more died in slave labor camps.”  He noted a more recent communist foray into the South Vietnamese town of Hue had resulted in 3,000 civilians “clubbed, shot to death, and buried in mass graves.” Sudden American withdrawal meant the “these atrocities of Hue would become the nightmare of the entire nation-and particularly for the million and a half Catholic refugees who fled to South Vietnam when the Communists took over in the North.”

Even more importantly, Nixon warned: “For the United States, this first defeat in our Nation’s history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but throughout the world.”

Nixon’s speech directly responded to The Moratorium, one of whose largest protests was in San Francisco:

In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading: “Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home.” Well, one of the strengths of our free society is that any American has a right to reach that conclusion and to advocate that point of view. But as President of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this Nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the Nation by mounting demonstrations in the street.

And Nixon masterfully concluded: “Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”

The Movement and the Madman mocks the support for Nixon’s speech that his administration drummed up.  But polls evince that his speech was effective.  Americans did not want to lose a war, and they, like Nixon, did not want to abandon allies to destruction.

The Moratorium, in contrast, was indifferent to the consequences of communist conquest in southeast Asia, which did indeed result in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands, especially in Cambodia, amid torture, mass incarceration, and totalitarian imposition, provoking a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands fled, often at risk of their lives on the seas.

In the end, America could not save southeast Asia from communism.  Attempting to do so, especially with hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops, may have been calamitously unwise.  But it was not, as the Moratorium and PBS documentary insist, wicked.

The Movement and the Madman celebrates The Moratorium’s protestors.  But they were merely actors in a wider and complex tragedy laced with good intentions, hubris, and confusion on all sides.  Reinhold Niebuhr, even though he endorsed The Moratorium, would recognize the nuances that this documentary chose to ignore.