I want to continue this review of May, 1970 with a deeper look at Richard Nixon’s speech, broadcast 40 years ago tonight. It was that speech, announcing that US troops were invading Cambodia, which triggered the eruption of protest that was May 1970. Actually, you could say Tricky Dick predicted it:
My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.The US High Command had known since 1967 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, as the leaked Pentagon Papers later showed. Nixon had been elected in 1968 with the promise that "new leadership will end the war" and giving wink-and-nod no-comment replies to reports he had a "secret plan” to do so.
What he gave us in the first year of his administration was Vietnamization, the idea that troops of the puppet Republic of Viet Nam (South Vietnam) could be quickly drafted (all males between 17 and 43 were subject to call-up), trained and armed to “defend their country” and large scale withdrawals of US troops would begin. [Stop me if any of this reminds you of US policies of, shall we say, more recent vintage.]
Meanwhile, in secret, US B-52s were carrying out insanely massive high-altitude bombing raids on neighboring Laos and Cambodia in an effort to disrupt supply lines from North Vietnam to the South. Early in 1970, a US-backed coup deposed Cambodia’s neutralist monarch, Prince Sihanouk and replaced him with a sketchy pro-US general, Lon Nol. This was followed by an even more intensive and deadly secret Air Force carpet bombing of large sections of the Cambodian countryside.
Nixon on April 20, 1970 had announced that he would be withdrawing 150,000 US troops in the next year, around 40% of the force then “in country,” a necessary sop to public opinion which was turning against the war. Ten days later came this attack in violation of international law and borders. It was, Nixon claimed, a limited incursion intended to disrupt or destroy a secret Vietnamese command base just over the border.
Nixon explained to a skeptical public that he was expanding the war to end it:
A majority of the American people, a majority of you listening to me, are for the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. The action I have taken tonight is indispensable for the continuing success of that withdrawal program.Well, we certainly wanted the war ended and the troops home. But after years of having been lied to about lights at the end of the tunnel, about crucial campaigns that would change everything, about the improved combat capacity of the puppet ARVN troops, about the evil "North Vietnamese" (fighting to liberate and unite their country) we sure as hell didn’t believe a word of this.
A majority of the American people want to end this war rather than to have it drag on interminably. The action I have taken tonight will serve that purpose.
A majority of the American people want to keep the casualties of our brave men in Vietnam at an absolute minimum. The action I take tonight is essential if we are to accomplish that goal.
And when Nixon raised the specter of global anarchy and the destruction of 500 years of Western Civilization, it was us as much as the Vietnamese liberation forces he was talking about.
Because May 1970 didn’t erupt from a vacuum. For two years, reading the New York Times had been a positive treat. It seemed like every day there was a report on a student protest somewhere. “Hey, the kids at the University of East Dakota at Pumpkin Squat just took over the administration building! I didn’t even know they existed.”
One immediate example: In the week before Nixon’s speech, my friend Steve reminds me, the student affairs building, a center for student activism at the Lawrence campus of the University of Kansas, was mysteriously burned to the ground. This was the culmination of a month that saw a campus strike, a call by the Black Student Union for members to arm themselves against racist threats, a lot of arson, and ongoing small scale clashes in the streets between freaks and right wing locals. The days that followed the fire featured a 7 PM curfew, ordered by the governor, and repeated skirmishes between students and cops, including street barricades and sniping. (Later that summer Lawrence cops would kill Black activist Tiger Dowdell and an unarmed 18-year-old white student, Nick Rice, shooting both in the back of the head.)
And Lawrence wasn’t even a notably radical campus.
[Next time, it’s personal: Bobby Seale and May Day in New Haven]
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