The politics of the ultratight resonated deeply with Richard Nixon. Nixon had cut his political teeth as a young Red-hunting member of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. His home district in Orange Country, California, was widely known as a Birch Society stronghold. The Los Angeles-area Birch Society claimed the membership of several political and economic elites, including members of the Chandler family, which owned and published the Los Angeles Times. According to the writer David Halberstam (1979, 118) the Times, which was once described as “the most rabid Labor-bating, Red-hating paper in the United States,” virtually created Richard Nixon.
Nixon’s approach to the war was Birchesque. He campaigned for president in 1968 as a peace candidate by pointing out that he had been raised as a Quaker and promising to bring the troops home. His path to peace, however, entailed an escalated war. After his election as president, he unleashed a ferocious air assault on the Vietnamese and extended the ground war into Laos and Cambodia. When the anti-war movement criticized these measures, Nixon did what any Bircher would do: he decried the anti-war movement as a communist conspiracy that was prolonging the war and that deserved to be treated as an internal security threat.
The Nixon-Agnew Strategy: Smash the Left, Capture the Center
The origin of the myth of spat-upon Vietnam veterans lies in the propaganda campaign of the Nixon-Agnew administration to counter the credibility of the anti-war movement and prolong the war in Southeast Asia. Nixon had won election as peace candidate, but he was also committed to not being the first American president to lose a war. It was a contradictory agenda. When the Vietnaamese undertook a fresh offensive against Saigon from sanctuaries in Cambodia in February 1969, Nixon began bombing that neutral country. Fearing that the U.S. peace movement would use the bombings to build opposition to the war to new heights, Nixon tried to keep the bombings secret. But in May, with U.S. forces taking heavy losses on “Hamburger Hill” in the A-Shau Valley, news of the bombings leaked out. It was time to change the subject. (Karnow 1983, 591, 601)
Deploying a propaganda technique that would be honed to perfection during the Gulf War thirty years later, Nixon began to redefine the war. From the spring of 1969 on, the war was going to be first and foremost about the men who were being sent to fight it (and not, mind you, about the people who sent them there). In the first instance, this meant prisoners of war. The administration’s clever campaign to muster public opinion around the POW issue was launched on May 19 at a press conference held by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. Enthusiastically promoted by the media, the POW issue soon dominate war news to such an extent that the writer Jonathan Schell observed that many people were persuaded that the United States was fighting in Vietnam in order to get its...