nixon, patton, and vietnam -- 6/29/20

Today's selection -- from History by Hollywood by Robert Toplin. Deeply enmeshed in the escalating controversy regarding the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon drew inspiration from the new movie Patton, starring George C. Scott, to increase his level of aggressiveness in prosecuting that war:

"Interestingly, Patton's relationship to the Vietnam controversy took on new importance when one of the movie's most enthusiastic fans tried to draw contemporary lessons from the story portrayed on the screen. The individual was Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States. In the spring of 1970 Nixon was trying to decide whether he should sanction an invasion of Cambodia. The president had supported secret bombings of the country adjacent to Vietnam in an attempt to stop North Vietnam from supplying the communists in South Vietnam, but the infiltration had continued. The heroic image of General Patton seen in the movie helped to give the president courage to make a controversial decision about Cambodia. Nixon watched the movie with his family on 4 April 1970 and then watched it again on 23 April. A few days after his second viewing of the movie, Nixon gave the order to send U.S. and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia. In tough language the president told a television audience, 'we will not be humiliated, we will not be defeated.' With Patton-like pride he declared that when the chips are down 'the world's most powerful nation' should not 'act like a pitiful helpless giant.' He said that he would rather be a one-term president than have two terms at the 'cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this Nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history.'

Nixon makes the case for a U.S. invasion of Cambodia, April 29, 1970.

"The college students' reaction to Nixon's decision was extraordinary. Many interpreted the invasion to mean that the United States was expanding its role in Southeast Asia rather than contracting it. On many campuses students met in emergency meetings, planned rallies, marched in demonstrations, and demanded that classes be canceled. In some locations the demonstrators attacked university property and local businesses (nonstudents who visited the campuses joined and sometimes led these activities). Strikes broke out on nearly 450 campuses. At Kent State, a public university in Ohio, national guardsmen assigned to the campus fired into the crowds of young people and killed four students.

"Despite the upheaval and tragedy, Nixon continued to manifest his enthusiasm for Patton. Discussion of the movie came up a short time later when the president brought forty-five business and financial leaders to a meeting at the White House to shore up confidence in his economic and war policies and, by implication, his leadership. Nixon asked the visitors whether any of them had seen Patton. After watching several hands go up in the crowd, he reminded the visitors of the way that the movie showed the general rescuing men trapped in the Battle of the Bulge. Nixon recalled that various generals thought Patton's plan could not work, yet Patton succeeded in completing 'perhaps the greatest movement of forces in the whole history of warfare in a short time.' The president described with particular pleasure the scene in the movie in which Patton calls in a clergyman the day before an invasion. Patton demands that the chaplain deliver a prayer for good weather on the day of battle. Nixon considered this story to be relevant to his own situation, telling the audience that 'we have every chaplain in Vietnam praying for early rain.' He received a burst of applause after concluding, 'You have to have the will and determination to go out and do what is right for America.' A short time later Nixon flew to his estate at San Clemente and brought along a 16-mm copy of Patton. He took the film to edify his staff. Presidential assistant Bob Haldeman urged members of the White House team to examine the movie so that they could better understand Nixon's behavior during a critical time in his leadership. One of these individuals, Secretary of State William Rogers, later saw Twentieth Century-Fox chairman Darryl Zanuck and reported that the president was a walking ad for the movie. Patton 'comes up in every conversation,' reported Rogers, who noted that aides frequently discussed the movie in the back corridors of the White House.

"Nixon's infatuation with Patton attracted interest from Hugh Sidey, a noted journalist who had been irritating Nixon at the time because of his critical articles. Sidey thought that the president's fondness for the World War II general was very revealing. He pointed out that Patton experienced much criticism and endured rejection, yet he remained steadfast in pursuing goals that seemed impossible (Nixon liked to see himself in the same pattern). Patton had the courage to take the bold stroke. Furthermore, Patton was a complex man, and so was Nixon. For a president who had just made a highly controversial decision about invading Cambodia, Patton's model served a useful purpose. It encouraged Nixon to hold the line despite the public uproar. Sidey questioned the wisdom of this approach, however, suggesting that the president might be drawing the wrong lessons from Patton's story. He referred to anthropologist Margaret Mead's reading of Nixon's interest in the general. World War II was different from the Vietnam War, Mead argued, and Nixon could be mistaken if he handled the challenges of 1970 in the manner that Patton dealt with the challenges of the 1940s.

"Despite his great admiration for the general's style, Nixon was unable to show nerves of steel when facing a national uproar over his decision to invade Cambodia. He made forceful declarations in a television speech announcing that America would 'not be defeated,' but he began to back off from a complete defense of his actions within a few days. Had General Patton been alive, he probably would have been disappointed by the president's shaky handling of the crisis.

"Publicly Nixon pulled away from the truculent position he had established when he first announced the incursions into Cambodia, but privately he imitated the toughness of Patton. Nixon now demanded a much more aggressive posture in dealing with antiwar groups. He called in his staff and asked them to be tough with congressional critics. At the same time that he was promoting his interest in the movie Patton, he called in leaders from the CIA, the FBI, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Nixon wanted these agencies to take bolder action in their intelligence and investigatory activities, and he told his staff that he was disappointed in the agencies' lack of aggressiveness. Nixon observed that the FBI and CIA had failed to quell the uproar during the period of antiwar demonstrations. He conveyed an interest in more unorthodox measures to deal with the problems. This discussion of tough treatment of student radicals and others who supposedly endangered the nation's security encouraged a member of the administration, Tom Huston, to make a proposal to the president calling for spying on private individuals, interception of the mails, and burglarizing homes. Nixon approved this extraordinary recommendation, but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell objected to it and convinced Nixon to put the plan aside."



Robert Toplin


History by Hollywood


University of Illinois Press




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