In 1969, as the anti-war movement was reaching a peak, Richard Nixon’s White House staff debated what they could do to “show the little bastards” what kind of man they were up against. They were concerned about what would be the biggest antiwar demonstration in US history on Nov. 15, 1969, when half a million people came to Washington D.C. to demand that an end to the war in Vietnam.
Now, newly released documents from the Nixon Library provide fascinating details about the debate within the White House staff two months earlier about how the president should respond. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time an influential member of Nixon’s inner circle, suggested that the president could “take away the day” from the protesters if he would “close down” the White House “in sympathy.”
“That will show the little bastards,” Moynihan said. He knew the kind of talk that impressed Nixon.
The Vietnam Moratorium Committee had called for a national work stoppage and coordinated local protests on Oct. 15, followed by a massive demonstration in Washington DC a month later. Nixon’s staff was contemplating the October events at their meeting on Sept. 26, 1969.
Moynihan, who at the time held the title Counselor to the President for Urban Affairs, advocated what he called “a cease fire” with the moderates in the anti-war movement, according to notes on the meeting taken by Dwight Chapin, Special Assistant to the President.
Moynihan reminded the staffers in the room that Nixon “is going to do something which is very difficult,” according to Chapin’s notes. “He is going to be the 1st Pres. to lose a war.”
“It is not his war,” Moynihan said; it was “LBJ’s war.” That much was true – Nixon had been president for only eight months when this meeting took place.
The Moratorium organizers, Moynihan told the White House staff, were “good people,” veterans of Gene McCarthy’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 1968. That also was true.
Nixon should preempt the demonstrations, Moynihan argued, by going on TV the night before and declaring that he was “for peace.” That would “keep the nutty opposition invalidated” while it would “pacify the non-violent.” Such a move would give Nixon “more time to work out” an exit strategy.
Nixon however rejected the advice. On Oct. 15, demonstrations were held in dozens of cities; the biggest was in Boston, where 100,000 turned out to hear George McGovern. The same day in Oxford, England, a Rhodes scholar named Bill Clinton organized an anti-war Moratorium demonstration there.
And on Nov. 15, half a million people gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Pete Seeger led them in singing John Lennon’s new song, “Give Peace a Chance.” Nixon let it be known that he was watching sports on TV in the White House. He kept the war going for another four years, during which tens of thousands of Americans were killed, along with perhaps a million Vietnamese.