PBS documentary looks back on protesting and its impact on the Vietnam War - Albuquerque Journal

PBS documentary looks back on protesting and its impact on the Vietnam War

The Movement and the Madman
President Richard Nixon on Nov. 15, 1969, the day of the mass mobilization march and rally protesting the war in Vietnam. (Courtesy of Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

Stephen Talbot knew that taking on a project about the Vietnam War was going to be an incredible task.

There were going to be hours of research, as well as dozens of interviews planned.

Then the pandemic hit in March 2020 and it looked like the project wasn’t going to move forward.

Then Talbot got an idea.

“I thought, what if I did all of the interviews audio only,” he says. “This made sure everyone was safe and I had the information that I needed.”

Flash forward a few years and Talbot’s “The Movement and the ‘Madman’ ” will premiere on New Mexico PBS, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 28.

The documentary is presented under the American Experience series and it will also stream online on the PBS app.

“The Movement and the ‘Madman’ ” shows how two antiwar protests in the fall of 1969 – the largest the country had ever seen – pressured President Nixon to cancel what he called his “madman” plans for a massive escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam, including a threat to use nuclear weapons.

At the time, protesters had no idea how influential they could be and how many lives they may have saved.

The Movement and the Madman
Picasso poster for the Nov. 13-15, 1969, antiwar protests. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Talbot worked to tell the story through archival footage and first-hand accounts from movement leaders, Nixon administration officials, historians and others. The film explores how the leaders of the antiwar movement mobilized disparate groups from coast to coast to create two massive protests that changed history.

Talbot began the story in 1968, the U.S. had been at war in Vietnam for four years and there were over 500,000 troops on the ground and 31,000 Americans had been killed.

Nixon had defeated Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, and the antiwar movement decided that something dramatic needed to be done.

Although Nixon publicly belittled the movement, he was acutely aware that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency had essentially been brought down by the constant chants of protesters surrounding the White House.

While on the campaign trail, Nixon vowed never to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam but, now in office, he came up with a plan to end the war – his “madman” strategy.

“His secret plan was to threaten the North Vietnamese with nuclear weapons,” said Morton Halperin, a Defense Department veteran and an aide to Henry Kissinger. “He was convinced that the way to make the threat credible was for the North Vietnamese to fear that he was crazy and might actually do this.”

In clandestine talks with the Soviet ambassador in Washington and the North Vietnamese in Paris, Nixon and Kissinger set a November 1, 1969, deadline for Hanoi to accept U.S. terms for ending the war or face disastrous consequences. The National Security Council and the Pentagon began military preparations for bombing North Vietnam, mining Haiphong harbor, and using tactical nuclear bombs near the Chinese and Laotian borders. They codenamed the plan “Operation Duck Hook.”

The Movement and the Madman
Coretta Scott King (wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.) leads the Nov. 15, 1969, march in Washington, D.C., protesting the war in Vietnam. King is flanked by Sen. George McGovern and Sen. Charles Goodell. (Courtesy of Pond 5)

Unaware of the plan and with casualties continuing to mount, the leaders of the antiwar movement developed new and bigger ideas for protests in the fall.

The first was to call for a moratorium on October 15, 1969, a nationwide protest with an emphasis on local demonstrations throughout the country. The second plan, created by a sprawling coalition known as the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, was to organize what they hoped would be the largest peace marches and rallies the country had ever seen, scheduled for November 15, in Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

With an estimated two to three million people taking part on hundreds of campuses and over 200 cities and towns across the country, the Oct. 15 moratorium succeeded beyond the organizers’ wildest dreams.

Dispelling the myth that the antiwar movement consisted solely of “hippies” and leftists, the Moratorium crowds consisted of labor leaders, church groups, civil rights activists, Democrat and Republican lawmakers, housewives, veterans, families and more.

Talbot hopes viewers will be able to learn something new as much of the information has never been released.

“We’re discovering a lot of this information all these years later,” he says. “History books and pop culture have distorted our ideas about the antiwar movement as people with long hair or hippies. I also want viewer to realize that the power of protest is immeasurable. It takes a few people to start to make change.”

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