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Watergate, anti Vietnam war protests and US imperial failure

This article is over 16 years, 7 months old
US defeat in Vietnam led to a government campaign against political opponents with disastrous consequences, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2067
Young nati-war marches wiht a large portrait of Che Guevara

Marching in Chicago in 1968 against the US war in Vietnam (Picture: David Wilson on Flickr)

A US President losing a war abroad and facing an anti-war movement at home, while talking up troop withdrawal, extends his imperial adventure – leading ultimately to his downfall. That is what happened to Republican president Richard Nixon.

One night in 1972, six men were arrested burgling the Democratic Party campaign headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington DC. The six men were employed by the Republican Party to find dirt on the Democrats. Watergate was part of a vast operation by Nixon designed not just to attack the Democrats but also to hold back the anti-war movement. The fallout from these arrests would eventually force Nixon to resign.

According to Robert Haldeman, the former chief of staff to Nixon, “Without the Vietnam war there would have been no Watergate.”

By the end of the 1960s the Vietnam war had escalated to the point where there were half a million US troops in Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 saw Vietnamese national liberation forces launch a coordinated military assault involving 70,000 troops on dozens of cities. In response, the US unleashed a frightening wave of destruction. But Tet marked the beginning of the end of the US military intervention.

The heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people became linked with the burgeoning anti-war movement in the US itself, which importantly had penetrated the army. Key sections of the US ruling class began to realise that the political costs of keeping the war going were becoming unsustainable.

Such was the pressure that the right wing Republican Richard Nixon was elected president, in part because he implied that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. “The greatest honour history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” he said in his inaugural speech as president in 1969.

To placate anti-war sentiment at home and among the military, Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops in June 1969.

Despite this, marches and demonstrations involving more than two million people took place across the US. In November, more than a million people marched against the war in Washington and San Francisco. The 1969 demonstrations probably stopped a concerted invasion of NorthVietnam by US troops.

The Nixon administration set itself the goal of bringing the American war in Vietnam to an end without it being seen as a defeat for US imperialism. To do this Nixon raised the destruction the US inflicted on Vietnam to new heights and spread the war into neighbouring countries.

Nixon described his strategy to Haldeman as follows: “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached a point where I might do anything to stop the war.” The co-architect of the administration’s policies was Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger wrote in 1969 that the Tet Offensive marked the “watershed of the American effort. Henceforth, no matter how effective our actions, the prevalent [US] strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or with force levels politically acceptable to the American people.”

However Kissinger remarked, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point.” He gave the following instructions to his staff: “Come up with a plan for a savage, decisive blow against North Vietnam.”

One part of the strategy was called “Vietnamisation” – US ground forces would be slowly withdrawn and the ground war would be turned over to the South Vietnamese, backed by massive US air power and support.

The second part would be to spread the war and intensify the bombing. The eastern fringe of Cambodia, along the South Vietnamese border, had become a refuge for Vietnamese soldiers, as the US bombing of the Vietnamese countryside made life increasingly unbearable. North Vietnamese soldiers were also forced deeper into Cambodia and southern Laos.

The secret bombing of Cambodia ran from March 1969 until August 1973. Nixon set up an elaborate system of deception to hide the bombing from the public. During the first 14 months of the campaign, the US conducted more than 3,630 B-52 raids, dropping over 110,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia.

When the bombing ended, the US had dropped a total of 257,465 tons of explosives on Cambodia. The country began a descent into hell that would culminate with the tragedy and horror of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The first media report of the bombing was a small article in the New York Times that very few noticed. But it sparked Nixon to take the first steps down the road to self-destruction. He set in motion what became a secret intelligence unit, answerable only to him, to plug “leaks” in the government.

Known as the “plumbers”, they were to carry out a crime spree against the president’s political enemies. While the dirty war was starting in the US, in Vietnam the CIA implemented a new “pacification” programme called Operation Phoenix, the goal of which was to destroy the “infrastructure” of the Vietnamese opposition. Phoenix agents assassinated at least 20,000 people.

Between 1969 and 1972, as Nixon made war in the name of peace, an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese soldiers died in combat. There are no reliable statistics on civilian dead and wounded, though one estimate is 165,000 civilian casualties in South Vietnam alone for each year of Nixon’s presidency.

In March 1970 the US organised a coup in Cambodia. On 30 April 1970, Nixon appeared on television and announced that US forces were invading Cambodia, though he referred to the invasion as an “incursion” to “guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamisation programmes,” by wiping out enemy “sanctuaries”.

The US exploded in rage. On 4 May 1970, National Guardsmen fired on and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio and wounded nine others. The country was stunned, and student strikes and protests spread to more than 1,300 colleges and universities. Ten days later two black students were killed and 12 wounded by police at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

There were significant demonstrations in half the colleges in the US involving over four million college students and untold numbers of high and junior high school students.

There was also the first ever union organised anti-war march of 25,000 workers in New York. On one protest in Washington a Vietnam veteran threw his Purple Heart medal toward the White House and said, “I hope I get another one fighting these fuckers.”

A special commission appointed by Nixon to assess unrest on the campuses following the invasion of Cambodia argued that the country was “so polarised” that the division over the war was “as deep as any since the Civil War”.

It declared that “nothing is more important than an end to the war” in Vietnam. The effects of the protests echoed through the following years.

A nervous Nixon appeared at a press conference in May and announced that the US would be out of a Cambodia by 30 June 1970. The US was now losing a war before the eyes of the world. Nixon’s next initiative was to invade another country, Laos.

Mainstream commentators began to use the term “quagmire” in reference to the war, describing it as a mistake and a disaster. Whole sections of the US ruling class began to jump ship.

In June 1971, the New York Times started publishing a secret government history of the war in Vietnam. This intensified the paranoia of the White House, which stepped up the activities of the “plumbers” and launched an intense spying and dirty tricks operation against the anti-war movement.

The White House under Nixon was well suited to persecuting political enemies. “If you can’t lie,” Nixon once said, “you’ll never get anywhere.”

Egil Krogh, a White House officer, summed up the Nixon mindset: “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.”

The extent of the opposition to the war meant that the Watergate scandal became a constant crisis for Nixon. The cover-up of the break-in and the continuing exposé of more and more dirty tricks meant that one by Nixon’s allies fell away.

On 23 January 1973 the treaty ending the US war in Vietnam was signed in Paris. The last US combat troops were withdrawn in March that year.

The crisis over Vietnam meant there was a crisis of legitimacy for the ruling class. The mass protests against war deepened that crisis and created a context which meant that, facing impeachment for his cover-up of Watergate, Nixon resigned in August 1974.

The argument against the war in Vietnam had begun ten years before among small circles of left wing and peace activists. Over the years the movement gained huge support across the US, fragmenting the ruling class between a minority who wanted to avoid defeat and a majority who just wanted out.

Watergate was a product of this fragmentation – and of Nixon’s isolation. On 30 April 1975, $50 notes began to fly through the sky in Saigon. The US embassy was burning $5 million and countless secret documents before they fell into Vietnamese hands. A mad scramble took place as US helicopters picked up the last few officials from the roof of the US embassy.

It had taken too long but the Vietnamese people and the mobilisations of the anti-war movement had forced the US into a humiliating defeat – and brought down a president along the way.

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