Ask a conservative to name the American leader who comes to mind when they think of the Vietnam War, he or she will almost surely cite Lyndon Baines Johnson. Ask a liberal and you may also hear LBJ in response -- but more likely you'll hear Richard Milhous Nixon instead. Long before the left began blaming George W. Bush for everything, Nixon filled that role.
Nearly four decades since it ended, the Vietnam War still has the power to polarize, especially when a major network looks back at a specific event from that tumultuous era. (Video after the jump)
On Sunday, CNN aired a documentary titled "Witnessed: The Killings at Kent State," on four college students who were shot to death on May 4, 1970 by Ohio National Guard troops during an anti-war protest.
The documentary began predictably enough, with archival footage of fighting in Vietnam and anti-war demonstrations prior to Kent State while Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's angry elegy "Ohio" played in the background. Added to the mix was a brief excerpt of a speech from Nixon, when he said this -- "The time has come for honest government in the United States of America" (oh the irony!).
My suspicions about the objectivity of the documentary were further confirmed by an observation from author and former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein --
The country was convulsed and had been now for a few years and Nixon, meanwhile, believed that his ability to prosecute the war the way he wanted to, the freedom to really bomb freely as he wanted to, to use more aggressive and to build up more forces, was being constrained by the anti-war movement which he and (national security adviser Henry) Kissinger regarded the anti-war movement was subversive.
.... much as North Vietnam and the Viet Cong viewed the anti-war movement as an unwitting ally. (Or in the case of Jane Fonda, all too witting).
Notice Bernstein's rhetorical sleight of hand -- Nixon wanted to "bomb freely", fight more aggressively and "build up more forces" -- except that American troop strength in Vietnam peaked in 1968, under Nixon's predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. You would never know that from this documentary, however, because Johnson, Escalator in Chief for US involvement in Vietnam, its dominant architect, is never mentioned at all. I waited in vain through the entire hour-long program for even a brief sighting, but it never came.
It was like watching a documentary on President Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan -- without a single appearance by George W. Bush. If and when CNN makes that documentary, Bush will be the primary figure, followed by Obama heroically bringing the troops home.
As most conservatives are aware, Nixon began withdrawing American troops from Vietnam in 1969, his first year in office, and nearly all had returned home by the time he was inaugurated a second time in January 1973. Appreciative voters thanked Nixon by re-electing him in a landslide in 1972.
Just as liberals are inclined to look back at Vietnam as Nixon's war, a conflict he inherited just as Obama did the war in Afghanistan, they also close their eyes to the partisan turn that anti-war protests took after Nixon, a Republican, succeeded Johnson, a Democrat. Even though protests had grown in numbers and frequency while Johnson was in office, they grew more violent and destructive after Nixon took office.
As Adam Garfinkle pointed out in his 1997 book "Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement," opinion polls consistently showed public support for the war eroding substantially only after Nixon took office, when the New York Times, Washington Post, major television networks and other media organs became stridently anti-war.
Compare this to the largely muted reaction on the left to Obama keeping American troops in Afghanistan. At a comparable point in his second term, Nixon had already withdrawn all US soldiers from Vietnam. Where have you gone, Cindy Sheehan?
As timing would have it, the CNN documentary coincided with renewed attention on the deaths of another four Americans - those killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. If CNN ever runs a documentary about that horrific onslaught, I seriously doubt George W. Bush will be a no-show.