QUESTION: Over four million students participated in a national strike which closed 458 college campuses, and 34 ROTC buildings were burned or bombed. The National Guard was deployed on 26 campuses, and Washington, DC was described as “an armed camp.” uses were parked bumper to bumper to form a protective barricade around the White House. At an evening televised press conference the President was asked if it was possible to have a meaningful dialogue with students.
The President told the nation he wanted to try. Without telling anyone, the next morning he arrived at the Lincoln Memorial at 4:14 am to meet with the surprised demonstrators for 90 minutes. The scene was recreated in a six minute segment in a 1995 Oliver Stone movie. What event caused the student outrage? Who was the President, and what extraordinary message did he have for the students?
ANSWER: The movie was “Nixon” and the turmoil began on April 30, 1970 with the announcement of a military incursion into Cambodia. President Richard Nixon described the operation in a televised address and said it was designed to wipe out two North Vietnamese sanctuaries. He pointed to a map which described the areas as the “fish hook’ and the “parrot’s beak.” The students and many liberal activists viewed this as a widening of the war, and demonstrations were immediately organized on numerous campuses. Four students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University on May 4th, and the reaction was a strike which closed down 458 campuses.
In Washington, DC, presidential speechwriter Ray Price said “mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. This was the quote, student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war.”The 82nd Airborne Division was camped out in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building and they were ready to protect the Oval Office. Students stormed the president’s office on many campuses and the Secret Service was worried about an attack on the White House.
Because of security concerns, Nixon spent two days at Camp David and returned on May 7th to meet with presidents of eight major universities. The next morning approximately 200 AFL-CIO construction workers attacked over 1000 student demonstrators in lower Manhattan. It was called “The Hard Hat Riot.” That evening (May 8th), Nixon had a televised press conference and the first of over 100,000 students began to gather at the Lincoln Memorial for a large anti-war demonstration the next day. At the press conference Nixon said:
I have not been surprised by the intensity of the protests. I realize those who are protesting believe this decision will expand the war, increase American casualties, and increase American involvement. Those who protest want peace. They want to reduce American casualties and they want our boys brought home.
I made the decision, however, for the very reasons they are protesting. . . I know what I have done will accomplish the goals they want. It will shorten this war. It will reduce American casualties. It will allow us to go forward with our withdrawal program. The 150,000 Americans that I announced for withdrawal in the next year will come home on schedule. It will, in my opinion, serve the cause of a just peace in Vietnam.
Nixon was then asked: “Do you believe you can open up meaningful communications with this college-age generation, and how?” He responded “I would like to try as best I can to do that. It is not easy. Sometimes they talk so loudly it is difficult to be heard. . . However, on an individual basis, I believe it is possible to do what I have been doing, to bring representatives of the college and university communities to my office, to talk with them, to have a dialogue. . .
The students are trying to say they want peace. They are trying to say they want to stop the killing. They are trying to say they want to end the draft. They are trying to say we ought to get out of Vietnam. I agree with everything they are trying to accomplish.
“I believe, however, the decisions I have made, and particularly this last terribly difficult decision of going into the Cambodian sanctuaries which were completely occupied by the enemy–I believe that decision will serve that purpose, because you can be sure everything I stand for is what they want.”
When he arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, Nixon spoke to the students about the war, and he also talked about “the qualities of spirit, emotion, and the depth and spirit of life”. He told them once he had been a pacifist, and prior to WW II he thought Churchill was wrong, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was right. At first he thought Churchill was a madman but he later viewed him as a protector of peace. He praised the students for their commitment to civil rights and the environment. He said they had the right priorities and too many people were focused on materialism:
You must remember that something which is completely clean can also be completely sterile and without spirit. What we all must think about is why we are here. . . Ending the war, cleaning up the streets, the air and water is still not going to solve the spiritual hunger we all have. This is the greatest mystery of life from the beginning of time.
The presidential motorcade left the Lincoln Memorial at 5:55 am and drove to the deserted U.S. Capitol. Nixon was giving his valet, Manolo Sanchez, a tour. They visited the Rotunda, Statuary Hall and the House Chamber before departing at 6:40 am.The story is told in Richard Nixon and his America by Herbert Parmet, Little Brown (1989), 786 pages.