Nixon at War

By PRX

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 Jul 28, 2019

Description

Most accounts of the collapse of Richard Nixon’s presidency begin with Watergate — the now iconic tale of a bungled break-in and the misbegotten cover-up that followed.  But what led to Watergate?  How — and more puzzlingly, why — did one of the shrewdest, most gifted political figures of his time become embroiled in so manifestly lunatic an enterprise in the first place?  Intrigued by that question, writer/journalist Kurt Andersen takes a deep dive into the vast archives at the Nixon Library and emerges with an answer he wasn’t expecting: While Watergate doubtless accelerated Nixon’s spectacular fall, it was the Vietnam War that led inexorably to the break-in, and from there to the sinking of his presidency.

For Andersen, who came of age in the Vietnam era, that answer in turn begs another, larger question: How did Richard Nixon, with all his foreign policy savvy, allow himself to get trapped in the same quagmire he had watched engulf his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson? These questions are the central concerns of Nixon at War.  Over the course of seven episodes, Andersen peels back the onion and emerges with a new and deeper understanding of both the man and the war, and of the complex linkage between them.


Episode Date
S3 Ep 6 - Off the Rails
35:19

With the publication of the Pentagon Papers in June ’71, the demons that Richard Nixon has wrestled throughout his presidency – indeed, through much of his public life – begin to gain the upper hand. “The strain of office, and the belligerency of his enemies,” Nixon biographer Jack Farrell says, “have begun to unsettle the president, dispelling the ‘mellow’ Nixon of 1968 and unleashing the self-injurious behavior of old.” Kissinger and others assure the president that he has nothing to fear from the Pentagon Papers, and might even benefit from the unflattering light they will cast on his predecessors, but the act of publication of classified documents – thousands of pages worth -- rankles deeply.  Very quickly, the president’s long festering paranoia and indignation zeroes in on two of his most despised “enemies” – the press, for publishing the government’s closely held secrets, and the leakers within his own deep state, now personified by Daniel Ellsberg, for the growing threat he believes they pose to his own buried secrets.

Jul 19, 2021
S3 Ep 5 - Beginning of the End
49:32

In early February ’71, with pressure building at home to complete the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, Nixon puts his Vietnamization program to a crucial and very public test. With the world watching, the South Vietnamese army launches an invasion into Laos, where they will engage a formidable North Vietnamese force. US air power will support the South, but for the first time they will be on their own on the ground. The test is a debacle: facing superior military forces, the South Vietnamese sustain heavy casualties and are quickly compelled to withdraw. Nixon and Kissinger spin the defeat as best they can, but privately, it is a moment of reckoning: after six years of war, South Vietnam shows little sign of being able to sustain the war without continuing US help. Through the spring, opposition to the war grows and spreads beyond the traditional leftist and student base. In April, Senator William Fulbright’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee hears testimony from a young vet by the name of John Kerry, representing a new force – Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Clearly, the tide is turning. Faced with a grim reality, Nixon and Kissinger recognize they must find a way to prop up South Vietnam at least long enough to avoid having it collapse before the ’72 election, now only a year away.

Jul 11, 2021
S3 Ep 4 - Searchlight on the Lawn
54:02

In the spring of 1970, the war in Vietnam comes home with a vengeance.  A year of secret bombing having produced no movement from the North Vietnamese, Nixon and Kissinger raise the stakes, dramatically. In late April, US and South Vietnamese ground forces invade Cambodia. The “incursion,” as the White House calls it, galvanizes the antiwar movement, which has been largely dormant since Nixon’s Silent Majority speech. Reaction is immediate and intense. On May 4th, a week of snowballing protest and campus unrest culminates in the shootings at Kent State. Four days later, a counterprotest – dubbed the Hard Hat Riot – turns violent in the streets of New York City. On May 8th, following a tense press conference, President Nixon returns to the White House, where he works the telephone late into the night, trying to manage the escalating crisis. Past midnight, he summons his valet, Manolo Sanchez to accompany him on an extraordinary encounter with unsuspecting protesters at the Lincoln Memorial.

Jul 05, 2021
S3 Ep 3 - Sideshow
53:17

In December 1968, only weeks after his election, Nixon names Henry Kissinger as his national security advisor. The appointment will prove to be the most consequential of his presidency. The two men barely know each other, but Kissinger moves swiftly and brilliantly to make himself the linchpin – some would say the architect – of Nixon’s enormously ambitious foreign policy agenda. Immediately, and with the new president’s blessing, Kissinger marginalizes both State and Defense, concentrating the making of US foreign policy within the White House. The first challenge: how to force the implacable North Vietnamese leadership back to the negotiating table. By late January ’69, a plan is in place: Operation Menu, a massive and completely secret bombing assault, not on Vietnam but on North Vietnamese army sanctuaries in neighboring (and neutral) Cambodia. Over the next eight years, the U.S. will drop more bomb tonnage on Cambodia than the combined Allied forces dropped in all of World War II. While the bombing remains largely a secret in the U.S., it fails to move the needle on negotiations with the North.  By the fall of ’69, the lack of progress has re-energized the anti-war movement, which mobilizes a wave of demonstrations across the country.  In response, Nixon takes his case to the country, with the Silent Majority speech, which will come to be remembered as perhaps the most effective address of his presidency.

Jun 28, 2021
S3 Ep 2 - Madame Chennault
50:04

Coming out of the conventions in August ’68, Richard Nixon begins his campaign against Hubert Humphrey, his Democratic opponent, with what looks like an insurmountable lead.  Running as the peace candidate, Nixon promises a quick end to a costly and increasingly unpopular war. The strategy works, until late October, when Humphrey finally breaks with LBJ and goes public with his own opposition to the war.  Overnight, the race begins to tighten. This is Nixon's last shot.  He lost to JFK in 1960, by less than two-tenths of a percent – one of the closest elections in U.S. history – and isn’t about to let it happen again.  So, when word leaks, a week before the election, of a possible breakthrough in LBJ’s long-stalled Vietnam peace talks, Nixon sees it all slipping away, and moves to avoid that outcome, at whatever risk. His response is to sabotage the Paris Talks, through a mysterious secret intermediary known as the Dragon Lady. LBJ learns of Nixon’s efforts to blow up the talks, but can’t reveal his source – FBI wiretaps on the South Vietnamese Embassy. “Of all of Richard Nixon’s actions in a lifetime of politics,” biographer John Farrell will later say, “this was the most reprehensible.“

Learn more at NixonAtWar.org.

Jun 21, 2021
S3 Ep 1 - October Surprise
39:37

Get in and get those files.  Blow the safe and get it.

-President Nixon to aide H.R. Haldeman

For President Richard Nixon, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, in June 1971, ought not to have mattered. The malfeasance and mendacity revealed in the Times, and soon in papers across the country, had all happened under previous administrations, from Truman to LBJ. In fact, Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, tells the president, "I've read this stuff, and we come out pretty well in it."  But Nixon cannot be mollified.  It is not the contents of the Pentagon Papers that he's worried about. It is the leaking of classified information that has stoked his fury, and his fear.  For Richard Nixon has secrets of his own, secrets that if brought to light, could sink his presidency.  What are these secrets?  Here the story flashes back, to the late summer and early fall of 1968, when Richard Nixon secures his party's nomination for the presidency and soon finds himself having to navigate the treacherous politics of the Vietnam War. His principal adversary? Not Hubert Humphrey, the other name on the ballot, but Lyndon Johnson, who has opted not to seek a second term, but remains a formidable player, waging a desperate battle to close out the war and salvage his tattered legacy.

Learn more at NixonAtWar.org.

Jun 14, 2021
Trailer - Welcome to Nixon at War
02:20

Most accounts of the collapse of Richard Nixon’s presidency begin with Watergate —- the now iconic tale of a bungled break-in and the misbegotten cover-up that followed.  But what led to Watergate?  How —- and more puzzlingly, why —- did one of the shrewdest, most gifted political figures of his time become embroiled in so manifestly lunatic an enterprise in the first place?  Intrigued by that question, writer/journalist Kurt Andersen takes a deep dive into the vast archives at the Nixon Library and emerges with an answer he wasn’t expecting: While Watergate doubtless accelerated Nixon’s spectacular fall, it was the Vietnam War that led inexorably to the break-in, and from there to the sinking of his presidency.

For Andersen, who came of age in the Vietnam era, that answer in turn begs another, larger question: How did Richard Nixon, with all his foreign policy savvy, allow himself to get trapped in the same quagmire he had watched engulf his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson? These questions are the central concerns of Nixon at War.  Over the course of seven episodes, Andersen peels back the onion and emerges with a new and deeper understanding of both the man and the war, and of the complex linkage between them.  

Jun 11, 2021
S2 Ep 7 - Post Script
53:11

So what do historians think, fifty years out, about LBJ’s Great Society and its long term impact on American life and politics?  In early February, series correspondent Melody Barnes put that question to three distinguished scholars, gathered before a live audience at the Miller Center for Presidential Studies, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  Their perspectives are a thoughtful summing up of the Johnson Years, and a good place, we think, to close out this podcast series.  The panelists: Kevin Gaines, the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia; Guian McKee, associate professor in Presidential Studies at the Miller Center; and Julian Zelizer, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University.  Our thanks to them for their insights, and to you our listeners for your interest.

Mar 17, 2020
S2 Ep 6 - The Engineer
39:45

Five decades after Lyndon Johnson first unveiled his lofty vision of a Great Society, politicians and pundits are still arguing about what he accomplished, and what he didn’t. This final installment will look at the legacy of LBJ's Great Society through the lens on one of its most enduring and popular programs — Head Start. Today, the Head Start program is alive and well, and so deeply woven into the fabric of American life that few know of its roots in the Great Society, or of the conflict and controversy that plagued many of its early programs.

Features Alice O’Connor, Professor of History and Director of the Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara, and commentary from historians Rhonda Y. Williams, Josh Zeitz, and Julian Zelizer. Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.

Mar 10, 2020
S2 Ep 5 - Give Us the Ballot
37:33

By his own account the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was Lyndon Johnson’s greatest achievement – the jewel in the crown of the Great Society, and widely considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. This episode focuses on the extraordinarily eventful eight-month period — January to August 1965 — when the battle for Voting Rights was joined and ultimately fought to a successful conclusion. The outcome was hard won, and in doubt up until the last frantic weeks of negotiation and maneuvering in the wake of the bloody protests in Selma, Alabama. We hear from historian Rhonda Y. Williams, the John L. Seigenthaler Chair in American History at Vanderbilt University, about the complex and precarious alliance forged between the President on the inside, and Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement on the outside.

Includes interview excerpts from Washington University Libraries, drawn from the Henry Hampton Collection. This digitized resource includes complete video interviews with Civil Rights Movement leaders, recorded for the influential and award-winning documentary film, Eyes on the Prize.

Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.

Mar 03, 2020
S2 Ep 4 - Medicine Man
31:14

FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK all attempted to pass some form of universal health care — but no one had gotten even close. Johnson believed he might succeed where his predecessors had failed, at least for the country’s elderly, but to do so he would have to overcome the opposition of the same influential interest group that had derailed all earlier attempts — the American Medical Association.

To prevail in this fight, LBJ would have to win over one key legislator — Congressman Wilbur Mills, the powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee. Johnson's skillful and tireless courtship of Congressman Mills, and the alliance ultimately forged between them, is the central story of this episode.

With analysis from historian Julian Zelizer, author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.

Feb 25, 2020
S2 Ep 3 - The Bully Pulpit
32:46

“We will not win our war against poverty until the conscience of the entire Nation is aroused,” LBJ told an aide. But how to do that when most Americans were doing reasonably well and barely knew poverty was an issue?

Somehow LBJ would have to convince a risk-averse and price-sensitive congress to back a costly, new government program aimed at solving a problem many voters barely knew existed. Johnson's solution: the 1965 Poverty Tour, a blitz campaign that would take the president into the country's poorest and most neglected communities in a bid to make the American electorate aware of the largely hidden poverty in their midst, and to rally their support behind his ambitious plan to do something about it.

Commentary and analysis: Joshua Zeitz, author of “Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House.” Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.

Feb 18, 2020
S2 Ep 2 - Mr. Poverty
25:11

"I didn't know a damn thing about poverty and didn't want the job," Sargent Shriver would later recall, of his conversation with the president, “and I told him so.” But it was no use: Lyndon Johnson had fixed on Shriver to lead his newly declared war on poverty, and that was that. But could poverty really be eradicated? And if so, how? It fell to the reluctant recruit to figure that out, and fast. Johnson had given him just six weeks to turn a dauntingly ambitious idea into a legislative program, and somehow get it through a deeply change-resistant Congress.

Contributing historian: Joshua Zeitz. Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.

Feb 11, 2020
S2 Ep 1 - The Great Unveiling
26:14

On the night of JFK’s assassination, with the nation reeling, Lyndon Johnson stayed up much of the night with two young aides, and laid out a list of legislative initiatives he proposed to pursue. In its scope, vision, and sheer audacity, the list was astonishing, affecting nearly every aspect of American public life, from health care to voting rights to education. It would be nearly six months before the agenda that LBJ mapped out that night would fully coalesce, and be officially unveiled, under the banner of the Great Society. But from day one, LBJ was off and running, determined to be not merely the keeper of the JFK flame, but a president of Rushmore level greatness — the president who picked up where FDR left off.

This first episode will look at the forces that shaped LBJ's vision and ambition, and the trajectory of his rise from the near total obscurity of the vice-presidency to the pinnacle of power. Key voices include senior aide Jack Valenti, who mapped the strategy for rolling out the Great Society vision, and Richard Goodwin, who wrote the speech that would articulate that vision to the American electorate.

With commentary and analysis from historians Joshua Zeitz and Julian Zelizer, along with archival audio from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Learn more at LBJsGreatSociety.org.

Feb 04, 2020
Trailer - Welcome to LBJ and the Great Society
02:46

While President Lyndon B. Johnson is remembered today largely for his failure in Vietnam, this podcast tells a different story, revealing his unprecedented success in shaping domestic politics. Medicare, civil and voting rights, clean air and water, Head Start, immigration reform, public broadcasting — how did Lyndon Johnson pull it off? That’s the question we’ll be exploring through the recorded recollections of those who were there when this history was being made, and who had a hand in its making. Hosted by Melody Barnes, former chief domestic policy advisor to Barack Obama.

Jan 20, 2020
Epilog: “I Shall Not Seek…”
51:18

Lyndon Johnson's March '68 announcement, that he would not seek re-election, stunned the nation and the world, and marked the effective end of a political career that had once seemed bound for Rushmore-level greatness. This special, long-form edition of LBJ's War traces the arc, and looks at the causes, of that tragic fall from grace. For those who have listened to all six prior episodes, a few moments will be familiar, but most will not: 90%-plus previously unheard material.

Oct 03, 2017
S1 Ep 6 LBJ's War - The Shock of Tet
24:19

“Whammo, we got caught with our pants down,” a CIA analyst says of the Tet Offensive, the massive surprise attack that North Vietnam launched against American and South Vietnamese forces in the pre-dawn hours of January 31st, 1968. Just what exactly happened and what it signified would take some time to sort out, but the message from Hanoi to the White House was immediate and unmistakeable: We will outlast you. In this final episode of the series: Tet '68 and its transformative impact on American understanding of the war.

Sep 26, 2017
S1 Ep 5 LBJ's War - The Preacher and the President
21:04

“I’ll try to be worthy of your hopes,” LBJ told Martin Luther King, just days into his presidency, and for the next two years, largely made good on that vow. Dr. King, for his part, recognized their common goal – racial and economic justice – and threw his own considerable weight behind it, until finally, the war in Vietnam made it impossible to do so any longer. A look back at the 1967 speech that broke their bond forever.

Sep 19, 2017
S1 Ep 4 LBJ's War - Parting the Curtains
22:43

For fifteen months, LBJ kept the country largely in the dark about the Vietnam War. Then, in February ’66, the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and its chairman William Fulbright, administered a strong dose of sunlight.

Sep 12, 2017
S1 Ep 3 LBJ's War - The Carrot and the Stick
18:01

By the spring of 1965, pressure is building on President Johnson to make his case for the war to the American electorate. He resists, preferring to manage the conflict without public scrutiny, but finally agrees to go public, in a speech at Johns Hopkins University.  The strategy behind the speech: a little something for everybody.  A look at how that strategy works out, and what it reveals about LBJ's congenital bias for secrecy.

Sep 05, 2017
S1 Ep 2 LBJ's War - The Tonkin Incident(s)
23:26

Twice in six weeks, in the late summer of 1964, U.S. destroyers reported they were under unprovoked attack, by North Vietnamese PT boats, while on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin. The first incident produced a massive airstrike in retaliation, and three days later, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which changed the course of the Vietnam War. The second attack produced...no response at all.  Did Lyndon Johnson learn something along the way?  

Sep 05, 2017
S1 Ep. 1 LBJ's War - The Churchill of Asia
17:57

“They started with me on Diem,” LBJ told an old friend, “that he was corrupt, and he ought to be killed. So, we killed him.”  Not quite true, it turns out, but the brutal assassination of South Vietnam’s President Diem, just three weeks before JFK met the same fate in Dallas, would cast a long shadow over the Johnson presidency, and shape LBJ’s thinking on the war. 1963.

Sep 05, 2017
Trailer - Welcome to LBJ’s War
04:56

LBJ’s War is a podcast that tells the story of LBJ's failure in Vietnam and fall from grace in the voices of those who were there.

Aug 28, 2017