Nixon’s Army

Today, we commemorate the 51st anniversary of the deaths of 4 college students at Kent State during a Vietnam War protest.

Did you know that war was never officially declared in Vietnam, our nation’s second longest war?
Did you know that Richard Nixon stalled peace talks to improve his re-election chances in 1972?

Today, we take a look back at those tumultuous years in United States history, focusing on the time period surrounding the events at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

The infamous TET Offensive in the Spring of 1968 surprised our South Vietnamese allies, with widespread attacks in South Vietnam’s 44 provinces. TET becomes one of the major enemy offensives of the war, and serves as a turning-point in the U.S. psyche. Shortly afterwards, President Lyndon Johnson announces he won’t run for re-election, orders a bombing halt over most of North Vietnam, and suggests that the U.S. find a non-military solution for the conflict.

Another turning-point in the war occurred in March of 1968, when 100 or more Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered at My Lai in Quang Ngai Province. Our nation wouldn’t learn of the My Lai massacre until almost two years later, in late-1969.

By the end of 1968, over 30,000 US servicemen have already died in S.E. Asia and more than 100,000 had been wounded. Over 400 U.S. servicemen were being held as prisoners of war, and nearly 800 were missing in action. The U.S. has already dropped nearly 3 million tons of bombs on Indochina, and dumped $4 billion into military aid. Vietnam has become our nation’s longest war.

The beginning of 1969 brought about the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon as President of the US. He brandied about such words as “peacemaker” and “negotiation” during his inaugural speech, and around the same time the Paris Peace Talks were expanded to include representatives of the United States, S. Vietnam, N. Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front (N.L.F. or ‘Viet Cong’).

These talks resulted in a 10-point peace proposal from the N.L.F. in early May, and were countered with an 8-point proposal by the US. The language of the U.S. plan included troop withdrawals within a 12 month period. As was to be discovered in testimony 4 years later, the US was involved in the secret bombing of Cambodia sometime during 1969. Some major anti-war protests took place in April of 1969, giving Nixon a taste of what was yet to come during his presidency.

Anti-war protests solidified on October 15, 1969 when approximately 1-million Americans staged “Vietnam Moratorium Day”, which included anti-war demonstrations, peace vigils, and other protests. Reportedly, over 50 members of Congress took part in the Washington, D.C. rally. Vice-president Spiro Agnew referred to the protestors as an “effete corps of impudent snobs”.

Late fall of 1969 brought about some other interesting war history. Part of the history included an 8 week Senate investigation of a service club scandal within the military; primarily the misuse of Army non-appropriated funds and also an investigation into a “currency racket” in Vietnam that reportedly amounted to $150 million a year. It wreaked of kickbacks and corruption. “The situation certainly suggests a cover-up at high military levels”, Senator Mundt reportedly said.

I’ve never been very lucky at lotteries, and in 1969 I wasn’t lucky in a lottery announced for November 1969, right after my 19th birthday. Congress had passed legislation giving the President power to start the military Draft Lottery System. Basically, the lottery would draw all the possible birthdates and assign them to a numerical sequence. The local draft boards would then use this sequence in filling their quotas for troops. Also, instead of a male having 7 years of eligibility in the draft, this system would focus the eligibility into only 1 year: to begin on your 19th birthday and end on your 20th birthday. Nixon signed the bill into law in late November; less than 2 weeks after my 19th birthday. Also during this eventful month, the Army announced the upcoming court-martial of Lt. William Calley with the charge of “pre-meditated murder” of “109 Vietnam civilians” at My Lai.

The first day of December brought true life suspense to every 19-year-old male in the U.S. In the first draft lottery to be held in nearly 30 years, the televised stage was set at Selective Service H.Q. in Washington, D.C. I was relieved with each passing date drawn until they reached the birthdays in the 130’s. Almost everyone had hoped for a high number in the 300’s.

Reports stated that numbers in the first third (1-122) would probably be drafted, the middle third (123-244) probably not, and the bottom third (245-365) had little chance of ever being drafted. I was in the middle third, but right at the top. The thought of being drafted into the Army loomed larger than life, and I always had a feeling that if I got drafted I would end up in Vietnam. If I did end up there, it looked like it would be at the “ass end” of the war.

Nixon announced withdrawal of another 50,000 troops by April 1970. Peace talks in Paris bogged-down and the U.S. chief-negotiator resigned. More importantly, the Vietnam War was dividing the U.S. with anti-war protesters vs “the silent majority.” I often wonder if the “silent majority” wasn’t actually against the war, instead of being “pro-Vietnam War,” as it was always presented. Regardless, the new decade was to begin with serious divisions throughout America, which would last well into the next decade, and beyond.

January 1970 also brought reports of alleged Army “spying” on groups and individuals in the in the United States, who were involved in political protests. Supposedly, almost 1,000 plain clothes agents were involved in the surveillance of the ACLU, NAACP, John Birch Society, the ‘Clergy’ and Laymen United Against the War in Vietnam’, and over 500 Illinois citizens – including a couple Congressmen and a judge. Lengthy investigations by the Senate led to Defense Secretary Laird ordering the spying stopped.

Pollution and inflation were two other problems facing the U.S. other than Vietnam. Vietnam was becoming more of a problem, as news surfaced of increased involvement in Laos and Cambodia, through Senate transcripts from 1969 that were now being made public. April 1970 legislation led to a “National Prayer Day” for U.S. prisoners of war, set to take place on 3 May 1970. Later that month, Nixon reported on T.V. another troop withdrawal of 150,000 men throughout 1971. Completion of that withdrawal would still leave nearly 300,000 American troops in Vietnam.

We learned through documentaries produced decades later that Nixon was positioning more for re-election in 1972, than he was for ending the war. The timing had to be right for him, and his political aspirations, no matter the delays at making peace and ending the war.

On April 23, 1970 Nixon spoke of “draft reform“. Highlights included the elimination of certain student deferments for undergraduate students, a national draft to replace the quota system which often led to inequities, pay increases for “inductees”, and other reforms. (Congress didn’t take action on most of these until 1971). However, in an Executive Order, Nixon cancelled all occupational deferments, most paternity deferments, and “extreme hardship” remained one of the few exceptions. The loopholes for deferments were starting to close, but most of my high school buddies were still “safely” in college.

President Nixon showed his impudence on April 30, 1970 when he sent troops into Cambodia to destroy enemy “sanctuaries”. This latest move made it clear to everyone that the “light at the end of the Vietnam War tunnel” may actually be an oncoming train. Anti-war protesters renewed their demonstrations with increased fervor, while Congress began long debates on Congressional War Powers and the never-ending war in Indochina.

In an address to the nation, Nixon said the Cambodian offensive was “not an invasion” and justified the move further with the logic that it was necessary to protect our troops in Vietnam. For many in the United States, Cambodia was a breaking point, and serious efforts were renewed at ending the war.

In Congress, this was evident, as Sen. George McGovern and others announced on May 2, 1970, they were going to propose an “end the war” amendment (which would use a cut-off of funds/for the military in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) to accomplish their purpose. Senators Church and Cooper presented an amendment to cut-off military funds for Cambodia as well as U.S. military operations there. Some members of Congress had finally said “enough is enough,” and were acting through legislation to end the war.

The 4th of May 1970 brought a deep, dark day into our nation’s history, when four college students at Kent State in Ohio, were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard, who were called-in to maintain order during student anti-war protests. Those four deaths in Ohio, and widening U.S. involvement in Indochina, sparked more demonstrations during the week, involving thousands of students across the nation.

May 9, 1970 brought about a peaceful rally at the Ellipse in Washington D.C. with nearly 100,000 in attendance. Ten or so members of Congress were reportedly present. Further testimony was revealed on 8 Jun 1970 which had been “confidential” until then – November 1969 testimony had dealt with a study by a Senate subcommittee on the expanding role of the U.S. in Laos and Thailand. Reportedly, the U.S. had entered into a secret deal, paying Thailand $50 million a year for a Thai combat division in South Vietnam. In addition, the U.S. had invested $702 million in Thai bases, and U.S. troop strength in Thailand increased to nearly 50,000 troops in 1969. It was also learned that in 1967, the U.S. stationed B52s in Thailand for bombing missions over Laos and Vietnam.

At the end of June 1970, Nixon officially reported on the Cambodian incursion. Over 30,000 Americans and almost 50,000 S. Vietnamese allies took part in the operation. He also reported that the U.S. would give Cambodia military assistance in the form of mostly “small arms.” The Cambodian operation had lasted about 2 months.

Early in September the Hatfield-McGovern amendment was defeated in Congress. But not without the debate which would precede and follow these “end the war” amendments in the future. Anti-war arguments stated that the gradual withdrawal was leading to a wider war, and that Nixon should be pressured to speed-up the withdrawal.

Arguments against a faster withdrawal centered on concern over the fate of POWs, and future bargaining power with Hanoi. Most “end the war” amendments used a cut-off date for troop withdrawal, or a cut-off date for military funds, to accomplish their purpose. Some of the Senators who continued to introduce anti-war legislation were Senators McGovern, Church, Cooper, Hatfield, and Brooke.



Vietnam War index

1969 Draft Lottery during the Vietnam War

1970 – 1971 – 1972 Vietnam War Era Draft Lotteries

Vietnam War Timeline

Vietnam War History and Politics

Allegheny County Vietnam Memorial – Pittsburgh, Pa.

Washington Pa. Vietnam Memorial – Washington County

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