from the archives

The War Against Nixon

Photo: New York Magazine

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the May 18, 1970, issue of New York. We are republishing a selection of Gloria Steinem’s writing from our archive to celebrate her 90th birthday.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Americans all over the country brought it in with the milk: a front-page picture of a girl, mouth open in a silent scream, falling to her knees beside the body of a boy student who has been shot in the back.

It wasn’t the first such scene, and won’t be the last. (Forty-eight hours later, the governor of Kentucky thought it politically useful to order “mounted bayonets and live ammunition” for Guardsmen enforcing a curfew on a comparatively quiet campus. Reagan, perhaps feeling outdone, was said to be talking longingly of tanks.) But this one sticks in the mind so much that demonstrators from Washington to London have taken up the chant, “Kent State.” Just as the photograph of a skinny, plaid-shirted Vietnamese being executed by a Saigon secret-police chief has been called the psychic turning point against Johnson and his version of what American boys were fighting for, the Kent State scene may come to symbolize the death of faith in a President who promised “to bring us together.”

“My daughter was sincerely against the war,” said the father of a gentle coed who was shot, school books in hand, as she crossed the same Ohio meadow. “She wasn’t a ‘bum.’”

An antiwar leader whom even Martha Mitchell wouldn’t find radical, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, called the shots that killed those four Kent State students “the first shots fired in a new and terrifying civil war in America.”

And that’s the way the press is treating it: Nixon and the palace guard on one side; student strikes and bombs and burning ROTC buildings on the other. In New York or anyplace else that isn’t Washington, there seems to be no leadership against Nixon, no alternative except the streets and the campus. It’s news when one of the palace guard like Secretary of the Interior Hickel publicly defects, or when there’s internal bickering in the radical movement, but the great middleground — dissident Republicans, the Democratic Party, or any effective coalition of the two — is ignored, relegated to the back pages, or reported as having no chance against the Nixon-Agnew-Mitchell juggernaut. The narrow victory of the ABM, for instance (the first time in 30 years that military expenditures have been seriously questioned at all), the defeat of Haynsworth, and the even more intensive bipartisan effort that defeated Carswell — all these came as a surprise to most newspaper readers, because opposition to Nixon among the middle-aged, non-violent, hard-working men inside the system hadn’t been properly reported or assessed.

In this post-Cambodia despair, with the President’s popularity polls rapidly dropping and the tock market tilting crazily down, there is more hinge for some leader or coalition that Middle America can identify with. The Cambodia invasion plus Kent State may have crystallized fears about the President and created more sympathy for the dissidents. (Even staid James Reston the New York Times has intimated fearfully in print that Nixon may be going bananas. The White House admits that mail has dropped from 17-to-1 in support of the President after his November 3 speech to 2-to-1 since Cambodia. And that may include an odd counting system, since anti-Nixon correspondents have been known to get form replies thanking them for their support. Antiwar senators are getting 20-to-1 ratios backing their position.) But the feeling one gets from reading about opposition in Washington is disorganization, poverty of ideas and fear.

“Maybe Nixon won’t be a two-term President now,” said a New York reporter after 80 campuses closed down and even Nixon was moved to apologize for calling dissident students “bums.” “But then, maybe we won’t be a two-term country.”

Walking around Washington’s marble halls, however, there is an impression one doesn’t get from the press. A healthy number of senators and a proportionately smaller but equally outspoken group in the House are part of the war against Nixon.

For instance, Senators Fulbright, McGovern, and Church have all given blistering speeches on the floor that might have focused discontent. But somehow they didn’t “catch fire” enough for newspaper coverage, much less television. Ted Kennedy spoke at a dinner honoring Earl Warren, listing this Administration’s repressive acts, from wire-tapping and stockpiling of tear gas to “a concerted effort to interfere with the freedom of the press.” (“Z could happen here,” he concluded.) The repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, once a proposal bordering on treason, is now taken for granted. Congressman Ottinger’s motion to censure the President won’t succeed, but he won’t be pilloried for it as he would have been a few months ago. A rather vague amendment from Senators Cooper and Church recommending enforced budget cuts in Vietnam will probably pass. Senators like Hatfield and Hartke who had been counseling patience on the war now seem willing to move drastically against Nixon.

But the most intensive effort (relegated to a page-30 story in the Washington Post, turned down by Meet the Press, and capsulized briefly on page 2 of the Times) is the bipartisan backing of the Amendment to End the War.

Originated by Democrats McGovern and Hughes plus Republicans Hatfield and Goodell, the proposal would cut off funds for all military operations in Indochina. To answer the arguments about leaving American troops exposed, it provides staggered dates and withdrawal safeguards, but all U.S. forces would be out by June 30, 1971.

Twelve more senators and 18 congressmen signed it within a week. Thirty professors started a National Petition Committee in its support, and about 2,000 students volunteered as petition-carriers within a few days. Verne Newton, veteran of the McCarthy campaign and the Moratorium, says he has never seen a project with more spontaneous, nationwide enthusiasm and desire to to help.

“Nobody believes it,” said Senator McGovern, “but we could have a Carswell-type victory here.”

Even if the House doesn’t pass the amendment, the senators think their bipartisan success with such a drastic measure, plus nationwide support, would assert control over the President in a historic way.

But with no press, McGovern was out raising money for television time. So far, the newspapers hadn’t published the amendment’s provisions.

“The press has allowed its attention to be polarized, and it reinforces the polarization of the country,” McGovern said. “They see the flamboyant left and right, but the constructive center of students who are still working, of ordinary American who are still searching for alternatives — they are being ignored.”

Nixon — isolated even from most of his own Cabinet members, appointees, and advisers — is becoming more and more vulnerable. (The Cambodian decision was said to be taken without Rogers, Laird, the State Department, or Kissinger. Mitchell, Tom Dewey, the military, and Nixon’s own desire to prove Presidential manhood prevailed.) Men who came to help the Administration on the promise of access to the President are now leaving one by one. Or opting out in public, like Hickel. Among the few liberals, Cambodia and the events around it are like the Hitler-Stalin Pact. After experiencing it, no honorable man can stay.

But the Polarization Disease is still on us. The wars against Nixon have yet to unite.

The War Against Nixon