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Luke Nichter says the Burns/Novick Vietnam documentary was unfair to Nixon, among others

Historians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, Nixon, Ken Burns, Lynn Novick



Luke A. Nichter is a professor of history at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. He is working on a biography of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., to be published by Yale University Press.

... Historian Stanley Kutler once said the Nixon tapes are like the Bible: They can be selectively quoted to serve almost any purpose.

Nonetheless, too many scholars, writers, and filmmakers excerpt carefully chosen segments of the tapes to fit a preconceived notion, or a larger point sometimes taken out of context, while not giving evidence to the contrary a similar degree of attention. At times, Burns and Novick fall into this trap when they use short sound bites of the Nixon tapes to make – or seemingly confirm – a larger narrative.

For example, the documentary uses the tapes to contend that Nixon set U.S. war policy based almost exclusively on political considerations. While it is clear from the tapes that Nixon genuinely considered his re-election extremely important, especially once he returned from his 1972 summits in China and the Soviet Union, it is equally clear from the tapes that his reasoning was neither immoral nor malicious.

Nixon believed that if he failed in his re-election bid, his successor – likely a liberal Democrat such as Ted Kennedy or George McGovern – would slash defense spending, cut funding to Vietnam, and destabilize the new world order he and Henry Kissinger believed they had built – all to the detriment of American soldiers in the field and the people of South Vietnam, our ally. Lyndon Johnson had a similar fear about the outcome of the 1968 presidential election, which was why he was not overly distraught when Nixon won.

Moreover, just a year before Nixon’s 1972 landslide re-election, he was taped saying he may not run for re-election at all. All leaders can be contemplative and pensive in unguarded moments and these leaders do not make cameos in “The Vietnam War.” ...

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