Of Love, the Moon, and Dirty Tricks (1968-1974). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Of Love, the Moon, and Dirty Tricks (1968-1974). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

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In This Chapter

The counterculture movement.

Landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.

Nixon’s foreign-policy breakthroughs.

Crisis of national trust: Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

 Who were the victims of the Vietnam War? Two, perhaps three million Indochinese died, and 58,000 American lives were lost. Many thousands more were wounded, some disabled for life. U.S. Vietnam veterans were not welcomed home with parades but were looked on with guilt and suspicion. By some Americans, veterans were seen as “baby killers”; by others, they were regarded as damaged goods—young men who may have escaped physical wounds but who bore psychological scars that made adjustment to civilian life difficult if not impossible.

The fact is that all America was a victim of the war, which had created a rift—to use a term from the era, a credibility gap—between citizens and government. Vietnam killed human beings, and it also killed trust.

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out. Since the early 20th century, illegal drug abuse had been associated with the fringes of society, with desperate and disturbed individuals, and to some extent, with urban African-Americans. By the 1950s, addiction to such narcotics as heroin was becoming a major and highly visible problem in many American cities and was linked to the increasing incidence of violent street crime, Yet drug use was still far from a mainstream affliction.

This all changed by the mid 1960s. A new generation of middle-class youth, characterized by relative affluence and the advantages of education, became passionately dedicated to forms of music and other types of popular art that expressed a turning away from much that had been accepted as the American dream: material prosperity, a successful career, a happy marriage, a house set amid a green lawn and surrounded by a white picket fence. Youngsters craved the experience of new music (a development of the rock ‘n’ roll that had started in the 1950s) and new clothing—colorful, wild, casual, sometimes evoking the bygone world of British Edwardian extravagance and sometimes suggesting the realm of that ultimate thorn in the side of the American dream, the hobo. As they looked with distrust on their elders (“anyone over thirty”), 1960s youth indulged in so-called recreational drugs. True, previous generations had had their overindulgences, especially alcohol, but for many of those coming of age in the 1960s, drugs became an integral part of everyday life.

With thermonuclear war an ever-present danger, with an ongoing war escalating in Vietnam—a meatgrinder into which American youth were regularly tossed—and with social justice still an elusive goal in America, there was much to protest and reject in mainstream society. Marijuana was one form of protest, alternative, and escape (all rolled up into a cigarette called a roach or joint). Sex (which many youth in the 1960s saw as a synonym for love) was another. Yet another alternative was religion—not the “outworn” faiths of the Judeo-Christian West, but the apparently less materialistic beliefs of the East. The decade spawned a series of spiritual leaders, or gurus, including the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (b. 1911?), who introduced a generation to Transcendental Meditation. Mahesh gained renown as spiritual counselor to a bevy of celebrities, including the Beatles.

A guru of a different kind exhorted his followers to “expand” their minds with a hallucinogenic drug called LSD, which (it was claimed) offered users a universe of “psychedelic” experience. “My advice to people today is as follows,” proclaimed Harvard psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary (1920-96) in 1966: “If you take the game of life seriously, if you take your nervous system seriously, if you take your sense organs seriously, if you take the energy process seriously, you must turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

By taking drugs—”turning on”—one would “tune in” to what was really worthwhile in life and, as a consequence, be prompted to “drop out” of life in the hollow mainstream. The phrase became the banner slogan of a generation: Turn on, tune in, drop out.

Summer of Love. Americans who had, to one degree or another, turned on, tuned in, and dropped out characteristically called themselves hippies (derived from hip, slang for being attuned to the latest social trends). The hippie movement, despite its association with drug-induced escapism, was certainly not all negative. The movement placed emphasis on kindness, on affection, on looking out for one’s fellow being, on caring for the natural environment, on social justice, on freedom of expression, on tolerance, on fostering creativity, on general peaceful coexistence, and on other life-affirming values. Naive from today’s perspective, perhaps, hippies seemed to be engaged in a mass attempt to will the world to return to innocence. And if love was often confused with sex, the word love took on a more general meaning as well, as in the biblical injunction to love thy neighbor.

For many who remember the 1960s fondly, the era was summed up in the summer of 1969, called the summer of love and capped by an open-air rock-music festival held on a farm near Woodstock, New York, August 15-17, 1969. The most popular rock music performers of the time drew perhaps 500,000 fans, who indulged in three days of song, drugs, sex, and (there is no other word for it) love. Woodstock immediately became a cultural icon, symbol of a generation’s solidarity in rebellion against the Establishment (a collective label given to those who controlled the status quo) and its war in Vietnam. Woodstock was a symbol, too, of a generation’s hope for a better world.

The Eagle Has Landed. As much as the counterculture wanted to believe it, the Establishment did not fail in all it put its hand to. Beginning with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, the United States had consistently come in second to the Soviet Union in the space race. In 1961, President Kennedy made a speech in which he set a national goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. At the time, few Americans thought this goal was realistic, but on July 20, 1969, at 4:17 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time), the people of a world shaken by a multitude of fears, gnawed by myriad acts of injustice, and racked by a terrible war in Southeast Asia, watched live television pictures of two American astronauts setting foot on the lunar surface, a quarter million miles from earth.

“That’s, one small step for man,” Neil Armstrong declared as he hopped down off the ladder of the lunar excursion module (LEM) Eagle, “and one giant leap for mankind.” The successful mission of Apollo I I was a national—and human—triumph in a time of bitterness, pain, doubt, and rejection of long-cherished values.

Pentagon Papers. Unfortunately, the government that put men on the moon was capable of moral lapses as deep as its lunar aspirations were lofty. During June 1971, the New York Times published a series of articles on a secret government study popularly called The Pentagon Papers. The 47-volume document, compiled between 1967-1969 by Defense Department analysts, meticulously revealed how the federal government had systematically deceived the American people with regard to its policies and practices in Southeast Asia. Among many other things, the study showed how the CIA had conspired to overthrow and assassinate South Vietnam president Diem, and it revealed that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was actually drafted months in advance of the attack on the destroyer Maddox and the apparent attack on the C. Turner Joy, the events that supposedly prompted the resolution.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, an MIT professor and government consultant who had access to the study and who had become disgusted and disillusioned with the Vietnam War, leaked The Pentagon Papers to the Times. The Department of Justice attempted to block publication of the document, but the Supreme Court upheld freedom of the press and ruled in favor of the newspaper. Although Ellsberg (whom some deemed a hero, others a traitor) was indicted for theft, espionage, and conspiracy, the charges were dismissed in 1973 because the government had acted illegally in obtaining evidence. Part of the govern-ment’s illegal action included, at the behest of the Nixon administration, burglarizing the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find material to embarrass the whistle blower.

The revelations of The Pentagon Papers marked a low point of popular faith in the American government and the continued prosecution of the Vietnam War. The effect of these documents was profoundly depressing precisely because Americans had long taken for granted that theirs was a free, open, honest, and noble government—as Abraham Lincoln had put it, “the last best hope of the world,”

SALT, China, and the Middle East. Last best hope. President Nixon, who had risen to power in Congress through his uncompromising, at times virulent stance against communism, now worked with his advisor Henry Kissinger to engineer detente with the Soviets and with the communist Chinese. His most immediate motivation was to cut them loose from North Vietnam, but the ramifications of the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy extended far beyond the Vietnam War. The consummate “cold warrior,” Richard M. Nixon initiated the long thaw that ultimately ended the Cold War.

In 1968, the United Nations sponsored the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sought to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by persuading nations without nuclear arsenals to renounce acquiring them in return for a pledge from the nuclear powers that they would reduce the size of their arsenals. The following year, the United States began negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit strategic (that is, nuclear-armed) forces. These ‘Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) produced a pair of important arms-control agreements in 1972. Then, from 1972 to 1979, the talks of SALT II were conducted, extending provisions formulated in 1972. Although the U.S. Senate failed to ratify SALT II, the two nations generally abided by its arms-limitation and arms-reduction provisions.

Perhaps even more remarkable was President Nixon’s February 1972 journey to China, where he was received in Beijing by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the very incarnation of the communism Nixon had spent his life opposing. In a single stroke of diplomacy, Nixon reversed the long-standing U.S. policy of refusing to recognize China’s communist government, and by January 1979 (under President Jimmy Carter), full diplomatic relations were established between the nations.

The third of Nixon’s major triumphs in diplomacy came in the war-torn Middle East. Following the Arab-Israel War in 1973, Nixon’s emissary Henry Kissinger presided over negotiations that led to a cease-fire, troop disengagement, and ultimately, the foundations of a more lasting peace in the region.

CREEP. Brilliant, even noble on the international front, Richard Nixon never won total trust and confidence at home. A vigorous, typically merciless political campaigner, Nixon had a reputation for stopping at nothing to crush his opponent. “Tricky Dick,” he was called, and never affectionately.

As the 1972 elections approached, there was little doubt that Nixon would be reelected. Henry Kissinger had announced that peace in Vietnam was “at hand,” international relations were dramatically improving, and Americans were generally loath to (in Lincoln’s homely phrase) change horses in midstream. Yet, oddly, none of this optimism was enough for the president. He directed his reelection organization, the Committee to Reelect the President—known (incredibly enough) by the acronym CREEP—to stack the deck even more thoroughly in his favor. The committee engaged in a campaign of espionage against the Democratic party and a program of dirty tricks aimed at smearing Democratic challengers.

Plumbers. On June 17, 1972, during the presidential campaign, five burglars were arrested in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. This was hardly front-page news—except that these burglars were really “Plumbers.” That’s what the White House secretly called the men, because their mission was to plug any leaks (security breaches) that developed or might develop in the aftermath of the publication of The Pentagon Papers. The Plumbers served the Nixon administration as a kind of palace guard, assigned to do jobs that lay beyond the chief executive’s constitutional mandate. One such job involved planting electronic bugs (listening devices) at the headquarters of the political opposition.

The five Plumbers included three anti-Castro Cuban refugees, all veterans of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, and James McCord, Jr., former CIA agent and now “security” officer for CREEP. McCord reported directly to CREEP’s head, Nixon’s campaign manager, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell. In a slapstick security faux pas, one of the burglars carried in his pocket an address book with the name of E. Howard Hunt. A former CIA agent (he’d been in charge of the Bay of Pigs operation) and writer of spy novels, Hunt was assistant to Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon. Hunt’s address? “The White House.”

What President Nixon tried to dismiss as a “third-rate burglary” pointed to conspiracy at the very highest levels of government. In September, the burglars and two co-plotters—Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, CREEP’s general counsel—were indicted on charges of burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping. After their convictions, Nixon’s aides, one after the other, began to talk.

All the President’s Men. Despite the arrests and early revelations, President Nixon won reelection, but soon after he began his second term, the Watergate conspiracy rapidly unraveled. As each of the “president’s men” gave testimony to federal authorities, the conspiracy tightened around Nixon’s inner circle. In February 1973, the Senate created an investigative committee headed by North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, Jr. As the Army-McCarthy Hearings had done two decades earlier, so the Watergate Hearings riveted Americans to their television sets. After each key disclosure, the president announced the resignation of an important aide, including John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, his closest advisors. Nixon’s counsel, John W. Dean III, was dismissed. Patiently, persistently, and with the cunning of a country lawyer educated at Harvard, the drawling Ervin elicited testimony revealing crimes far beyond Watergate:

that Mitchell controlled secret monies used to finance a campaign of forged letters and false news items intended to damage the Democratic party

that major U.S. corporations had made illegal campaign contributions amounting to millions

that Hunt and Liddy had in 1971 burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to discredit The Pentagon Papers whistle blower

that a plan existed to physically assault Ellsberg

that Nixon had promised the Watergate burglars clemency and even bribes in return for silence

that L. Patrick Gray, Nixon’s nominee to replace the recently deceased J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI, turned over FBI records on Watergate to White House counsel John Dean

that two Nixon cabinet members, Mitchell and Maurice Stans, took bribes from shady financier John Vesco

that illegal wiretap tapes were in the White House safe of Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman

that Nixon directed the CIA to instruct the FBI not to investigate Watergate

that Nixon used $ 10 million in government funds to improve his personal homes

that during 1969-70, the U.S. had secretly bombed Cambodia without the knowledge (let alone consent) of Congress

In the midst of all this turmoil, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was indicted for bribes he had taken as Maryland governor. He resigned as vice president in October 1973 and was replaced by Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan. Finally, it was revealed that President Nixon had covertly taped White House conversations; the tapes were subpoenaed, but the president claimed “executive privilege” and withheld them. Nixon ordered Elliot L. Richardson (who had replaced the disgraced John Mitchell as attorney general) to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. On October 20, 1973, Richardson refused and resigned in protest; his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, likewise refused and was fired. The duty to discharge Cox fell to Nixon’s solicitor general, Robert H. Bork, and this “Saturday night massacre” served only to suggest that Nixon had much to hide.

At length, the president released transcripts of some of the White House tapes (containing 18 1/2 minutes of suspicious gaps), and on July 27-30, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that Nixon be impeached on three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and attempting to impede the impeachment process by defying committee subpoenas. Nixon released the remaining tapes on August 5, 1974, which revealed that he bad taken steps to block the FBI’s inquiry into the Watergate burglary. On August 9, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign from office.

The Least You Need to Know

As World War I had produced in America a lost generation, so Vietnam spawned a youth counterculture movement, founded on idealism, rock music, sexual freedom, and “recreational” drugs.

      The turbulent Nixon years saw men land on the moon and the Cold War begin to thaw, but the era ended in the gravest national crisis since the Civil War.

Main Event. No generation was influenced more thoroughly by popular music than that of the 60s. The roots of rock may be found in African-American popular music, especially the blues, and was first popularized among white youngsters in the 1950s by a cadre of young pop performers, most notably Elvis Presley, who electrified the nation by his 1956 appearance on TV’s popular Ed Sullivan Show. But by the early 1960s, American rock had hit the doldrums and was losing its young audience.

Then in 1964, a quartet of “Mod”-clothed, mop-headed British teenagers calling themselves the Beatles toured the United States. Influenced by American rockers Chuck Berry and Presley, guitarists John Lennon and George Harrison, bass player Paul McCartney, and drummer Ringo Starr infused this American-born music with a new vitality, freshness, and electricity. Their 1964 tune, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” unleashed “Beatlemania” in this country and paved the way, first for a “British invasion” of other English bands and then for the development of a redefined American rock idiom.

Rock music became the ceaseless anthem of the decade., the beat of rebellion and of the solidarity of youth.

Word for the Day. D-lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD, LSD25, and acid, is a hallucinogenic drug discovered in 1943 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. LSD produces powerful sensory distortions, with visual (and sometimes auditory) hallucinations. In the 1960s, such LSD experiences were called acid trips and were thought to be mind or consciousness expanding.

Real Life. When Richard Nixon was buried at his boyhood home in Yorba Linda, California, following his death in 1994, the nation, almost in spite of itself, paid homage to a president who betrayed his oath of office—the only chief executive in U.S. history to resign office.

Born on January 9, 1913, Nixon overcame a financially pinched childhood and excelled in school, becoming a successful lawyer, then serving in the navy during World War II. Returning from the war, Nixon ran for Congress from California’s 12th district in 1946, handily winning after he attacked his Democratic opponent, Jerry Voorhis, as a communist. From that point on, Nixon focused on communism as his principal political theme. Reelected to the House in 1948, Nixon defeated Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in a 1956 Senate race, accusing her of communist leanings (“pink right down to her underwear”).

In 1952, the 39-year-old Nixon was tapped as running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower and served as vice president through Ike’s two terms. Nixon earned particular respect in 1955 when he effectively and confidently filled in for Eisenhower as the president recovered from a heart attack.

In 1960, Nixon became the Republican candidate for president, only to lose the election by a mere 100,000 votes to John F. Kennedy. Discouraged, Nixon ran for California governor two years later and was defeated, telling reporters that they wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

But Nixon returned as a presidential candidate in 1968, defeating Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey. As president, Nixon reached out to-the Soviet Union and China, beginning a gradual thaw in the Cold War. Through foreign policy advisor (later secretary of state) Henry Kissinger, Nixon engineered a painful U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. On the domestic front, he developed what he called the “New Federalism,” cutting back on federal programs and shifting power as well as responsibility back onto state and local governments.


The 1972 elections swept Nixon back into office for a second term; however, his campaign tactics involved a myriad of illegal activities, and, after a lengthy congressional inquiry, Nixon resigned office on August 9, 1974. He accepted a pardon from his successor, Gerald R. Ford, and spent the rest of his life writing works of autobiography and foreign policy. He died cloaked in the mantle of elder statesman.


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