When Robert Levering was a young antiwar organizer planning and training mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in late 1969, he never could have imagined one day finding out that he — and millions of others protesting across the country — had played a role in averting a possible nuclear attack.
At the time, the antiwar movement had just pulled off two of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. First was the one-day strike on Oct. 15, 1969, known as the Moratorium, which drew more than two million participants nationwide. Then, one month later, on Nov. 15, another half million people flooded the nation’s capital for the Mobilization.
Despite these successes, however, the war continued to rage on for several more years, making it easy for many of the record number of protesters to wonder if their actions were having any kind of impact. The ensuing decades, which saw movies and popular culture often denigrating or belittling the antiwar movement, did little to further a true understanding of its vital role in ending the war.
Now, over 50 years later, the astonishing evidence of what these historic protests accomplished is finally clear thanks to a new documentary film executive produced by Robert Levering called “The Movement and the ‘Madman.’”
By focusing on little-known declassified documents and testimonies from Richard Nixon’s own advisors, “The Movement and the ‘Madman’” uncovers the former president’s horrifying plans to escalate the war — which included nuclear weaponry — and how the antiwar movement stopped it all from ever happening.
With the film set to premiere on May 28 (at 9 p.m. EST) on the PBS series “American Experience,” I spoke to Levering — a frequent Waging Nonviolence contributor — about the process of making this documentary and how it’s presented in the style of a “political thriller.” Levering also honed in on the film’s important lessons for activists today — namely never losing hope in a movement’s ability to create change.
How did this film come about?
My life was not filmmaking. I started into the film world at age 75. And the first film that I worked on was “The Boys Who Said No,” which was about the draft resistance movement. I was one of the team of draft resisters, who basically gave advice and counsel to the director about shaping the film, accuracy and so on. While working on that film, I thought that it’s really a shame that there’s no film about the broad cross section of the antiwar movement, or the main part of the antiwar movement. There have been — in addition to this draft resistance movie — a couple of films about the GI resistance movement. And lord knows how many there have been about the Weather Underground, and then also about the Chicago Seven and the Chicago police riot in ’68. But there’s been nothing about the broader movement.
Initially, I started thinking that maybe it’s possible to actually do it — make one that tells the story of the antiwar movement. Well, we’re talking about a 90 minute or 60 minute movie, not an 800-page book. It’s just impossible to cover something that [took place] over a 10-year period. So, I thought about one of the stories I heard [renowned whistleblower and antiwar activist] Daniel Ellsberg mention a number of times when I’ve been with him, which is that, in 1969, the big demonstrations actually averted possible nuclear war, or use of nuclear weapons. I thought that would be an interesting story to focus on. Then I did more research for an article I wrote on Waging Nonviolence about the events of 1969, the two demonstrations: the Moratorium in October and the Mobilization in November. That’s when it became clear to me that there could be a film.
You also reviewed the Ken Burns Vietnam series for Waging Nonviolence around that time as well. Your analysis on what was missing from that must have inspired you to make this film as well.
That’s correct. The Ken Burn 18-hour series on PBS had just aired, and I wrote an article for Waging Nonviolence where I basically said it’s a great antiwar film — in that it depicted how fruitless and pointless the war was. I’d say probably half of the 18 hours showed battlefield scenes. At least that’s what I think most people come away remembering. However, the very small part of it that did talk about the antiwar movement was very negative, and it included some former antiwar people being critical of it. So, it was not a fair depiction.
How did you come to be involved in the antiwar movement?
I graduated from college in 1966, which was a terrible time if you were a healthy male, because the Vietnam War had cranked up and the draft calls were very high. All of my peers and I were very concerned about the military, about whether or not we’d have to go. Should we go? Should we go to Canada? Should we become conscientious objectors? The position I ultimately took was the draft resistance position — not to cooperate with Selective Service.
In addition to that, my profession until 1973, was that of an antiwar organizer. I was mostly working with the American Friends Service Committee and other Quaker groups. I worked basically on nonviolent training — both smaller civil disobedience demonstrations and larger demonstrations with coalitions. In 1969, I worked with the New Mobilization Committee. I was one of their staff members, and my particular function was the training of the marshals for [the Nov. 15 Mobilization demonstration]. My colleagues and I actually trained between 4,000-5,000 marshals [to serve as nonviolent peacekeepers during the demonstration].
Now that you’ve talked a bit about the movement, can you say a little bit about “the madman” and what that’s referring to?
The madman in our title is in quotes. We’re not saying Nixon was a madman. We’re saying he had a madman strategy, and that is what he himself called it. The strategy was basically: If he threatened the North Vietnamese and the Soviets with enough pain, they would cave and give in to the American demands. The film describes this in some detail with a number of people who were on the staffs of Nixon and [National Security Advisor] Henry Kissinger. [Nixon] at various points threatened the North Vietnamese and the Soviets that he would unleash great damage to their country. And the underlying thing, which one of Kissinger’s people says, is that he was threatening nuclear weapons against them, as well.
More than just making threats, however, he actually made specific plans — and we show the declassified documents for this plan, which was called Duck Hook, in the movie. He was planning to knock out the dikes in North Vietnam, which would have flooded the country and probably killed hundreds of thousands of people, as well as destroyed all the cities. The plan also included use of tactical nuclear weapons near the Chinese border, to knock out the rail links between China and Vietnam. So, it wasn’t just bluffing. Nixon even had a date for when he would unleash this plan: Nov. 1 1969.
Now, why didn’t it happen? It was because of the Moratorium demonstration on Oct. 15, 1969, which involved between two and three million people in 200-plus cities and campuses across the country. Nixon could see that this would undercut his threat. So he called it off — and that is not just a supposition on our part. He says it explicitly in his memoirs. He called it off because he believed that his credibility with the North Vietnamese wouldn’t be sufficient if he didn’t have the support of the American people.
What was it like for you and other activists to learn about your impact directly from Nixon in his memoirs?
Let me just clarify that, in his memoirs, Nixon says he called off a planned escalation of the war because of [the protests]. It wasn’t until more recently [through declassified documents] that we actually knew what he called off. So it wasn’t something that you could focus on that much. You couldn’t hang very much on it, because you didn’t know exactly what he was talking about. Now, we know exactly what he was talking about — and that’s what the film reveals. This will be the first time this whole story is being told to a mass audience.
You interviewed some 30 people for this film. Obviously, you can’t name them all here, but what are some of the names that stand out?
Let me just say that the film’s director, Steve Talbot, and I have spent our careers as journalists. I was a print journalist, and Steve was a documentary journalist. We both approached this story as journalists, trying to get the points of view of the main players of it. We weren’t trying to make a “movement” film. This is a film that’s meant to be a documentary of these events. So from a journalistic point of view, you don’t just talk to people that you agree with, you talk to a wide spectrum of people who — in addition to Ellsberg — had actually worked on Kissinger’s staff.
Two of the people we interviewed [Roger Morris and Anthony Lake] actually worked on the Duck Hook plans. So, they were intimately familiar with this. Another person we spoke to [Stephen Bull] was Nixon’s personal aide, and that’s a very important part of our film because we alternate between what was going on inside the White House and what was going on on the street. We tell both sides of the story.
Was there anything surprising that stood out to you from those interviews, where you learned something new?
Well, frankly, I’d only sort of generally heard what had happened. I didn’t understand what people who were actually working on the inside were thinking. So I thought it was very interesting [to learn their perspectives]. One of them [Morton Halperin] was real clear that he didn’t think the Vietnam War was winnable. Right from the time he started working with Kissinger he said that. And even though that was his opinion, and Kissinger knew it, he still worked on [the plan]. I think that was surprising. They realized how serious Kissinger and Nixon were about this madman strategy, because they were trying to implement it — or trying to create something that would scare the other side.
Did any of them acknowledge the impact of the movement?
I can’t say that I remember if they did. But one of the things that was very telling, which we have in the film, is that one of them [Anthony Lake], when the March Against Death was marching in front of the White House and the demonstrations were going on, said that his wife, children and friends were out there on the streets. He was in the White House, but would have preferred being out in the streets. I think that was probably the most surprising thing that I heard, and that’s a very important realization for people that are involved in nonviolent movements: You can’t assume that everybody on the other side is monolithic. There are a variety of opinions and sometimes people are much more sympathetic to you than you think they are. That’s probably the single most telling comment, in terms of something that’s important for people involved in social change movements. You just can’t assume that you’re not reaching people. The overall theme of the film is that we didn’t know until decades later what impact we had. But at the time, some of the individuals [on the other side] were very sympathetic to us.
What about the people from the movement you interviewed? Any takeaways that stand out to you?
There were four main Moratorium organizers, and one has passed away. We were very fortunate that we were able to interview the remaining three [Sam Brown, David Hawk and David Mixner]. So they tell the story of how the idea for a nationwide moratorium came about and just a lot of details, like who came up with the idea and why they changed it from the original idea of a general strike. We were also able to talk to two of the main organizers of the Mobilization, Cora Weiss and Dick Fernandez. Unfortunately, most of the other steering committee members have already passed away.
In addition to that, we talked to a number of people at my level of organizing — the rank-and-file organizers and participants. I also think it’s important that we talked to Congress members [Reps. Pete McCloskey and Donald Riegle] who reflected on the impact of the antiwar movement on Congress. I think only one of them is actually in the film, but we did talk to two of them. Then we also talked to about a half dozen historians who gave more context for what was going on.
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What challenges did you run into while making the film?
We did our first interviews in the fall of 2019, at a gathering of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee in Washington, speaking with a couple of historians and three people that were involved in the antiwar movement. Then, two months later — at the end of February — we interviewed Daniel Ellsberg. And then we all know what happened in March of 2020.
We had already begun to set up in-person, on-camera interviews with all of the people, as we had done for the first half dozen. But then, when it became clear that COVID wasn’t going to just blow over, we had to figure out another way of doing the interviews. So we decided to do audio only, which means that — in the film — you don’t see any of the people we interviewed as they are today. In the typical documentary film you almost always have whoever is being interviewed on camera, and then you go to archival footage. You sort of go back and forth through the present day to the past. But by doing it the way that we did this film, you are always looking at something that was in the past. Aesthetically, this was something we’re very pleased with.
Our director, Steve Talbot, was influenced by the Peter Jackson film “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which is about World War I. It’s a very powerful movie, and it’s audio only. Jackson used interviews with people that fought in the war. So, the whole idea is that people will feel like they are immersed in that year, 1969. All of the archival footage, the photographs, everything, is from 1969.
And if I could just add one other thing: Part of what we had in mind was to do what you could call a political thriller. That’s not so easy to do if you’re constantly jerking back and forth [between archival footage and interviews].
It’s rare to see a film focused on a movement on national television.
Other movements have gotten a lot of primetime coverage — in particular, the civil rights movement and the women’s suffrage movement. But not the Vietnam antiwar movement, even though it was larger in terms of the number of participants, its scope, and its duration, at least in comparison to the main part of the civil rights movement. Both the Moratorium and the Mobilization were by far the largest political demonstrations that ever happened to that date in American history. So it was a huge movement, a very significant movement. For people who are of my age, it was definitely central to our lives. There were just over 2 million men who actually served in Vietnam. Meanwhile, according to “The Boys Who Said No,” there were about a half million who resisted the draft in one form or another. There were actually more people on the streets in October 1969 than served in Vietnam during the entire 10 years of the war. It was massive, and that was just one day. There were demonstrations over a 10-year period. So it was a huge movement, and yet there were virtually no films made about it.
How does that make you feel on a personal level to be able to get this film aired on PBS, the same outlet that aired the Ken Burns series?
Well, of course I’m delighted. But more than just my personal reaction, it’s really important to change the narrative about the Vietnam antiwar movement. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were a whole lot of films that were very disparaging of it, like the Rambo films and “Forrest Gump.” The scenes from the antiwar movement, they’re just caricatures.
Unfortunately, what people remember most is the Chicago demonstrations. Yet, most of the antiwar movement didn’t go to Chicago. I was there. So I know. There were maybe 5,000-10,000, at most. And that was after the Pentagon demonstration the year before, when there were over 100,000 people. But that’s not what people talk about. They talk about what happened in Chicago, about the Yippies, the police riot and so on. That’s one image. The other one has to do with the Weather Underground, about the bombings and that kind of thing. And then there’s the way the right wing of the country has cultivated things like the idea that antiwar people spit on servicemen when they came back from Vietnam. That’s an image many, many people have. There’s actually a great book on the subject called “Spitting Image” that refutes the whole thing. But it’s still what sticks in people’s minds.
The idea that the antiwar movement was something that involved millions of people from all walks of life [just isn’t talked about]. I think our film really shows a whole other side of what was going on. So, I’m delighted that we’re helping to rewrite the narrative.
To what extent does the film get into the specifics of organizing?
The film shows a variety of ways that people were involved in trying to make a massive movement, and how it doesn’t just start on the day of the demonstration — that there’s a lot of planning and training that went into it. Because of the length of the movie, we couldn’t get into a lot of the details. But I think that people get a good sense of what it took to pull off these huge demonstrations. The overall theme of the movie is that you never know what impacts you’re going to have at the time.
It’s so common that after a big rally or march, or almost anything, people feel as if no change happened — that it didn’t have any impact. But in this case, because the documents are declassified, and information has come out, we know what kind of impact we had. That’s a very rare thing. It’s not something that happens fast either, particularly when the stakes are so high.
If you look at all of human history, the Vietnam antiwar movement is one of the very few massive movements within a country at war. Throughout American history, when there have been actions against wars, the people opposing the war have been squashed. That’s certainly what happened in World War I. It’s just a very unusual thing that we were able to do what we did — to be able to build as massive a movement as we could. Look at what’s going on with Ukraine. It’s not even our country involved, and the war hysteria in this country is off the charts. That’s what happens when countries are at war. Patriotism to a lot of people means that they need to fall in line, support our troops. That opposition was true at the beginning of the Vietnam War, but we were able to overcome that.
What can those organizing against war and militarism today learn from this story?
I think any social change movement can learn from this. The biggest hurdle that a lot of people have is that they feel helpless. They feel like they’re not having any effect, that it’s easy to become cynical. But you have to have hope in order to keep at it year after year after year — particularly when you’re up against a major opponent.
“The Movement and the ‘Madman’” will be available for streaming on PBS.org during and after the broadcast.
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