Forty years ago, the United States took a very ugly turn as President Richard Nixon escalated the war in Indochina by invading Cambodia, prompting angry college protests, including a confrontation at Kent State which ended with National Guardsmen killing four students on May 4, 1970.
With Nixon denouncing protesters as "bums," the President's "silent majority" was pitted against an increasingly radicalized anti-war movement. Parents turned against their own children, and "hardhats" spat on "hippies." Fissures opened in U.S. society that have never entirely closed.
However, those troubled times also marked the Republican discovery of a winning political strategy: exploit wedge issues. Along with Nixon's Southern Strategy, which manipulated racial tensions to draw white Southerners into the GOP, the bitter divisions around the Vietnam War opened the way toward a broader "culture war," which attracted many working-class Americans.
Today, looking at the consequences from the resulting Republican political dominance over much of the past four decades weakened labor unions, rampant deregulation, a shrinking American middle class, a swelling national debt, endless foreign wars, crimped civil liberties, and a deeply polarized electorate the question must be: did it all have to happen?
And the answer is no. Though little known to the American people and almost never discussed by mainstream journalists or popular historians it's now clear that the Vietnam War was on the verge of ending a year and a half before the Kent State killings.
President Lyndon Johnson, who had decided not to seek reelection so he could concentrate on ending the war, was much closer to his goal than has been generally understood. In the closing weeks of 1968, Paris peace talks were expected to finalize an agreement with North Vietnam that would lead to a U.S. military pullout.
Johnson's optimism about this settlement can be heard in now-public audiotapes of his conversations with other top U.S. politicians. But in the final days of the 1968 campaign, Johnson became aware of an unexpected roadblock secret contacts between Nixon campaign operative Anna Chennault and South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu, promising him a better deal if he derailed LBJ's peace talks.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican political maneuver. His frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon's campaign and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2 just three days before the election Johnson telephones Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Johnson lays out some of the evidence and asks Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
"The agent [Chennault] says she's just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election," Johnson said in an apparent reference to a Nixon campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. "We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We're pretty well informed at both ends."
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the information.
"I don't want to get this in the campaign," Johnson said, adding: "They oughtn't be doing this. This is treason."
Dirksen responded, "I know."
Johnson continued: "I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don't want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they're doing. I know who they're talking to. I know what they're saying."
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward peace in Paris had contributed to a lull in the battlefield violence.