I assume everyone knows that he went on to win one of the biggest landslide election victories in history right?
The President was glad for a politically useful distraction. On March 29, after the longest court-martial trial in history, Lieut. William "Rusty" Calley was convicted of murder by a jury of his military peers.
When Calley had first been called to Washington in June of 1969, he thought it was to receive a medal. He was shocked to learn it was for a court martial: "It seemed like the silliest thing I had ever heard of. Murder." It betokened a national confusion. At the trial his defense lawyer said, "This boy's a product of a system, a system that dug him up by the roots, took him out of his home community, put him in the Army, taught him to kill, sent him overseas to kill, gave him mechanical weapons to kill, got him over there and ordered him to kill." He argued that the decision to scapegoat Calley went all the way up the chain of command--better to indict a lieutenant, shut down this whole embarrassment incident as neatly as possible, than the entire system of "pacification" and "free fire zones" and "search and destroy missions" itself. He tried to call Defense Secretary Laird as a witness. The judge overruled him.
The argument was lent support by the fate of Calley's commander, Major General Samuel Koster. Koster had witnessed the massacre from his observation helicopter and complained only that they weren't recovering enough enemy weapons. He signed off on an Army report that noncombatants had been "inadvertently killed...in the cross fires of U.S. and V.C. forces." After the Army's investigation into the My Lai massacre, he suffered a mere reduction of a grade in rank. Everyone else involved ended up acquitted or with their charges dropped.
Calley stood ramrod straight at his sentencing and mewled in a breaking voice about his victimhood: "Yesterday, you stripped me of all my honor. Please, by your actions that you take here today, don't strip future soldiers of their honor." He was sentenced to life at hard labor. You didn't have to construe Calley a put-upon innocent to conclude that something stunk. "Calley Verdict: Who Else Is Guilty?" read Newsweek's cover line. "Who Shares the Guilt?" asked Time.
John Kerry, the VVAW spokesman, had an answer: "We are all of us in this country guilty for having allowed the war to go on. We only want this country to realize that it cannot try a Calley for something which generals and Presidents and our way of life encouraged him to do. And if you try him, then at the same time you must try all those generals and Presidents and soldiers who have part of the responsibility. You must in fact try this country." It was a common conclusion of liberals: Senators Ribicoff and Hatfield, the New Yorker, Telford Taylor, a prosecutor of Nazis at Nuremberg and the author of Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.
But that was what the Communists were saying, too, conservatives observed. And if Calley was their villain, he must be our hero.
The VFW's national commander Herbert Rainwater led the way: "There have been My Lais in every war. Now for the first time we have tried a soldier for performing his duty." A little Mormon boy in Utah, Timmy Poppleton, wrote his senator begging him to intervene: "I'm only eight years old, but I know that Lieut. Calley was defending our freedoms against Communism." His mother--many mothers--had explained that the villagers of My Lai must have done something to deserve it. Joseph Alsolp agreed. The hawkish one of the columnizing brothers complained in his second column after the verdict about what his editors did to his first one: "by no fault of this reporter, the persons Lt. Calley was convicted of killing were miscalled 'civilians.'.... These victims from My Lai in fact came from a 'combat hamlet' of a 'combat village.' From about the age of four on up, all persons in a 'combat village,' of both sexes, are trained to kill. by the iron rules of the Viet Cong, if they do not follow their training, they are killed themselves after one of the VC kangaroo-trials."
The American Legion post at Columbus, Georgia, home of Fort Benning, pitched in a promise they would raise $100,000 to help fund Calley's appeal "or die trying": "The real murderers are the demonstrators in Washington who disrupt traffic, tear up public property, who deface the American flag. Lieut. Calley is a hero. He's an all-American. He fought for us in a country where Communism is still trying to take over. We should be proud of him. We should elevate him to saint rather than jail him like a common criminal." Calley was now Columbus's favorite son. At a revival at the football stadium, the Rev. Michael Lord pronounced, "There was a crucifixion 2,000 years ago of a man named Jesus Christ. I don't think we need another crucifixion of man named Rusty Calley."
Entrepreneurs stood at attention. "Free Calley" stickers managed to blossom on car bumpers within 24 hours, like toadstools after a spring rain. A Nashville record producer slapped a solemn recitation as if in William Calley's voice over a backing track of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and moved 200,000 45-rpm records in a day and a million in a week:
While we were fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street
While we're dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat
While we're facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat
As we go marching on...
When I reach my final campground in that land beyond the sun
And the great commander asks me, 'Did you fight or did you run?'
I'll stand both straight and tall stripped of medals, rank and gun
And this is what I'll say:
Sir, I followed all my orders and I did the best I could
It's hard to judge the enemy and hard to tell the good
Yet there's not a man among us would not have understood
We took the jungle village exactly like they said
We responded to their rifle fire with everything we had
And when the smoke had cleared away a hundred souls lay dead...
There's no other way to wage a war when the only one in sight
That you're sure is not a VC is your buddy on the right...
Glory, glory hallelujah, glory, glory hallelujah...
And radio stations played the silent majority's "Four Dead in Ohio" over and over again, only pausing in between to call for donations to Rusty Calley's defense fund, as respectable editorialists stood aghast. "We responded to their rifle fire"? A jury of six decorated combat veterans had ruled there had been none. "For the first time we have tried a soldier for performing his duty"? The stockades were full of soldiers and Marines tried for killing Vietnamese captives in combat. "The only difference," wrote William Greider, who covered the four-and-a-half month trial in the Washington Post, "is that, instead of 22 people, most of them killed only one or two." The Wall Street Journal pointed out, "This is a young man duly convicted of taking unarmed prisoners entirely at his mercy, throwing them in a ditch, and shooting them. Is this nation really to condone such an act, as a strange coalition of super-patriots seems to urge?" The Washington Star said "the day this country goes on record as saying that unarmed civilian men, women, and children of any race are fair game for wanton murder, that will be the day that the United States forfeits all claims to any moral leadership of this world." Scott Reston, in the Newspaper of Record, wondered whether "somebody were going to propose giving Lieutenant Calley the Congressional Medal of Honor."
Above and beyond all the commotion, Nixon spied simple commonality: super-patriots and peace were on the same side.
The White House had done its polling. 78 percent disagreed with Calley's conviction and sentence; 51 percent wanted him exonerated outright. Within 24 hours the White House got 100,000 telegrams, calls, and letters. They were 100 to one for Calley's release. Meanwhile the President's handling of Vietnam in general he was heading into Lyndon Johnson territory: 41 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval. On March 30 the White House alerted the media that on March 7 the President would go on TV to announce more troop cuts. Then they got to work exploiting Calley.
Nixon delegated the legal questions to John Dean's office. Overnight his staff became experts on military law. The conclusion: the conviction was by the book, the sentence would likely be reduced on appeal, the President was extremely limited in his power to intervene, and that any White House interference mitigating "a gross violation of the customary law of war" could have a domino effect weakening the good order of the military justice system.
Military justice be damned. Nixon conferred with his new favorite political enforcer John Connally. He complained to Haldeman and Ehrlichman the "lawyers provide no political gain for us on the argument." It was Chuck Colson who came up with his first move: he could immediately order Calley released from the stockade until his appeal was decided. On April 1 President made the call to Admiral Moorer. "That's the one place where they say, 'Yes, Sir,' instead of 'Yes, but,'" he pronounced with satisfaction. The action was announced at the House of Representatives; the floor broke out in spontaneous applause (the President was so proud of the response he noted it in his memoirs).
And a man convicted by fellow Army officers of slaughtering 22 civilians was released on his own recognizance to the splendiferous bachelor pad he had rented with the fat proceeds of his defense fund, as featured in a November 1970 Esquire feature laid out like a Better Homes & Gardens spread--padded bar, groovy paintings, and comely girlfriend, who along with a personal secretary and a mechanical letter opener helped him answer some 2,000 fan letters a day.
April 2, in San Clemente, the leader of the Free World allotted almost a full day for discussion of l'affaire Calley (save for three hours with the governor of California to try to talk him down from sabotaging the Family Assistance Program as part of Reagan's "all-out war on the tax taker"). White House polls showed 96 percent of the public was following the case, the highest they'd recorded on any subject. They had to move: it was time for some virtuoso difference-splitting. The Old Man ordered a course "on the basis of what does us most good"--anything to to buck up his approval rating to end Vietnam "our way." Ehrlichman summarized the final recommendation: "The President does nothing"--in a way that strongly hinted at a future pardon.
At the next day's morning briefing Ron Ziegler said before any sentence was carried out the President would "personally review the case and finally decide it." Ehrlichman took the podium: this "extralegal ingredient" was appropriate in a case which had "captured the interest of the American people," and which required "more than simply the technical, legal review which the Code of Military Justice provides." The officers involved in the appeal, he reassured the press, would be in no way influenced by their Commander in Chief.
The political reviews were stellar. Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the "Conscience of the Senate," released a statement: "I think the President performed a very wise and useful service to his nation.... it was impressively evident that the President caused many Americans to pause in their judgement, to gain perspective, and to replace emotion with reason." Senator Robert Taft (whom Nixon called in other contexts a "son of a bitch...peacenik") said he had restored the morale of the military. The White House's private polling showed his actions found favor with 75 percent of the American people. Only 17 percent disagreed.
The legal reviews were not so salubrious. Privately, Secretary Laird complained, "Intervention in the Calley case repudiates the military justice system." Publicly, the case's prosecutor, Captain Aubrey Daniel, wrote the President, in a four-page single-spaced letter made available by Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern's office, "The greatest tragedy of all will be if political expedience dictates the compromise of such a fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent persons." Bill Greider asked in the Post: "Should it open the doors at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and release all the other soldiers convicted of the same offense as Calley?"
Then there were those enraged the President hadn't gone nearly far enough. On the front page of The New York Times on April 4, one of the Green Berets charged but never tried for killing a Vietnamese civilian, Robert F. Marasco, now a life insurance salesman in New Jersey, announced he had carried out murder on "very, very clear orders" from the CIA. "He was my agent and it was my responsibility to eliminate him with extreme prejudice."
John Dean once more proved his usefulness to the President by crafting the White House's subsequent talking point: in such ongoing legal cases, "it would be improper and inappropriate for White House staff members to make any comments or statements."
That would turn off some problems. Secretary Laird, Colonel Daniel, Robert F. Marasco, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and all the rest would have to howl in the wilderness.
Luckily for the President the Post and Times weren't howling as loudly as they might. Two days later, on April 5, Senator Hatfield read the "Winter Soldier" testimony from Detroit into the Congressional Record. He stated on the floor that they revealed "the institutionalized racist attitudes of the military in the training of men who are sent to Vietnam--training which has indoctrinated them to think of all Vietnamese as 'gooks' and subhuman," and that atrocities were the consequences of "policies adopted by our military commanders." If the Times had reported on it readers would have learned about, from SP/4 Gary Keyes, the time "there were some fishermen out on the ocean and a couple of our sergeants thought it would be good sport to use them as target practice"; or of Marine Sergeant Scott Camil, whose buddy, when a woman one of their snipers shot asked for water, "stabbed her in both breasts, they spread her eagle and shoved an E-tool up her vagina, an entrenching tool, and she was still asking for water. And then they took that out and they used a tree limb and then she was shot." Or the prisoner of war interrogator, Lt. Jon Drolshagan--discharged soldiers bravely using their names and stepping up publicly didn't risk court martial any more, just ostracization from their communities--who described one of their "normal things": "The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners, utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of filleting them like a fish. You know, trying to check out how much bacon he could make of a Vietnamese body to get information."
The Times did, however, run a sentimental story on Nixon's latest appeal to the silent majority.
He went on TV Wednesday, April 7 from the Oval Office at 9 PM (first he read a handwritten note from Henry Kissinger: "Because you go on tonight I want you to have this note to tell you that--no matter what the result--free people everywhere will be forever in your debt. Your serenity during crisis, your steadfastness under pressure have been all that has prevented the triumph of mass hysteria. It has been an inspiration to serve").
The speech was the usual: it announced a dizzying new pace of troop withdrawals; included the selective historical review, the optimistic assessment ("tonight I can report that Vietnamization has succeeded.... Look again at their chart on my left. Every action taken by this administration, every decision made, has accomplished what I said it would accomplish"); the affirmation of the selflessness of the American effort ("never in history have men fought for less selfish motives--not for conquest, not for glory, but only for the right of a people far away to choose the kind of government they want"); the mournful lament that the only roadblock to progress was the recalcitrance of the enemy negotiators in the face of generous American offers, the wild-eyed insanity of setting a date for withdrawal ("we will have thrown away our political bargaining counter to win the release of American prisoners of war...we will have given enemy commanders the exact information they need to marshal their attacks against our remaining forces at their most vulnerable time.... Shall we leave Vietnam in a way that--by our own actions--consciously turns the country over to the Communists?"). He again mobilized the trope of shame as cheap shot at those who argued for a different way ("I know there are those who honestly believe that I should move to end this war without regard to what happens in South Vietnam. This way would abandon our friends. But even more important, we would abandon ourselves.... We would lose respect for this nation, respect for one another, respect for ourselves").
Then finally, as ever, he wound up for the sentimental dénoumente. Which this time was a masterpiece. "While we hear and read much of isolated acts of cruelty, we do not hear enough of the tens of thousands of individual American soldiers--I have seen them there--building schools, roads, hospitals, clinics, who, through countless acts of generosity and kindness, have tried to help the people of South Vietnam. We can and we should be very proud of these men. They deserve not our scorn, but they deserve our admiration and our deepest appreciation...."
His voice took on a honeyed Norman Rockwell tone.
"The reason I am so deeply committed to peace goes far beyond political considerations or my concern about my place in history, or the other reasons that political scientists usually say are the motivations of Presidents.
"Every time I talk to a brave wife of an American POW, every time I write a letter to the mother of a boy who has been killed in Vietnam, I become more deeply committed to end this war, and to end it in a way that we can build lasting peace."
(You cared about peace because you cared about those brave Americas left behind in the Hanoi Hilton. They, on the other hand, do not.)
"I think the hardest thing that a President has to do is present posthumously the nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor, to mothers or fathers or widows of men who have lost their lives"--he was nearly whispering--"but in the process have saved the lives of others."
This was a rhetorical gambit. It let him end with a story about little Kevin: the Checkers of 1971.
"We had an award ceremony in the East Room of the White House just a few weeks agao. And at that ceremony I remember one of the recipients, Mrs.--Karl--Taylor.
"He charged an enemy machine gun single-handed and knocked it out. He lost his life. But in the process the lives of several wounded Marines in the range of that machine gun were saved.
"After I presented her the Medal, I shook hands with their two children, Karl, Jr.--he was 8 years old--and Kevin, who was 4. As I was about to move to the next recipient, Kevin suddenly stood at attention and saluted."
"I found it rather difficult to get my thoughts together."
His voice deepened.
"My fellow Americans, I want to end this war in a way that is worthy of the sacrifice of Kevin Taylor."
He was speaking very slowly.
"And I think he would want me to end it in a way that would increase the chances that Kevin and Karl, and all those children like them here and around the world, could grow up in a world where none of them would have to die in a war; that would increase the chance of Americans to have what it has not had in this century--a full generation of peace."