Once upon a time, the protesters outside the White House, the Department of Justice and all across Washington D.C., were mostly lefties and liberals of one stripe or another. For a decade they—or should I say “we”— raised voices and put bodies on the line against the War in Vietnam, which seemed to have no end, though Nixon claimed he had a secret plan to terminate the conflict. He lied. In fact, he had secret plans to widen the war, and to use nuclear weapons to stop the so-called dominoes from falling and to prevent Vietnam from going communist.
Now, nearly 50 years after the end of the War in Vietnam, anti-war activists and organizers are reliving it, rethinking it, and experiencing it virtually all over again. In December 2020, radicals both old and young, gathered on Zoom to discuss The War at Home, a documentary by Glenn Silber that focuses on the decade-long protests that took place in Madison, Wisconsin and that targeted the Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured the napalm used against the Vietnamese.
The Madison movement, which aimed to “make war” against the war makers themselves, culminated in August 1970 with the bombing at the Army Mathematics Research Center that led to the accidental death of Robert Fassnacht, a physicist. Karleton Armstrong, one of the bombers, appears on camera in The War at Home, as does former Madison mayor and anti-war activist, Paul Soglin who provides commentary and continuity.
Steve Talbot has probably covered the Sixties in depth, more often and more creatively than any other living American filmmaker. His up-and-coming documentary, The Movement and the Madman, examines the big protests in Washington D.C. in November 1969, one of the peak moments in the movement to stop the war. It’s scheduled for release in the summer of 2021. Nixon is, of course “The Madman,” though he surrounded himself with others no less mad and maddening, including Henry Kissinger.
Talbot made his first film, March on Washington, which is about the anti-war movement, in 1969-1970, with friends when they were students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After all these years, that film still packs a wallop. It might bring tears to your eyes if you’re nostalgic about the Sixties.
In 1971, Talbot went on to make DC III, a documentary about the soldiers who belonged to Vietnam Veterans Against the War and who threw away their medals in a public ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Year of the Tiger, from 1974, traces Talbot’s own visit to North Vietnam, after the peace agreement was signed and POWs came home after they were long held captive. That 1974 documentary shows the damage that Vietnam and the Vietnamese suffered after years of bombings and the widespread use of napalm by the U.S. Talbot also made a documentary for PBS called 1968: The Year that Shaped a Generation, which also covers the Vietnam War and protests against it.
“As you can tell, this is a story I can’t let go of,” Talbot wrote in an email to me. He added that ”Nixon and his aides were devoted to the idea that the anti-war movement was being directed by the Russians.” He added, “They used informers, phone taps, and provocateurs to infiltrate, report on, and disrupt the anti-war movement. In 1970, members of the National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State.”
If there is a single message to The Movement and the Madman it’s that organizing and protests can and do make a difference. The November 1969 demonstrations in Washington, which is at the heart of Talbot’s newest documentary, helped to persuade Nixon not to expand the war at that particular juncture. Later, he did what he claimed he would not do. The bombings, the carnage and the wanton destruction spilled into Cambodia and generated more protests in the U.S., including the “Mayday” demonstrations in Washington, D.C. in 1971, when more than 12,000 people were arrested, many of them detained behind fences at RFK stadium. Most were not charged with a crime after they were released.
Talbot was one of them. His participation, he feels, has helped him, rather than hindered him as a filmmaker. Indeed, March on Washington, DC III, Year of the Tiger and 1968 are intensely personal as well as profoundly political, impassioned and polemical. The Movement and the Madman might well provide yet another kind of closure to the war and to the anti-war movement.
Talbot began his career in film in front of the camera. He played Gilbert Bates for 56 episodes on the series, Leave it to Beaver, and became a household name and face. Not long ago, he observed, “I have spent my adult life trying to conceal my Leave It to Beaver past or correcting the historical record.” Perhaps if Leave it to Beaver had lived until the 1960s, Gilbert, like Talbot, would have reinvented himself as an anti-war activist.
What makes Talbot unique among documentary filmmakers in part is his dedication to investigative journalism, along with his passion for literature and American writers, from Dashiell Hammett and Ken Kesey to Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of China Men, and who edited Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, an anthology with writings by soldiers who fought in Vietnam. As a seasoned member of the anti-war movement, and also as a doyen for peace, Talbot has aimed to honor a generation of Americans who would not remain silent and allow the U.S. government to bomb, torture, and commit genocide in its name. The Movement and the Madman might not be Talbot’s last film about a subject that won’t let go of him, but it’s a capstone to a cinematic career that has celebrated ordinary and extraordinary citizens from all walks of life who have known that democracy is something one does and that doesn’t just happen automatically, whether in Washington, D.C. or towns, villages and cities all across America.