Watching Steve Talbot’s new documentary, The Movement and the “Madman,” reminded me of my own opposition to war, and also that over the past 75-years, US soldiers have gone into battle and died on distant battlefields in Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. I began to demonstrate against war in Harlem, N.Y. in 1964, where I heard balladeer Phil Ochs sing, later at the Pentagon in 1967, and in Washington D.C. in 1969 and in 1971 during the May Day protests when our slogan was, “If the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.”
I watched on TV when helicopters hovered above the U.S. embassy in Saigon and when the National Liberation Front liberated the city. In 1995 I visited Hanoi, met Vietnamese generals and old soldiers who had fought against France at Dien Bien Phu. War has been an integral part of my entire life.
No war since World War II has captured the hearts, minds and imaginations of Americans more than the War in Vietnam, which the Vietnamese call “The American War” to distinguish it from their wars of independence with the Japanese and the French.
Steve Talbot, the veteran San Francisco-based filmmaker, and a child actor long ago on the TV show, Leave it to Beaver, has crafted five inspiring movies about Vietnam the war, Vietnam the country and Vietnam the iconic place that has gave birth to a “syndrome” and to popular films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, plus Ken Burns 18-hour PBS doc that hasn’t pleased “hawks,” “doves,“ “peaceniks” and defiant protesters who shouted “Bring the war home.”
Talbot made his first Vietnam movie as a college student in the Sixties who trekked to Washington D.C., and, with school mates, cried out for peace. That first film is probably his most overtly personal expression, though his own impassioned personality infuses the docs he’s made about Bay Area writers Maxine Hong Kingston and Dashiell Hammett.
Talbot’s fifth and most recent Vietnam film,The Movement and the “Madman,” focuses on a bittersweet moment in the fall of 1969 when demonstrators called Nixon’s bluff (or was it an insane threat?) to use atomic weapons in South East Asia, which would have resulted in the death of millions of people and escalated the Cold War. The word “madman” is in quotation marks in the title of the film to make it clear that it’s not used as a medical diagnosis. It’s what Nixon himself in private called his military theory of threatening nuclear war.
A catastrophe of global proportions was averted in 1969, though U.S. forces would soon invade Laos and Cambodia and go on bombing North Vietnam. Indeed, the war would continue until 1973, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed. All the fighting would not really end until 1975. In 1973, Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho would be awarded the Nobel Prize, though Le Duc understandably declined to accept it. Giving the award to Kissinger, a war criminal if ever there was one, stands out to this day as an obscenity.
Now, 50 years after that prize—with a mad man in the Kremlin, young Russians fleeing from their own country in droves rather than fight in Ukraine—Vietnam takes on renewed emotional and historical significance as a pivotal event in a world once eager to end death and dying in places like the aptly named “Hamburger Hill,” where American soldiers were “processed” in combat as though they were so much raw meat.
With political savvy and artistic sophistication, Talbot honors the New Mobilization Committee to End the War on Vietnam, or MOBE—the largest and most inclusive of peace groups— and gives credit to peace movement foot soldiers such as Margery Tabankin and Frank Joyce who are not widely known or remembered today.
Inevitably and unavoidably, Talbot also omits some key players. Not on the screen in TheMovement and the “Madman” are the zany Yippies who claimed they levitated the Pentagon, nor the confrontational Weathermen who staged the riotous Days of Rage in Chicago in October 1969. (Weatherman Bill Ayers makes a very brief appearance. Yippie Jerry Rubin is on screen for a few moments).
Still, Talbot has mined and skillfully edited archival footage that shows clean-shaven college students, middle class men and women as well as union officials such as Walter Reuther, who believed in democracy and free speech and went out on a limb to affiliate the UAW with the youthful protesters. In The Movement and the “Madman” viewers see American citizens holding candlelight vigils, marching peacefully from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House, and gathering in public places to read the names and to honor the lives of Americans who died in Vietnam.
For those who were alive in the Sixties and remember that era, it will probably be heartening to hear peace activist Cora Weiss, one of the founders of Women’s Strike for Peace, call for a demonstration that would be safe enough for children to attend. The doc will likely be bone chilling for both Sixties veterans and today’s foes of global violence to learn that the Nixon administration borrowed the golf term “duck hook” to describe a planned military strategy, as though Vietnam was merely a sporting event.
John Ehrlichman, a member of Nixon’s inner circle, appears on screen as the heavy he played in real life and who made war on the anti-war movement. It’s a sobering moment in The Movement and the “Madman” when Ehrlichman has the audacity to speak with a German accent and threaten to arrest everyone who dares to defy his boss. He also intimates he’ll out anti-war gay men who are in the closet. Talbot has also resurrected footage of Pete Seeger strumming his banjo and rallying the faithful, John Lennon and Yoko Ono harmonizing, Crosby, Stills and Nash inspiring listeners and Credence Clearwater rocking the crowd. Clearly, the protesters had the best songs. Hawkish Henry Kissinger joins the list of Nixon notables on screen who tried to ignore Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame who announced recently at the age of 91 that he was dying of cancer. They also closed their minds to the likes of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, plus star right-handed pitcher, Tom Seaver, who said, “If the Mets can win the World Series, the US can get out of Vietnam.” Joan Libby, a peace movement stalwart, expresses the sentiments of a generation or two when she observed that for her protesting against the war was “a matter of conscience.”
Talbot has done his own conscience proud and honored the Americans who redeemed the red, white and blue patriotism of their ancestors when they made common cause with the Vietnamese who would not give up the desire to be a free and independent nation, though they were shot, killed, napalmed, corralled in “tiger cages” and their villages burned. The Movement and the “Madman” mightbe screened from Kyiv to Moscow, San Francisco to Hanoi, and wherever the flame of peace flickers under the terror of drones or burns brightly in night skies. All honors to citizens around the world who would rather make love than war, or make loaves not war as the slogan reads at my neighborhood worker owned and operated bakery, Arizmendi.
Steve Talbot’s New Vietnam Doc, The Movement and the “Madman.” Debuts on KQED March 28 and streaming on PBS.org