The War, the Scandal, the Nixon Years

A Review of Observing the Nixon Years
by Jonathan Schell

Author Biography

Jonathan Schell graduated was a writer for the New Yorker, which was one of his first jobs as a journalist. He was 25 at the time that he started writing for the New Yorker and further went to write about many other books for the things which he was passionate about. His most well known book was The Fate of the Earth.

The Nixon years comprised a time of cultural change: the social standard no longer existed; the events that took place defined the time; and the men who brought America through those times, constructed the image of the sixties. Jonathan Schell observed every political happening between 1969-1975 in his Observing the Nixon Years – “Notes and comments” on the Vietnam War and Watergate Crisis. Schell’s book covered the time with week-to-week journalistic editorials, which captured the events of the time period as William Shawn noted, a “ monumental project that he would sustain over a period of six years.”1 Schell aptly captured the flow of history in which history does indeed repeat itself. Schell offers an educated view on how the events of the sixties affected the lives of Americans, even to this day.

Schell starts his first publication on Feb, 1 1969, and except for a short introduction which outlines the structure of the book, there is no outside commentary. His book outlined, in journal-like entries, each week in succession as the events surrounding Vietnam War seemed to outlasting its time. Schell analyzed Nixon’s call to withdraw troops form South Vietnam and showed his disappointment with the lag of time between the call to return home and when the actual actions occur. Further analysis showed that the government’s habit of saying one thing and doing another, was expanding the credibility. The government refused to see the war as it actually was, the administration futilely used propaganda with population whom no longer responded to the government’s attempts at appeasement. Schell noted that the American public had fallen into the dangerous habit of “judging events that involve the Vietnamese as well as ourselves only in the light of our own intentions.”2 Schell brought in all points of view to coincide with a final objective view of the Vietnam War. He concluded the battles the government had been waging with the press for rights of publications, and exposure of the deepest secrets that the government, only sought to take advantage of the people. Horrific events such as the attempt to cover up the massacre at My Lai, proved that the government wanted to keep its citizens naïve.

Furthermore, Schell dealt with the largest issues at hand. He noted the disorganization within the government and saw that many of the ways that the government chose to disclose information to the people was creating a larger and larger credibility gap. Countless times, Schell exposed the vocabulary the government used when it tried to hide the real purpose behind a certain massacre or military expedition; they did this by attaching a scientific sounding name to confuse the public. Schell accused the president of using these terms to confuse the people, and noted that “apparently… when he uses code words, ‘peace with honor’. ‘Honor’ here means wining.”3 Schell often referred to the United States as a gentle giant, and at times when he became discouraged with the war, he mournfully referred to the United States as a pitiful helpless giant. According to Schell, this giant of a nation was stuck fighting a war in which it had no way to win with peace. Eventually the issue of the war began to drag on too long and the government decided that it would act as if the war was not even going on anymore. It became more engaged in other issues such as American democracy, nuclear threats, and the environment. As the war dragged to a close and withdrawal and negotiations began between the Nixon and the newly formed Vietnamese government, Senator McCarthy and others began the anti communist craze that strikes a fear in the public, which revived the war effort and the fight against the communists. To rally support against the communist regime, Nixon began to refer to the communist as an evil “they”. The American public accepted this as Nixon finally attained the peace with honor that the government had so longed after.

As the war became outdated and the troops returned home, another crisis struck the nation. This time it hit home, as the president of the United States was allegedly involved in a spying conspiracy. Schell noted that the American public was in disbelief that the Commander in Chief would commit such a horrendous crime and Schell further said that what the president did was beyond just any normal crime. His acts of wire tapping had created a sense of fear that was similar to the red scare that Senator McCarthy prompted by just a few years earlier. The issue caught the American public off guard, as Schell noted, “the issue once again…has to do with freedom. This time it is not Constitutional freedom. It is simply the freedom to be oneself.”4 With the nation now awake to the presidential actions and with a tighter grip on the presidential leash, the people felt that Nixon’s actions in Watergate changed everything. Americans no longer felt safe within their own household, even though Nixon only tapped areas, which would serve his political agenda. Amidst the climax of the conflict, the administration thought that it would be wise to expose Nixon for everything that he had done, not just his wiretappings, but also his use of public campaign money for his own personal benefit. This bombardment of facts served to callous the people against Nixon’s wrong doings and encouraged the people to forgive the president for his misdeeds. Once again, the conflict was to remain unsolved, similar to the situation in Vietnam, and eventually the heat on President Nixon died down. Taking advantage of a moment of peace in the campaign to remove him from office, President Nixon began to concentrate on the environment and the energy crisis. However the push to impeach was brought on by a single action created by Nixon’s abuse of power, his dismissal of administrative personal, Mr. Cox. This action alone, and not his previous actions, elevated pressures which culminated in his eventual resignation.

By this time, there was no doubt in the public’s mind that the president was guilty of all accusations placed against him. Although President Nixon never admitted to the charges, he knew that eventually he would have to leave office. The question that President Nixon pondered was how he would leave office. Would he leave with a peaceful resignation, which seemed unlikely, or would it be an impeachment, which would result in the removal of Nixon from the office of the Presidency. Schell observed the actions of President Nixon and concluded, “what that high office needs now is not a defense but respect. The presidency doesn’t need a lawyer. It needs a President.”5 The President had now reached a low point with the public. Through the years the Vietnam War, Congress granted the president many powers, such as the power to declare war, which was previously under the jurisdiction of congress. The president also gained many powers in terms of the amount of freedom that he had to make decisions for the country. The checks and balances system had been thrown out of equilibrium because of the need to allow the President more power to deal with the issues that were plaguing the nation at the time. The public feared that he was in low opinion, yet he still wielded much power. This power gave him the opportunity to convince court in order to render the evidence against him meaningless. Schell brought up a fear among the American people of the Constitution failing, if President Nixon was not to be impeached the ability to impeach the president meant that the people of the nation of the United States were not sovereign over any ruling administration, as they should be as guaranteed by the Constitution. Upon Nixon’s resignation, Schell noted Nixon’s grave face and concluded that “Richard Nixon, Freed, like the rest of us, from oppression of his rule, was pouring his heart out to the whole nation.”6 In his afterword, Schell debated the “what if” of politics. He pondered the results if Nixon had still been president after the North attacked the South in Vietnam. Schell concluded that the actions of that possible administration would make the crisis of Watergate look dim. He concluded that the Watergate crisis had ended the Vietnamese War.

Jonathan Schell offered a different opinion on the events that trailed the Nixon years. Starting with his disagreement from the beginning with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, he concluded that the South Vietnamese government had never had the power over its people; it had only been a “puppet government” for the Americans. The Vietnamese government at Saigon would be nothing without the American Support that was behind it, and essentially was not a democracy but a dictatorship with America sitting at the throne. With this analysis of the events that were taking place in Vietnam, Schell offers his readers a view of how the government has created a society where morals, virtues and standards were all deteriorating. Schell constantly felt that the government tricked the American public and used different phrases to define their “aims” to show their “resolve” and prove their “credibility” to the world to achieve the “peace with honor” that we had longed for since the beginning of the war.7 Schell assumed that the reader understands the time period because the audience of the notes and comments was anticipated those who were citizens of that time period. He organized his book as a compilation of each of the successive weeks, and therefore the reader needs some sort of knowledge of what is going on during that period. Schell constantly saw the government as sly in the way that it reported facts to the public and explained that the government knowingly tricked the public into thinking the best of the worst situations. He is not defending Nixon or the war at all and at times is even outright blatant in his accusations of the government’s demoralization of society.

Schell constantly talked about the government’s role in the lives of the people and historically published his book and explained his motives behind the publication in the afterward. “Today, only thirteen years after the war’s end, the United Sates –burdened with debt…appears to lack the wherewithal to threaten itself again in this profligate way anytime soon.”8 Schell looks at history as it constantly replays repeatedly, and hopes to help the reader to learn from the mistake of the past. The Library Journal reviewed this book and concluded that it was easy to read, yet a passionate criticism of the Nixon administration in dealing with the War in Vietnam and dealings with the Watergate crisis. They finally conclude that his book is a “model of informed dissent in a democratic system.”9 The New York Times also reviewed the book upon its publication in 1989 with the title The President who Oppressed Himself. This full length review summarizes the book and noted that Schell link Watergate and Vietnam in an “interesting way” in the after word of his book. The review praises Schell’s style and summarizes his “100 elegant essays” and praises his articles as “original…eloquent... and plain good sense.”10 The New York Times may have been biased in its view of Schell’s work because a closely related publication company the New Yorker published the “notes and comments” section that the majority of this book is taken out of.

Reading Jonathan’s Schell’s notes was an easy endeavor; the words were never too complicated, the diction just right, the content perfectly analyzed in a way that gave the other side of the picture. When it comes to books, this one may seem more liberal as it is small revolt against the established administration, yet it proves powerful in the message that it shares. Schell did not expect Vietnaminzation to succeed and at times, the reader pondered if Schell had written his weekly columns fro a modern-day perspective. His publications read like any standard history book, and match content taught in modern day classrooms. He offered wit and his writing engaged the mind and caused the reader to think beyond the surface. He engaged the emotions of the reader by offering examples such as Captain Cook, who worked in a way opposite the government’s destructive ways. He saw that this Captain could teach America a lesson, by learning “ Captain Cook’s instinct for protecting life and less of the FBI’s eagerness to ‘get a shot’…regardless of who gets caught in the crossfire.”11 Schell not only refers to history to define the current day, but uses the current day to ponder the future. In this way, he tapped into a source that will keep this book read for generations to come.

The Vietnam War was a huge watershed in the period of history during the late sixties and the early seventies. This was the first war that the United States fought in which it had no direct reason to participate except for a fear that the Communists would take over everywhere if the United States did not step in to help South Vietnam overcome the communist in the North. Nixon’s Doctrine during this time was to slowly remove the American troops out of Vietnam, and encourage the South Vietnamese to become an independent, democratic ruling body. This process was known as Vietnamization. In this case, Schell noted that the past two presidents before Nixon had seen the involvement that America had in Vietnam was detrimental to the politics of the nation of America. Schell noted that the purpose of the military campaigns was to insure the survival of the Saigon [south] government, not because we are leaving, but in order that we may leave.”12 This global concern that America was to create a change ensured America’s role as a super power in the world. He sees that Russia and China and the Vietnamese “wish to be feared and taken seriously.”13 By this, the politics of the world have been unchanged from the days of the imperialistic days of exploration and conquering-the only difference is that countries no longer fight with swords and cannons, but with tanks and nuclear bombs.

The economy was on the downfall as regulations on industries had created a concern with the amount of pollution that was in the air. As the self-centeredness of the United States continued, Schell noted that the President wanted a “strong economy [that] makes us strong enough to better our lives.”14 Economically the war in Vietnam did not change the country as it had before, with an already industrious nation, the war effort only added to the already abundant amount of manufacturing and industry. However, this picture may be similar to the government’s sly language. Manufacturing and industry does not mean that the economy was booming, in fact President Nixon announced a “second inflation alert.”15 There was never a continuously stable economy, so the economy has not changed as much as the politics and the way people view the administrators who were in power.

The 1960s and 1970s proved a hard time for the whole nation of the United States. One decision after another plagued the minds of the American public on what to think on each of the events. Without troubles there would be no great leaders concludes a wise man, however in these tough times, the ugliest of people showed their faces. The nation had to decide where they stood on each issue and many found that the decision was hard to make. Schell concludes with an overview of all history that is bound to happen “What the United States might have done to its Constitution and its liberties had history handed it “one, two, three…many Vietnams” His classic words inspire the future to learn from the past.16 Jonathan Schell passionately pursues the advancement of the knowledge of truth in times were the truth was the only thing keeping everything from destroying itself.

review by Christopher Ng

  1. Shawn, William. Observing the Nixon Years. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.ix
  2. Schell, Jonathan. 9.
  3. Schell, Jonathan. 64.
  4. Schell, Jonathan. 186
  5. Schell, Jonathan. 211
  6. Schell, Jonathan. 231
  7. Schell, Jonathan. ix
  8. Schell, Jonathan. 253
  9. The Library Journal
  10. Oshinsky, David M. “The President who Oppressed Himself.” The New York Times (1989)
  11. Schell, Jonathan. 30
  12. Schell, Jonathan. 64.
  13. Schell, Jonathan. 140
  14. Schell, Jonathan. 55
  15. Schell, Jonathan. 55
  16. Schell, Jonathan. 273

© 2006 Irvine High School

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