So it's worth considering a more real-time evaluation of the 1972 election from Daniel Yankelovich for The New York Times/Yankelovich Election Survey, published in the New York Review of Books 11/30/1972 issue:
It was not what happened during the Presidential campaign itself that won the election for Richard Nixon. Throughout the campaign the press and television concentrated on Eagleton, Watergate, Mr. McGovern’s “radical” image, his campaign style, and the “he-can't-win” psychology purportedly generated by the opinion polls. These events affected Mr. McGovern’s standings in the polls during the campaign but had little bearing on why Mr. Nixon won the election. As the polls taken by my own organization, as well as others, showed, Nixon had a majority of three to two from the very start—a majority that never wavered throughout that long campaign. In a sense, the campaign proved to be irrelevant. [my emphasis]What Yankelovich explains is that foreign policy took a central role in the campaign: the Vietnam War, detente with the USSR, the diplomatic opening with China.
The Democrats and antiwar activists rightly saw a very sharp difference between McGovern's and Nixon's positions on the war. And they were also right in their intense distrust of Nixon's intentions and his level of lying, which in the days before the Cheney-Bush seemed staggering.
But the general public perception was different. "Only Nixon could go to China" and "Nixon goes to China" have become standard figures of speech - even on the planet Vulcan! - meaning a leader having credibility on reversing a long-held position that would be lacking in one that had always held the position.
The concept is a little squishy, when you think about it. It's a bit like the professional anti-Communists of the 1940s and 1950s. Bernard DeVoto, in some essay I have been able to find recently, characterized their position something like this: Let me see, you tell me that as a Communist, you were willing to betray your country, lie, cheat, steal, break the law, even kill people if required. Now you've repented and you tell me that I should trust what you say about Communists now more than I trust people who were always against Communism.
Because entrepreneurial self-promoting ex-Communists like Whittaker Chambers were prone to make the most lurid, sweeping, exaggerated claims about the supposed threat from Communism, not unlike the self-promoting ex-Islamists that are today so popular on the Christian Right speaking circuit. (The more things change, the more they stay the same, etc., etc.)
Nixon had been considered a hardliner on China and the Soviet Union, too, from the beginning of his dubious and generally destructive political career. But in 1971-2, he broke with the position that was especially strong in the Republican Party that there should be no formal US relations with "Communist China" or "Red China" (red was the color for Communists in those days, not Republicans). And his arms-control negotiations with the USSR and normalizing relations with China were generally perceived - including by Democrats and McGovern himself - as leading to a more peaceful world.
Yankelovich refers to an incident that was a harrying moment in US-Soviet relations. He had mined the harbors of Haiphong, North Vietnam (DRV), which carried a serious risk that Russian ships providing supplies to the DRV would be damaged:
The Vietnam issue was generally conceded to be McGovern’s main source of strength.Nixon's policy of "Vietnamization" of the war, which is similar to what we did in Iraq and are doing now in Afghanistan, going through the motions of transferring responsibility for the war to the locals on Our Side in South Vietnam was highly controversial. But by the 1972 election, the number of American troops in Vietnam was drastically reduced from what it had been when he took office in 1969. Even though more Americans would be killed in Vietnam during Nixon's Presidency than during Lyndon Johnson's, and even though the war became progressively less popular even as US troops were being withdrawn, a large portion of the public perceived that Nixon's policies were ending the Vietnam War and doing it "with honor," as he continually said:
Then the mining of Haiphong happened. We must remember that the decision to mine Haiphong harbor was made at a time when the military situation in Vietnam was deteriorating badly. Our interviews shortly afterward showed that people expected the worst. In the past, most decisions on Vietnam made in times of crisis—such as the Cambodian "incursion" — had proved disastrous. This time Mr. Nixon confronted the communists with a challenge that even Lyndon Johnson at his most combative had not dared to make.
The days that followed reminded voters of the Cuban Missile Crisis. People were anxious: “How would the Russians react?” “Would they cancel the Summit?” “Would they try to break the blockade by force?” even “Would there be a nuclear confrontation?” When the Russians announced that the Summit would go on as planned, the public, as our surveys later showed, was vastly relieved. With mounting confidence, they watched the drama unfold on television: Mr. Nixon being greeted coolly but correctly at the Moscow airport; meeting in a somewhat more cordial atmosphere with Brezhnev; being toasted at Soviet banquets; addressing the Russian people; laying a wreath at the grave of a little Russian girl orphaned by the war; signing documents and treaties of historic importance with the head of the Soviet state.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the message got through to the American public: Nixon had faced the Russians down, and the danger to the US from the war—the danger of a big power confrontation—had been defused. The war in Vietnam would now soon be over. Or, even if it did not end right away, it would no longer be seen as a military threat to Americans. Soviet/Chinese acquiescence in the Haiphong mining had handed Mr. Nixon an overwhelming diplomatic victory, containing the seeds of his subsequent political victory at home. Vietnam, we found, is the issue of greatest concern to the American public, and in the public mind it was almost as if the war had ended at the Moscow Summit.Now, Nixon's intentions as expressed in the elections were deceptive. He still expected to be able to use air power to pummel North Vietnam into submission. His Christmas Bombing campaign of 1972 was hugely controversial at home and a flat-out failure as a way to force the DRV to accept less favorable peace terms. When the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed soon after the turn of the year, they were the same basic terms to which the DRV had already been willing to accept before the Christmas Bombing.
The results of the Soviet trip were dramatically reflected in the opinion polls. By early July, Mr. Nixon had rebuilt public confidence in his handling of the Vietnam war by an almost two to one margin. Simultaneously, he had undermined McGovern’s major source of public support by converting what had been McGovern’s issue into his own principal source of strength among the voters. During the campaign, an unwavering 62 percent of the voters said, “Mr. Nixon is doing everything he can to end the war.” They voted for him largely, if not exclusively, for this reason. (Domestic issues also played a part but we found they were not nearly so important.) [my emphasis]
The duplicity and bad faith Nixon showed in the remainder of his term before his resignation in 1974 was been chronicled extensively. To give just a few examples: Gareth Porter, A Peace Denied : The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (1975); George Harrington, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 4th edition (2001); John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (2009). McGovern was unable to convince enough people to distrust Nixon's war policy, though he tried, e.g., George McGovern Commercial 1972 ElectionWallDotOrg.flv:
Campaigns do matter. And McGovern's missteps, especially the selection of Thomas Eagleton as his Vice Presidential candidate, increased the already serious challenges he faced in that election. He tried hard to make the complex of corruption now known as "Watergate" an issue, but the revelations that eventually pushed Nixon into resigning didn't come until after the 1972 election. See this campaign ad, 1972 George McGovern Presidential Election Ad:
Yankelovich's findings in 1972 don't in themselves constitute a decisive judgment on the outcome of that election. But they are an important reminder that hating on the hippies was not what was decisive in that election. Nixon had taken substantial action in the real world to build an image of himself as the man to produce an optimal peace in Vietnam and the wider world. The fact that he had to scam the public and the media on what his real intentions were in Vietnam to achieve that image is itself a sign of a how shady the product (himself) that he was marketing in that election really was.
Tags: george mcgovern, richard nixon, vietnam war