Documentary Review: The Movement and the Madman

Posted on August 15, 2023 By

by Rachel MacNair


In the title, “The Movement and the Madman,” the “movement” is the peace movement trying to stop the American war in Vietnam. To be more precise, it was the Moratorium demonstrations in October and November of 1969. The “madman” is Richard Nixon, and it’s not intended as a mere insult. It’s actually the word he was using for the strategy he had in mind: convincing the North Vietnamese that he was crazy enough to escalate precipitously – maybe even to the point of using nuclear weapons.

This is a PBS documentary in their American Experience series and is currently available with PBS Passport. It’s going to get wider distribution, so hopefully there will be plenty of outlets soon; keep track here.


 I saw it at a national Quaker conference, where the room of about 30 people had roughly a third of them lifting their hands when asked if they had attended those 1969 events.

The film documents how the Moratorium demonstrations were organized and how people in the Nixon administration reacted. Those who participated in the demonstrations were really depressed about what happened next: the war continued on for several years. Americans died, many more Vietnamese died, the military draft and environmental degradation continued. Had all that work achieved nothing?

The answer is no: it actually achieved something stupendous. Behind the scenes, with information that came out later but was unknown at the time, Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and other cabinet members had been planning a major escalation. Nuclear threats were a real possibility, which makes the actual use of nuclear weapons something that could have happened. This was only about two decades into the age of nuclear weapons, and there was less of a sense of taboo about their use.

And that’s what those demonstrations stopped.

Anti-war demonstrators stopped something they didn’t know existed, and the documentary shows how the demonstrations led directly to a change in policy – or rather, prevented a change to a much worse policy.

How many other wars have been contemplated by people in the upper echelons, in the U.S. or other countries, that never happened because upon reflection they decided it wasn’t worth the reaction? There may have been none, and there may have been several. But we can’t count what didn’t happen. We can’t even ever know that it would have happened otherwise.

The case in this documentary is far more clear-cut than we normally would expect in the real world. While the death penalty and euthanasia have had mainly fairly small demonstrations against them, there have been huge ones opposing racism, poverty, and abortion. In all those cases, plus other war protests, some impact can be traced as having happened due to them at least in part. There are undoubtedly many cases, though, where we can’t peg it down so neatly.

But knowing about what was going on behind the scenes, and what was planned before being stopped, is a real boost to activists who otherwise feel very discouraged. We simply have to know that we can’t always be aware of all the positive impacts our actions have.


For more of our posts on the dynamics of social movements, see:

Instead of Division, Schools of Thought

It’s a Wonderful Movement 

Almost No One? How Survey Polls Work

The Death Penalty and Abortion: The Conservative/Liberal Straitjacket


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