In April 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon decided to expand the Vietnam War into neutral Cambodia in order to destroy the People’s Army of Vietnam and communist insurgents (the Viet Cong), around 40,000 troops in total. During the preceding decade, the communists had established bases of operations in the Eastern part of the country from which they repeatedly launched cross-border incursions into South Vietnam, a U.S. client state.
Nixon’s goal of the subsequent aerial bombardment and invasion by both the U.S. military and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was to buy breathing space for the South Vietnamese government, as the United States had begun the gradual withdrawal of combat troops, by decisively defeating the North’s forces in eastern Cambodia and disrupting their supply lines.
The military operations, which took place from April to July 1970, were a tactical success for the Americans and South Vietnam but ultimately proved indecisive. Over 330 Americans were killed and more than 1,500 wounded. The South Vietnamese suffered over 4,000 casualties, whereas enemy killed in action (KIA) were estimated at over 14,000 (the number most likely included civilians casualties).
Richard Nixon was the driving force behind the decision to attack neutral Cambodia. Why did he push for military escalation? Surprisingly, the answer might lie in an American epic biographical war film.
In April 1970, the U.S. president faced stiff opposition within his cabinet and, more importantly, from the American public to expand the war into Cambodia. Notably, Nixon’s Secretary of State, William P. Rogers, and his Secretary of Defense, Melvin R. Laird, were both opposed to large-scale military operations for multiple reasons including the danger of derailing ongoing peace talks in Paris between the warring parties.
Throughout the decision-making process that April, beleaguered Nixon found time to repeatedly watch the war (or rather anti-war) film Patton, which premiered in February 1970, starring George C. Scott as uncompromising, victory-loving U.S. General George S. Patton. As Henry Kissinger, then the president’s national security advisor, noted: “When he was pressed to the wall, his [Nixon’s] romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of Patton.”
The question is how much did the movie influence the president’s decision? In a 1977 interview with David Frost, Nixon denied any connection between Patton and his resolution to expand the war. He also did not mention the movie once in his memoirs. Even if the movie played a role, was it more important than classified policy briefs and other analysis on the war?
Paul Musgrave and J. Furman Daniel in 2017 examined the impact of popular culture on policy makers’ world views and how they can change or reinforce their opinions and conclusions in an academic journal. Musgrave and Daniel argue that novels, movies, and television can generate what they term “synthetic experiences,” which “reinforce, induce, and even replace identities and beliefs that affect how audiences behave in the real world.”
In the article, the two scholars show that a movie like Patton could influence a president’s decision to launch a military campaign. Among other things they write: “[G]iven that both the mass public and senior policymakers are often non-expert generalists without specialized knowledge in more than a few realms, a great many actors in world politics may prove susceptible to accepting claims presented in fiction as factual.”
In other words, there is the possible danger that policy makers, enthralled with a particular work of fiction, may be more susceptible to fighting the fictional war of their imagination, influenced by war fiction, instead of the conflict unfolding in front of them. As a result, they base their decision on a fictional rather than actual war narrative. This charge that can certainly be leveled against Richard Nixon in April and May 1970 up to a point, as I outline below.
Richard Nixon saw the movie for the first time on either April 1 or April 4, 1970 (Some scholars argue that the president may have watched the film for the first time already at the end of March.) According to the historian Philip D. Beidler, the crucial viewing, however, occurred on April 25, when Nixon and some of his aids and friends may have even watched the movie twice, which was also the date when Nixon made his final decision to invade Cambodia.
Following a week-long debate over whether or not to expand Cambodia invasion plans Nixon returned from Camp David to Washington. “There, accompanied by Kissinger, John Mitchell, and his friend Bebe Rebozo, the president took a long cruise down the Potomac on the official yacht Sequoia. Military discussions continued, now involving a good deal of alcohol (…), Beidler writes. “The river outing was not the crown of the evening, however. That role was reserved back at the White House, for special showing of Patton.”
The movie on that day had one crucial impact. Using the Musgrave and Daniel’s framework of “synthetic experience”, Patton most likely accentuated Nixon’s long-held belief that the a preponderance of U.S. military power can alter the political calculus of North Vietnam’s leadership, as long as he, as the commander in chief, demonstrates decisiveness and resolution while defying any opposition.
Interestingly, Beidler also detects Patton’s influence on Nixon during his televised address to the nation announcing the attack on Cambodia on April 30. “Decisive, beleaguered, prepared to be dismissed for a belief in the correct military option—Patton was all there,” Beidler writes. “One could almost hear the stirring music, the tapping of the drums, the rising melody of the fifes.
Buoyed by Patton, which reinforced his preexisting instincts, Nixon attended a Pentagon briefing on the following day. During that crucial meeting Nixon, in which he received updates on the ongoing military operations in Cambodia, told the assembled Joint Chiefs to “take out all the sanctuaries” and to “make whatever plans are necessary and then just do it. Knock them all out so that they can’t be used against us again. Ever”
In May, he also mentioned the movie during a meeting with business and economic leaders comparing his Cambodian incursion to Patton’s rescue of the besieged U.S. paratroopers in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Beidler notes: [H]e joshingly recalled Patton’s decorating a chaplain for an apparently successful prayer for good weather, and said that every chaplain in Vietnam was now accordingly praying for rain so that the Communists could not easily move into their bulldozed sanctuaries.”
Patton’s presence in the president’s mind is further confirmed by remarks made by then U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers in May or June 1970 saying that “the movie comes up” during every Nixon conversation. Additionally, in an interesting twist, even foreign intelligence agencies noted the president’s obsession with the film. For example, in preparation for Nixon’s visit to China, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai ordered a copy of the film to better be able to predict the president’s behavior during his stay.
In his biography of Richard Nixon, the historian Stephen E. Ambrose, summed up Nixon’s attraction to Patton the following way: “Tough, decisive, self-confident, willing to take great risks for great gains, trusting his intuition, impatient of restraint, a student and practioner of the art of leadership, bold and brave in his actions, often vulgar in his language, contemptuous of his critics, Patton was the model for innumerable American men and boys, including Richard Nixon.”
Beidler’s pointed conclusion then has to be seen in the context of this general infatuation with the real Patton: “Richard Nixon spent at least the month of April 1970 in a decision-making frame of mind deeply—perhaps even obsessively—constructed by his repeated viewing of a Hollywood movie that starred the extremely gifted, protean, and controversial actor George C. Scott in the role of the equally gifted, protean, and controversial military leader George S. Patton. The result was not just the Cambodian campaign (…) the result (…) was a leadership performance in a total sense, one that became as big a comic book as the film—except that it actually killed many people.”
The influence of the movie Patton on Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia ultimately remains hard to quantify. It certainly did not cause the invasion of the neutral country. The circumstantial evidence presented here, nevertheless, establishes that the movie was at least on the president’s mind while he was considering invasion plans. And while a causal relationship between the Cambodian invasion and Patton remains hard to establish, one cannot deny the correlation between Richard Nixon watching the movie and the subsequent increase of military pressure on North Vietnam. At the least, the movie strengthened his long-held beliefs that the only language a communist understood is military force.
A version of this article was published in the March 2017 issue of The Diplomat Magazine.