As the massive and much publicized anti-Vietnam War protests were gaining momentum across the U.S. in 1969, a secret game of brinksmanship was playing out in the inner chambers of the White House.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s The Movement and the “Madman” shows how two antiwar protests in the fall of 1969—the largest the country had ever seen—pressured President Nixon to cancel his “madman” plans for a massive escalation of the war, including possible use of nuclear weapons. At the time, protesters had no idea what they had prevented and how many lives they had saved. The film airs on Tuesday, March 28 at 9pm on GBH 2.

Award-winning filmmaker Stephen Talbot conducted 30 in-depth interviews with movement organizers, historians, members of Congress and administration officials, including three men who worked directly with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Nixon. The film engages viewers with a “you-are-there” experience, with dynamic archival footage of protests, speeches and music performances overlaid with audio interviews.

Filmmaker Stephen Talbot
Jane Wattenberg

The documentary also delivers many surprises. “The thing that surprised me and I think will surprise—and maybe even shock—some viewers is that Richard Nixon was actually threatening both the Russians and the North Vietnamese with the use of nuclear weapons,” said Talbot, who has produced more than 40 television documentaries, including many PBS films. Nixon deliberately cultivated an image of himself as a “madman” to manipulate and unnerve the enemy, he said. The nuclear threat was part of a planned escalation known as Operation Duck Hook, which has only recently come to light as documents have been declassified in the National Security Archive.

“Operation Duck Hook was a colossal campaign that would have resumed heavy attacks on North Vietnam, including cities, dikes and Haiphong Harbor,” said Talbot. Nixon finally abandoned the plan but with a wildly risky end-move. “He wanted to send a message—as he says, ‘a special reminder’— to the Soviets that he was not weak. He called a worldwide nuclear alert, sending B-52s into the air over Alaska armed with nuclear weapons flying right up to the border of Russia,” he said.

Courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

As the drama unfolds, the protests continue on campuses, cities and small towns. “I think this film will remind people how many ordinary Americans actually stood up and marched and protested against the Vietnam War,” said Talbot. He said he was particularly struck with the number of women who were leaders in the movement, notably Cora Weiss of Women Strike for Peace. “She was an advocate of nonviolence, and she had the wonderful comment, ‘if the demonstration is one that I can’t take my children to, I’m not going.’”

Although the film, edited by Stephanie Mechura and executive produced by Robert Levering, captures events more than 50 years ago, its topics are timeless.

“Questions of war and peace always resonate. Whether it's Putin in Ukraine today or Nixon in 1969—to what extent do leaders bluff and posture and threaten privately and publicly to try to get what they want? These issues are painfully relevant.”