At the beginning of Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, Dick Cavett observes that while he had set out to host an entertaining talk show, from 1968 to 1975, when The Dick Cavett Show aired on ABC and the Vietnam War raged on and expanded throughout Southeast Asia, “you could not keep Vietnam out of the conversation.”
“I’d have Tony Randall on telling a story about working with Marilyn Monroe, and the next sentence would be about Vietnam. It happened over and over.”
Cavett is on the phone talking about the hour-long program, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS. Also at its beginning, he acknowledges that it was “kind of hard hosting a show with such a gigantic controversial subject.”
“I never sat there wishing I had [master “one-liner” comedian] Henny Youngman on instead, but there were times when it was tough,” he says, turning sarcastic. “It would have been easier than sitting with the distinguished, inestimable scholar Henry Kissinger, whose concern was entirely about appearance, with not a scintilla of human concern about deaths and the human price of war –if he had any.”
A clip of Kissinger’s appearance on the Cavett Show is shown in Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, as is one from Nixon’s communications director Herb Klein, who came on after Cavett pleaded for someone from the Nixon Administration to come on.
“He was almost like a cartoon!” Cavett says of Klein. “He had developed that very, very skillful amiable style–a friendly kind of guy who was comfortable to be with, with almost a ‘gee whiz’ quality. Meanwhile, his animus–and service to Nixon–forever disgraced him.”
Cavett contrasts Klein with Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, who besides Alaska’s Ernest Gruening, was the only senator to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing military force in Southeast Asia.
“Isn’t it great to see someone like Wayne Morse? His effect on that audience was stunning,” says Cavett, who in the show credits Morse, who eloquently and forcefully spoke about America’s “aggression” in Vietnam, as the definition of a great man.
Cavett also points to antiwar guest Warren Beatty, then “a lowly actor trying to be a movie star, who was more intelligent, more correct and better spoken than virtually all of our public servants and politicians.”
Controversial antiwar actress/activist Jane Fonda also appears: “She’s made lavish, self-critical apologies for some of her activities since then, but it turns out Jane was right.”
Even Groucho Marx is shown voicing his opposition to the war.
“It was so telling of what it was like to be doing a show on any subject but Vietnam and having it come up,”says Cavett, “though Groucho typically ended on a laugh, about how he had enough trouble going to bed than to read the news at night.”
Cavett states in the show that “there’s never been anything in our history to parallel Vietnam, that all the analogies to other wars seem to be inadequate,” but he also considers the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the current support by some for war with Iran. And having devoted an entire episode of The Dick Cavett Show to the Pentagon Papers’ Daniel Ellsberg, he does see connections with Edward Snowden as well.
“Why is it so hard to learn these hard lessons?” Cavett wonders. “Impossible lessons.”
Dick Cavett’s Vietnam follows Dick Cavett’s Watergate, which was shown on PBS last year. It commemorates the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, and also features vintage Cavett Show interviews with the likes of Woody Allen and Paul Newman as well as Senators Barry Goldwater and Edmund Muskie, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Muhammad Ali. Also shown are recently filmed interviews with historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Library and Museum Timothy Naftali, retired U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Fredrik Logevall (Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam), who provide additional insight and perspective on a pivotal period in American history.
Dick Cavett’s Vietnam, which airs at 10 p.m. (ET), is part of a special block of programming related to the Vietnam War, and will be preceded at 9 p.m. by The Draft, which examines the turbulent history of the Selective Service System. Other programming airs Tuesday, April 28, starting at 8 p.m. with The Day the ‘60s Died, which chronicles the upheaval in May, 1970, when four students were killed at Kent State University during a protest against the Vietnam War. It will be followed by the Academy Award-nominated Last Days in Vietnam, which recounts the final days of the war and airs at 10 p.m.
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