Richard Nixon points to a map of Southeast Asia during a nationwide broadcast
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
April 6, 2015

Contains extremely mild spoilers for the mid-season premiere of Mad Men

Few things can place a fictional story on a real-world timeline better than a Presidential speech can. In the case of the Sunday night mid-season premiere of Mad Men, the background appearance of a speech by Richard Nixon dates one scene precisely, at April 30, 1970, around 9 p.m. Eastern, when Nixon addressed the nation.

It also dates the scene, though somewhat less precisely, to a time of what even the President of the United States dubbed “anarchy.”

Nixon began the speech by laying out what was going on in Vietnam, as the war there raged on. He had recently pledged to ramp up the withdrawal of American troops from the war zone, but explained, using the visual aid of a map, that doing so successfully would now require, paradoxically, diving deeper into the conflict. North Vietnam had built up “military sanctuaries” along its border with Cambodia, which were being used as bases for attacks on South Vietnam. Cambodia had been neutral in the conflict, but was now asking for help from the U.S., Nixon told the country. In response, he and the South Vietnamese had decided to “clean out” the sanctuaries with a new series of attacks.

The new attacks, he said, were in the service of bringing the war to an end. But, he continued, the desire to end the conflict did not mean the U.S. would just give up:

The time came long ago to end this war through peaceful negotiations. We stand ready for those negotiations. We have made major efforts, many of which must remain secret. I say tonight: All the offers and approaches made previously remain on the conference table whenever Hanoi is ready to negotiate seriously.

But if the enemy response to our most conciliatory offers for peaceful negotiation continues to be to increase its attacks and humiliate and defeat us, we shall react accordingly.

My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed. Small nations all over the world find themselves under attack from within and from without.

If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.

[Read the full speech here]

As TIME reported the following week, polls showed that a majority of Americans opposed committing military effort to Cambodia and, though the White House switchboard reported a favorable reaction to the speech, other lawmakers saw their offices bombarded with messages from constituents who disagreed. The campus activists whom the President had compared to anarchists responded with a new wave of protest.

Then-Senator Bob Dole told TIME that, “If [the attack] works, it’s a stroke of genius. If it doesn’t, he strikes out.” A few months later, the White House claimed the operation — dubbed Operation Total Victory No. 42 and No. 43 — as a major success, though Nixon was still dealing with fallout for not consulting Congress on the move. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, things were far from calm.

Read TIME’s full original coverage of the 1970 speech, here in the TIME Vault: The New Burdens of War


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