A recurrent topic in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is violence, for the time period that Perlstein covers in this book was a time of significant upheaval. Perlstein, in fact, dedicates the book “to the memory of the dozens of Americans who lost their lives at the hands of other Americans, for ideological reasons, between the years of 1965 and 1972.”
Perlstein talks about riots and protests, trigger-happy and repressive law enforcement authorities, and average Joes and Janes in America who actually cheered on the tragedies at Kent State and in My Lai. The shape of the Second Amendment debates was rather different back then than it is today. Perlstein mentions a conservative in California who proposed a gun control measure in order to suppress African-American militants, African-American militants who appealed to the Second Amendment as something necessary for their self-protection, and whites who liked the Second Amendment because they believed they needed guns to protect themselves from criminals and rioters.
The book is very sobering when it talks about violence: when it tells the story of an African-American male who was taking his pregnant wife to the hospital and got shot by a white cop, as well as the stories of people with families who got killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time while a riot was occurring.
Nixonland‘s narration of the Kent State tragedy is perhaps the best part of the book, for I was impressed by its balance and the way that it highlighted the human dimension of the tragedy. When I read about the Kent State tragedy, I usually see a pattern (which is probably not absolute, but I’m just saying what I see): Conservatives tend to defend the National Guardsmen who shot the students, noting that students in the crowd were committing provocative and antagonistic acts against the National Guardsmen, whereas liberals tend to demonize the National Guardsmen while bemoaning the tragedy of students being killed. Perlstein is rather liberal, but he acknowledges that some of the students were committing provocative and antagonistic acts. Perlstein also characterizes the National Guardsmen as either people who envied the students because the students could get out of the Vietnam War on an easy path, whereas they could do so only by serving in the National Guard, or as people who had fought in the Vietnam War and were now trigger-happy.
But what is interesting about Perlstein’s narration is that he talks about National Guardsmen and Kent State students becoming friends. It’s almost as if Perlstein believes the whole tragedy could have been averted, had the Governor not decided to talk tough against the protesters.