Interview: Dick Cavett Talks New PBS Documentary, ‘Dick Cavett’s Vietnam’

Dick Cavett on "The Dick Cavett Show"
Dick Cavett on “The Dick Cavett Show” | Daphne Productions Photo

April 30th is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. PBS is remembering the war with a special block of programming that includes a new one-hour documentary called “Dick Cavett’s Vietnam,” airing Mon., Apr. 27 at 10 p.m. Check your local listings, and set your DVR’s now.

The doc includes some of the best moments from “The Dick Cavett Show” during that era and includes recent interviews with Mr. Cavett, as well as General Wesley K. Clark, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Fredrik Logevall of “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” and Timothy Naftali, historian and former Director of the Richard Nixon Library and Museum.

Interviewees from the 1960’s include Henry Kissinger, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, now Secretary of State John Kerry (right after his military service in the war), and United States Senator Wayne Morse, who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964), which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to engage United States troops without a formal declaration of war, as well as Senator Ted Kennedy, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty.

I had the privilege of speaking to Dick Cavett on the phone about the documentary and the troubled history it remembers. Below are the highlights of our conversation.

Dick Cavett | Daphne Productions Photo
Dick Cavett | Daphne Productions Photo

I thought the documentary was very well-done.

Wasn’t it? I can’t get much credit for the well-done-ness of it. Obviously, I don’t put them together, but it was produced beautifully. As with my Nixon Watergate [documentary], we had way more than we could get into an hour. In fact, the DVD of it will be 90 minutes.

Good because I was hoping for a series. That was my only beef – that it was too short.

Yeah, some hours are fast, and some hours are slow.

What would you have liked to have included that you can’t even get into the 90 minutes?

I don’t know for sure because [Executive Producer] Robert Bader, who was the man who thrashed through all the stuff – the so-called footage – just said it was painful to have to take out certain things. I hope to find out what they all are when I see their 90-minute version, which I’m sure is being tidied up now.

In fact, we had way too much for the Watergate one. They wanted to get Warren Beatty in that because he was so eloquent on the subject, but we just had too many things that had to go in. So, Warren is in there now, and it’s nice to see that an actor can be more intelligent than a senator.

Yeah, his portion was one of my favorite parts…. I’m assuming you didn’t know at the time that you were in Nixon’s crosshairs.

It’s hard to recall what the very first awareness of that was. I know that one of the most startling was when my producer was called and learned in that call from the White House that they monitored my show quite carefully and were now going to put a guest on my show to defend the supersonic transport [SST].

That’s a forgotten issue now, but at the time it was hot. And the scary thing was that the scorekeeper at the White House was able to announce that we had had four specific guests who had spoken against the SST.

They were glad when they saw Arthur Godfrey coming on because they knew that he was Mr. Aviation and would surely take their side, and it was delightful for me when he sat there and said we need this mess out there in the atmosphere the way we need another bag of clinkers from the moon – and roundly denounced it.

So, they put a Mr. Magruder on. They apparently had a supply of Magruders at the White House. This was a different one. And at the end I said, “Well, I certainly hope the SST is defeated, and thank you,” and that really pissed them off. Anyway, I flew in it.

Timothy Naftali, Watergate historian | Mathieu Asselin, NYU Libraries Photo
Timothy Naftali, Watergate historian | Mathieu Asselin, NYU Libraries Photo

I know you were already seasoned at that point, but was it intimidating to sit down with somebody like [then Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger?

It was in a way. I rather liked Kissinger. Now, I can’t imagine why. Watching him in this documentary where he’s so concerned with statistics and during whose administration the most war was made. That’s his concern. There wasn’t a hint of concern about the dead and the human price in him that I can see.

Yeah. It just seemed to be about image, which is startling because I found myself crying at some point during the documentary.

I did too! Really! It’s just awful. And I think it was during that war that I suddenly got sick of “gave his life for his country.” World War II where we dealt with a madman and had to go to war … we weren’t dealing with one in Ho Chi Minh [the leader of Vietnam during the war], and the fact that nobody seemed to see that difference was half the tragedy. I think the documentary makes that point.

I wrote a line in one of my columns that Andy Rooney recorded one night on his thing on “60 Minutes”: “You don’t give your life; you have it brutally taken away from you.” And my uncle, a top marine in World War II, said, “I don’t want anybody in my unit who wants to give his life or would even consider it. I need every man, and only an idiot would give anything as valuable as his life for an outcome that is uncertain.” I like that.

I do, too.

And the sacrifice these guys made. In the documentary where I’ve got the veterans sitting around, and the guy describes what it’s like to be out there confused and scared in the middle of the field being shot at from every direction. And these are the same guys who said, “When we had the gall to ask what we were here fighting for exactly, nobody could tell us.”

And a repeat of that in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yeah, it’s bad. And again, we do a lousy job of treating our veterans who come home shattered physically and mentally. The scandal of the way they’re treated. It’s different for them [veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan] in the sense that Vietnam veterans were derided tragically when they came home from the war, and that had to add to their anguished mental states in so many cases – a terrible thing. And so, there they are coming back, shooting their wives, locked in the horror of mental illness, and we do a crummy job of what we owe them. Terrible.

And I think I cried watching in the documentary, hearing a General say we did that there. We suffered a defeat. Have we learned anything from it? Iraq, Afghanistan … now, the list is going on.

It feels so futile.

Yes, throw up your hands in dismay.

So, what do you hope people will learn from the documentary?

I’m sure most people don’t think about Vietnam much anymore, and why would you want to? … It’s a horrible thing to think of. If we’re smart, we feel guilty about it…. But I think it’s a valuable reminder. I hope young people who missed the Vietnam War will see what all the shouting about it was about on their parents’ or grandparents’ part. The fighting in their families that we see in the documentary – husbands fighting with wives about it at the family table full of dissension.

My wife had the ill luck to be in college right in the heart of it. And that was a bad time to be in college because you were robbed of much of your education by having to be and wanting to be involved in war protests….

[After a brief interruption to deal with a technical issue, Mr. Cavett continued.]

It was nice to see [Senator Barry] Goldwater again [in the documentary]. He was a very good guest, not an overabundance of brains but a delightful gent. And we must remember that he led the little group that walked over to that White House on Pennsylvania Avenue and said, “You’re through, Nixon.”

Well, there’s that. In other ways, he was sort of the anti-Morris, right?

In a way, he was. My God, [Senator] Wayne Morris! The feeling in that studio as he grabbed that audience! I’m glad to see I kind of made that little tribute to him because what a man. One Wayne Morris is worth a hundred blood-soaked [Richard] Nixons, [Robert] McNamaras [then Secretary of Defense], and Kissingers. Is it all right to say that?

President Richard Nixon discusses expanding the war into Cambodia
President Richard Nixon discusses expanding the war into Cambodia

Well, it’s all right with me….

Nixon was so inept as a politician and public relations. What a foolish thing it is to say he was good at that. He had no idea that bombing Cambodia … as we see, it totally surprised him that a volcano exploded in the country about that move on his part. To not see that widening the war – while presenting himself when he came in as the “war ender” – that widening it would upset the public? So, you get wily Henry Kissinger saying, “Well, it was a move to end the war by doing this.” Yeah, you’re ending the war by widening it.

Yeah, well, that’s always the claim.

Yeah, they fall back on that. I didn’t get much of an answer to my question, “What would you say to a parent who said,’What did my son die for?’” Or daughter, let’s not forget….

I was wondering, if you could interview anyone now living or dead from that era and ask them questions from a 2015 perspective, what would you ask?

Oh, people from back then now. That would be good. If they were alive, people in this documentary and others: “Do you still cling to the idea that this enterprise in which the greatest war machine ever, even greater than Hitler’s, the Great American War Machine, [that] landed on its ass in Vietnam – do you still see good in the whole idea?” I’d love to know….

Yeah, it would be interesting to see if they would still justify it….

Is [Robert] McNamara, the architect [of the war], still breathing, I wonder?

You know, I’m not sure. [Since the interview, I checked and found out that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara passed away in 2009.]

You have to hand it to him, he certainly made an admirable mea culpa as time went by. [Mr. Cavett is referring to Errol Morris’ 2003 Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” in which McNamara spoke openly about the mistakes made during the Vietnam War.]

Yeah, he certainly did.

Yeah. It’s a little late in view of the flag-draped coffins.

Yeah, it doesn’t help anybody…. I know we’re running out of time, but I have an off-topic question. It’s topical. I know you’ve been generously straightforward about talking about depression, and I was reading your piece about Robin Williams last night.

Oh, from Time Magazine, yeah.

From Time, yeah. And in the wake of this speculation on this Germanwings pilot who crashed the airplane, I find myself concerned that depression’s going to have even more of a stigma now. I’m just wondering if you had thoughts about that.

That could be. But I see there are millions of people treated for depression. I don’t recall more than a few that have taken an airplane down because of it…. As one expert on the subject said, the madness of this man is far beyond depression.

Our politicians, our athletes, our actors, our teachers suffer depression. It takes a lot more than a change in your serotonin level or whatever is now ascribed as the main chemical reason for it to bring you to sheer madness.

But in the shadows is an airline that knew of mental illness, didn’t seem terribly concerned about it, and might have thought maybe he’s sicker than just depression.

Watch the trailer below for “Dick Cavett’s Vietnam,” and be sure to watch this compelling documentary on Apr. 27th.


One response to “Interview: Dick Cavett Talks New PBS Documentary, ‘Dick Cavett’s Vietnam’”

  1. Lester Hennings Avatar
    Lester Hennings

    About Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War: In the New York Times bestselling book, “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ,” Roger Stone tells the account of the Vietnam war profiteering of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson; that they owned stock in defense contractors who benefited from multi-million-dollar contracts that were part of Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war. Learn the truth about Johnson here:

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