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What could go wrong for Trump on the Fourth of July? In 1970, protests and tear gas marred the day.

And Nixon didn’t even speak in person.

A huge crowd turned out in Washington on July 4, 1970 for Honor America Day, which its organizers insisted was non-partisan. (AP) (AP)
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The plan was to celebrate the Fourth of July with a televised extravaganza on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. One unstated goal was to show support for the president at a time of bitter division in the nation.

The president was Richard M. Nixon, and the year was 1970. Nixon was facing rising opposition to the Vietnam War after expanding the conflict into Cambodia. Wealthy friends of the president began organizing an Honor America Day co-hosted by evangelist Billy Graham and comedian Bob Hope. Capping the day would be a star-studded, “Salute to America” show at the Lincoln Memorial. The goal: to draw a record 500,000 people to Washington’s Mall to celebrate America’s birthday.

The 1970 event is the only parallel to President Trump’s takeover of July 4. Trump’s elaborate “Salute to America” will feature a speech by the president himself at the Lincoln Memorial, reserved seating for hundreds of VIPs, two fireworks displays and flyovers by the Blue Angels and Air Force One. Trump has also requested military tanks — Abrams tanks or Bradley Fighting Vehicles — on the Mall for the event.

Trump asks for military tanks on the Mall as part of grandiose Fourth of July event

By contrast, Nixon did not appear at the 1970 celebration; he was at his summer White House in San Clemente, Calif. But he did record a video that was played at the event.

Honor America Day was hosted at the National Mall on July 4, 1970 while President Nixon was leading the country. (Video: C-SPAN)

The 1970 celebration was the brainchild of Reader’s Digest publisher Hobart Lewis. He recruited J. Willard Marriott, head of the Marriott hotel chain, to raise funds. Marriott insisted the event “will be absolutely free of politics. It’s not to promote anybody’s pet ideas.”

To underscore the nonpartisan theme Republicans and Democrats were honorary members of the organizing committee. Many Democratic politicians also supported the event.

But some were skeptical of the claim of nonpartisanship. New Left activist Rennie Davis, one of the “Chicago Eight” charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, called the planned event “a Republican Convention” sponsored by “white, middle-class Republican men.”

Davis organized the “Emergency Committee To Prevent a July 4th Fistfight” to protest the event.

On the left, the Black United Front called for a black boycott of the event. On the right, the Rev. Carl McIntire, an advocate of total victory in the Vietnam War, said, “Patriots will have nothing to do with a convocation of compromise that desecrates our heritage with the ballyhoo of Hollywood.”

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Meanwhile, advocates of legalizing marijuana already had planned a national smoke-in at the Washington Monument on July 4. This prompted Honor America co-host Hope to quip, “Before this is over, I may need some of that stuff myself.”

Seeking to add appeal for liberals, Hope invited African American comedian Dick Gregory to join the July 4 show. Gregory politely declined, writing Hope in a letter. “If the celebration was strictly entertainment, completely free of social and political implications, I would be the first to join you. A celebration in our nation’s capital on the Fourth of July cannot possibly be a politically neutral event.”

Planning went on despite the threat of protests. “Tens of thousands of Americans prepared this July 4 to observe Honor America Day, conceived by its sponsors as a huge outpouring of patriotic unity in a divided nation,” wrote young Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein four years before his Watergate reporting helped force Nixon to resign.

The hot, muggy July 4 began with a Billy Graham prayer service at the Lincoln Memorial. Despite the promise of unity, Graham declared that “the overwhelming majority” of Americans are fed up with “a relatively small extremist element [who] had knocked our courts, desecrated our flag, disrupted our educational system, laughed at our religious heritage and threatened to burn down our cities.” He added: “Today we call upon all Americans to stop this polarization before it is too late.”

Meantime, young people described by some reporters as “hippies and yippies” shouted obscenities and raised the Viet Cong flag. As the U.S. Army Band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” some protesters marched in the nearby reflecting pool to a set of bongo drums. Later, some went skinny-dipping in the pool. Countering the antiwar protesters were members of the National Socialist White People’s Party, some wearing Nazi insignia.

The main event was the televised evening show at the Lincoln Memorial. Police set up barricades between protesters and the audience seated to watch the show. Just as the show was about to get underway, protesters overturned a Good Humor ice cream truck, and anti-riot police moved in. The police or someone in the crowd threw a tear-gas canister, and the tear gas “wafted” over the back rows of the audience. Some protesters threw bottles.

As he prepared to go onstage, master of ceremonies Hope looked out at the scene and remarked, “It looks like Vietnam, doesn’t it?”

Fifty years ago, Life magazine stunned the country with photos of 217 men. All had died during one week in Vietnam.

The televised show went off without a hitch. Kate Smith sang a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.” Comedian Red Skelton recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Then came performances by comedian Jack Benny, Dinah Shore and Glenn Campbell.

Nixon’s remarks were short and nonpartisan. “Let us all look back on this day,” he said, “so we will be reminded of what great sacrifices have been made to make this day possible.”

The only jarring note of non-unity came when Jeannie C. Riley sang, “When You’re Running Down My Country, You’re Walking On The Fighting Side of Me.”

The show ended with the traditional display of fireworks. The day drew an estimated 250,000 to 350,000 people, a sizable number but short of the goal. Police arrested 34 people, mostly for disturbing the peace. News reports suggest most protesters were peaceful, and most spectators were there simply to celebrate Independence Day.

Honor America organizer Marriott declared the event a huge success. Marriott deplored “the irreverent interferences and obstructionism of a small group of disaffected, pathetic youths.” He said 98 percent of the crowd was “orderly” and “properly reverent.”

President Trump plans to address the nation from the Mall on the Fourth of July and have two firework shows — a deviation from past presidents. (Video: Luis Velarde, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

But New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote that the event’s goal of unity was doomed to failure from the beginning: “Honor America Day could not attract men and women who believe little honor is due a nation, whatever its history and power, that persists in a brutal and destructive war long after its purpose can be discerned.”

Humor columnist Art Buchwald speculated that Democrats worried Republicans next would try to steal Christmas. “It’s in the works already,” Buchwald joked. “Bing Crosby and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale have been asked to head the Keep Christmas in America committee, which is supposed to bring Americans together on Christmas morning.”

An earlier version of this story stated that former president Dwight D. Eisenhower was an honorary member of the organizing committee. He died in 1969.

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