Nixon on Vietnam: the ‘silent majority’

By Chris McCarthy

Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat… North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United State. Only Americans can do that.

President Richard M. Nixon, 3 November 1969

By the beginning of 1969, as U.S. President-elect Richard Nixon prepared to take the oath of office, the American ground war in Vietnam had been going on for four years: Over 30,000 Americans had been killed in action, a further 540,000 were in the country with limited prospects for withdrawal, peace negotiations in Paris had made no progress, and the South Vietnamese training program was behind schedule.

The conflict was becoming an ever-greater embarrassment to America – the world’s richest country and largest military humbled by a guerilla army being supported by the United States greatest ideological rival – whilst divisions at home were calcifying. The antiwar movement was gaining momentum in the first year of Nixon’s presidency compounding the pressure on the new administration; millions of Americans took the day off work and school to join the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstrations on 15 October 1969 that included a march on Washington.

During the 1968 presidential campaign Nixon had run on a promise to bring “an honorable end to the war”, but after nine months in office the manner and means by which he intended to keep that pledge were still unclear. On 3 November 1969, Nixon addressed the nation at 9pm for 30 minutes, expanding on the administration’s policy in Vietnam, the prospects for peace, and to “summon up the strength of our national character”, as Nixon would later describe the circumstances of his speech. He expounded what he called the ‘Nixon Doctrine’* on foreign policy toward Asia but it was the appeal to America’s silent majority that provided the speech’s enduring remark.

The drafting process was an intense and largely solitary effort for the President. On 24 October Nixon retreated to Camp David, working 12-14 hour days, and continued the refinement process when he was back in Washington the following week after a staff aide cleared most of his schedule. He returned to Camp David on 31 October and while working through the night struck upon the “great silent majority” quote. Vice President Spiro Agnew had used the phrase earlier in the year and Nixon talked of a “quiet majority” and “silent centre” during the campaign but no one in the administration forecast how strongly it would resonate with the public.

And so tonight – to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans – I ask for your support…The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge [to end the war] can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris.

By “taking the steam out of the doves’ campaign”, as Nixon speechwriter William Safire described the address, Nixon galvanised his supporters by assuring them that a “fervent minority” would not dictate American foreign policy, that their support could help bring the war to an earlier end and, in a direct appeal to the country’s youth, that he respected their idealism and shared their aspirations for peace.

I want to end [the war] so that the energy and dedication of you, our young people, now too often directed into bitter hatred against those responsible for the war, can be turned to the great challenges of peace, a better life for all Americans, a better life for all people on this earth.

The instant reaction from television analysts was unfavourable. ABC’s Bill Lawrence was still unable to locate the President’s plan for bringing the war to an end and CBS’s Eric Sevareid was disappointed that after all the feverish speculation, “there wasn’t a thing new in this speech.” The public’s reaction was markedly different. An instant Gallup poll showed 77% approval and the more than 50,000 telegrams and 30,000 letters set new records. Nixon would later acknowledge in his memoirs that the impact of the speech came as a surprise to him: “It was one thing to make a rhetorical appeal to the Silent Majority+ – it was another actually to hear from them.”

The speech was a triumph of order, a logically constructed argument that appealed to reason and only occasionally strayed into banalities – “this would have been a popular and easy course…It is not the easy way” – and jingoistic flag-waving – “Any hope for the survival of peace and freedom will be determined by whether the American people have the moral stamina and the courage to meet the challenge of free world leadership.” Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner described his boss as a “logical student of persuasion. Painstakingly prepared.”

What immediate and lasting impact did the speech have on foreign policy toward Asia? It would be a further four years before the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, officially ending direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, after nearly 60,000 US troops had been killed – although casualty rates did drop markedly after 1969. Neither the war nor the peace agreement prevented Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, falling to North Vietnamese forces in 1975 and Nixon opened up a new aspect of the war with incursions and a heavy bombing campaign in Cambodia before facing his own fall in 1974, becoming the first and only U.S. President to resign from office in the fallout from the Watergate scandal.

Regardless, the ‘silent majority speech’ is an exemplar of oratorical craftsmanship that builds an argument like a building, as H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, described the President’s rhetorical style. It engendered a new mood in the country, breaking apart the idea of “pluralistic ignorance”, an unawareness of being in the majority. It brought the administration some time to negotiate for a “just peace” and illustrated the President’s finest skills when too often he is remembered for his worst.

_____

* Under the doctrine – which Nixon described a policy to not only help end the war in Vietnam but to “prevent future Vietnams” – the US would keep all of its treaty commitments; provide allies with a shield should a nuclear power threaten them; and provide military and economic assistance to other countries whose freedom was threatened but expect them to take primary responsibility for their defence.

+ Nixon did not capitalise ‘silent majority’ in the original speech, later acknowledging he would have done so had he known it would have been picked up in the way it was.

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