Nixon gave his famous Cambodian Incursion Address only ten days after announcing he would withdraw from Vietnam despite concerns over increased enemy activity. Why did he change his mind and more...

Nixon gave his famous Cambodian Incursion Address only ten days after announcing he would withdraw from Vietnam despite concerns over increased enemy activity. Why did he change his mind and more importantly, how did he use the speech to "persuade" the public's anticipated negative reaction? In your analysis be sure to use  the speech's rhetorical strategies to make a clear argument to support your claim.

Cambodian Incursion Address


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msmeow-7867 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In April 1970, President Nixon announced his intent to withdraw 150,000 troops from Vietnam. Ten days later, he reneged on that, announcing in a 20-minute speech that instead, he was expanding the war into Cambodia. The reason he gives in his Cambodian Incursion speech is basically that attacking North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) targets in Cambodia would ultimately save American lives and allow for the complete and honorable withdrawal of troops. This is partly true; however, there was a larger political reason for reversing his decision. The success of the Vietnam War for America meant the equally successful fulfillment of a policy known as “Vietnamization,” a policy that was intended to end the war and allow for withdrawal of American troops through the training and equipping for combat of the South Vietnamese army that would allow them, in turn, to defend their own country. But this policy was in serious jeopardy. Cambodia’s leader, Prince Sihanouk, although maintaining that his country was neutral, allowed NVA and VC troops to set up military bases inside Cambodian borders. Although it was lucrative for Sihanouk, it was devastating for American troops, who were not permitted to cross into Cambodia and who were the target of both forces. When Sihanouk was ousted by General Lon Nol, Cambodia’s pro-USA Prime Minister, things quickly fell apart as civil unrest in Cambodia increased, threatening Vietnamization, which in turn threatened Nixon’s presidency.

So now that we know the basics of the ‘why,’ let’s take a look at the ‘how.’ Although this speech has some flaws, it is considered to be one of the top 100 speeches from a rhetorical standpoint (American Rhetoric). This is a complex speech, and one could spend many pages analyzing all the rhetorical devices and strategies Nixon employs here, but there are a few that deserve some focused attention. First, Nixon works to establish his ethos. In rhetorical terms, ‘ethos’ is an appeal to credibility; the speaker or writer works to establish his/her credibility. There are several ways to do so, including establishing oneself as an authority and appealing to commonly held beliefs. Nixon does both in this speech. He establishes himself as an authority in the first minutes (the first 3 paragraphs of the transcribed speech) where he clearly states that the decision to move forward with his plan were made by him and him alone:

I have concluded that the actions of the enemy in the last 10 days clearly endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam now and would constitute an unacceptable risk to those who will be there after withdrawal of another 150,000. To protect our men who are in Vietnam, and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program, I have concluded that the time has come for action.

But when he says that he has made these decisions only after “full consultation with the National Security Council, Ambassador Bunker, General Abrams and [his] other advisors,” he also lets listeners know that he has consulted with other experts, that he is not barging ahead uninformed. This, too, boosts his credibility. Nixon speaks at this point as part of a collective:

Now confronted with this situation we had three options: First, we can do nothing. Well the ultimate result of that course of action is clear. Unless we indulge in wishful thinking, the lives of Americans remaining in Vietnam after our next withdrawal of 150,000 would be gravely threatened.

He also appeals to his "fellow Americans” (read: I am one of you) and invites the American people to be part of the collective: “Let us go to the map again” and “It is not our power, but our will and character that is being tested tonight.” He follows this by making sure we all know who the “good guys” are in this fight:

[W]e did not wish to violate the territory of a neutral nation. Even after the Vietnamese Communists began to expand these sanctuaries four weeks ago, we counseled patience to our South Vietnamese allies and imposed restraints on our own commanders. In contrast to our policy the enemy in the past two weeks has stepped up his guerrilla actions.

In each of these strategies, we are meant to see a steady, informed, rational hand on the wheel, and for the most part, we do.

Nixon moves on by appealing to commonly-held beliefs and values:

The question all Americans must ask and answer tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which rejects every effort to win a just peace, ignores our warning, tramples on solemn agreements, violates the neutrality of an unarmed people, and uses our prisoners as hostages? If we fail to meet this challenge, all other nations will be on notice that despite its overwhelming power the United States when a real crisis comes will be found wanting.

In this one paragraph, we see appeals to America’s strength, solidarity, and character as a nation, as well as to Americans’ sense of justice, compassion, and independence, all values we hold dear. We also see with his repeated use of “we” that he counts himself as one of us, and that, too, boosts credibility.

Nixon employs a second rhetorical appeal, pathos, an appeal to emotion for the purpose of persuasion. We see this a number of places in this speech, including in the example offered above. He also speaks repeatedly of “our brave men,” protecting our men, the lives of Americans being “gravely threatened,” troop withdrawal,” and “winning the just peace.” Perhaps the most notable use of pathos comes at the end of the speech where Nixon emphasizes what Bostdorff (1993) calls the “selfless ‘I’” (p. 99); he becomes a president unconcerned with his political future, sacrificing himself for the greater good of America and Americans. We see that perhaps at its best here: “I would rather be a one-term president and do what I believe was right than to be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history.” It’s hard not to feel emotions stir at this point. It’s hard not to want to support his plan. It’s hard not to believe. And that makes the strategy successful.

Another rhetorical strategy at work in this speech is the use of euphemisms. Euphemisms are milder words or expressions used in place of harsh or unpleasant ones. For example, we often say someone has “passed away” rather than say he/she has died. In polite company, we say, “I need to use the restroom” rather than say, “I’ve got to take a dump.” Nixon uses euphemisms, too. For example, he calls this action an “incursion” rather than an “invasion” because “incursion” sounds more benign, less aggressive, and that’s important since he wants to build America up as being the good guys. He also terms the NVA and VC military strongholds ‘sanctuaries,’ a milder and less panic-inducing term, and he discusses the need to “clean out’ these sanctuaries, knowing full well that this means bombing, strafing, and razing the area at great loss of human life. The hope is that these euphemisms will make the speech more palatable and its goals acceptable to those listening.

The last rhetorical strategy I want to discuss is the use of repetition. If you listen to any truly stirring speech, the likelihood is that it employs repetition. Nixon uses repetition multiple times in this speech, but it is most effective in two key places. First, Nixon tells us

A majority of the American people, a majority of you listening to me are for the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. The action I have taken tonight is indispensable for the continuing success of that withdrawal program. A majority of the American people want to end this war rather than to have it drag on interminably. The action I have taken tonight will serve that purpose. A majority of the American people want to keep the casualties of our brave men in Vietnam at an absolute minimum. The action I take tonight is essential if we are to accomplish that goal.

Here, he acknowledges what most Americans want in regards to this war, and then he tells us how his actions meet those wants. And he does it three times. In rhetoric, three is the magic number. Repeating things three times helps people to remember, especially if the speaker/writer associates that repetition with an emotional trigger as Nixon does here by emphasizing the safety and withdrawal of troops. The second place repetition is especially effective is when Nixon declares, “But we will not be humiliated. We will not be defeated. We will not allow American men, by the thousands, to be killed by an enemy from privileged sanctuaries.” This repetition is also pathos at work as he not only scores points for again touching the emotional trigger of troop safety, but also taps into the historical ideologies of our founding fathers, who established America as a place for strong, free people. Overall, this is a highly effective and moving speech based on its rhetorical strategies.