Excerpt from the "Silent Majority" speech
Delivered on national television, November 24, 1969
"And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support."
By the time Richard M. Nixon was elected president of the United States in November 1968, the majority of the American people had grown tired and frustrated with the war in Vietnam. Polls showed that 60 percent of Americans thought that becoming involved in the war had been a mistake, while 20 percent favored an immediate withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. Many people began to question whether Vietnam was important enough to U.S. interests to justify the loss of more American lives. In addition, some people began to worry about the effects the war was having on American society. "Controversy over the war in Vietnam brought vast changes to the United States in the 1960s," Robert D. Schulzinger wrote in A Time for War. "The war affected every institution in American life: universities, Congress, the presidency, the Democratic Party, the armed forces, labor unions, religious organizations, and the mass media."
Historians have noted that the Vietnam War divided the American people more than any other event since the Civil War (1861–65) a century earlier. Some people believed that the war was immoral and opposed it strongly. They wanted theUnited States to reduce its role and negotiate a peace agreement with North Vietnam. They resented war supporters, whom they considered ignorant or heartless. Meanwhile, other people felt just as strongly that they had a responsibility to support the U.S. government and American military forces. While they might agree that the war was dragging on too long, they believed that only intensifying American military action would bring a quick end to the conflict. They resented antiwar activists, and many viewed them as cowards or traitors.
The strong feelings on both sides of the issue made it almost impossible for Americans to engage in a constructive debate over Vietnam. Over time, the controversy ripped apart families, friends, and communities. "It is important to understand the terribly difficult nature of the choice being forced upon many citizens by this war. Americans traded harsh charges amongst themselves during these troubled years, and they frequently did so in very strident [loud] tones," David W. Levy wrote in The Debate over Vietnam. "When we remember that inflated rhetoric [language] and extreme gestures of animosity [hostility] are often signs of serious social strain, we can begin to gauge the extent to which Vietnam tore at the nation as a whole."
The deep and dangerous divisions among the American people became clear at the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago during the summer of 1968. Inside the convention hall, the Democrats struggled to agree on the Vietnam policy they would present in their campaign. Meanwhile, the streets of Chicago outside the convention hall became the site of a raucous antiwar protest. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sent his police force to control the protesters, and the situation quickly turned into a riot. Scenes of fights between antiwar activists and police officers dominated television newscasts and overshadowed the convention. More than one thousand protesters and two hundred police officers were injured in the fighting.
The violence and controversy surrounding the Democratic convention disgusted many Americans and made them worry that the whole country was falling apart. It also convinced some voters that the Democrats could not lead the country out of the situation in Vietnam. Such doubts helped Republican candidate Richard Nixon defeat Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election to become president of the United States. During his campaign, Nixon promised that he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War.
After taking office in January 1969, Nixon began outlining his plan to achieve "peace with honor" in Vietnam. "The administration was committed to getting out of Vietnam as quickly as was practicable, but to doing it with dignity, without seeming to flee, and without appearing to abandon . . . the dream of a stable and independent South Vietnam," Levy explained. Nixon promised to withdraw American combat forces gradually over time, while also taking steps to strengthen the South Vietnamese government and military. He noted that this plan—which became known as "Vietnamization"—would enable the United States to end its involvement without allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism. He began implementing this plan in June 1969, when he withdrew the first 25,000 American troops from Vietnam. Nixon also opened peace talks in Paris with North Vietnamese officials.
For the first six months that Nixon was in office, the antiwar movement remained relatively quiet. For one thing, many people had turned away from antiwar protests after the trauma of the Chicago convention. The scenes of violence on TV convinced many Americans that "antiwar activity was largely the work of ill-kempt troublemakers who burned American flags and abused policemen," Levy noted. In addition, some people were encouraged by the steps Nixon had taken to begin peace negotiations and troop withdrawals.
But the antiwar movement began gaining strength again by the middle of 1969. As the number of American soldiers killed in combat continued to increase, some people argued that Nixon was moving too slowly toward peace. One example of the resurgence of the antiwar movement was the Moratorium Day demonstrations, held on October 15. In this nationwide peaceful protest, hundreds of thousands of people gave speeches, took part in marches, and held candlelight vigils in cities and towns across the country. These demonstrations worried and angered Nixon, even though they were less violent and confrontational than the protests of earlier years.
Nixon also uses this speech to make a direct appeal to the American people to support his plans. He expresses his resolve not to let the antiwar movement—which he calls a "vocal minority"—dictate his actions. He also criticizes antiwar protesters, saying that they humiliate the United States and increase the North Vietnamese will to fight. Finally, he asks the patriotic "silent majority" of Americans to come forward and support him.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Nixon's "Silent Majority" speech:
- In his speech Nixon says that he wants to tell the American people the truth about the situation in Vietnam. But Nixon was not always truthful about his actions during the war. For example, in the spring of 1969 he approved a series of bombing raids over Cambodia, a neutral country located on Vietnam's western border. Fearing a new round of protests, he kept the bombing of Cambodia secret. He did not inform the American people or even members of Congress.
- Nixon did not consult with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu before announcing his Vietnamization program. Some South Vietnamese government and military leaders resented the plan. For one thing, it made it seem as if South Vietnamese forces had not been involved in the fighting up to that point. In addition, it made people in both North and South Vietnam question the American commitment to winning the war. To some, Vietnamization clearly indicated that the main priority of U.S. strategy was to reduce American involvement in Vietnam rather than to achieve peace there.
- Nixon mentions the violence that took place when Communist forces took control of North Vietnam in the mid-1950s. After the Geneva Accords of 1954 divided the country, Ho Chi Minh and other Communist leaders concentrated on building a socialist society in the North (socialism is a political doctrine that calls for state ownership and control of industry, agriculture, and distribution of wealth). For example, they instituted a land reform campaign to distribute privately owned land to poor and landless people. But the land reform campaign soon turned vicious. Thousands of people who had previously owned land or were thought to be unfriendly to communism were put in prison or executed. Estimates of Vietnamese killed during this period range from 30,000 to as many as 100,000. Throughout the Vietnam War, American officials pointed to this violence as evidence that the Communists would treat the people of South Vietnam harshly if they won the war.
- Even Americans who opposed the Vietnam War did not always agree on what steps the U.S. government should take to end it. Some people favored immediate withdrawal of American troops, some wanted a gradual withdrawal like the one Nixon proposed, and others wanted to increase American troop commitments in hopes of achieving a quick military victory. Such differences of opinion made it more difficult for the Nixon administration to develop popular policies.
- Nixon struggled with the antiwar movement throughout his time in office. He viewed antiwar protesters with hostility and suspicion. After all, they made it more difficult for him to conduct the war. He also believed that the vocal antiwar demonstrations in the United States encouraged the North Vietnamese and kept them from negotiating a settlement. Nixon used a variety of means to keep an eye on the antiwar groups and make them look bad. For example, he used government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to investigate or harass their leaders. He also sent spies into various organizations. "No one at an antiwar meeting could ever be sure that the person in the next chair was not an FBI spy, sent either to report on the meeting or, in some well-documented cases, even to propose outrageous and illegal actions leading to embarrassment of the participants or to their arrest," Levy noted.
Excerpt from Richard M. Nixon's "Silent Majority" speech:
Good evening, my fellow Americans. Tonight I want to talk to you on a subject of deep concern to all Americans and to many people in all parts of the world—the war in Vietnam.
I believe that one of the reasons for the deep division about Vietnam is that many Americans have lost confidence in what their Government has told them about our policy. The American people cannot and should not be asked to support a policy which involves the overriding issues of war and peace unless they know the truth about that policy.
Tonight, therefore, I would like to answer some of the questions that I know are on the minds of many of you listening to me: How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place? How has this administration changed the policy of the previous administration? What has really happened in the negotiations in Paris and on the battlefront in Vietnam? What choices do we have to end the war? What are the prospects for peace?
Let me begin by describing the situation I found when I was inaugurated on January 20. The war had been going on for four years. 31,000 Americans had been killed in action. The training program for the South Vietnamese was behind schedule. 540,000 Americans were in Vietnam, with no plans to reduce that number. No progress had been made at the negotiations in Paris and the United States had not put forth a comprehensive peace proposal. The war was causing deep division at home and criticism from many of our friends, as well as our enemies, abroad.
In view of these circumstances there were some who urged that I end the war at once by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all American forces. From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: this was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson's war to become Nixon's war.
But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world.
Let us all understand that the question before us is not whether some Americans are for peace and some Americans are against peace. The question at issue is not whether Johnson's war becomes Nixon's war. The great question is: How can we win America's peace?
Let us turn now to the fundamental issue. Why and how did the United States become involved in Vietnam in the first place? Fifteen years ago North Vietnam, with the logistical support of Communist China and the Soviet Union, launched a campaign to impose a Communist government on South Vietnam by instigating and supporting a revolution.
In response to the request of the Government of South Vietnam, President Eisenhower sent economic aid and military equipment to assist the people of South Vietnam in their efforts to prevent a Communist takeover. Seven years ago President Kennedy sent 16,000 military personnel to Vietnam as combat advisers. Four years ago President Johnson sent American combat forces to South Vietnam.
Now, many believe that President Johnson's decision to send American combat forces to South Vietnam was wrong. And many others, I among them, have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted. But the question facing us today is: Now that we are in the war, what is the best way to end it?
In January I could only conclude that the precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would be a disaster not only for South Vietnam but for the United States and for the cause of peace.
For the South Vietnamese, our precipitate withdrawal would inevitably allow the Communists to repeat massacres which followed their takeover in the North fifteen years before. They murdered more than 50,000 people, and hundreds of thousands more died in slave labor camps. We saw a preview of what would happen in South Vietnam when the Communists entered the city of Hue last year. During their brief rule there, there was a bloody reign of terror in which 3,000 civilians were clubbed, shot to death, and buried in mass graves. With the sudden collapse of our support, these atrocities of Hue would become the nightmare of the entire nation—and particularly for the million and a half Catholic refugees who fled to South Vietnam when the Communists took over in the North.
For the United States, this first defeat in our nation's history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership not only in Asia but throughout the world. . . .
For these reasons I rejected the recommendation that I should end the war by immediately withdrawing all our forces. I chose instead to change American policy on both the negotiating front and the battlefront. . . .
At the time we launched our search for peace, I recognized we might not succeed in bringing an end to the war through negotiation. I therefore put into effect another plan to bring peace—a plan which will bring the war to an end regardless of what happens on the negotiating front. It is in line with a major shift in U.S. foreign policy which I described in my press conference at Guam on July 25.
Let me briefly explain what has been described as the Nixon doctrine—a policy which not only will help end the war in Vietnam but which is an essential element of our program to prevent future Vietnams.
We Americans are a do-it-yourself people. We are an impatient people. Instead of teaching someone else to do a job, we like to do it ourselves. And this trait has been carried over into our foreign policy. In Korea and again in Vietnam, the United States furnished most of the money, most of the arms, and most of the men to help the people of those countries defend their freedom against Communist aggression.
Before any American troops were committed to Vietnam, a leader of another Asian country expressed this opinion to me when I was traveling in Asia as a private citizen. He said: "When you are trying to assist another nation defend its freedom, U.S. policy should be to help them fight the war, but not to fight the war for them."
Well, in accordance with this wise counsel, I laid down in Guam three principles as guidelines for future American policy toward Asia: First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments. Second, we shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security. Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense. . . .
The defense of freedom is everybody's business—not just America's business. And it is particularly the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened. In the previous administration we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration we are Vietnamizing the search for peace.
The policy of the previous administration not only resulted in our assuming the primary responsibility for fighting the war, but even more significantly did not adequately stress the goal of strengthening the South Vietnamese so that they could defend themselves when we left.
The Vietnamization plan was launched following Secretary Laird's visit to Vietnam in March. Under the plan, I ordered first a substantial increase in the training and equipment of South Vietnamese forces. In July, on my visit to Vietnam, I changed General Abrams' orders so that they were consistent with the objectives of our new policies. Under the new orders, the primary mission of our troops is to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume the full responsibility for the security of South Vietnam. . . .
We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable. This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater. . . .
My fellow Americans, I am sure you can recognize from what I have said that we really only have two choices open to us if we want to end this war: I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action. Or we can persist in our search for a just peace, through a negotiated settlement if possible or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization if necessary—a plan in which we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.
I have chosen this second course. It is not the easy way. It is the right way. It is a plan which will end the war and serve the cause of peace, not just in Vietnam but in the Pacific and in the world.
In speaking of the consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, I mentioned that our allies would lose confidence in America. Far more dangerous, we would lose confidence in ourselves. Oh, the immediate reaction would be a sense of relief that our men were coming home. But as we saw the consequences of what we had done, inevitable remorse and divisive recrimination would scar our spirit as a people.
We have faced other crises in our history and have become stronger by rejecting the easy way out and taking the right way in meeting our challenges. Our greatness as a nation has been our capacity to do what had to be done when we knew our course was right. I recognize that some of my fellow citizens disagree with the plan for peace I have chosen. Honest and patriotic Americans have reached different conclusions as to how peace should be achieved.
In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading: "Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home." Well, one of the strengths of our free society is that any American has a right to re
For almost 200 years, the policy of this nation has been made under our Constitution by those leaders in the Congress and the White House elected by all of the people. If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.
And now I would like to address a word, if I may, to the young people of this nation who are particularly concerned, and I understand why they are concerned, about this war. I respect your idealism. I share your concern for peace. I want peace as much as you do. There are powerful personal reasons I want to end this war. This week I will have to sign 83 letters to mothers, fathers, wives and loved ones of men who have given their lives for America in Vietnam. It is very little satisfaction to me that this is only one-third as many letters as I signed the first week in office. There is nothing I want more than to see the day come when I do not have to write any of those letters.
I want to end the war to save the lives of those brave young men in Vietnam. But I want to end it in a way which will increase the chance that their younger brothers and their sons will not have to fight in some future Vietnam someplace in the world.
And I want to end the war for another reason. I want to end it 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.
I have chosen a plan for peace. I believe it will succeed. If it does succeed, what the critics say now won't matter. If it does not succeed, anything I say then won't matter.
I know it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days. But I feel it is appropriate to do so on this occasion. Two hundred years ago this nation was weak and poor. But even then, America was the hope of millions in the world. Today we have become the strongest and richest nation in the world. And the wheel of destiny has turned so that any hope the world has 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.
Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism.
And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.
I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris.
Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.
What happened next . . .
Just as Nixon had hoped, the "Silent Majority" speech increased public support for his policies and quieted the antiwar movement—at least temporarily. Shortly afterward, polls showed that 48 percent of Americans approved of his handling of Vietnam, while 41 percent disapproved. In addition, his remarks seemed to shift people's attention away from the war and increase public criticism of antiwar activists.
But this situation changed dramatically a few months later. In the spring of 1970 Nixon sent U.S. ground troops intoCambodia. He explained that this "incursion" would destroy enemy supply lines, force the North Vietnamese into serious negotiations, and reduce the pressure on South Vietnam so that the Vietnamization program would have time to work. But many Americans viewed the invasion of neutral Cambodia as an escalation of the war. They felt that Nixon had broken his promise to bring American troops home and end the war.
The antiwar movement reacted to the invasion of Cambodia by launching protests across the country. Many of these antiwar demonstrations took place on college campuses, including the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Beginning on May 1, hundreds of Kent State students gathered to protest the invasion of Cambodia. Some of the demonstrations turned violent. On May 2 the protesters burned down a campus building that had been used for military training of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). In response, Ohio Governor James Rhodes called out the National Guard to restore order. But the demonstrations continued, resulting in several angry confrontations between students and guardsmen. During one of these confrontations on May 4, members of the National Guard fired their guns into a crowd of demonstrators, killing four students and injuring nine others.
Many Americans were shocked and outraged at the tragedy that had taken place on the Kent State campus. Angry demonstrations against the killing of the students broke out on many other college campuses. In fact, many colleges decided to close for the year and send students home early in order to prevent violent protests.
But some people had grown so tired of the unrest in American society—and felt so much resentment toward the antiwar movement—that they claimed the Kent State protesters had gotten what they deserved. In fact, a Newsweek poll showed that six out of seven Americans blamed the students rather than the national guard for the Kent State tragedy. "Millions of Americans had no regrets about Kent State; some actually welcomed it," Albert Marrin wrote in America and Vietnam. "For five years they had watched student protests, seen students carrying Viet Cong flags, heard students insulting the nation. Those privileged youngsters were attacking their most cherished values: steady work, patriotism, the flag." Once again, the nation seemed to be on the verge of falling apart over the war in Vietnam.
Did you know . . .
- Nixon had retired from politics before he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1968. After serving as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, he had run for president in 1960 but was defeated by John F. Kennedy. He then ran for governor of California in 1962, but he lost again. At that point he retired from politics, telling the media that "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." But he made a remarkable political comeback from these defeats, ran for president again in 1968, and finally won.
- Nixon gave his "Silent Majority" speech exactly one year after he was elected president.
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