Nixon Library Celebrates the 35th Anniversary of the "Silent Majority" Speech

Roundup: Talking About History

Greg Cumming, in the newsletter of the Nixon Library (Nov. 4, 2004):

President Nixon’s famous “silent majority” address was given at a crucial time in American history. As we remember the 35th anniversary of the November 3, 1969 address, it is important to reflect on its significance.

The speech was a departure in policy and practice regarding America’s involvement in Vietnam. By the time Richard Nixon was inaugurated President of the United States, the U.S. had been militarily involved for seven years. Some 31,000 Americans had already died in combat; over 540,000 members of the U.S. military were serving their country in Vietnam with no plans to bring them home; and negotiations in Paris with the North Vietnamese were stalled.

President Nixon’s speech took place following two years of political upheaval, including the assassination of political leaders, turmoil on college campuses, and growing dissent throughout the nation regarding America’s role in Vietnam. Confrontations between students and administrators on college campuses such as the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State, and Columbia University had become increasingly violent.

It is in this tumultuous atmosphere that President Nixon stepped up to the plate to deliver his epochal speech to the largest television audience ever for a Presidential address. He called on the “silent majority” of Americans who were not protesting in the streets, to support his efforts to achieve peace in Vietnam through a negotiated political settlement.

For the first time, the President announced that something other than a military settlement was acceptable, while outlining a coherent program for peace in Vietnam. Not only did President Nixon reach out to the North Vietnamese political leaders in the hopes of negotiating an end to the war, but he also described a plan, called “Vietnamization,” which would provide the South Vietnamese military with training and financial aid so they could defend themselves against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army without the intervention of U.S. military forces.

Another thing that stands out about President Nixon’s speech was his decision to “extend the olive branch” to his critics in the anti-war movement. He said that he shared their desire for peace. After asking for the unlikely support of his critics, Nixon focused his appeal for peace on Americans who were not in the streets protesting, not breaking laws, and not disrupting society.

After the speech, President Nixon’s approval ratings in the Gallup Poll rose to 77%, and the House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting the President’s policies in Vietnam. This was a strong indication of the feelings of American citizens regarding the direction their country should take regarding the situation in Vietnam.

The support of the silent majority provided President Nixon with an effective counter-weight to the anti-war protestors, and the opportunity to wind down the war in Vietnam. Historian Stephen Ambrose called RN’s policy “…one of his [Nixon’s] historic achievements. Quite possibly no one else could have pulled it off: Quite obviously – none of his predecessors had been able to do so.”

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