During his successful campaign for the Presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon promised he had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. Yet the President decided early in his administration that a quick withdrawal "would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership...A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends."
Many Americans were unhappy when an end to the war did not materialize. In October 1969, protesters staged a huge rally in Washington, D.C. On November 3, the nation eagerly tuned in to a major Nixon television address on Vietnam policy.
Instead of announcing the end to the war that he had promised in the campaign, Nixon outlined his policy of "Vietnamization," which provided for American troop reductions but a continuation of fighting. He repeated what he had argued before: the United States had to achieve "peace with honor" and to avoid an overly sudden withdrawal.
At the end of the speech, he called for the "great silent majority" to support him in this goal:
...I recognize that some of my fellow citizens disagree with the plan for peace that 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 the war in Vietnam. Bring the boys home."
|| Well, one of the strengths of our society is that any American has a right to reach that conclusion and to advocate that point of view. But as President of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the natioin by mounting demonstrations in the street...
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 to do more than to see the day when I do not have to write any more of those letters...
And I want to end the war for another reason. I want to end it so that the energy and dedication of you, our yound people, now too often directed into bitter hatred against those reponsible 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...
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.
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 in 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...
Polls appeared to indicate that a "silent majority" sided with Nixon. The day after the speech, as supportive telegrams and letters streamed in to the White House, an administration official clarified Nixon's concept of "silent majority": a "large and normally undemonstrative cross section of the country that until last night refrained from articulating its opinions on the war." (quoted in the New York Times, November 5, 1969)
Opponents of the war responded on November 15 with "Moratorium Day": 500,000 protesters gathered at the Washington Monument. Nixon was so confident the nation was behind him that he informed the press he was watching a football game as the rally unfolded. Positive public reaction to the "silent majority" speech had boosted his confidence. He pledged to continue the war and declared he would not permit U.S. policy to be "dictated" by a minority staging "demonstrations in the streets."
Nixon's continuation of the war resulted in the invasion of Cambodia in April, 1970 -- and a far greater number of "demonstrations in the streets" than he could have imagined.
For quotations and more information about these events see Tom Wicker, One of Us : Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991)