The True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority

The True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority

Matthew Weber - August 2, 2017

Throughout American History, there have been many contentious times. For many today, it would seem like we’re living through the most contentious times in our history right now, but that might not be true. The Vietnam War became very unpopular by the time the 1970s rolled around.

In 1965 over half of Americans approved of the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War (64 Percent). By 1969, that number had reversed and over half of Americans disapproved of the United States’ efforts in southern Asia (54 percent had a negative view of America’s participation in the war).

The gradual disinterest and disagreement with the war efforts in Vietnam became a festering wound on American culture as more and more people became disillusioned with the leaders of the country, even as those same leaders seemed to double down on what seemed to be a losing effort.

The True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority
02 Apr 1967, Vietnam — American soldier turns to give instructions as firing continues in front of him during Operation Byrd in the Vietnam War. History Channel

By the time President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, most Americans wanted out of the war in Vietnam. Protests, often becoming violent, were common, and it seemed obvious to most people that the goals of the US were not being met. People who were against the war most often wondered what the US was fighting for or more accurately, what were the US forces dying for?

Historian Thurstan Clarke writes, “In 1968, America was a wounded nation. The wounds were moral ones; the Vietnam War and three summers of inner-city riots had inflicted them on the national soul, challenging Americans’ belief that they were a uniquely noble and honorable people.”

While the American public became more and more disillusioned with the Vietnam War, the politicians who led America spent more and more time defending the war effort (also defending their decisions to continue fighting what most Americans considered to be a losing effort).

The question that historians have been asking for the last half-century, or so, is why the US was so invested in continuing the fighting in Vietnam. In order to answer that question, one has to ask the question of why the US participated in the war in the first place.

The answer is that it has to do with Communism and the United States’ fear that if Vietnam and Southern Asia fell to Russian-influenced Communism, more and more nations would follow. This is what was known as the Domino Theory, which was first proposed by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954.

It was a policy the US Government adhered to until the end of US participation in the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. It was a highly controversial policy, as there was no evidence that it would come to pass if the Vietnam war was lost. In fact, many argued that it was highly unlikely that outside of a few very small countries any other Asian countries would fall to communism due to Soviet influence.

Fear of Communism and Soviet influence in World Politics and trade is what drove the United States to continue their efforts in Vietnam, plain and simple. If it weren’t for Communism, the US would have played no role in the Vietnamese Civil War.

The True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority
Richard Nixon at a Press Conference 1970. Wikipedia

Nixon’s Silent Majority

Throughout his first term in office, Richard Nixon was convinced that the war in Vietnam was winnable if only the US put forth enough effort and resources. This led to several escalations in bombing and troop deployments between 1969 and January 1972. That said, he also believed that the war should be placed back into Vietnamese hands and that the US should take on a supporting role in the war.

This, as you might expect, drew a lot of outcry from people who opposed the war. Protests became more and more frequent, and Americans became insistent the US begin to extract themselves militarily from Vietnam. To go along with all of this, the media that followed the anti-war movement grew and grew along side it, creating a media frenzy that snowballed, making it seem like almost all Americans opposed the war effort.

But how many truly did oppose the United States’ efforts in Vietnam in the early 1970s? We’ve seen some poll numbers from the late 60s, where just over 50 percent of Americans disapproved of US participation in the war, but what about after that? In January of 1970, the number held true at around 52 percent. In January 1971, that number had risen to 59 percent, and in January 1973 it was 60 percent.

So, while those numbers do indicate that a majority of Americans had a negative opinion of the war, there was still a significant number of Americans who held a different opinion.

Richard Nixon suggested that there was yet another group of Americans out there. With the majority of the media covering the anti-war protests, it was very difficult for people to understand how the Nixon administration could support any type of escalation in the war. The polls showed two groups of people, those who opposed the war, and those who supported it, with the latter almost continually shrinking.

Nixon suggested that there was a third group of people out there that he dubbed “The Silent Majority,” that supported the war but did not express their opinions in such a public fashion, as protesters were wont to do. The term had been used before, as we’ll discuss down below.

The True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority
Vietnam War Protests. History

In November of 1969, Richard Nixon took his seat in the Oval Office and gave one of the most frank speeches ever given by an American President. Say what you will about Nixon (especially how his time in office ended), but you can’t really say in this case that he held back in any way.

The speech consisted of around 4500 words and lasted about a half-hour (if the recordings on YouTube are accurate). In the speech, he laid out how after taking office he had pressed for peace in several different ways. He even went so far as to read aloud a letter he had sent in secret to Ho Chi Minh.

After laying out the state of the war at the time of the speech, Nixon went on to re-outline the Nixon Doctrine, which was his plan to end the war no matter the result of negotiations (which had been taking place in Paris off and on for several years).

“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 True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority
Vietnam War Protests, Late c1960s. History Channel

Seeking Support

Perhaps the most provocative statement from Nixon’s speech that night was this one:

“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.”

On the Internet, there is a lot of debate over Nixon’s use of the term “Silent Majority.” A lot of people have expressed their doubts that those who remained silent on the war effort in Vietnam were any type of majority. Those same people also expressed doubt that those who remained silent were at all likely to support the war at all. If any logic can be applied, it is likely that if such a group exists, they would be divided much like the rest of the country was at the time.

The True Story Behind President Nixon’s Silent Majority
Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

On the other hand, the response to Nixon’s speech was very favorable. A poll that was completed after the speech said that 77 percent of Americans were in favor of the Nixon Doctrine, which basically said that the US would put the control of the war in Vietnam back into Vietnamese hands, while the US would go back to an advisory and support role. In the speech, Nixon said, “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 term silent majority was not coined by Nixon. He wasn’t the first to use such a group as justification for political or military action. In 1919 Warren Harding used the term during the runup to the 1920 Presidential Election. Prior to that, it was used to describe a group of people who had died for a certain cause.

Since Nixon’s speech, the term “Silent Majority” has been used often when the leader of a nation is planning to take action that he or she deems unpopular.

Between 1969 and 1973, which is often termed the era of “Vietnamization”, the US started to change the way they participated in the war. In 1971, the first US troops were pulled from the region. By May 1973, the last US troops were gone from Vietnam.


Sources For Further Reading:

Foreign Policy Research Institute – Why the United State Went to War in Vietnam?

ThoughtCo – Why Did the US Enter the Vietnam War?

The New Yorker – What Went Wrong in Vietnam

History – Was 1968 America’s Bloodiest Year in Politics?

History – Domino Theory

History Extra – The War That America Could Never Win? Opposition, Dissent And The Vietnam War

History – Vietnam War Protests

History – Ho Chi Minh responds to Nixon letter

American Rhetoric – Richard M. Nixon: The Great Silent Majority Speech

University of Mississippi – Silent Majorities: The Brief History of a Curious Term, 1920-1980

The New York Times – ‘No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam’