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In his televised and widely watched speech to the nation on November 3, 1969, Pres. Richard M. Nixon introduced a phrase—“silent majority”—and a policy—Vietnamization of the war effort—that echo down to the present day. Nixon’s appearance on this night framed the terms in which much of the subsequent civil conflict and military strategy would be understood.
Rhetorical scholar Karlyn Kohrs Campbell analyzes this critically important speech in light of the historical context and its centrality to three other speeches–two earlier and one the following spring, when the announcement of the US invasion of Cambodia brought a far different response. She also sheds light on a discourse that generated much heat in a nation already seriously divided in its support of the war in Vietnam.
The first single volume dedicated to this speech, this addition to the distinguished Library of Presidential Rhetoric provides the speech text, a summary of its context, its rhetorical elements, and the disciplinary analyses that have developed.
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The Great Silent Majority
Nixon's 1969 Speech On Vietnamization
By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2014 Karlyn Kohrs Campbell
All rights reserved.
NIXON, VIETNAM, AND THE CULTURAL CONTEXT
In military terms, the war in Vietnam ended in April of 1975 when North and South Vietnam were unified as one nation. Yet the continuing influence of the Vietnam War was apparent in the 1989 inaugural address of Pres. George H. W. Bush when he said, "That war cleaves us still.... The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory." Despite his plea, the war's influence persisted, in part because of the thousands of veterans who were injured or died there and in part because its story has been told and retold by journalists who experienced it, US veterans who lived it, and novelists who wrote about the war, such as Tim O'Brien, author of Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried. The Vietnam War remains a powerful national memory because for the first time in modern history, the United States discovered that, despite its enormous resources, its power was limited, and, in spite of great efforts, it was unable to impose its will on a small Asian nation.
The decision to focus on a speech by Pres. Richard Nixon is a result of his key role in the war's history. Two figures who had opposed the war—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy—had been killed in 1968 by assassins. Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, although eligible to run for re-election, chose not to do so, in part because military success and success at the negotiating table in Paris still eluded him. As a senator, Vice Pres. Hubert H. Humphrey had opposed the war, but while he served under President Johnson, he was compelled to support the president's policies. Accordingly, Humphrey was tainted; US voters did not trust him to end the war. Instead, a plurality cast their ballots in the hope that Richard M. Nixon would find a way to achieve peace. Thus, the focus of this book is on the speech in which President Nixon offered his plan to end the fighting and to achieve what always had been the primary US goal: the preservation of South Vietnam as an independent nation.
Nixon's November 3, 1969, speech announced consequential and controversial decisions about the war, and its importance and impact provoked several rhetorical critics to analyze and evaluate it. Moreover, President Nixon considered it his best speech, among his other best efforts, the 1952 "Checkers" speech that enabled him to remain the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket and his speech resigning the presidency in 1974, which attempted to frame the way in which his presidency would be remembered.
This book is not a biography of Pres. Richard M. Nixon, although his personal history and his rhetorical experience informed his rhetorical and presidential choices on Vietnam. This book is not a history of the wars in Vietnam, although I devote a separate chapter to the history of US involvement in its wars to offer a wider context for understanding the issues that arose during the Nixon presidency.
Like others in this series, this book focuses on a single speech, delivered on November 3, 1969, by Pres. Richard M. Nixon; however, no single speech can stand alone and in analyzing it, I refer to earlier speeches that previewed key elements that recur in it. I also refer to the speech he delivered on April 30, 1970, announcing the "incursion" of US troops into Cambodia. Not only did it echo arguments made on November 3, 1969, but he also characterized that decision as an effort "to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs," which were the policies he announced on November 3. The choice to widen the war, even temporarily, re-energized antiwar protestors. In all of the speeches to which I refer, Nixon talked about his policies for ending the Vietnam War, and each of them facilitates understanding the arguments he made and the strategies he used on November 3, 1969.
The events surrounding that speech have faded from the memories of much of the US public, but I lived through them as a professor teaching courses in communication studies at what was then California State University, Los Angeles, a school of considerable diversity, whose student body was predominantly nonwhite and whose students' average age reportedly was 26. Some students who enrolled in my classes were drafted, in some cases as a result of protesting against the war; some enlisted in the air force to avoid induction into the army. Some demanded that I cancel my classes because of their outrage over the war. Instead, in my public speaking classes I proposed that each student state a claim that he or she believed to be true about the war, research it, and report back to the class on what they found. The result was that all of us discovered how mistaken we were about so many aspects of this war and its history.
The speech that is the focus of this book was delivered in the midst of three intersecting social and cultural movements, all of which affected reactions to it and to the US involvement in Vietnam. The first movement was concerted efforts by African Americans to gain their civil rights, efforts that became even more serious and determined in the period after World War II when returning African American servicemen who had fought for their country refused to accept segregation and discriminatory treatment. In 1948, Pres. Harry Truman issued an executive order ending racial discrimination in the US armed forces. The movement for civil rights that many of us remember most vividly began in 1957 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an effort that brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although peaceful efforts by African American groups continued, and in spite of passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the decade of the sixties over one hundred civil disorders occurred in urban centers that included fires that destroyed most of the downtown areas in major cities. One of these civil disorders occurred in South Central Los Angeles. The Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders linked those events directly to the failure to extend civil rights to all US citizens. The US Riot Commission in its report stated: "This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer's disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.... Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.... What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." The higher percentage of African Americans drafted to fight in Vietnam contributed to civil rights protests, a link that is clear in Dr. Martin Luther King's speech on the war delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, riots broke out in more than one hundred US cities, and my African American students became more militant. Many whites also reacted strongly to these devastating events, some resisting more intensely the desegregation of schools and neighborhoods. Accordingly, civil rights efforts aroused greater resistance.
The second social movement, now usually referred to as the counterculture, was a mixture of lifestyle changes in clothing and hairstyles, in music, in sexual mores, and in the use of mind-altering drugs. California was a center of the counterculture, and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles was a place where young people "hung out." Obviously, many students listened to and danced to the Beatles; sang with protest singers like Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary; and attempted to break free of the "conformity" they associated with the 1950s. Many older adults were shocked and outraged and believed that such youth were a threat to the nation's future. The counterculture was part of student activism generally and was linked to struggles against racism and poverty, including the freedom schools and voter registration drives in the South in which many white students participated in the "freedom" summers of 1963 and 1964. Student activism was energized by the ongoing war in Vietnam, and much of the so-called counterculture fused with protests against the war. Perhaps the clearest link between agitation and the war was the claim that if you were old enough to fight, you were old enough to vote, an argument with special force in this era and that ultimately contributed to the ratification in 1971 of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowering the US voting age to 18.
Third was the antiwar movement, which began with teachins at universities that attempted to educate students and professors about the history of Southeast Asia generally and the history of Vietnam in particular. These teach-ins raised doubts about whether there really were attacks on the USS Mattox and Turner Joy. These alleged attacks were the justification Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson used to gain passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which he used as authority to draft young men and send them to fight in Vietnam. The antiwar movement was fueled by the draft, which sent chills of fear into the lives of young men, including college students who feared that if their grades were poor, they would be sent to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam. By the time that Nixon was elected in 1968, antiwar sentiment had been reinforced by the criticisms of Johnson's policy offered by Democratic presidential candidates, such as Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), whose second-place (42 percent of the vote) showing against President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary revealed how dissatisfied Democrats were with Johnson's prosecution of the war, and President Johnson shocked the nation by withdrawing as a candidate for re-election on March 31, 1968. The late entry of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) into the Democratic primaries underscored this dissatisfaction, and he became another voice who offered a strong critique of the war while supporting antipoverty and civil rights efforts.
When Robert Kennedy was shot and killed just after he had won the California Democratic primary in June of 1968, an event shown live on television, the drama of the campaign moved to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The presumptive nominee was the former Minnesota senator and current vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who had entered no primaries but had gained a majority of delegates under the existing rules of the Democratic Party and was associated in protestors' minds with the policies of President Johnson. Antiwar protestors planned a rally in Grant Park, a venue near the convention center. Rights in Conflict, the investigative account of the events during that Democratic National Convention submitted by Daniel Walker, reported that the police faced intense provocation, but "the response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, made all the more shocking by the fact that it was inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat." Chicago had five thousand National Guardsmen on duty and the Chicago City Police had been reinforced, reflecting Mayor Richard Daley's determination that protestors were not going to disrupt a convention held in his city. Perhaps the most devastating political moment for Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey was his appearance before the convention delegates accompanied by Mayor Daley, who put his arm around him. Nixon won the key state of California, in part because many former Democrats chose to vote for Peace and Freedom Party candidates in the general election rather than support Humphrey, a man associated with Johnson's Vietnam War policies and with the harsh treatment of antiwar protestors in Chicago.
By 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon had had a long political career. After he left the US Navy, where he served in World War II, he was first a US representative from California, elected in 1946, then a senator from California, elected in 1950, then US vice president from 1953 to 1961 during the two terms of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1960 he was the Republican presidential candidate who lost in an extremely close race to John F. Kennedy. In 1962 he ran against and lost to incumbent Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown for the governorship of California. During that campaign, he pledged not to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, and true to his word, he campaigned actively for nominee Barry Goldwater, who lost, as did many Republican congressional candidates. In 1966 Nixon campaigned for Republican congressional candidates, hoping to increase Republican strength in the House and Senate, and was credited with the successful election of many of them. In 1967 Nixon decided to run for the presidency, believing that conflicts among Democrats over the Vietnam War created an opportunity for a Republican candidate to win. The competition between McCarthy and Kennedy, the assassination of Kennedy, the horrific events at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago covered in vivid and visual detail by the media, and the selection of Vice Pres. Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic nominee, a man who had supported Johnson's Vietnam War policies until late in the fall campaign, created opportunities for the Republicans generally and for Nixon in particular. There was a strong third party candidate, however. George Corley Wallace, the governor of Alabama for four nonconsecutive terms from 1963 to 1987 and three-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, became the presidential candidate on the American Independent Party ticket and ran a "law and order" campaign devoted primarily to resisting federal efforts to enforce desegregation of schools and other public facilities in the South.
This is the historical, political, and cultural milieu in which the 1968 presidential campaign unfolded. Of the three major candidates, Nixon received 43.4 percent of the vote and 301 electoral votes; Humphrey received 42.7 percent of the vote and 191 electoral votes; and George Wallace received 13.5 percent of the vote and 46 electoral votes. Emmet John Hughes, an administrative assistant to President Eisenhower, wrote that "the result for Richard Nixon could be called a victory only with some serious abuse of the word," and he cited another scholar's conclusion that "only a political upheaval of near-cataclysmic proportions could have created the conditions in which his election was possible at all." As Hughes notes, "Nixon began his 1968 campaign with a lead of 16 percent recorded in August—and he barely missed losing it." Although Nixon was elected by a minority of the electorate, most US citizens fervently hoped that he would find a way to end the Vietnam War, but despite his best efforts to preserve the independence of South Vietnam and to end the war, he did not succeed.
President Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974, after a majority of the House Committee on the Judiciary voted in support of three articles of impeachment. Only Article 4, defeated by a vote of 12–26, was directly related to the Vietnam War. It alleged abuse of the war power in the secret bombing of Cambodia, but it was rejected primarily on the grounds that members of Congress were equally culpable.
Why devote a book to this speech? First, it is a key speech on one of the most divisive issues that has troubled this nation. Second, it is a persuasive masterpiece delivered under very challenging circumstances. Third, it prompted rhetorical critics not only to evaluate it but also to argue with each other, focusing attention on key issues in the criticism of public discourse—in particular, just what criteria rhetorical critics might apply legitimately to the evaluation of a speech. Accordingly, Nixon's speech not only captures a key event in US history but an important moment in the history of academic public address criticism that highlighted disputes about what rhetorical critics are warranted to do.CHAPTER 2
A Short History of US Involvement in the Wars in Vietnam
The United States has had a long and complicated history in Indochina, the name given by the French to their colonies, which included what today are the nations of Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia), Laos, and Vietnam. Although few members of the US public were aware of it, US military involvement in what is today Vietnam began during World War II. In June of 1940, France surrendered to Nazi Germany, and German-controlled Vichy France, headed by Marshall Philippe Pétain, became a Japanese ally. Accordingly, the Japanese took over the French colonies in Indochina, but they left many French colonial administrators in place. The US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA, aided Ho Chi Minh and his League for the Independence of Vietnam or Vietminh, formed in May of 1941, in their efforts to fight the Japanese and the Vichy French. The Vietminh, led by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who had been trained in Nationalist China, were supported by the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek), and in 1943 General Giap led Vietminh military units that fought against the Japanese 21st Division. The Vietminh were encouraged by the Atlantic Charter, issued as a joint declaration by the Allies on August 14, 1941, which included a promise of self-determination for former colonies. On March 9, 1945, as defeat neared, the Japanese imprisoned all the French administrators, took complete control of Vietnam, and on March 11, 1945, declared Vietnam independent under Emperor Bao Dai, who had been the titular head of government since 1935, which included the period when Vietnam was still under French control. By so doing, the Japanese "administered a deathblow to French colonialism in Indochina."
Excerpted from The Great Silent Majority by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. Copyright © 2014 Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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Table of Contents
"The Great Silent Majority," November 3, 1969,
1. Introduction: Nixon, Vietnam, and the Cultural Context,
2. A Short History of US Involvement in the Wars in Vietnam,
3. Nixon's War Rhetoric,
4. Nixon's Rhetorical Critics,
5. Conclusion: The Power of Nixon's Rhetoric,