Podcast: Evan Thomas on the Great Silent Majority
Press photographers in the White House Oval Office take photos of President Nixon on the evening of his address to the nation on the Vietnam War of November 3, 1969. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Evan Thomas is author of “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.”
Fifty years ago this week, President Nixon gave his address to the nation on the Vietnam War, popularly known as the “Silent Majority” Speech. On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore this topic with Evan Thomas, former Newsweek editor, and best selling author of serious historical biographies including, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.”
Buy Evan Thomas’ “Being Nixon: A Man Divided” here.
President Nixon: 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.
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now” podcast. I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter, @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. That was President Nixon giving his address to the nation on the Vietnam War, also known as the “Silent Majority” speech on November 3rd, 1969, 50 years ago this week. To discuss the milestone anniversary, we are joined by Evan Thomas, former “Newsweek” editor and bestselling author of serious historical biographies, including “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.” Evan Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.
Evan Thomas: Great to be with you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Evan, let’s start out and give the speech a little bit of background. Can you give our audience a little background on what was happening in the country and overseas in Vietnam when President Nixon gave the speech?
Evan Thomas: Well, the President was, you know, about a year into his first term and he inherited the Vietnam War. It was going badly. We’d already lost about 30,000 Americans, and it didn’t get much better under the first few months of his watch just because it was just an impossible situation. We had a half a million men there. And so Nixon and his aides were casting about for something to do, and they rejected the idea of just getting out, that that would be a disaster for South Vietnam and it would lead to massacres. Also, that it would hurt America around the world, that it would make us seem weak to our allies and to our enemies, and so they wanted to hang in there. The question was how? Secretly, they talked about a real escalation of military action. This was favored by Henry Kissinger, the President’s national security advisor.
He wanted to hit hard, bombing Hanoi, invading North Vietnam to really lower the hammer. It was known as Operation Duck Hook. But the military was not really crazy about doing this worrying that it wouldn’t work. And we had already embarked on a different program that was made public called Vietnamization, where the idea of that was just to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, to gradually withdraw our troops and have the South Vietnamese handle more of their own fate. Now, President Nixon listened closely to Kissinger’s appeals for force and he was at least inclined towards doing that, but he backed off on it. Nixon had a kind of a shrewd fingertips about what was going to work domestically and what was going to work abroad. I think he had some doubts about whether it would work against the North Vietnamese, and at home, he could see that dissent was really growing, and he was really affected by the October moratorium.
October 15th, 1969, there was a national pause led by the anti–war movement, but it was in many, many cities, including Washington, DC. On October 15th, hundreds of thousands of people were gathered out, or at least thousands of people were gathered on the mall. Nixon could look at their candles. It was peaceful protest and they were relieved that it was peaceful, but it signaled that the country was really upset and wanted something else. So Nixon decided against a harsh military build up, but he still had to do something.
And what he did was to disappear to his retreat at Camp David, where he liked to go. And he was alone for a number of days. And this is unusual for a president. He actually wrote his own speech. You know, most presidents have speech writers do that. Nixon, this is a speech that Nixon himself wrote. His personal aide, Jack Brennan, told me that when he was up there working on his speech, he would wander around camp David at night looking for empty cabins, and he would find an empty cabin and he’d sit there and scroll away on that yellow pad, and he spent hours on this speech, which he gave on the night of November 3rd, 9:30 Eastern time, 70 million people listening. And his most famous, most memorable construction was this idea that there was a silent majority out there, that people who are watching the news were used to a very noisy minority, but it was a minority. Well, you know, the demonstrators, the really loud demonstrators, they were a minority, that there was still in the country a silent majority that was patriotic, that supported the President, that supported the President’s policy, nd Nixon appealed to that silent majority. Interestingly, he came up with that word, the silent majority.
And again, usually it’s speech writers who come up with these things. This was Nixon himself who was a brilliant… He had good speech writers. He had some great speech writers. Bill Sapphire, in particular, but others as well, Pat Buchanan. Just, he had terrific speech writers, but Nixon wrote this speech, and that was a great phrase, and it was in a long tradition of how Nixon understood his own power and really understood the country, this idea that there was a silent majority, people who weren’t out there being noisy, but just supported their country. And that, the speech was enormously successful. His approval rating went from 52% to 68%. Let’s imagine, 68% is a number that modern presidents can only dream about. So it was a very successful speech, at least politically, at least in the short term.
Jonathan Movroydis: From Nixon’s perspective, what were the demographics of the silent majority versus what he believed was the vocal minority?
Evan Thomas: This is gonna sound familiar. On the coast were the elites, and they ran the media even more so than today, they ran the media, and the banks and the big law firms and the big universities. They were the intellectual class, the power and the intellectual power, and their ability to project themselves was amplified because they were elites. Remember, this is before the internet, which the internet for whatever else it is, is very democratizing. It gives everybody a voice. Back in 1969, the voice of the country really belonged to pretty small, really in New York and well, Washington, but especially in New York, the major networks, there were three of them then. “The New York times,” “Washington Post,” they were liberal. They were by and large against the war, but Nixon understood there were a lot of other people who weren’t being heard from, who were silent or quieter, and that’s what he was appealing to. He had this insight, you know, many times in his long career, he had built his political power on appealing. He used different descriptions of them. He called them the quiet Americans or the forgotten Americans, the people who weren’t the powerful, they weren’t the elite, but they were patriotic.
Jonathan Movroydis: You brought up that Nixon had thought about some of this early in his career. How far does it go back? I mean, you had mentioned in your book the Hiss case, that he would make references to the Hiss case when discussing the silent majority. Could you touch upon that a little bit?
Evan Thomas: Sure. I mean, this goes all the way back. Actually, it goes back before the Hiss case and where it was significant. When he was in college at Whittier College, there was sort of an elite group that had its own society, known as the Franklins. And Nixon organized his own society, his own, it’s not a fraternity exactly, it’s sort of a club, called the Orthogonians. It was really made up of people who are on the outs. Not the star quarterback, but the lineman, so to speak, on the football team. And Nixon, although he was not necessarily the most easy person to pal around with, had great political insight. He ran for student body president and won by appealing not to the elites, but to everybody else. And of course, there are more others than elites. And this goes all the way back.
You mentioned the Hiss case. And the Hiss case, this involved a fellow named Alger Hiss, who was a senior state department official who was accused of being Communist, being a Soviet spy. Hiss denied it and the elites believed him. Hiss was head of the Carnegie Institute. He’d gone to Harvard Law School. He was sort of a darling of the East Coast elites, and they believed the denials, and so did most people, or at least most people in Washington. Nixon, however, was pretty sure that Hiss was a Soviet spy. And Nixon was right. Nixon had then as a Congressman, you know, as a young Congressman, exposed Alger Hiss, proved that he was working for Moscow, and that was a tremendous blow against the elite. Of course, the elites never forgave him for it, but it helped launch Nixon’s political career.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was this speech more? I mean, the title of the speech is “The Address to the Nation on the Vietnam War,” the situation in the Vietnam War. But did this speech have broader connotation for Nixon than just, than just Vietnam?
Evan Thomas: Yes. I mean, Nixon’s whole political career was based on this ability to reach past the establishment of the elites and to have a more popular or populous background. Now it’s a little complicated because Nixon himself was, you could say a man of Washington. After all, he’d been a Congressman, he’d been a U.S. Senator, he’d been vice president of United States. He’d been in Washington a long time. He understood Washington. He understood Washington power. He understand how to use Washington power. So you could say, well, he’s a Washington establishment figure. But he never forgot where he came from, that he had been a poor boy and growing up in California in Yorba Linda on a pretty desolate, then desolate place, now a beautiful place where the library is. But back in its day, you look at those photographs, it’s pretty bleak. And he knew, you know, he’d grown up in the Great Depression and he knew what it was like to be poor and to be isolated.
And also, because he was a shy, and this is part of the mystery of Nixon. He was a shy guy. He was not popular at school, but he was a shy guy who managed to become student body president in high school and in… Actually, he never made it in high school. He was close. But he did make it in college because he was politically shrewd. He knew how to rally the left behind and the forgotten. And this was just an enormous issue for him all through his career. But particularly in the ‘60s when the country was so divided and a lot of the noise was coming from the university campuses, which were then even more so back in the late ‘60s, were where well, better off kids and more elite kids went. That’s where the noise was coming from. And Nixon understood, again, he’d done this all through his career that he could build a majority out of people who, in opposition to that group.
Now, it’s complicated because Nixon was accused of being divisive, of dividing the country. Nixon’s own view was that he was uniting the country. And was he? You know, history is going to have to decide. It was a divisive time, that’s for sure. Now, in Nixon’s defense, he did have this more universal feel. He understood the country was more than just people who had gone to Harvard. On the other hand, he sometimes played on passions that were negative, and he did…he could touch nerves that were full of anger. And his critics have faulted him for this, and rightly so. Nixon was not above playing to fear. And that is, to me, that is a powerful criticism of him. You can debate it and you can dispute it, but it is a recurring criticism. And like every good politician, he knew how to play to human emotions, and one of them is fear.
Jonathan Movroydis: The Vietnam War being unpopular as it was during this period, why do you think the speech resonated so well and why did his approval ratings…why did he get such a great reception to the American people that they would give them such great approval ratings afterward?
Evan Thomas: The Vietnam War was actually not quite as unpopular as it seemed. People hung in, you know, people are patriotic. And even, even four or five years into the combat when the war had been kicking along in small ways, it really became a combat war in the Johnson administration where we, when we started sending U.S. troops to fight offensively in 1964 is when the war sort of cranked up. So this is now 1969 and the country’s unsure. On the campuses, people were about to be drafted and, you know, 18–year–olds were being sent off to fight. They’re against it. But a lot of other people are not so sure about that. They worry that if we lose or certainly, if we give up, then the United States will appear weak. And this is not so far from World War II. 1969, you know, we had won World War II in the early 1940s. A lot of the people who were say 50 years old had fought in that war and remembered it and were proud of it and did not want to see America lose a war.
Jonathan Movroydis: In a substantive and also, somewhat of a political way, how does he ultimately marshal the silent majority in all terms of policy, both foreign and domestic? What does he do in his administration after the speech that specifically, I guess, helps marshal their support?
Evan Thomas: This is both the good Nixon and the bad Nixon. On the bad Nixon front, or at least from the point of view from the establishment, he put his Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, out there to start criticizing the press. to start mocking the press asd the nattering nabobs of negativity. There’s played really well and people really liked it and were amused by it and like to see Agnew out there banging away at the press. It was, however, divisive and it did further divide the country. So I would not say that Agnew’s crusade was a net plus for the country. It was effective, but I think it made divisions worse. On the more positive side, Nixon was very creative and on foreign policy, he was, nobody knew about it at the time, but he was getting ready to do something that was really dramatic, and that is to go to China.
This is complicated and grand sort of geopolitics. Nixon was a brilliant geo–politician kind of world, global politician. He understood the forces of power and he could see that the split between China and Russia, most people thought China and Russia were just one thing, Communism. And Nixon, of course, had been ferocious anticommunist but Nixon was smart enough to see that actually China and Russia were not one thing. In fact, they were close to going to war with each other and that they could be politically played off against each other. And so he had this way of pitting one against the other in a way that actually was good for American power. Part of that was, although China was closed to the United States, had been for quarter of a century, he was getting ready, and this didn’t bear fruit for another 18 months or so, getting ready to go to China himself to open it up, to use Henry Kissinger to proceed them, but to take this incredibly dramatic move that was very good for world peace and good for the United States.
So he was already working on that behind the scenes. Domestically, he was coming up with ideas that are now pretty well forgotten. People think of Nixon as being conservative. He was, at that very moment in the fall, the winter of 1969 and 1970, starting to gear up as an environmental president. Now again, part of it was political. He could see that the Democrats were making an appeal. The environmental movement was brand new. This is long before global warming. All these things that were assumed today, this is all new in the late sixties. The idea that you had to protect the environment, that was a new idea and the Democrats had embraced it. Edmund Muskie, the Senator from Maine, Nixon thought that he might be the Democratic candidate in 1972. So Nixon who loved to be…to outflank his enemies, to do in runs on his enemies, he cast himself as an environmental reformer and created the Environmental Protection Agency. Kind of amazing when you think of it, that a conservative Republican, Richard Nixon was the guy who created the EPA, the bane of big business now, but at the time, a very savvy political move, and also good for the country. The Nixon administration passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, 1971 or ‘72, I guess it was, that were very important first steps in cleaning up the environment, just crucially important. And so Nixon was an inventive, although he’s politically inventive, he is also very substantive. Those were very substantive acts. This is all happening that fall, winter and spring of his first and second year in office.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked a little bit in “Being Nixon” about this idea of government reorganization, that, the idea that president Nixon was going to reorganize government in such a way that he felt would empower his governing coalition against his perspective on elites within the bureaucracy. Could you expand on that a bit?
Evan Thomas: They had a terrible word for it. They called the New Federalism. Nobody knew what the hell that meant. Nixon was brilliant coming up with the idea of the silent majority, but not so brilliant on this idea of federalism because that sounds like more federal power, not less. Actually, his idea which was rooted in political savvy and, and has a lot of appeal today was he felt that the federal bureaucracy in the ‘60s and well, starting with Roosevelt with the New Deal, Washington had accumulated too much power in Washington, too much bureaucratic power in Washington. He wanted to redistribute some of that power to the States. That was the New Federalism.
Let state governments make power more local, local state power. Take it away from Washington, give it to the States. But to do that with the help of the White House, it’s really in a way it’s the White House, which is of course the center of Washington working with state and local government against Congress, if you will. But certainly against the federal agencies. He wanted to put his own people in the federal agencies to make them less regulatory, this has resonance today. One of the reason why President Trump as remained pretty popular, certainly, in the business community, is that he has seen as being anti-regulation, anti-big government. Nixon helped start this movement a long time ago. I don’t think he would have done it the way President Trump has done it, but that basic instinct to take power away from Washington and give it to the States or back to the private sector, that was very Nixonian.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you feel the silent majority re–elected president Nixon against George McGovern in 1972? I mean, given the fact that McGovern was left of Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy.
Evan Thomas: Absolutely. People forget, because Nixon was impeached, it was not impeachment, excuse me, but because he resigned before he was impeached, but because of that, people forget. He won in 1972 by the second largest landslide in history. It was barely top by Johnson in ‘64. It was over 60% of the popular vote. He won every state except for one, Massachusetts maybe, I can’t remember. But it was an overwhelming victory. He did that because he was able to go over the heads of the elites and get the silent majority behind them. I mean, the very people he was appealing to in that speech, in the “Silent Majority” speech voted for him in 1972 in vast numbers, He won by a landslide.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why do you think studying the speech is important today?
Evan Thomas: Well, it’s always important to study history to realize that there’s, in some ways nothing new. A lot of Trump’s populism has its roots, and a lot of his anti-Washington fervor has its roots at the Nixon administration. Now, I’m not equating Trump and Nixon. I’m not doing that. Nixon was probably the best read president’s ever, maybe Teddy Roosevelt, ever. This is funny. Although Nixon pretended to disdain intellectuals, he actually was one himself. This is very Nixonian. He was brilliantly well read and I’m not talking reading novels either. He’s reading, you know, political philosophy, political science. That’s obviously not President Trump’s way. Also, Nixon was deeply thoughtful about foreign policy in ways that President Trump is not. So I’m not equating the two. However, there is this similarity, being anti-regulatory, being for the forgotten man against the elites that, Trump didn’t invent that, Richard Nixon did. Well, actually, Richard Nixon didn’t either.
I, these traditions go all the way back to Andrew Jackson, the 1830s. Heck, you could take it all the way back to the Whiskey Rebellion. I mean, there’s been a streak in American politics for a long time of populism, of resentment of the elites and politicians who are skillful at appealing to them. Nixon was one of the most successful of that ever, and he won because he was able to marry populism, resentment against the elites with, I know this sounds kind of screwy, but sort of being brilliant about being an elite himself. I mean, he was able to manipulate and he understood Washington. He got Washington, he was able to get things done with Congress. Trump does not work with Congress and Congress has not worked with Trump, but Nixon did work with Congress and they got a lot done.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our topic is the “Silent Majority” speech given by President Nixon 50 years ago this week. Our guest is Evan Thomas, former “Newsweek” editor and bestselling author of among other books, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided.” Evan Thomas, thank you so much for joining us.
Evan Thomas: Thanks, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.