Explainer: 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)
When Richard Nixon campaigned to become the 37th President of the United States of America in 1968, the country faced its greatest division in the 20th Century. Dissent, discord and demonstrations flooded the streets – some peaceful and some violent – in major cities across the country. On August 8, 1968, Richard Nixon accepted the Republican Nomination at the Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida. In his speech, Nixon gave his perspective on the state of the country:
For a few moments, let us look at America, let us listen to America to find the answer to that question. As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame.
We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all this way for this?
Political division, race riots, and the war in Vietnam were at the center of American consciousness causing many to wonder how their nation had been consumed by hateful shouting and disunity. It was during Nixon’s speech at the Republican National Convention when he first appealed to the “non-shouters; the non-demonstrators” also known as “the forgotten Americans” – a term which would evolve into the “Great Silent Majority” in November of 1969.
On January 20, 1969, Richard Nixon gave his first Inaugural Address with the overall message of peace at home and abroad. He said the United States was ending an era of confrontation, and entering era of negotiation:
The peace we seek–the peace we seek to win–is not victory over any other people, but the peace that comes ‘with healing in its wings’; with compassion for those who have suffered; with understanding for those who have opposed us; with the opportunity for all the peoples of this earth to choose their own destiny.
On May 14, 1969, four months after taking office, President Nixon made his first speech on the progress of United States involvement in Vietnam. By requesting the time to address the nation on Vietnam, there was growing anticipation that Nixon was going to announce the immediate withdrawal of American troops. Instead, Nixon stated principles later affirmed in the Nixon Doctrine, in which an allied nation of the United States would be in charge of its own security, however, if it did not have the strength or training to defend itself and protect its citizens from danger, the United States would assist them. Nixon stated in his first address on the subject:
Since I took office 4 months ago, nothing has taken so much of my time and energy as the search for a way to bring lasting peace to Vietnam. I know that some believe that I should have ended the war immediately after the inauguration by simply ordering our forces home from Vietnam.
This would have been the easy thing to do. It might have been a popular thing to do. But I would have betrayed my solemn responsibility as President of the United States if I had done so.
I want to end this war. The American people want to end this war. The people of South Vietnam want to end this war. But we want to end it permanently so that the younger brothers of our soldiers in Vietnam will not have to fight in the future in another Vietnam someplace else in the world.
When we assumed the burden of helping defend South Vietnam, millions of South Vietnamese men, women, and children placed their trust in us. To abandon them now would risk a massacre that would shock and dismay everyone in the world who values human life.
Abandoning the South Vietnamese people, however, would jeopardize more than lives in South Vietnam. It would threaten our long-term hopes for peace in the world. A great nation cannot renege on its pledges. A great nation must be worthy of trust.
President Nixon presented the aims of the United States presence in Vietnam, the proposals presented to him to end the war, and the process of peace negotiations between the North Vietnamese and the United States conducted by U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers in Saigon, South Vietnam and U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in Paris, France.
Four months passed following President Nixon’s address to the nation on the war in Vietnam. In the span of that time, student war protests erupted on college campuses across the country. It was soon announced that a militant anti-war group “New Mobe” (New Mobilization), would be organizing the first Vietnam Moratorium march on October 15, 1969 in Washington, D.C. and other major cities. The news of the march sparked encouragement by the North Vietnamese to continue on with the desire to end “United States aggression upon the Vietnamese people.” The encouragement by the North Vietnamese frustrated the Nixon administration as it feared further division among the American people in regard to the Nixon Doctrine and its Vietnam policies.
Two days before the October 15 march, White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler announced President Nixon would make a formal address to the nation on Vietnam on November 3rd.
The Moratorium march was generally peaceful. However, Nixon’s coming address to the nation on Vietnam caused anticipation among the American public. Immediately after the Moratorium, letters swarmed the White House mail room with penned convictions from those against the war and those stating they were of “the silent majority” in support the President Nixon’s Vietnam policy.
With the overwhelmingly divisive responses from the Moratorium, President Nixon decided the best way to work on his address to the nation was to leave Washington, D.C. for the Catoctin Mountains – the location of Camp David. In the secluded Maryland forestry, President Nixon would often travel to Camp David to work and organize his ideas away from the overwhelming business of Washington. President Nixon reflected::
I find that getting away from the White House, from the oval Office, from that 100 yards that one walks every day from the President’s bedroom to the President’s office…gives a sense of perspective which is very, very, useful…I find that up here on top of a mountain it is easier for me to get on top of the job.
Twelve drafts of the speech were created until President Nixon believed all had been divulged. On November 3, President Nixon delivered his speech to the American people. During the speech he said in part:
I have chosen a plan for peace. I believe it will succeed. If it does succeed, what the critics say now won’t matter. If it does not succeed, anything I say then won’t matter. I know it may not be fashionable to speak of patriotism or national destiny these days. But I feel it is appropriate to do so on this occasion.
Two hundred years ago this Nation was weak and poor. But even then, America was the hope of millions in the world. Today we have become the strongest and richest nation in the world. And the Wheel of destiny has turned so that any hope the world has for the survival of peace and freedom will be determined by whether the American people have the moral stamina and the courage to meet the challenge of free world leadership.
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.
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.
(Excerpt from Silent Majority Speech, November 3, 1969)
It was estimated that 70 million Americans watched the speech. From President Nixon’s memoirs, he wrote, “very few speeches actually influence the course of history. The November 3 speech was one of them. Its impact came as a surprise to me; it was one thing to make a rhetorical appeal to the Silent Majority – it was another actually to hear from them.”
By November 4, the White House mail room received an overflow of reactions to the President’s address. More than 50,000 telegrams and 30,000 letters were delivered. During the following weeks, a Gallup poll showed President Nixon’s approval rating had soared to 68 percent. A majority of the country was in support of the President and his Vietnam policies formalized by the Nixon Doctrine.
The Silent Majority Speech Drafts
- Silent Majority Speech Draft 2
- Silent Majority Speech_Draft 3
- Silent Majority Speech Draft_3A
- Silent Majority Speech Draft_4
- Silent Majority Speech Draft 5
- Silent Majority Speech_RN’s Reading Copy
H.R. Haldeman Diary Entries and Notes
National Security Council Files
- NSC_Memo-William Rogers to RN_structure of speech
- NSC_Memo_Al Haig to HK_ Talking Points
- NSC_Memo_ HK to RN_Letters from Heads of State Willie Brandt
- NSC_Memo_ HK to RN_Letters from Heads of State
- Larry Higby to President Richard Nixon on Adam Walinsky and Post-Moratorium Day
- Memo for the President from Buchanan
- Memorandum from Haldeman to the Sec. of State
- Memorandum from Bill Gavin to Haldeman_Peace and the President
- Memorandum, Dwight Chapin to President Richard Nixon, October 17, 1969
- Mail at the White House
Public Responses to the Silent Majority Speech
- Letters – Pro
- Letters – Con
- Telegrams –
U.S. News Coverage
- Protest Coverage
- Chicago Tribune
- Christian Science Monitor
- The Los Angeles Times
- The New York Times
- The Washington Post
- The Silent Majority Speech Coverage
- The Los Angeles Times
- The New York Times