“Very few speeches actually influence the course of history. The November 3 speech was one of them.”
—RN in RN
Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon wrote and delivered a speech that both changed the course of American foreign policy and altered the course of American politics. As he later wrote, “Very few speeches actually influence the course of history. The November 3 speech was one of them.”
By the end of 1969, it was clear that the new President’s dreams of ending the Vietnam War during his first year in the White House hadn’t survived the light of common day. His early optimistic predictions were already poignant by midsummer.
RN never had —and never said he had— a “secret plan” to end the war; that was a press creation that morphed into a political canard. He thought that a renewed resolve on the battlefield (to convince the enemy that, unlike his predecessor, he couldn’t be gulled into bombing halts by the mere hint of negotiations), combined with willingness to reach a diplomatic solution that was equable to both sides, would enable him to end America’s involvement and bring the troops home.
It took several rebuffs before he accepted that the North Vietnamese had no interest in negotiating. Their strategy was to wait and depend on domestic opposition to the war to force RN to abandon President Thieu and pull out American forces unilaterally.
Indeed, domestic antiwar sentiment was widespread and growing apace. The nation’s campuses had reopened to the announcement of an October 15th “Moratorium” — the first of a series of nationwide protests on the ides of each month until the war was ended. A quarter million people —mostly young— descended on Washington for the Moratorium. They were wished well by North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong in a statement broadcast over Radio Hanoi: “May your fall offensive succeed splendidly.”
The “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam” on 15 October received widespread and almost universally favorable coverage. It attracted a quarter of a million anti-war protesters to Washington. Radio Hanoi broadcast a message to them from North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong: “May your fall offensive succeed splendidly.”
The turnout was impressive and the coverage was as positive as it was relentless. In order to show that the President was not reacting to any of these factors, the White House announced on the 13th that he would address the nation on the subject of Vietnam on November 3rd.
Politicians and the public were curious about what the increasingly beleaguered President would say; media speculation on the subject approached obsession. The general consensus was that Nixon was either smart enough to register the serious extent of opposition to the war, or canny enough to appreciate that this would be his last chance to act before “Johnson’s War” became “Nixon’s War.” Either way, the anticipation centered around method —would he announce a ceasefire in place or a withdrawal of 50 or 100,000 men— rather than substance.
Democrats and anti-war activists absorbed and reflected this ambient optimism and hinted at the bipartisan benefits to be enjoyed by cutting and running; some even pledged their support in advance. Within his own administration —at Defense and State and even on the NSC— there was considerable support for a softer public line. The Republican Senate Minority Leader urged the President to declare a unilateral ceasefire. The prospect of peace made the stock market soar.
Ever since the Fund Speech saved his vice presidential candidacy in 1952, RN understood the use of television as a way to leapfrog political opposition and media criticism and talk directly to the American people. He also understood the dramatic advantages of encouraging speculation in order to increase the audience and heighten the impact.
Unlike other presidential speeches that involved a collaborative process melding input from experts with language from wordsmiths, RN wrote this speech entirely by himself and mostly in the seclusion of Camp David. On Saturday, November 1st, he worked through the night, filling dozens of yellow pads. Around 4 AM he wrote a paragraph calling for support from “the great silent majority of Americans.” After a couple of restless hours trying to sleep, he was back to work. At 8 AM he called his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and said, “The baby’s just been born.”
After spending Sunday making final revisions and practicing the speech, the President choppered back to the White House on Monday afternoon. Several hours later, at 9 PM, he spoke to the nation from the Oval Office. Whether Americans supported or opposed the War, few felt that power had been speaking truth to them about it. On November 3rd, in the course of thirty-two minutes, the American people heard more plain talk about Vietnam than they had heard in the last few years.
The speech’s opening was direct and unadorned:
Tonight….I would like to answer some of the questions that I know are on the minds of many of you listening to me.
How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place?
How has this administration changed the policy of the previous administration?
What has really happened in the negotiations in Paris and on the battlefront in Vietnam?
What choices do we have if we are to end the war?
What are the prospects for peace?
His answers to those questions pleased some and infuriated others — but few accused him of parsing or wiggling.
He went through a fairly detailed history of his futile attempts to negotiate with North Vietnam — including backchannel overtures by personal emissaries, secret talks conducted by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and even a personal letter to Ho Chi Minh.
He stated that capitulation or withdrawal, aside from the deadly consequences for the people of South Vietnam who had depended on our promises of support and joined our side, would undermine worldwide confidence in the dependability of American alliances and the integrity of American foreign policy. So that option —however widely popular and politically attractive it might be— was off the table.
He addressed the antiwar activists —and particularly the young people— directly: “I respect your idealism. I share your concern for peace. I want peace as much as you do.” He announced that increasing numbers of American troop withdrawals would be coordinated with a policy of Vietnamization — training and equipping the South Vietnamese army to defend itself and its country.
Again, in contrast to presidential and other political obiter dicta regarding Vietnam over the preceding few years, he accepted the consequences of his decision to “Nixonize” the Vietnam War: “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.”
He said that the enemy could choose to end the war at any time by sincere negotiations. But, in the meantime until Vietnamization was complete, what his plan needed to succeed was time. And that brought him to the phrase that has become a permanent part of the political lexicon:
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 likey, 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.
As the President signed off, the network news departments swung into gear — and revealed that he had achieved his desired surprise with a vengeance. The wisdom that he would announce the beginning of the end of the war had become so conventional that the reporters and pundits were totally unprepared to deal with what he actually said. As a result the tone of the commentary was almost universally critical; and its most common denominator was criticism that he had not done what they had expected him to do.
The media barrage surrounding the Moratorium was focused and relentless. The conventional wisdom was that RN had no choice but to accept the widespread —or at least widely covered— anti-war sentiment abroad in the country. Media speculation about the 3 November speech dealt with how far RN would go reversing his prior policy and how soon he would end the war. Not the least element of the speech’s impact and success was its effective end run of the anti-war media by going directly to the people and asking for their support.
The public clearly disagreed. For the audience of 70 million watching and listening, the immediate impact of the speech was all but unprecedented. An overnight Gallup phone poll found 77 percent in favor; during the next week the President’s approval rating, which had been stuck in the high ‘30s, soared to 68 percent. While some of the reaction was undoubtedly ginned up by the White House, the speech’s phenomenal impact has never really been challenged.
Chief of Staff Haldeman’s diary entry for November 4th reflected RN’s attitude: “P especially pleased at the reaction from the speech because he succeeded in moving people to action without demagoguing. His view is that you fire people up with a tough loud speech, but you win them over an change their minds only by calm reasoning.”
In the event, the November 3rd speech only bought the President a very little time in Vietnam. The willingness of the enemy to hold out for total victory and the pent up resentment of the anti-war opposition ended up imposing serious constraints on his ability to act.
But the silent majority would prove a sleeping giant which, once roused by RN, remained largely loyal to him until the very end of his presidency. And the political results of its arousal —there were Nixon Democrats long before there were Reagan Democrats— led to the 1972 landslide that, but for Watergate, might have permanently reconfigured the landscape of American politics.