When Richard Nixon gave "The Great Silent Majority" speech, the United States was in a total cookie-jar dilemma in Vietnam.
You know when you get your hand stuck in a cookie jar, but since you've got a hand full of cookie deliciousness, your fist is too big to get out of the jar? (We're really hoping we're not the only people greedy enough to have gotten in that particular pickle, so just smile and nod.)
Well, in 1969, Americans really wanted to get out of the Vietnam War…but seemed completely unwilling to drop that particular war cookie. The United States had been in Vietnam since the 1950s, which is a long timeto be involved in a war. And this one seemed to keep getting worse and worse as time marched on.
In fact, a lot of people weren't even sure why American soldiers were in Vietnam in the first place. It had all started off as a war between Vietnam and France, but somewhere along the way, the United States had picked up all the fighting slack. There was a lot of talk of a communist conspiracy taking place…but to a lot of Americans, these Vietnamese fighters looked like normal Vietnamese people, not commie demons. In short: it was complicated.
But the U.S. of A. didn't want to surrender and lose the war. So Nixon's plan was to defeat the enemy by any means possible and to bring the boys back home ASAP.
Enter "The Great Silent Majority," a speech where Nixon tells the American people that the United States isn't going to give up in Vietnam. They are going to fight until things get more manageable because it just isn't the American way to leave something—especially a war— half done.
In cookie-jar terminology? They are going to get that cookie out of the dang jar, even if it means smashing the whole mess against a wall.
Nixon's plan for cookie extraction—er, ending the war—basically went a little something like this: get the heck out of Vietnam…but by winning.
The problem? Or, rather, the problem other than Vietnam was turning into an unmanageable and body count-heavy disaster? A whole lot of Americans weren't really on board with the whole Vietnam thing. There were protests. There were sit-ins. There was general dissent.
That's was why Nixon makes this speech into a love letter to the "great silent majority"—the people who were still gung ho about what was going down in Southeast Asia.
His plan was to get all those protestors to shut their mouths and to ask any American who still supported the war in Vietnam to back up his plan. He wanted to get to the people who were angry about the rising popularity of the 1960s counterculture movements, the people who typically voted for Republican presidential candidates, and the people who had conservative social and political views.
And the tactic actually worked really well. This phrase and the speech writ large struck a very serious chord with Americans. Nixon's popularity shot up after the speech, and he was able to execute his Vietnam plan with all kinds of popular support.
Because the plan to win the war and pull American troops out of Vietnam at the same time would actually totally backfire. The war raged on for several more years, the United States would walk away from the situation not feeling so great about it, and Nixon would end his career in scandal. This speech was pretty much the high point of a political life that would end with a whimper rather than a war-ending, applause-laden bang.
Guys, Richard Nixon gave his "Great Silent Majority" speech at a crazy time in American history.
What we're about to say sounds pretty dated and grandpa-talking-about-the-good-old-days-esque, but bear with us. The American landscape had shifted, in less than a decade, from an ideal of happy housewives, working fathers, 2.5 children, a white picket fence, and a definite support-the-troops mentality to…something quite different.
Suddenly, hippies walked around barefoot, talking about peace and love all the time. Women wanted to work and not just raise babies. Oppressed minorities started demanding equality. One of the candidates that ran for president during the 1968 election was a pig named Pigasus the Immortal.
It was a seismic cultural shift.
And there was another thing that kept sticking in most Americans' minds, keeping them from being just like the Cleaver family in Leave It to Beaver: the Vietnam War. This thing was turning out to be a total mess. A lot of people hated it.
But there were also a lot of people who had grown up or lived adult lives during World War II, when not supporting the troops—and indeed, challenging the American dream status quo—just wasn't a thing that you did.
"The Great Silent Majority" is remembered best as an address to exactly these kinds of people. The people who wanted to believe in America fighting a just war, rather than a bungled Cold War disaster. The people who wanted to support the president and the military. And the people who felt in the weeds when it came to the whole transformation that was sweeping America.
These are the kinds of people to whom Nixon gave a shout-out in his speech. And it's that audience, rather than the speech's empty promises of ending the war easily and early (because, yeah, the Vietnam War didn't draw to what anyone would term an easy close), that we think of when this speech is brought up.
Even today, we see the rhetoric of this speech echoed. In fact, Donald Trump often used the phrase "silent majority" during his presidential campaign…and it was a term that people grew attached to.
Check it out:
To Davey, the silent majority today is all about opposition to the rise of what he calls "PC culture."
"The reason why we're silent is because we're not allowed to talk," he said. "My favorite thing about Trump is that he wants to get rid of political correctness. It all started out as anti-bullying, where all of a sudden you can't say certain things because you're bullying them." (Source)
So, um, why should you care about a musty speech that Nixon gave in the 1960s? Because the same divide between conservative America and liberal America that Nixon hinted at still survives today. Because this speech's key phrase is still being used today. And because the sentiments attached to this key phrase can be seen to have played a part in the election of the 45th American president.
Can't get enough Nixon? This has all the Nixon-related tapes and transcripts to fill your little heart's desire.
The Re-Envisioned Nixon Library
Every president gets a library, so why not Nixon? FYI, they recently updated the entire library to appeal to a "younger" generation of visitors. How did they do this? By adding a bunch of giant televisions and blown-up pics of Nixon's face to the walls. Because, you know, everyone wants to see giant Nixon heads.
The Watergate Affair
This one is for those of you who like a little John le Carre mixed into their political history. This website covers just about everything you need to know about Nixon and the Watergate scandal that rocked 1970s America.
It's a little dry. It's a little academic-y. But the Miller Center has some killer info on Nixon and the other presidents.
Nixon by Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone has made a name for himself by creating thought-provoking political commentaries like the movie JFK and movies that can be described as total whacked-out weirdness like Natural Born Killers. Check out this one he made on Nixon and decided for yourself where it rests on the Stone spectrum.
Frost/Nixon by Ron Howard
Watch the Frost-y interviews that took place between David Frost and Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal.
Dick by Andrew Fleming
The Washington Post called this the "best movie about President Nixon and Watergate." How could they be wrong?
"He Was a Crook" by Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson was known for a lot of things. He was the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he symbolized America following Nixon's presidency, and most of all he couldn't stand Richard Nixon. Nearly 20 years after Nixon resigned from the presidency, Thompson still held a grudge, which can be seen in this obituary after Nixon's death in 1994.
The Kitchen Debate
Before "The Great Silent Majority" speech and even before his resignation, Nixon was known for his mad debating skills. Kitchen debating skills, that is. He actually debated Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on who had the better kitchens, the United States or the Soviet Union.
Nixon's "Great Silent Majority" Speech
If audio doesn't do it for you videophiles out there, here's the speech in its video form, so you can see every facial expression and hand movement that coincides with every word.
The "Great Silent Majority" Speech
Listen to Richard Nixon's speech for yourself. Better yet, go ahead and download it to your phone so you can listen to it on your daily drive. That way you can memorize it word for word. You know you want to.
Nixon's Signature Hand Signal
Nixon famously began using his fingers to signal V for "victory," as in victory for Vietnam. He may have been a little premature on that one. But it did look suspiciously similar to the peace sign that hippies used during the same era.
These were the anti-war protesting types that were always getting under Nixon's skin. They were apparently getting flowers into the muzzles of guns as well.