Study Guide

The Great Silent Majority Historical Context

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Historical Context

You know those days: you wake up with a giant zit on your face; you pour orange juice on your Raisin Bran; you bike over broken glass and puncture the tire; you accidentally set your hair on fire; and it turns out you've been at war for over a decade and you're not quite sure how or why.

You know, one of those days.

Well, that's kind of like America in 1969. It was having one of those years. When Richard Nixon gave his speech in November, he did so at the end of one of the most contradictory decades in all of U.S. history: the 1960s.

The country was still coming off the sugar high that came with the successes and excitement of the postwar era. There was an immense sense of hope for the future; the American standard of living was skyrocketing, NASA had just landed humans on the moon (paving the way for Michael Jackson's moonwalk), and the color television was making its way into households across the country.

What could possibly go wrong in such a happy country like that? Well, a lot actually.

John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all assassinated in the '60s, protesters shut down schools and government buildings across the country, and flower-power bell bottoms were becoming a thing.

On top of all of this, the Vietnam War had become a monkey on the country's back. (We're talking an 800-pound gorilla kind of monkey, not like a cute little gibbon.)

Let's Back up a Bit

But to better understand Vietnam, we need to go back to the mid-19th century, that glorious time defined by huge skirts, stuffy manners, and rampant empire building.

France began colonizing the region during the 1850s and decided to stay put as long as possible. The Vietnamese didn't really want the French hanging around, though (surprise, surprise). So when France was invaded by Germany during World War II, the Vietnamese saw this as an opportunity to take their country back.

With the French mostly out of commission after their surrender to Nazi Germany, Vietnamese nationalists under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh fought off the Axis powers like total bosses. But when the war was over, the French wanted to swoop back in like nothing had happened.

The Vietnamese wanted none of this and decided to fight the French for independence. No one expected the Vietnamese to be such military rock stars (especially not the French, who just kept getting their butts kicked). So, the French turned to their allies for help. Enter: the United States.

In the meantime, Ho Chi Minh's forces turned to allies of their own. They went a little further left than the United States, going with communist countries like China and Russia. And communism was a dirty word in American politics.

Largely because of the "c" word coming into the picture, the United States got super into this war against Vietnamese independence. Like, super into it. They were in so deep that, when the French decided they had had enough and opted to bail on the whole situation by 1954, the United States took over the entire operation. In the beginning, it wasn't even an American fight.

The United States went all out. They created a new government in the southern half of Vietnam. They helped to get a president in power there. They sent tons of money and weapons. And they just kept sending troops…and more troops…and more money…and more weapons…and more troops.

You get the picture. (And if you want the zoomed-in version of the picture, check out our "Vietnam War Summary & Analysis.")

The whole experience got totally exhausting for the United States. Many wished that the United States had left when the French did. Others wanted to see the whole thing through. Others were tired of hearing theories about dominoes (i.e., the "domino theory") and how if Vietnam fell to communist forces, the entire world would blow up and the remaining population would be enslaved by evil bunny overlords...or something like that.

But our buddy Nixon had his own opinion on how to best exit the Vietnam situation, which he laid out in his "Great Silent Majority" speech. You know, the speech you're studying right now.

Unfortunately, his plans never really worked, and the United States would remain at war with Vietnam until 1973. (Oh, were you looking for a happy ending? Sorry about that.)

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