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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

 
Silent Majority Redux

Rick Perlstein wrote me an e-mail and reminded me that it was just two weeks after the biggest peace march in American history that Dick Nixon gave his famous "Silent majority" speech on Vietnam --- November 3, 1969. He laid out his plan to "win" the war and successfully marginalized what was becoming a very mainstream anti-war movement. Perlstein thinks that the Bush people probably studied this speech very closely and I suspect he's right.

Read the whole thing, but here's the conclusion of the speech:

My fellow Americans, I am sure you can recognize from what I have said that we really only have two choices open to us if we want to end this war.

--I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action.

--Or we can persist in our search for a just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization if necessary--a plan in which we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom. I have chosen this second course. It is not the easy way. It is the right way.

It is a plan which will end the war and serve the cause of peace--not just in Vietnam but in the Pacific and in the world.

In speaking of the consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, I mentioned that our allies would lose confidence in America.

Far more dangerous, we would lose confidence in ourselves. Oh, the immediate reaction would be a sense of relief that our men were coming home. But as we saw the consequences of what we had done, inevitable remorse and divisive recrimination would scar our spirit as a people.

We have faced other crises in our history and have become stronger by rejecting the easy way out and taking the right way in meeting our challenges. Our greatness as a nation has been our capacity to do what had to be done when we knew our course was right.

I recognize that some of my fellow citizens disagree with the plan for peace I have chosen. Honest and patriotic Americans have reached different conclusions as to how peace should be achieved.

In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators. carrying signs reading: "Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home."

Well, one of the strengths of our free society is that any American has a right to reach that conclusion and to advocate that point of view. But as President of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this Nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the Nation by mounting demonstrations in the street.

For almost 200 years, the policy of this Nation has been made under our Constitution by those leaders in the Congress and the White House elected by all of the people. If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society.

And now I would like to address a word, if I may, to the young people of this Nation who are particularly concerned, and I understand why they are concerned, about this war.

I respect your idealism.

I share your concern for peace. I want peace as much as you do. There are powerful personal reasons I want to end this war. This week I will have to sign 83 letters to mothers, fathers, wives, and loved ones of men who have given their lives for America in Vietnam. It is very little satisfaction to me that this is only one-third as many letters as I signed the first week in office. There is nothing I want more than to see the day come when I do not have to write any of those letters.

--I want to end the war to save the lives of those brave young men in Vietnam.

--But I want to end it in a way which will increase the chance that their younger brothers and their sons will not have to fight in some future Vietnam someplace in the world.

--And I want to end the war for another reason. I want to end it so that the energy and dedication of you, our young people, now too often directed into bitter hatred against those responsible for the war, can be turned to the great challenges of peace, a better life for all Americans, a better life for all people on this earth.

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.

Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world. He said: "This is the war to end war." His dream for peace after World War I was shattered on the hard realities of great power politics and Woodrow Wilson died a broken man.

Tonight I do not tell you that the war in Vietnam is the war to end wars. But I do say this: I have initiated a plan which will end this war in a way that will bring us closer to that great goal to which Woodrow Wilson and every American President in our history has been dedicated--the goal of a just and lasting peace.

As President I hold the responsibility for choosing the best path to that goal and then leading the Nation along it.

I pledge to you tonight that I shall meet this responsibility with all of the strength and wisdom I can command in accordance with your hopes, mindful of your concerns, sustained by your prayers.

Thank you and goodnight.


God knows it's not unfashionable these days to talk about patriotism and national destiny. And I'm sure we are going to hear a whole boatload of it tonight. But the point in tonight's speech is very likely the exact same point as Nixon's was --- to divide America clearly into two camps and push those who are wavering on the war to see withdrawal as shameful and detrimental to America's security. Perlstein points to the key phrase in this speech: "lose the war in Iraq --- bring the troops home."

That's what the Rove roll-out of the Move-on, "liberal" therapy bullshit is all about. They have to frame withdrawal as a bunch of hippies arguing for "losing" and they have to do it quickly.

According to Perlstein, at the time of the Moratorium, the war was becoming dramatically unpopular. Polls said that 57% of the public wanted withdrawal by a date certain. The march was not perceived as a fringe event --- it was huge and middle class and showed that the nation as a whole was turning against the war. And the media, for the first time,was not presenting this in a hostile manner. The anti-war movement had gone mainstream.

After the speech, things turned around dramatically for the Pres. Here's how Richard Reeves put it in "President Nixon: Alone in the White House":

"A quick national Gallup poll by phone indicates 77 percent approval of the President's's message. A few days later Gallup's overall approval for the President had climbed from 52 perent before the Moratorium to 68 percent. Congressional resoulutions exressing bipartisan suport for the President's position were signed by 400 of the House's 435 members and 58 of the 100 Senators.... 'The euphoria continues,' Haldeman wrote in his diaries... Nixon had his feet up among the telegrams, telling anyone who came in: 'We've got those liberal bastards on the run now!'"


There are three reasons why, in my opinion, the speech worked.

First, he spent about a third of it explaining how we got into Vietnam and showing how it wasn't really his war. This was terribly important because it made people willing to give him the benefit of the doubt early in his first term. There were many people who understood at that point that Vietnam was a quagmire but who truly wanted to see us able to pull it off without what seemed like an ignominious defeat. I remember plenty of people during that time who were willing to give Nixon a break. In 1969, the villian of the war was still LBJ.

Bush cannot do this. He cannot blame his predecesors, or the Democrats or even his allies for getting us into this. He strutted around that aircraft carrier with the words "Commander in Chief" emblazoned on his codpiece and he's stuck with it. Iraq is Bush's war.

Second, Nixon actually unveiled "Vietnamization" in this speech. It was a solution and people were desperate for a solution --- hence the bi-partisan love-fest. Unless Bush has something completely new in mind, he is likely stuck with re-hashing his Iraqification plans and sexing up the numbers to imply that the Iraqis are just minutes away from being able to take over. In this sense, Iraq is Vietnam on crystal meth. It took years to realize that Vietnamization wasn't working. We already know that Iraqification is a bust. He will get no mileage from that.

Third, there was a widespread distaste for the counter-culture movement as a whole. No matter how mainstream the anti-war movement became, its association in the minds of the "silent majority" with long hair and sexual liberation and racial violence and the rest, meant that it was easy for Nixon to conflate "losing" with "withdrawal" and have at least some people who were sympathetic to withdrawal think twice. I don't think those conditions are present today.

The zeitgeist in America is much less shocking than it was then. (At least in the fashion/pop culture sense.) There is no large visible liberal movement for radical social change, no frightening urban violence. Indeed, as I wrote earlier, I think most people would agree that the radical zeitgeist these days is with those who are holding Justice Sunday rallies and having revival meetings at bill signings. And the crazed street theater isn't Jerry Rubin style yippiedom --- it's the nutty extremists that camped out in front of Terry Schiavo's hospice. This isn't 1969.



But, they don't have anything else. And, lord knows, the fear of the enemy within has always worked very well for them in the past. It should be very interesting if they can turn a little known internet group like Move-On into the anti-war movement circa 1969. If they can roll out their tired red-baiting/liberal-baiting one more time in the face of a liberal movement that barely even has breath and make it stick, then I'll really have to believe that there is no stopping them. But I doubt that it will work.

The party of new ideas is reaching back to the days of Richard Nixon at the height of Vietnam for tactical advice. There's a whiff of desperation in the air.



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