"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."
Nov. 3, 1969
If it hadn't been for the speeches and statements he made during the Watergate scandal, the speech that Richard Nixon gave 45 years ago tonight might have been remembered as his most significant presidential address.
The American people were divided over the war in Vietnam, a division that came to be perceived along all sorts of other (mostly irrelevant) lines — by race, by age, by gender, by region, by economic status — that weren't entirely irrelevant.
On this night in 1969, Richard Nixon introduced the concept of the mythical "great silent majority" into the American dialogue — suggesting that, in spite of themselves, most middle class Americans agreed with each other but were too polite to say so, and implying that he was one of them — a true–blue patriotic American who had remained silent too long. He contrasted his strategy of political realism with the vocal minority and its unrealistic idealism.
He tried to strike a somewhat defiant note. "If I conclude that increased enemy action jeopardizes our remaining forces in Vietnam," Nixon declared, "I shall not hesitate to take strong and effective measures to deal with that situation." He assured his listeners that was not a threat but a promise.
Nixon appealed for their support — and urged them (again by implication) not to participate in demonstrations against the war or to side with the counterculture — on this night 45 years ago. He had been elected president a year earlier by an extremely narrow margin, and he wanted to build a consensus.
He did better than that, at least initially. Before the speech, Gallup reported that his approval rating was 56%; after the speech, his approval was up 11 points to 67%, nearly the highest of his presidency.
And, in reality, it may well have laid the foundation for his 49–state landslide re–election in 1972.
In many ways, though, I have believed that the speech was a logical extension of the "Southern strategy" Nixon used to win the 1968 presidential campaign. At that time, Democrats still dominated Southern politics, but by using subtle and not–so–subtle appeals to racism, Republicans began chipping away at the Democrats' grip on politics in the South.
The most immediate effect was to siphon off votes upon which the Democrats' presidential nominee could always depend in the past — with the most direct recipient being independent candidate George Wallace. The Republicans hoped to pick off a few Southern states with Wallace and Hubert Humphrey dividing a vote that almost certainly would have defeated Nixon if it had remained united. At least, that is how Nixon saw it.
Nixon learned that divide and conquer works. Wallace still won nearly half a dozen Southern states, but Nixon managed to carry Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas — and, in so doing, won the election. But the Southern strategy was regionally confining. "Silent majority" transcended regional boundaries.
After his speech 45 years ago tonight, Nixon used appeals to patriotism to define Republicans — and to divide groups of Americans — having already begun a process that would fulfill Lyndon Johnson's prophecy that his advocacy of civil rights legislation had handed the South to the Republicans for a generation.
In hindsight, I would say the ongoing shift from Democrat to Republican in the South truly began in that 1968 election. What other conclusion can one draw? The Democrats swept the nation and many Southern states in 1964, when Johnson faced Barry Goldwater. But, in the 1964 election results, there were clues to be found, hints about the direction the South was traveling.
It happened quietly and gradually. It certainly was not achieved overnight. But little by little, one by one, Southern states voted for Republicans on the federal level, then they began to do it on the state and local levels as well. And, one by one, Republicans picked off each state.
Tomorrow, it is quite likely that my home state of Arkansas will be the last Southern domino to completely fall when Sen. Mark Pryor appears poised to lose his bid for a third term — perhaps the last time that Nixon's political legacy will be felt in America.
The Southern strategy has seen some backsliding in recent elections, though, with Virginia and North Carolina voting for a Democrat for president for the first time in decades and Florida voting Democratic as well — and Democrats representing states like Louisiana and North Carolina in the Senate — but much of that can be attributed to the arrivals of Democrats whose jobs have brought them there from Northern and coastal cities. So the Southern strategy may be around for a few more elections. There may still be some work to be done in some place.
But, by and large, that transition is nearly complete now.
That shift in party preference may have been the most remarkable domestic political development I have witnessed in my lifetime — the transformation of an entire region, the South, from reliably Democrat to reliably Republican. I grew up in the South; it simply went without saying that just about everyone there was a Democrat, and political squabbles came down to the liberal, conservative and moderate wings of the party. Winning the primary in the spring or early summer was tantamount to election; beating the Republican in November was a formality.
Some people would say that Republicans have always been right–wingers, but the truth is that there really was no rightward shift in Republican ideology, in the South or elsewhere, until 1980, when the Reagan campaign and the emergence of the Moral Majority combined to coax conservative Christians into politics. There were pockets of Republican support throughout the South before then. Up until that time, I saw no real political involvement on the part of the churches — but I sure saw it after that.
Nearly all of the Republicans who were nominated in the decades before Reagan — including both Nixon himself and the man Nixon served as vice president, Dwight Eisenhower — are increasingly viewed as too moderate for the modern Republican Party.
It was only after Reagan won the nomination that the momentum for Republicans in the South really became noticeable.
All that was still many years away when Nixon spoke to the "great silent majority" 45 years ago tonight. Nixon drew the lines in the dirt that night.
"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," Nixon said.
Something to think about when you watch the election returns tomorrow night.