November 17, 2018

1969. ABC News Correspondents React to Nixon's "Silent Majority" Speech

Analyzing Nixon's Speech on Vietnam
President Richard Nixon speaks about the Vietnam War on November 3, 1969 (source)
President Nixon's silent majority speech on the war in Vietnam was televised live on November 3, 1969. After the speech, the three major networks brought on their news correspondents to react. Frank Reynolds anchored the ABC News broadcast, which featured reporters Bob Clark, Bill Downs, Tom Jarriel, Bill Lawrence, John Scali, and Howard K. Smith. Former New York Governor Averell Harriman was also featured.

Vice President Agnew slammed the coverage, singling out comments made by Lawrence and Downs. He also complained of Marvin Kalb's analysis on CBS News.

The text below is adapted from here.
ABC News

November 3, 1969

FRANK REYNOLDS: The President has now concluded his speech. His second major speech of his Presidency, devoted to this single topic, the war in Vietnam. The President reviewed American involvement in the war and the efforts he has made since last January, his Inauguration, to bring the war to an end.

As expected, Mr. Nixon rejected unilateral immediate withdrawal, and he reiterated his willingness to negotiate an end to the war. He fixed the blame for prolonging the war squarely with the North Vietnamese.

None of this, of course, came as a surprise, but it must also be noted that the President, who said before the Moratorium on October 15 that he would not be influenced by it, has said just about the same thing tonight. There was in his speech no new initiative, no new proposal, no announcement of any more troop withdrawals and, in short, Mr. Nixon has taken a hard line, not only against the North Vietnamese but also against those in this country who oppose his policy. And he made an open appeal to the silent majority of Americans whom he no doubt feels are in the majority to support his policy.

With us in our studio tonight to examine Mr. Nixon's speech, we have as our guest the Honorable W. Averell Harriman, former Governor of New York, former ambassador, former Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and, of course, during the Johnson Administration our chief negotiator at the Paris peace talks.

Ambassador Harriman will be interviewed a few moments from now by ABC State Department Correspondent John Scali. We shall also hear from our White House Correspondent Tom Jarriel, and I'll be joined in a discussion by my colleagues Bill Lawrence, our National Affairs Editor; Bob Clark, our Capitol Hill Correspondent; and Bill Downs, our Pentagon expert, all of whom will give us their views of anticipated reaction from their special areas. And I'll call on my colleague on the ABC Evening News, Howard K. Smith, for an analysis and comment. So, we'll have more, much more on President Nixon's speech to the nation tonight on the war in Vietnam right after this pause for station identification.

Back in our studios in Washington, we propose to spend the next 25 minutes or so in a discussion of President Nixon's speech to the nation tonight on the war in Vietnam and his hope for bringing it to an early end.

I want to call first on our White House Correspondent Tom Jarriel, who has tried to keep track of the President's preparation of his speech, and Tom, I'd like to ask you—we've all had a chance now, not only to hear the President's speech but to read it just before he went on—did Mr. Nixon hope to mute the voices of dissent in this country? Or was his primary goal, really, to rally the silent majority to his side?

TOM JARRIEL: Frank, I don't think there's any question at all about it that his speech tonight was to the silent majority. He feels that these are the people who elected him and these are the people who, tonight, he was reporting to. And his remarks were directed certainly to them and not to those who are the so-called peace groups in the country, or those who are opposed to his Administration.

Tonight, perhaps, he has given the silent majority in the country a brief history lesson in Vietnam, explaining how we got there. He has restated his determination to continue exactly where we are and firmed that determination up, and he projected a certain degree of optimism over it.

He also feels tonight that he has perhaps better armed the silent majority with more information about Vietnam. Given them some moral leadership against the opposing forces in the country who are opposing his course in Vietnam.

He has of course offered no quick solutions, pulled no rabbits from hats, and those who were looking for that certainly would be disappointed. The President tonight has perhaps polarized the attitude in the country more than it has been into groups who are either for him or who are against him.

REYNOLDS: He's confident, no doubt, that those who are for him will perhaps not be quite so silent in the near future. Tom, why, since there was really nothing new, nothing substantively new in his speech, why the big buildup for it? Why were we told 21 days ago that this speech was going to be given at this time tonight?

JARRIEL: It's certainly a very good question, and I still haven't seen the answer from the White House. They say that the President periodically wants to report to the people on the situation in Vietnam. They state that this speech was scheduled long before the October 15 Moratorium and it is a routinely scheduled affair, not having anything to do with tomorrow's [November 4] election.

Certainly he did feel, I'm sure, that the time had come to restate his position, and we were warned repeatedly against speculation at the White House against going out on a limb saying that there might be massive troop withdrawals or perhaps a standstill ceasefire, and tonight after seeing the speech we certainly know why we were warned against speculation.

REYNOLDS: The warnings against speculations, however, did not, I suggest, dampen the expectations of a great many people who did possibly anticipate something tonight.

Thank you, Tom. One of the men most qualified, certainly the most qualified, to speculate on North Vietnam's reaction to the speech is Governor Harriman. For some nine months, of course, he was our chief negotiator in Paris, face to face with the North Vietnamese across the conference table. He is now here in Washington face to face with our State Department Correspondent John Scali.

JOHN SCALI: Governor, could you tell us what is your immediate reaction to Mr. Nixon's address?

AVERELL HARRIMAN: Well, John, I'm sure you know that I wouldn't be presumptuous to give a complete analysis of a carefully thought-out speech of the President of the United States. I'm sure he wants to end this war, and no one wishes him well more than I do. But since I'm here I've got to answer your questions.

He approaches the subject quite differently from the manner in which I approached it. Let me first say, though, that I'm utterly opposed to these people that are talking about cutting and running; I'm against the Senator from New York's proposal—Senator Goodell—to get out our troops in a year, willy-nilly.

I think we should have a responsible withdrawal. But my emphasis has been, and I think it should be, on winning the peaceful contest that will come after the fighting stops.

The first thing we must do is to do everything we can to end the fighting, and I think that we could have made more progress in that direction. As far as winning the peaceful contest, we've got to look at who this government is—President Thieu. He is not representative of the people, in my opinion, from all that I've heard today.

You've probably noticed that probably the most popular man in South Vietnam, General Big Minh, proposed that there be a national convention and consider the future. He didn't define what it should be but it should combine what I've been saying, all of the non-Communist groups. These are very small groups that are in the government. We've been talking to them for two years about expanding his base, and he's contracted it this last time he was there. There was nothing said in this speech about that, which to me, is the all important question.

I don't think we can be successful in Vietnamizing the war, because I don't think they can carry the weight. People should consider that. We can reduce our forces, there's no doubt. We can take down a couple of hundred thousand troops, but we will have to leave probably for many years a very large force. If we attempt to reduce the fighting earnestly—reduce the fighting—we can possibly get the South Vietnamese to expand the base of their government and, to bring together, rally all of the non-Communist forces.

SCALI: President Nixon, Governor, says nothing at all about the advisability of some kind of ceasefire. Do you favor this as a step?

HARRIMAN: Well, I've said that I thought that we ought to have taken up early in November—you know the trouble also was—something he leaves out—was that we expected President Thieu to have his representative in Paris on November 2. And then progress would have been made.

The North Vietnamese had disengaged in the northern two provinces where the toughest fighting had been. Ninety percent of their troops were taken out. Half of those are gone; 200 miles north of the DMZ. And we never had a chance to talk about it.

They have stated, of course, that the February and March offensives were counter-offensives to our pressures. Now whether that's true, whether it isn't, one can judge, but they did give us to understand that if we wanted to accept the status quo then that we could make progress. If we tried to improve our position militarily then there would be—go on and talk.

Now even after this table question was settled, which I thought was a stall so as to—appeared to wait until President Nixon was in—maybe I was wrong. President Thieu said he wouldn't sit down privately.

We had to arrange for the four to sit down privately—

Now all these things have been left out, and I think they should be very carefully debated by the Congress. Particularly by the Foreign Relations Committee, and take a look at where we're going.

SCALI: But you think one of the prompt steps should be to initiate a ceasefire—to propose a ceasefire?

HARRIMAN: No, I think the first thing we should do is to begin to work right away to freeze the reduction in the fighting. To announce that we're going to keep this fighting down, insist that the South Vietnamese do the same, and demand the same thing on the other side. Now that—

SCALI: —ceasefire—

HARRIMAN: Working towards a ceasefire, right. If that is what the President proposes, I would certainly support it.

SCALI: Do you agree, Mr. Ambassador, that there would be a blood bath in South Vietnam if the North Vietnamese were to take over?

HARRIMAN: Well, you know, I may be entirely wrong, but I don't think, from the talks we had, that the North Vietnamese or their colleagues the VC want to have a military takeover. They want to see a settlement. I think they assume that over a period of years they could win out, but I'm sure they'd agree to having the South independent from the North for five or 10 years. They've already proposed that it not be what they call a Communist society—

SCALI: But do you see a reign of terror there?

HARRIMAN: Well, there might well be a reign of terror if there was a complete pullout. But there's no need for a ceasefire if we sit down with these people and try to work out the details.

Now the President gives us some inkling that he's had private talks. I've found that the North Vietnamese representative is a very responsible man, a member of the Politburo. And I would have liked to have seen some talks with him. Exploring with him, before we make proposals what proposition they have to make to us. I think we could have gotten more out of that than our making formal proposals.

Now these things—perhaps I'm wrong, but this is my first reaction: that we ought to give more thought to whom we're supporting, whom President Thieu represents, how much political influence he has in the country, and how we could win the political contest which is going to come after the fighting stops.

SCALI: Governor, you've had a distinguished career as a politician here in the United States. You were Governor of New York. So I don't hesitate to ask you a question of this kind. Do you think that the silent majority in this United States will rally behind the President as a result of his speech?

HARRIMAN: I don't know whether it's a silent majority or not, or silent minority, I just don't know.

You can pick any poll you want; 67 percent was for the Goodell resolution, according to one poll. There's another poll that shows that 64 percent of the people want to see the government in Saigon changed. There are other polls which show that the President has the support of the people. I think he's got the full support of the people.

He's certainly got my support in hoping that he will develop a program for peace. But I think that we've gone so far in Vietnam that this has to be discussed. It cannot be accepted without a lot more explanation, and it seems to me the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be a very fine place for that discussion.

SCALI: I gather, then, Governor, you were somewhat disappointed in the President's approach.

HARRIMAN: Well, I wouldn't say I was disappointed. I was not surprised. This is about what I thought he would say from the position that he'd previously taken, and he's followed the advice of many people who believe this, many people who advised President Johnson, which wasn't successful, and I'm not sure that this advice will be successful in the future.

We heard this evening saying the war was being won now, anyone who is a neutralist is stupid. Now, has the President abandoned his end of the military—or he ruled out May 14—military solution—

SCALI: Well, Governor—

HARRIMAN: There are so many things we'd like to know about this, but I want to end by saying I wish the President well. I hope he can lead us to peace. But this is not the whole story that we've heard tonight.

SCALI: Governor Harriman, thank you very much. Frank?

REYNOLDS: Thank you, Governor, and thank you, John. Now I want to turn to some of my colleagues who are here with me. Bill Lawrence, our National Affairs Editor; Bob Clark, our Capitol Hill Correspondent; and Pentagon Correspondent Bill Downs.

Bill [Lawrence], it's your job to take the temperature of the country. Tell me, how's the country going to react to this speech?

BILL LAWRENCE: Well, Frank, it is fair to talk about this politically because Mr. Nixon was out on the stump in New Jersey last week, inviting people to listen in. Politically I'm not sure why he did it because there was nothing new in it politically, and its impact will be on those who are moved by words if not by deeds.

His appeal was not to the youth who've been raising trouble but rather to the silent majority, if they are a majority, who presumably have been with him all along. But there wasn't a thing new in this speech that would influence anybody to vote tomorrow or six months from now in a different way than his mood was set.

Now the Democrats engaged in a little one-up-manship on this speech, after the White House announced it three weeks ago. They started very vigorously to build up hope about what this speech might contain in the way of some new move towards substantively ending the war sooner. They talked about a ceasefire, they talked about greater reductions in troops. Nothing happened.

REYNOLDS: You think they were mousetrapping him?

LAWRENCE: I think that was their purpose perhaps, and I think to that extent this speech certainly did not meet the expectations of those who turned on their television or radio sets and expected to learn some big new move in Vietnam, because it just wasn't there.

REYNOLDS: Bob Clark, I have the impression that the ceasefire that's been observed on Capitol Hill of late might well be shattered as a result of the President's speech tonight, because he did not announce any major change in his policy. Do you agree?

BOB CLARK: Well, I would be very much surprised if it didn't shatter resoundingly tomorrow, Frank. I think at the very least tonight too, the President passed a flaming torch to Senator Fulbright, who can be expected to go galloping off with it with new hearings on Vietnam before the Foreign Relations Committee.

Those hearings, of course, were announced for last month and were postponed by Senator Fulbright to give the President a chance to make his speech tonight. Obviously now they will be rescheduled, and they are designed as specific hearings on specific proposals for bringing the war to an end and—on the Goodell proposal, among others—to get American troops out by a specified date.

So it's very clear tonight that the gauntlet will be flung down to the President at those new hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee.

REYNOLDS: Well, there seemed to be a note of—you might call it combativeness—in the President's speech tonight too. Calling on the silent majority to rally round the flag and stand with him.

CLARK: Well, I think undoubtedly, Frank, that is true but there will be plenty of takers on the Hill and you'll hear them tomorrow morning. Not only from what we might call the militant doves, the ones who have been in the forefront for years with efforts to end the war, across the country. This cuts across party lines—many who have been moderates on the Vietnam war in the past who now feel more and more urgently about the need to set a termination date on the war. That, of course, is what the President failed tonight to do.

REYNOLDS: Well, Bill Downs, you cover the Pentagon. What do you think the reaction there is? They probably are not too unhappy about this speech tonight.

BILL DOWNS: No, I think that the Pentagon has come off pretty good. If there's been any wonder about the influence of Secretary of Defense Laird in the Administration and whether the State Department or Dr. Kissinger or who else is shaping the President's thoughts, why I think Mr. Laird comes out pretty well.

I think the sort of key—from the Pentagon viewpoint—the key statement was that our defeat or humiliation in South Vietnam would provoke recklessness among the great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest.

Now, this is the Joint Chiefs of Staff's argument, the Pentagon line, if you will, that in a world of nations in a state of international anarchy, military power is the only answer to our security and to our freedom and the way we want to shape this world. It is not really the domino theory all over again, but it reminds me of what Dean Rusk used to talk about. The credibility of the American commitment. It must be honored.

CLARK: This is strictly Rusk policy, the way I see it. McNamara policy. Although they won't like that on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It does one thing, it allays any fears that people might have had around the world that the Nixon Administration might be heading us for a neutral or isolation course, but it's certainly not in this speech.

REYNOLDS: Bill Lawrence, I want to put this to you. Mr. Nixon is an extremely skillful politician. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Do you believe that there is possibly a full appreciation in the White House now of the depth of the discontent in the country, or of the disenchantment with the war, the weariness, really, of the war?

LAWRENCE: Well, Frank, I don't know whether understanding is the right word. I don't believe the White House believes that there is deep discontent. I'm not, you know, really sure, despite Mr. Nixon's victory for the Presidency last time, that he is so big a politician as you suggest.

REYNOLDS: Well, he's come a long way—

LAWRENCE: Well, true—but he hasn't followed up. He hasn't used the powers of the Presidency. A good politician would have taken the momentum of the election and Inauguration and come forward with a program of some kind. He wouldn't be explaining Vietnam now. You would have done that in February. He had all this time to think—

DOWNS: Bill, in fairness to the President, would you say that he said what he did tonight because there simply is no program that he would not regard as a cut-and-run program? That, then, is his basic dilemma?

LAWRENCE: Yes, but in his campaign he said he had a plan that would end the war and win the peace. He said that again tonight. I still don't know where it is.

REYNOLDS: Could I interrupt both you gentlemen? I have to agree with Bill. I think Mr. Nixon's a consummate politician. I think that around Christmastime he's going to announce a withdrawal of possibly more than 40,000 to 50,000 in a cut, and I think that Vice President Ky, whose crystal ball has been pretty good, said that by the end of 1970 there would be 180,000 Americans out of Vietnam. I think that if you're building for the 1970 election you don't blow your game all in one speech, and I—

LAWRENCE: The President . . . playing that game.

REYNOLDS: Yes, and we must also recognize that this speech tonight is given just 10 days before another great big demonstration that will be all over this town, you know. Apparently Mr. Nixon has decided not to be influenced by that. It may well be that he feels there is more political advantage in giving the back of his hand to the demonstrators and standing up there as the embattled President holding firm against the onslaught of public opinion.

CLARK: Frank, I would think that one immediate spinoff from the President's speech tonight is that you can now expect substantially more Congressional participation in that November 15 Moratorium. Many members of Congress who've been reluctant to involve themselves in what is shaping up as a more violent demonstration or a demonstration that may produce some serious violence will now feel obligated just to reply to the President.

REYNOLDS: Well, thank you very much, gentlemen. History of course will give us, I suppose, the proper perspective with which to view Mr. Nixon's speech tonight.

Earlier this evening on the ABC Evening News, Howard K. Smith referred to it as a battle. A battle for public opinion. Well, Howard, how do you think the President fought the battle tonight?

HOWARD K. SMITH: Frank, you're talking about history. The most impressive thought that came to me from this speech was how much alike all Presidents who have had to deal with Vietnam have thought about it.

I was looking through President Truman's memoirs today, and I ran across a prediction by him that if Indo-China, which Vietnam is part of, were to fall, other countries would soon follow, and therefore he was not willing to see it fall.

Truman and Eisenhower, who disagreed on many things, joined together to sponsor a citizens' committee supporting President Johnson's intervention in Vietnam.

And I recall a news conference in March, before his death, when President Kennedy was asked a question about it and he said if the Communists took South Vietnam their writ would soon run all the way to India and, who knows, perhaps all the way to the Middle East. So, he said, I can't agree to it.

Up until now Mr. Nixon has not endorsed the action of his predecessor, and even tonight he disagreed with his tactics and the way it's been handled, but he did endorse the general goal of not yielding to the opposing side and seemed even unperturbed at the thought, which he mentioned himself, that people are now calling Johnson's war Nixon's war.

I think for the first time I have a strong impression which I didn't have a couple of weeks ago when the senators who had criticized him had begun to support him. I for the first time have the impression he's not going to be hustled or yield to anything but a negotiated settlement involving free elections which probably the Communists couldn't win.

I guess that by his speech tonight he's let himself in for some very rough handling in that next Moratorium demonstration that's coming. I would guess with Bob Clark that a topic grown dormant will now come aflame in Senator Fulbright's committee, and possibly on the floor of the Senate.

He got his message across to the people he's counting on, called the silent majority. But what matters is whether he got his point across to Hanoi. That there will be no surrender in any guise and that they will have to negotiate. And as has been so often said tonight, we'll just have to wait and see.

REYNOLDS: Thank you, Howard, and thank you all, gentlemen. The President said tonight—I think perhaps this certainly expresses his view with respect to the Moratorium upcoming and the past demonstrations—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.

That apparently is the guide that is going to guide the President as he tries to end this war and also deal with the dissent at home.

This is Frank Reynolds in Washington. Good night.