November 16, 2018

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

Nixon Addresses the Nation on the War in Vietnam
President Richard Nixon delivers a live address from the Oval Office on November 3, 1969 (source)
This text is adapted from a transcript of the CBS News broadcast which aired following President Nixon's address to the nation on November 3, 1969. It features Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, and Eric Sevareid. Later, Vice President Agnew would single out Kalb's analysis as well as commentary by Bill Downs and Bill Lawrence on ABC News, dismissing it as "instant analysis and querulous criticism."
CBS News

November 3, 1969

DAN RATHER: The President of the United States has just addressed the nation live, direct from the White House. These appeared to be the major points of his approximately 32-minute address:

President Nixon said he has adopted a plan for withdrawing all United States ground troops from Vietnam; however, he said he would not, could not, commit himself to a fixed timetable for troop reductions. President Nixon said his secret plan for complete withdrawal has been worked out in conjunction with the Saigon government. He made no mention of any further troop withdrawals after the current pull-out of 60,000 men by December 15.

He flatly rejected demands that he should end the war at once by ordering an immediate and complete withdrawal. The President listed several heretofore secret attempts at peace. He said he had tried, since being elected President, including one personal letter to Ho Chi Minh, a letter which President Nixon said was answered only three days before Ho's death, and the answer was, in the President’s opinion, discouraging.

Those are the highlights. Next, an effort to put those highlights in perspective. A brief CBS News examination of the President's speech.

With me in our CBS studios are my colleagues CBS Diplomatic Correspondent Marvin Kalb and our National Correspondent Eric Sevareid.

Marvin Kalb, in your judgment, and let's preface this by saying, as always, this is a difficult bit of guess-work to immediately follow a Presidential address—what in your judgment is going to be the reaction in this country to the President's speech and, after dealing with that, then overseas?

MARVIN KALB: Well, first, Dan, I'm not sure, but it seemed to me first that the speech cut no new ground. It seemed a soft-spoken straight-in-the-eye restatement of policy that clearly is not aimed at that group of Americans dubbed by Vice President Agnew as "an effete corps of impudent snobs."

Rather it was aimed, as the President put it, at you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans. Presumably those who do not demonstrate; those who want an honorable end to the war but have difficulty defining what an honorable end is and are willing to trust the President to get it.

Those who are not so willing will point to the absence of a new announcement on troop withdrawals or a definite timetable for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces and they may disagree with the President's judgment that the Ho Chi Minh letter was a flat rejection of his own letter. The Ho Chi Minh letter contained, it seems, some of the softest, most accommodating language found in a Communist document concerning the war in Vietnam in recent years.

The President's policy is best summed up in one of his phrases—a negotiated settlement, presumably in Paris, if possible; Vietnamization if necessary. Tonight a White House source issued what seemed like a veiled threat to change the character of the Paris talks, perhaps even to break them up, if the Communists, he said, continue to refuse to negotiate seriously.

RATHER: Eric Sevareid, this speech was widely anticipated to be something of a watershed for the Nixon Administration. What is your gut reaction to it?

ERIC SEVAREID: Well, Dan, this, it seems to me, is an appeal to the American people for unity and for support of their President, done in a low-keyed but very fervent manner. As you've said, or Marvin said, nothing of a substantial nature or dramatic nature that is new; he is standing his ground; he is offering no ceasefire, no public fixed timetable for withdrawal, no announcement of a new contingent of troop withdrawals. He is asking for trust to let him have flexibility and a free hand.

I would think that on its face this speech would not draw the fangs of some of the leading critics, particularly here in the capital, some like Senator Fulbright and others, who were ready, if there was something given them of a definite nature in this speech, to cease their criticism and to support the President. I would doubt now that they would do anything but keep on with the attack.

It may give a little more strength to that demonstration scheduled for the middle of the month. But I can't escape the feeling—and it's only a feeling—that this is not all we're going to get this fall. That there may well be an announcement of a quite sizable troop withdrawal and fairly soon, possibly before these mid-November demonstrations. I have no evidence for this at all except the feeling that it cannot rest where he has left it.

I think it indicates that he believes the majority of opinion in this country is still riding with him, and

that he does have more time. And I would think that if there is to be another announcement of a troop withdrawal with numbers, that that may tell us a good deal more about the time scale in which he is thinking, the magnitudes of his thought about winding down the war.

Philosophically, where this war is concerned he doesn't seem to be any different from Mr. Johnson or Secretary Rusk. He adopts the notion that on a worldwide basis freedom is indivisible, the notion that an American pullout would collapse confidence in American leadership all over the world. It's the test-case idea that failure there would set Communists into action in many other areas, even in the Western Hemisphere, he says.

This, of course, is hotly debated by philosophers of foreign policy, and has been for a long time. And one would think if all that were true, if this war and our presence there was of this cosmic and universal importance then the war should be won.

But he has said it is not to be—a military victory is not to be sought. And in that, it seems to me, there lies a profound illogic; that it's over the dam, he is trying to get us out.

RATHER: Eric, in your judgment is the President going to win this gamble that he can hold a majority of American public opinion behind him for this policy of winding down the war slowly, deliberately, orderly, and, as he sees it, honorably?

SEVAREID: I personally hope he can. I don't know that he can. I think this speech would have been effective last spring, but it's late in the day; and this is why I think something else is going to come and very soon. I do not believe it can rest here. But this is only my horseback opinion of one man. And I could be wrong.

RATHER: Marvin Kalb, a horseback opinion of one man on what the effect is going to be on the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong?

KALB: Well, it seems to me that what they could say, and they may not be too far off base in this kind of judgment, is that the President has not given them anything terribly new to chew on; but I don't really feel that the President was talking to them.

As he pointed out, he was talking very much to the great, silent majority of the American people, and the North Vietnamese haven't been given anything, really, in this speech to chew on, not at all. It seems to me, if anything, it's going to be somewhat negative in terms of the President's judgment of the Ho Chi Minh letter. Ho Chi Minh is now dead; he is a god in North Vietnam at least, and certainly has good deal of strength elsewhere in the Communist world.

The President defines this [Ho's letter] as a flat rejection, and yet you have a number of statements in here which suggest considerable flexibility in negotiating posture. This may not yet be apparent in Paris, but it certainly is there in the language of this Ho Chi Minh letter.

RATHER: Gentlemen, we're running short on time, but very briefly, do you see this speech as an indication that President Nixon and those around him still feel that the war is winnable in the sense that we can keep from losing? Do you agree, Eric?

SEVAREID: Yes, I think that's what he's trying to do, to keep from an outright open humiliating loss.

RATHER: Marvin?

KALB: Very much. I agree with that completely. He apparently feels the great effect that this might have on domestic life in this country; and he fears that almost as much as he does the implications abroad.

RATHER: It may be, then, that the pertinent section of this speech was when the President said: "Let us understand North Vietnam cannot humiliate or defeat the United States, only Americans can do that." Gentlemen, thank you very much. Good night.