President Obama’s Vocal Minority Speech

1 December 2009 and 3 November 1969: the desire to contain a vocal minority and the determination to mobilize a silent majority.

I’ve looked at a lot of the coverage of the President’s speech at West Point last night, and, so far at least, no one seems to have noticed the precedent and example that is hiding in plain sight: Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” speech of 3 November 1969.

Nixon was eleven months into his presidency forty years ago —just as Mr. Obama is eleven months and a week into his— when he went to the people to explain his plans for the war the nation was fighting in Vietnam.

Both leaders used a highly-publicized and much-anticipated speech to explain the conduct of a war started by their predecessor(s); to separate themselves from that history; and to announce their new policies for ending the war and bringing peace.

Both speeches were about the same length —4500 words. And both, based on the knowledge that the nation was divided and confused, and that there was a widespread feeling that the leaders hadn’t been leveling with the people, began with straightforward narratives of the story to that point.

Nixon even listed the questions he would answer:

How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place?

How has this administration changed the policy of the previous administration?

What has really happened in the negotiations in Paris and on the battlefront in Vietnam?

What choices do we have if we are to end the war?

What are the prospects for peace?

Obama recalled the brutal provocation of 9/11, the decisions that followed, the developments in Iraq, and the current situation in Afghanistan:

Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government.  Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

Nixon mentioned his reservations about the way the war had been conducted:

Now, many believe that President Johnson’s decision to send American combat forces to South Vietnam was wrong. And many others —I among them— have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted.

Obama recalled his outright opposition:

I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.

Nixon mentioned the possibility —and acknowledged the temptation— of simply ending the war by blaming the administration that began it.

From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the Peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson’s war to become Nixon’s war.

But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election.

Obama examined and refuted the arguments —within his own party— that he should wash his hands of the wars his predecessor started.  Indeed, he cited Vietnam in this regard:

I recognize there are a range of concerns about our approach.  So let me briefly address a few of the more prominent arguments that I’ve heard, and which I take very seriously.

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam.  They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we’re better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing.  I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.

Both Nixon and Obama quoted Eisenhower — Nixon albeit indirectly and Obama to make the opposite point.  Nixon said:

In 1963, President Kennedy, with his characteristic eloquence and clarity, said: “. . . we want to see a stable government there, carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence.

“We believe strongly in that. We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.”

President Eisenhower and President Johnson expressed the same conclusion during their terms of office.

Obama said:

I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration:  the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

The thirty-seventh President spoke of the great weight of his decisions as Commander in Chief:

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.

As did the forty-fourth:

As President, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars.  I have read the letters from the parents and spouses of those who deployed.  I visited our courageous wounded warriors at Walter Reed.  I’ve traveled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place.  I see firsthand the terrible wages of war.  If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.

So, no, I do not make this decision lightly.

Although the two speeches —separated by forty years— shared many similarities, there were major differences between them in terms of substance, technique, and intention.

At the core of both speeches, both Presidents presented essentially similar policies in radically different ways.  Nixon expounded on the Vietnamization that he had initiated earlier in the year:

We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces, and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable. This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.

And Obama set out what amounted to a policy of Afghanization:

The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 —the fastest possible pace— so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers.  They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight.  And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

But Nixon was adamant about staying until the job was done and about keeping his counsel in the meantime:

I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision which I am sure you will understand. As I have indicated on several occasions, the rate of withdrawal will depend on developments on three fronts.

While Obama was definitive about his timetable for disengagement.

And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.  After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

Nixon had written his speech entirely by himself at Camp David over the weekend before the Monday night on which he delivered it.  He did this partly because he considered the content so important, and partly because he was determined that none of it would leak in advance.  He took considerable satisfaction from the fact that what he said completely confounded the widespread speculations and predictions about what he would have to say.

Obama’s speech was parceled out in leaks over the preceding several days; and the text was accurately reported twenty-four hours before the speech was delivered.  In the event, the delivery confirmed the expectations.

Nixon read his speech in the Oval Office in the White House at 9.30 PM.  The glass-top desk was covered with a piece of brown baize and the only backdrop was the closed gold silk window curtains.  The Obama address, delivered using TelePrompter at 8.30 PM, was a highly staged and choreographed event in Eisenhower Hall at the United States Military Academy at West Point —the second largest auditorium east of the Mississippi (only Radio City Music Hall is bigger).  The event was opened with introductions and concluded with a crowd bath.

The Nixon speech was intended to speak directly to the American people by going above the large and growing anti-war movement while going around its sympathizers and supporters in the media.  Nixon was convinced that “the great silent majority” of Americans would support his plan to end the war the way he proposed if only he could reach them and explain himself to them.

His belief was justified by the phenomenal results of that single speech.  Overnight his poll ratings jumped from the high thirties to the high sixties, and the wind was at least temporarily sucked from the sails of the anti-war movement.

The Obama speech, on one very important level, was a finely calibrated exercise at mollifying, or at least containing, the vocal minority of leaders and activists inside the president’s own party who want nothing to do with this or any war.

Whether President Obama’s speech is as successful at containing the vocal minority as President Nixon’s was at mobilizing the silent majority will take at least a few more days to begin to figure out.

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