The Great Silent Majority:
A Loud and Effective Rhetoric
One of the greatest highlights of President Nixon’s policy during his term, as the country’s Chief Executive, was his keen disapproval of the continued hostilities in Vietnam. Even before he assumed the office, he was adamant in the campaign for a quick and practical resolution to the war. Echoing the sentiments and concerns of the majority at the height of the conflict, President Nixon addressed the disparate issues involving the entire nation in its fight against tyranny, oppression and communism just months after his inauguration. After convening his top advisors as well as meeting with world leaders to open closed doors for peace settlements, he finally unveils the two-fold plan and vision to militate the worsening American entanglement to a war being fought thousands of miles across the Pacific. From what was previously coined as the Americanization of south Asia, with regards to the hostilities, President Nixon proposes to scale down the war to its localized fronts in an effort to Vietnamize the defense against the threat of widespread communist invasion (Vietnam War, p. 11).
To this effect, his speech “the Great Silent Majority” is probably the most successful in answering all the key issues of the time. It is arguably one of the rare the paragons of rhetoric as it was able to convincingly allay the fears of the nation while at the same time assure that the withdrawal of the troops is not to be construed a sign of weakness but a symbol of strength and unity. In swift and bold strokes, President Nixon overcame the challenges of his administration through deep and substantiated rhetoric alongside a clear showing of his firm resolve and open honesty to the general populace.
Supplementary to the discussion of the speech, the study of rhetoric need be mentioned. The study and practice of rhetoric involve the use of appropriate diction, syntax, presentation, relevance and comprehensibility. A person who wishes to communicate an idea to persuade, argue or affirm a point, without being conscious of the principles of argumentative speech, is no more likely to achieve the desired results than a person who disregards proper hygiene, for instance, to charm and win a lady. In other words, the rules of rhetoric viz. “the Art of Rhetoric” by Aristotle, alongside the five canons of rhetoric, are indispensable tools for the argumentative speaker. In order that anyone may be able to cut his message across effectively, he must follow the flexible guidelines of proper and convincing speech. Such guidelines include a category of the different kinds of form of arguments.
Aristotle names three main types of rhetorical forms: a) ethos, b) logos and c) pathos. Ethos is an appeal based on the personality and character of the speaker (Aristotle 45). Logos is an appeal constructed out of statements that hinge on logical and rational reasoning (ibid.). Pathos is appeal purely based on emotions (ibid.). The flipside of these three categories are contra arguments otherwise known as logical and rhetorical fallacies. Respectively, poisoning the well is an attack made by a speaker even before the respondent gets a chance to speak (Taylor 20). In effect, the respondent is hamstrung and rendered inutile in light of the scurrilous allegations made by the first speaker. Unqualified generalization (dicto simpliciter, or that the statements are not specifically tailored to certain instances), hasty generalizations (drawing conclusions from an observation of an unrepresentative sample or instance) and contradictory premises (employing premises that inherently contradict each other thereby arriving at a false conclusion), among others, are logos oriented fallacies (25). The appeal ad misericordiam is arguing not on the merits of the issue but on emotions, sympathy and feelings (27).
Concomitant to the ground rules presented as the “Art of Rhetoric”, it is also important to make note of the classical approach or the five canons of rhetoric before putting the scope of the famous Nixon speech under the lens of rhetoric. In brief, the process of rhetoric is divided into five major fields, namely, invention and creation of persuasive ways to present the argument, arrangement and organization of ideas, memory and comprehensibility, style and diction, and delivery (Scott 31).
Coming now to the fore of the discussion about the relevance of Nixon’s speech the “Great Silent Majority” vis-à-vis rhetoric, to understand why it was largely successful is also to know the reasons how it has shaped American policy in Vietnam, Asia and the world (Honey 3). For the purposes of the analysis, the speech is split into three divisions of rhetoric, even while the speech is likewise analyzed to ascertain its impact to national and global policy of the United States. In the first part of the text, Nixon introduces the arguments and his thesis with a foreground to his official qualifications and capacity as to assure the public that his plan will be effectuated (Nixon). Solely on the basis that he is the Commander-in-Chief, and as such, is in the position to oversee the entire operations, Nixon belies claims that his proposed action will come to naught (ibid.). The speech avers the fact that, even before taking reins of the presidential office, he has already started to seek several avenues by which to end the war through diplomatic means (ibid.). Nixon continues to offer the ethos, or the build-up of personality and character, by saying that he will be true to his pledges of severing the hold of Vietnam against America when he is elected president. Now that he is the president, it is only a matter of the kind invention of policy and state dedication to be adopted that his promises are kept. In effect, he is saying that his office symbolizes the solution to the protracted problems of the war. Without going deeper into details, the fact that he nominated his own name to coin the Nixon doctrine is clear evidence of equating his authority and office to the resolution of the problem with deliberate dispatch (Nixon). This is an appeal to personality to persuade the public that the end of the war is commensurate to the start and length of his incumbency.
Most of the speech is constructed on logical connections and relationships. The rationalization of the precipitous pull out of the troops, the means to effect it and why America should not be hasty opt out of the war are buttressed by the facts of the issue and the salient context surrounding them. Foremost in the rationale is the fear that if the troops are withdrawn too soon then there is the imminent possibility that the nation will forfeit the lives offered in pursuit of democracy and liberty (Nixon). War is not without collateral damage. Inasmuch Nixon faces the dilemma between the total annihilation of the threat and mitigating the losses, he offers to strike a balance of the two opposite objectives. Nixon desires to see the end of the war to save the lives of those brave young men in Vietnam but “in a way which will increase the chance that their younger brothers and their sons will not have to fight in some future Vietnam some place in the world” (Nixon). The argument is at once logically sound and convincing. What for are the thousands of lives already spent to fight the noble cause for free world leadership when a total withdrawal of forces shall completely undermine the previous efforts of the men who had died in battle? The plan to Vietnamize the war which intends to lessen the responsibility of America to fight the war for other nations becomes altogether appealing. It recognizes the sacrifices made by the “brave young men” in the frontline while at the same time assure the public that the troops, although in gradual numbers, will certainly come home (ibid.).
After adumbrating the reasons why America is involved with the Vietnam conflict in the first place, enlisting the support of the public by means of an appeal to personality and presenting logical arguments to rationalize the administration’s decision, Nixon finally presents his pathos to persuade America that his heart is in the right place and that his intentions are grounded on good faith and a respect for extant community morals. America has been, for the last four years, suffering a substantial loss in its personnel. More than thirty thousand soldiers have died and a quarter of a million are stuck in the battle fronts with no hopes of seeing how the war will end (Nixon). At the end of the speech, Nixon confides his emotions on the matter. To wit: “there are powerful personal reasons why 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. […] There is nothing I want more than to see the day come when I do not have to write any of those letters” (Nixon). Indeed, the large cause of actions for the growing number of dissenters and protests against the war is rooted on the fact that America was fighting a war not of Her concern. Nixon wants disabuse the activists that his plan to withdraw the troops in a gradual manner is not aligned with the objective of saving the country from more needless deaths.
In a combination of an ethos, logos and pathos use of rhetoric in the speech, Nixon subsequently establishes the novel concept of the Great Silent Majority. It is an epithet of recent persuasive invention. It is a presumption that the occasional rallies and protests are but a small sample of the entire pulse of the nation—that there is the unknown and anonymous great and silent majority whose opinions have been largely left unnoticed. This assumes that there exists a general consensus that favors the proposed plans of the Nixon administration.
Through a systematic arrangement of facts, the use of lay diction, the simplistic approach to style and employing familiar and recognizable terms, the concept of a Great Silent Majority enjoy the premium of approval among the average middle man. Therefore, the speech was designed to represent the average majority who by their very nature are silent on the matter. The focus of the speech was not directed at the minority who are at the extreme sides but was aimed at the larger domain of the middle men. With the on-going animated debates against and for the Vietnam War during this time, Nixon brushes aside the supposed minority and instead, drew strength, volume and power from the sheer number of the Great Silent Majority, who presumably shared his position, to nail down his proposal for a precipitous withdrawal of troops quite effectively.
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