Classroom Activities

  1. Throughout his political career, Richard Nixon was dogged by suspicions that he was insincere, a consummate politician who would say anything to get elected. Earning the nickname “Tricky Dick,” Nixon was criticized as deceptive, even deceitful, and his uneasy relationship with the press only made things worse. As you read or watch the “Silent Majority” speech, how would you assess Nixon’s sincerity or credibility? Did you notice any attempts to build trust with the audience, or to portray himself as a truth-teller? Conversely, did you notice anything that might have called into question Nixon’s credibility or reinforced his reputation as “tricky” or dishonest?
  2. The essay accompanying this speech suggests that Richard Nixon had a distinctive rhetorical style, and that he characteristically oversimplified and polarized issues, often posing false dilemmas. Do you feel he oversimplified the issue of Vietnam in his “Silent Majority” speech? Do you agree with Nixon’s critics that he deliberately divided the nation? Or that he created a false dilemma when discussing America’s policy options in Vietnam?
  3. What do you remember being taught about the history of the Vietnam war? Does Nixon’s version of that history sound familiar to you? Or do you recall learning things about the War in Vietnam that are different or even contrary to the history that Nixon recalls in his “Silent Majority” speech?
  4. In a survey of leading scholars of speech and rhetoric, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech ranked 21st on a list of the “top 100” speeches of the twentieth century. Why do you think the speech ranked so high? Do you consider the speech eloquent, or artistically creative or noteworthy? Or do you think scholars ranked it so high because of its effectiveness? What about its historical significance?
  5. In his “Silent Majority” speech, Richard Nixon appeared to reach out to young Americans who had been protesting the war, declaring: “I respect your idealism. I share your concern for peace. I want peace as much as you do.” Do you think Nixon’s expression of respect for young protesters was sincere? Why or why not? Were there any indications in the speech itself that Nixon may have been insincere in his appeals to young protestors?

Student Research

  1. Historians and biographers have argued that Richard Nixon had various “obsessions,” including a “Kennedy obsession” after his narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election, and an “obsession” with the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war. These obsessions, some have suggested, account for Nixon’s defensiveness and often strained relationships with the press. Utilizing your library’s resources, research Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in the 1960 election and/or Nixon’s reactions to antiwar protests. What was it about Nixon’s personality and personal history that might account for Nixon’s reported “obsession” with these two issues?
  2. Compare and contrast the two speeches Richard Nixon himself considered the most effective speeches of his career: his so-called “Checkers Speech” in 1952, and his “Silent Majority” speech in 1969. How, in each speech, did Nixon try to build his own personal credibility, or ethos? And how did he appeal to his audience’s emotions, or pathos? In substantive terms, the two speeches are clearly different: one was an apologia, designed to answer accusations that he had misused campaign funds, while the other made the case for his policies in Vietnam. Yet, do you sense some similar arguments in the two speeches?
  3. In an article in the Journal of American Studies in 2017, Sarah Thelen argues that the outpouring of support for Nixon following his “Silent Majority” speech was largely illusory. According to Thelen, the piles of supportive letters and telegrams Nixon received after the speech are best described as part of an “astroturf”—or false grassroots—campaign organized by the White House itself. Research the phrase “astroturf campaign” and discuss how such campaigns work. Do you think it’s fair and accurate to describe Nixon’s appeals to the “Silent Majority” as part of an astroturf campaign?
  4. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech provides a good case study in what political scientist Jeffrey Tulis has called the “rhetorical presidency.” According to Tulis, the rhetorical presidency emerged early in the twentieth century as presidents increasingly chose to go “over the heads” of Congress and appeal directly to the public. In Tulis’ view, such appeals circumvent the sort of executive-legislative deliberations envisioned by America’s founders, and they invite bad arguments, even demagoguery. Do you think a case can be made that Nixon resorted to “demagoguery” in his “Silent Majority” speech and related efforts to sell his Vietnam policies?

Citizenship Resources

  1. In the essay accompanying Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech on this website, parallels are drawn between Richard Nixon’s rhetorical style and that of the 45th president, Donald J. Trump. After reading Nixon’s speech and the essay about that speech on this site, read or watch a video of Trump delivering a speech and answer these questions: Does anything about Trump’s rhetorical style remind you of Nixon? Do they seem to be concerned with the same issues, and do they make similar sorts of arguments and/or emotional appeals?
  2. In 1968, student protestors at Columbia University famously occupied Hamilton Hall, ostensibly to protest the university’s role in weapons research during the Vietnam war. More than fifty years later, students at Columbia again occupied Hamilton Hall, this time in support of Palestinian resistance to alleged Israeli aggression and “genocide.” Utilizing your library resources, research the student protests at Columbia in 1968 and 2024. In what ways were the protests similar? In what ways did they differ?
  3. In a 2014 book, Nixon’s Secrets: The Rise, Fall, and Untold Truth about the President, Watergate, and the Pardon, Roger Stone, a political strategist and long-time advisor to Donald J. Trump, presented what he claimed was “new evidence” of a conspiracy against Richard Nixon during the Watergate affair. In his book, Stone sought to redeem the reputation of this “complex and sometimes confusing man,” a man who had no real political philosophy but who had great resilience and perseverance in the face of numerous setbacks. Stone even had an image of Nixon’s face tattooed on his back! From what you have learned about Nixon, reflect on why you think Roger Stone, a close associate of Donald Trump, might idolize Nixon in these ways. What virtues do you think Stone sees in both Nixon and Trump?