Fifty years ago, on November 3, 1969, President Richard Nixon gave his famous “silent majority” speech, a televised address in which he asked Americans to support his plan to end the Vietnam War, what he would later in 1973 describe as “peace with honor.” “And so tonight,” Nixon said on the television that evening, in his oddly stilted cadence, glancing down at the papers in his hands, “to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign for the Presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge.”
In context, Nixon’s speech was a rebuke to widespread anti-war protests calling for an immediate end to the war, protests which had been ongoing since 1964. Implicitly, when Nixon used the phrase “silent majority,” he was suggesting that most Americans were not like the protesters but instead were willing to achieve the peace Nixon’s way. The anti-war demonstrators, meanwhile, were just a very vocal minority.
Nixon’s speech wasn’t the first use of the phrase “silent majority”; the phrase was employed regularly by various politicians in very different contexts since the nineteenth century. Since 1969, though, Nixon’s usage has become the quintessential example, and the term has now come to mean what it meant in Nixon’s speech — a majority of relatively conservative Americans who weren’t comfortable with the radicalism of the 1960s. Nixon’s speech may have been explicitly only about the Vietnam War, but historians have interpreted the phrase as a more coded appeal to a broader silent majority, one not just opposed to the anti-war protests, but also to the 1960s counterculture more generally, and even to the civil rights and feminist movements.
The phrase has thus become a way to explain how the radical 1960s gave way the conservatism of the ’70s and ’80s and how those promising progressive movements suffered such a sharp and sudden backlash. In his book Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein describes all this in a compelling narrative, detailing how lurking under the surface of the 1960s was this silent majority opposed to all the changes they saw going on around them, the new rights given to African Americans, the growing demands of equality by women, the increasing…