Give War a Chance: The Nixon Administration and Domestic Support for the Vietnam War, 1969-1973
Degree awarded: Ph.D. History. American University
While undeniably a foreign policy priority, the Vietnam War was a very real domestic concern for President Richard Nixon. The 1968 election campaign demonstrated the political cost of waging an unpopular war and so the new president and his aides sought to rally domestic support to counteract the growing strength of the antiwar movement. Administration officials such as H.R. Haldeman, Charles Colson, Alex Butterfield, and Jeb Magruder worked with outside sympathizers including H. Ross Perot, veterans organizations, and other grassroots groups to create pro-war - and pro-Nixon - organizations from the early days of his presidency. This dissertation presents the first in-depth study based on archival research of the Nixon administration's campaign to persuade the American people to give war a chance. When substantive policy changes failed to significantly reverse domestic antipathy for the war, Nixon and his aides instead hoped that appeals to vaguely-defined patriotic sentiments would inspire a very public and visible outpouring of support for the President. The public response to their first coordinated attempt, Nixon's November 3, 1969 "Silent Majority" speech, surprised even Nixon and his staff; they were, however, quick to capitalize on the popularity of the idea and its promotion soon shaped almost every aspect of White House public opinion efforts. While many supporters embraced the Silent Majority, officials still sought to control the president's outside support network whenever possible, up to and including creating officially autonomous support groups out of whole cloth in the White House. These astroturf, or fake grassroots, groups complemented administration efforts to manipulate popular patriotism, redefine American national identity, and therefore secure broad popular support for both the Vietnam War and President Nixon. Initial successes in 1969 and 1970 led aides to believe that expanding these efforts beyond Vietnam could strengthen the President's 1972 reelection campaign. Although Nixon was reelected by a significant margin efforts to expand the silent majority into the new American majority weakened both identities. White House efforts to mobilize domestic support not only provided the president with political space to continue waging war in Vietnam - as well as Laos and Cambodia - but further intensified and polarized domestic debates over patriotism and national identity.
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