Last week Ronald Reagan’s famous October 27 “A Time for Choosing” speech during the 1964 presidential campaign was justly commemorated on its 50th anniversary as Reagan’s dramatic entrance into national politics.
Less commemorated this week was the 45th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s momentous “Silent Majority” appeal to mainstream America to back his Vietnam policy against anti-war zealots demanding immediate surrender.
Asking support from the “great silent majority of my fellow Americans,” Nixon carefully explained that America had “no future as a free society” if an agitated “vocal minority” dictated national policy through street demonstrations. Citing signage cynically and impatiently demanding, “Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home,” Nixon warned that defeatism and division among Americans would only hinder his power to negotiate a just peace with Communist North Vietnam.
“Let us be united for peace,” Nixon implored. “Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”
No less than Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing,” which generated a tremendous outpouring of contributions and enthusiasm during the final days of the otherwise doomed Barry Goldwater campaign, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” appeal garnered hundreds of thousands of supportive letters and telegrams to the White House. Reagan’s speech, which barely mentioned Goldwater, propelled Reagan himself into the forefront of American public life as the country’s most visionary and appealing conservative, leading directly to his election as California’s governor two years later. Nixon’s speech had a much more immediate impact, inflating his approval ratings overnight, empowering him to avoid precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam and instead to strengthen South Vietnam while secretly seeking relations with North Vietnam’s patron, Communist China.
“A Time for Choosing” is one of the most significant speeches of the twentieth century for ultimately elevating Reagan into the presidency where he redefined the role of government and led America to a final, peaceful victory in the Cold War. But such victory may not have been possible had Nixon’s speech not so successfully resisted pressure for a quick, disgraceful retreat that likely would have earned contempt rather than respect from the Chinese Communists, forestalling the eventual rapprochement that made them implicit allies against the Soviet Union.
Both Nixon’s and Reagan’s speeches of 50 and 45 years ago are classic summons to American exceptionalism and providential purpose, revealing the religious mystique that Americans attach to their national destiny. Each speech also subtly revealed Nixon’s and Reagan’s individual religious influences and perspectives filtered into statecraft.
Citing Vietnam as a battle in a much wider spiritual struggle, Reagan declared, “We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it’s been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.”
In his speech, Reagan portrayed the conflict between statism and self-government, whether writ large internationally in the Cold War or more discreetly at home through the “soup kitchen of the welfare state,” as a cosmic war in which both liberty and religion itself were at stake. The evangelical, apocalyptic rhetoric of Reagan’s childhood faith, nurtured by the Midwestern Disciples of Christ denomination in which his mother had been a pious adherent, rings loudly through his stern, prophetic warning of “A Time for Choosing.” That speech showcased not the later Reagan better known as preternatural optimist but instead the Reagan who as a youth was a lay preacher and Sunday school teacher proclaiming simple but momentous truths regarding the souls of men.
Citing the fateful choices of Moses and Jesus Christ, Reagan surmised in his melodramatic conclusion, “We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
Nixon’s speech, although it did appeal for prayers, did not directly cite biblical figures. Unlike Reagan, Nixon was never a preacher, his Quaker tradition not really having formal preachers per se. But the Quakerism of his childhood and youth instilled in him a lifelong focus on peacemaking as vocation, including a lifelong admiration for the great, failed peacemaker, Woodrow Wilson, whose tragic demise he cited in his speech, and whose fate he sought to avert.
Of course, Nixon did not remain an active Quaker, whose pacifism he implicitly disavowed during his WWII military service. He often attended Methodist churches after the war, his wife and father both being Methodist. As a boy, his father took the family to hear the Los Angeles evangelical Methodist preacher “Fighting” Bob Shuler, a revivalist and conservative social reformer.
Nixon’s religious sensibility reinforced his notion of America’s international duties, “For the United States, this first defeat in our nation’s history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but throughout the world,” he warned of hasty retreat from Vietnam. “Our defeat and humiliation in South Vietnam without question would promote recklessness in the councils of those great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest… spark violence wherever our commitments help maintain the peace — in the Middle East, in Berlin, eventually even in the Western Hemisphere. Ultimately, this would cost more lives. It would not bring peace; it would bring more war.” He also presciently warned of “massacres” and oppression in South Vietnam should America abandon her.
Of course, Nixon succeeded in a phased withdrawal from South Vietnam and achieved a peace agreement with the North. But Watergate crippled him and America from preventing Communist violations and eventual bloody conquest. Like his hero Wilson, he failed to achieve his hoped for “just and lasting peace,” and his presidency ended no less tragically.
Reagan’s peroration promised a “rendezvous with destiny,” a phrase he often repeated for the rest of his political career, and which was largely fulfilled in a geopolitically successful presidency. But like Nixon, his success depended on a “silent majority” who believed in America’s destiny at home and abroad, sustained by providentially inspired confidence in liberty over state coercion. Nixon’s and Reagan’s historic appeals of 45 and 50 years ago are spiritually and politically interlocking, almost as much sermons as speeches, both aspirationally hailing American ideals about freedom as godly examples for all humanity.