Vietnam War Era: The Silent Majority

Kenneth J Heineman. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.

On November 3, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon appealed to Americans for patience as he sought to extricate the United States from the Vietnam War. Addressing himself first to antiwar partisans, Nixon asserted that he respected their right to dissent and granted that most were patriotic. However, to the radicals who demanded immediate withdrawal, denounced the United States as a source of oppression in the world, and threatened violent social disruption, he was less charitable:

For almost 200 years, the policy of this nation has been made under our Constitution by those leaders in the Congress and the White House elected by all of the people. If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society (Nixon 1969).

Setting aside the militant vocal minority, Nixon coined a memorable phrase: “And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support” (Nixon 1969). In short order, the Silent Majority (usually written with capitals) became, variously, a political epithet, a sociological category of analysis, and a dark Hollywood subtext. Actor Peter Boyle, for example, chewed scenery in the 1969 film Joe, portraying a racist, flag-waving member of the Silent Majority who killed nonconformist youths.

Those in academe, the news media, and Hollywood who depicted the white working-class supporters of Nixon’s Vietnam policy as, in the New York Times’ formulation, “the most reactionary political force in the country,” were never able to resolve the central political paradox that had arisen by the end of the 1960s: the members of the Silent Majority, just like their most heated critics, were Democrats (Polenberg 1980, 224). Republicans such as Nixon did not instigate the Democrats’ civil war over Vietnam, campus unrest, and urban crime, but they hoped to reap the political benefits from the destruction of the New Deal-Cold War electoral coalition.

To understand the Democratic Party’s divisions over American foreign policy in the late 1960s and the rise of the Silent Majority, it is useful to examine the origins of the electoral coalition that dominated national politics for a generation. There are several historical points to keep in mind. Each point provides a context for the divisive politics that gave rise to the Silent Majority.

The New Deal Coalition

Popular memory has recalled the Great Depression as an era of unity in which Americans rallied behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The historical record demonstrates something different. Far from embracing the New Deal, millions of Americans reacted against social welfare policy initiatives and collective bargaining rights for workers. For instance, the violent strike wave of 1937 that hit Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania particularly hard contributed to a conservative electoral backlash a year later in those states.

The party of Roosevelt was a coalition of minorities: northern urban Catholics and Jews, rural southern white Protestants, northern urban black Protestants, and labor union members. Although Protestants were the doctrinal majority in the United States, only a small fraction voted Democratic—southern whites and northern blacks. Collectively, blacks, Catholics, and Jews could deliver key political battleground states in the industrial heartland, but usually only by narrow majorities of 51 to 52 percent. Defections or declining turnout among any single bloc of voters spelled doom for the Democrats in Congress and the Electoral College.

National Democrats were heavily dependent on the urban centers where the bulk of northern blacks, Catholics, and Jews resided. In 1940, 45 percent of all Illinois voters lived in Chicago and 51 percent of New York voters called one of the boroughs home. The overwhelming majority of Michigan Democrats and labor union members lived in Wayne County (Detroit). Without the support of the 12 largest cities in 1940, Roosevelt’s electoral vote tally would have been 237, rather than 449. Two hundred and sixty-six electoral votes were required to win the presidency (Erie 1988).

The New Deal electoral coalition was glued together by shared poverty and sacrifice in depression and world war. However, cultural cleavages could not be ignored. Racial segregation and voter disenfranchisement in the South made civil rights a dangerous issue to Democrats. Roosevelt’s solution was to practice color-blind hiring on federal works projects in the North where blacks had the vote and to remain silent on segregation and disenfranchisement in the South.

There were also religious and racial divisions over union enrollment with which Democrats had to contend. Southern whites were generally hostile to unions, embracing a Protestant individualist ethos that disdained collective action, viewed poverty as a product of sin rather than of low wages, and looked upon government power with a suspicion born of a lost Civil War. Even northern black Protestants, who were more inclined than southern whites to see poverty as a social justice issue and to embrace government intervention, had their own ambivalent relations with organized labor. Most union leaders and the rank and file were Catholics who embraced collective action and government assistance, except when state authorities pushed for the racial integration of their neighborhoods and schools.

So far as foreign policy was concerned, 80 percent of the public in late 1941 opposed going to war to stop Nazi German aggression (Cantril 1951). Only the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor induced Americans to support Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policy. Even then, most Americans would not have supported a war against Nazi Germany—the enemy Roosevelt feared more than Imperial Japan. If Hitler had not first declared war on the United States, it is doubtful that Roosevelt could have received congressional and public support to intervene militarily in Europe.

In addition to a strong streak of isolationism, the New Deal coalition experienced small ideological fissures on foreign policy before World War II. Many Catholics viewed communism as a more compelling foreign threat than fascism. Some American Catholic clerical and lay leaders shaded their anticommunism with anti-Semitism. At the same time, large numbers of Jews regarded Nazi Germany as the real enemy and were prepared to join an alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union to stop Hitler. The bitter arguments between American Catholics and Jews over which side to support in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)—the Soviet-backed Madrid government or the Nazi-supported Francisco Franco—echoed into the 1960s with Saigon taking the place of Barcelona.

Looking back on the early 1950s, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset detected a class rift within the Democratic Party. In the 1952 presidential election, Lipset observed that two-thirds of the 2,000 social science faculty he surveyed voted for Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee whom, they believed, would pull the United States back from the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union. At the same time, half of working-class whites and union members voted for Dwight Eisenhower. Such Democratic voters thought the Republican presidential nominee’s anticommunism and military credentials were not in question—unlike Stevenson’s. Nearly as bad as being weak on national defense, in their minds, Stevenson had not served in World War II. Veterans occupied the White House between 1945 and 1992; eight had been in the military during World War II (Lipset 1981).

Political scientist James Q. Wilson similarly documented a cultural divide within the Democratic Party. According to Wilson, 1950s America experienced the rise of “amateur Democrats.” These amateur Democrats were largely social science professors, public school teachers, public or foundation-employed social workers, and defense and civil liberties attorneys. They were offended by labor union leaders and urban politicians, complaining that such Democrats supported increased defense expenditures and resisted the racial integration of their neighborhoods (Wilson 1966).

Amateur Democrats could most often be found near prestigious universities and affluent urban neighborhoods. Few Catholics belonged to the political reform clubs that the amateur Democrats established. As Wilson contended, the best predictors of the relative strength of the reformers were the proportion of the overall population holding a bachelor’s degree and the size of the Jewish community.

In 1950 New York, where Wilson reported the existence of a strong Democratic reform movement, 26.0 percent of the population was Jewish and 10.2 percent of residents over the age of 25 had a college degree. Chicago, with 14.0 percent of its population being Jewish and 5.7 percent claiming a college education, had a weaker reform organization that was centered in the Gold Coast neighborhood as well as the University of Chicago and Hyde Park environs. In Pittsburgh, which in 1950 had a small Jewish population—8 percent—and a low proportion of college-educated residents—3.6 percent—there were no amateur political clubs (Wilson 1966).

Vietnam and Party Divisions

The tensions between reformers and rank-and-file Democrats might have remained more of a nuisance than an actual agent of electoral disaster but for the escalating Vietnam War in the 1960s and concurrent campus and inner-city unrest. For many white working-class Democrats, the Vietnam War set in motion debates over the draft and patriotism. A fair amount of cultural conservatism and economic populism became intertwined with these debates, helping to dissolve the bonds that had held the New Deal-Cold War coalition together.

Perhaps the most divisive issue confronting the Democratic coalition was the class bias inherent in the operation of Selective Service. Because college student draft deferments were provided through 1968, millions of youths avoided military service. Nearly all of these students were middle class as just 17 percent of college students in the 1960s came from working-class and lower-middle-class families. Student draft deferments helped place the burden of combat on working-class youths who made up 80 percent of the U.S. soldiers fighting in Vietnam (Appy 1993).

Given the demographics of American military service in the 1960s, the backgrounds of those who made the ultimate sacrifice were overwhelmingly blue collar. In 1969 Long Island, of the 400 killed in Vietnam only one in eight had ever set foot on a college campus. Nearly all were white and working class. In an analysis of 1,300 Illinois troops killed in Vietnam, social scientists concluded that the risk of death increased as income declined (Polenberg 1980). Nationally, Catholics, who were 24 percent of the overall U.S. population in the 1960s, accounted for 30 percent of those killed in action. As journalist Michael Lind later observed, Catholics were the only group, including African Americans, to be consistently overrepresented in combat ranks throughout the 1960s. The group next most likely to see combat were southern white Protestants (Lind 1999).

When journalists interviewed working-class whites in the North, their anger with the draft and student antiwar protesters sprang from the newspaper pages. “Here were these kids, rich kids who could go to college,” said one critic of antiwar demonstrators in 1970 New York, “who didn’t have to fight, they are telling you your son died in vain. It makes you feel your whole life is shit, just nothing” (Rieder 1985, 157). Another white working-class interviewee informed a reporter that “we can’t understand how all those rich kids—the kids with beads from the fancy suburbs—how they get off when my son has to go over there and maybe get his head shot off” (Levison 1974, 162).

If northern white workers expressed loathing for collegiate protesters, by the end of the 1960s they were also registering disgust with the Vietnam War. In 1968, national public opinion polls, along with local antiwar referendums held in such blue-collar communities as Dearborn, Michigan, confirmed what many newspaper reporters were finding: there were numerous targets of working-class ire as well as dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war. One white working-class member who lost a son in Vietnam at first condemned the peace movement. This individual’s next observations, however, were a perfect mix of populist scorn for Republican stock brokers and Democratic faculty:

It’s people like us who give up our sons for the country. The business people, they run the country and make money from it. The college types, the professors, they go to Washington and tell the government what to do. Do this, they say; do that. But their sons, they don’t end up in the swamps over there in Vietnam (Polenberg 1980, 228).

Such class resentments also had an ethnic component. In the Canarsie neighborhood of New York, for instance, the local amateur Democratic club had a large middle-class, antiwar Jewish membership. This reflected the fact that, nationally, by the end of the 1960s, Jews were nearly twice as likely to oppose the war as Catholics. Even earlier, in 1956, Canarsie’s Democratic Italian Catholics and Jews had parted company over Cold War American foreign policy. Where 70 percent of ethnic Italians voted for Eisenhower, 85 percent of Jews embraced Stevenson (Rieder 1985).

At a peace rally sponsored by Canarsie’s Jefferson Democratic Club in the early 1970s, working-class ethnic Italians from the Catholic War Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars descended with fists flying. Bringing the ethnic divide into focus, an Italian member of the Canarsie Knights of Columbus observed: “All Americans should know their heritage, but we are Americans first. That’s what annoys me when Jews rally for Israel, but they wouldn’t even do it for the Korean War, and they tried to keep their kids out of Vietnam” (Rieder 1985, 41, 161-162).

On college campuses, which served as important locales of antiwar organization in the 1960s, there were ethnic and religious divisions similar to those afflicting Canarsie. As sociologist Nathan Glazer observed in 1969, anywhere from one-third to half of the membership of the most radical student antiwar organizations came from Jewish families (Glazer 1969). Catholics were nearly invisible in radical campus ranks at secular institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. At Catholic universities from Canisius in Buffalo, New York, to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, there were but handfuls of antiwar activists and nearly all were moderates, not radicals.

The first major rupture within the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War came in the run up to the 1968 presidential election. Former Alabama governor George Wallace, who had earned notoriety in the early 1960s for his opposition to racial integration, made an independent race for president. Redirecting his fire away from civil rights advocates, Wallace targeted student and faculty activists:

I’m going to ask my Attorney General to seek an indictment against every professor in this country who calls for a communist victory and see if I can’t put them under a good jail somewhere. I’m sick and tired of seeing these few college students raise money, blood, and clothes for the communists and fly the Vietcong flag; they ought to be dragged by the hair of their heads and stuck under a good jail also (Page and Brody 1972, 992).

Representing a region that was home to many military bases and defense contractors, and whose sons filled the ranks of the armed forces, Wallace’s ridicule of campus demonstrators played to the home crowd and won fans in northern Catholic enclaves. Southern white transplants to the factories of Akron, Columbus, and Detroit also cheered Wallace. Giving the lie to the mass media depiction of a generation gap in which youths protested against the war while their parents embraced it, Wallace picked up notable support among voters under the age of 30. These were youths who did not go to college.

Even as the Democratic Party experienced defections by frustrated cultural conservatives who demanded a crackdown on demonstrators and a decisive military victory in Vietnam—or a withdrawal—progressives moved against Johnson’s designated heir, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Mounting their challenge from the reform clubs, white-collar activists gained control of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Founded in 1947 by intellectuals, labor leaders, and politicians such as Humphrey, the ADA embraced civil rights and the Cold War. A generation later, however, reformers repudiated the organization’s anticommunism and dedicated themselves to securing the Democratic presidential nomination for Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy. In response, labor leaders pulled their financial support from the ADA and reaffirmed their commitment to Humphrey.

Unlike the victory progressives claimed in changing the ideological orientation of the ADA, the success of the amateur Democrats at the state level varied greatly. In 1968, the Democrats in North Carolina affirmed, “We oppose draft card burning, interference with the proper activities of our educational institutions by students and outsiders, refusal to serve our country when needed, and expressions of disloyalty to state and nation.” Wisconsin’s Democratic state organization, having come under the influence of Eugene McCarthy loyalists in 1968, identified America’s “real enemy” as “white racism,” not communism (Paddock 1990).

In spite of the defections of many culturally conservative Democrats to Wallace and the determination of antiwar progressives not to vote for either Humphrey or Nixon, the 1968 election was extremely close. The very closeness of this election helped determine President-elect Nixon’s foreign policy and 1972 reelection strategy.

Nixon and Humphrey understood that regardless of who won the election, Johnson’s successor would have limited military and political options. Public opinion had turned against the war as U.S. casualties mounted without any apparent progress toward victory. The North Vietnamese had timed the January 1968 Tet Offensive to coincide with the American electoral cycle. Although the United States largely destroyed the communist insurgency in South Vietnam and transformed the war into a more conventional—and winnable—contest with the North Vietnamese Army, it was politically too late. The news media, and the public at large, interpreted the Tet Offensive as a U.S. military defeat. Two-thirds of the citizenry condemned the president’s conduct of the war in March 1968. Johnson subsequently announced that he would embrace peace negotiations with Hanoi (Barone 1990).

Both Nixon and Humphrey favored ending the war. Neither, however, desired an immediate withdrawal that would lead to a collapse of South Vietnam and, they feared, encourage Chinese and Soviet aggression elsewhere. Nixon and Humphrey also appreciated one more aspect of public opinion that many in the peace movement failed to digest: if Americans, and especially white working-class voters, wanted to end the war, they were also willing to accept a withdrawal or an escalation of the air war. The majority of Americans in 1968 still desired a victory—they just wanted it accomplished quickly and with few U.S. casualties.

Close examination of the 1968 election returns yielded vital data that Nixon would use to advantage in 1972. First, 1968 was one of the most racially polarized elections in American history. Where 97 percent of blacks voted Democratic, just 35 percent of whites followed suit. Wallace, not Nixon, had made deep inroads among white Democratic voters, particularly with Southern Baptists. Forty-five percent of Southern Baptists, a once reliably Democratic voting bloc, supported Wallace (Orum 1970). A promise to slow down the pace of racial change, and appeals to sectional pride and patriotism, would form the cornerstone of Nixon’s 1972 “Southern Strategy” in pursuit of Dixie’s Wallace voters.

Second, the 1968 election returns revealed that Wallace had made gains in the North at the expense of the Democrats. Several United Automobile Workers (UAW) locals in New Jersey and Illinois supported Wallace. In Buffalo, New York, traditionally Democratic precincts that bordered black neighborhoods or student communes at the State University of New York in Buffalo voted for Wallace or Nixon. These precincts were populated by ethnic Poles and Italians. Democratic Party leaders were aghast.

Nixon and the Silent Majority

Although academics and journalists had spent much of the 1960s exploring discontent among middle-class student activists and blacks, few had considered that northern white working-class Americans might have cause for complaint. Greater numbers of working-class whites worried about their declining living standards and worsening urban neighborhoods. They also began to express resentment for bearing nearly the entire burden of combat service. Here was a foundation upon which Nixon could build a “Northern Strategy.”

Nixon’s 1969 inauguration was the first in U.S. history to be disrupted by violent protest. Many congressional Democrats, although willing to criticize the Vietnam War now that a Republican occupied the White House, cringed. They knew that violence further alienated the public, making the peace movement at least as unpopular as the war. In addition to being upset with leftist violence, working-class citizens were decidedly patriotic and resentful of those they deemed to be less so. New York journalist Pete Hamill, whose brother had been decorated for valor in Vietnam, wrote in 1969 that:

Patriotism is very important to the working-class white man. Most of the time he is the son of an immigrant, and most immigrants sincerely believe that the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, [and] the American Flag are symbols of what it means to be Americans. They might not have become rich in America, but most of the time they were much better off than they were in the old country. On “I Am an American” Day they march in parades with a kind of religious fervor that can look absurd to the outsider (imagine marching through Copenhagen on “I Am a Dane” Day), but that can also be oddly touching. Walk through any working-class white neighborhood and you will see dozens of veterans’ clubs, named after neighborhood men who were killed in World War II or Korea. There are not really orgies of jingoism going on inside; most of the time the veterans’ clubs serve as places in which to drink on Sunday morning before the bars open at 1 p.m., or as places in which to hold baptisms and wedding receptions (Hamill 1969, 24).

In 1969, the general public’s patriotism and dislike of social disorder permitted Nixon to adopt a sorrowful tone that embraced much of the sentiment expressed by Wallace a year earlier, but without the threat of retribution that disturbed moderate voters. “We live in a deeply troubled and profoundly unsettled time. Drugs, crime, campus revolts, racial discord, draft resistance—on every hand we find old standards violated, old values discarded.” Nixon left it up to Vice President Spiro Agnew to play the Wallace “bad cop” role when he characterized radicals as “rotten apples” that should be thrown away (Rieder 1985, 154-156).

If, as Time magazine reported in a 1969 poll, 80 percent of the public thought the Vietnam War had been a “mistake,” just 36 percent demanded an immediate withdrawal (Lunch and Sperlich 1979). This seeming confusion in the public’s mind provided an opening for supporters of the war. Voices that had been relatively silent on the war emerged in 1969. W. A. Criswell, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared:

The communist aggressor can go just so far and no further. Where are you going to draw that line? Are we going to draw it in Thailand and South Vietnam? Or are you going to pull back and draw it in the Philippines … at Hawaii … at the western coast of California … at the western line of Texas, or are you going to pull back still further and draw it at the Mississippi River? Somewhere—sometime—America has to stand! (Blevins 1980, 238).

The contending voices of war and peace clashed most spectacularly in 1970. In response to the U.S. incursion into Cambodia in April 1970 to interdict North Vietnamese Army supply lines, hundreds of campuses erupted. On May 4, 1970, demonstrators at Kent State University squared off against elements of the Ohio National Guard, leading to the deaths of four students. Protests at other universities escalated, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage and injuring scores of students and police officers.

When antiwar activists rallied in New York City and St. Louis in solidarity with the “Kent State 4,” construction workers responded savagely. Thousands of working-class whites demanded that Mayor John Lindsay, a Nixon foe, not lower the American flag in honor of the killed and injured Kent State students. A full-scale riot erupted at City Hall and the voices of the “hardhats” choked with emotion: “I am an American and America wasn’t made to have these pansy-assed creeps running around wild,” said one construction worker. “I don’t mind people demonstrating, but when these brats rip, spit on and chew up the flag, what are we supposed to do, stand around and kiss them?” (Cannato 2001, 448-452).

Two weeks later, 100,000 New Yorkers staged a demonstration in support of the troops and against the antiwar movement. Some of their signs would not have passed muster with the Southern Baptist Convention: “Lindsay Drops the Flag More Times Than a Whore Drops Her Pants.” Nixon, who took his allies where he could find them, welcomed Peter Brennan, the leader of the New York Building and Construction Trades Council, and other labor heads to the White House. Having helped orchestrate the New York march, Brennan happily gave Nixon a hard hat (Cannato 2001).

Paradoxically, by the time the 1972 presidential election season rolled around, Nixon had persuaded the general public that the Vietnam War was no longer a major issue even while peace activists succeeded in making it nearly the only issue for the Democratic Party. In 1972, public opinion polls reported that the great majority of Americans regarded the most important issues facing the country to be, in order, inflation, crime, violence, and drugs. The Vietnam War occupied a more distant fifth place among public concerns—a dramatic shift since 1968 (Wattenberg 1976).

Nixon’s decision to abolish student draft deferments and go to a Selective Service lottery helped defuse campus unrest. Because students had assigned numbers in the lottery they knew that, with declining troop calls, only a few would be drafted. Once the threat of the draft receded campus antiwar protest collapsed. The Kent State shootings revived campus protest but only briefly.

The president’s policy of “Vietnamization” of the war also worked to quell American qualms. By replacing U.S. ground forces with South Vietnamese troops, while escalating the air and naval war against North Vietnam, American casualties declined. South Vietnamese casualties, of course, increased, but even Nixon’s supporters thought they should have been bearing more of the fight all along. With Nixon’s overtures to China and the Soviet Union, on top of deadlier American bombing runs, North Vietnam felt pressured to accept, at least temporarily, the existence of an independent South Vietnam.

Since taking the oath of office, Nixon had courted high-profile Democratic political and labor leaders. Peter Brennan was but one of many. Nixon had felt a strong attraction to Philadelphia police commissioner, and then mayor, Frank Rizzo. A stalwart law-and-order man, Rizzo, according to Nixon, “was a leading member of what I called The Silent Majority.” Rizzo did not disappoint the president. The outspoken Philadelphian effusively praised Nixon’s May 1972 decision to mine North Vietnam’s Haiphong Harbor—disrupting supplies needed for the spring communist offensive: “Your forthright and decisive action will shorten hostilities and pave the way for the return of our troops and prisoners. Your honest and courageous decision has spurred the hopes of all who seek an early and just end to the war.” Rizzo supported Nixon for reelection (Paolantonio 1993, 145-148).

Nixon ardently pursued American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president George Meany but did not achieve the same level of comity he had with Rizzo and Brennan. Meany did not trust the historically anti-union Republican Party. At the same time, however, Meany had never valued the judgment of professors, whether in the 1950s when they voted for Stevenson or the 1970s as they cast about for an anti-Cold War crusader.

Most important to Nixon, Meany was committed to creating a democratic South Vietnam and did not want the United States withdrawing without first securing that nation from communist aggression. The culturally conservative, Irish Catholic Meany also assumed the mantle of godfather of the Silent Majority, using choice words for the progressives who were gaining control of the presidential nomination machinery. As Meany caustically observed after the 1972 Democratic National Convention when he declined to endorse his party’s presidential nominee:

We listened for three days to the speakers who were approved to speak by the powers-that-be at that convention. We listened to the gay lib people—you know, the people who want to legalize marriages between boys and boys and legalize marriages between girls and girls…. We heard from the abortionists, and we heard from the people who look like Jacks, acted like Jills, and had the odors of johns about them (Robinson 1981, 294, 322-323).

To Meany’s disgust, and Nixon’s delight, progressive reformers, led by South Dakota senator George McGovern, were successfully redirecting the Democratic Party away from the Cold War and toward social liberalism. Antiwar student and faculty activists from Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities in Baltimore helped defeat a somewhat conservative incumbent congressman in the 1970 Democratic primary and replaced him with a black peace partisan. For their part, North Dakota Democrats in 1972 proclaimed that:

We should abandon war or the threat of war as an instrument of national policy. We support phasing out nationalism as an ultimate long-range objective because we recognize that until we have an international society, war, racism, and exploitation will continue to plague us (Paddock 1990, 181-190).

The repudiation of American Cold War foreign policy by North Dakota Democrats and Baltimore’s primary voters, however, was not a sign of a mass populist uprising on the prairie or in the city. North Dakota was a Republican state that, with the exception of 1964, handed Democrats lopsided defeats. Humphrey only received 38 percent of the North Dakota vote in 1968. Most North Dakota Democrats were white-collar professionals concentrated in university communities. Paradoxically, they were more influential in the national party than they were in their home state. The same was true in the East.

Within the Democratic Party there was some resistance to the progressives. Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest with a sociology PhD, decried the “snobbery” of upper-class liberals who held culturally conservative members of the working class in contempt (Greeley 1972). If working-class Catholics were wrong to regard blacks as less than human, Greeley argued, then college-educated progressives should be ashamed to harbor similar feelings toward misguided, less-educated whites. Given their own class blinders and bigotry, Democratic reformers, Greeley concluded, should not be surprised that working-class Catholics were lumping progressives together with such traditional class foes as the corporate executive:

A Harvard graduate is, after all, a Harvard graduate, whether in a picket line or in a boardroom of a large corporation. The peace movement was seen as an establishment movement, working against the values, the stability, and the patriotism of the American masses—which masses, incidentally, were seen as footing the bill for establishment games and amusements (Greeley 1974, 375-376).

Michael Novak, a Slovak Catholic son of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, experienced the confusion of class and ethnic tensions that Greeley described from a vantage point within the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign. A long-time peace activist, Novak had already begun to express his revulsion with radicals when Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver contacted him to become a speechwriter. Novak enthusiastically plunged into the campaign, having long admired Shriver for his work in the Peace Corps, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and earlier efforts against racial discrimination in Chicago with the Catholic Interracial Council. It did not take long for Novak to realize that something was going horribly wrong with the Democratic Party:

Mr. Shriver was greeted with scarcely veiled disdain, I thought, by workers at the gates of the Homestead [Pennsylvania] Steel mills—my own kind of folks, who would normally be with us by upwards of 89 percent. In Joliet, Illinois, on a factory floor where I encountered dozens of Slovak faces that made me think of my cousins in Johnstown, workers did not want to shake McGovern-Shriver hands. Trying to find out why, I met our “advance person”—a young woman wearing a miniskirt, high white boots, and a see-through blouse, with a large pro-abortion button on her collar. On that factory floor in 1972, the clash of social classes and cultural politics could scarcely have been more discordant (Novak 1988, 257).

There were other signs that the Silent Majority was preparing to hand antiwar Democrats a massive electoral defeat. A Louis Harris Poll in the spring of 1972 reported that 59 percent of Americans approved of Nixon’s decision to mine Haiphong Harbor. That September, 55 percent of the public supported increased U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. When Gallup asked who would handle the Vietnam War better, Nixon received the endorsement of 58 percent of the public. Just 26 percent thought McGovern would do a credible job, and the remainder either claimed no opinion or expressed skepticism about both candidates (Wattenberg 1976).

The Silent Majority, which had not been all that quiet for the past several years, roared on Election Day 1972. Nixon received 61 percent of the popular vote and carried every electoral vote but those belonging to Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. McGovern even lost his home state of South Dakota. For the first time since the Great Depression, the Democratic presidential candidate performed miserably among white working-class voters and Catholics. Nixon carried 60 percent of such voters. McGovern also decisively lost the South; 80 percent of white evangelical Protestants, long the backbone of the Dixie Democrats, opted for Nixon. McGovern did carry the student body of Harvard Law School 698 to 131 and swept Harvard Law professors 34 to 4 (Heineman 1998).

Pennsylvania’s election returns were particularly telling. In a state that had been a crucible of the industrial union movement and a center of Catholic Democratic mobilization, McGovern was able to win just a single county: Philadelphia. Even then, Frank Rizzo’s Catholics defected to Nixon, leaving it up to blacks and Jews to deliver for McGovern. At the other end of the Keystone State, in the overwhelmingly Democratic Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), McGovern performed poorly. Nineteen percent of Allegheny County Democrats sat out the election, refusing to vote for either McGovern or Nixon. Another 11 percent of Allegheny County Democrats chose Nixon (Heineman 2004).

Nixon’s 1972 victory proved fleeting after revelations that a few of his campaign staffers had conspired to break into national Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. His resignation in 1974, followed a year later by a North Vietnamese offensive that broke the 1973 truce and destroyed South Vietnamese resistance, cheered progressive Democrats. With Nixon disgraced and America’s Cold War foreign policy in ruins, progressives thought a stake had been driven through the heart of the Silent Majority. Subsequent developments proved such hopes to be false.

Southern white Protestants returned to the Democratic fold in 1976 by voting for Jimmy Carter. Disgust with Soviet expansionism, inflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the freewheeling lifestyle revolution of the 1970s, however, turned Dixie whites against their fellow Democrats. Republican Ronald Reagan reached out to southern whites and to socially conservative Catholics in the North. The Silent Majority became reborn in the 1980s as “Reagan Democrats.” Southern whites and northern Catholics, mostly blue collar, voted Republican in presidential contests but continued to support Democrats at the congressional and state level. It took a generation, until 1994, for white southerners to abandon the Democrats from top to bottom.

Republican electoral success since Nixon’s presidency depended on destroying the New Deal electoral coalition. To an extent, but only to an extent, Republicans were successful. Southern whites ultimately withdrew from the Democratic Party, but Catholics fractured along class and educational lines. Affluent Catholics resisted conservative overtures. Rather than achieving an electoral realignment, Nixon, and then Reagan, had made the Republicans competitive but not safely dominant. In many ways the conservative majority of the 1990s, built on the foundation of the 1970s Silent Majority, floated between 48 and 52 percent, just as had been the case with the New Deal Democrats.

If conservatives came away from the 1960s with the shaky support of the Silent Majority, progressives had firm ownership of the national Democratic Party. Democrats became the peace party, denouncing Reagan’s military buildup in the 1980s and driving opposition to the War on Terror in the 21st century. Antiwar activists in the 1960s, notably McGovern’s 1972 Texas campaign director, Bill Clinton, assumed leadership positions in the Democratic Party in the 1990s. At the dawn of the 21st century, the publisher of the influential New York Times (Arthur Sulzberger Jr.), the chair of the National Democratic Party (Howard Dean), and the 2004 presidential nominee (John Kerry), had demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Only Kerry had served in Vietnam. However, his charges that U.S. troops routinely committed war crimes, and his leadership in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, tempered whatever goodwill working-class whites might have had toward Kerry.

It was thus the fate of Americans in the new century that if the specter of Vietnam hovered over the War on Terror, Nixon and McGovern cast enormous shadows over the Republicans and Democrats as well. How much longer this situation will remain is open to debate. If the history of the New Deal and the Roosevelt presence is any guide, the Vietnam War and the politics that created the Silent Majority should be put to rest around 2030—or about the time the partisans of the 1960s Left and Right expire.