Module 2. Political aspects of mass media


M. Minielli

(USA, The City University of New York, New York),

M. Hazen

(USA, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem)

1972 was a defining year for the Cold War relationships between the United States, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. President Richard M. Nixon’s historic visits to China in February and to the Soviet Union in May heralded a set of changing relationships among the Cold War countries. Central to the American Cold War relationships with both communist countries was Vietnam. While America was mired in the larger Southeast Asian conflict known colloquially as the “Vietnam War,” the Soviets were simultaneously competing with the Chinese for global communist movement leadership and for influence in Vietnam.
Nixon had set out to establish new relationships with the Soviet Union and China immediately upon taking office in 1969. As he noted in his February 9, 1972 Third Annual Report to the Congress on United States Foreign Policy (1974), on March 4, 1969, he had proposed three areas of progress with the Soviets: Berlin, strategic arms limitations, and Vietnam (207). He also stated that the U.S. had been engaged in “three years of the most painstaking, meticulous, and necessarily discreet preparations” (197) with the Chinese that resulted with the “opening to the People’s Republic of China” (195). One of the reasons he had engaged in these carefully prepared discussions, commencing within two weeks upon taking office, was to achieve peace in Asia (214; 220). Nixon’s report also carefully delineates his administration’s efforts to publicly and privately negotiate with the North Vietnamese over the conflict only to be met continued resistance and an unwillingness to match American compromises and concessions (272-287).
The end of March 1972 saw the North Vietnamese engage in another significant military incursion of South Vietnam that lasted through June (Karnow, 1984: 655). With only six thousand combat troops in Vietnam, the Americans could do little to stem the invasion and were forced to rely on their South Vietnamese counterparts, the “weak link in our whole chain,” noted Nixon (Karnow, 1984: 657). Occurring concurrently was the American presidential primary season that would culminate in the nomination of two men over the summer who would then contend for the presidency in November. As the Republican Party’s nominee, Nixon was facing not only political challenges from several Democratic opponents, but also rising public discontent with the Southeast Asian conflict. Furthermore, the Democratic Party had made Vietnam a central issue by nominating George McGovern to oppose Nixon in the upcoming presidential campaign. Thus, Vietnam as an issue provided a substantive playing field where Nixon could rhetorically pursue his foreign and domestic goals.
Confronted with the upcoming Soviet summit in the midst of the latest North Vietnamese uprising, Nixon delivered the first of two televised addresses at the end of April and the beginning of November. The first, on April 26, discussed further withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, and the second, on May 8, announced the American response to the uprising. These two speeches serve as the paper’s focal point exploring the nexus of western Cold War rhetoric, the 1972 American presidential election, and the rhetorical strategy of definition.
While a President has many avenues to communicate, such as press conferences, written statements, and informal remarks, addresses to the nation constitute his premiere rhetorical statements due to their ability to command the attention of the news media, television networks, the American people and international audiences. A favorite rhetorical strategy of any world leader for achieving both domestic and foreign goals is the creation of and response to a crisis situation. Nixon’s presidency is no exception as his penchant for crises has been well noted by academics and writers alike.
The paper draws three overall conclusions: (1) Nixon employed the strategy of “linkage” or “triangulation” between America, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union to prompt a resolution to the Vietnam War; (2) Nixon covertly manipulated the situation of the spring 1970 North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam to promote his personal goal of winning a second term as the American president; and (3) the methodological approach of allowing a president to “self-identify” an event as a crisis situation through the power of definition solves problems from past methodological approaches but also introduces new, additional theoretical problems.
The paper argues that the combined elements of foreign policy rhetoric and the impending American presidential election provided Nixon with the opportunity to “manipulate” the situation through the ethos of crisis definition to resolve publicly the Southeast Asian conflict for the United States. Simultaneously it offered him the opportunity to “manipulate” the situation into a “promoted” crisis to covertly enhance his presidential reelection attempts. It further argues that Nixon’s means of manipulation was his ability to define an event as a “crisis.” In particular, we argue that Nixon’s May 8 address on the Southeast Asian conflict used the idea of “crisis” as a fulcrum for his Cold War strategies of the spring of 1972. Set within the context of his Sino-Soviet visits, framed by his public actions both home and abroad, and coupled with his hidden rhetorical manipulations of China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and the American public, the May 8 speech brought a number of carefully crafted, pre-planned strategies to head. The result was a public perception of a Southeast Asian conflict resolution that led to a successful presidential reelection campaign.
Thus, this paper explores the role of Nixon’s “little détentes” with the Soviet Union and China as they are played out in the broad sweep of his foreign policy goals and domestic electoral agenda. Nixon’s use of crisis rhetoric in his addresses to the American people became the focal role and most prominent public part of his complicated web of messages and actions at the diplomatic, military, informal, public and private levels designed to achieve his intertwined foreign policy and domestic political agendas. The initial hidden, behind-the-scenes efforts of Nixon administration that commenced in the summer of 1969 eventually emerged into a series of public statements three years later that illuminate the fundamental role 1972 played in America’s Cold War history.
This paper first explores the western scholarly approaches to the study of presidential crisis rhetoric analyses. The paper then briefly examines the historical relationships between the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam to contextually situate Nixon’s May 8, 1972 televised crisis address as well as his earlier April 26, 1972 televised non-crisis speech. It then examines past scholarly works examining Nixon’s rhetorical strategy of definition, particularly the word “crisis,” and the theoretical and philosophical issues that have consequently resulted. The paper pursues a different, alternative theoretical approach toward presidential crisis rhetoric espoused by American presidential scholar Theodore O. Windt, Jr. The paper then examines Nixon’s May 8 crisis and April 26 non-crisis addresses, culminating with a critical analysis of Windt’s perspective. The paper concludes with summary conclusions regarding presidential crisis rhetoric in light of Windt and offers suggestions for further areas of research.
This paper should attract the attention of international scholars interested in political communication and presidential rhetoric. Reflection of historical events affords scholars the opportunity to analyze events from a non-pressured perspective where information is incomplete, either to the individuals involved, the mass media, or the general public. In addition, access to information previously top secret or classified allow scholars to excavate the thoughts and decision-making processes of the crisis and its players to explain the “why” behind certain actions as well as create an opportunity to assess the success or failure of the President and his rhetoric. As international scholars continue to share their findings and increase their respective dialogues, a greater global understanding of past historical events affords heightened awareness and understanding between individuals and their respective countries.

Western Styles of American Presidential Crisis Rhetoric Analyses
Western approaches to communication study are eclectic, encompassing many different types of communication messages and styles, including the traditional approach of rhetorical theory and criticism. Typically rhetorical theory is applied to an artifact for critical application and analysis. Occasionally it is applied to an artifact to test out the theory’s validity in addition to application and analysis. This paper takes the latter approach, testing a presidential crisis rhetoric theory to determine if the theorist’s methodological approach can be supported when critically applied.
A rhetorical strategy of leaders of any country for achieving both domestic and foreign goals is the addressing of a crisis. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to address the question in its broadest sense, it should be noted that what is being discussed here is an example of how leaders in all countries take advantage of and create crisis situations to achieve their goals. While we are focusing on the American point of view in this paper, it should be noted that there will be occasional references to the rhetoric of both Soviet and Chinese leadership that attempts to address crises from their perspectives and to influence the American positions so as to achieve individual Soviet and Chinese goals.
When presidents, prime ministers, or leaders speak, particularly from countries of the stature of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China in the early 1970s, their public rhetoric must be critically analyzed from the perspective of multiple audiences. Often audiences are publicly named in a leader’s rhetoric but there are also additional, unnamed audiences who are also being addressed. Windt (Windt, 1990) points out that the public is not the only audience for a major speech. Allies and adversaries are also listening, and listening carefully to speeches on foreign policy. Members of the president’s own administration are listening to speeches on domestic issues trying to determine what the president wants them to do in their departments or agencies (Fairbank, Reischauer, Craig, 1973).
Newman (Newman, 1970: 168-178) suggests that Nixon’s presidential crisis rhetoric addressed multiple audiences and that future scholars examining his discourse should pay close attention. His conclusion was based on a single speech analysis from the president’s 1969 Southeast Asian crisis rhetoric and remains absent from subsequent comprehensive Nixon crisis appraisals. Although Newman’s position was based on a single artifact, this essay reveals that his position was correct for Nixon and Brezhnev addressed multiple named and unnamed audiences in their respective leadership rhetoric.
The American presidency and crises have historically enjoyed a symbiotic relationship.
The 1969-1974 Nixon presidency is no exception. Nixon’s penchant for successfully creating and employing crises has been well noted by academics and writers alike. The ability to pen this paper is due in part to the efforts of Nixon, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid I. Brezhnev, and their respective administrations. Their willingness to participate in conversations on behalf of world peace laid the foundation for a greater exchange of information and ideas between those two countries. In addition, access to post Nixon presidency materials, much of it from close presidential aides detailing private conversations that contain coarse, acerbic and often harsh language, allows for a significant opportunity to excavate the historical landscape and situate it more accurately.
Historical Connections between the United States, Russia, China and Vietnam
The events of the early 1970s involving the United States and Vietnam need to be situated in the history of relationships between the United States, France, Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam. In the early twentieth century, the primary player in Vietnam was the colonial power, France, who controlled large portions of Southeast Asia. Their power was gained through a series of incursions in the nineteenth century (Fairbank, Reischauer & Craig, 1974). As France’s control of Southeast Asia grew, communist revolutionary movements developed in both China and Vietnam. Both were generally supported by the Soviet Union, even though there were periods of tension in the different relationships. For example, the Soviet Union had developed relationships with the revolutionary government of Sun Yat Tsen that had succeeded in overthrowing the Manchu dynasty. This movement included elements of the early communist movement and as well as non-communist elements in the nationalist government. These periods established a pattern for latter tensions between communist China and Soviet Union leading to the final break in the 1956 to 1965 period.
The Second World War proved to be a pivotal point in the history of both China and Vietnam, in that the Japanese attacks and occupations disrupted the existing order in both China and Vietnam. After the war, the communist movement in China succeeded in gaining power by 1948, but events in Vietnam were more drawn out. The French sought to reestablish their colonial sway in Vietnam after the war but were opposed by the revolutionary forces led by Ho Chi Min, which was not resolved until 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. With the defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the communists established control of North Vietnam and the separate non-communist state of South Vietnam came into existence. At that point, the United States became the primary supporter of South Vietnam and the Soviet Union the primary supporter of North Vietnam. China, while a nominal supporter of North Vietnam, also experienced tensions and did not like the primary role played by the Soviet Union. Thus, in the early 1970s, the United States and South Vietnam were clearly poised on one side with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union on the other side and China in the wings.
The 1972 Presidential Election and American Rapprochement with the Soviet Union and China
The quest for a second Nixon presidential term in November 1972 began immediately after he commenced his first term in January 1969. It involved the strategic use of several legitimate and manufactured crises, including the Postal Strike of 1970, the Wage and Price Control crisis of 1971, and the School Busing/Equal Educational Opportunities crisis of 1972 on the domestic side (Minielli, 2006), and the ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia on the foreign side. Unlike the domestic crises that unexpectedly dominated Nixon’s first presidential term, his intentional and strategic use of foreign policy toward the Southeast Asian conflict began immediately after he assumed the presidency for the first time.
Early in his first term, the United States and the Soviet Union undertook a series of talks, treaty discussions, and agreements that became known as “détente.” During the early days of Nixon’s first presidential term, both the United States and the Soviet Union made overtures that would culminate with the first Moscow Summit during the summer of 1972. For example, on the same day of Nixon’s January 20, 1969 inauguration, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko held an atypical news conference indicating the Soviets were ready to engage America in serious arms limitation talks (Breslauer, 1983-1984: 97). Arms limitation in pursuit of world peace became one of Nixon’s early presidential goals.
The Nixon presidency continued to address rapprochement with the Soviets in several news conferences, Congressional messages, speeches and letters during the winter and spring of 1969. Relational aspects he addressed included his position toward the Nonproliferation treaty and future strategic arms talks (The President’s News Conference of January 27, 1969: 17, 19), his desire to interact with the Soviets in terms of negotiation instead of confrontation (Message to the Senate Requesting Advice and Consent to Ratification of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: 62; Remarks to the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, February 24, 1969: 136), a potential summit between the two countries (The President’s News Conference of February 6, 1969: 67), and his administration’s quest for world peace (Nixon, Letter to the Head of the U.S. Delegation at the Conference of the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee, March 18, 1969: 228-229).
In his March 4 press conference, Nixon was asked if he planned on using the Soviet Union to help negotiate a resolution to the Vietnam conflict as he had indicated he would do so in previous public statements. The president artfully dodged the question, claiming that whatever the Soviets decided to do with regards to Vietnam, and more globally their desire to be the top leading Communist nation instead of China, would be their decision only, one made in private and not publicly. The president also indicated that it would be fruitless to engage the Soviets in a discussion of strategic arms limitations without discussing other areas prohibitive of peace, including Berlin, the Middle East and Vietnam, areas he hoped to discuss if and when official meetings with the Soviet Union were possible (Nixon, The President’s News Conference of March 4, 1969: 187, 194).
As spring moved into summer, the Soviets found themselves preoccupied with their own international political standing as they competed with China for global communistic supremacy. In addition, both were providing support to the North Vietnamese who were engaged in their own battle against the American-backed South Vietnamese. Since talks with the North Vietnamese were progressing poorly, Nixon decided to direct attention to their supporters instead.
Nixon’s refocus emerged into a strategy senior Nixon speechwriter William Safire termed “linkage,” and labeled by Nixon as “triangulation.” It was a theoretical tactic that claimed that “progress on one front must be related to, or linked with, progress elsewhere” (Safire, 1975: 432). Pitting the Chinese and the Russians against each other with the United States in the middle served to help Nixon achieve several goals: an end to the Vietnam conflict, a decrease in the buildup of weapons, world peace, and, of course, his highly sought-after second presidential term.
Safire (Safire, 1975) claimed that the president’s Russian intentions and eventual manipulation of them and the Chinese began in mid-August 1969. He claimed that advantageously illuminating the differences between the two countries could compel the Soviets to work with the Americans. Referencing Brezhnev’s recent “collective security” theme, Nixon argued privately to his close aides that
if the U.S. and the Soviet Union joined in such a pact, it would not only mean whites versus nonwhites, it would mean giving respectability to the Communist parties in the European communities. It would pull the Soviet irons out of the fire. Why should we help them unless they help us? They haven’t helped on Vietnam, on the Mideast, on the arms talks. We’ve got to give them a reason to help us.” Continuing, Nixon stated that “The worst thing that could happen for us would be for the Soviet Union to gobble up Red China. We can’t let it happen. It gives us problems on the right. ‘Dealing with those Chinese bastards?’ they’ll say. We’re not doing this because we love the Chinese. We just have to see to it that the U.S. plays both sides (370).
According to Safire, Nixon did play both sides as America worked toward opening the China door throughout 1970:
Through 1970, Nixon worked on the Chinese, applying the opposite of water torture: a bit-by-bit relaxation of economic restrictions, little flatteries, and probes through the Pakistanis and the Romanians. Meanwhile, the Soviets were pressing for a summit meeting; Nixon dragged a foot, hoping to bring the Chinese along so that he could make Soviet concern at Sino-American relations a wedge to get the Soviets to help arrange a cease-fire in Vietnam (371).
Nixon made subtle public references to the Chinese and Soviets, first in his Cabinet meeting on February 18 and then in his State of the World report (Safire, 1975: 371). When the U.S. ping-pong team was unexpectedly invited for several exhibition matches in China, the door to the Communist country suddenly became ajar. According to H.R. Haldeman (Haldeman, 1994), Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger felt the invitation would “shake the Soviets up” and force Brezhnev to counter with his own significant political move that would help the Americans as they pursued arms limitation talks and a potential Summit meeting” (271).
As expected, Brezhnev took the bait. He opened the door further toward the possibility of détente in his April 1971 speech to the Communist Party Congress. Washington suddenly buzzed of timing. Nixon’s foreign policy coup to date, in the form of his major political and diplomatic trip to China in spring 1972, had been publicly announced, raising red flags within the Kremlin. The steps employed by America had the effect of taking advantage of the ideological differences between Chinese and the Soviets. Nixon’s strategic usage of his impending China trip reaped many benefits, including the finalization of details for Nixon’s travel to Moscow for a summit during the summer of 1972 as well as impeccable timing during the 1972 presidential primary election season.
As both trips drew closer, problems in Southeast Asia created concerns for Nixon and the “little détentes” generated by his triangulation strategy. A spring 1972 North Vietnamese assault on South Vietnam threatened to torpedo the summit and set back the three-and-one half years of talks with the Soviets. The situation put the Americans in an awkward position, for they would be meeting with their Communistic counterparts at the same time the counterparts were backing the North Vietnamese’s invasion of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese remained belligerent and arrogant in their latest round of talks with Kissinger, forcing the Americans to consider their options. Military maneuvers could be instituted; foreign diplomacy initiatives like the Summit could be canceled. Nixon debated his options and various scenarios that could result. At one point he indicated if the Americans were to cancel the Summit, “we go for all the marbles, including a blockade” of Haiphong Harbor (Haldeman, 1994: 453).
Nixon and “Crisis” Definition: A Unique Dilemma
Reviewing presidential crisis rhetoric scholarship illuminates several methodological problems. First, in some instances, readers are asked to accept the critic’s crisis interpretation without an accompanying definition of explanation (Johannesen, 1986). In other instances, consumers are asked to accept the author’s conclusions based on an analysis of limited discourse instead of a president’s comprehensive domestic or foreign crisis (Bass, 1985). Only a few scholars examine multiple crisis speeches by a given president (Benoit, 1982; Dow, 1989; Medhurst, 1988).
Determining if an event qualifies as a “crisis” is problematic. Presidents may identify situations as crises, but the media or American public may not share his identification. It then becomes the president’s responsibility to convince others that a crisis situation exists. Conversely, the media or public may label an event as a crisis, but the president could fail or refuse to acknowledge it as such. Like the president, both parties would have to demonstrate how the event constitutes a critical emergency.
With Nixon, this problem is acutely unique, for several scholars have commented on his penchant for and disposition toward crisis situations (Church, 1977; Vartabedian, 1985; Jablonski, 1979; Hart, 1976; Robinson, 1985; Pratt, 1970). Blair and Houck (Blair, Houck, 1994) illuminate this quandary: “Given Nixon’s proclivities to value crisis situations and/or to translate his world into the argot of crisis, it is difficult to select particular events of the Nixon White House years that we might label confidently as ‘crises” and still mean anything by that term.” [emphasis added] Their observation reflects the difficulty of discerning which Nixon crises are legitimate and which ones are created, promoted, or manipulated for personal or professional political gain.
Blair and Houck’s comment also suggests a separate problem: critic intervention. Their use of we suggests an artificial intervention between critic and text since they claim that the critic determines the legitimate Nixon crises. A scholar’s artificial textual intervention could result in the mislabeling of the presidential discourse as “crisis” discourse or the disregard of a crisis situation that Nixon determined was valid or real. For example, Goldzwig and Dionisopoulos (Goldzwig, Dionisopoulos, 1989) asserted that John F. Kennedy’s September 30, 1962 Oxford, Mississippi civil rights speech addressed a crisis situation while Windt (Windt, 1990) determined that Kennedy’s speech did not. Although rare, this example suggests that critics must take care when examining what they believe are presidential crisis situations.
Blair and Houck’s intervention solution enacts a “multiple readings” approach, based on Adena Rosmarin’s re-conceptualization of literary genre criticism, brings forth a second, separate problem. While their approach allows for critics to unveil new insights that traditional rhetorical approaches may not reveal, it also avoids the intervention problem instead of addressing it. It also invites a potential third problem, for multiple readings may result in critic error like mislabeling a non-crisis speech or generating a possible misreading of a crisis text.
Theodore Otto Windt Jr. is considered to be a foundational scholar of presidential crisis rhetoric. Windt spent the majority of his academic career studying the rhetoric of American presidents. His famed Presidential Rhetoric class at the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA) was exceedingly popular with students, with conservative estimates of nearly 20,000 of them taking the class over a twenty-year period (White, 2003). As Jones (Jones, 2006) points out, his works on crisis rhetoric spawned notable conferences and book series devoted specifically to this branch of rhetorical study and his works are still cited as seminal to our understanding of crisis rhetoric and the American presidency (527-528). Along with fellow rhetorical scholar Dan Hahn, Windt helped establish the study of presidential rhetoric as a formal academic study within the communication studies discipline (Collins, 2000).
Windt’s approach stems primarily from his 1990 book Presidents and Protestors: Political Rhetoric in the 1960s. In it, he sketches a methodological framework for examining the crisis rhetoric of American presidents using the presidency of John F. Kennedy as his backdrop. Windt argues that the power of definition assists presidents when publicly discussing events as “crises,” and that rhetorical power is characterized in several ways: (1) political crises are primary rhetorical constructs by the president; (2) American presidents typically enjoy substantial public support for any event or policy action deemed necessary to respond to a crisis; and (3) time is a dictating factor in determining what type of crisis exists (either situational or rhetorical) (5-6). In addition, he argues that “the ‘crises’ in the [Kennedy] postwar period seldom were actual events, but rather that they were descriptions of events that the president had chosen – from a multitude of possible events or actions – to accentuate for Congress and the public as critical.” He further asserts that “these ‘crises’ were often more of a threat to a president’s political leadership or his policies than they were to the nation as a whole” (17).
Questioning the crisis rhetoric approaches and findings of previous scholars, Windt (1990) offered a suggestion: Why not allow the “president to speak for himself” to determine if a speech is exemplary of a crisis address? As he first iterated in 1973 (7) and modified seventeen later, “situations rarely create crises. Rather, the presidents’ perceptions of situations and the rhetoric they use to describe them mark events as crises” (5). Windt’s approach was simple: when selecting crisis speeches for analysis, a critic should examine the president’s words to see if he uses the word “crisis” or a synonym like “emergency.” Windt’s position is that a president would indicate to his listeners that a situation was a crisis by uttering the word in his speeches. Claims Windt (1990), “Political crises are primary rhetorical. Presidents announce to the people, usually over national television, that a situation ‘critical’ to the United States exists. They contend that the situation requires decisive action and call upon Congress and the public for full support. Invariably, the policy advocated is elevated from a political decision to an issue involving world peace (in foreign affairs) or an attack on the public interest (in domestic affairs)” (Brauer, 1986).
Windt (Windt, 1990) further asserts that “it is the political stance or the way someone views and interprets events and issues that generates the rhetoric intended to justify that stance and to persuade others that such an interpretation should be believed and supported” (x-xi). As Windt suggests, this “self-identification” approach allows the critic to examine those speeches that the president identifies as crisis speeches. This approach prevents critic intervention issues like definitions, multiple readings, of misidentifying an event as a crisis, or mislabeling a non-presidential crisis address as a “crisis speech. Windt’s approach also highlights an advantage not present in other methodological approaches: the use of presidential insight as a critical tool. As evinced by Windt, what a president deems his crisis oratory to be could differ from assessments made by rhetorical scholars, historians, and political scientists.
Nixon’s May 8, 1972 Crisis Address on Southeast Asia
Nixon decided to address the latest round of North Vietnamese aggression by giving a live, televised address to the nation on May 8. He did so despite concerns that the speech might jeopardize the American summit with the Soviets. Nixon’s address, according to Windt, qualifies as a “crisis” address for the president self-identifies the situation as a crisis event in his speech.
In his address, Nixon announced the mining of North Vietnamese harbors to prevent access to ports and access to supplies. In addition, Nixon announced efforts to thwart rail access and continued “air and naval strikes against military targets in North Vietnam” (Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia: 585). Analysis of this address illuminates a tough-talking American president taking bold steps to halt the North Vietnamese invasion. After explaining at length the efforts the United States and South Vietnam had taken to negotiate with the enemy to end the conflict, the president claimed that the only choice he had was military maneuvers that would deny the North Vietnamese their access to weapons and resources for invasion continuation. Safire (Safire, 1975) declared that Nixon’s decision to mine Haiphong Harbor and stand up to the assault made him a dominant political figure on the foreign policy landscape.
His speech did not deter the plans for the Moscow Summit later that month. The Soviets, through Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to Kissinger, protested a ship the Americans had accidentally sank in Haiphong Harbor but they continued their Summit negotiations, going so far as to identify the gift they were going to give Nixon, a hydrofoil, as well as request their return gift for Brezhnev, a new, luxury sports car (Haldeman, 1994: 458, 459; Nixon, RN: 607). Ironically, in a private meeting during the Summit, Brezhnev blasted Nixon for endangering Soviet ships and soldier’s lives as well as détente “over such a peripheral matter as Vietnam” (Safire, 1975: 448). Brezhnev’s diatribe suggests the Soviets did not place as much importance on Vietnam and that the Nixon administration’s angst over a canceled Summit post-crisis speech was slightly extreme. The summit continued as planned, resulting in several Soviet-American agreements, including the Strategic Arms Limitation treaty (SALT).
Before and after both international trips, Nixon alluded privately to his close advisors that the China trip was for superficial, public “show” and the Moscow trip must be substantive otherwise he would not attend. Commenting post-Moscow trip, Haldeman (Haldeman, 1994: 469) wrote that Nixon thought “the Russian trip goes to the heart of what people are worried about and therefore creates a greater reaction than China’s more superficial effect”.
Nixon’s May 8 crisis address was a policy announcement reacting to the recent events committed by the North Vietnamese. At first blush, Windt’s approach of allowing the “president to speak for himself” appears valid. The speech depicted a head of state announcing a major policy initiative in response to undesirable actions taken by his country’s opponents. For all intents and purposes, it was a typical foreign policy crisis address by an American president announcing a policy decision in response to situations and events he deemed to be of a crisis nature.
Yet there was more at stake for Nixon than just Vietnam and his administration’s foreign policy. His personal, political future remained in question. If rhetorical scholars strictly follow Windt’s methodological approach and focus their analysis solely on the May 8 speech, they would miss Nixon’s covert, meta-goal of a second presidential term. They would focus solely on his foreign policy actions and ignore other potential motives for speaking live over television. In order to identify the political hints of reelection, scholars must look to a second Southeast Asian speech Nixon delivered nearly two weeks earlier on April 26. An analysis of this second address, one merely providing policy information and not self-identified by Nixon as a “crisis” speech, reveals the American president’s secret motive of an additional four years in office as President.
Nixon’s April 26, 1972 Non-Crisis Address on Southeast Asia
Nixon delivered an earlier, nationally-televised non-crisis speech to the American people regarding the same Southeast Asian conflict on April 26, 1972, nearly two weeks prior to his May 8 crisis address. The speech announced a troop withdrawal from Vietnam. In his memoirs Nixon argued that “I felt that a further reduction of our forces while the enemy’s invasion was under way would dramatize our desire for peace” (Nixon, 1978: 593).
The speech was originally intended to be delivered prior to the end of April. Safire (Safire, 1975: 417) was asked by Nixon through Haldeman on April 8 to draft a speech in a hurry “warning the Communists of the consequences of their actions in Vietnam.” Haldeman urged the speech writer to use the word “enemy” in the address. Based on transcribed notes of a private conversation Nixon had on the same day with Kissinger, he composed the speech within 24 hours. The president decided to wait on the speech, wondering if perhaps the Soviets could have some influence with the North Vietnamese to curb their invasion. Kissinger warned Brezhnev in secret Moscow talks that the Nixon administration could not continue with the summit while Soviet-supported North Vietnam continued its incursion. Expressing their understanding, the Soviets tried to rein in the North Vietnamese. At the same time, the speech was updated and Nixon delivered it on April 26 (Safire, 1975: 418-420).
The speech was designed to issue some threats regarding the North Vietnamese invasion. Johnny Andrews and Winston Lord, the principle wordsmiths for this address, were told by Nixon that he wanted to deliver a 10 minute speech the following evening on Vietnam. “He wanted Andrews to follow the P’s [President] outline carefully; don’t deviate from the rhythm, the phrases, or the order. Said the P will work in a couple of vignettes himself at the end, so you can ignore the fact that there’s no conclusion” (Haldeman, 1994: 447).
As listeners soon discovered, Nixon’s desire to pen his own conclusion was to give him the opportunity to remind them that he was seeking reelection as president. As the speech drew to a close, Nixon stated:
Any man who sits here in this office feels a profound sense of obligation to future generations. No man who sits here has the right to take any action which would abdicate America’s great tradition of world leadership or weaken respect for the Office of President of the United States. Earlier this year I traveled to Peking on an historical journey for peace. Next month I shall travel to Moscow on what I hope will also be a journey for peace. In the 18 countries I have visited as President I have found great respect for the Office of President of the United States. I have reason to expect, based on Dr. Kissinger’s report, that I shall find the same respect for the office I hold when I visit Moscow. I do not know who will be in this office in the years ahead. But I do know that future Presidents will travel to nations abroad as I have on journeys for peace. If the United States betrays the millions of people who have relied on us in Vietnam, the President of the United States, whoever he is, will not deserve nor receive the respect which is essential if the United States is to continue to play the great role we are destined to play of helping to build a new structure of peace in the world. It would amount to a renunciation of our morality, an abdication of our leadership among nations, and an invitation for the mighty to prey upon the weak all around the world. It would be to deny peace the chance peace deserves to have. This we shall never do. My fellow Americans, let us therefore unite as a nation in a firm and wise policy of real peace – not the peace of surrender, but peace with honor – not just peace in our time, but peace for generations to come” (Address to the Nation on Vietnam: 554).
It is in this second, non-crisis address that Nixon’s second, covert goal an additional American presidential term surfaces. While publicly working as the leader of a global superpower toward the resolution of a foreign policy conflict, Nixon’s address also reveals his personal desire for reelection. In effect, Nixon was using his triangulation of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam to promote his personal reelection agenda, thus illustrating Windt’s previous perspective that presidents often saw events as crises for they threatened their leadership and policies more so than the president’s constituency. Jones (Jones, 2006: 528) further noted that Windt’s collective works on presidential crisis rhetoric was instrumental in showing how “presidents create ‘crises’ for both benign and self-interested motives”.
Support for Windt’s perspective and Nixon’s example of it arises from Safire’s (Safire, 1975) post-Nixon presidency book. Safire notes that Nixon’s linkage of China, the Soviet Union and Vietnam to his reelection bid was carefully orchestrated. In September 1971, Nixon met with a bipartisan group of leaders from the U.S. House and Senate. Discussing the advances made with China and Russia, the president indicated that the China trip was scheduled so it would not fall in May 1972, the height of the political season. Safire cheekily noted that the first Moscow Summit occurred at the end of May, at the same time Nixon claimed would be disadvantageous for the China trip. In addition, by quoting Hersh (Hersh ,1983), Wells (Wells, 1994: 541) points out that “As the president told Kissinger, he was worried that if the wasn’t able to announce the departure of all U.S. combat forces before the Democratic Convention in July, ‘we will be in very serious trouble”.
When viewed in isolation, Nixon’s May 8 crisis address depicts a president focused on his foreign policy and attempting to resolve several international dilemmas. But when his April 26 non-crisis address is analyzed in chronological order in conjunction with his May 8 crisis address, the president subsequently becomes a presidential candidate who has the ability to lead the United States for an additional four years. He backs up his claim by proving his position with a decisive presidential foreign policy action twelve days later on May 8.
Critical Assessment Windt’s Approach of Presidential “Self-Identification” of a crisis
On the surface, Windt’s presidential “self-definition” approach appears to prevent several problems confronting crisis rhetoric scholars discussed earlier, including definitional issues, misidentifying an event as a crisis or mislabeling a non-crisis event as a crisis. Yet Windt’s methodology also appears flawed, for a president can intentionally label and respond to a nominal event as a crisis, or, as in the case of Nixon, avoid public acknowledgment of a valid, legitimate crisis and manipulate other nominal events into manufactured crises to mask the original crisis situation.
First, in this analysis, the theory directs scholarly attention to self-identified presidential crisis speeches only and away from additional, non-crisis presidential speeches that may reveal a president’s additional motives for public crisis oratory. Second, the theory directs scholarly attention toward public oratory and away from other forms of presidential communication like written Presidential documents (e.g. special messages, white papers, and annual reports) that could provide additional information and perspectives that were missing from a crisis speech. These written forms of communication also provide insight into the president’s thoughts, debates, reasons, and rationales behind his public policy decision-making that would remain hidden if the methodology of examining only public speeches was strictly followed.
Third, the word “crisis” becomes problematic. Following Windt’s approach, the critic examines crisis events “self-identified” by the president. This paper suggests that a leader’s self-identification should not be automatically accepted or believed due to the ethos of that leader or his or her stature in domestic and foreign affairs. Bostdorff (Bostdorff , 1991: 737) argues that a president sometimes “promote” an event into a “crisis” which then allows the Commander in Chief the ability to “manage” the crisis by persuading listeners to “attach desired meanings to an event and to accept their resolution of the crisis event as the most appropriate one”. She also notes that Windt himself acknowledged presidential crisis event promotion in his 1973 essay examining presidential crises and foreign policy rhetoric (Bostdorff, 1991: 737). As such, following Windt’s “self-identification” approach may lead scholars into examining an event as a crisis solely due to a leader’s declaration of such when it is possible that a “non-crisis” situation has been manipulated into a crisis for various reasons.
Fourth, the failure of Windt’s “self-identification” approach to crisis, coupled with past rhetorical analyses examining various presidential crisis events, perhaps invalidly suggests that there is one, universal definition that all leaders share and employ. This perspective warrants further analysis. In addition, both presidents and their critics make a second, critical mistake by assuming that their listeners and readers share their unarticulated conception of “crisis.” As rhetorical theorists argue, meaning lies with the recipient or listener, not solely the user. It is possible that the theoretical tenets of the “crisis” that defined Watergate are not necessarily the tenets that identified the Vietnam War as a “crisis” also.
Finally, Windt’s approach also fails to take into account a president’s lack of public acknowledgement or outright public refusal to acknowledge an event as a “crisis,” despite multiple audiences (like the media or the president’s constituents) identifying it as such. For example, Nixon considered the failed 1970 Supreme Court Justice nominations of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell as a “crisis” (Haldeman,1994: 148), but he did not deliver a nationally-televised crisis speech addressing it as a crisis situation. Instead, he aired his ire in his non-televised remarks to reporters in the White House Briefing Room as well as in a written statement issued the same day (Remarks to Reporters About Nominations to the Supreme Court: 108; Statement About Nominations to the Supreme Court: 108-110). Another example is Watergate. While the public and the media gradually referred to it as a crisis toward the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1973, Nixon did not make first formal address about it until April, nearly 11 months after the initial break-in. A strict interpretation of Windt’s “self-identification” in presidential oratory would miss these unspoken or delayed presidential crisis events. Later presidential reflections or even history may identify a presidential self-identified event as a crisis, but this in turn would negate Windt’s perspective that a president “self-identifies” an event as a crisis as that event is occurring. While Windt’s approach was based on crisis events Kennedy deemed crucial and was addressed through several public crisis speeches, an analysis of Nixon’s rhetoric suggests that a president’s perception of an event as a crisis is not always signaled by a nationally televised address. In other words, the methodological flaw is that not all presidentially-perceived crises are addressed publicly and a president privately can consider an event as a crisis without drawing public attention to it.
Conclusions and Areas of Future Research
This paper analyzes two Nixon speeches on the Southeast Asian conflict from April and May 1970 to demonstrate how the president employed an innovative rhetorical strategy to achieve two important goals: (1) the overt, public, peaceful resolution of the Southeast Asian conflict; and (2) the covert motive of a second American presidential term. Employing Windt’s presidential crisis rhetoric theory arguing that a crisis situation occurs when a president “self-identifies” an event as such, this essay determines that Nixon strategically pitted the Soviet Union and China against each other to gain their support for compelling the North Vietnamese to end the conflict in Southeast Asia. It also determined that Nixon strategically used all three countries to aid his own private, personal desire of a second American presidential term. The subsequent analysis of Nixon’s speeches exposes additional flaws in a methodological approach that was designed to solve previous methodological approaches toward presidential crisis rhetoric. Those flaws include (1) the inadvertent lack of attention to non-crisis presidential addresses; (2) a focus on public oratory that neglects other presidential communication forms; (3) a leader’s ethos in conjunction with his or her power to define; (4) the presence of universal definitions of crisis; and (5) crises that occur without accompanying public oratory.
It is clear that allowing the president to “speak for himself” and self-identify an event as a crisis focuses scholarly attention toward specific areas while preventing the same scholars from potentially analyzing separate or related areas that might reveal hidden presidential intentions and motives. In addition, the focus on “public oratory” may lead scholars to miss other events deemed to be crises by presidents by their “silence” or decision not to address it publicly, or to address it in non-televised public address forms, like press conferences and written presidential statements.
There are several important areas of future research that could expand and verify the conclusions drawn in this paper; this list is not necessarily all-inclusive. First, the Windt methodology needs to be applied to other Nixon foreign crisis addresses to determine his methodology is indeed flawed, specifically with the 1973-1974 energy crisis as another example of a situation that had involved both domestic and foreign policy. Second, the Windt methodology could be applied to other twentieth-century American presidents as well as other foreign leaders to further test its theoretical validity. Jones (Jones, 2006: 529) states that this was one of Windt’s goals: “For Windt, the study of presidential discourse in specific cases should increase our understanding of how modern presidential rhetoric works across cases….”. Third, the role of a critic’s acceptance of both public presidential rhetoric and private reflections during and post-presidency by various individuals like the president and key advisors should be investigated further. The question that arises from our analysis pertains to the validity of accepting private reflections at face value and without their own hidden motive or agenda. Fourth, collaboration with foreign colleagues to investigate the “other” side of this analysis would yield greater theoretical insights into Brezhnev and his advisor’s thoughts and actions as both countries pursued détente in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For example, as Karnow (Karnow, 1984: 652) points out, the North Vietnamese engaged in their own form of “triangulation” by pitting the Soviets and the Chinese against each other to provide them with the support they needed to win the war. Further exploration of the North Vietnamese’s manipulation of their communist counterparts would surely yield valuable information and significant insights of their military conflict perspective as well as their thoughts about the two other communist countries. Finally, application of Windt’s methodology to non-American presidential crisis rhetoric speeches, a rhetorical criticism approach rarely employed in our discipline, would provide a unique opportunity to test the validity and legitimacy of Windt’s theory of allowing a “president to speak for himself.”


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