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Litigation Journal

Winter 2022: Tribunals

Failed Rhetoric: Why No One Can Recall a Single Sentence of Richard Nixon’s Speech Announcing the End of the Vietnam War

George D Gopen


  • The speech was not well written; but Nixon’s delivery of it was even worse.
  • His voice was down; his speed was down; his energy was down.
  • When you are addressing a jury, the sound of your voice, the control of your rhythms, and the look on your face will have profound effects.
Failed Rhetoric: Why No One Can Recall a Single Sentence of Richard Nixon’s Speech Announcing the End of the Vietnam War
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[To make the best use of this article, you would do well to listen to this speech online. It is 9.5 minutes in length.]

On January 23, 1973, President Richard Nixon gave a televised address to the nation, announcing the end of the Vietnam War. At that gut-wrenching moment, he had a golden opportunity to begin the healing process for the most serious public wounds of the 20th century. In trying to appeal to both sides of a bitterly divided nation, all he need do was to solemnize the moment, in the highest of styles, by summoning a powerful rhetoric devoted to closure. Over the decades, I have asked many people if they can quote me one sentence from that speech. Not a single person has been able to do so. Why? And how can understanding this help you avoid making the same errors when addressing a jury at a momentous moment?

To put it bluntly, he blew it. The speech was not well written; but Nixon’s delivery of it was even worse. His voice was down; his speed was down; his energy was down; his head was too often down; and he created no recognizable music. He gave us no indication that there was anything in which we should rejoice. And yet, this president had always been able to deliver political speeches—campaign addresses, acceptances of nominations, and inaugural addresses—that were completely competent, energetic, and forceful. In this essay, I try to demonstrate for you why he failed to produce rhetoric in a high oratorical style when he most needed it. In my next On the Papers essay, I will try to demonstrate why at another crucial moment for him, the Checkers speech (which allowed him to stay on the ticket with Eisenhower in 1952), he was able to summon a perfect rhetoric of ordinary conversation to take the country by storm, thus maintaining his rising political career.

Compare the entirety of Nixon’s speech with a single moment in Gerald Ford’s public remarks when he became president in Nixon’s stead. Ford had the identical opportunity to begin the process of healing. After taking the formal oath of office, President Ford handled the problem in a single sentence: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” You could feel the entire country exhale.

That is memorable. We needed to feel we could trust and relate to him. We needed to feel he could lead us out of the darkness. He uttered what we needed, succinctly, confidently, and musically. Four beats.  

The line comes to a musical end that both echoes and stands for the end of the nightmare. To make it more memorable, the alliteration of the two n sounds provides balance and supports a forward motion toward the end of the sentence. Even the progression of the vowel sounds has a rising motion from the dark o to the flatter a to the high point of the long i to the closure of the long o. Read it aloud. You will hear what I mean.

The Vietnam War started with Kennedy, ruined Johnson, and was inherited by Nixon, who told us in his 1968 campaign for the presidency that he had a plan to bring it to a successful conclusion. The longer it lasted, the more he expanded it, and the deeper the country became divided. The American public was split into conservative and liberal camps—hawks and doves—more severely than at any time in the 20th century; it would not again reach that level of angry self-assured divisiveness until the time of President Donald Trump.

When Nixon and his advisors finally accepted that the Vietnam War could not be “won” in traditional terms, and had to announce it, they needed to find a rhetoric for convincing the public that we were doing “the right thing” by ending the conflict. To accomplish that, and to demonstrate caring leadership, the president’s public oration needed to be earnestly inspirational, needed to be able to soar, needed to be able to sing.

But did the man Richard Nixon have any relationship with or affinity to music? He certainly did. When he was a boy, his mother demanded he practice the piano on a daily basis. He also learned to play the accordion, the saxophone, the violin, and the clarinet.

He was proud of his musical abilities. When he ventured forth into the public eye after losing the 1962 gubernatorial race in California, he arranged an appearance on The Jack Paar Show, one of the first nightly talk shows, during which they wheeled out a piano on stage so he could play for us a song of his own composition, with string accompaniment added by Paar’s staff. It was called “Nixon’s Piano Concerto No. 1.” (It was just a song.) He once accompanied Pearl Bailey in a song and played “Happy Birthday” for Duke Ellington, both on television.

In addition, he naturally spoke in balanced rhythmic units in conversations when the public was not listening. We discovered this in the infamous Watergate tapes, which led to his political downfall. In 1974, when the first tapes were released to the public, Jack S. Margolis heard these rhythms and published a 22-page paperback booklet titled The Poetry of Richard Milhous Nixon, in which he printed very short excerpts from the tapes divided into poetry-length lines representing Nixon’s musical delivery of the quotations. Below is a particularly arresting example concerning the Watergate burglars. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of prose “beats” he used in speaking each line. 2

He turned out to be wrong about that last prediction.

If you read the lines aloud, giving to each its number of accents indicated, the “music” of his conversational speech will display itself. He knew how to balance balanceable units. He knew when to decrease the number of beats in a unit to support the increase in its intensity.

Music he had; but none is to be found in the speech ending the Vietnam War.

Inaugural Addresses

So Richard Nixon was by no means an incompetent speech-giver. Go listen to his first inaugural speech from January 20, 1969. It was adequately written for him, with rhythmic units balancing against each other in an uncomplicated manner that allowed his listeners constantly to have a sense of progression toward the next triumphant resting place. You will hear energy, spirit, fortitude, and confidence. He is secure in reading parallel lines in a parallel fashion. He has a sense of each subunit of a sentence driving toward its mini-conclusion, while keeping the energy pressing forward to the major conclusion at the sentence’s period.

Take a look at a bit of the beginning of his 1968 speech accepting that year’s Republican nomination for the presidency. The numbers in parentheses again indicate how many prose stresses he actually gave in each mini-unit, which I have separated into lines, corresponding to when he significantly paused, double-spacing at the end of each sentence. (See #3 below.)

Nixon sang this song with all the verve it deserved. It is no accident that after a string of 3-beat lines, he twice brought that moment to a climax with an extended, 4-beat line. That additional beat supported a sense of arrival, a feeling of triumphant closure. His speechwriters knew what to write; and he knew how to read it.

If you trace the force of his speeches through the years, you can notice a slow but steady declination of energy and volume. There was good reason for this: Once president, he did not have to thump on the table nearly as much to claim authority.

In his second inaugural address, January 20, 1973, he tried to retain the sound of a statesman—calm, confident, and not rushed; but he also at times sounded tired, weary, and hesitant. The difference, most likely, was Watergate—even though the major upheaval would not begin for another six months, when the tapes were revealed. The second inaugural had many predecessors that suggested a template for what should be said and the manner in which it should be said. He tried to follow that template.

The Vietnam Speech

The Vietnam War speech was delivered only three days later. It had no template. There were no precedents for how a president should tell the country we were giving up on a war we could not win. The speechwriters would have to come up with something new. They made some bad choices.

The worst of those choices was to devote the entire first half of the speech to repeating the formal announcement of the end of the conflict by quoting, in full, press releases that colorlessly cited the date of the signing and the identities of the signers, and other dreary details, which made the speech drag on in much the way this sentence has been dragging on. A bad beginning: There was no presidential voice here. This was something Walter Cronkite could have read on the six o’clock news—and probably did.

Let us look at his opening statement. 4

Here is how this sentence could have been read: 5

There is little music in this statement. There are no curves, no crescendos, and not enough sense of arrival at its end. But, had it been read this way, it at least could have communicated competence and confidence.

Instead, Nixon read it with even worse music, his pauses producing a stumbling rhythmic progression that can only just barely be called a progression. It exuded no competence and inspired no confidence. The following represents the way he actually read this sentence, pausing at the end of each of these lines. 6

Lame, at best. The awkward rhythms make him sound pained to have to read the sentence.

The one positive phrase, “peace with honor” (which he will repeat five times in the speech), should have been his rhetorical goal: We, my fellow Americans, have been able to achieve that all-important goal, “peace with honor.” But the speech hides that phrase here, denying it emphasis; and the president’s voice gave it no extra emphasis.

It would not have taken much rewriting to make this same information glow with achievement. All we have to do is (1) allow a stress position by ending a sentence with “end the war”; (2) create a stress position possibility for emphasizing “peace with honor”; and (3) use another stress position at the end of another sentence to spread the peaceful conclusion from small Vietnam to all the rest of Southeast Asia. Here, with an attention to a simple balancing of rhythmic stresses (indicated by the parenthetical numbers) is that possible revision in #7, below.

It sounds not only confident but almost triumphant. It would leave us ready to hear uplifting statements of what a relief this is and how it resolves all sorts of conflicts—not only on the battlefields, but also at home. This war has torn us apart. Now we can be proud, and we can start to heal.

We could make it even better (1) by adding a couple of upbeat words, (2) by making the music support us all the way through a single sentence, and (3) by bringing it to emphatic closure with the all-important phrase “peace with honor.” Here it is in colometric form. (Give a prose beat of emphasis for each unit separated from the next one by additional space.) 8

Nixon’s opening paragraph was a wasted opportunity; but the waste bled over into the next three paragraphs, in which we hear only more news release–type information concerning when the formal agreement would be signed.

Happily, at that point, after 176 words (14 percent of the 1,250-word speech), the fifth paragraph begins with “That concludes the formal statement.” At last, we were finally going to hear our president talk about this wrenching moment. But no, not really.

Here, in the fifth paragraph, “peace with honor” arrives in a stress position:9

But even this chance for emphasis is undercut, as he repeats it, again in a stress position, in the following sentence: 10

Neither articulation of the key phrase was given oral emphasis by his voice. The second sentence seemed uttered only to justify the first. As a result, the repetition sounds more like weakness rather than reaffirmation.

Surely now we will hear the president address our hopes and fears and anxieties. But no; seven more paragraphs follow that spell out conditions in the treaty. By the time the president actually addressed the people in his own words (which is what we all supposed he would be doing from the start), he had delivered 560 of his 1,250 words—45 percent of the speech.

At no time in this first 45 percent of the speech did the president smile. “Peace with honor” was not uttered, in any of its three appearances, as something fine, uplifting, nor even to be desired. Instead, it was just to be required.

In what ways does the second half of the speech differ from its first, unmusical, unemotional half?

The Almost Better Second Half

Suddenly, there is something in the text of balance—some rhythms that can speak to each other. This could have conveyed a firmness and a confidence that would have befit the moment. With these words, written by his speechwriters, he could have told us that we have won something. Here is one of those paragraphs, arranged by me into simple rhythms inherent in the prose, with a pause at the end of each line. It could have been read this way: (See #11 below)

The first two 4-beat lines establish a default value. Either (1) we expect another 4-beat line, or (2) if the next line differs in beats, there should be a good reason for it.

The next two lines have 3 beats, suggesting an intensification, an urgency: The 3 beats stretch out to occupy the length and weight of the 4-beat lines that precede them. The next 4-beat line brings the sentence to an end with the rhythm with which it had started, but now with a sense of expansion toward closure. It is a nicely turned sentence.

The two lines of the next sentence, calmer than the material in the sentence before it, could have been uttered in a solid, reliable, expectable 4 beats—back to the default value. Nothing too fancy—no alliteration or figures of speech like chiasmus or epistrophe; but solid, noble, appropriate music.

But President Nixon ruined what could have been accomplished here by his unfortunate delivery of these lines. Here they are again, arranged by the pauses he actually took to end each small unit. (The number of beats he actually used within each unit is again in parentheses.) 12

What we get here is hesitancy and insecurity, a stumbling procession of words that almost seem not to want to associate with each other. He tries to look into the camera but looks down every few words—in accordance most often with his pauses. He seems more concerned that he not get any of the words wrong, instead of trying to get the speech right. And again, no smile, no look of confidence, no hint of leadership. No music.

The exact same thing happens in the paragraph that follows. It is squarely and competently written, with rhythms that neatly define units and allow them to talk to each other. Here it is, with the rhythms that could have controlled and supported both the speaking and the listening. (See #13 on next page.) 1

Again a pair of 4-beat lines begins this passage addressed to the North Vietnamese leaders. With a 2-beat introduction, our efforts to achieve the goal are presented first with a 4-beat line, as we might expect, and then, again, with a slightly dramatic shift to the more intense 3-beat line. Then, to heighten the importance of the final sentence, the writer reaches for what is usually the ultimate rhythm of 5 beats, reserved for the most important of moments. The neat parallelism helps: The two halves are grammatically parallel, neatly balancing the ending of the war with the building of the peace. But because “reciprocity” did not have to be repeated in the second line, being replaced by the smaller word “it,” there was room left for two verbs instead of one—“build and strengthen”—which would have made the peace-making sound more important than the war-ending. These final two lines could have made good use of their 5-beat nobility, creating a climax for the whole passage. Neatly done. Read it aloud, with the beats I have suggested. It can sing.

But once again, our president, still looking depressed and defeated, destroyed all that the rhythms could have achieved by destroying all the rhythms. This is how he performed it, in terms of units and rhythmic beats he actually used: 14

The number of beats no longer has anything to do with the arranging of the material or the progress of anything like a musical statement. Note especially how he wrecked the potential nobility of what was written as two final 5-beat lines. It is no wonder that we cannot hold this speech in memory.

Perhaps you have seen the movie The King’s Speech, about a British monarch with a severe speech defect who learned how to give speeches effectively. A moment before he is to give the big speech toward the end of the film, we are allowed a glimpse of the text from which he will read. There are red vertical marks at every point when he has been instructed to pause. Those pauses would then enable the communication of the music to his audience—even when uttered by a notably unmusical voice. For these two paragraphs of Nixon’s speech (and for the rest of the speech as well), red marks like those could have saved the day. Though still no rhetorical masterpiece, it would have allowed him to speak to us, to engage us as listeners. It would have allowed him to bring some end to the end of the war.

There were two separate forces weighing on this speech and weighing the president down while he delivered it. First, it was impossible to declare a victory in the Vietnam War. Unhappy to be the first American president to lose a war, Nixon tried to put the best face he could put on this moment by repeating the phrase “peace with honor.” It appears five times in the speech—but never in a moment one could call climactic. At one point, he tries to articulate our accomplishment in more detail: “The important thing was not to talk about peace, but to get peace—and to get the right kind of peace. This we have done.” And, at that point, that was all he could do.

The other weight on this man’s shoulders, of course, was Watergate. But why should a scandal that began in June of 1972 and that was not finally resolved until August of 1974 be weighing on him particularly on January 23 of 1973? This was the month of the legal procedures of the seven Watergate burglars. It began on January 8 of 1973. Howard Hunt pleaded guilty on January 11; the four burglars pleaded guilty on January 15; Nixon gave this speech on January 23; and both G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord were found guilty on January 30. The situation was starting to get out of hand. As Nixon said in the supposed privacy of the Oval Office, “you realize that after we are gone, and assuming that we can expend the money, then they are going to crack and it would be an unseemly story.” One can only wonder why the White House staff failed to anticipate or at least understand how shaky the president must have been as he approached the hour of giving this speech. Good coaching might have saved some of this day.

What to Learn from Nixon’s Failure

For a practicing trial lawyer, what is to be learned from this look at rhetorical failure?

First, start to take this prose rhythm issue seriously. Depositing all the right information and the relevant precedents in a brief is essential but not by itself sufficient. The prose rhythms will either help or burden your reader. The former is more desirable.

Second, when you are addressing a jury, the sound of your voice, the forceful control of your rhythms, and the very look on your face, taken together, will have profound effects. The better structured your prose, the better its music can be extracted from it. If you are not aware of the music thus created, you can suffer from destroying your audience’s listener expectations.

Next time, we will explore the causes for the great success of Senator Nixon’s famous Checkers speech.