Give War a Chance: The Nixon Administration and Domestic Support for the Vietnam War, 1968–73

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 3:10 PM
Leucadia Room (Marriott)
Sarah J. Thelen , American University, Washington, DC
Although public opinion polls and approval ratings are common indicators of domestic support for or opposition to elected leaders, this paper will examine another marker of domestic public opinion: actively supportive domestic pressure groups.  Recognizing that public opposition weakened Johnson's presidency, Richard Nixon and his aides worked to cultivate domestic support for the President and his policies.  
While the Nixon Administration did work with established pressure groups (including veterans organizations, labor groups, and conservatives), this paper will examine White House efforts to bolster public support by organizing sympathetic private citizens into vocal pressure groups.  Examining these efforts, this paper will explore the relationships and inherent tensions between citizens' groups and government officials.  For all that these groups had varying levels of success in the broader political and policy debates, many of them fulfilled the initial goals of Nixon administration officials.  They added pro-administration voices to the public policy debates and in doing so, gave policymakers crucial public support.  Additionally, these groups were a key part of a larger Nixon administration project to control public debates and discourse – about the war as well as other domestic and international issues.  
The effectiveness of these groups depended on the perception that that the groups and individuals who spoke out in support of the President did so without any prompting from the administration.  However, few of these groups truly operated independently of the Nixon White House.  This paper examines the unique position of such “astroturf” organizations, artificial “grassroots” groups intended to create an illusion of popular support, in domestic policy debates during the Nixon Administration. These organizations attempted to shape public discourse and debate to better fit the parameters favored by the Nixon administration and as a result are an excellent demonstration of how those in power can shape public opinions and attitudes.
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