When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he vowed not to make the mistakes his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, had made in conducting foreign policy. In particular, he was most concerned with the way some elements in the public had affected Johnson's policies in Southeast Asia through telegenic mass demonstrations and other dissenting actions of their anti–Vietnam War movement. Foreign policy should not be made in the street, he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, insisted. They wanted to demonstrate that they could operate just as their foes did in the communist bloc, unencumbered by domestic opinion.
On 15 July 1969, Nixon sent the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh a secret ultimatum that demanded, in effect: Soften your negotiating position for ending the war in Vietnam by 1 November or face a new and potentially devastating military escalation in the war. Soon after, White House security aides began considering a variety of options that would mete out punishment if Ho failed to meet the president halfway. At the time that Nixon sent his ultimatum, the antiwar movement was relatively dormant, giving the new president a brief honeymoon while he fulfilled his campaign promise to bring the war in Vietnam to a speedy conclusion. When this did not happen by that summer, activists began to plan for a new series of demonstrations against the war. On 15 October 1969, protesters held their largest and most successful antiwar action of the entire war, the Moratorium. In a decentralized series of mostly quite dignified and decorous demonstrations, marches, and prayer vigils, more than two million Americans in some 200 cities took time off from work or school to send the message to Washington that they were displeased with the pace of withdrawal from Vietnam. More important for Nixon, the tone was liberal, not radical, the participants more middle-class adults than hippies. Even Lyndon Johnson's chief negotiator at the Paris peace talks, the distinguished diplomat W. Averell Harriman, took part in the ceremonies. And Moratorium leaders promised another such demonstration every month until the war in Vietnam ended.
Nixon was astonished by the breadth and depth of antiwar sentiment. When the North Vietnamese called his bluff and failed to respond to his ultimatum on 1 November, he decided not to go through with any of the retaliatory "savage blows" planned by his aides. Although the vast support for the Moratorium was not the only reason why he chose not to escalate, it weighed heavily with him. Indeed, it compelled him to go on the offensive against the antiwar movement, beginning with his celebrated Silent Majority speech of 3 November and with a concurrent campaign against the allegedly antiwar liberal media, spearheaded by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. When the time came again to escalate, Nixon hoped to neutralize if not destroy those who disagreed in public with his policies in Vietnam.