The Vietnam Anti-War Movement in the United States
Along with the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s, one of the most divisive forces in twentieth-century U.S. history. The antiwar movement actually consisted of a number of independent interests, often only vaguely allied and contesting each other on many issues, united only in opposition to the Vietnam War. Attracting members from college campuses, middle-class suburbs, labor unions, and government institutions, the movement gained national prominence in 1965, peaked in 1968, and remained powerful throughout the duration of the conflict. Encompassing political, racial, and cultural spheres, the antiwar movement exposed a deep schism within 1960s American society.
A small, core peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, but failed to gain popular currency until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race of the late 1950s led Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, along with Clarence Pickett of the American Society of Friends (Quakers), to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. Their most visible member was Dr. Benjamin Spock, who joined in 1962 after becoming disillusioned with President Kennedy’s failure to halt nuclear proliferation. A decidedly middle-class organization, SANE represented the latest incarnation of traditional liberal peace activism. Their goal was a reduction in nuclear weapons. Another group, the Student Peace Union (SPU), emerged in 1959 on college campuses across the country. Like SANE, the SPU was more liberal than radical. After the Joseph McCarthy inspired dissolution of Communist and Socialist organizations on campuses in the 1950s, the SPU became the only option remaining for nascent activists. The goal of the SPU went beyond that of SANE. Unwilling to settle for fewer nuclear weapons, the students desired a wholesale restructuring of American society. The SPU, never an effective interest group, faded away in 1964, its banner taken up by a more active assemblage, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
SDS formed in 1960 as the collegiate arm of an Old Left institution with an impressive heritage-the League for Industrial Democracy. Jack London had been a member, as had Upton Sinclair, but the organization had long lain dormant until Michael Harrington, a New York socialist, revived it late in the 1950s as a forum for laborers, African Americans, and intellectuals. Within a single year, however, SDS was taken over by student radicals Al Haber and Tom Hayden, both of the University of Michigan. In June 1962, fifty-nine SDS members met with Harrington at Port Huron, Michigan, in a conference sponsored by the United Auto Workers. From this meeting materialized what has been called the manifesto of the New Left-the Port Huron Statement. Written by Hayden, the editor of the University of Michigan student newspaper, the 64-page document expressed disillusionment with the military-industrial-academic establishment. Hayden cited the uncertainty of life in Cold War America and the degradation of African Americans in the South as examples of the failure of liberal ideology and called for a reevaluation of academic acquiescence in what he claimed was a dangerous conspiracy to maintain a sense of apathy among American youth.
Throughout the first years of its existence, SDS focused on domestic concerns. The students, as with other groups of the Old and New Left, actively supported Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Following Johnson’s victory, they refrained from antiwar rhetoric to avoid alienating the president and possibly endangering the social programs of the Great Society. Although not yet an antiwar organization, SDS actively participated in the Civil Rights struggle and proved an important link between the two defining causes of the decade.
Another bridge between Civil Rights and the antiwar crusade was the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California at Berkeley. Begun in December 1964 by students who had participated in Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer,” the FSM provided an example of how students could bring about change through organization. In several skirmishes with University President Clark Kerr, the FSM and its dynamic leader Mario Savio publicized the close ties between academic and military establishments. With the rise of SDS and the FSM, the Old Left peace advocates had discovered a large and vocal body of sympathizers, many of whom had gained experience in dissent through the Civil Rights battles in the South. By the beginning of 1965, the antiwar movement base had coalesced on campuses and lacked only a catalyst to bring wider public acceptance to its position.
That catalyst appeared early in February, when the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam. The pace of protest immediately quickened; its scope broadened. In February and again in March of 1965, SDS organized marches on the Oakland Army Terminal, the departure point for many troops bound for Southeast Asia. On 24 March, faculty members at the University of Michigan held a series of “teach-ins,” modeled after earlier Civil Rights seminars, that sought to educate large segments of the student population about both the moral and political foundations of U.S. involvement. The teach-in format spread to campuses around the country and brought faculty members into active antiwar participation. In March, SDS escalated the scale of dissent to a truly national level, calling for a march on Washington to protest the bombing. On 17 April 1965, between 15,000 and 25,000 people gathered at the capital, a turnout that surprised even the organizers.
Buoyed by the attendance at the Washington march, movement leaders, still mainly students, expanded their methods and gained new allies over the next two years. “Vietnam Day,” a symposium held at Berkeley in October 1965, drew thousands to debate the moral basis of the war. Campus editors formed networks to share information on effective protest methods; two of these, the Underground Press Syndicate (1966) and the Liberation News Service (1967), became productive means of disseminating intelligence. In spring 1967, over 1,000 seminarians from across the country wrote to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara advocating recognition of conscientious objection on secular, moral grounds. In June, 10,000 students wrote, suggesting the secretary develop a program of alternative service for those who opposed violence. A two-day march on the Pentagon in October 1967 attracted nationwide media attention, while leaders of the war resistance called for young men to turn in their draft cards. The movement spread to the military itself; in 1966, the “Fort Hood 3” gained acclaim among dissenters for their refusal to serve in Vietnam. Underground railroads funneled draft evaders to Canada or to Sweden; churches provided sanctuary for those attempting to avoid conscription.
Perhaps the most significant development of the period between 1965 and 1968 was the emergence of Civil Rights leaders as active proponents of peace in Vietnam. In a January 1967 article written for the Chicago Defender, Martin Luther King, Jr. openly expressed support for the antiwar movement on moral grounds. Reverend King expanded on his views in April at the Riverside Church in New York, asserting that the war was draining much-needed resources from domestic programs. He also voiced concern about the percentage of African American casualties in relation to the total population. King’s statements rallied African American activists to the antiwar cause and established a new dimension to the moral objections of the movement. The peaceful phase of the antiwar movement had reached maturity as the entire nation was now aware that the foundations of administration foreign policy were being widely questioned.
As the movement’s ideals spread beyond college campuses, doubts about the wisdom of escalation also began to appear within the administration itself. As early as the summer of 1965, Undersecretary of State George Ball counseled President Johnson against further military involvement in Vietnam. In 1967 Johnson fired Defense Secretary McNamara after the secretary expressed concern about the moral justifications for war. Most internal dissent, however, focused not on ethical but on pragmatic criteria, many believing that the cost of winning was simply too high. But widespread opposition within the government did not appear until 1968. Exacerbating the situation was the presidential election of that year, in which Johnson faced a strong challenge from peace candidates Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern, all Democrats, as well as his eventual successor, Richard M. Nixon. On 25 March Johnson learned that his closest advisers now opposed the war; six days later, he withdrew from the race.
As with the bombing of North Vietnam in 1965, which had touched off an explosion of interest in peace activities, another Southeast Asian catalyst instigated the most intense period of antiwar protest early in 1968. The Tet Offensive of late January led many Americans to question the administration’s veracity in reporting war progress and contributed to Johnson’s decision to retire. After Tet American public opinion shifted dramatically, with fully half of the population opposed to escalation. Dissent escalated to violence. In April protesters occupied the administration building at Columbia University; police used force to evict them. Raids on draft boards in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Chicago soon followed, as activists smeared blood on records and shredded files. Offices and production facilities of Dow Chemical, manufacturers of napalm, were targeted for sabotage. The brutal clashes between police and peace activists at the August Democratic National Convention in Chicago typified the divided nature of American society and foreshadowed a continuing rise in domestic conflict.
The antiwar movement became both more powerful and, at the same time, less cohesive between 1969 and 1973. Most Americans pragmatically opposed escalating the U.S. role in Vietnam, believing the economic cost too high; in November of 1969 a second march on Washington drew an estimated 500,000 participants. At the same time, most disapproved of the counterculture that had arisen alongside the antiwar movement. The clean-cut, well-dressed SDS members, who had tied their hopes to McCarthy in 1968, were being subordinated as movement leaders. Their replacements deservedly gained less public respect, were tagged with the label “hippie,” and faced much mainstream opposition from middle-class Americans uncomfortable with the youth culture of the period-long hair, casual drug use, promiscuity. Protest music, typified by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, contributed to the gulf between young and old. Cultural and political protest had become inextricably intertwined within the movement’s vanguard. The new leaders became increasingly strident, greeting returning soldiers with jeers and taunts, spitting on troops in airports and on public streets. A unique situation arose in which most Americans supported the cause but opposed the leaders, methods, and culture of protest.
The movement regained solidarity following several disturbing incidents. In February 1970 news of the My Lai massacre became public and ignited widespread outrage. In April President Nixon, who had previously committed to a planned withdrawal, announced that U.S. forces had entered Cambodia. Within minutes of the televised statement, protesters took to the streets with renewed focus. Then, on 4 May, Ohio National Guardsmen fired on a group of student protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding sixteen. Death, previously distant, was now close at hand. New groups-Nobel science laureates, State Department officers, the American Civil Liberties Union-all openly called for withdrawal. Congress began threatening the Nixon administration with challenges to presidential authority. When the New York Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers on 13 June 1971, Americans became aware of the true nature of the war. Stories of drug trafficking, political assassinations, and indiscriminate bombings led many to believe that military and intelligence services had lost all accountability. Antiwar sentiment, previously tainted with an air of anti-Americanism, became instead a normal reaction against zealous excess. Dissent dominated America; the antiwar cause had become institutionalized. By January 1973, when Nixon announced the effective end of U.S. involvement, he did so in response to a mandate unequaled in modern times.
* DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
* Garfinkle, Adam. Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
* Halstead, Fred. Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War. New York: Monad Press, 1978.
from Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Ed. Spencer C. Tucker. Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Spencer C. Tucker. [NOTE: This three-volume set is the most comprehensive reference work on the Vietnam War. A concise one-volume edition is now available for the general reader.]
Though the first American protests against U.S. intervention in Vietnam took place in 1963, the antiwar movement did not begin in earnest until nearly two years later, when President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered massive U.S. military intervention and the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. In the spring of 1965, “teach-ins” against the war were held on many college campuses. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first national antiwar demonstration in Washington; 20,000 people, mainly students, attended.
As the war expanded—over 400,000 U.S. troops would be in Vietnam by 1967—so did the antiwar movement, attracting growing support off the campuses. The movement was less a unified army than a rich mix of political notions and visions. The tactics used were diverse: legal demonstrations, grassroots organizing, congressional lobbying, electoral challenges, civil disobedience, draft resistance, self-immolation’s, political violence. Some peace activists traveled to North Vietnam. Quakers and others provided medical aid to Vietnamese civilian victims of the war. Some G.I.s protested the war.
In March 1967, a national organization of draft resisters was formed; the Resistance would subsequently hold several national draft card turn-ins. In April 1967, more than 300,000 people demonstrated against the war in New York. Six months later, 50,000 surrounded the Pentagon, sparking nearly 700 arrests. By now, senior Johnson administration officials typically encountered demonstrators when speaking in public, forcing them to restrict their outside appearances. Many also had sons, daughters, or wives who opposed the war, fueling the sense of besiegement. Prominent participants in the antiwar movement included Dr. Benjamin Spock, Robert Lowell, Harry Belafonte, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Encouraged by the movement, Senator Eugene McCarthy announced in late 1967 that he was challenging Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries; his later strong showing in New Hampshire was seen as a major defeat for Johnson and a repudiation of his war policies.
The Johnson administration took numerous measures to the antiwar movement, most notably undertaking close surveillance and tarnishing its public image, sending speakers to campuses, and fostering pro-war activity. Many administration officials felt foreign Communists were aiding and abetting the movement, despite the failure of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI to uncover such support.
In 1965, a majority of Americans supported U.S. policies in Vietnam; by the fall of 1967, only 35 percent did so. For the first time, more people thought U.S. intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake than did not. Blacks and women were the most dovish social groups. Later research found that antiwar sentiment was inversely correlated with people’s socioeconomic level. Many Americans also disliked antiwar protesters, and the movement was frequently denounced by media commentators, legislators, and other public figures.
By 1968, faced with widespread public opposition to the war and troubling prospects in Vietnam, the Johnson administration halted the bombing of North Vietnam and stabilized the ground war. This policy reversal was the major turning point. U.S. troop strength in Vietnam would crest at 543,000.
The antiwar movement reached its zenith under President Richard M. .Nixon. In October 1969, more than 2 million people participated in Vietnam Moratorium protests across the country. The following month, over 500,000 demonstrated in Washington and 150,000 in San Francisco. Militant protest, mainly youthful, continued to spread, leading many Americans to wonder whether the war was worth a split society. And other forms of antiwar activity persisted. The Nixon administration took a host of measures to blunt the movement, mainly mobilizing supporters, smearing the movement, tracking it, withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, instituting a draft lottery, and eventually ending draft calls.
Two long-standing problems continued to plague the antiwar movement. Many participants questioned its effectiveness, spawning dropouts, hindering the organization of protests and the maintenance of antiwar groups, and aggravating dissension over strategies and tactics. And infighting continued to sap energy, alienate activists, and hamper antiwar planning. The strife was fanned by the U.S. government, but it was largely internally generated.
In the spring of 1970, President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings (followed by those at Jackson State) sparked the greatest display of campus protest in U.S. history. A national student strike completely shut down over 500 colleges and universities. Other Americans protested in cities across the country; many lobbied White House officials and members of Congress. Over 100,000 demonstrated in Washington, despite only a week’s prior notice. Senators John Sherman Cooper and Frank Church sponsored legislation (later passed) prohibiting funding of U.S. ground forces and advisers in Cambodia. Many labor leaders spoke out for the first time, and blue-collar workers joined antiwar activities in unprecedented numbers. However, construction workers in New York assaulted a group of peaceful student demonstrators, and (with White House assistance) some union leaders organized pro-administration rallies.
Despite worsening internal divisions and a flagging movement, 500,000 people demonstrated against the war in Washington in April 1971. Vietnam Veterans Against the War also staged protests, and other demonstrators engaged in mass civil disobedience, prompting 12,000 arrests. The former Pentagon aide Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the morale and discipline of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam was deteriorating seriously: drug abuse was rampant, combat refusals and racial strife were mounting, and some soldiers were even murdering their own officers.
With U.S. troops coming home, the antiwar movement gradually declined between 1971 and 1975. The many remaining activists protested continued U.S. bombing, the plight of South Vietnamese political prisoners, and U.S. funding of the war.
The American movement against the Vietnam War was the most successful antiwar movement in U.S. history. During the Johnson administration, it played a significant role in constraining the war and was a major factor in the administration’s policy reversal in 1968. During the Nixon years, it hastened U.S. troop withdrawals, continued to restrain the war, fed the deterioration in U.S. troop morale and discipline (which provided additional impetus to U.S. troop withdrawals), and promoted congressional legislation that severed U.S. funds for the war. The movement also fostered aspects of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately played a significant role in ending the war by undermining Nixon’s authority in Congress and thus his ability to continue the war. It gave rise to the infamous “Huston Plan”; inspired Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of the Pentagon Papers led to the formation of the Plumbers; and fed the Nixon administration’s paranoia about its political enemies, which played a major part in concocting the Watergate break-in itself.
from The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford UP.