The Vietnam War

55d. The Antiwar Movement

Kent State shootings
Following Richard Nixon's announcement that U.S. troops would be sent into Cambodia, protests began on college campuses throughout the nation. At Kent State University in Ohio, four demonstrators were killed by shots fired by the Ohio National Guard.

Of all the lessons learned from Vietnam, one rings louder than all the rest — it is impossible to win a long, protracted war without popular support.

When the war in Vietnam began, many Americans believed that defending South Vietnam from communist aggression was in the national interest. Communism was threatening free governments across the globe. Any sign of non-intervention from the United States might encourage revolutions elsewhere.

As the war dragged on, more and more Americans grew weary of mounting casualties and escalating costs. The small antiwar movement grew into an unstoppable force, pressuring American leaders to reconsider its commitment.

Peace movement leaders opposed the war on moral and economic grounds. The North Vietnamese, they argued, were fighting a patriotic war to rid themselves of foreign aggressors. Innocent Vietnamese peasants were being killed in the crossfire. American planes wrought environmental damage by dropping their defoliating chemicals.

Ho Chi Minh was the most popular leader in all of Vietnam, and the United States was supporting an undemocratic, corrupt military regime. Young American soldiers were suffering and dying. Their economic arguments were less complex, but as critical of the war effort. Military spending simply took money away from Great Society social programs such as welfare, housing, and urban renewal.

The Draft

The draft was another major source of resentment among college students. The age of the average American soldier serving in Vietnam was 19, seven years younger than its World War II counterpart. Students observed that young Americans were legally old enough to fight and die, but were not permitted to vote or drink alcohol. Such criticism led to the 26th Amendment, which granted suffrage to 18-year-olds.

Protest button
Slogans like "How Many More?," "I'm a Viet Nam Dropout" and "Ship the GI's Home Now!" graced the buttons, flags and banners of the anti-war movement.

Because draft deferments were granted to college students, the less affluent and less educated made up a disproportionate percentage of combat troops. Once drafted, Americans with higher levels of education were often given military office jobs. About 80 percent of American ground troops in Vietnam came from the lower classes. Latino and African American males were assigned to combat more regularly than drafted white Americans.

Antiwar demonstrations were few at first, with active participants numbering in the low thousands when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Events in Southeast Asia and at home caused those numbers to grow as the years passed. As the Johnson Administration escalated the commitment, the peace movement grew. Television changed many minds. Millions of Americans watched body bags leave the Asian rice paddies every night in their living rooms.

Give Peace a Chance

The late 1960s became increasingly radical as the activists felt their demands were ignored. Peaceful demonstrations turned violent. When the police arrived to arrest protesters, the crowds often retaliated. Students occupied buildings across college campuses forcing many schools to cancel classes. Roads were blocked and ROTC buildings were burned. Doves clashed with police and the National Guard in August 1968, when antiwar demonstrators flocked to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to prevent the nomination of a prowar candidate.

Anti-war protest
Massive gatherings of anti-war demonstrators helped bring attention to the public resentment of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The confrontation seen above took place at the Pentagon in 1967.

Despite the growing antiwar movement, a silent majority of Americans still supported the Vietnam effort. Many admitted that involvement was a mistake, but military defeat was unthinkable.

When Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969, the nation was bitterly divided over what course of action to follow next.

On the Web
Rise and Fall of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the U.S.
The Vietnam War divided America along all age, race, and gender lines with it came to support for the war. In many places, college campuses and political conventions in particular, the attitude was one of 'us vs. them,' bringing sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent results. Read this text by a Montclair professor to learn how the anti-war movement was more than love beads and peace signs.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War Homepage
Over 30,000 Vietnam Veterans were protesting the war while it was still going on. They knew better than anyone else the horrors of war, post-traumatic stress disorder, health problems caused by agent orange and other chemicals. Here is a page explaining their reasons, as well as a history of the war, publications, images, and links.
Jane Fonda in North Vietnam
In 1972, Jane Fonda made an ill-advised broadcast from North Vietnam, slamming Richard Nixon and the American war effort. In doing so, she made many enemies among active soldiers, veterans, and the American political establishment. Read her broadcast from Hanoi, as well as reactions to it at this site.
'Hanoi Jane' Rumors Blend Fact and Fiction
As with all controversial people, rumors circulate about their actions, some true, most false. This site explains what is fact and fiction about Jane Fonda's involvement in the Vietnam Anti-War Movement. Links at the end of the article provide more inform
Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men /
Uncle Sam needs your help again /
He's got himself in a terrible jam /
Way down yonder in Vietnam /
So put down your books and pick up a gun, /
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.

-Country Joe's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag"
Learn More...
During World War II, the Hollywood movie machine was turning out a war movie almost every week. Why did the studios wait until 1978 to make the first major Vietnam War movie, The Deer Hunter?
Learn More...

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