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Home : American History : 20th Century 
AMERICAN HISTORY : 20th Century


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The United States Antiwar Movement

and the Vietnam War

The antiwar movement against Vietnam in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant movement of its kind in the nation's history. The United States first became directly involved in Vietnam in 1950 when President Harry Truman started to underwrite the costs of France's war against the Viet Minh. Later, the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy increased the US's political, economic, and military commitments steadily throughout the fifties and early sixties in the Indochina region. Prominent senators had already begun criticizing American involvement in Vietnam during the summer of 1964, which led to the mass antiwar movement that was to appear in the summer of 1965. This antiwar movement had a great impact on policy and practically forced the US out of Vietnam.

Starting with teach-ins during the spring of 1965, the massive antiwar efforts centered on the colleges, with the students playing leading roles. These teach-ins were mass public demonstrations, usually held in the spring and fall seasons. By 1968, protesters numbered almost seven million with more than half being white youths in the college. The teach-in movement was at first, a gentle approach to the antiwar activity. Although, it faded when the college students went home during the summer of 1965, other types of protest that grew through 1971 soon replaced it. All of these movements captured the attention of the White House, especially when 25,000 people marched on Washington Avenue. And at times these movements attracted the interest of all the big decision-makers and their advisors (Gettleman, 54).

The teach-ins began at the University of Michigan on March 24, 1965, and spread to other campuses, including Wisconsin on April 1. These protests at some of America's finest universities captured public attention. The Demonstrations were one form of attempting to go beyond mere words and research and reason, and to put direct pressure on those who were conducting policy in apparent disdain for the will expressed by the voters (Spector, 30-31). Within the US government, some saw these teach-ins as an important development that might slow down on further escalation in Vietnam. Although several hundred colleges experienced teach-ins, most campuses were untouched by this circumstance.

Nevertheless, the teach-ins did concern the administration and contributed to President Johnson's decision to present a major Vietnam address at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965. The address tried to respond to the teach-ins campus protest activity. The Johns Hopkins speech was the first major example of the impact of antiwar. Johnson was trying to stabilize public opinion while the campuses were bothering the government.

In 1965, the US started strategically bombing parts of Northern Vietnam, catalyzing the antiwar movement public opinion of what was going on in Indochina. These bombings spawned the antiwar movement and sustained it, especially as the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh refused to listen to American demands (VN History and Politics). The antiwar movement would have emerged alone by the bombings, and the growing cost of American lives coming home in body bags only intensified public opposition to the war (VN H. and P.). This movement against the Northern bombings, and domestic critics in general, played a role in the decision to announce a bombing pause from May 12 to the 17, of 1965.

Antiwar activists carried on through the pause with their own programs, and the scattered teach-ins had become more of a problem for President Johnson when their organizers joined in an unofficial group, the Inter-University Committee for a Public Hearing on Vietnam. This new committee began planning a nationwide teach-in to be conducted on television and radio, of which would be a debate between protesters and administrators of the government. The antiwar movement, through the national teach-in, contributed to the resignations of many government officials, including the resignation of McGeorge Bundy in early 1966. This well-publicized debate made the antiwar effort more respectable.

As supporters of the war found themselves more popular, they were driven increasingly to rely on equating their position with "support for our boys in Vietnam." (Brown, 34). The antiwar movement spread directly among the combat troops in Vietnam, who began to wear peace symbols and flash peace signs and movement salutes. Some units even organized their own demonstrations to link up with the movement at home (Schlight, 45). For example, to join the November 1969 antiwar Mobilization, a unit boycotted its Thanksgiving Day dinner (Schlight, 45). One problem of the antiwar movement was the difficulty of finding ways to move beyond protest and symbolic acts to deeds that would actually impede the war. Unlike college students and other civilians, the troops in Vietnam had no such problem. Individual acts of rebellion, raging from desertion to killing officers who ordered search-and-destroy missions, merged into mutinies and large-scale resistance. (Sclight, 45).

Between the late summer of 1965 and the fall of 1966, the American military effort in Vietnam accelerated from President Johnson's decisions. The number of air sorties over Northern Vietnam now increased again, from 25,000 in 1965 to 79,000 in 1966. The antiwar movement grew slowly during this period and so did the number of critics in Congress and the media. A ban on picketing the White House was recommended. Instead, President Johnson and later Nixon combated the picketers through a variety of legal and illegal harassment, including limiting their numbers in certain venues and demanding letter-perfect permits for every activity. (Gettleman, 67). The picketers were a constant battle, which the presidents could never claim total victory.

By 1967, US military authority was breaking apart. Not only was it the worst year for President Johnson's term, but also one of the most turbulent years in all of American history. The war in Southeast Asia and the war at home in the streets and the campuses dominated the headlines and the attention of the White House. To make matters worse, 1967 witnessed more urban riots; the most deadly of which took place in Detroit. It was also the year of the hippies, the drugs, and a wholesale assault on morality and values; and all of these singular happenings were magnified by the media. (VN H. and P.). The antiwar effort was crippling Johnson's presidency and paralyzing the nation.

Now the war was becoming more unpopular at home. By the middle of 1967, many Americans began telling that the original involvement in Vietnam had been a costly mistake. And for Johnson, only a little more than a quarter of the population approved of his handling the war in 1968. Many of those fed up at home were the hawks. The hawks were the group of people that supported the war. They wanted to remove the shackles from the generals and continue the bombings over Vietnam. However, Johnson's critics among the doves were far more troubling. The doves were usually blue-collar workers and wanted to end Vietnam immediately. In the first place, they were far more vocal and visible than the hawks, appearing at large, well-organized demonstrations. Even more disconcerting were the continuing defections from the media and the Democratic Party. The antiwar movement that began as a small trickle had now became a flood (Small, 101). The most important antiwar event of 1967 was the March on the Pentagon in October, which was turning point for the Johnson administration. With public support for Johnson's conduct of the war fading, the president fought back by overselling modest gains that his military commanders claimed to be making. This overselling of the war's progress played a major role in creating the domestic crisis produced by the Tet Offensive in early 1968, sparked from the protesters' actions. Although these marchers were unable to levitate the besieged Pentagon, their activities ultimately contributed to the redirection of the American policy in Vietnam by 1968-and the destruction of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (VN H. and P.).

Johnson finally realized-the energized antiwar forces spelled the beginning of the end for American involvement in the war. (VN H. and P. ). Thus, the administration dug in for a long and dramatic time of protests, uncivil disobedience, and numerous arrests. The size of these demonstration crowds often varied but there were no disagreements about the major events of protest. They began with peaceful series of speeches and musical presentations. Then many of the participants tried to march the various government grounds, most importantly taking place at the Lincoln Memorial. For most Americans, the events were symbolized by television images of dirty-mouthed hippies taunting the brave, clean-cut American soldiers who confronted the unruly demonstrators (VN H. and P.).

Americans were soon shocked to learn about the communists' massive Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968. The offensive demonstrated that Johnson had been making the progress in Vietnam seem much greater than it really was; the war was apparently endless. Critics of the administration policy on the campuses and Capitol Hill had been right after all. For the first time, the state of public opinion was the crucial factor in decision making on the war. Johnson withdrew his candidacy for reelection in March of 1968, and he was offering the communists generous terms to open peace talks.

In the meantime, as the war continued to take its bloody toll, the nation prepared to elect a new president. The antiwar movement had inadvertently helped Richard Nixon win the election. As Johnson's unhappy term of office came to an end, antiwar critics and the Vietnamese people prepared to do battle with their new adversary (Small, 124). The new president expressed more outward signs from hawks not the doves, now that Johnson now out of office. Like many of his advisors, Nixon was bothered with the antiwar movement since he was convinced that it prolonged the war. He could not understand how the current generation of young people could include both brave young marines and hippies and draft-card burners (VN H. and P.). Richard Nixon assumed the presidency with a secret plan to end the war. Although most doves did not believe in the new president to do so, they were prepared to give him time to execute the plan. Nixon had a plan to end the war. He wanted to increase the pressure on the communists, issue then a deadline to be conciliatory, and to keep this entire secret from the American public (VN H. and P.). Thus, the number of casualties increased in the late winter and spring as the bombings of Northern Vietnam continued once again.

It did not take long for the antiwar critics and organization to take up where it had left off with Lyndon Johnson. They got ready for another campaign of petitioning and demonstrating with the center of it all involving the middle-class. The deadline for the communists past, and the failure to follow with his strategy was the rejuvenation of the antiwar movement centered on the very successful demonstrations in October of 1969. Nixon now feared that the public, led by a confident antiwar movement, would demand a much quicker withdrawal from Vietnam than he had planned. With that deadline approached, Henry Kissinger, the most important Vietnam policymaker asked a group of Quakers to give Nixon six months, if the war is not over then, "You can come back and tear down the White House." (VN H. and P.).

In May 1970, Nixon gambled that he could buy time for Vietnamization through an attack on Cambodian sanctuaries to destroy communist command-and-supply buildings, while containing the protest that he knew his action would provoke. His gamble failed, when poorly trained National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, on May 4. This made the expected protests much worse than anyone in Washington could have foreseen. The wave of demonstrations on hundreds of college campuses paralyzed America's higher-education system. The Kent State tragedy ignited a nationwide campus disaster. Between May 4 and May 8, campuses experienced an average of 100 demonstrations a day, 350 campus strikes, 536 colleges shut down, and 73 colleges reported significant violence in their protests. On that weekend, 100,000 people gathered to protest in Washington. By May 12, over 150 colleges were on strike (VN H. and P.)

Many of Nixon's activities during the second week of May revolved around the Kent State crisis. On May 6, he met with the delegation of the university. But with the storm of people on the outside of the White House, the government never completely stopped. Despite Nixon's claims that the media did not portray his serious intentions accurately, his own records reveal almost no discussion of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Kent State at the time. On December 15, Nixon announced his intention to withdraw an additional fifty thousand troops in 1970. Even the president's faith in that position was shattered after the unprecedented nationwide protests against his invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. (Lewis, 83).

As the Nixon administration tried to piece together in the weeks after the crisis, a dramatic decline in antiwar occurred once the colleges closed. The nationwide response to the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State killings was the last movement by the people, which had such an impact like the summer of 1970. Nixon began to plan a new and even more vigorous offensive against the movement. However, Nixon and his aides still felt undersized during the summer of 1970-from the media, movement, and Congress.

For whatever reasons, campus demonstrations and general antiwar activity declined after the spring of 1970. The number and size of marches and protests declined as reported by the mass media. For Nixon, the nation was full with marches, strikes, boycotts, and other forms of activism during the last two years of his administration. Some protesting still lingered, and in the late summer on August 7, 1970, when a young researcher at the University of Wisconsin was killed when the building in which he was working was fire bombed. But the Dove rallies were poorly attended; the movement was winding down. It was not just that the movement was doing poorly, as Nixon himself was doing much better, becoming a popular Democratic spokesperson. On September 16, he appeared to cheering crowds at Kansas State University.

The antiwar movement figured indirectly in the outcome of Vietnam. After Saigon fell, the Watergate affair crippled Nixon's presidency and dominated his political life until his resignation in August 1974. During this period, he was far too weak to contest with Congress over a renewal of American military involvement in Vietnam. As the crisis in Southern Vietnam now deepened in the middle of 1974, the new president, Gerald Ford, wanted to increase military aide to the faltering Saigon regime. Congress refused his requests to what it saw as pouring more money and lives away. Continuing in 1974 to 1975, the public with the movement, led by Congress and the media, all influenced the arguments presented to more financial and military commitments in Vietnam. The struggle of the American minds was over, for there would be no more Vietnams in the near future. ( VN H. and P.).

Among the most convincing theories of the movement were that it exerted pressures directly on Johnson and Nixon it contributed to the end of their policies. The movement exerted pressures indirectly by turning the public against the war. It encouraged the Northern Vietnamese to fight on long enough to the point that Americans demanded a withdrawal from Southeast Asia; it influenced American political and military strategy; and, slowed the growth of the hawks. It is now clear that the antiwar movement and antiwar criticism in the media and Congress had a significant impact on Vietnam. It's key points being the mass demonstrations by the college students across the country and the general public opposition to the war effort in Vietnam. At times, some of their activities, as displayed by the media, may have produced a patriotic backlash. (Gaullucci, 194). Overall, the movement eroded support for Johnson and Nixon, especially by the informed public. Through constant dissident, experts in the movement, the media, and the campuses helped to destroy the knee-jerk notion that "they in Washington have created." (Small 164 ). Thus, from the beginning of the US involvement in Indochina's affairs, the antiwar movement in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant movement of its kind in the nation's history.

 

Bibliography

Brown, McAfee, et al. Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience. New York: Association Press, 1967

Gaullucci, Robert L. Neither Peace Nor Honor. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Gettleman, Marvin E. Vietnam and America: A documented history. New York: Grove Press, 1985.

Lewis, Lloyd B. The Tainted War. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Meyerson, Joel D. Images of a Lengthy War. Washington, DC: Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data, 1986.

Schlight, John. Indochina War Symposium. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1986.

Small, Melvin. Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Spector, Ronald H. "Researching the Vietnam Experience" Historical Analysis Series. April1984: 30-31.

VN History and Politics Rpt.Http://wwwpersonal.umich.edu:80/~hpp/hispo.html 1996



 

 



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