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
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
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,
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
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.
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