The antiwar movement against Vietnam in the US from 1965-1971 was the mostsignificant movement of its kind in the nation’s history.
The United Statesfirst became directly involved in Vietnam in 1950 when President Harry Trumanstarted 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’spolitical, economic, and military commitments steadily throughout the fiftiesand early sixties in the Indochina region. Prominent senators had already beguncriticizing American involvement in Vietnam during the summer of1964, which ledto the mass antiwar movement that was to appear in the summer of 1965. Thisantiwar movement had a great impact on policy and practically forced the US outof Vietnam. Starting with teach-ins during the spring of 1965, the massiveantiwar efforts centered on the colleges, with the students playingleadingroles.
These teach-ins were mass public demonstrations, usually held in thespring and fall seasons. By 1968, protestersnumbered almost seven million withmore than half being white youths in the college. The teach-in movement was atfirst, a gentle approach to the antiwar activity. Although, it faded when thecollege students went home during the summer of 1965, other types of protestthat grew through 1971 soon replaced it. All of these movements captured theattention of the White House, especially when 25,000 people marched onWashington Avenue.
And at times these movements attracted the interestof all thebig decision-makers and their advisors. The teach-ins began at the University ofMichigan on March 24, 1965, and spread to other campuses, including Wisconsin onApril 1. These protests at some of America’s finest universities captured publicattention. The Demonstrations were one form of attempting to go beyond merewords and research and reason, and to put direct pressure on those who wereconducting policy in apparent disdain for the will expressed by the voters.
Within the US government, some saw these teach-ins as an important developmentthat might slow down on further escalation in Vietnam. Although several hundredcolleges experienced teach-ins, most campuses were untouched by thiscircumstance. Nevertheless, the teach-ins did concern the administration andcontributed to President Johnson’s decision to present a major Vietnam addressat Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965. The address tried to respond tothe teach-ins campus protest activity. The Johns Hopkins speech was the firstmajor example of the impact of antiwar. Johnson was trying to stabilize publicopinion while the campuses were bothering the government.
In 1965, the USstarted strategically bombing parts of Northern Vietnam, catalyzing the antiwarmovement public opinion ofwhat was going on in Indochina. These bombings spawnedthe antiwar movement and sustained it, especially as the North Vietnamese leaderHo Chi Minh refused to listen to American demands. The antiwar movement wouldhave emerged alone by the bombings, and the growing cost of American livescoming home in body bags only intensified public opposition to the war. Thismovement against the Northern bombings, and domestic critics in general, playeda role in the decision to announce a bombing pause from May 12 to the 17, of1965.
Antiwar activists carried on through the pause with their own programs,and the scattered teach-ins had become more of a problem for President Johnsonwhen their organizers joined in an unofficial group, the Inter-UniversityCommittee for a Public Hearing on Vietnam. This new committee began planning anationwide teach-in to be conducted on television and radio, of which would be adebate between protesters and administrators of the government. The antiwarmovement, through the national teach-in, contributed to the resignations of manygovernment officials, including the resignation of McGeorge Bundy inearly 1966. This well-publicized debate made the antiwar effort more respectable. Assupporters of the war found themselves more popular, they were drivenincreasingly to rely on equating their position with”support for our boysin Vietnam.
“. The antiwar movement spread directly among the combat troopsin Vietnam, who began to wear peace symbols and flash peace signs and movementsalutes. Some units even organized their own demonstrations to link up with themovement at home. For example, to join the November 1969 antiwarMobilization, aunit boycotted its Thanksgiving Day dinner.
One problem of the antiwar movementwas the difficulty of finding ways to move beyond protest and symbolic acts todeeds that would actually impede the war. Unlike college students and othercivilians, the troops in Vietnam had no such problem. Individual acts ofrebellion, raging from desertion to killing officers who orderedsearch-and-destroy missions, merged into mutinies and large-scale resistance. Between the late summer of 1965 and the fall of 1966, the American militaryeffort in Vietnam accelerated from President Johnson’s decisions. The number ofair sorties over Northern Vietnam now increased again, from 25,000 in 1965 to79,000 in 1966.
The antiwar movement grew slowly during this period and so didthe number of critics in Congress and the media. A ban on picketing the WhiteHouse was recommended. Instead, President Johnson and later Nixon combated thepicketers through a variety of legal and illegal harassment, including limitingtheir numbers in certain venues and demanding letter-perfect permits for everyactivity. The picketers were a constant battle, which the presidents could neverclaim total victory.
By 1967, US military authority was breaking apart. Not onlywas it the worst year for President Johnson’s term, but also one of the mostturbulent years in all of American history. The war in Southeast Asia and thewar at home in the streets and the campuses dominated the headlines and theattention of the White House. To make matters worse, 1967 witnessed more urbanriots; the most deadly of which took place in Detroit.
It was also the year ofthe hippies, the drugs, and a wholesale assault on morality and values; and allof these singular happenings were magnified by the media. The antiwar effort wascrippling Johnson’s presidency and paralyzing the nation. Now the war wasbecoming more unpopular at home. By the middle of 1967, many Americans begantelling that the original involvement in Vietnam had been a costly mistake. Andfor Johnson, only a little more than a quarter of the population approved of hishandling the war in 1968. Many of those fed up at home were the hawks.
The hawkswere the group of people that supported the war. They wanted to remove theshackles from the generals and continue the bombings over Vietnam. However,Johnson’s critics among the doves were far more troubling. The doves wereusually blue-collar workers and wanted to end Vietnam immediately. In the firstplace, they were far more vocal and visible than the hawks, appearing at large,well-organized demonstrations. Even more disconcerting were the continuingdefections from the media and the Democratic Party.
The antiwar movement thatbegan as a small trickle had now became a flood. The most important antiwarevent of 1967 was the March on the Pentagon in October, which was turning pointfor the Johnson administration. With public support for Johnson’s conduct of thewar fading, the president fought back by overselling modest gains that hismilitary commanders claimed to be making. This overselling of the war’s progressplayed a major role in creating the domestic crisis produced by the TetOffensive in early 1968, sparked from the protesters’ actions. Although thesemarcherswere unable to levitate the besieged Pentagon, their activitiesultimately contributed to the redirection of the American policy inVietnam by1968-and the destruction of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson finallyrealized-the energized antiwar forces spelled the beginning of the end forAmerican involvement in the war.
Thus, the administration dug in for a long anddramatic time of protests, uncivil disobedience, and numerous arrests. The sizeof these demonstration crowds often varied but there were no disagreements aboutthe major events of protest. They began with peaceful series of speeches andmusical presentations. Then many of the participants tried to march the variousgovernment grounds, most importantly taking place at the Lincoln Memorial. Formost Americans, the events were symbolized by television images of dirty-mouthedhippies taunting the brave, clean-cut American soldiers who confronted theunruly demonstrators. Americans were soon shocked to learn about the communists’massive Tet Offensive on January 31, 1968.
The offensive demonstrated thatJohnson had been making the progress in Vietnam seem much greater than it reallywas; the war was apparently endless. Critics of the administration policy on thecampuses and Capitol Hill had been right after all. For the first time, thestate 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 wasoffering the communists generous terms to open peace talks. In the meantime, asthe war continued to take its bloody toll, the nation prepared to elect a newpresident. The antiwar movement had inadvertently helped Richard Nixon win theelection.
As Johnson’s unhappy term of office came to an end, antiwar criticsand the Vietnamese people prepared to do battle with their new adversary. Thenew president expressed more outward signs from hawks not the doves, now thatJohnson now out of office. Like many of his advisors, Nixon was bothered withthe antiwar movement since he was convinced that it prolonged the war. He couldnot understandhow the current generation of young people could include bothbrave young marines and hippies and draft-card burners. Richard Nixon assumedthe presidency with a secret plan to end the war.
Although most doves did notbelieve in the new president to do so, they were prepared to give him time toexecute the plan. Nixon had a plan to end the war. He wanted to increase thepressure on the communists, issue then a deadline to be conciliatory, and tokeep this entire secret from the American public. Thus, the number of casualtiesincreased in the late winter and spring as the bombings of Northern Vietnamcontinued once again. It did not take long for the antiwar critics andorganization to take up where it had left off with Lyndon Johnson. They gotreadyfor another campaign of petitioning and demonstrating with the center of itall involving the middle-class.
The deadline for the communists past, and thefailure to follow with his strategy was the rejuvenation of the antiwar movementcentered on the very successful demonstrations in October of 1969. Nixon nowfeared that the public, led by a confident antiwar movement, would demand a muchquicker withdrawal from Vietnam than he had planned. With that deadlineapproached, Henry Kissinger, the most important Vietnam policymaker asked agroup of Quakers to give Nixon six months, if the war is not over then,”You can come back and tear down the White House. “. In May 1970, Nixongambled that he could buy time for Vietnamization through an attack on Cambodiansanctuaries to destroy communist command-and-supply buildings, while containingthe protest that he knew his action would provoke.
His gamble failed, whenpoorly trained National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University,on May 4. This made the expected protests much worse than anyone in Washingtoncould have foreseen. The wave of demonstrations on hundreds of college campusesparalyzed America’s higher-education system. The Kent State tragedy ignited anationwide campus disaster. Between May 4 and May 8, campuses experienced anaverage of 100 demonstrations a day, 350 campus strikes, 536 colleges shut down,and 73 colleges reported significant violence in their protests. On thatweekend, 100,000 people gathered to protest in Washington.
By May 12, over 150colleges were on strike. Many of Nixon’s activities during the second week ofMay revolved around the Kent State crisis. On May 6, he met with thedelegationof the university. But with the storm of people on the outside of the WhiteHouse, the government never completely stopped. Despite Nixon’s claims that themedia did not portray his serious intentions accurately, his own records revealalmost no discussion of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Kent State at the time. OnDecember 15, Nixon announced his intention to withdraw an additional fiftythousand troops in 1970.
Even the president’s faith in that position wasshattered after the unprecedented nationwide protests against his invasion ofCambodia in the spring of 1970. As the Nixon administration tried to piecetogether in the weeks after the crisis, a dramatic decline in antiwar occurredonce the colleges closed. The nationwide response to the Cambodian invasion andthe Kent State killings was the last movement by the people, which had such animpact like the summer of 1970. Nixon began to plan a new and even more vigorousoffensive against the movement.
However, Nixon and his aides still feltundersized during the summer of 1970-from the media, movement, and Congress. Forwhatever reasons, campus demonstrations and general antiwar activity declinedafter the spring of 1970. The number andsize of marches and protests declined asreported 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 hisadministration. Some protesting still lingered, and in the late summer on August7, 1970, when a young researcher at the University of Wisconsin was killed whenthe building in which he was working was fire bombed. But the Dove rallies werepoorly attended; the movement was winding down.
It was not just that themovement was doing poorly, as Nixon himself was doing much better, becoming apopular Democratic spokesperson. On September 16, he appeared to cheering crowdsat Kansas State University. The antiwar movement figured indirectly in theoutcome of Vietnam. After Saigon fell, the Watergate affair crippledNixon’spresidency and dominated his political life until his resignation inAugust 1974. During this period, he was far too weak to contest with Congressover a renewal of American military involvement in Vietnam. As the crisis inSouthern Vietnam now deepened in the middle of 1974, the new president, GeraldFord, wanted to increase military aide to the faltering Saigon regime.
Congressrefused 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 andthe media, all influenced the arguments presented to more financial andmilitarycommitments in Vietnam. The struggle of the American minds was over, forthere would be no more Vietnams in the near future. Among the most convincingtheories of the movement were that it exerted pressures directly on Johnson andNixon it contributed to the end of their policies. The movement exertedpressures indirectly by turning the public against the war.
It encouraged theNorthern Vietnamese to fight on long enough to the point that Americans demandeda withdrawal from Southeast Asia; it influenced American political and militarystrategy; and, slowed the growth of the hawks. It is now clear that the antiwarmovement and antiwar criticism in the media and Congress had a significantimpact on Vietnam. It’s key points being the mass demonstrations by the collegestudents across the country and the general public opposition to the war effortinVietnam. At times, some of their activities, as displayed by the media, mayhave produced a patriotic backlash. Overall, the movement eroded support forJohnson and Nixon, especially by the informed public.
Through constantdissident, experts in the movement, the media, and the campuses helped todestroy the knee-jerk notion that “they in Washington have created.”Thus, from the beginning of the US involvement in Indochina’s affairs, theantiwar movement in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant movement ofits kind in the nation’s history.Politics