No One Liked Vietnam Protesters, Either

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Photo: Marika Shaub

Occupy Wall Street Should Remember That No One Liked Vietnam Protesters, Either

The protests against the Vietnam War were controversial from the start. As the conflict raged, critics accused antiwar activists of undermining the morale of American troops and risking the international humiliation of the United States. In turn, many peace protesters responded that they were seeking to end an immoral and unnecessary conflict that represented a stain on America’s reputation. In the decades since the fall of Saigon the scholarly argument about the movement has been similarly robust. While some historians have celebrated its role in restricting, de-escalating and finally ending the war, others have claimed that the movement’s unpopularity (fuelled by its perceived anti-American and countercultural tendencies), actually helped to prolong the conflict by discouraging more mainstream dissent.

Part of the problem is that we simply cannot know how things would have turned out had there been no teach-ins, marches, protests, and draft card burnings. Furthermore, there is an understandable temptation to believe that the sustained antiwar activism undertaken by millions of Americans over a number of years must have had some sort of effect. Finally, it is incredibly difficult—if not impossible—to disentangle the impact of this antiwar activity from wider military and political developments that shaped the course of the war. One thing, though, seems pretty clear: public opinion, at least as measured by opinion polls, was incredibly hostile toward the antiwar movement even as support for the war in Vietnam waned. Indeed, the peace movement was one of the few things in the United States that was consistently more unpopular than the war itself.

At certain moments, the antiwar movement did affect policy decisions. The massive moratorium protests of October 1969, for instance, encouraged the Nixon administration to postpone plans for an all-out military offensive against Hanoi. But although antiwar dissent was consistently taken into consideration by policymakers, it was rarely the decisive factor. LBJ’s desire to protect his Great Society and his fears about provoking a wider war, and Nixon’s commitment to détente, were surely more important to their respective war policies.

Moreover, the growing frequency of massive antiwar marches and demonstrations did not prevent ferocious military firepower from being unleashed on Southeast Asia well into the 1970s, nor did it prevent the expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia. Indeed, the eventual decision to extricate the U.S. military from Vietnam was shaped less by the actions of the antiwar movement than by the huge costs to the U.S. in blood and treasure, the impressive determination of the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front to fight to the death for an independent, unified Vietnam, and the inability of America and her allies to secure victory.

While the antiwar movement may well have failed in its primary goal, this does not mean that it was unimportant. In addition to helping inspire protests around the world (most notably in West Germany, France, Britain, Australia, and Japan) it exercised a powerful influence over other domestic social movements. Antiwar veterans, for example, played prominent roles in the women’s rights and gay liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

vietnam war protestsMoreover, these movements’ use of teach-ins, street theater and countercultural forms of protest, illustrate the antiwar movement’s sway. The protests against the Vietnam War have also shaped more recent peace activism. In their style, tactics, and arguments many of the demonstrations against the Iraq War were reminiscent of the peace protests that had taken place a generation before. On March 30, 2003 the New York Times reported on the prominent role of ‘60s veterans, including Pete Seeger, Tom Hayden, Joan Baez, and Rev. William Sloane Coffin, in the protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Historians have tended to explain the antiwar movement’s impact on the emergence of the New Right in terms of the ‘backlash’: conservatives, it is said, drew strength by denouncing the antiwar movement and those sympathetic to it. True enough, but there was a more positive influence too. Indeed, during the 1970s a number of grassroots conservative activists took inspiration from the antiwar movement.

In Boston, for example, opponents of busing invoked earlier antiwar activism in an effort to legitimize their own street protests and civil disobedience. They were also affected by the style of the antiwar protesters. In September 1975, in an echo of the Berkeley activists who had lain in front of troop trains, anti-busing protesters lay down in front oftrucks that were distributing the allegedly pro-busing Boston Globe. The antiwar slogan, “Hell, no! We won’t go”, was also adapted by anti-busing activists in South Boston who chanted “Hell, no! Southie Won’t Go.” The antiwar movement exercised a profound influence over the anti-abortion movement too.

As the historian Richard L. Hughes has pointed out recently, a number of the movement’s pioneers were themselves veterans of the struggle against the Vietnam War, and much of the anti-abortion movement’s early style was reminiscent of peace protests. At one anti-abortion rally, activists even sang a version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. Furthermore, anti-abortion campaigners drew heavily on the antiwar movement’s symbolic concern with motherhood and the child casualties of the war. Whereas antiwar activists had carried pictures of killed or maimed Vietnamese children, opponents of abortion took to displaying images of aborted fetuses in an attempt to shock the public into re-evaluating their stance.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Americans organized to protest against the war in Vietnam. Ultimately they created a vibrant antiwar movement that remained active for the best part of a decade. Millions of ordinary people, including students, housewives, lawyers, clerks, government employees, factory workers, and veterans engaged in an extraordinary range of activities—from mass marches to rallies, petition drives to local referenda, and draft card burnings to street—in an effort to bring the war to an end. While it is quite possible that the movement played, at best, only a marginal role in the American government’s decision to end its military involvement in South Vietnam, its widespread influence on subsequent protest movements from across the political spectrum stands as a powerful, if unintended, legacy.

Simon Hall

Simon Hall is a Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom. His latest book, “Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement,” has just been published by Routledge.

Republished with permission from the History News Network


  1. James M. Martin says

    Right. When a bunch of us occupied the administration building at UCLA, I think it was ’66 or ’67, we knew that the Newt Gingrich types thought us unwashed and layabout, but we were there on principle: that the University of California system should not host head hunters from war profiteering multinationals. That day, it was Dow Chemical, which manufactured Napalm, here capitalized because it was a trademark of the company. We felt that the Viet war was illegal, unconstitutional, and just plan immoral. We felt that the U.S. had intruded into a civil war on the bogus claim that the situation in that South Asian country made Vietnam a “domino” on end that would fall to communist control and tip country after country in the neighborhood, felling them to communism, too. I am proud to this day of sitting down on the floor with my schoolmates and waiting until word came that the administration would meet with your leaders to discuss that and future recruitment efforts we thought anti-American. And who really gives a damn what the Newt Gingriches of this world think or want. They are nothing but sell-outs to the Koch Brothers and other robber barons. I say, up with OWS and its affiliate organizations.

  2. Wayne says

    As usual, the real cause of the stopage of the illegal, immoral war in Vietnam was not even mentioned. There were a number of factors stopping the nixon regime’s goal of an American SE Asia and they all add up, but the most telling is the revolt of the active duty GI’s and the Veterans. It is kept hidden from the public, but the history is there and it is recorded. Take a look at the movie “Sir, No Sir” and Nancy Saunders book “Combat By Trial” for starters. I was told by one of the right wing insiders at a Vietnam Symposium at Texas Tech that it was our fault for stopping the war. While meant as an insult it is perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever received, and that idiot didn’t even realize it.

  3. Steve Egger says

    Some people on here who don’t remember the treatment returning Vets from Viet Nam rec’d don’t know their history very well.

    • krissy says

      yup. Returning vietnam vets were pissed off. Many joined the movement. The talking heads pretended that they knew what was best for people who went through years of hell on earth.

  4. Joe Weinstein says

    The article instructively tells us what did and did not happen from the Vietnam War protests forward. Craig’s brief comment further enlightens us on the prior lineage of those protests. Of course the question now is, where do we go from here, and just what does the article (and other sources) tell us about that.

    Each of the prior comments offers on-point suggestions. Jason perceives need for a unified prime message – and focus on the stakes in the US Supreme Court. Craig sees a need for ordinary Americans to ‘break away from corporate media’. Jon sees a need to deflate reverence for the military. Ryder notes that a true anti-war movement will reject warmongering Obama, no matter how many peace prizes he gets. (Note: Nobel prizes for science typically are for long-past hard performance. Recent Nobel prizes for peace typically are for recent soft promise of maybe future performance.)

    I think that the overall theme of OWS DOES readily translate into a clear minimum message to and demands on politicians: We 99% won’t anymore take this shit – whether government administered or colluded in. We 99% demand full reversal of the past ten years’ (OBushma administrations) inflicted losses – at a minimum in jobs, homes, income and income protection, and govt. action for education and enviro protection, and reasonable judicial appointments – and of the deficit-causes: the wars and especially the 1%’s windfall tax cuts and bailouts.

    As the article notes – but doesn’t really explain why – the Vietnam War protests had limited impact. The ultimate reason is not merely the little noted fact that those protests too sent confusing mixed messages. The American mainstream came to see fighting in Vietnam as needless pain, but some protesters instead would spout off messages of unconditional pacifism or else of praise for the Viet Cong and Ho Chi Minh. Even so, those protests then, as versus anti-war protests now, had the advantage that Lyndon Johnson had stupidly and inexplicably insisted on fighting the war with unwilling and often middle-class draftees rather than – as today – seeking voluntary enlistments, especially from among those not favored for employment. His successor warmongers learned not to make his mistake.

    The underlying reason why the Vietnam War protests could expect only limited impact remains true for all demonstrations and mass movements to this day. The reason will apply to OWS too unless the OWS message unprecedentedly broadens from economic to political fairness. Namely, and so far without broad attitudinal challenge, our so-called ‘democracy’ amounts by tacit consent to government by an all-powerful political 1% oligarchy that can with almost total impunity and whim disregard the needs of the nation and the remaining 99%. The political oligarchy (which like all oligarchies is readily corrupted – and indeed IS corrupted by the economic oligarchy) is unabashedly in the open: it comprises the very few all-powerful high governmental officials – legislative, executive, or judicial – which each serve long terms and command huge power over many decisions. Indeed, the two-century-old US federal constitution – and its state and local copycats – provide not for an Athenian-style deliberative citizen democracy but for a Roman-style republican form of to-whim oligarchic government. The lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court are simply the most extreme instance of this. The constitution has admirable amendments for basic human rights, but its prescribed oligarchy ill behooves political fairness – which requires basic equality of opportunity for all willing citizens’ empowered participation on deliberative decision teams. The lack of such fairness is especially glaring now, compared with two centuries ago, when we 99% are at far higher levels of population and average education.

  5. harry wood says

    The only thing I see different about this group that protest is they have yet to spit on any military members but maybe they have not had the chance. You can not understand until they spit on you. Been there once already. They both act like mobs and that is not the way to get the public to like you.

  6. says

    I was a graduate student at Harvard during the days on the anti-Vietnam War protests. It’s quite true the Vietnam issue was first and foremost on peoples’ minds. But it wasn’t long before other causes found their way onto the agenda. I vaguely recall there being as many as ten battle cries.

    • says

      I was around then too, and having just come back from Viet Nam was pretty focused on it too. There might have been other side issues and agendas but there was no doubt in the public’s mind what those protests were focused on. Revolution for the hell of it, is a great book title and in practice is a great masturbatory exercise. All the protesters feel real good, but nothing was achieved because the public didn’t get it.

  7. says

    The analogy between the anti-war protests and this current Occupy Wall Street one breaks down when you compare the clearly defined, single purpose goal of the anti-war protests, that of getting us out of Viet Nam, to the undefined or multi-defined goals of the present protest. I have been listening to the news reports, listening to interviews of protesters, reading the signs protesters are carrying in the news pictures, etc. and I have yet to figure out a single defined goal of the protest. The average American is getting their information just like I am getting mine and if I, who probably is looking a little closer at the protests than they are, can’t figure out a clearly defined goal, then they certainly haven’t either. If it appears that this is just a rage against the machine (to borrow the title) protest, the average person will only see the civil disobedience part and will not get the message because there isn’t any message.

    In the Viet Nam war protests the goal was very clear so average Americans could say to themselves, “Come to think about it, I want us out of that war to!” and could support and join that movement. In the current protest, I am
    hearing and seeing numerous people with numerous slogans about numerous causes. When numerous people are shouting numerous slogans all the listening public hears is noise!

    My huge problem with this protest is that the most important of all the causes that folks ought to be rallying for isn’t on any of those signs and is the only cause that is critical for the next election. To paraphrase James Carvel, “It’s the Supreme Court stupid!” Justice Ginsberg is getting old and frail. The likelihood is that the person elected next year will name her replacement. If that person is a Republican, that slim, sometimes in our favor 5-4 majority will become a 6-3 conservative court for the next decade, at least and every one of the progressive gains back to FDR will be gone! The Conservatives have been marching in locked step focused only on that goal. We Progressives don’t seem to understand that this is the most important battle of this new century and instead expend lots of energy on important but way less critical issues. It’s like we make noise on the left while they attack the Supreme Court on the right and they are one vote from victory!

    • MCH says

      I’m not sure that a coherent message is required from the OWS movement, quite frankly. I agree that the movement has not and probably will not directly affect any policy. It has, however, done something much greater and potentially more effective – it has changed the terms of the debate.

      For most of the last three years, both Congress and the Obama Administration have avoided dealing with the causes and consequences of the largest and most flagrant abuses of the world’s economies by financial institutions, and for the most part the large news organizations have helped them. Instead of jobs, we get endless reporting oin the deficit. Instead of bank fraud, we get Anthony Weiner. Instead of economic justice and equality, we get Casey Anthony.

      The OWS changed all of that. Now everyone is talking about banks and Wall Street and the horrendous abuses that led up to our nation losing nearly a quarter of its net worth, and the absolutely shameless lack of remorse from those who did it to us. The conversation has changed. That was the hard part. Even if the OWS disappears tomorrow (and there’s no reason to believe it will,) we wil be on the right track to affecting real change. And that ain’t no bumper sticker, either.

  8. says

    Thought provoking article. I think the anti-war movement learned from the Civil Rights movement which learned from the movements in the Great Depression which learned from the labor struggles of the 20’s which learned from the woman’s suffrage movement before that. Of course they learned from the abolitionists. Both sides need to create populists movements and can learn from successful efforts. The media of course painted the anti war movement in a negative light which is what they’re doing now with OWS.The American people need to break away from corporate media if they support OWS.

  9. Jon Williams says

    We read this morning in the New York Times of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “dropping in” on Wall Street in a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey aircraft, ostensibly because that was the best way to get him there. I say simply dropping him astride a bomb a la “Dr. Strangelove” might have been mor appropriate.

    Ordinary Americans are starting to turn out, Vietnam War-style, over job losses, cuts to services, educational fee hikes and the like, but most of them still seem to worship anything with a U.S. military stamp of approval: President Obama shows up at a basketball game aboard an aircraft carrier wearing a bomber jacket, returning soldier surprises his young daughter at school in full cammies. Isn’t it time we start saying how we really feel about these shows of military arrogance?

    Panetta and the president are shills for the Military-Industrial Complex and the military itself is now an XBox video game that shouldnt be sold even to mature audiences.

    America may not have liked the Vietnam protests but that bitter medicine was for the country’s own good. Now we desperately need another dose.

  10. Ryder says

    Finally, a sensible article on LA Progressive!

    Regarding the anti-war legacy… one thing I note is that when Obama waged war on Libya, the anti-war movement was silent.

    I know of not a single demonstration even though US military force was used to topple a government in broad daylight.

    Obama never explained how Libya posed a threat to the US.

    Yet somehow he got a peace prize.. when in his acceptance speech he said that war is just when it is waged as a last resort or self defense.


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