Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War

Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War
Part of the Anti-war movement

Protests against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1967
Date 1964–73
Causes United States Involvement in the Vietnam War
Goals End the U.S. presence in the Vietnam War
  • Disruption of the draft
  • Mass protests
  • Lowered military morale

The movement against the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War began in the U.S. with demonstrations in 1964 and grew in strength in later years. The U.S. became polarized between those who advocated continued involvement in Vietnam and those who wanted peace.

Many in the peace movement were students, mothers, or anti-establishment hippies. Opposition grew with participation by the African-American civil rights, women's liberation, and Chicago movements, and sectors of organized labor. Additional involvement came from many other groups, including educators, clergy, academics, journalists, lawyers, physicians (such as Benjamin Spock), Civil Rights Movement leaders and military veterans. Opposition consisted mainly of peaceful, nonviolent events; few events were deliberately provocative and violent. In some cases, police used violent tactics against demonstrators. By 1967, according to Gallup Polls, an increasing majority of Americans considered US military involvement in Vietnam to be a mistake, echoed decades later by the then head of American war planning, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.[1]


The reasons behind American opposition to the Vietnam War fell into several main categories: opposition to the draft; moral, legal, and pragmatic arguments against U.S. intervention; and reaction to the media portrayal of the devastation in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam War protesters. Wichita, Kansas, 1967

The draft, as a system of conscription which threatened lower class registrants and middle class registrants alike, drove much of the protest after 1965. Conscientious objectors did play an active role although their numbers were small. The prevailing sentiment that the draft was unfairly administered inflamed blue-collar American and especially African-American opposition to the military draft itself.

Opposition to the war arose during a time of unprecedented student activism which followed the free speech movement and the civil rights movement. The military draft mobilized the baby boomers who were most at risk, but grew to include a varied cross-section of Americans. The growing opposition to the Vietnam War was partly attributed to greater access to uncensored information presented by the extensive television coverage on the ground in Vietnam.

Beyond opposition to the draft, anti-war protesters also made moral arguments against the United States' involvement in Vietnam. This moral imperative argument against the war was especially popular among American college students, who were more likely than the general public to accuse the United States of having imperialistic goals in Vietnam and to criticize the war as "immoral."[2] Civilian deaths, which were either downplayed or omitted entirely by the Western media, became a subject of protest when photographic evidence of casualties emerged. An infamous photo of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting an alleged terrorist in handcuffs during the Tet Offensive also provoked public outcry.[3]

Another element of the American opposition to the war was the perception that U.S intervention in Vietnam, which had been argued as acceptable due to the Domino Theory and the threat of Communism, was not legally justifiable. Some Americans believed that the Communist threat was used as a scapegoat to hide imperialistic intentions, while others argued that the American intervention in South Vietnam interfered with the "self-determination" of the country. They felt that the war in Vietnam was a civil war that ought to have determined the fate of the country and, therefore, America was not right to intervene.[3]

Media coverage of the war in Vietnam also shook the faith of citizens at home as new media technologies, like television, brought images of wartime conflict to the kitchen table. Newsmen like NBC's Frank McGee stated that the war was all but lost as a "conclusion to be drawn inescapably from the facts."[3] For the first time in American history the media was privileged to dispense battlefield footage to public. Graphic footage of casualties on the nightly news eliminated any myth of the glory of war. With no clear sign of victory in Vietnam, the media images of American military casualties helped to stimulate the opposition of the war in Americans. In their book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman challenge this traditional view of how the media influenced the war, proposing instead that the media censored the more brutal images of the fighting and the death of millions of innocent people.

On April 4, 1967 in New York City, Civil rights leader Martin Luther King detailed his rationales for opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. King claimed that America had rejected Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary government which he said was seeking Vietnamese self-determination. Ho's government, said King, "was a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives."[4]

US helicopter gunship in October 1968


If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam."

The U.S.A. became polarized over the war. Many supporters of U.S. involvement argued for what was known as the domino theory, a theory that believed if one country fell to communism, then the bordering countries would be sure to fall as well, much like falling dominoes. This theory was largely held due to the fall of eastern Europe to communism and the Soviet sphere of influence following World War II. However, military critics of the war pointed out that the Vietnam War was political and that the military mission lacked any clear idea of how to achieve its objectives. Civilian critics of the war argued that the government of South Vietnam lacked political legitimacy, or that support for the war was completely immoral.

The media also played a substantial role in the polarization of American opinion regarding the Vietnam War. For example, In 1965 a majority of the media attention focused on military tactics with very little discussion about the necessity for a full scale intervention in Southeast Asia.[6] After 1965, the media covered the dissent and domestic controversy that existed within the United States, but mostly excluded the actual view of dissidents and resisters.[6]

The media established a sphere of public discourse surrounding the Hawk versus Dove debate. The Dove was a liberal and a critic of the war. Doves claimed that the war was well–intentioned but a disastrously wrong mistake in an otherwise benign foreign policy. It is important to note the Doves did not question the U.S. intentions in intervening in Vietnam, nor did they question the morality or legality of the U.S. intervention. Rather, they made pragmatic claims that the war was a mistake. Contrarily, the Hawks argued that the war was legitimate and winnable and a part of the benign U.S. foreign policy. The Hawks claimed that the one-sided criticism of the media contributed to the decline of public support for the war and ultimately helped the U.S. lose the war. Author William F. Buckley repeatedly wrote about his approval for the war and suggested that "The United States has been timid, if not cowardly, in refusing to seek 'victory' in Vietnam."[3] The hawks claimed that the liberal media was responsible for the growing popular disenchantment with the war and blamed the western media for losing the war in Southeast Asia as communism was no longer a threat for them.

Antiwar movement

As the Vietnam War continued to escalate, public disenchantment grew and a variety of different groups were formed or became involved in the movement.


U.S. Marshals dragging away a Vietnam War protester in Washington, D.C., 1967

There was a great deal of civic unrest on college campuses throughout the 1960s as students became increasingly involved in African-American civil rights, women's liberation, and anti-Vietnam War movements. Doug McAdam explains the success of the mass mobilization of volunteers for Freedom Summer in terms of "Biographical Availability", where individuals must have a certain degree of social, economic, and psychological freedom to be able to participate in large scale social movements.[7] This explanation can also be applied to the Anti-War Movement because it occurred around the same time and the same biographical factors applied to the college-aged anti-war protesters. David Meyers (2007) also explains how the concept of personal efficacy affects mass movement mobilization. For example, according to Meyers' thesis, consider that American wealth increased drastically after World War II. At this time, America was a superpower and enjoyed great affluence after thirty years of depression, war, and sacrifice. Benjamin T. Harrison (2000) argues that the post World War II affluence set the stage for the protest generation in the 1960s.[8] His central thesis is that the World Wars and Great Depression spawned a 'beat generation' refusing to conform to mainstream American values which lead to the emergence of the Hippies and the counterculture. The Anti-war movement became part of a larger protest movement against the traditional American Values and attitudes. Meyers (2007) builds off this claim in his argument that the "relatively privileged enjoy the education and affirmation that afford them the belief that they might make a difference."[9] As a result of the present factors in terms of affluence, biographical availability (defined in the sociological areas of activism as the lack of restrictions on social relationships of which most likely increases the consequences of participating in a social movement), and increasing political atmosphere across the county, political activity increased drastically on college campuses.

College enrollment reached 9 million by the end of the 1960s. Colleges and universities in America had more students than ever before, and these institutions often tried to restrict student behavior to maintain order on the campuses. To combat this, many college students became active in causes that promoted free speech, student input in the curriculum, and an end to archaic social restrictions. Students joined the antiwar movement because they did not want to fight in a foreign civil war that they believed did not concern them or because they were morally opposed to all war. Others disliked the war because it diverted funds and attention away from problems in the U.S. Intellectual growth and gaining a liberal perspective at college caused many students to become active in the antiwar movement. Another attractive feature of the opposition movement was the fact that it was a popular social event. As one student said, antiwar demonstrations were the places to "get laid, get high, and listen to some great rock."

Most student antiwar organizations were locally or campus-based because they were easier to organize and participate in than national groups. Common antiwar demonstrations for college students featured attempts to sever ties between the war machine and universities through burning draft cards, protesting universities furnishing grades to draft boards, and protesting military and Dow Chemical job fairs on campus. From 1969 to 1970, student protestors attacked 197 ROTC buildings on college campuses. Protests grew after the Kent State shootings, radicalizing more and more students. Although the media often portrayed the student antiwar movement as aggressive and widespread, only 10% of the 2500 colleges in the United States had violent protests throughout the Vietnam War years. By the early 1970s, most student protest movements died down due to President Nixon's de-escalation of the war, the economic downturn, and disillusionment with the powerlessness of the antiwar movement.[10]


Many artists during the 1960s and 1970s opposed the war and used their creativity and careers to visibly oppose the war. Writers and poets opposed to involvement in the war included Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, and Robert Bly. Their pieces often incorporated imagery based on the tragic events of the war as well as the disparity between life in Vietnam and life in the United States. Visual artists Ronald Haeberle, Peter Saul, and Nancy Spero, among others, used war equipment, like guns and helicopters, in their works while incorporating important political and war figures, portraying to the nation exactly who was responsible for the violence. Filmmakers such as Lenny Lipton, Jerry Abrams, Peter Gessner, and David Ringo created documentary-style movies featuring actual footage from the antiwar marches to raise awareness about the war and the diverse opposition movement. Playwrights like Frank O'Hara, Sam Shepard, Robert Lowell, Megan Terry, Grant Duay, and Kenneth Bernard used theater as a vehicle for portraying their thoughts about the Vietnam War, often satirizing the role of America in the world and juxtaposing the horrific effects of war with normal scenes of life. Regardless of medium, antiwar artists ranged from pacifists to violent radicals and caused Americans to think more critically about the war. Art as war opposition was quite popular in the early years of the war, but soon faded as political activism became the more common and most visible way of opposing the war.[11]


Women were a large part of the antiwar movement, even though they were sometimes relegated to second-class status within the organizations or faced sexism within opposition groups.[12] Some leaders of anti-war groups viewed women as sex objects or secretaries, not actual thinkers who could contribute positively and tangibly to the group's goals, or believed that women could not truly understand and join the antiwar movement because they were unaffected by the draft.[13] Women involved in opposition groups disliked the romanticism of the violence of both the war and the antiwar movement that was common amongst male war protestors.[14] Despite the inequalities, participation in various antiwar groups allowed women to gain experience with organizing protests and crafting effective antiwar rhetoric. These newfound skills combined with their dislike of sexism within the opposition movement caused many women to break away from the mainstream antiwar movement and create or join women's antiwar groups, such as Another Mother for Peace, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and Women Strike for Peace (WSP), also known as Women For Peace. Female soldiers serving in Vietnam joined the movement to battle the war and sexism, racism, and the established military bureaucracy by writing articles for antiwar and antimilitary newspapers.[15]

Mothers and older generations of women joined the opposition movement, as advocates for peace and people opposed to the effects of the war and the draft on the generation of young men. These women saw the draft as one of the most disliked parts of the war machine and sought to undermine the war itself through undermining the draft. Another Mother for Peace and WSP often held free draft counseling centers to give young men legal and illegal methods to oppose the draft.[13] Members of Women For Peace showed up at the White House every Sunday for 8 years from 11 to 1 for a peace vigil.[16] Such female antiwar groups often relied on maternalism, the image of women as peaceful caretakers of the world, to express and accomplish their goals. The government often saw middle-aged women involved in such organizations as the most dangerous members of the opposition movement because they were ordinary citizens who quickly and efficiently mobilized.[17]

Many women in America sympathized with the Vietnamese civilians affected by the war and joined the opposition movement. They protested the use of napalm, a highly flammable jelly weapon created by Dow Chemical Company and used as a weapon during the war, by boycotting Saran Wrap, another product made by the company.[18]

Faced with the sexism sometimes found in the antiwar movement, New Left, and Civil Rights Movement, some women created their own organizations to establish true equality of the sexes. Some of frustrations of younger women became apparent during the antiwar movement: they desired more radical change and decreased acceptance of societal gender roles than older women activists.[19] Female activists' disillusion with the antiwar movement led to the formation of the Women's Liberation Movement to establish true equality for American women in all facets of life.[20]

African Americans

Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to an anti-Vietnam War rally at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul on April 27, 1967

African Americans were often involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Muhammad Ali were prominent opponents of the Vietnam War, and the Black Panther Party vehemently opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam.[21] In the beginning of the war, some African Americans did not want to join the war opposition movement because of loyalty to President Johnson for pushing Civil Rights legislation, but soon the escalating violence of the war and the perceived social injustice of the draft propelled involvement in antiwar groups.[21] Black antiwar groups opposed the war for the same reason as white groups, but often protested in separate events and did not cooperate with the ideas of white antiwar leadership.[21] They harshly criticized the draft because poor and minority men were usually most affected by conscription[22] although the Washington Post in a 1986 in depth examination of who actually fought the Vietnam War entitled "The Myth of the Vietnam Vet" contradicted this assertion. According to the Post, "The man who fought in Vietnam is typically depicted as a draftee, unwilling and probably black. In fact, 73 percent of those who died were volunteers and 12.5 percent were black (out of an age group that comprised 13.5 percent of the male population)."[23] African Americans involved in the antiwar movement often formed their own groups, such as Black Women Enraged, National Black Anti-War Anti-Draft Union, and National Black Draft Counselors. Within these groups, however, many African American women were seen as subordinate members by black male leaders.[24] Many African American women viewed the war in Vietnam as racially motivated and sympathized strongly with Vietnamese women.[25] Such concerns often propelled their participation in the antiwar movement and their creation of new opposition groups.


The clergy, often a forgotten group during the opposition to the Vietnam War, played a large role as well. The clergy covered any of the religious leaders and members including individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. In his speech "Beyond Vietnam" King stated, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."[26] King was not looking for racial equality through this speech, but tried to voice for an end to the war instead.

The involvement of the clergy did not stop at King though. The analysis entitled "Social Movement Participation: Clergy and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement" expands upon the anti-war movement by taking King, a single religious figurehead, and explaining the movement from the entire clergy's perspective. The clergy were often forgotten though throughout this opposition. The analysis refers to that fact by saying, "The research concerning clergy anti-war participation is even more barren than the literature on student activism." [27] There is a relationship and correlation between theology and political opinions and during the Vietnam War, the same relationship occurred between feelings about the war and theology.[28] This article basically was a social experiment finding results on how the pastors and clergy members reacted to the war. Based on the results found, they most certainly did not believe in the war and wished to help end it.

Another source, Lift Up Your Voice Like A Trumpet: White Clergy And The Civil Rights And Antiwar Movements, 1954–1973 explains the story of the entire spectrum of the clergy and their involvement. Michael Freidland is able to completely tell the story in his chapter entitled, "A Voice of Moderation: Clergy and the Anti-War Movement: 1966–1967". In basic summary, each specific clergy from each religion had their own view of the war and how they dealt with it, but as a whole, the clergy was completely against the war.[29]



Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; the Big Fool said to push on.
Pete Seeger, 1963/1967
Cornelis Vreeswijk, Fred Åkerström, Gösta Cervin in a protest march against the Vietnam War in Stockholm, 1965

Protest to American participation in the Vietnam War was a movement that many popular musicians appropriated, which was a stark contrast to the pro-war compositions of artists during World War II.[41] These musicians included Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Lou Harrison, Gail Kubik, William Mayer, Elie Siegmeister, Robert Fink, David Noon, Richard Wernick, and John W. Downey.[42] The two most notable genres involved in this protest were Rock and Roll and Folk music. While composers created pieces affronting the war, they were not limited to their music. Often protesters were being arrested and participating in peace marches and popular musicians were among their ranks.[43] This concept of intimate involvement reached new heights in May 1968 when the "Composers and Musicians for Peace" concert was staged in New York. As the war continued, and with the new media coverage, the movement snowballed and popular music reflected this. As early as the summer of 1965, music-based protest against the American involvement in Southeast Asia began with works like P. F. Sloan's folk rock song Eve of Destruction, recorded by Barry McGuire as one of the earliest musical protests against the Vietnam War.

A key figure on the rock end of the antiwar spectrum was Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970). Hendrix had a huge following among the youth culture exploring itself through drugs and experiencing itself through rock music. He was not an official protestor of the war; one of Hendrix's biographers contends that Hendrix, being a former soldier, sympathized with the anticommunist view.[44] He did, however, protest the violence that took place in the Vietnam War. With the song "Machine Gun", dedicated to those fighting in Vietnam, this protest of violence is manifest. David Henderson, author of 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, describes the song as "scary funk […] his sound over the drone shifts from a woman's scream, to a siren, to a fighter plane diving, all amid Buddy Miles' Gatling-gun snare shots. […] he says 'evil man make me kill you […] make you kill me although we're only families apart.'"[45] This song was often accompanied with pleas from Hendrix to bring the soldiers back home and cease the bloodshed.[46] While Hendrix's views may not have been analogous to the protestors, his songs became anthems to the antiwar movement. Songs such as "Star Spangled Banner" showed individuals that "you can love your country, but hate the government."[47] Hendrix's anti-violence efforts are summed up in his words: "when the power of love overcomes the love of power... the world will know peace." Thus, Hendrix's personal views did not coincide perfectly with those of the antiwar protestors; however, his anti-violence outlook was a driving force during the years of the Vietnam War even after his death (1970).

The song known to many as the anthem of the protest movement was The "Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag—first released on an EP in the October 1965 issue of Rag Baby—by Country Joe and the Fish,[48] one of the most successful protest bands. Although this song was not on music charts probably because it was too radical, it was performed at many public events including the famous Woodstock music festival. "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" was a song that used sarcasm to communicate the problems with not only the war but also the public's naïve attitudes towards it. It was said that "the happy beat and insouciance of the vocalist are in odd juxtaposition to the lyrics that reinforce the sad fact that the American public was being forced into realizing that Vietnam was no longer a remote place on the other side of the world, and the damage it was doing to the country could no longer be considered collateral, involving someone else."[49]

Along with singer/songwriter Phil Ochs, who attended and organized anti-war events and wrote such songs as "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "The War Is Over", another key historical figure of the antiwar movement was Bob Dylan. Folk and Rock were critical aspects of counterculture during the Vietnam War[50] both were genres that Dylan would dabble in. His success in writing protest songs came from his pre-existing popularity, as he did not initially intend on doing so. Tor Egil Førland, in his article "Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist", quotes Todd Gitlin, a leader of a student movement at the time, in saying "Whether he liked it or not, Dylan sang for us.... We followed his career as if he were singing our songs."[51] The anthem "Blowin' in the Wind" embodied Dylan's anti-war, pro-civil rights sentiment. To complement "Blowin' in the Wind" Dylan's song "The Times they are A-Changin'" alludes to a new method of governing that is necessary and warns those who currently participate in government that the change is imminent. Dylan tells the "senators and congressmen [to] please heed the call." Dylan's songs were designed to awaken the public and to cause a reaction. The protestors of the Vietnam War identified their cause so closely with the artistic compositions of Dylan that Joan Baez and Judy Collins performed "The Times they are A-Changin'" at a march protesting the Vietnam War (1965) and also for President Johnson.[51] While Dylan renounced the idea of subscribing to the ideals of one individual, his feelings of protest towards Vietnam were appropriated by the general movement and they "awaited his gnomic yet oracular pronouncements", which provided a guiding aspect to the movement as a whole.[52]

John Lennon, former member of the Beatles, did most of his activism in his solo career with wife Yoko Ono. Given his immense fame due to the success of the Beatles, he was a very prominent movement figure with the constant media and press attention. Still being proactive on their honeymoon, the newlyweds controversially held a sit-in, where they sat in bed for a week answering press questions. They held numerous sit-ins, one where they first introduced their song "Give Peace a Chance". Lennon and Ono's song overshadowed many previous held anthems, as it became known as the ultimate anthem of peace in the 1970s, with their words "all we are saying… is give peace a chance" being sung globally. "[McCormick, Anita Louise. The Vietnam Antiwar Movement in American History. Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow, 2000. Print.]"

Thus, the forces of Rock and Roll and Folk music were critical in the guidance of the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 70s in the United States. Icons such as Baez, Hendrix, and Dylan provided the movement with direction, which was conducive to a feeling of solidarity necessary in a movement originating from the people.


Gruesome images of two anti-war activists who set themselves on fire in November 1965 provided iconic images of how strongly some people felt that the war was immoral. On November 2, 32-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison set himself on fire in front of The Pentagon. On November 9, 22-year-old Catholic Worker Movement member Roger Allen LaPorte did the same in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Both protests were conscious imitations of earlier (and ongoing) Buddhist protests in South Vietnam.

1967 Anti-Vietnam War demonstration at The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia

Protests against the Vietnam War took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The protests were part of a movement in opposition to the Vietnam War and took place mainly in the United States. (See also Students for a Democratic Society, Free Speech Movement, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Youth International Party, Chicago Seven.)

The growing anti-war movement alarmed many in the U.S. government. On August 16, 1966 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigations of Americans who were suspected of aiding the NLF, with the intent to introduce legislation making these activities illegal. Anti-war demonstrators disrupted the meeting and 50 were arrested.

In February 1967, The New York Review of Books published "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", an essay by Noam Chomsky, one of the leading intellectual opponents of the war. In the essay Chomsky argued that much responsibility for the war lay with liberal intellectuals and technical experts who were providing what he saw as pseudoscientific justification for the policies of the U.S. government.

On February 1, 1968, Nguyễn Văn Lém, an NLF officer suspected of participating in the Huế massacre, was summarily executed by General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, a South Vietnamese National Police Chief. Loan shot Lém in the head on a public street in front of journalists. South Vietnamese reports provided as justification after the fact claimed that Lém was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of General Loan's deputy and close friend. The execution was filmed and photographed during the Tet Offensive and provided an iconic image that helped sway public opinion in the United States against the war.

The events of Tet in early 1968 as a whole were also remarkable in shifting public opinion regarding the war. U.S. military officials had previously reported that counter-insurgency in South Vietnam was being prosecuted successfully. While the Tet Offensive provided the U.S. and allied militaries with a great victory in that the Viet Cong was finally brought into open battle and destroyed as a fighting force, the American media, including respected figures such as Walter Cronkite, interpreted such events as the attack on the American embassy in Saigon as an indicator of U.S. military weakness.[53] The military victories on the battlefields of Tet were obscured by shocking images of violence on television screens, long casualty lists, and a new perception among the American people that the military had been untruthful to them about the success of earlier military operations, and ultimately, the ability to achieve a meaningful military solution in Vietnam.

On October 15, 1969, hundreds of thousands of people took part in National Moratorium anti-war demonstrations across the United States; the demonstrations prompted many workers to call in sick from their jobs and adolescents nationwide engaged in truancy from school. However, the proportion of individuals doing either who actually participated in the demonstrations is uncertain. A second round of "Moratorium" demonstrations was held on November 15, but was less well-attended.

The My Lai massacre was used as an example of bad military conduct during the Vietnam War.

The U.S. realized that the South Vietnamese government needed a solid base of popular support if it were to survive the insurgency. To pursue this goal of winning the "Hearts and Minds" of the Vietnamese people, units of the United States Army, referred to as "Civil Affairs" units, were used extensively for the first time since World War II.

Civil Affairs units, while remaining armed and under direct military control, engaged in what came to be known as "nation-building": constructing (or reconstructing) schools, public buildings, roads and other infrastructure; conducting medical programs for civilians who had no access to medical facilities; facilitating cooperation among local civilian leaders; conducting hygiene and other training for civilians; and similar activities.

This policy of attempting to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, however, often was at odds with other aspects of the war which sometimes served to antagonize many Vietnamese civilians and provided ammunition to the anti-war movement. These included the emphasis on "body count" as a way of measuring military success on the battlefield, civilian casualties during the bombing of villages (symbolized by journalist Peter Arnett's famous quote, "it was necessary to destroy the village to save it"), and the killing of civilians in such incidents as the My Lai massacre. In 1974 the documentary Hearts and Minds sought to portray the devastation the war was causing to the South Vietnamese people, and won an Academy Award for best documentary amid considerable controversy. The South Vietnamese government also antagonized many of its citizens with its suppression of political opposition, through such measures as holding large numbers of political prisoners, torturing political opponents, and holding a one-man election for President in 1971. Covert counter-terror programs and semi-covert ones such as the Phoenix Program attempted, with the help of anthropologists, to isolate rural South Vietnamese villages and affect the loyalty of the residents.

This man wears a Purple Heart medal as he watches a San Francisco peace march, April 1967.

Despite the increasingly depressing news of the war, many Americans continued to support President Johnson's endeavors. Aside from the domino theory mentioned above, there was a feeling that the goal of preventing a communist takeover of a pro-Western government in South Vietnam was a noble objective. Many Americans were also concerned about saving face in the event of disengaging from the war or, as President Richard M. Nixon later put it, "achieving Peace with Honor." In addition, instances of Viet Cong atrocities were widely reported, most notably in an article that appeared in Reader's Digest in 1968 entitled The Blood-Red Hands of Ho Chi Minh.

However, anti-war feelings also began to rise. Many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, opposed by the devastation and violence of the war. Others claimed the conflict was a war against Vietnamese independence, or an intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable. Many anti-war activists were themselves Vietnam veterans, as evidenced by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In April 1971, thousands of these veterans converged on the White House in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of them threw their medals and decorations on the steps of the United States Capitol. By this time, it had also become commonplace for the most radical anti-war demonstrators to prominently display the flag of the Viet Cong "enemy", an act which alienated many who were otherwise morally opposed to the war.

Political factors

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson began his re-election campaign. Eugene McCarthy ran against him for the nomination on an anti-war platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Negotiations with Vietnam in that speech. Then, on August 4, 1969, U.S. representative Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese representative Xuan Thuy began secret peace negotiations at the apartment of French intermediary Jean Sainteny in Paris.

After breaking with Johnson's pro-war stance, Robert F. Kennedy entered the race on March 16 and ran for the nomination on an anti-war platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination, promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.


Students demonstrate in Saigon, July 1964, observing the tenth anniversary of the July 1954 Geneva Agreements.
Anti-Vietnam War protest. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 1968.
Anti-Vietnam War protest. Vancouver, B.C., Canada. 1968

Protests bringing attention to "the draft" began on May 5, 1965. Student activists at the University of California, Berkeley marched on the Berkeley Draft board and forty students staged the first public burning of a draft card in the United States. Another nineteen cards were burnt May 22 at a demonstration following the Berkeley teach-in.[54] Draft card protests were not aimed so much at the draft as at the immoral conduct of the war.[55]

At that time, only a fraction of all men of draft age were actually conscripted, but the Selective Service System office ("Draft Board") in each locality had broad discretion on whom to draft and whom to exempt where there was no clear guideline for exemption. In late July 1965, Johnson doubled the number of young men to be drafted per month from 17,000 to 35,000, and on August 31, signed a law making it a crime to burn a draft card.

On October 15, 1965 the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam in New York staged the first draft card burning to result in an arrest under the new law.

In 1967, the continued operation of a seemingly unfair draft system then calling as many as 40,000 men for induction each month fueled a burgeoning draft resistance movement. The draft favored white, middle-class men, which allowed an economically and racially discriminating draft to force young African American men to serve in rates that were disproportionately higher than the general population. Although in 1967 there was a smaller field of draft eligible black men–29 percent versus 63 percent of draft eligible white men–64 percent of black men were chosen to serve in the war through conscription, compared to only 31 percent of eligible white men.[56] On October 16, 1967, draft card turn-ins were held across the country, yielding more than 1,000 draft cards, later returned to the Justice Department as an act of civil disobedience. Resisters expected to be prosecuted immediately, but Attorney General Ramsey Clark instead prosecuted a group of ringleaders including Dr. Benjamin Spock and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr. in Boston in 1968. By the late 1960s, one quarter of all court cases dealt with the draft, including men accused of draft-dodging and men petitioning for the status of conscientious objector.[57] Over 210,000 men were accused of draft-related offenses, 25,000 of whom were indicted.[58]

The charges of unfairness led to the institution of a draft lottery for the year 1970 in which a young man's birthday determined his relative risk of being drafted (September 14 was the birthday at the top of the draft list for 1970; the following year July 9 held this distinction).

The first draft lottery since World War II in the United States was held on 1 December 1969 and was met with large protests and a great deal of controversy; statistical analysis indicated that the methodology of the lotteries unintentionally disadvantaged men with late year birthdays.[59] This issue was treated at length in a January 4, 1970 New York Times article titled "Statisticians Charge Draft Lottery Was Not Random".

Various antiwar groups, such as Another Mother for Peace, WILPF, and WSP, had free draft counseling centers, where they gave young American men advice for legally and illegally evading the draft.

Over 30,000 people left the country and went to Canada, Sweden, and Mexico to avoid the draft.[58] The Japanese anti-war group Beheiren helped some American soldiers to desert and hide from the military in Japan.[60] To gain an exemption or deferment, many men attended college, though they had to remain in college until their 26th birthday to be certain of avoiding the draft. Some men were rejected by the military as 4-F unfit for service failing to meet physical, mental, or moral standards. Still others joined the National Guard or entered the Peace Corps as a way of avoiding Vietnam. All of these issues raised concerns about the fairness of who got selected for involuntary service, since it was often the poor or those without connections who were drafted. Ironically, in light of modern political issues, a certain exemption was a convincing claim of homosexuality, but very few men attempted this because of the stigma involved. Also, conviction for certain crimes earned an exclusion, the topic of the anti-war song "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie.

Even many of those who never received a deferment or exemption never served, simply because the pool of eligible men was so huge compared to the number required for service, that the draft boards never got around to drafting them when a new crop of men became available (until 1969) or because they had high lottery numbers (1970 and later).

Of those soldiers who served during the war, there was increasing opposition to the conflict amongst GIs,[61] which resulted in fragging and many other activities which hampered the US's ability to wage war effectively.

Most of those subjected to the draft were too young to vote or drink in most states, and the image of young people being forced to risk their lives in the military without the privileges of enfranchisement or the ability to drink alcohol legally also successfully pressured legislators to lower the voting age nationally and the drinking age in many states.

Student opposition groups on many college and university campuses seized campus administration offices, and in several instances forced the expulsion of ROTC programs from the campus.

Some Americans who were not subject to the draft protested the conscription of their tax dollars for the war effort. War tax resistance, once mostly isolated to solitary anarchists like Henry David Thoreau and religious pacifists like the Quakers, became a more mainstream protest tactic. As of 1972, an estimated 200,000–500,000 people were refusing to pay the excise taxes on their telephone bills, and another 20,000 were resisting part or all of their income tax bills. Among the tax resisters were Joan Baez and Noam Chomsky.[62]


Momentum from the protest organizations became an overwhelmingly main force for the growth of an environmental movement in the United States.

Congressional hearings

(United Nations intervention)

In October 1967 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on resolutions urging President Johnson to request an emergency session of the United Nations security council to consider proposals for ending the war.[63]

Dellums (war crimes)

In January 1971, just weeks into his first term, Congressman Ron Dellums set up a Vietnam war crimes exhibit in an annex to his Congressional office. The exhibit featured four large posters depicting atrocities committed by American soldiers embellished with red paint. This was followed shortly thereafter by four days of hearings on "war crimes" in Vietnam, which began April 25. Dellums, assisted by the Citizens Commission of Inquiry,[64] had called for formal investigations into the allegations, but Congress chose not to endorse these proceedings. As such, the hearings were ad hoc and only informational in nature. As a condition of room use, press and camera presence were not permitted, but the proceedings were transcribed.

In addition to [Ron Dellums] (Dem-CA), an additional 19 Congressional representatives took part in the hearings, including: Bella Abzug (Dem-NY), Shirley Chisholm (Dem-NY), Patsy Mink (Dem-HI), Parren Mitchell (Dem-MD), John Conyers (Dem-MI), Herman Badillo (Dem-NY), James Abourezk (Dem-SD), Leo Ryan (Dem-CA), Phil Burton (Dem-CA), Don Edwards (Dem-CA), Pete McCloskey (Rep-CA), Ed Koch (Dem-NY), John Seiberling (Dem-OH), Henry Reuss (Dem-WI), Benjamin Stanley Rosenthal (Dem-NY), Robert Kastenmeier (Dem-WI), and Abner J. Mikva (Dem-IL).[64]

The transcripts describe alleged details of U.S. military's conduct in Vietnam. Some tactics were described as "gruesome", such as the severing of ears from corpses to verify body count. Others involved the killing of civilians. Soldiers claimed to have ordered artillery strikes on villages which did not appear to have any military presence. Soldiers were claimed to use racist terms such as "gooks", "dinks" and "slant eyes" when referring to the Vietnamese.

Witnesses described that legal, by-the-book instruction was augmented by more questionable training by non-commissioned officers as to how soldiers should conduct themselves. One witness testified about "free-fire zones", areas as large as 80 square miles (210 km2) in which soldiers were free to shoot any Vietnamese they encountered after curfew without first making sure they were hostile. Allegations of exaggeration of body count, torture, murder and general abuse of civilians and the psychology and motivations of soldiers and officers were discussed at length.

Fulbright (end to war)

Main article: Fulbright Hearing

In April and May 1971, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright, held a series of 22 hearings (referred to as the Fulbright Hearings) on proposals relating to ending the war. On the third day of the hearings, April 22, 1971, future Senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress in opposition to the war. Speaking on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he argued for the immediate, unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. During nearly two hours of discussions with committee members, Kerry related in some detail the findings of the Winter Soldier Investigation, in which veterans had described personally committing or witnessing atrocities and war crimes.


The opposition to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War had many effects, which led to the eventual end of the involvement of the United States. Howard Zinn, a very renowned historian, provides large amounts of evidence of the effects in the chapter, "The Impossible Victory: Vietnam" in his book, A People's History of the United States. The overall tone of the chapter and the effects to come are foreshadowed by the statement, "In the course of the war, there developed in the United States the greatest antiwar movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical role in bringing the war to an end." [65]

Fewer soldiers

The first effect the opposition had that led to the end of the war was that fewer soldiers were available for the army. The draft was protested and even ROTC programs too. Howard Zinn first provides a note written by a student of Boston University on May 1, 1968, which stated to his draft board, "I have absolutely no intention to report for that exam, or for induction, or to aid in any way the American war effort against the people of Vietnam…" [66] The opposition to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War had many effects, which led to the eventual end of the involvement of the United States.[67] This refusal letter soon led to an overflow of refusals ultimately leading to the event provided by Zinn stating, "In May 1969 the Oakland induction center, where draftees reported from all of Northern California, reported that of 4,400 men ordered to report for induction, 2,400 did not show up. In the first quarter of 1970 the Selective Service System, for the first time, could not meet its quota." [67]

The fewer amounts of soldiers as an effect of the opposition to the war also can be traced to the protests against the ROTC programs in colleges. Zinn argues this by stating, "Student protests against the ROTC resulted in the canceling of those programs in over forty colleges and universities. In 1966, 191,749 college students enrolled in ROTC. By 1973, the number was 72,459." [68] The number of ROTC students in college drastically dropped and the program lost any momentum it once had before the anti-war movement.

College campuses

A further effect of the opposition was that many college campuses were completely shut down due to protests. These protests led to wear on the government who tried to mitigate the tumultuous behavior and return the colleges back to normal. The colleges involved in the anti-war movement included ones such as, Brown University, Kent State University, and the University of Massachusetts.[66] Even at The College of William and Mary unrest occurred with protests by the students and even some faculty members that resulted in "multiple informants" hired to report to the CIA on the activities of students and faculty members.[69] At the University of Massachusetts, "The 100th Commencement of the University of Massachusetts yesterday was a protest, a call for peace", "Red fists of protest, white peace symbols, and blue doves were stenciled on black academic gowns, and nearly every other senior wore an armband representing a plea for peace." [70] Additionally, "At Boston College, a Catholic institution, six thousand people gathered that evening in the gymnasium to denounce the war." [71] At Kent State University, "on May 4, when students gathered to demonstrate against the war, National Guardsmen fired into the crowd. Four students were killed." [72] Finally, "At the Brown University commencement in 1969, two-thirds of the graduating class turned their backs when Henry Kissinger stood up to address them." [72] Basically, from all of the evidence here provided by the historians, Zinn and McCarthy, the second effect was very prevalent and it was the uproar at many colleges and universities as an effect of the opposition to the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

American soldiers

Another effect the opposition to the war had was that the American soldiers in Vietnam began to side with the opposition and feel remorse for what they were doing. Zinn argues this with an example in which the soldiers in a POW camp formed a peace committee as they wondered who the enemy of the war was, because it certainly was not known among them.[73] The statement of one of the soldiers reads, "Until we got to the first camp, we didn't see a village intact; they were all destroyed. I sat down and put myself in the middle and asked myself: Is this right or wrong? Is it right to destroy villages? Is it right to kill people en masse? After a while it just got to me." [74] Howard Zinn provides that piece of evidence to reiterate how all of this destruction and fighting against an enemy that seems to be unknown has been taking a toll on the soldiers and that they began to sense a feeling of opposition as one effect of the opposition occurring in the United States.






Universal Newsreel about peace marches in April, 1967
Mounted policemen watch a protest march in San Francisco on April 15, 1967. The San Francisco City Hall is in the background.
Vietnam War protests at the Pentagon, October 1967
Demonstrations in The Hague in the Netherlands, 1967. The placards read "USA out of Vietnam".


Olof Palme marching against the Vietnam War in Stockholm, 1968


Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in Lund, Sweden.


1971 and after

Protests against the Vietnam War in Washington D.C. on April 24, 1971

Public opinion

Public support for the war decreased as the war raged on throughout the sixties and beginning part of the 1970s.

William L. Lunch and Peter W. Sperlich collected public opinion data measuring support for the war from 1965–1971. Support for the war was measured by a negative response to the question: "In view of developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?".[111][112][113] They found the following results.

Month Percentage who agreed with war
August 1965 61%
March 1966 59%
May 1966 49%
September 1966 48%
November 1966 51%
February 1967 52%
May 1967 50%
July 1967 48%
October 1967 46%
December 1967 48%
February 1968 42%
March 1968 41%
April 1968 40%
August 1968 35%
October 1968 37%
February 1969 39%
October 1969 32%
January 1970 33%
April 1970 34%
May 1970 36%
January 1971 31%
May 1971 28%

After May 1971 Gallup stopped asking this question.

Slogans and chants

See also


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