Radical and liberal protest against US involvement in Vietnam
“Wednesday October 15 witnessed a vast outpouring of antiwar activism—there were memorial services, all-night vigils, noisy rallies, teach-ins and moments of quiet reflection, and other activities across the nation. […] In New York City, Mayor John Lindsay offered his support, ordering that flags on city buildings be flown at half-mast and church bells tolled to remember those Americans killed in Vietnam, and addressing numerous antiwar gatherings […].” 1
Compared to the small-scale beginnings of the movement against US involvement in the war in Vietnam around 1965, the lively description given above of the so-called Vietnam Moratorium Protests in 1969 seems surprising. At that point in the history of the movement one thing had become clear: There had been a significant, yet not gradual shift from unsettled, radical forms of protest towards a broad mainstream movement. Interestingly, the changes in protest strategy correlate with turns of public opinion and White House decisions. This peculiarity leads, among many others of course, to one important question: How strong was the impact of the anti-Vietnam war movement on US government policies after 1968?
When elaborating on the protest’s direct impact on putting an end to US involvement in Vietnam, it is necessary to discuss whether the presidents‘ decisions were influenced by public domestic pressure and if so, to what extent. To this end, the first part of this paper will give an overview of the development of protests and public opinion. After examining strengths and weaknesses of the protest, the impact on the political decisions made by presidents Johnson and Nixon will become clear in a concluding section.
Origins and turning points of the movement
After having declared Vietnam an independent state after World War II, the communist Viet Minh movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh faced colonial reoccupation attempts by France. When China became involved however, this war – known as the First Indochina War – transformed into another location of geopolitical aggression between West and East. After a decisive defeat of the French in 1954, the involved powers, gathering at the Geneva Conference, agreed upon one major territorial consequence: Vietnam would be provisionally split between the Viet Minh-dominated North and a Western-supported area in the South. Furthermore, the Geneva Agreements included free elections for a national government in Vietnam as well as a prohibition of foreign military intervention.
Nevertheless, the United States did not sign the agreements. Instead, with president Kennedy, they supported and helped establishing the presidency of Catholic anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem, who would become the authoritarian leader of South Vietnam. In 1963, the US decided to refrain from substantially supporting Diem. Partly funded by CIA collaborators and agreed upon by president Kennedy, a military coup led to the assassination of Diem – only three weeks before the assassination of Kennedy. A military junta would replace the government and sustain with the support of the US until 1975.
Under Johnson, initial indecisiveness turned into an escalation of US military involvement. In 1964, one critical resolution was passed: In response to an alleged naval attack from North Vietnam on a US fleet (the validity of which is not clear until today), the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution justified military support against communist powers. It was to become the “only congressional authorization for the war” in Vietnam2. In a public address explaining the Tonkin decision, Johnson however negated any intention of an extensive war. He “lied to the American people”3: Throughout the year, Johnson increased the number of military personnel drastically from 16,000 under Kennedy to about 23,000 by the end of 19644.
Students of leading universities, politically involved in the heated debates of the time, were the first to respond critically to the emergence of a new war. One of its most important organs, the “Students for a Democratic Society” unified students across the nation and, together with several other groups, organised teach-ins: Large-scale gatherings of professors and students attending lectures and speeches on the Vietnam involvement, problematic implications and forms of protest. They were massive “forums of opinion and information”5, the largest attended by 30,000 students and professors6. As first major expression of dissent, these events “helped to make the war a national issue” and hence “put the government on the defensive”7. President Johnson reacted with determination, stating in a 1965 speech that the troops “will not be defeated”8. This appealed very much to the majority of US citizens, who not only struggled with energetic 60’s movements but also strongly believed in the necessity to defend democracy in the fight against a global communist threat. In that same sense, Johnson, in line with his predecessors, saw the Vietnam conflict merely as the “new face of an old enemy”9. In this same year, the president authorised the use of Napalm on the battlefield in Vietnam10.
In a larger attempt on April 17, 1965, the SDS organised a more successful antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., with “up to 25,000” people participating11. According to historian Simon Hall, internal dispute in the aftermath of this event led to the fragmentation of the SDS, neglecting an opportunity to unify the protest12. Regardless of its ineffectiveness though, the demonstration allowed criticism to be addressed in front of a large audience. Paul Potter, president of the SDS, held a speech including what would become the most prevalent arguments and rhetoric of the antiwar movement. In a quite direct and very critical manner for the time, he therein called the US involvement “self-righteous moralism” and even “cultural genocide”13, but also explained the war as part of a “larger pattern of destruction”14. It was therefore perceived as a “failure of democracy”15, an immanently structural error – a radical point of view not so helpful for establishing a positive relationship with the mainstream. For many Americans, Potter’s speech with its offensive tone only supported the existing bias against the protesters as leftist agitators and trouble-makers. Two self-immolations in front of government buildings additionally stabilised that image.. According to a Gallup poll from August 1965, 61% of the population did not consider the US involvement a mistake. Still, the movement did not give up and held another demonstration in November with 30,000 people taking part16.
In 1966, as one of the first to undermine the Cold War consensus, Senator J. William Fulbright initiated a series of hearings on the Vietnam war, the first couple of which were entirely broadcast on television. Although thereby scepticism and debate became more widespread and slowly began to enter Congress, conservative wings proved to dominate the political stage17. In addition to that, two self-Simultaneously, participation in several demonstrations continued to grow, with numbers such as 50,000 in a New York march18 – a precursor of 1967, a year that changed the dynamics of the antiwar movement entirely.
The Vietnam discourse had gradually become a day-to-day issue – a development at least in parts owed to constant, yet relatively uncritical media presence. Although historians agree that up to 1968 most of the mass media “mainly parroted government reports”19, television, having made news broadcasting possible on a massive scale, made the war a “living room war”20. Simultaneously, more and more parts of the society began to get involved. Black civil rights groups, still somehow excluded by the educated middle-class which dominated the antiwar movement, organised their own demonstrations. In Harlem, protesters used slogans such as “No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger”21, emphasising the paradoxicality of black soldiers having to fight for a freedom they did not fully experience in their own country. Even Martin Luther King, not having taken a clear position before, raised his voice in April 1967, charging the government with “deadly Western arrogance” and the soldiers with putting Vietnamese suspects in “concentration camps”22. Here again, one of the movement’s flaws becomes visible: Aggressive rhetoric. Criticising a flat comparison with Nazi Germany, the press destroyed the effect King’s speech could have had on public opinion.
1967 was decisive in several ways. Not only, as explained, did the movement’s diversity grow, but it also assumed massive dimensions and made use of a variety of creative forms of raising attention. Right after Martin Luther King’s speech, a broad campaign which would become known as the “Spring Mobilisation” began. In San Francisco, 75,000 people attended a march, whilst in New York with 400,000 participants “the biggest demonstration in US history”23 took place. After having achieved this amount of success, the movement was more energised than ever before. “Vietnam Summer” was the name of widespread antiwar activism in neighbourhoods: Volunteers would go from house to house with the aim of mobilising the passive, yet so critical masses of the people24.
Approaching the end of the year, the antiwar movement would hit the mark one more time. In October, 100,000 demonstrators marched on the Pentagon – it was one of the rare moments of unity in the movement, as radicals, liberals, blacks, feminists and even veterans marched side by side. Although it began peacefully, radical excesses led to “683 arrests”25. Nevertheless, most historians agree that it was “a huge success”26 for the movement and a shock for the Johnson administration27. Although it did not compare to the masses present in the “Spring Mobilisation”, it received a lot more attention also internationally, happening at the peak of success of antiwar protests. Most importantly, as a result it appeared urgent to president Johnson to make an effort in convincing the public of a strategically successful, US-controlled war. Subsequently, this strong display of confidence would make the 1968 public shock an even more fatal one.
In January 1968, a series of events taking place in Vietnam turned out to change the outlook of the movement profoundly. On lunar New Year, a holiday known in South-East Asia as “Tet”, North Vietnamese troops launched surprise attacks on South Vietnamese targets. The initial loss of control on the side of South Vietnam and the US was followed by a counterstrike and ended with a tactical defeat of the communists. The surprise and shock of the Tet Offensive, however, caused uncertainty among the American public – contrasting the optimism, confidence and determination the Johnson administration had signalled so far. The president slipped into a severe crisis which he would not manage to recover from. During 1968, 14,314 US soldiers had lost their lives in the battlefield while financial expenses constantly increased. These reasons led to a strong decrease in public support of the president’s policies regarding Vietnam. Gallup polls on the percentage of people supporting the US involvement in Vietnam now reported only 39% in February and 32% in October – a crass contrast to 46% in December 1967. Clearly, president Johnson had lost a critical number of supporters. Facing this, together with growing dissent, in March he held a remarkable speech on “Steps To Limit the War in Vietnam”. Therein, somewhat “desperate for an honorable way out of the war”28, he announced an intention to minimise military involvement and to seek peace. Also, he decided not to run for office again in the upcoming presidential elections. The president tried to make this step as compromising as possible, claiming both “to seek an honorable peace” and “to defend an honored cause […] whatever the sacrifice that duty may require”29.
Although the impact of the antiwar movement seems striking in this context, some historians have come to less dramatic conclusions. John E. Mueller, for instance, is convinced that “Vietnam had no independent impact on President Johnson’s popularity” which was instead, by and large, affected by “a general overall downward trend”30. Accordingly, the Vietnam events only peripherally contributed, along with other major issues such as Johnson’s social policies, to his political withdrawal.
While public opinion began to align more and more with the criticism, the protest movement itself however fell victim to its big problem of internal disunity. Arguments around strategy, forms and organisation of protest were about to weaken future efforts. Groups of Yippies – members of the radical libertarian Youth International Party – protesting wildly and chaotically in August 1968 in Chicago contributed to a negative medial perception of the entire movement. Most historians agree that during this period, the anti-war movement became increasingly alienated and isolated from the political and societal mainstream31, being perceived as unpatriotic32 and too radical to be taken serious. By 1969, surveys showed that 69% of the population believed the protesters to be “harmful to American life”33.
This interesting turn in public opinion and in the movement took another peculiar turn in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. After Johnson’s withdrawal, Democrats running for presidential elections tried to gain votes by opposing the war. The 1968 campaigns of candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in particular had managed to appeal to the more liberal elements of the protest. While in the meantime factionism had destroyed the once so important SDS, by 1969 the liberal wing of the antiwar movement felt “energized”34. As in the same year Nixon became the new president of the United States, it had become inevitable for the pacifists to find new ways of achieving their goals if it was not to die out. Factionism had affected it costly enough, and Nixon did not show any intention to de-escalate the war in near time. Instead, he successfully relaxed domestic tensions by introducing the plan of “Vietnamization”, consisting of a successive withdrawal of American troops accompanied by an increase in support of the South Vietnamese military35. Still, the protests succeeded in transforming from a revolutionary into a liberal movement, whereby its public image was reinvented step by step.
Especially in the newly founded Vietnam Moratorium Committee the strategic attempt of “politics of respectability”36, manifested in shifting language and activities towards a more liberal and hence more communicable realm, showed a clear abandonment of the radical and even violent excesses practised before. On October 15, 1969, the National Moratorium proved this to be a more fruitful approach: Across the country and abroad, “an estimated two million Americans”37 went on the streets against the war in Vietnam. The Nixon administration reacted not only with repression and ignorance, but also with disappointment. With “Operation Duck Hook”, a nuclear bombing plan used to put pressure on the North Vietnamese representatives during negotiations, he had planned a new escalation of the conflict which he could now, risking public support, not put into practise anymore38. This moment in the development of the antiwar movement is widely considered to have produced another “significant impact” on “American foreign policy”39.
Reacting directly on this impact, in November Nixon held a public speech in which he stressed the importance on defending the “credibility” of US troops in Vietnam – a consideration which, according to him, made the protesters‘ main claim, an immediate withdrawal, impossible40. In turn, the movement reacted with another huge mobilisation in the same month. The famous “March Against Death”, a rally full of “incredible emotion”41 was supported by 300,000 participants. Nevertheless, Nixon’s line of argument got the upper hand among public opinion: The prospect of a “Vietnamization” of the conflict along with the importance of US credibility convinced, according to Gallup, an overwhelming majority of 65% – also stressing, as completely opposed to a majority of 69% of students defending a dovish position, a wide generational gap within American society between spirited students and cautiously scared, patriotic seniors.
Understandably, the absence of any positive political response to the massive demonstrations of 1969 left many dissenters disillusioned. In Spring 1970 however Nixon, maybe too confident of having calmed down his domestic opponents, began to gradually intensify confrontations with North Vietnam by invading Cambodia, officially neutral territory, where North Vietnamese forces had hidden. Students all over the United States reacted with new protests, strikes and more teach-ins. When at Kent State University, Ohio, protests ended with four students shot by National Guards, an “explosion of anger and protest on the nation’s university campuses”42 changed the course of the antiwar movement once again. Ten days later, this was intensified by two more protesters killed at Jackson State University43. Public opinion was reaffirmed in its belief that the revolting students did nothing but bring the war home. In spite of the fact that actually the police had shot protesters, not the other way round, the brutal pictures of violent conflict on US campuses made the gradual alienation of radical protest complete. Once again it had become evident that if any, only the liberal stream of the movement had the opportunity to actually influence the course of politics.
Consequently, the more respectable ways of protesting were expanded to another degree. After the Mexican American community had their own Moratorium by the end of 1970, now another group began to intensify its involvement: Veterans, who had actually fought in Vietnam and brought their very own perspective home. Some of them had united as “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” (VVAW) and protested creatively, but also closely tied to politics. In January 1971, they organised the so-called “Winter Soldier Investigation”, public hearings of veterans reporting on war crimes committed in Vietnam. In April, some 800 veterans threw their medals and decorations in a symbolic act on the steps of the Capitol. Additionally, many of the veterans were interrogated in Senate hearings organised by Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright. The protest had gone a long way from its radical origins to more liberal attempts of gaining public support to Congress debate.
Until 1973, number and dimension of protests had decreased significantly. Reduced to only sporadic, small-scale events such as Joan Baez‘ “Ring Around Congress” in 197244, the impulsive protest had lost momentum. However, its sustained core did not give up and went on with demonstrations and rallies every now and then. Moreover, public opinion meanwhile “had turned overwhelmingly against the war in Vietnam”45 – the invasion of Cambodia had an obvious impact on the people, who began to distrust their government. With the ongoing escalations of the war, public belief in “Vietnamization” decreased.
Paralleling these changes, Nixon still managed to approach his goal of “peace with honour”. First, he had ordered one last strike with the 1972 “Christmas bombing” against North Vietnam46. Second, the Paris peace talks reached more and more agreement between the US, the South Vietnamese government and a provisional government set up by North Vietnam. Ultimately, the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 declared ceasefire and an end to US involvement. Nixon signed this under the pressure of domestic discontent, which in addition was “made easier by the erosion of Richard Nixon’s authority as the Watergate conspiracy began to unravel”47. The Paris Peace Accords however did not put an end to the conflict in Vietnam. After Nixon resigned in 1974 in the context of the Watergate affair, it would still last until 1975, when Saigon fell and the North Vietnamese achieved victory. On May 11, 1975, 50,000 people gathered in New York’s Central Park, declaring “The War Is Over”48.
Strengths, weaknesses and impact of the movement
As has become clear by unravelling the various turns of the antiwar movement, it had some strengths which were always somehow under the danger of turning into weaknesses. Its diversity made it big, but fragmented, for instance they never “established a single directing organization”49. Racial, social and generational segregations of the 1960’s affected it to a considerable extent. Its creative forms of protesting – teach-ins, demonstrations, rallies, hearings, even camps – made it colourful, but easy to marginalise as chaotic and radical. Moreover, it was constantly confronted with the charge of being unpatriotic50 in its systematic criticism of government and democracy. This undoubtedly alienated it from mainstream – more than once, as the course of events above has shown. By and large, it can be concluded that its biggest strength was its impressive relentlessness, never being shut down by governmental repression, public disagreement or even brutality such as the 1970 killings.
Coming back to the initial question asked: How strong was the impact of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the end? The detailed analysis of the several events, protests and reactions of the administration allow three major conclusions.
First, the 1968 March on the Pentagon together with the shock caused by the Tet Offensive contributed to the decision of president Johnson not to run for office again. Later on, the National Moratorium in 1969 kept Nixon quite directly from implementing “Operation Duck Hook”. Also, as some historians point out, Watergate was “related to Nixon’s attempt to crush the movement”51 and therefore must also be considered an indirect impact of the movement itself. All in all, these two moments of protest of 1968 and 1969 affected US policies to a considerable extent. However, it has to be taken into account that they paralleled events of the war (the Tet Offensive) and changes in politics (the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns), so the effects cannot be seen as directly and solely linked to the antiwar movement.
Second, the great divergence between the movement and public opinion has to be pointed out as a main cause of confusion. Although the protesters seem to have had an impact on US foreign policy, they did not bring the war to an end. This was only possible with a general dissent among the majority of the American people – and the movement, consisting of several small and big, but always minor factions, did never find a way to merge with the people. As historians DeBenedetti and Chatfield put it, most “people consistently resented” the protesters, but “increasingly agreed” with their criticism52. They also come to the conclusion that both presidents Johnson and Nixon “adapted their policies to pressure from dissenters” and that the movement contributed to a general “war-weariness” by creating “domestic disunity”53. This war-weariness is perhaps one of the main reasons why the war came to an end. Lives and money paid to the war up to incredible amounts as well as ongoing disputes between movement, media and public opinion made the war an issue the people grew weary of. Many historians agree on this interpretation; Small adds that “it was clear” that the Americans at some point would become tired of the “costly involvement”54.
Third, what implications do these conclusions have? Being a relatively recent case of massive domestic protests against the war involvement of the own government, one crucial lesson can be learned. In the United States, radical protest against the involvement in Vietnam has heated the debate, but did make the arguments heard by the government. Only when the movement turned towards more liberal attempts such as made during the “Vietnam Summer” in 1967 or by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee in 1969, it could increase its impacts. Interestingly, these particular parts of the movement were those which contributed to the two periods of major influence on US administration decisions. These findings can and should stimulate a debate on current protest movements, especially concerning their acceptability within the political mainstream.
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