There have been many antiwar movements in America, but the protest that surfaced in response to the Vietnam War was unique. It started small and grew steadily, feeding on the energy and idealism of the young, the experience of the old, and the notoriety it gained through the media. It was inspired by the music of the time, which was in turn inspired by the movement itself. The anti-war effort was also torn by internal divisions, as groups within the movement clashed over goals, and whether the campaign to end the Vietnam War should also include a campaign to change American society. In the end, those disputes may have hampered the movement's efforts to complete its mission, ending it before the war itself came to an end.
The first public stirrings of the Vietnam antiwar movement gained national attention in the spring of 1965, when about 10,000 protesters converged on Washington, D.C. Participants at the time included veterans of the earlier movement to ban the atomic bomb, activists engaged in the civil rights movement, and folk musicians. Also present at the gathering were members
of a new group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Founded in 1962 by Al Haber and Tom Hayden, SDS initially focused on the Cold War and civil rights before making Vietnam its principal cause. In time SDS would become a key player in the antiwar movement, with chapters on hundreds of college campuses and a visible presence in the planning and execution of most demonstrations.
In 1965 American involvement in Vietnam was still limited, so most Americans ignored the protest and the protesters. But as the level of U.S. involvement increased in terms of both money and manpower, the size and intensity of the antiwar movement kept pace. However, the antiwar movement found itself torn over what its goals were and how it should achieve them. By 1967 American policy toward Vietnam showed no sign of changing, and the movement began to fall into disarray. Groups within the movement split over the use of violent or non-violent protest measures. Church groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference continued to urge the observance of nonviolent protest to convey the movement's message. SDS and later the Weather Underground, among other groups, advocated more confrontational behavior, including draft card burnings, attacks on Selective Service and draft induction centers, and, in extreme cases, destruction of government property through arson and bombings.
The antiwar movement's greatest triumphs and tragedies occurred in 1968, when battlefield reversals in Vietnam ignited a shift in popular support away from the war and toward an effort to bring the troops home. The Tet offensive, with its attacks on major U.S. bases throughout South Vietnam, including an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, left many Americans wondering if this war would ever end, and they became increasingly suspicious of the government's handling of the war. Now middle-class Americans joined the protest, adding a greater degree of credibility to the movement. When Democrat Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and captured 42 percent of the vote, the antiwar protesters involved in McCarthy's campaign were sure they were on the road to capturing more mainstream support and quite possibly the presidency. But in August 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the antiwar movement suffered its worst setback. Unable to convince mainstream Democrats meeting in Chicago to nominate McCarthy rather than Vice President Hubert Humphrey, antiwar protesters fought a pitched battle with police on the streets of Chicago, just blocks away from the Democratic convention. The violence, captured on television, weakened support for the antiwar movement. There was a backlash of sorts, aimed at both the protesters and the Democratic Party, the end result being the election of Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
Nixon's handling of the Vietnam War seemed alternately to energize and enervate the antiwar movement. Scheduled troop withdrawals took some of the steam out of the protests, but the bombing campaign against North Vietnam drove nearly a million demonstrators across America into the streets during a nationwide moratorium against the war in October 1969. Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia in 1970 produced a final spasm of anti-war activity, contributing to the Kent State incident, where four students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. But Nixon's policies of troop withdrawals and Vietnamization (putting South Vietnamese troops in the place of U.S. soldiers) as well as his preoccupation with the Watergate scandal, gradually drove the Vietnam War off the front pages and the antiwar movement into oblivion. The antiwar movement failed to achieve its objective, fading away before the war actually ended. And, like many returning war veterans, protesters sought to put the experience behind them, either by reentering mainstream society or by moving on to other issues.
DeBenedetti, Charles, with Chatfield, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
Powers, Thomas. Vietnam, the War at Home: Vietnam and the American People, 1964–1968. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Small, Melvin. Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.