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Antiwar Movement (Vietnam)

In every war the United States has fought, there have been protesters. The antiwar movement during the Vietnam War (1954–75) is particularly memorable because it played out at a time when there were actually two other strong movements taking place: the student movement and the civil rights movement .

The civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), began in the mid-1950s and attracted not only blacks but also the era's young white middle class. These young people saw the civil rights movement as part of a larger social movement that questioned the status quo (the existing state of affairs) in general. Racial segregation and inequality were two of society's ills, as was an economy sustained by war and the exploitation of smaller and poorer countries. Even the quality of education was in question: Students believed that the system promoted conformity over creativity and individuality.

Reform-minded student organizations and societies formed across the country in the early 1960s. Some focused on women's rights, others on educational reform or civil rights. By 1965, however, the protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War eclipsed all other concerns.

Early protests

Although the war had begun in 1954, the United States's involvement was not significant until 1965. The first antiwar protests were loosely organized student demonstrations in which protesters gathered to share their concerns. In April 1965, teachers at college campuses across the country began hosting “teach-ins,” forums in which U.S. foreign policy was explained and criticized. Before the month was over, a national event in Washington, D.C. was broadcast to more than one hundred colleges. April also saw the first major demonstration: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the event, which attracted around fifteen thousand participants to Washington, D.C.

Many opponents of the Vietnam War were protesting the draft. The draft is a means of building up the military. Males eighteen and older had to register with the government's Selective Service, and if their names were drawn in a lottery, they were required by law to join the military and serve in the Vietnam War. The draft, also known as conscription, was first used during the American Civil War (1861–65). (See also Conscription Acts .) The first public draft protest of the Vietnam War took place in October 1965 in New York City. David Miller broke the law when he burned his draft card, and for his act of protest he was arrested, found guilty, and served two years in jail. Meanwhile, the antiwar movement gained momentum as it stretched across the globe. Antiwar protests were held simultaneously in the United States; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and London, England.

Focused and determined

By 1967, the antiwar movement had grown so widespread that those who were only moderately opposed to the war marched alongside those with more extreme perspectives. The days of a handful of protesters standing on a street corner waving signs were gone, and in their place were groups numbering in the thousands. On October 21, 1967, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam organized a rally in Washington, D.C. More than one hundred thousand people participated in the rally, and thirty-five thousand continued in the planned march to the steps of the Pentagon.

Protest music played a major role in the antiwar movement. Folk music was at the height of its popularity, and performers such as Bob Dylan (1941–), John Lennon (1940–1980), and Peter, Paul, and Mary loaned their voices to the movement at demonstrations and press statements. Dylan's 1963 hit “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a theme song of the movement.

Although most peace activists embraced nonviolence, emotions ran high, and antiwar slogans such as “Make love, not war,” and “Hell no, we won’t go!” offended parents, spouses, and friends whose loved ones

were fighting overseas. Battles sometimes broke out between protesters and police, counterprotesters, and armed troops.

Seasons of violence

The violent protests peaked in 1968. The most famous protest of the year took place in August, just months after the assassination of U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) of New York . The Democratic National Convention was being held in Chicago, Illinois , that year, and when it became clear that Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (1911–1978) would emerge as the Democratic Party 's presidential nominee, a coalition of extremist antiwar organizations showed up in Chicago intent on disrupting the convention.

What they found there were twelve thousand police officers, almost six thousand Illinois National Guardsmen, and five thousand federal troops. On the night Humphrey was nominated, rioting broke out all over Chicago. Some eyewitnesses reported that the authorities provoked the demonstrators to violence. By the time the riots had subsided, more than one thousand people were wounded and almost seven hundred had been arrested.

In the most notorious confrontation between protesters and police, on May 4, 1970, at Ohio's Kent State University, a peaceful protest ended in tragedy when four demonstrators were shot and killed by National Guardsmen who opened fire on the protesters. (See Kent State Shooting .) Nine other students were wounded. The nation was shocked, and eight million students protested by going on strike from their colleges and high schools. Five days after the shooting, one hundred thousand people marched in Washington, D.C., to protest the senseless deaths of the unarmed students. Singer Neil Young (1945–) wrote a song, “Ohio,” about the tragedy, and the event is referenced in numerous other songs.

From the margins to the middle

As violence increased within the antiwar movement, there was a shift in public opinion: Older Americans and prominent public figures became more vocal in their criticism of the continuing war. Politicians spoke out against the government's actions, and even some veterans of the war organized to bring an end to what had becomethe longest-running war in U.S. history. The Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74), won the presidentialelection in 1968 with a campaign platformto end the war.

Nixon had no great plan to bring home thetroops, but he did try to bomb the NorthVietnamese into submission. When that failed, he put into action a plan that eventually turnedover responsibility for the ground war to SouthVietnam. This was known as “Vietnamization,”and it did allow U.S. troops to gradually withdraw, although U.S. air fighters were still standingby to deploy at a moment's notice.

Days after the Kent State shooting in 1970, state police opened fire on student protesters at Jackson State College in Mississippi . Twelve students were injured and two were killed. One student at a New York school responded to the Kent State shooting by hanging a banner out a dormitory window that read “They Can't Kill Us All.” Nixon's response was seen as callous by members of the antiwar movement. He met with about thirty student protestors at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., just five days after the shooting, but his attempts at reaching out were condescending and clumsy.

With the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers—a top-secret, seven-thousand-page government report on the planning and policy making before and during the war—most Americans began to support total withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. The report uncovered lies, illegal actions, and other unethical behavior on the part of the president, the government, and the military. By the time the war officially ended in 1975, nearly all of the United States was a part of the antiwar movement.

Antiwar Movement (Vietnam)

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