The War at Home
The War at HomeMartin Luther King, Jr. . . . 25 Robert F. Kennedy . . . 43 Tim O'Brien . . . 59 Richard M. Nixon . . . 77 Bill Rubenstein . . . 95
U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War increased dramatically during the 1960s and remained significant until 1973, when American forces were finally withdrawn from the conflict. In the early years of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, a large majority of Americans supported the government's policies. But as the bloody conflict continued without any end in sight, many Americans declared their opposition to the war in Vietnam. They said that the United States was interfering with the internal affairs of another country. They viewed the war as an immoral campaign that was wasting the lives of American soldiers and destroying the country of Vietnam. By the late 1960s, although many Americans continued to support U.S. involvement, the antiwar movement had become a major force in American politics and society. But as its influence swelled and some of its membership engaged in radical and violent protests, the antiwar movement itself became controversial. People who continued to support U.S. involvement viewed antiwar protestors as uninformed or unpatriotic.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) is best known for his leadership in the American civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. As the Vietnam War progressed, he also emerged as a leading critic of U.S. actions and involvement in the conflict. King believed that the Vietnam War was draining money from social programs that might reduce poverty and discrimination in American society. He also believed that African American soldiers were bearing too much of the war's burden and that their absence and losses were causing distress in African American communities. Finally, King charged that the U.S. government's actions in Vietnam violated the American ideals of freedom and equality. King explained many of his objections to the war in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered in April 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City.
Democratic senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) from New York was another prominent American political figure who publicly opposed the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The brother of former president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; president 1961–63), Robert Kennedy was well known throughout the United States. At first, he supported American involvement in Vietnam. But as the war dragged on, he became alarmed by the growing number of American casualties and the destruction of Vietnam's cities, villages, and farmlands. He also became convinced that South Vietnam's government did not deserve U.S. military support. On March 8, 1968, the powerful senator delivered a speech in which he publicly called for an end to U.S. support for South Vietnam's unpopular government.
As debate about the Vietnam War raged across America, many young men who were eligible for military service in Vietnam and subject to the draft wondered what they should do. Some strongly believed that the American cause was just, and they went to Vietnam willingly. But many others felt that they might be sacrificing their lives for a war that did not have merit. As opposition to the war intensified, millions of young Americans agonized over whether to accept induction (membership in the armed forces) or go to jail or Canada to avoid military service. In his short story "On the Rainy River," Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien (1946–) explored how one young American struggled with this issue.
When Republican Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969–1974) became president of the United States in January 1969, he decided to withdraw American forces from Vietnam gradually after first strengthening the South Vietnamese government and military. The antiwar movement opposed this strategy, saying that he should immediately withdraw all U.S. troops. But Nixon refused to change his mind. Instead, he decided to appeal to the American public for support. In a nationally televised speech in November 1969, Nixon defended his decision to keep American troops in Vietnam and claimed that immediate withdrawal would be disastrous for the United States.
As the Vietnam War progressed and casualties mounted on both sides, the American antiwar movement gained strength and became increasingly vocal in its protests. The most famous example of American unrest over the Vietnam War took place in the spring of 1970. That April, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces launched a big military operation into Cambodia, a country on the western border of Vietnam. Americans who opposed the war viewed this action as an expansion of the conflict, and antiwar demonstrations erupted on dozens of colleges and universities across the country. One of the strongest student protests against the invasion of Cambodia took place at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. The campus demonstrations against the war ended in tragedy on May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen shot and killed four Kent State students. One Kent State student, Bill Rubenstein, recalled the events of that day in his essay "Tragedy at Kent," published in Middle of the Country.