DANNY KATCH looks at the history of the movement against the Vietnam War.
FROM 1965, when the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam, to 1973, when the last troops left, there were thousands of protests, large and small, against the Vietnam War. These protests grew from representing a small minority of American students to the majority of the country.
While the major force to defeat the U.S. was the Vietnamese resistance struggle itself, the American antiwar movement--one of the most successful in history--played a major role in ending the war.
The White House and the Pentagon dragged out the increasingly savage and hopeless slaughter as long as possible, and refused to acknowledge even being affected by the antiwar movement.
This was disorienting to activists who had faith in American democracy. Many dejectedly concluded that protests are ineffective. Yet they were part of a movement that proved just the opposite.
As early as 1966, the fear of protests prevented Lyndon Johnson from escalating the war. Within a few short years, the movement had moved into the military itself--and Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon was forced to begin withdrawing troops to preserve discipline in the armed forces.
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IN 1965, most Americans believed in preventing a “Communist takeover” in South Vietnam. Even liberal organizations that opposed the war, such as the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy, agreed with the overall framework of the Cold War--to the point that they refused to work with socialists and even tried to keep demonstrations free of “immediate withdrawal” signs.
On college campuses, however, a new generation of activists, unsatisfied with the limits of Cold War liberalism, would form the heart of the early antiwar movement.
Many were members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had about 1,000 members in 40 chapters on the eve of the war. In March 1965, SDS called the first national demonstration against the war and drew 20,000 people, a very impressive number at the time. Within two years, the membership of SDS itself was close to 30,000.
SDS had established itself before the war as a liberal-radical group of white students who participated in and were inspired by the civil rights movement, especially the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
SDS brought three important elements from SNCC to the antiwar movement--a belief in activism over lobbying and elections, a commitment to grassroots democracy, and openness to radicals and radical ideas. These three elements helped turn protesters into activists and activists into leaders.
Rather than simply wait for some distant national organization to call the next demonstration, students could join or form an SDS chapter, have a say in local actions, and debate the strategies of the entire movement at national meetings or in the SDS newsletter.
These activists discovered a key local target in their own universities--which supported the war effort in many ways, from maintaining weapons research facilities to turning over lists of students ranked at the bottom of the class to be drafted. Exposing the role of universities in the war effort radicalized students and made them realize that the war was not the mistaken policy of a war-obsessed president, but was a national project that involved every established institution.
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IN THE spring of 1967, almost 500,000 people protested in New York City and San Francisco, calling for immediate withdrawal. That fall, thousands marched to the steps of the Pentagon itself, where they stood face to face with soldiers with rifles, many of whom--in a sign of things to come--became friendly with the protesters.
Publicly, Johnson acted as though the protests had no effect on his decisions. But behind closed doors, fearing the political consequences, he rejected his top general’s request to mobilize the reserves and National Guard in order to add 200,000 troops.
And when he was shown computer calculations favoring a bombardment of the North Vietnam capital of Hanoi, Johnson responded, “I have one question to ask your computers...how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their president if he does something like that?"
By the late 1960s, however the antiwar movement was at a crossroads. After years of protests, the war wasn’t over, and many people were convinced they hadn’t even affected it.
The student-led movement had reached the limits of its power--it could make the war unpopular, but it couldn’t force it to end.
Some argued that large marches were useless--a resolution from an SDS convention in 1967 dismissed them as “just public expressions of belief”--and moved toward more “revolutionary” tactics involving smaller numbers and more confrontation. In 1969, SDS collapsed from a united organization of almost 100,000 members to a handful of much smaller Maoist groups.
Nevertheless, the antiwar movement had undergone a process of radicalization, interacting with the militant Black Power movement, as well as the developing women’s and gay liberation movements. A growing current within the antiwar movement embraced anti-imperialist politics--opposition not only to the U.S. war in Vietnam, but Washington’s drive to dominate the world through economic and military power.
Meanwhile, the warmakers faced their own crossroads. The Tet Offensive at the beginning of 1968 made it clear that the Vietnamese struggle couldn’t be defeated without a huge U.S. escalation--but escalation would radicalize millions more people at home.
Yet neither Johnson nor Nixon--who was elected that year claiming to have a “secret plan to end the war”--was about to consider leaving Vietnam and letting the world know that the U.S. could be beaten.
Nixon would keep the Vietnam War going another five years, trying everything from training the South Vietnamese army to invading neighboring Cambodia and Laos, in a fruitless effort to hold off defeat. Tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers died. Far greater numbers of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were killed.
Congress, dominated by the Democrats, complained more loudly each year about the war, but it never stopped funding it. The war might still be going on today if it were left up to them. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
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IN APRIL 1970, Nixon announced that U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia. Protests exploded across the country; more than 100 campuses went on strike.
Four student protesters at Kent State were shot and killed by National Guard troops who had been called onto campus. The killings spurred the strikes to more than 400 colleges. One hundred thousand protesters surrounded the White House and other major government buildings.
Eight days after announcing the invasion, a visibly shaken Nixon said that the U.S. would pull out of Cambodia within two months. As New York Times columnist James Reston wrote, Nixon’s advisers thought “they were dealing with a foreign war, and they now see that they are dealing with a rebellion against that war, and maybe even with a revolution at home.”
Meanwhile, resistance to the war was skyrocketing within the military itself. Soldiers generally challenged specific missions more than the war as a whole. The immediate goal was to survive the war more than to end it. But the massive erosion of authority within the military that took place after the Tet Offensive was very much a part of the antiwar movement.
Many GIs had been influenced by the antiwar and Black liberation movements before arriving in Vietnam. Some had connections with antiwar groups, including Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which formed in 1967, or had read radical literature at one of the coffeehouses that activists began to set up near military bases.
GI resistance took a variety of forms, from individual desertions to collective disobedience--known in the military as mutiny. In 1969, CBS News broadcast two different instances of patrols refusing to carry out missions. More often, patrols would deliberately avoid contact with the Vietnamese resistance, a practice known as “search and evade.”
In 1971, Col. Robert Heinl wrote in the Armed Forces Journal: “Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited, where not near-mutinous...[C]onditions [exist] among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by...the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.”
It was this collapse that finally forced the United States to pull out of Vietnam, although Nixon continued to escalate the barbaric air war until the moment he signed the Paris Peace accords in January 1973.
There is good news and bad news in the history of the movement against the Vietnam War.
The good news is that the movement shows that ordinary people can have extraordinary power when they organize in great numbers. The bad news is that we can’t simply organize those great numbers for one election or even one protest.
The Vietnam War was not stopped by any single protest, but by eight years of actions taken by students, workers and soldiers--which eventually made the warmakers afraid, in the words of author Fred Halstead, of “losing more than the war.”