An Overview of the Vietnam War Protests

Antiwar protesters marching on the Capitol
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

As American involvement in Vietnam grew in the early 1960s, a small number of concerned and dedicated citizens started to protest what they viewed as a misguided adventure. As the war escalated and increasing numbers of Americans were wounded and killed in combat, the opposition grew.

Within a span of just a few years, opposition to the Vietnam War became a colossal movement, with protests drawing hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets.

Early Protests

Vietnamese monk self-immolating
Vietnamese monk protesting with self-immolation. Getty Images

American involvement in Southeast Asia began in the years following World War II. The principle of stopping the spread of communism in its tracks made sense to most Americans, and few people outside the military paid much attention to what at that time seemed like an obscure and distant land.

During the Kennedy administration, American military advisers began to flow into Vietnam, and America's footprint in the country grew larger. Vietnam had been divided into North and South Vietnam, and American officials resolved to prop up the government of South Vietnam as it fought against a communist insurgency supported by North Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, most Americans would have viewed the conflict in Vietnam as a minor proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Americans were comfortable supporting the anti-communist side. And as so few Americans were involved, it wasn't a terribly volatile issue.

Americans began to sense that Vietnam was turning into a major problem when, in the spring of 1963, Buddhists began a series of protests against the American-backed, and extremely corrupt, government of premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In a shocking gesture, a young Buddhist monk sat on a Saigon street and set himself on fire, creating an iconic image of Vietnam as a deeply troubled land.

Against a backdrop of such disturbing and discouraging news, the Kennedy administration continued to send American advisers to Vietnam. The issue of American involvement came up in an interview with President Kennedy conducted by journalist Walter Cronkite on September 2, 1963, less than three months before Kennedy's assassination.

Kennedy was careful to state that American involvement in Vietnam would remain limited:


"I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists."

Beginnings of the Antiwar Movement

Protesters at the White House in 1965
Students protesting outside the White House, 1965. Getty Images

In the years following Kennedy's death, American involvement in Vietnam deepened. The administration of Lyndon B. Johnson sent the first American combat troops to Vietnam: a contingent of Marines, who arrived on March 8, 1965.

That spring, a small protest movement developed, mainly among college students. Using lessons from the Civil Rights Movement, groups of students began to hold "teach-ins" on college campuses to educate their colleagues about the war.

The effort to raise awareness and rally protests against the war picked up momentum. A leftist student organization, Students for a Democratic Society, commonly known as SDS, called for a protest in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, April 17, 1965.

The Washington gathering, according to the next day's New York Times, drew more than 15,000 protesters. The newspaper described the protest as something of a genteel social event, noting "Beards and blue jeans mixed with Ivy tweeds and an occasional clerical collar in the crowd."

Protests against the war continued at various locations around the country.

On the evening of June 8, 1965, a crowd of 17,000 paid to attend an antiwar rally held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Speakers included Senator Wayne Morse, a Democrat from Oregon who had become a sharp critic of the Johnson Administration. Other speakers included Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther KingBayard Rustin, one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington; and Dr. Benjamin Spock, one of the most famous doctors in America thanks to his best-selling book on caring for babies.

As protests intensified that summer, Johnson sought to ignore them. On August 9, 1965, Johnson briefed members of Congress about the war and claimed there was "no substantial division" in the nation regarding America's Vietnam policy.

As Johnson was speaking in the White House, 350 demonstrators protesting the war were arrested outside the U.S. Capitol.

Protest by Teens in Middle America Reached the Supreme Court

Photograph of protesters with armbands
Student protesters prompted a Supreme Court case. Getty Images

A spirit of protest spread throughout society. At the end of 1965, several high school students in Des Moines, Iowa, decided to protest against American bombing in Vietnam by wearing black armbands to school.

On the day of the protest, administrators told the students to remove the armbands or they would be suspended. On December 16, 1965, two students, 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker and 16-year-old Christian Eckhardt, refused to remove their armbands and were sent home.

The following day, Mary Beth Tinker's 14-year-old brother John wore an armband to school and was also sent home. The suspended students did not return to school until after New Year's, past the end of their planned protest.

The Tinkers sued their school. With assistance from the ACLU, their case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, eventually went to the Supreme Court. In February 1969, in a landmark 7-2 decision, the high court ruled in favor of the students. The Tinker case set a precedent that students did not give up their First Amendment rights when they entered school property.

Record-Setting Demonstrations

Photograph of Vietnam War protest in Washington
Massive crowds protested against the war. Getty Images

In early 1966, the escalation of the war in Vietnam continued. Protests against the war also accelerated.

In late March 1966, a series of protests took place over three days across America. In New York City, protesters paraded and held a rally in Central Park. Demonstrations were also held in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and, as the New York Times put it, "scores of other American cities."

Feelings about the war continued to intensify. On April 15, 1967, more than 100,000 people demonstrated against the war with a march through New York City and a rally held at the United Nations.

On October 21, 1967, a crowd estimated at 50,000 protesters marched from Washington, D.C. to the parking lots of the Pentagon. Armed troops had been called out to protect the building. Writer Normal Mailer, a participant in the protest, was among the hundreds arrested. He would write a book about the experience, Armies of the Night, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

The Pentagon Protest helped contribute to the "Dump Johnson" movement, in which liberal Democrats sought to find candidates who would run against Johnson in the upcoming Democratic primaries of 1968.

By the time of the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968, the antiwar movement within the party had been largely thwarted. Thousands of outraged young people descended on Chicago to protest outside the convention hall. As Americans watched on live television, Chicago turned into a battleground as police clubbed protesters.

Following the election of Richard M. Nixon that fall, the war continued, as did the protest movement. On October 15, 1969, a nationwide "moratorium" was held to protest the war. According to the New York Times, organizers expected those sympathetic to ending the war "to lower their flags to half-staff and attend mass rallies, parades, teach-ins, forums, candlelight processions, prayers and the reading of the names of Vietnam war dead."

By the time of the 1969 moratorium day protests, nearly 40,000 Americans had died in Vietnam. The Nixon administration claimed to have a plan to end the war, but there did not seem to be any end in sight.

Prominent Voices Against the War

Photograph of Joan Baez at an antiwar rally
Joan Baez at a 1965 antiwar rally in London. Hutton Archive/Getty Images

As the protests against the war became widespread, notable figures from the world of politics, literature, and entertainment became prominent in the movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King began criticizing the war in the summer of 1965. For King, the war was both a humanitarian issue and a civil rights issue. Young black men were more likely to be drafted and more likely to be assigned to dangerous combat duty. The casualty rate among black soldiers was higher than among white soldiers.

Muhammad Ali, who had become a champion boxer as Cassius Clay, declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to be inducted into the Army. He was stripped of his boxing title but was eventually vindicated in a long legal battle.

Jane Fonda, a popular film actress and the daughter of legendary movie star Henry Fonda, became an outspoken opponent of the war. Fonda's trip to Vietnam was highly controversial at the time and remains so to this day.

Joan Baez, a popular folksinger, grew up as a Quaker and preached her pacifist beliefs in opposition to the war. Baez often performed at antiwar rallies and participated in many protests. Following the end of the war, she became an advocate for Vietnamese refugees, who were known as "boat people."

The Backlash to the Antiwar Movement

Photograph of dead student protester at Kent State
Body of protester shot dead at Kent State. Bettmann/Getty Images

As the movement against the Vietnam war spread, there was also a backlash against it. Conservative groups routinely denounced "peaceniks" and counter-protests were common wherever protesters rallied against the war.

Some actions attributed to antiwar protesters were so outside the mainstream that they drew sharp denunciations. One famous example was an explosion at a townhouse in New York's Greenwich Village in March 1970. A powerful bomb, which was being built by members of the radical Weather Underground group, went off prematurely. Three members of the group were killed, and the incident created considerable fear that protests might become violent.

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that American troops had entered Cambodia. Though Nixon claimed the action would be limited, it struck many Americans as a widening of the war, and it sparked a new round of protests on college campuses.

Days of unrest at Kent State University in Ohio culminated in a violent encounter on May 4, 1970. Ohio National Guardsmen fired on student protesters, killing four young people. The Kent State killings brought tensions in a divided America to a new level. Students at campuses across the nation went on strike in solidarity with the dead of Kent State. Others claimed the killings had been justified.

Days after the shooting at Kent State, on May 8, 1970, college students gathered to protest on Wall Street in the heart of New York City's financial district. The protest was attacked by a violent mob of constructions workers swinging clubs and other weapons in what became known as "The Hard Hat Riot."

According to a front-page article in the New York Times the next day, office workers watching the mayhem in the streets below their windows could see men in suits who seemed to be directing the construction workers. Hundreds of young people were beaten in the streets as a small force of police officers mostly stood by and watched.

The flag at New York's City Hall was flown at half-staff to honor the Kent State students. A mob of construction workers swarmed the police providing security at City Hall and demanded the flag be raised to the top of the flagpole. The flag was raised, then lowered once again later in the day.

The following morning, before dawn, President Nixon made a surprise visit to talk to student protesters who had gathered in Washington near the Lincoln Memorial. Nixon later said he tried to explain his position on the war and urged students to keep their protests peaceful. One student said the president had also talked about sports, mentioning a college football team and, upon hearing one student was from California, talked about surfing.

Nixon's awkward efforts at early morning reconciliation seemed to have fallen flat. And in the wake of Kent State, the nation remained deeply divided.

Legacy of the Antiwar Movement

Photograph of protest by Vietnam Veterans Against the War
Protest by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Getty Images

Even when most of the fighting in Vietnam was turned over to South Vietnamese forces and overall American involvement in Southeast Asia decreased, protests against the war continued. Major protests were held in Washington in 1971. Protesters included a group of men who had served in the conflict and called themselves the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

America's combat role in Vietnam came to an official end with the peace agreement signed in early 1973. In 1975, when North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon and the South Vietnamese government collapsed, the last Americans fled Vietnam in helicopters. The war was finally over.

It is impossible to think about America's long and complicated involvement in Vietnam without considering the impact of the antiwar movement. The mobilization of massive number of protesters greatly influenced public opinion, which in turn influenced how the war was conducted.

Those who supported America's involvement in the war always contended that protesters had essentially sabotaged the troops and made the war unwinnable. Yet those who saw the war as a pointless quagmire always contended that it could never have been won, and needed to be stopped as soon as possible.

Beyond government policy, the antiwar movement also was a great influence on American culture, inspiring rock music, films, and works of literature. Skepticism about the government influenced events such as the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the public's reaction to the Watergate scandal. The changes in public attitudes that emerged during the antiwar movement still resonate in society to the present day.

Sources

"The American Antiwar Movement." Vietnam War Reference Library, vol. 3: Almanac, UXL, 2001, pp. 133-155.

“15,000 White House Pickets Denounce Vietnam War.” New York Times, 18 Apr. 1965, p. 1.

"Large Garden Rally Hears Vietnam Policy Assailed," New York Times, 9 June 1965, p. 4.

"President Denies Substantial Split in U.S. On Vietnam,' New York Times, 10 Aug. 1965, p.1.

"High Court Upholds a Student Protest," by Fred P. Graham, New York Times, 25 Feb. 1969, p. 1.

"Antiwar Protests Staged in U.S.; 15 Burn Discharge Papers Here," by Douglas Robinson, New York Times, 26 Mar. 1966, p. 2.

"100,000 Rally at U.N. Against Vietnam War," by Douglas Robinson, New York Times, 16 Apr. 1967, p. 1.

"Guards Repulse War Protesters At the Pentagon," by Joseph Loftus, New York Times, 22 Oct. 1967, p. 1.

"Thousands Mark Day," by E.W. Kenworthy, New York Times, 16 Oct. 1969, p. 1.

"War Foes Here Attacked By Construction Workers," by Homer Bigart, New York Times, 9 May 1970, p. 1.

"Nixon, In Pre-Dawn Tour, Talks to War Protesters," by Robert B. Semple, Jr., New York Times, 10 May 1970, p. 1.