Vietnam War Era: Antiwar Activists

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In his defiance of those in authority, Harry Bridges had few equals. His leadership of the San Francisco general strike of 1934 provoked demands for deployment of the U.S. Army and Navy against his longshoremen, and there followed prolonged efforts to deport Bridges to his native Australia on account of his communist sympathies. By 1962, the veteran leader claimed to be a Republican and seemed to have mellowed. Not so. In May of that year, he bluntly criticized President John F. Kennedy for sending American troops to Thailand and South Vietnam.

The Bridges protest suggests a need to look beyond the popular image of 1960s antiwar activists, that of long-haired students who began the serious challenge to the war policy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson only when major military escalation began in 1965. After all, American involvement in Vietnam and objections to it ran all the way back to the late 1940s, when the government decided to block the expansion of communism by supporting the French attempt to reassert colonial control over Indochina.

Furthermore, antiwar protest and civil disobedience were rooted in a tradition supported by some of the nation’s greatest literary figures. Henry David Thoreau had refused to pay his taxes because he opposed the Mexican-American War of 1846. In the 1930s, there had been widespread condemnation of the “merchants of death,” the arms manufacturers accused of maneuvering America into World War I. Antimilitarist sentiments of this type prepared America for allegations that a sinister military-industrial complex had groomed Washington to opt for war in Vietnam.

Yet the truth remains that Bridges and his longshoremen were considerably in advance of public opinion in the early 1960s. While the longshoremen celebrated Labor Day in 1965 with a demand for “Peace and Pork Chops,” other maritime workers feared that the former could not be achieved without sacrificing the latter, for the Vietnam War apparently made workers rich. The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific pointed out in 1968 that 98 percent of war supplies and 66 percent of military personnel went to Vietnam in American ships that created American jobs. The vast majority of the labor movement lined up behind the war in its early phases, with AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) president George Meany leading the military parade (Jeffreys-Jones 1999).

Emerging Dissent

If the force of the antiwar movement and the reasons for it are to be appreciated, support for the war must first be understood. Popular endorsement of the war came about not just because of greed but for other reasons, too. One of the most important was the American nation’s solid opposition to communism. America’s opponents in Vietnam were communists, and thus, fighting them could be squared with the American people.

More immediately, the Tonkin Gulf episode afforded the justification for U.S. military escalation. On August 5, 1964, President Johnson asked Congress to pass a joint resolution giving him the powers he needed to counter aggression from the Vietnamese communists. He stated that, in the Gulf of Tonkin the previous evening, torpedo boats from communist North Vietnam had attacked two U.S. destroyers, the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy. America has always retaliated against aggression, and on this occasion the president achieved a near declaration of war by an overwhelming majority, with only two senators voting against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. According to Harris opinion samplers, before this resolution only 42 percent of Americans supported Johnson’s handling of Vietnam. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, 85 percent approved of his response to the crisis, and 72 percent supported his general policy (Moise 1996).

Underlying these particular circumstances, another phenomenon was at work. Americans tend to rally behind their president when he confronts threats from abroad, and none more so than in the cases of those who might otherwise have a grievance against society. For example, laborers who might engage in militant strike action in more peaceful times line up with the Stars and Stripes when the fighting starts; women who are pacifists in peacetime support the military when there is a serious conflict; African Americans who have bitterly cried out against injustice are among the first to volunteer when America confronts an enemy. Such responses indicate not just patriotism but also a hope that conformity will bring acceptance and a breakthrough in terms of social and political status. This breakthrough syndrome operated powerfully in creating support for the Vietnam War.

Yet the American people ultimately turned against their nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In one of the great social movements of modern times, antiwar protesters led the way. There is some debate about the consequences of protest. Because the image of the typical protester was that of a long-haired student with scant respect for the law or conventional morality, public opinion tended to be hostile to protest even as it turned against the war, so the White House was able to use protest as a justification for continuing the war. Some argue that protest was counterproductive and prolonged, even as it doomed, the war.

According to another school of thought, Hanoi and its communist allies in South Vietnam took courage from the antiwar movement and fought longer and harder as a result. However, finally and much more convincingly, there is the argument that the policy makers listened. Just as the Republican president William McKinley had abandoned his imperialist agenda to undermine the appeal of the Democrats in the election of 1900, so President Richard Nixon withdrew from Vietnam to hang on to political office. When Joan Baez sang in New York’s Central Park to celebrate the war’s end, she and her supporters believed they were also rejoicing in their own victory as protesters. So did the neoconservatives who saw America’s withdrawal as mistaken, premature, and tragic, the action of pusillanimous politicians who bent the knee to unpatriotic protesters. To the theory that protest forced American withdrawal from the war, there is a bipartisan ring of truth.

One could explain with deceptive ease why protest occurred and how it succeeded. Many of those in Congress who had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution came to believe they had been tricked into doing so and felt betrayed. Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR) was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had led the push for the resolution, but with doubts setting in both about the resolution and about the war, he instigated inquiries into Tonkin.

It emerged that the U.S. Navy had been engaged in intelligence and covert operations in the Tonkin Gulf. The way in which the administration denied their existence provoked anger. Even more upsetting, the communist attack of August 4 simply had not taken place. In an understandable error on a dark and stormy night, U.S. naval gunners had shot at phantom targets. Confronted with more evidence about this event, critics concluded that the Johnson administration had duplicitously blown the incident up into a case of North Vietnamese aggression. The White House offered further provocation when it tried to block the Fulbright inquiry. In the course of the cover-up, it even had a key witness, a naval officer from the Pentagon, locked up in a mental ward to prevent him from testifying.

A simple explanation of the antiwar revolt would thus seem to be at hand. Not so, however. Although the Tonkin justification of war had unraveled by 1968, it was not until June 30, 1973, that Congress voted to cut off funds for all military operations in and over Indochina. Although Fulbright was constitutionally the second most powerful formulator of foreign policy in the nation after the president, he could not act until public opinion was on his side. He was ill equipped, however, to offer the kind of leadership that might swing opinion. His urbanity and internationalism may have pleased his admirers, but they did not make him a popular figure. Even more debilitating was his stubborn opposition to civil rights, the one cause that united the diverse liberal crusaders of the 1960s. Marginalized for this reason, Fulbright could not lead the antiwar campaign.

Mass opposition nevertheless developed, and antiwar activists supplied a multiplicity of reasons for their opposition to the war. Most activists expressed themselves in terms of principle, and a few in terms of ideology. Citing the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, activists demanded the right to speak out against the war and fought against restrictions imposed by college authorities and security services such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the name of democracy they denounced their nation’s support for the Saigon government, which was just as dictatorial as the Hanoi regime that directed the enemy. As the Vietnamese were a nonwhite people, they denounced American policy for being neocolonialist and racist. Additionally, a small minority of activists saw the antiwar movement as an opportunity to frustrate global neocolonialism and to destabilize capitalism in America.

As the war progressed and the fighting claimed more lives, psychology and emotion became entangled with principles. The American philosophy on war was to avoid it if you can, but, if you must, fight all out to win. However, Hanoi and its allies in South Vietnam fought a war of attrition in which neither side could win obvious victories. Then came Tet, the January 1968 surprise communist offensive that sent Americans and their allies in South Vietnam scuttling for cover, with television cameras showing ignominious scenes, such as communist guerrillas racing through the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. No matter that U.S. and allied forces counterattacked so effectively that they almost destroyed enemy fighting power. The communists had struck a psychological blow that shook American faith in the wisdom of its cause.

In disturbing numbers America’s bravest patriots were coming home in body bags, 58,000 of them by the war’s end. Not only this, but some of those patriots were committing atrocities, leading activists to question exactly what values America was defending. The most notorious outrage was that at My Lai on March 16, 1968, in which an American infantry company attacked a group of unarmed civilians, destroying their property, raping the women, and killing between 175 and 400 men, women, and children. The crime came to light the following year and has caused Americans anguish ever since. In the stress of battle soldiers do very often lose their humanity. Only the previous month, on February 25, 1968, troops of America’s allies, the South Korean expeditionary force, had massacred 135 elders, women, and children in the village of Ha My, subsequently desecrating their graves and reburying them en masse to destroy the evidence (Kwon 2006). American discourse did not recognize Ha My then or has not recognized it since—what shocked Americans was the spectacle of American boys turning into savages.

Visual images recorded by television cameras brought the war home to Americans in their living rooms and pricked their consciences. The media were not antiwar. If anything they were anti-protest. To make an impact, however, they did not have to be biased; they just had to be there. Because the American military campaign in Vietnam was authorized only by a joint congressional resolution and not by a full declaration of war, the American government could not use censorship to shield its citizens from the crimson-hued horrors of maimed American soldiers and little Vietnamese girls burnt alive by U.S. Air Force napalm attacks. All of this happened in an era when color television first swept the nation and had its maximum impact.

Violations of American principles were not in themselves enough to provoke effective protest. Other factors came into play to give them an irresistible force. Young men began to think of their self-interest. They opposed, resisted, and avoided the draft. The war economy went from boom to bust, another good reason for antiwar activism.

Groups within American society whose leaders had seen it as being to their advantage to support the war began to think differently. This caused serial problems, as they rebelled at spaced-out intervals, giving the White House no rest and a constantly shifting political adversary. African Americans began to protest in significant numbers approximately at the time when Martin Luther King Jr. attacked the war in April 1967. The popularity of women’s crusade against the war peaked the following year, and, by 1970, the possibility of a wage earners’ revolt against the war caused serious policy reappraisals within the Nixon administration. Each for its own reasons, these social groups rejected the conformist mentality that goes with the social breakthrough syndrome, and, inconveniently for the war makers, they did so at unpredictable times.

Yet the group that first dissented on a significant scale had never had status worries in the first place. In an article on the student Left in the May 1965 issue of The Nation, reporter Jack Newfield wrote of a “new generation of radicals” that had been spawned from the “womb of affluent America” and took its inspiration from Bob Dylan, not Karl Marx (Anderson 1995, 147-148). The following year he described this middle-class New Left as a “prophetic minority.” His perception that the protesting students were from affluent backgrounds was perhaps only partly correct, but certainly the campus protesters had access to future middle-class status. They did not have to worry about making political compromises to consolidate their standing, which perhaps helps to explain why students protested against the Vietnam War well before the majority of off-campus America stirred from its complacency.


Like other groups in American society, students operated within a cultural tradition. Until the Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, people of campus age could not vote. Thus, they were tempted by “direct action” of the type most famously employed by the Progressive-era revolutionary socialist organization, the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW had fought on behalf of disenfranchised groups, African Americans, migrants, and women as well as youth, and, with its advocacy of strikes, sabotage, and free speech fights, the group inspired study on 1960s campuses. Taking a leaf from more recent history, campus rebels were even more deeply moved by the struggle for voter registration and civil rights in the American South. Here, too, the direct action tactic of nonviolent resistance gave antiwar activists a model that could be emulated.

Student protesters raged against the establishment. In 1964, the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell had discerned a decline in the “authority of an establishment which is now based on an increasingly caste-like White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant (WASP) upper class” (9). If the WASPs were on the way out, the 1960s rebels tilted at a new foe that might be conceptualized as the WORM, or White Old Rich Men. It was nothing new for young folk to rebel against their parents, but the sixties generation cast the whole of the governing elite of America as an oppressive and hypocritical parental entity. The refrain of the 1965 Phil Ochs song “I Ain’t a Marchin’ Anymore” captured the complaint: “It’s always the old who lead us to war; it’s always the young who fall.”

The reasons why this attitude was more acute in the sixties than before or since are open to conjecture. Were the nation’s foreign-policy leaders more debilitated by advancing years than usual? The evidence is not persuasive. The average age of secretaries of state in their last year of office in 1949 to 1973 was 62.8, not a great increase on the figure for 1892 to 1905, which was 61.5. In real health terms, given medical advances, the secretaries were more vigorous than their earlier counterparts. As average life expectancy in 1900 was only 47.3, compared with 69.7 in 1959, one can say that, relatively speaking, diplomacy was in the hands of the aged in the early period but was conducted by men in the full vigor of late middle age in the 1960s (Jeffreys-Jones 1999, 46).

Young people felt emboldened and empowered for a number of reasons. John F. Kennedy was the charismatic young president who challenged the campus generation to serve society and who first announced his plan for a Peace Corps in the course of a campus address at the University of Michigan in October 1960. He and his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, stamped the sixties with the imprint of youth in a way that his tragic death only enhanced. In the 1960s, the post-World War II baby boom hit campuses at a time when university education was rapidly expanding. The college population grew from 3 million in 1960 to 10 million in 1970. The impact of this on antiwar activism was not automatic. Only 300 of the nation’s 2,000 campuses experienced unrest (Heineman 2001), yet it can be said that the unrest affected a variety of campus types, thus permeating a broad section of the nation at a time when educational expansion had ensured that just about everyone knew a college student. If the elite campuses led the way, they had a significant following.

The campus antiwar movement threw up charismatic leaders who conveyed in eloquent terms the discontents of their generation. Tom Hayden recorded in his memoir that he came from Detroit, where his father was an accountant and life was mundane. Then Hayden attended the prestigious University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, an institution he boasted was “the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Peace Corps, and the Vietnam Teach-ins” (Hayden 1988, 25). Hayden was president of SDS in 1962-1963, and the main author of the Port Huron Statement, which outlined the group’s principles. The statement expressed the ideology that propelled America’s middle-class youth to fight racism, nuclear weapons, and poverty and pressed for community spirit and participatory democracy.

On March 24-25, 1965, the SDS organized the nation’s first teach-in against the Vietnam War. It took place in Ann Arbor and supplied a model followed in 35 other universities. Three thousand students, community activists, and professors took part in discussions and lectures about the war, with a heavy emphasis on dissent. Hayden had by this time left Ann Arbor to become a nationwide activist. When the Johnson administration illegally tasked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with spying on Hayden and his friends, it submitted an awestruck report that described them as “tireless, peripatetic, full-time crusaders” (Jeffreys-Jones 1989, 168). Hayden kept on hitting the headlines. In 1968, for example, he was one of the Chicago Seven, arrested on flimsy charges for conspiracy at the Democratic National Convention. Not everyone admired him, least of all the feminists who saw him hand his dirty laundry to the nearest woman on hand. His marriage to the movie actress Jane Fonda helped improve his image even in that quarter.

Though the University of Michigan had a pioneering role in what came to be known as “The Movement,” the teach-in against the Vietnam War echoed a protest that was already taking place on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. This was another publicly funded institution, which carried the prestige—according to nationwide polls of professors—of being the best university in America. Trouble had brewed in the fall of 1964 when the Berkeley authorities tried to enforce a regulation that prohibited political meetings on campus. Students who were already unhappy about the Vietnam War now vehemently attacked the University of California president. Clark Kerr was a liberal with a reputation for supporting the rights of organized labor, but in a fiery speech at Sproul Plaza on December 4, campus rebel Mario Savio denounced him as a “two-faced hypocrite” (Rorabaugh 1989, 40).

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) grew out of the fall 1964 confrontations. Savio, the son of a Sicilian factory worker and recently active in civil rights work, was one of its organizers. So was Bettina Aptheker. Like several in her radical group, Aptheker was Jewish, came from a family victimized by McCarthyism, and had been a “red diaper” baby (i.e., had communist parents) but now favored the tenets of the New Left. Aptheker once said, “I’ve got a last name that’s dynamite” (Rorabaugh 1989, 24). Her father, Herbert Aptheker, had written a landmark book. Challenging widely held racial assumptions, it claimed that African Americans had not enjoyed slavery and had consistently rebelled against it. Bettina was a communist like her father, but unlike communists of the Old Left type, she did not respect the Communist Party line, and finally left the party because of its conservative stance on homosexuality.

Jerry Rubin was another Berkeley figure who helped put antiwar activism on the political map. The son of a labor union official, Rubin had majored in sociology at the University of Cincinnati. He arrived in Oakland via an Israeli kibbutz and a sojourn in communist Cuba and helped give intellectual shape to student protest. Taking his cue from left-wing intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, and Ronald Radosh, Rubin denounced organized labor as racist, reactionary, and no longer capable of being a catalyst of reform. He challenged students to pick up the discarded torch of American radicalism. Building on the base established by the FSM, he organized the Vietnam Day Committee. Neglecting his studies—he dropped out of his graduate course—he organized a teach-in at Berkeley in May. He also helped launch a new form of direct action—in October 1965, several hundred people gathered outside the Oakland Army Terminal in an unsuccessful attempt to block incoming trains full of troops destined for the passage to Vietnam. Unarmed students could not hope to succeed in this tactic, but they did capture the headlines.

This was just the start of a string of direct actions by the nation’s students. They included strikes, mass demonstrations and marches, teach-ins, sit-ins, draft resistance, tantrum tactics (smashing windows and other property), and the occupation of university buildings—SDS students closed down Columbia University’s campus for a week in April 1968. To put that in perspective, the loosely termed “generation of ’68” was less active in America than in other countries—the London School of Economics scarcely functioned in 1967, and Paris’s prestigious university, the Sorbonne, never quite recovered from the confrontations of 1968. Vietnam was at best a marginal issue in those international upheavals. Nevertheless, American students’ antiwar activism had a dramatic impact in the context of U.S. politics, and their tactics were sometimes devastatingly imaginative, as when they targeted the offspring of senior policy makers and converted them to their cause. Craig McNamara, the son of Robert McNamara, who as secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968 was the architect of U.S. military escalation, smashed windows in protest and then emigrated. Robert McNamara’s Republican successor, Melvin Laird, had a similar problem with his niece. Men such as McNamara and Laird fought the war from their offices, but when they went home their children reminded them who was dying.

Over time the character of student protest changed. Some critics have pointed to the increasing frivolity of some of the protest and to the descent of the SDS into ideologically driven factionalism in 1969. The problem that affected a far greater number of students was the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1948 applied to young men in the 18-26 age bracket, with deferments for those in full-time study. But the expansion of the war meant an escalation in the number of troops needed. President Johnson’s first escalation call in July 1965 was for 50,000 men; in June 1966, he requested 431,000. To ensure greater manpower and in the name of social justice, the administration now abolished deferment for graduate study. This had two effects. First, it greatly increased the degree of student support for ending the war. Second, it made the student movement less idealistic in character.

Disillusioned by Tet, President Johnson refused a request from the military for a further 206,000 troops. The Nixon administration introduced a draft lottery in 1969 to ensure greater fairness, but this became irrelevant because the government reduced American troop numbers as part of its policy of “Vietnamizing” the war. Now there was no incentive for students of draft age to oppose the war for purely selfish reasons, and the campus protest movement swung back to its former, idealistic character. By this time, however, it had yielded its primacy in the antiwar movement to other groups.

African Americans

The African American revolt spelled trouble for the war leaders. Speaking in Mississippi in December 1964, black nationalist leader Malcolm X accused the United States government of hypocrisy for declaring itself in favor of democracy. How could that be when it sent black soldiers to fight for freedom in Saigon while at home African Americans still found it difficult to “vote without getting murdered” (Westheider 1997, 18-19)? Within two months, Malcolm X would be dead, the victim of a brutal assassination. His removal helps to explain why students held center stage in the opening phase of the antiwar movement, yet his critical remarks had prepared the ground for a black revolt.

African Americans were at first loyal to the war effort. If any section in American society needed help and recognition, it was the oppressed and poor black minority. The Democratic administration may have been escalating the war, but it did seem committed to ending discrimination and poverty. These were prime goals of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, and the president himself was committed to the reforms. Why rock the boat by complaining about a distant war, even if that war was repugnant? This was the philosophy of prominent black leaders such as Ralph Bunche and Whitney Young. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president Roy Wilkins explained his view in an address at Yale University: “The better plan is to stick with the civil rights issue and leave foreign policy to individuals who feel a strong urge and to organizations working in that field” (Jeffreys-Jones 1999, 116-117).

From the point of view of the young black man from a typically impoverished background, the pay and skills training in the armed forces were attractive. In the early years of the war, such men volunteered in significant numbers for military service, and then for dangerous combat assignments that paid even better money. Like black soldiers in previous wars, they welcomed the pay but also looked beyond it. They hoped a demonstration of loyalty and valor would lift up their race and enhance their personal prestige. They were heroes when, and if, they returned to their communities. Even after the outbreak of discontent, most black Americans were conspicuous by their absence from mass demonstrations. Urban deprivation remained the prime cause of grief in their lives.

That grinding inequality also contributed to the undoing of the Johnson administration. At a speech in New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated unilateral withdrawal from the Vietnam War. A Baptist minister, King had won national fame by leading the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-1956 aimed at ending discrimination against African Americans in public transportation. One of America’s greatest-ever orators, he had delivered the “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., at the culmination of the mass march for jobs and freedom in 1963. Aged only 38 in 1967, he epitomized the sixties spirit of youth and was America’s most prominent civil rights leader.

King had been opposed to the war since March 1965 but had kept relatively silent despite pressing reasons to oppose the conflict. His civil rights campaign in the South had been based on nonviolence, he had received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and he wanted to condemn the mid-sixties race riots sweeping America without seeming hypocritically to condone a foreign war. Above all, by early 1967, he could see that the ever more expensive war was sucking the lifeblood out of the Great Society and that already impoverished black people would be the first victims of this. Eighty billion dollars per annum went to the military, compared with “a pittance here and there for social uplift” (Mullen 1981, 79).

When President Johnson heard about the Riverside speech his face “flushed with anger” (Rowan 1989, 2). He felt personally betrayed and deeply indignant. He had done so much to help black Americans, and now he was being treated in this way. Johnson was right to be anxious. African Americans had been a dependable part of the Democratic coalition that had been mostly successful since the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration of the 1930s. The King speech was a real stab at the self-esteem of those liberal politicians who ran the Vietnam War and complacently thought themselves to be, in the devastating words of journalist David Halberstam, “the best and the brightest” (Halberstam 1972).

King’s speech was not immediately popular. A Harris poll suggested that only 25 percent of African Americans favored his antiwar stance, and 34 percent were worried about its alienation of civil rights supporters (Jeffreys-Jones 1999). King had a lot of persuading to do. When he fell to an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, black protest lost its most articulate voice.

However, support for King’s views increased steadily. Black discontent was nowhere so critical as in the armed forces. It stemmed from the racial statistics of the Vietnam War. In 1967, about 11 percent of the U.S. population was black, yet 14.5 percent of the enlisted men in the Army were black and only 3.8 percent of the officers serving in Vietnam were black. Furthermore, the latest figures showed that 22.4 percent of battle fatalities were black (Jeffreys-Jones 1999). The perception grew that African Americans—as well as Hispanic Americans and Native Americans—were being used as cannon fodder while being denied promotion. Poorer than their white contemporaries, black youths could not escape the draft by going to college. By the end of the war the statistical anomalies had balanced out, and it could be argued that the American armed forces were much better integrated than, say, their British equivalents. However, inspired by King and other outspoken African American leaders, black consciousness had been aroused. The sight of a brave black soldier advancing against enemy fire still inspired pride, but it had also become a source of anger.

Racial disorders in army camps mirrored the riots taking place in civilian America, and desertions were another serious problem. Black soldiers complained about being taunted by displays of the Confederate flag and even cross burnings to remind them of the Ku Klux Klan. White G.I.s were disturbed by “dapping,” the African American way of greeting another “brother” or “blood,” a handshaking ritual that seemed deliberately to exclude nonblacks. Their commanders were even more disturbed by “fragging,” the practice of throwing a fragmentation grenade into a promotion-hungry officer’s tent to ensure that, come dawn, there would be no order for a perilous advance against the enemy.

Although King’s Riverside speech may have marked a high point in black antiwar protest, African Americans never ceased to contribute to the rising swell of activism. Their protests often had a distinctively racial character, but they also contributed to a common thrust, notably to objections by military personnel in general to the war’s continuation. In Congress, too, black representatives such as Ron Dellums (D-CA) contributed to the debates that would reverse the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and starve the war of funds.

Another such antiwar activist was Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first African American woman elected to Congress. In 1972, this daughter of West Indian parents would run for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, Chisholm did not consider the color of her skin to be the greatest impediment to her career. “Women,” she wrote in 1970, “are a majority of the population, but they are treated like a minority group…. Of my two ‘handicaps,’ being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black” (Chisholm 1970, xii). Many women agreed with this assessment of the low status of their gender in American society, and it prompted them to launch a distinctively female campaign against the Vietnam War.


In the early phases of the Vietnam War, women’s minority mentality caused them to exercise restraint. At a time when students and African Americans were already protesting, women did not wish to risk unpopularity and further loss of standing by pressing for the peaceful foreign policy their gender characteristically favored. As in previous conflicts, women seemed to abandon their peaceful outlook once war broke out. A character in Mary McCarthy’s perceptive 1963 novel The Group noted of one woman that she was a pacifist only in peacetime. The League of Women Voters refused to come out against the Vietnam War. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supported the war in spite of her private reservations.

From the beginning, nevertheless, some women did challenge the status quo. On November 1, 1961, women had demonstrated against nuclear testing, advancing the “nurturant motherhood” argument that the resultant radioactive fallout would harm children. These women were typically middle-class mothers and housewives. Potentially they could draw on the support of many millions of others just like them. A few of them sent a chill up the spine of male America by going on strike—no ironing, washing, or cooking for an entire day. Thus was born Women Strike for Peace (WSP), an organization that contributed to support for the 1963 treaty banning atmospheric testing. WSP then opposed the escalation of America’s presence in Vietnam.

A new wave of feminism was beginning to take hold in 1960s America. This did not necessarily bode well for antiwar activism. Some of the new feminists wanted a more robust approach to war, on the principle that the image of feminine passivity was holding women back in society. The male chauvinism of some antiwar activists was repugnant to women—why should women do the cooking while men made the decisions? When in 1967 Joan Baez posed for an antidraft poster that proclaimed “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No,” some feminists objected to the implication that women were no more than a sexual service industry within the antiwar movement (Baez 1987).

Gradually, however, feminists were able to play their part in female opposition to the war. Attitudes began to change. Perhaps remembering that franchise leaders had achieved the vote by withdrawing their opposition to World War I, some women may at first have supported the Vietnam War to achieve gains, or at least to avoid loss. Toward the end of the decade, however, it was clear that the reverse had happened. In an interview in 1969, India Edwards, director of the women’s division of the Democratic National Committee, noted that women were “at a lower ebb in the political life of this country” than at any time in her long career (Jeffreys-Jones 1999, 144). In the 1960s, female representation in Congress declined from 20 to 11; the number of women in the foreign service declined from 8.9 to 4.8 percent of the total. In spite of new feminist expectations, it became all too apparent by the late 1960s that the Vietnam War was masculinizing America by eroding the status of women in society. The time had come for women to be not just peacetime pacifists but wartime pacifists as well.

In 1967, 14 women associated with the Hollywood movie industry formed the organization Another Mother for Peace (AMP). As the name suggests, this emphasized maternal reasons for being opposed to war. Donna Reed, Oscar winner for From Here to Eternity (1953) and mother of a draft-age son, was one of the cochairs. The antiwar movement now attracted a galaxy of stars, including Joanne Woodward and Jane Fonda, as well as female writers such as Frances FitzGerald, Mary McCarthy, and Susan Sontag. By 1968, the Beverly Hills-run AMP was achieving mass support. It had 100,000 members, a similar number to WSP, and by the early 1970s, its newsletter had a circulation of a quarter of a million.

On January 15, 1968, the recently formed Jeanette Rankin Brigade marched, 5,000 strong, on Capitol Hill where Congress was about to convene. Rankin had been the first woman member of Congress and had voted against American entry into World War I. In 1941, she had repeated the act, this time the only member of either house to vote against World War II. Now, at age 87, she headed the Brigade’s march to protest the Vietnam War. This event dramatized the distinctive role of women as antiwar activists. It also illustrated the tensions within the women’s peace movement—a splinter group of younger women broke off from the main demonstration to conduct a ceremonial burial of “traditional motherhood” at Arlington cemetery.

The evidence of distinctively female dissent was plain. Men, too, were losing faith in the war, but at a slower rate. Gallup polls indicated that in 1965, 58 percent of men supported the war; in 1968, 48 percent; and by 1970, only 41 percent. For women the pro-war figures were significantly lower at 48 percent in 1965, 40 percent in 1968, and 30 percent in 1970 (Levy 1991). The gender gap peaked in 1970. In that year the election to Congress of the fiery Bella Abzug (D-NY) promised no-compromise opposition to the war and its funding.

The Nixon White House had no answer to these developments. In the case of students and African Americans, it could appeal to populist sentiment through backlash tactics, denouncing them as unrepresentative and disorderly—law and order was a main theme of the 1968 presidential election that put Nixon in office. But no such tactic was at hand with which to discredit the middle-class mothers of America.

A Divided Nation

On May 8, 1970, about 200 construction workers marched into the financial district of New York City, where students had congregated to protest the extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia. The tough guys shouted “All the Way USA.” They sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” After beating up a few students they dispersed. The episode became known as the “hard hat demonstration” after the yellow safety hats worn by the marchers (Appy 1993, 39-40).

President Nixon took a big interest in the event. His aides organized a photo shoot in the White House in company with the low-level union leaders who had organized the demonstration. Nixon was forming a plan to build a new political majority in America to end the long domination of the Democratic majority. His appeal would be to those who cared about “a strong United States, about patriotism, about moral and spiritual values” (Mason 2004, 182). If he could attract some votes from the traditionally Democratic ranks of organized labor, his prospects would be improved.

Blue-collar workers felt a powerful affinity with the G.I.s in Vietnam, who were typically their sons and brothers, young men who had not had the privilege of going to college and qualifying for draft deferral. The leadership of the AFL-CIO was steadfastly behind the war effort, and had even been involved in it, attempting to marshal South Vietnamese workers into U.S.-style labor unions with assistance from the CIA. With the economy unraveling because of war-induced inflation, there were ever-louder rumblings of discontent among rank-and-file workers against the AFL-CIO’s stance on the war. What the White House now had in mind was capitalizing on the New York demonstration by hard-hat rank-and-filers to get workers not just to support the war but also to vote Republican.

However, after further political pondering, the Nixon administration made a different call, one that was more consistent with the “peace with honor” policy it had always proclaimed. Playing the war and patriotism card was all very well, but the astute president realized this would have to be combined with an effort to woo the labor vote by promising an end to the war. Whether they were African American, women, or labor unionists, those who had been reluctant to oppose the war for fear of losing respect and power now had a different calculus because of the war’s adverse effects, and because the changing mood of the nation meant they would be out of step with the majority if they continued to support the war.

The demonization of protest would not work any more. In fact, antiwar activists were becoming respectable. One sign of this was the arrival in Congress of committed antiwar legislators. The students had been too young to achieve this, but women and African Americans sent antiwar representatives to join the growing peace cohort on Capitol Hill.

There were other telling signs, too. Notably, though Nixon wanted to appeal to the nation’s sense of morality, he could no longer rely on the support of Christians. Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) formed in January 1966. Among its leading voices was William Sloane Coffin. Coffin came from a privileged background, his family having owned stock in the W. & J. Sloane Company, which ran a store for the rich in New York City. By the 1960s, however, he was chaplain of Yale University and a radical who encouraged students to resort to direct action and to burn their draft cards.

CALCAV challenged institutional religion’s silence on the Vietnam War and included Jews as well as Christians. Devout Americans who had moral doubts about the war could now feel they were not alone. CALCAV members deliberately targeted the American mainstream, providing a counterimage to that of the long-haired student. With this end in view, when its members attended antiwar demonstrations, they wore coats and ties.

Another powerful injection of respectability into the antiwar movement came from veterans of the fighting, patriots against whom no effective backlash tactic was possible. White soldiers as well as African Americans became disillusioned by what they saw in Vietnam, by what they considered to be an incompetent and unsympathetic military leadership, and by a poor reception back home generated both by inconclusive results on the battlefield and disapproval of the war. In November 1967, protests by soldiers of varying ranks culminated in the formation of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Membership remained small until 1970, but then VVAW began to attract support and attention. Its 1970 advertisement in Playboy drew 12,000 responses. In a heart-stopping display of contempt and defiance, on April 23, 1971, 700 veterans threw their medals and ribbons over a barricade onto the Capitol steps. Most servicemen were proud to have fought for America, but a majority also thought that the war had been a mistake, and an estimated 20 to 25 percent of them protested against it (Moser 1996).

In the case of Vietnam, people’s reasons for supporting the war simply broke down, partly because of the nature of the war itself, and partly because of the war’s impact on different components of American society. The antiwar activists won the day and raised questions about war and society that would remain on the national agenda for years to come.