The antiwar movement against Vietnam in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant
movement of its kind in the nation's history. The United States first became directly
involved in Vietnam in 1950 when President Harry Truman started to underwrite the costs of
France's war against the Viet Minh. Later, the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and John
F. Kennedy increased the US's political, economic, and military commitments steadily
throughout the fifties and early sixties in the Indochina region. Prominent senators had
already begun criticizing American involvement in Vietnam during the summer of 1964, which
led to the mass antiwar movement that was to appear in the summer of 1965. This antiwar
movement had a great impact on policy and practically forced the US out of Vietnam.
Starting with teach-ins during the spring of 1965, the massive antiwar efforts centered
on the colleges, with the students playing leading roles. These teach-ins were mass public
demonstrations, usually held in the spring and fall seasons. By 1968, protesters numbered
almost seven million with more than half being white youths in the college. The teach-in
movement was at first, a gentle approach to the antiwar activity. Although, it faded when
the college students went home during the summer of 1965, other types of protest that grew
through 1971 soon replaced it. All of these movements captured the attention of the White
House, especially when 25,000 people marched on Washington Avenue. And at times these
movements attracted the interest of all the big decision-makers and their advisors
The teach-ins began at the University of Michigan on March 24, 1965, and spread to
other campuses, including Wisconsin on April 1. These protests at some of America's finest
universities captured public attention. The Demonstrations were one form of attempting to
go beyond mere words and research and reason, and to put direct pressure on those who were
conducting policy in apparent disdain for the will expressed by the voters (Spector,
30-31). Within the US government, some saw these teach-ins as an important development
that might slow down on further escalation in Vietnam. Although several hundred colleges
experienced teach-ins, most campuses were untouched by this circumstance.
Nevertheless, the teach-ins did concern the administration and contributed to President
Johnson's decision to present a major Vietnam address at Johns Hopkins University on April
7, 1965. The address tried to respond to the teach-ins campus protest activity. The Johns
Hopkins speech was the first major example of the impact of antiwar. Johnson was trying to
stabilize public opinion while the campuses were bothering the government.
In 1965, the US started strategically bombing parts of Northern Vietnam, catalyzing the
antiwar movement public opinion of what was going on in Indochina. These bombings spawned
the antiwar movement and sustained it, especially as the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi
Minh refused to listen to American demands (VN History and Politics). The antiwar movement
would have emerged alone by the bombings, and the growing cost of American lives coming
home in body bags only intensified public opposition to the war (VN H. and P.). This
movement against the Northern bombings, and domestic critics in general, played a role in
the decision to announce a bombing pause from May 12 to the 17, of 1965.
Antiwar activists carried on through the pause with their own programs, and the
scattered teach-ins had become more of a problem for President Johnson when their
organizers joined in an unofficial group, the Inter-University Committee for a Public
Hearing on Vietnam. This new committee began planning a nationwide teach-in to be
conducted on television and radio, of which would be a debate between protesters and
administrators of the government. The antiwar movement, through the national teach-in,
contributed to the resignations of many government officials, including the resignation of
McGeorge Bundy in early 1966. This well-publicized debate made the antiwar effort more
As supporters of the war found themselves more popular, they were driven increasingly
to rely on equating their position with "support for our boys in Vietnam."
(Brown, 34). The antiwar movement spread directly among the combat troops in Vietnam, who
began to wear peace symbols and flash peace signs and movement salutes. Some units even
organized their own demonstrations to link up with the movement at home (Schlight, 45).
For example, to join the November 1969 antiwar Mobilization, a unit boycotted its
Thanksgiving Day dinner (Schlight, 45). One problem of the antiwar movement was the
difficulty of finding ways to move beyond protest and symbolic acts to deeds that would
actually impede the war. Unlike college students and other civilians, the troops in
Vietnam had no such problem. Individual acts of rebellion, raging from desertion to
killing officers who ordered search-and-destroy missions, merged into mutinies and
large-scale resistance. (Sclight, 45).
Between the late summer of 1965 and the fall of 1966, the American military effort in
Vietnam accelerated from President Johnson's decisions. The number of air sorties over
Northern Vietnam now increased again, from 25,000 in 1965 to 79,000 in 1966. The antiwar
movement grew slowly during this period and so did the number of critics in Congress and
the media. A ban on picketing the White House was recommended. Instead, President Johnson
and later Nixon combated the picketers through a variety of legal and illegal harassment,
including limiting their numbers in certain venues and demanding letter-perfect permits
for every activity. (Gettleman, 67). The picketers were a constant battle, which the
presidents could never claim total victory.
By 1967, US military authority was breaking apart. Not only was it the worst year for
President Johnson's term, but also one of the most turbulent years in all of American
history. The war in Southeast Asia and the war at home in the streets and the campuses
dominated the headlines and the attention of the White House. To make matters worse, 1967
witnessed more urban riots; the most deadly of which took place in Detroit. It was also
the year of the hippies, the drugs, and a wholesale assault on morality and values; and
all of these singular happenings were magnified by the media. (VN H. and P.). The antiwar
effort was crippling Johnson's presidency and paralyzing the nation.
Now the war was becoming more unpopular at home. By the middle of 1967, many Americans
began telling that the original involvement in Vietnam had been a costly mistake. And for
Johnson, only a little more than a quarter of the population approved of his handling the
war in 1968. Many of those fed up at home were the hawks. The hawks were the group of
people that supported the war. They wanted to remove the shackles from the generals and
continue the bombings over Vietnam. However, Johnson's critics among the doves were far
more troubling. The doves were usually blue-collar workers and wanted to end Vietnam
immediately. In the first place, they were far more vocal and visible than the hawks,
appearing at large, well-organized demonstrations. Even more disconcerting were the
continuing defections from the media and the Democratic Party. The antiwar movement that
began as a small trickle had now became a flood (Small, 101). The most important antiwar
event of 1967 was the March on the Pentagon in October, which was turning point for the
Johnson administration. With public support for Johnson's conduct of the war fading, the
president fought back by overselling modest gains that his military commanders claimed to
be making. This overselling of the war's progress played a major role in creating the
domestic crisis produced by the Tet Offensive in early 1968, sparked from the protesters'
actions. Although these marchers were unable to levitate the besieged Pentagon, their
activities ultimately contributed to the redirection of the American policy in Vietnam by
1968-and the destruction of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (VN H. and P.).
Johnson finally realized-the energized antiwar forces spelled the beginning of the end
for American involvement in the war. (VN H. and P. ). Thus, the administration dug in for
a long and dramatic time of protests, uncivil disobedience, and numerous arrests. The size
of these demonstration crowds often varied but there were no disagreements about the major
events of protest. They began with peaceful series of speeches and musical presentations.
Then many of the participants tried to march the various government grounds, most
importantly taking place at the Lincoln Memorial. For most Americans, the events were
symbolized by television images of dirty-mouthed hippies taunting the brave, clean-cut
American soldiers who confronted the unruly demonstrators (VN H. and P.).
Americans were soon shocked to learn about the communists' massive Tet Offensive on
January 31, 1968. The offensive demonstrated that Johnson had been making the progress in
Vietnam seem much greater than it really was; the war was apparently endless. Critics of
the administration policy on the campuses and Capitol Hill had been right after all. For
the first time, the state of public opinion was the crucial factor in decision making on
the war. Johnson withdrew his candidacy for reelection in March of 1968, and he was
offering the communists generous terms to open peace talks.
In the meantime, as the war continued to take its bloody toll, the nation prepared to
elect a new president. The antiwar movement had inadvertently helped Richard Nixon win the
election. As Johnson's unhappy term of office came to an end, antiwar critics and the
Vietnamese people prepared to do battle with their new adversary (Small, 124). The new
president expressed more outward signs from hawks not the doves, now that Johnson now out
of office. Like many of his advisors, Nixon was bothered with the antiwar movement since
he was convinced that it prolonged the war. He could not understand how the current
generation of young people could include both brave young marines and hippies and
draft-card burners (VN H. and P.). Richard Nixon assumed the presidency with a secret plan
to end the war. Although most doves did not believe in the new president to do so, they
were prepared to give him time to execute the plan. Nixon had a plan to end the war. He
wanted to increase the pressure on the communists, issue then a deadline to be
conciliatory, and to keep this entire secret from the American public (VN H. and P.).
Thus, the number of casualties increased in the late winter and spring as the bombings of
Northern Vietnam continued once again.
It did not take long for the antiwar critics and organization to take up where it had
left off with Lyndon Johnson. They got ready for another campaign of petitioning and
demonstrating with the center of it all involving the middle-class. The deadline for the
communists past, and the failure to follow with his strategy was the rejuvenation of the
antiwar movement centered on the very successful demonstrations in October of 1969. Nixon
now feared that the public, led by a confident antiwar movement, would demand a much
quicker withdrawal from Vietnam than he had planned. With that deadline approached, Henry
Kissinger, the most important Vietnam policymaker asked a group of Quakers to give Nixon
six months, if the war is not over then, "You can come back and tear down the White
House." (VN H. and P.).
In May 1970, Nixon gambled that he could buy time for Vietnamization through an attack
on Cambodian sanctuaries to destroy communist command-and-supply buildings, while
containing the protest that he knew his action would provoke. His gamble failed, when
poorly trained National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, on May 4.
This made the expected protests much worse than anyone in Washington could have foreseen.
The wave of demonstrations on hundreds of college campuses paralyzed America's
higher-education system. The Kent State tragedy ignited a nationwide campus disaster.
Between May 4 and May 8, campuses experienced an average of 100 demonstrations a day, 350
campus strikes, 536 colleges shut down, and 73 colleges reported significant violence in
their protests. On that weekend, 100,000 people gathered to protest in Washington. By May
12, over 150 colleges were on strike (VN H. and P.)
Many of Nixon's activities during the second week of May revolved around the Kent State
crisis. On May 6, he met with the delegation of the university. But with the storm of
people on the outside of the White House, the government never completely stopped. Despite
Nixon's claims that the media did not portray his serious intentions accurately, his own
records reveal almost no discussion of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Kent State at the time. On
December 15, Nixon announced his intention to withdraw an additional fifty thousand troops
in 1970. Even the president's faith in that position was shattered after the unprecedented
nationwide protests against his invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. (Lewis, 83).
As the Nixon administration tried to piece together in the weeks after the crisis, a
dramatic decline in antiwar occurred once the colleges closed. The nationwide response to
the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State killings was the last movement by the people,
which had such an impact like the summer of 1970. Nixon began to plan a new and even more
vigorous offensive against the movement. However, Nixon and his aides still felt
undersized during the summer of 1970-from the media, movement, and Congress.
For whatever reasons, campus demonstrations and general antiwar activity declined after
the spring of 1970. The number and size of marches and protests declined as reported by
the mass media. For Nixon, the nation was full with marches, strikes, boycotts, and other
forms of activism during the last two years of his administration. Some protesting still
lingered, and in the late summer on August 7, 1970, when a young researcher at the
University of Wisconsin was killed when the building in which he was working was fire
bombed. But the Dove rallies were poorly attended; the movement was winding down. It was
not just that the movement was doing poorly, as Nixon himself was doing much better,
becoming a popular Democratic spokesperson. On September 16, he appeared to cheering
crowds at Kansas State University.
The antiwar movement figured indirectly in the outcome of Vietnam. After Saigon fell,
the Watergate affair crippled Nixon's presidency and dominated his political life until
his resignation in August 1974. During this period, he was far too weak to contest with
Congress over a renewal of American military involvement in Vietnam. As the crisis in
Southern Vietnam now deepened in the middle of 1974, the new president, Gerald Ford,
wanted to increase military aide to the faltering Saigon regime. Congress refused his
requests to what it saw as pouring more money and lives away. Continuing in 1974 to 1975,
the public with the movement, led by Congress and the media, all influenced the arguments
presented to more financial and military commitments in Vietnam. The struggle of the
American minds was over, for there would be no more Vietnams in the near future. ( VN H.
Among the most convincing theories of the movement were that it exerted pressures
directly on Johnson and Nixon it contributed to the end of their policies. The movement
exerted pressures indirectly by turning the public against the war. It encouraged the
Northern Vietnamese to fight on long enough to the point that Americans demanded a
withdrawal from Southeast Asia; it influenced American political and military strategy;
and, slowed the growth of the hawks. It is now clear that the antiwar movement and antiwar
criticism in the media and Congress had a significant impact on Vietnam. It's key points
being the mass demonstrations by the college students across the country and the general
public opposition to the war effort in Vietnam. At times, some of their activities, as
displayed by the media, may have produced a patriotic backlash. (Gaullucci, 194). Overall,
the movement eroded support for Johnson and Nixon, especially by the informed public.
Through constant dissident, experts in the movement, the media, and the campuses helped to
destroy the knee-jerk notion that "they in Washington have created." (Small 164
). Thus, from the beginning of the US involvement in Indochina's affairs, the antiwar
movement in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant movement of its kind in the
Brown, McAfee, et al. Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience. New York: Association Press, 1967
Gaullucci, Robert L. Neither Peace Nor Honor. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Gettleman, Marvin E. Vietnam and America: A documented history. New York: Grove Press,
Lewis, Lloyd B. The Tainted War. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Meyerson, Joel D. Images of a Lengthy War. Washington, DC: Library of Congress
Cataloging in Publication Data, 1986.
Schlight, John. Indochina War Symposium. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office,
Small, Melvin. Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,
Spector, Ronald H. "Researching the Vietnam Experience" Historical Analysis
Series. April1984: 30-31.
VN History and Politics Rpt.Http://wwwpersonal.umich.edu:80/~hpp/hispo.html 1996