The student movement on a mass scale against the Vietnam War was the first and only in American history. It was also fundamental to a “student-led democracy movement” because it opposed at least two undemocratic structures: first, 18 years olds could not vote, and second, they could be conscripted (drafted for war). The same movement also brought about the War Powers Act, a 1973 Congressional measure to make the executive branch more accountable.
During previous American wars, peace movements were led either by religious groups (like the Quakers) or ideological ones (like the socialists who opposed World War One). Students were not a significant numerical force. By the Sixties, however, student numbers grew from about 3 million to 7 million nationally.
Also unique was the fact that the peace movement grew out of domestic movements for civil rights and against poverty, not from a foreign policy perspective like anti-imperialism. That’s what I mean about the sense that Vietnam actually invaded America, suddenly interrupting and derailing the work we were doing on domestic issues. We knew that the US government supported any regime that was anti-communist, including the Saigon government, but none of expected ground troops to be sent, at least not in 1962.
No one knows if JFK would have sent hundreds of thousands of ground troops to Vietnam had he lived. I personally don’t believe so. What is known is that he created the Special Forces to combat communist-led insurgencies, and he sent some 15,000 US advisors to support the Saigon armed forces. The decision to send ground troops was made by the Johnson government in November 1964.
We knew that politicians (Machiavellians) were willing to employ deceit to achieve their ends, but I don’t remember anyone thinking Johnson was lying during the 1964 presidential campaign when he promised never to send American ground troops to Vietnam. The realization that LBJ lied awakened and radicalized many young people and cast doubt on the electoral process as a whole.
The full-scale war began in February 1965 and lasted ten years. It was the longest war in our history until the current war in Afghanistan. Two million people would die in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with millions more wounded or turned into refugees. 58,000 American soldiers would die and 153,000 were wounded. The US troop levels reached 500,000. Cost of the war was hard to calculate but one Cornell study estimated $200 billion.
Some still say we fought with one arm behind our back because there was so much opposition at home. Whatever your view, the US did drop 7,078,032 tons of bombs on Indochina, more than three times the tonnage we dropped in Europe and Asia during World War Two.
Vietnam created a new cultural “syndrome” among Americans worried about blood and taxes being sunk into military quagmires. That memory continued to hang over Iraq and Afghanistan in recent decades, creating a pressure to keep the newer wars contained. Not that any unnecessary casualties can be justified, but consider the scale of Vietnam (ten years, 58,000 American soldiers dead, 153,000 wounded) to the toll in Iraq-Afghanistan (ten years, 6,367 American soldiers dead, 47,545 wounded, and an additional 58,320 suffering non-hostile injury and illness thus far). The point is that the US government and Pentagon are under constraints imposed by the memory of Vietnam.
We don’t really know the civilian casualty figures for these wars either, because the so-called body counts have been deliberately minimized. There is no truly independent, science-based authority counting civilian casualties, although everyone agrees the numbers are far more than 100,000 for Iraq and in the tens of thousands for Afghanistan. The point is that our government has reason to worry about a public reaction to civilian casualties. If the public really didn’t care about civilian casualties at all, there would not be such an effort to avoid publicizing the real numbers.
One million American soldiers committed suicide last year, the largest number ever. That’s another number you won’t find publicized much.
The point is that in any war democracy – the public’s right to independent information – is the first casualty – at least wounded if not killed outright.
So SDS and the early peace movement learned these things about war and democracy:
We would be drafted but could not vote;
True casualty numbers and tax costs were obscure and difficult to uncover.
There developed an anti-war strategy based on building a popular movement. The strategy was:
Influence public opinion by persuading the undecided;
Expose the true costs and the impact on domestic budget needs;
Support freedom of dissent in the armed forces (a GI peace movement);
Support a global peace movement to impact America’s image and posture.
I would call this strategy the application of people power against the pillars of the war policy.
Others call it an outside-inside strategy. The question still comes up today: should one work “inside the system”, in politics for example, or “outside the system”, in the streets for example. My answer is: both, because they are interactive
Chronology and Commentary
The early peace movement began at the margins, opposed by most liberals and conservatives who shared the Cold War view of the world that defined Vietnam as a pawn of the International Communist Conspiracy, or a “domino” in an international chess match. The US took over from the French who, after one hundred some years, left behind a colonized and Catholic regime in a very ancient, nationalist and Buddhist country. The Vietnamese Communist Party captured most of the nationalist sentiment because it fought the French and other foreign invaders.
The campus “teach-ins” explored all this hidden history, and were modeled somewhat on the southern sit-ins, began in Ann Arbor and spread to 100 campuses on March 24, 1965.
One month later, about 250,000 showed up for the first march against an ongoing war in anyone’s memory, organized by SDS.
In September 1965, the government announced plans to draft college students who were in the lower half of their classes academically. 40,000 were being called up per month. 680 were indicted for draft refusal that year. The revelation about academic ranking was a huge shock to students. It meant that universities were collaborating with draft boards and the Pentagon by supplying grade point data.
SDS responded by calling for draft exemptions based on humanitarian service, a proposal known as “build, not burn.” SDS was swiftly condemned in the national media and Congress.
In terms of the M/M model, here’s what was happening. SDS started at the margins, measured by public opinion and official support. SDS passed through a moment in April 1965 when the number of supporters, especially on campuses, became far broader than the original handfuls. SDS was entering the mainstream of discourse as the year 1965 went on, and the war became a dominant reality. SDS activists were motivated by moral outrage and a concrete grievance (the draft). This could be said to be the “Power Huron Period” in the movement’s history.
Things would escalate rapidly in the middle decade. Here I am including only the briefest of detail in order to offer a more general perspective.
SDS and other activists turned to “resistance” by 1967. This was believed to be a more radical stance than “reform”, and concretely meant resistance to the draft. If you couldn’t end the war, if you couldn’t legislate the end of the draft, there were two choices: be drafted into a war you didn’t believe in, or resist.
Seventy thousand Americans resisted, or “dodged”, by escaping to Canada. Hundreds went to jail. Thousands and thousands went to Vietnam, where many of them decided they had to oppose the war from the inside.
The Machiavellians adjusted their conscription policies to divide young people into two categories: students were made eligible for draft deferments while in school, and the rest were eligible to be called up.
The first draft card burnings took place in New York at a mass demonstration in April 1967. It was here that Martin Luther King spoke out against Vietnam for the first time, earning him sharp criticism by the New York Times and mainstream politicians.
During the academic years 1967-68 there were anti-draft protests at more than half the public universities.
In the summer of 1967 (“the summer of love”), an education outreach campaign called “Vietnam Summer” drew 20,000 volunteers to knock on doors.
The movement would turn more militant. Ramparts Magazine published a stunning revelation that the CIA was penetrating national student governments, in violation of the official ban on domestic spying. The Black Panther Party arose first in Lowndes County, Alabama, after the MFDP failure in 1964, and then appeared as an armed self-defense group on the streets of Oakland. The epithet “pig”, taken from the Panthers, first appeared in the SDS New Left Notes on September 25, 1967.
In 1967 there were prolonged protests and sit-ins in Madison against Dow Chemical recruiters on campus, a grievance picked up across the country. In Oakland, street protestors shut down the military recruitment center and were indicted on conspiracy charges. In October of that year, the government was shaken by over 100,000 demonstrators ringing the Pentagon itself, face-to-face with bayonet-wielding US troops.
SDS now was calling for direct action to cut off the Pentagon’s access to manpower (the draft), intelligence (university research on weapons), and other university resources for the war. In a sense the war was “coming home.”
1968 was the pivotal year. It began with the government indicting Dr. Benjamin Spock and five others for conspiring to promote draft resistance. 28,000 students signed a petition saying they were equally guilty.
By February the remaining illusions about Vietnam were destroyed in the Tet Offensive carried out by the Vietcong and North Vietnam in every region of Vietnam, even penetrating the US embassy in Saigon. This demonstrated that “pacification” was a lie, and forced Walter Cronkite to declare on national television that the war could not be one. Cronkite’s statement confirmed a new mainstream consensus.
At the same time Eugene McCarthy had been recruited to run for president by an anti-war organizer named Allard Lowenstein. No one paid attention at first, but a new moderate mainstream student movement became “clean for Gene” -- as opposed to the hippie stereotype -- and waged a door-to-door campaign in snowy New Hampshire, almost defeating LBJ in the Democratic primary. This was before the 18-year-old vote was legislated.
Shortly after LBJ consulted an elite group of advisers called “the Wise Men”, who told him the Vietnam war was becoming counter-productive and unwinnable and that, furthermore, the country was coming apart internally. Johnson announced his resignation shortly thereafter.
Bobby Kennedy now entered the race, thought to be an opportunist by the McCarthy people but considered a far more formidable candidate than vice-president Hubert Humphrey was expecting. SDS, already divided by internal factions, tended to view electoral politics as a trap and was very concerned that McCarthy and Kennedy were creating a pragmatic alternative to radicalism. SDS was right, in the sense that both McCarthy and Kennedy were worried about “irregular” protests outside the system. But the vast majority of protestors joined the presidential campaigns as apparently the surest ways to end the war and draft.
Martin Luther King was murdered, and Bobby Kennedy shortly afterward, signaling the close -- or very nearly the close -- of any peaceful path out of withdrawal from Vietnam and reform at home.
The Chicago riots at the August Democratic convention -- later termed a “police riot” by a national investigative commission -- demonstrated that the Democrats were fatally divided between their anti-war base and the party leadership. The events also provided fuel for Richard Nixon’s campaign pledging to restore “law and order.”
Humphrey finally broke from LBJ and promised a greater effort for peace last in the campaign, which helped him rapidly rise in the polls, too late. He lost by less than one percent of the popular vote. A third candidate, George Wallace, a bridge from the Old South segregationists and the future Tea Party Republicans, won 13 percent of the vote on an even harder law-and-order line.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan came to power as governor of California on a pledge to wipe out the “dirty beatniks” of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.
So by 1969, the following had happened: the movement had moved from the margins to the mainstream and split into militant (resistance) and moderate (McCarthy) camps. A majority of Americans were more concerned about law-and-order than peace-and-war. A majority in surveys did not say Vietnam was a “mistake” until 1970. The counter-movement of the FBI, Republicans, and Democratic hawks, Nixon, Reagan and Wallace succeeded in holding on to power and perpetuating the war for another five years.
If John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had not been assassinated, history might very well have turned out differently.
1970-75: Deeper Crisis, Ultimate Reform
The student-led peace movement, with SDS mostly divided, underground, or out of the picture, revived itself as a huge mainstream force in the period 1969-1973. The Moratorium of fall 1969 was the largest anti-war protest in history until that point, led largely by a new generation who had come through the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns, along with veteran activists as well.
Nixon committed the mistake of all counter-movements by going too far after taking power. He invaded Cambodia in 1970, touching off an even larger student wave of strikes than ever before. He encouraged the anti-SDS rhetoric of Ohio’s governor Rhodes, which created the atmosphere in which the National Guard shot 13 students on May 4, killing four. He sent burglars to break into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at Watergate. He burglarized the files of Dan Ellsberg’s Beverly Hills therapist. All this brought on the Watergate hearings and his resignation.
The more moderate movement elements triumphed politically by reforming the Democratic Party rules and nominating a peace candidate, George McGovern, in 1972. Although McGovern lost overwhelmingly to Nixon that year, his campaign succeeded in democratizing the party, in turn opening the presidential primaries to voters, requiring half the delegates be women, etc. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president, granting amnesty to the 70,000 Americans who taken sanctuary in Canada.
Between 1972 and 1975, the peace movement became very effective working inside the system after it had been opened up by outside protests. Grass roots activists were able to push House and Senate allies to cut off funding for the war. These early allies, besides McGovern and McCarthy, included Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, and many others.
Nixon was elected in 1972 on a “secret plan for peace.” After the election he actually escalated the bombing while withdrawing American troops from South Vietnam, a policy known as “Vietnamization.” In doing so, Nixon lessened anti-war sentiment to an extent but also left the corrupt Saigon government defenseless against the Vietcong and North Vietnam. When the war entered its final phase, Nixon, weakened by Watergate, was unable to muster support for sending back American troops, renewing bombing, or possibly threatening to use nuclear weapons. US personnel were driven out of Vietnam in a complete route. Gerald Ford, who declined to re-escalate the war, replaced Nixon.
Finally, Vietnam (in all its meanings) became the subject of long cultural battles over memory. The counter-movement believed that the war was “lost” by treasonous radicals and cowardly liberals who wouldn’t fight on. The centrists argued that it was all one huge mistake. The Left celebrated it as a hopeful sign that American militarism could be defeated and democracy preserved.
While those cultural wars continued down to the present time, the US government quietly normalized relationships with Vietnam, almost as if the war had never happened. In ultimate Machiavellian fashion, the US interest was in counter-balancing the influence of China in Southeast Asia, while preserving shipping lanes, markets and cheap labor sources there. They have largely achieved those strategic goals. Vietnam wanted to obtain United Nations recognition instead of global isolation, they wanted to recover and develop their economy after decades of war and destruction, and they too wanted a counter-balance to the influence of China, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therefore the Vietnamese decided their best interest lay in diplomatic, commercial, and even military relations with the US.
And so the unpredictable process goes on.
For a personal retrospect written in 2008, please read “Old Revolutionaries of Vietnam” at The Nation.