The Anti-War Movement and the effects of the War on the USA

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Key objective:
To be able to explain:

  • The effects of the war in the US including: media coverage; the My Lai Massacre; the effects of the draft; university protests and Kent State Shootings; the Fulbright Hearings and the Pentagon Papers

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Zippo raids
  • Teach ins
  • J. William Fulbright
  • My Lai massacre
  • Charlie Company
  • William Calley
  • Kent State shootings
  • Pentagon Papers
  • Daniel Ellsberg

The Vietnam war divided the country like nothing since the Civil War itself. It led to mass protests and demonstrations and led to violent confrontations between those who believed that America was wrong to be in Vietnam and those who believed that such protests were unpatriotic and played into the hands of the nation’s enemies.

Media coverage

  • Media coverage was clearly an essential part of the protest movement – without it, Americans would have had no access to knowledge of events.
  • Vietnam was the world’s first ‘living room war’, in which not only press but television covered events in a largely uncensored way.
  • Unlike most governments at war, the US government made no official attempt to censor the coverage of war in Vietnam: Dean Rusk, US Secretary of State said ‘This was the first struggle fought on Television in everybody’s living room every day… whether ordinary people can sustain a war effort under that kind of daily hammering is a very large question.’
  • On 14th February 1965, James Reston wrote in the New York Times, ‘The time has come to call a spade a bloody shovel. This country is in an undeclared and unexplained war in Vietnam. Our masters have a lot of long and fancy names for it, like escalation and retaliation, but it is a war just the same.’
  • The coverage of the war was increasingly critical of the American conduct of the war. On August 5 1965, at Cam Ne near Dnang, a TV report for CBS television showed a Zippo raid in which 150 houses were destroyed for the sake of capturing four prisoners. Journalists were increasingly asking tough questions about what constituted progress. Coverage of the suffering of innocent civilians led to increased criticism of the role of the US in Vietnam and hostility towards soldiers returning from their tour of duty.
  • One of the most influential acts during the war was the decision of Life Magazine in 1968 to fill one edition of its magazine with photographs of the 242 US soldiers killed in Vietnam during one week of the fighting.
  • Walter Cronkite, a highly respected TV journalist had been strongly supportive of the war until a February 1968 visit to Vietnam during the Tet offensive after which he concluded that the war could not be won. ‘If I’ve lost Walter’, Johnson was reported to say, ‘then it’s over. I’ve lost Mr Average Citizens.’ Johnson’s approval rating subsequently fell from 48 to 36%. In March, he announced his withdrawal from the presidential race.
  • Peter Braestrup of the New York Times said of the Tet Offensive that for the first time in modern history the outcome of the war was determined, not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all on the TV screen.
  • In 1972, one of the most haunting photographs of the war was published by the New York Times, which depicted a little girl whose clothes had been burned off by a napalm attack on her village on June 8th, shouting Nóng quá, nóng quá (“too hot, too hot”). This was just one of many that revolted liberal Americans about what its country was doing in their name and with their taxes.
  • According to William Westmoreland, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, the media in America ‘created an aura of defeat’ rather than of victory.

The My Lai Massacre as turning point

  • One of the most important stories emerged in 1969, when the news of the My Lai massacre where 500 innocent civilians had been systematically killed by Charlie Company was revealed in the press, despite attempts to cover up what had happened.
  • The publicity surrounding the My Lai massacre proved to be an important turning point in American public opinion. It illustrated the deterioration that was taking place in the behaviour of the US troops and undermined the moral argument about the need to save Vietnam from the “evils of communism”. Vietnam was not only being destroyed in order to “save it” but it was becoming clear that those responsible for defeating communism were being severely damaged by their experiences.
  • In 1971 after considerable pressure, the officer in charge, William Calley was brought to trial. Calley received considerable sympathy from the American public when he stated: “When my troops were getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch… nobody in the military system ever described them anything other than Communists.” Even Seymour Hersh, the reporter who had first published details of the My Lai killings, admitted that Calley was “as much a victim as the people he shot.”

The Draft and its effects

  • Two thirds of the soldiers in Vietnam were there voluntarily, but a third were drafted in. This became one bone of contention because deferments were made available to college students, and so the draft predominantly affected the lower classes and was racially biased. This caused divisions among the troops in Vietnam, which became a microcosm of the social conflicts going on in America.
  • In October 1967 draft cards were publicly burned throughout the country. Berkley radicals tried to close down draft HQ in Oakland.
  • College students had always been at the forefront of protests, but the decision to end exemptions for students from February 1968 increased the protests even further. Middle class America became mobilised in more ways than one.



The protests, the Moratorium and the Kent State Shootings

  • Protests began almost as soon as ground troops were officially deployed in Vietnam, with students and their teachers holding ‘teach-ins’ in universities. In the Spring of 1965 the Students for a Democratic Society led a 25,000 strong March on Washington.
  • Protests grew so that by 21st October 1967 100,000 attended a Washington D. C. rally at the Lincoln memorial.
  • By 1967 various anti-war groups worked together to form the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, organised large demonstrations against the war, included respected public figures like Dr Jonathan Spock and Martin Luther King. In the same year Vietnam Veterans against the War was formed.
  • At the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago in August 1968, thousands of anti-war protesters turned out. The protests grew violent and there were 668 arrests and 192 police injuries.
  • In November 1969, the Moratorium March on Washington attracted 500,000 demonstrators calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops.
  • As a result of the invasion of Cambodia, protests increased. In May 4th 1970 – one such protest at Kent State University led to a massacre resulting from a confrontation between students and young, nervous, under-trained, and badly-led national guardsmen (some of whom had probably joined the national guard in order to avoid the draft). Armed with live ammunition, they shot four students to death and injured several others. In the days that followed 450 colleges closed to protest the killings.

The Fulbright Hearings and the Pentagon Papers

  • In 1966 a series of hearings on the Vietnam War were chaired by Democratic senator J. William Fulbright who, frustrated with an inability to get a straight answer from anyone inside the Johnson administration about what was going on in Vietnam, began to talk about a ‘credibility gap.’
  • The hearings culminated in 1971, when a number of Vietnam veterans testified before the Fulbright Committee, led by John Kerry – later presidential candidate and Secretary of State under Barack Obama – who said at one point: “…I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
  • The 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg revealed to the nation that the government had not been honest with the people or with Congress about the nature of its interventions in Vietnam. By 1971 most people knew that. What was far more shocking was the extent to which it revealed the government’s doubts about US prospects for success even as it was sending more and more soldiers to Vietnam.

Conclusions
Was Westmoreland correct in blaming press coverage for handing victory to Vietcong? Had the civilian government in Washington allowed itself to be influenced by press coverage and war protests? Did the Tet offensive change American opinion? Some within Johnson’s administration were having doubts – none more so than Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defence who had been at the forefront of the US government’s policy in Vietnam since 1961. His own son and daughter participated in the anti-war protests and McNamara blamed himself for his wife’s stomach ulcer, complained of chest pains and burst into tears during discussions before his resignation came in November 1967. However, it was not just protest in the street and coverage in the newspapers that brought pressure to bear on Johnson. On 25 March 1968, the Wise Men completed a 180 degree turn on the view that they had given Johnson back in November 1967 and now advised him to seek some kind of a retreat. Congress was now pressing hard for retreat and polls were discouraging with 78% of Americans believing that America was not making any progress in the war and 74% believing that Johnson was not handling the war well. It was not just the Tet offensive that changed middle America, however. In 1965 the US government deficit had been $1.6 billion. By 1968 it was $25.3 billion. The balance of payments deficit had dramatically weakened the dollar on the international money market, causing a gold crisis which, for many Americans, was a final straw. Nonetheless, Johnson withdrew from the presidency in 1968 not because he faced certain defeat in the election – that was far from certain – but because the strain of Vietnam was taking its toll on his health. Adam Garfinkle (1995) argues that whilst protest did not end the war in Vietnam, it did did restrain Johnson and his successor.

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