The antiwar movement in the US from 1965-1971 was the most important movement of its kind in this nations history. The United States first became involved in Vietnam in 1950 when President Harry Truman started to under estimate the costs of France’s war against the Viet Minh. Later, presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy increased the US’s political, economic, and military commitments steadily throughout the fifties and early sixties in Vietnam. Well known senators had already begun criticizing American involvement in Vietnam during the summer of 1964, which led to the largest antiwar movement that America has ever seen. The antiwar movement radically changed American policy and forced the U.S. out of Vietnam. (“Antiwar_”) The main reasons behind American opposition to the Vietnam War can be divided into the following categories: feelings against the draft, ethical, legal arguments against U.S. intervention, and the reaction to how the media portrayed the devastation in Vietnam.
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Protest to the draft or conscription has been an aspect of all American wars, from as early as the Spanish American War in 1898 and up to now in Iraq and Afghanistan. However during the Vietnam War, draft evasion and draft resistance reached an all-time high. Almost 27 million men were of age to be drafted during the Vietnam War; of those 27 million, 16 million never served (Haugen 60). Many did not serve due to medical reasons or religious convictions. Others did not serve because they were still in school so they simply deferred. Of the 16 million that didn’t serve many, not all used these exemptions to purposely not be drafted. The revolt inside the military combined with the enormous civilian antiwar movement, draft resistance somewhat put a restraint on the government’s ability to wage a war in Vietnam, and brought the war home in a personal way for that generation of young men. Draft resisters filed as conscientious objectors, and didn’t report for induction when called, or even attempted to claim they were disabled. Soldiers went AWOL or and people that were called to service fled to Canada through Underground Railroad networks of antiwar supporters all to avoid going to Vietnam (Kindig).
The decision to use the draft lotto system for the war increased the level of protest by thousands. However, to keep the support of the intelligent and influential members of society, college students were not called up to serve. In fact, colleges were the epicenter of the antiwar movement. Thousands of students throughout America still protested what they believed to be an attack on the people’s right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to fight for their country or not.
Between 1963 and 1973, nine thousand one hundred and eighteen men, young and old, were prosecuted for both burning draft cards and refusing to be drafted into the army. In 1965, David Miller, burnt his draft card in public and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. This inspired many people throughout America, and inspired Anti-Vietnam War groups to organize meetings where young men burnt their draft cards. Of the most famous of these was Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay , the heavyweight boxing world champion (“Vietnam Protest”) Cassius declared himself a conscientious objector, and stated that he was Muslim and that it was against his religion to take a life. He then changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The governor of Illinois called Ali “disgusting” and the governor of Maine said that Ali “should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American”. In 1967, Ali was sentenced to 5 years in prison for draft evasion, but his conviction was later overturned on appeal. In addition, he was stripped of his title and banned from professional boxing for more than three years (“Gale”).
Muhammad Ali was one of the many distinguished African American figures to speak out against the war. Other Civil Rights leader, including Martin L. King stated that because of the draft immunity enjoyed by college students, it was mostly the poor and blacks that were being sent off to serve in Vietnam. In fact between 1966 and 1968 forty percent of U.S. combat troops fighting in Vietnam were black (Haugen 51). Confounding this anger at the governments “draft” policy was the fact many states in the south denied African Americans the right to vote in elections. Meaning that African Americans were fighting in Vietnam for a nation which denied them the rights they were fighting to give another country (“Vietnam Protest”).
“By 1967, antiwar activists in the democratic party were angry that no politician had risen to challenge Lyndon Johnson’s conduct during the war in Vietnam. That year, several of these democrats convinced Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy to run against Johnson for the democratic ticket in the coming election. No one expected that Johnson-who had a strong popularity rating-would be defeated, but the antiwar supporters hoped that McCarthy’s bid would at least force a discussion of American policies in Vietnam. McCarthy, however, canvassed college campuses for support and soon had a huge army of America’s youth behind him. In his nomination speech, McCarthy argued that America was paying high price for its war in Vietnam, and that the current administration was willing to spend billions of dollars and waste tens of thousands of America’s young men without any end in sight. McCarthy insisted a change was needed.”(Haugen 54)
As the public became more and more upset with the war in Vietnam, a large number of groups and organizations were created to oppose the war effort. “The massive antiwar efforts centered on colleges, with the students playing leading roles. The antiwar movement in the US from 1965-1971 was the most significant movement of its kind in the nation’s history. The movement attracted members from college campuses, middle-class suburbs, labor unions, and government institutions; the movement gained national prominence in 1965, peaked in 1968, and remained powerful throughout the duration of the conflict. This antiwar movement had a great impact on American foreign policy and essentially forced the US out of Vietnam (Barringer). These teach-in’s were mass public demonstrations usually in the spring or fall. By 1968, protesters numbered almost seven million with more than half being white youths in college.” (“Anti-war.”)
The teach-in movement was gentle in the beginning, but after college students went home in the late 1960’s, a new type of protesting came up and replaced the old way. These new movements grabbed the eyes of the White House, especially when twenty five thousand protesters marched down Washington Avenue. Over the next 2 years, the antiwar movement snowballed. Many Activists like Abbie Hoffmann, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and celebrities and musicians like Jane Fonda and Jefferson Airplane, and countless others took up the antiwar cause and waved antiwar banners. Their different speeches and their music reflected the anger and hopelessness that many Americans felt over the Vietnam War. Even the GI’s stationed overseas began supporting the antiwar movement in whatever way they could, from wearing peace symbols to refusing to obey certain orders (Bexte).
By late 1967, in America protestors actually started causing problems. As the bombings and body count in Vietnam continued to rise; so did civil unrest. One hundred thousand antiwar protesters gathered in New York City, thousands more in San Francisco. There were urban riots in Detroit. Antiwar rallies, speeches, demonstrations and concerts continued being organized all over the country. There was a backlash against everything that was military. Soldiers returning home from overseas were no longer called as heroes but “baby killers” (Bexte).
Next came Richard Nixon, and his main campaign promise to Americans was that he would end the war with Vietnam with systematic troop withdrawals. Yet the American presence in Vietnam remained the same and casualties actually increased, as did the cost of running the war effort. Taxpayers were paying 25 billion dollars per year to finance a conflict that no one believed in anymore. The Woodstock concert brought five hundred thousand together from across North America in a non-violent protest against the war. Then Nixon’s plan to attack communist supply locations in Cambodia failed and set off another round of protests. This was followed by the Kent State student protest in May of 1970 which turned deadly when National Guardsman fired into crowds, killing 4 students and injuring dozens more. Students all across the country became enraged and over the next few days and campuses all over the US came to a virtual standstill (Bexte).
Media coverage helped millions of people to see graphic scenes of human suffering in the Vietnam War and the powerful protests and demonstrations on back at home.
“For almost a decade in between school, work, and dinners, the American public could watch villages being destroyed, Vietnamese children burning to death, and American body bags being sent home. Though initial coverage generally supported U.S involvement in the war, television news dramatically changed its frame of the war after the Tet Offensive. Images of the U.S led massacre at My Lai dominated the television, yet the daily atrocities committed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely made the evening news. Moreover, the anti-war movement at home gained increasing media attention while the U.S soldier was forgotten in Vietnam” (McLaughlin).
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This quote makes it very clear that media coverage of the Vietnam War was graphic and painted America somewhat negatively. The media criticized American tactics and actions left and right. The coverage made it look like America was the cruel merciless army that would kill civilians and destroy cities; however North Vietnam and the Viet Cong’s brutality went unseen in the media, because of this Americans looked at the media like America was doing the wrong thing and needed to be stopped quickly. This portrayal was helpful to gaining much more support back in America, even if the help was gained through very biased media.
People on both sides of the Vietnam issue knew that the media was a powerful tool in influencing the public opinion in the United States. President Johnson also knew this, and to keep the public sympathizing with him, he asked military leaders to issue progress reports. These reports gave facts and figures supporting Johnson’s claims that communist forces in Vietnam were finally being defeated. But when Americans watched the evening news, they heard and saw a far different story (McLaughlin).This was called the credibility gap. The credibility gap was the idea that what Americans saw on television and read or heard from politicians wasn’t always the whole complete truth (McCormick).
The military and politicians covered up situations for years before they were discovered in Vietnam. For example there was an entire village was killed for close to no reason. In March 1968, a unit of American soldiers were given orders to kill everyone in the village of My Lai in South Vietnam. They had received this order because the military had given reports that some of the village had been aiding the North Vietnamese. Even though no one in the village had even fired a shot, the soldiers lead everyone from the village into a large ditch and opened up on them with automatic rifles. This was called the My Lai Massacre (McCormick). Military officials were able to cover this up for over a year, but when the story of the tragic unnecessary destruction of a village reached the press, m any Americans were shocked. Television coverage of the My Lai Massacre was the most damaging for the American soldier’s reputation. Though first reports stated that the operation killed one hundred enemy soldiers in March 1968, it was revealed a year later that Lt. William Calley and his taskforce had killed up to three hundred and fifty South Vietnamese civilians. The massacre and Lt. Calley’s trial became one of the wars leading stories. Moreover, it introduced the subject of American war crimes into television’s coverage of the war (McLaughlin).
In conclusion, the antiwar movement in the US from 1965-1971 was the most important movement of its kind in this nation’s history. The main reasons behind American opposition to the Vietnam War can be divided into the following categories: opposition against the draft, ethical and legal arguments against U.S. intervention, and the reaction to how the media portrayed the devastation in Vietnam. People involved with the antiwar movement believed the draft lotto system to be an attack on the people’s right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to fight for their country or not. This can also show the ethical problem people had with Vietnam, many believed we had no right to be there at all and our tactics were immoral. Also the media played an enormous part in influencing the public. It showed Americans at home the brutal reality of what was happening in South Vietnam and no one liked what they saw. It was all these factors that contributed to creating the Vietnam antiwar movement. The antiwar movement radically changed American policy and forced the U.S. out of Vietnam.
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