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The Quality of Mercy:
A History of American Antiwar Movements

By Kevin Filan

Vietnam

U.S. Revolution   |  The Civil War   |  World War I   |  World War II   |  Vietnam

From the first days the war in Vietnam was a political quagmire. Lyndon Johnson knew that if he went in full-tilt the conflict was likely to escalate, involving the American Army in a war with the Chinese or Soviets. If he withdrew, however, he knew that Vietnam would fall to the Communists and he would be seen at home as "weak" and "soft on the Reds." Stuck between these two dilemmas, Johnson chose a middle ground. Disregarding the advice both of his "hawkish" military advisors and his "dovish" foreign policy advisors, he chose a sustained campaign of attrition, hoping that ultimately superior American manpower and firepower would drive the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Alas, in trying to appease everybody, Johnson succeeded in pleasing nobody. The 16,000 troops stationed in Vietnam at the end of the Kennedy Administration had grown to 537,000 by 1968… and the 636 combat deaths which the US had seen at the end of 1965 had grown by 1968 to 36,610.

This "limited war" was a difficult sell with the American public. There were few conventional battles, and few conventional targets. World War II publicists had Berlin and Tokyo; the Johnson Administration had to speak of far less glamorous goals like "pacification zones" and "kill ratios." To further complicate their lives, this was the first war beamed live into American homes; complete with images of body bags and wounded soldiers. By February 1966 Senator J. William Fulbright, once a personal friend of Johnson, was leading the first of what would become a series of televised hearings on the war and its conduct. Even before this the first student protests had begun. In March of 1965 the first "teach-in," a peaceful antiwar protest, was held at the University of Michigan; similar events followed throughout the country.

Immediately after Johnson's election, most liberals had refrained from antiwar rhetoric; they appreciated his "Great Society" programs and wanted to support his domestic "War on Poverty." As the conflict escalated, their support faded. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Free Speech Movement (FSM) grew larger and more vocal. Their criticism targeted not only the Vietnam War but poverty, racism and injustice in the United States. Soon they stopped calling for change in the government, and began calling for its overthrow. The clean-cut and temperate SDS leaders were replaced by a new breed of "hippies" and "freaks." Where the SDS had sought to reach out to the community and create consensus between the "Old Left" and the "New Left," the hippies sought to create a counterculture where they could "tune in, turn on and drop out."

By 1968, Johnson's withdrawal from the race and Richard Nixon's election, combined with mounting death tolls from the North Vietnamese "Tet Offensive," tilted the antiwar movement from liberal to radical. "Teach-ins" were replaced by sit-ins at Columbia and other universities. Protesters were now attacking not only the War but also the "Establishment" - and the troops who reported to Vietnam for their tours of duty. Returning soldiers were spat upon in airports and greeted with taunts of "Baby Killer," and calls for peace were increasingly replaced with shouts for violent revolution.

By 1969 the antiwar movement had become more powerful than ever… and more fragmented. Surveys showed that most Americans wanted us out of Vietnam, and yet had little patience for the hippies and their casual drug usage, promiscuity and bad fashion sense. The Christian pacifists who had helped draft dodgers escape to Canada or Sweden struggled to find common ground with self-proclaimed "Maoists" and "Stalinists" who took their lead not from the recently assassinated Martin Luther King but from Huey Newton and his militant Black Panther Party. Commentators began to speak of a "generation gap" separating those who had lived through World War II from their postwar children. The My Lai massacre, and the release of the Pentagon Papers fueled widespread outrage; so too did Jane Fonda's 1972 visit to North Vietnam and her broadcast on Radio Hanoi, where she praised the Vietnamese women "who are so gentle and poetic … but who, when American planes are bombing their city, become such good fighters." By 1973 there was a tenuous peace; by 1975 the last soldiers and POWs were home and Vietnam was firmly under Communist control.

The repercussions of Vietnam would linger for years. For the first time the American military had tasted defeat, and at the hands of what Henry Kissinger had called a "fourth-rate power." The antiwar movement had played a major role in ending a conflict which, in hindsight, we should never have entered… but at a tremendous cost to the American psyche. There was a new distrust for the government, which was only heightened by the Watergate scandal and by Nixon's subsequent resignation. There were also mounting economic troubles, brought about in no small part by LBJ's attempt to finance both his "Great Society" programs and a war halfway around the world. To this day the United States has remained reluctant to become involved in any conflict which might prove difficult, or which might lead to the loss of more than a few American lives. The current war in Iraq may become the exception to this rule, and serve as proof we have recovered from the "Vietnam Syndrome" … or that we did not learn the most valuable lesson of that conflict.

 

 


Mike Doughty



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