Protests Back Home
The Vietnam War was different from other wars — it was the first one brought straight into the living rooms of urban and rural communities all across the country and, in fact, the world. There are historians who suggest that the intimacy of the war, along with the politics of it, made it one of the least popular wars in history.
The protest that developed was “the largest and most effective antiwar movement in American history,” according to Melvin Small in The Oxford Companion to American Military History.
- Organized protests against the war began in 1963 when pacifists commemorated the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with anti-Vietnam protests.
- In 1964, students marched in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and the farm state capitol of Madison, Wisconsin.
- In 1965, teachers at the University of Michigan organized a “teach-in” in opposition to the war in March. The event was repeated at 35 other campuses across the country. In April, 25,000 protestors marched on Washington, DC. In May, the first draft card burnings took place. In June, protestors marched on the Pentagon and tried to stop trains transporting troops to Vietnam. In October, as many as 100,000 protestors marched in 80 cities and towns around the world. In November, 25,000 protestors surrounded the White House and the Washington Monument. The same day, Pres. Johnson announced he was escalating the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam from 120,000 to 400,000.
- In 1966, there were hundreds of demonstrations around the country. Returning Vietnam veterans began to protest when up to 100 attempted to return their medals to the White House. They were turned back. Mohammad Ali announced that he refused to go to war because of his recent conversion to Islam.
- In 1967, the pace of protest quickened, and for the first time, a Gallup poll reported that 52 percent of Americans disapproved of Johnson’s handling of the war. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War. Marches were held all across the country including the United Nations building, the Pentagon, the Lincoln Memorial, various draft boards and even Wall Street. In one protest, organizers had planned to drop 10,000 flowers on the Pentagon, but undercover agents betrayed the plan. So, the flowers were distributed to protesters who placed them in the rifle barrels of National Guard troops.
- 1968 turned violent. Police began cracking down on protestors. Martin Luther King was assassinated and riots followed. Anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy got a strong second place finish in the New Hampshire primary. TV news anchor Walter Cronkite came out in an editorial against the war. President Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Then one of Johnson’s advisors told him that Wall Street leaders were against the war. A few days later, Johnson surprised the country by pulling out of the race for re-election. Two weeks before, in mid-March, Robert Kennedy entered the race as an anti-war candidate. He won crucial primaries in Indiana, Nebraska and California. The same June night as his California win, he was assassinated. In August, anti-war protestors descended on the Democratic national convention in Chicago asking for an anti-war plank in the platform. What they got was a police riot that injured hundreds both outside and inside the convention hall. Much of the violence was televised.
- By October, 1969, 58 percent of the Gallup respondents said the U.S. never should have gotten into the war in the first place. That same month, months of protests culminated in millions of Americans marching all across the country in what was billed as “The Moratorium.”
- In 1970, President Nixon decided to invade Cambodia to try and stop weapons coming into Vietnam. In protest, students on hundreds of campuses went on “strike.” On May 4, at Kent State, Ohio, four protestors were killed by National Guard troops. Ten days later, students at Jackson State College in Mississippi were protesting the war, the Kent State killings and racism when violence broke out and police killed two students.
- By 1971, President Nixon was removing American troops from Vietnam, changes had been made to the draft to make it more fair and the protests subsided.
As military units began coming home, some cities organized “Welcome Home” parades, but most Vietnam combat veterans simply came home unnoticed. There were some reports of hostility toward veterans, especially after reports of atrocities like the My Lai massacre were in the press. But most veterans, like John Turnbull (left), simply flew back home. “I got off one charter flight, went to the terminal and got another flight to Ohio to see the gal that I’m now married to,” he says. “The public shrugged, we shrugged, and that was that.”
For Don Freeman (right), the protests went a bit too far. “I guess dissent’s okay,” he says, “as long as it’s construction dissent. I think some of what we had back then was destructive dissent.”