Anti Vietnam War Protest Mobilization

Table of Content

In our work we are going to discuss strategies and key players from the Anti-War groups, how the groups used their funding to mobilize and what were their greatest opposition, and from the U.S government, what was the war strategy, how the suppressed the demands from the Anti-War groups and what really made the government stop the war.

At first we should say that the anti-Vietnam War movement was the largest and most effective antiwar movement in American history (Chatfield and DeBenedetti 387-408). Despite its successes in influencing opinion leaders, decisionmakers, ordinary citizens–and Hanoi–it never captured the support of a majority of the American people, even when a majority began expressing opposition to continued involvement in Vietnam. If anything, some movement activities, especially mass demonstrations, may have retarded the growth of antiwar sentiment (Mueller 164-165). Anti-war movement grew slowly. At first most Americans opposed antiwar activities, and many even opposed the doves’ right to march or peacefully assemble (Skolnick 23). Moreover, administration denunciations of dissenters as unpatriotic, violent radicals wounded the movement. Americans’ innate wariness of leftwing protesters and their leaders’ offensives against such opponents were reenforced by the way the media treated antiwar activities.

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Those who took part major antiwar demonstrations concentrated on violent and radical–albeit colorful–behavior on the fringes of the activity, undercounted the crowds. In addition, because of a misapplication of the “fairness doctrine,” especially on television, journalists bent over backwards to present the views and activities of counterdemonstrators and administration spokespersons in order to balance those of the doves. Such unfavorable coverage of the movement’s activities and objectives slowed the growth of anti-Vietnam War sentiment in the United States from 1965 through 1971.

The scattered opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War began to become a “movement” in the late winter of 1965, after Lyndon Johnson ordered the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Prior to that point, antiwarriors had organized no successful mass demonstrations, even after the Gulf of Tonkin incident the previous August, and no permanent group had formed devoted exclusively to the cause of American deescalation or withdrawal. An antiwar movement slowly began to develop in the United States in February, 1965, in response to the Johnson administration’s decision to bomb North Vietnam. No other American action in Southeast Asia so catalyzed critics of the war. The image of the United States bombing a peasant nation with which it was not at war troubled people the world over and immediately made it difficult for the administration to employ moral arguments to sell its case. “Stop the Bombing” became a central theme at antiwar demonstrations throughout Johnson’s last three years in office. And his cause looked worse in late 1966 when bombs began falling closer and closer to North Vietnamese urban centers.

Although some Americans had earlier opposed other escalatory acts, particularly during the Gulf of Tonkin crisis the previous August, no groups organized effective demonstrations, marches, or other oppositional activities that attracted significant attention from the media, the public, or the administration. Even after the first round of bombing in early February, Women Strike for Peace (WSP) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) could only enlist a few hundred stalwarts to picket the White House on February 10. It took a few months of sustained bombing for the movement to reach a point where leaders could gather a critical mass of protestors who would be noticed by other Americans.

Main anti-war demonstrations are: the SDS Washington demonstration on April 17, the Washington teach-in on May 15, and the International Days of Protest on October 15-16; in 1967: the March on the Pentagon on October 21-22; in 1969: the Moratorium on October 15 and the Mobilization on November 15; and in 1971: the demonstrations in Washington from April 19 through May 5.

All of the mass demonstrations that drew more than ten thousand participants are catalogued in Berkowitz, “The Impact of Anti-Vietnam Demonstrations.” The key events are, in 1965: the SANE rally in Washington on November 27; in 1966: the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings in February, the Second International Days of Protest on March 25-27, Robert S. McNamara’s confrontation with Harvard radicals on November 7, and Harrison Salisbury’s dispatches from North Vietnam, which began to appear in the press on December 25; in 1967: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s break with the Johnson administration on April 4, and the New York demonstration on April 15; in 1968: the New York demonstration on April 27, and the Chicago Democratic Convention riots of August; in 1969: the April 5-6 protests; and in 1970: the April 15 nationwide demonstrations.

Just a few Americans herd about a small demonstration sponsored by the Women Strike for Peace and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Washington on February 10, 1965 (New York Times  6.1). It took an outpouring of more than twenty thousand doves in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Washington demonstration on April 17, 1965, for antiwar activities to receive serious media attention. The first major demonstration of the anti-Vietnam War movement took place in Washington on Saturday, April 17, 1965 (Zaroulis and Sullivan 38-43). Although it was easier to gather large crowds in New York City, Washington demonstrations were important because they guaranteed attention from print and broadcast media that were read and seen by legislators and government officials. Furthermore, the symbolic value of masses of protestors at the Capitol, the White House, or the Mall was potent compared to a demonstration in Central or Golden Gate Park.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which started organizing the event in late December, had a head start on groups that slowly mobilized in February and March in response to the bombing. When its leaders began planning the then-obscure protest, they could not have predicted February’s bombing decision, which immediately made their Washington weekend a focal point for all antiwarriors. In addition, when SDS leaders decided to issue their formal call for the April 17 demonstration on February 8, they did not know that day was the first of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Despite SDS’s non-revolutionary approach, the fact that the group permitted organization as like the Progressive Labor Movement (later Party) (PL) and the Communist Party’s DuBois Clubs to participate led civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and other liberals to threaten to withdraw their endorsements on the eve of the rally. At the last moment, Rustin, Socialist leader Norman Thomas, pacifist A. J. Muste, and Harvard professor H. Stuart Hughes satisfied themselves with a press release that expressed support for the demonstration, but pointed out that they welcomed only those groups opposed to totalitarianism. The statement, which implied that subversives were involved in the April 17 event, appeared in the print media on the morning of the demonstration. The first major anti-Vietnam War demonstration was off to a shaky start.

Demonstration leaders were pleased with this event. Except for the minor glitch at the Capitol, everything went smoothly. The crowd was larger than expected, the number of counter demonstrators and provocateurs minimal. Washington had been the scene of countless political rallies over the years. The media, however, described SDS accurately as “a left-leaning but non-Communist group’ new to the peace movement and somewhat at odds among themselves over tactics (New York Times 3).  The crowd it drew to Washington, according to the Times, featured a mixture of beards, blue jeans, tweeds, and clerical collars.

The SDS-led demonstration was not the only significant activity on the anti war front in the spring of 1965. From late March through April, the teach-in phenomenon swept through scores of campuses, creating a new tool for the movement (Menashe and Radosh 50-54). Although organizers billed them as free and open discussion that included government representatives, most speakers, faculty, and students who participated were critical of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The teach-in took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington before a live audience of three thousand. Phone lines to 122 colleges brought the debate to over one hundred thousand students and faculty. In addition, the National Television Network (a forerunner of PBS, with limited facilities) covered the unprecedented event live. The commercial networks offered summaries during prime time and occasionally broke into their programming with brief live remotes (Small 111). Taking the event seriously, the State Department prepared briefing papers for participants who supported the administration. Three hours before the start of the teach-in, McGeorge Bundy announced that he had to withdraw because the president had dispatched him to the civil-war-torn Dominican Republic on an emergency mission. We now know, as was suspected at the time, that Johnson did not want Bundy to participate in the teach-in and thus inflate its importance. When his absence was announced, many in the well-dressed and well-mannered crowd groaned.

The teach-in was another indication of growing antiwar sentiment in the population, especially on the campuses. Yet judging by the White House mail flow, its impact on public opinion was marginal. Johnson’s mail clerks counted 504 favorable letters and 1,317 unfavorable letters on the war during the week ending May 13. This was followed by a diminution in volume in the two weeks after the teach-in with the count at 359-753 and 111-390 against administration policy. In June, only 12 percent of those polled called for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam (Small Mervin 78).

Organizers of the teach-in did not expect to reach the general public. They aimed their scholarly arguments at a small attentive public and an elite audience that may not have been moved to write letters to the president. The teach-in soon faded as a major movement activity. This would be the case for the next major demonstrations in 1965, the International Days of Protest.

The May 15 teach-in bore little relationship to the International Days of Protest demonstrations of October 15 and 16, 1965. The organizers, their lieutenants, and the foot soldiers all came from a different sector of the fast-developing antiwar movement than those who earlier ran and participated in the Inter-University Committee for a Public Hearing on Vietnam. Antiwar activists attending the Committee of Unrepresented People’s demonstrations in Washington in early August used the occasion to form a new umbrella organization, the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam (NCCEWVN).

At least one hundred thousand mostly young people in as many as eighty American cities took part in antiwar activities on Friday and Saturday, October 15-16. The International Days of Protest was the largest series of demonstrations to date. The most important actions took place in New York City and in Berkeley and Oakland. The main happening in New York on Friday, a dramatic display of antiwar sentiment, occurred outside the Whitehall Street Army induction center. The New York crowd, which was predominantly youthful, did contain a noticeable minority of adults. Some of those who paraded carried life-size dummies caricaturing the president, children held colorful balloons, while others waved placards with the official march slogan, “Stop the War in Vietnam Now.” The demonstration, like the April SDS affair, was non-exclusionary. Its leaders did, nevertheless, try to stop participants from carrying placards with more extreme slogans. Moreover, not all on the Saturday march supported the Friday draft-card burning.

The key group in the organizing coalition, the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, was led by Norma Becker, one of the more anonymous leaders of the movement, at least in terms of media attention (Small and  Hoover 159-198). Among others involved were A. J. Muste and Dave Dellinger. Sponsoring associations included the Committee on Non-Violent Action (CNV), the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP), the War Resisters League (WRL), AFL-CIO chapters, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), SDS, PL, and the Communist Party. SDS president Carl Oglesby electrified a crowd of thirty-five thousand with these words at a SANE-organized antiwar demonstration in Washington on November 27, 1965. This was the last of several notable protests during the year in which the civil war in Vietnam became an American war.

Compared to 1965, 1966 was a year of slow, almost imperceptible growth for the antiwar movement. No demonstrations that year matched the relative success of the three main demonstrations of the previous year. Moreover, at the end of the year, the percentage of Americans who told pollsters they felt the war was a mistake had increased only slightly, from 24 to 31 percent, with those favoring immediate withdrawal holding at about 10 percent. On the other hand, during 1966, almost as many of those polled disapproved as approved of Johnson’s handling of the war. In addition, given the way that antiwar opinion slowly developed from 1965 through 1968, the movement’s varied activities during 1966 added cumulatively in many ways to the arguments against the war. The movement received a boost at the end of 1966 with the publication during the last week of December of New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury’s reports from Hanoi, which highlighted civilian deaths and injuries and damage to non-military structures caused by American bombing (Salisbury 116-183).

The bad news for Johnson on the antiwar front in 1967 began on April 4 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out forcefully against the war for the first time and immediately became one of the leaders of the movement (Shapiro 117-141). In a lecture at New York’s Riverside Church, King told an audience of three thousand that the war was “madness” and that the United States “was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

The Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (Mobe), brought more than two hundred thousand participants of every political stripe to march from Central Park to the United Nation building. There, they listened to Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Linus Pauling, Benjamin Spock, and Stokely Carmichael, among others (DeBenedetti 174-177). King may have irritated observers when he presented a petiton to U.N. Undersecretary Ralph Bunche complaining about American policy in Vietnam. The April 15 demonstrations were peaceful, massive, and projected relatively moderate political views. The draft-card burning at the Sheep Meadow, although providing a sensational sound bite, was not characteristic of the day’s events. After several seasons of relative quiescence, the mass antiwar movement was reenergized with this impressive turnout. Not as massive as the Spring Mobilization, the antiwar activities in Washington on the weekend of October 21-22 were nevertheless the most dramatic and most important of the Johnson presidency (Zaroulis and Sullivan 135-142). They ended with violent and mass arrests in front of a besieged Pentagon, and through the media, in front of the world. It was the first in a chain of events that led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision on March 31, 1968 to deescalate in Vietnam and to drop out of the presidential race.

On the heels of its successful New York march, the National Mobilization Committee (which had changed its name from the Spring Mobilization at a meeting in Chicago in May), expected an even greater gathering of antiwar foot soldiers for a fall demonstration in Washington to “Confront the Warmakers.” Optimists talked about attracting a cadre of one million.

The Johnson administration contributed to the relatively small turnout by denouncing march leaders as communists and radicals. Its propaganda barrage was reenforced inadvertently during National Draft Disruption Week (October 16 through 21), when militants and police fought with one another on the West Coast. Finally, the logistics of gathering a large crowd in New York are far simpler than transporting thousands of people to the less populous area surrounding the District of Columbia. Nevertheless, in the case of the Pentagon demonstration, the numbers were less important than the activity itself and the attention that it drew from the world’s media.

On October 15, 1969 the March on Pentagon was held – the largest and most impressive demonstration in the history of the American peace movement. The March on the Pentagon had a long-range effect on domestic and foreign politics that no one could have predicted at the time. According to former attorney general Ramsey Clark, it was “the moment that the fever broke in the whole antiwar movement” (Small 110).

 It exemplified the antiwar sentiment that had been growing exponentially throughout 1967. Clark was not just talking about poll numbers or demonstrations. Each week brought new defections from the establishment–die Wall Street Journal one week, a prominent senator the next, a corporate executive the next. By 1968, antiwar criticism, if not the movement itself, had become mainstream. This development made positive coverage of protests more likely. In addition, the defeat of the Democrats in the November election permitted Johnson journalists and editors, as well as Democrats in Congress, to express their opposition to the war more openly. For the first time, the war in Vietnam was to become a partisan issue.

Most of the members of the fourth estate, like most Americans, accepted the fact that war in Vietnam was a lost cause–the sooner the United States withdrew the better. But, as we shall see, to adopt a dovish perspective and to embrace increasingly radical antiwar activists were two different things. Despite the media’s growing criticism of administration polices, the movement did not always receive fair treatment from journalists who covered its activities.

For the fourth spring in a row, antiwar forces gathered in large numbers to demonstrate their opposition to the American presence in Vietnam. These protests came only a few weeks after the nationwide disturbances that enrupted after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. No doubt many of those who viewed the antiwar activities at the end of April the extremely violent activities during the days following the assassination on April. They were in no mood for more demonstrations.

On the weekend of April 26-27, Mobe and Student Mobe protests took place throughout the nation. These included student strikes in high schools and colleges on Friday, marches in New York and San Francisco on Saturday that drew as many as one hundred thousand and twenty thousand respectively, and a Chicago rally of more than seven thousand marked by police assaults against those who marched without a permit. The Chicago action was an augury of things to come that summer.

The fact that spring antiwar demonstrations had become routine contributed to the manner in which the media chose to cover the event. Moreover, they, as well as most Americans, could easily have concluded that the antiwar movement had become irrelevant or not worthy of special attention now that the United States was apparently withdrawing from Southeast Asia.

The Moratorium, which after October 15, 1969, had appeared rather threatening with its program of escalating demonstrations each month until the United States left Southeast Asia, had run out of steam. Between December and March, its protests attracted little media attention. The once-promising idea was failing in part because it had become impossible to top die success of the first two actions .When fewer people turned out each month after November 15, the moratoriums became less interesting and newsworthy. It was not easy to bring out more and more demonstrators month after month. There were good reasons why movement leaders had previously held only two mass gatherings a year. The Moratorium was on its last legs by April, 1970.

The last large antiwar demonstration took place in May, 1971. As the Nixon administration brought its troops home, American casualties declined, the draft came to an end, the intelligence services successfully penetrated and harassed radical and liberal organizations, and détente marked relations with Russia and China, antiwar coalitions broke apart and relatively few people could be cajoled into coming out for yet another protesting activity.

On the other hand, organizers maintain that the years from 1971 through 1973 witnessed intense antiwar activity, which took the form of many small decentralized campaigns instead of twice-yearly mass demonstrations in New York and San Francisco. No doubt, Richard Nixon felt restrained by the potential of a rejuvenated antiwar movement as he planned his military strategies in 1972. 33 Yet his mining of Hanoi and Haiphong harbors in the spring of that year produced little organized opposition compared, for example, to his invasion of Cambodia just two years earlier.

It is not my purpose here to debate movement claims that historians underestimated the amount of organizing and the number of effective campaigns that took place in the United States from the second half of 1971 through Nixon’s reelection. In the text of the research work were discussed strategies and participants of the Anti-War movement. So the general will of Americans combined with the proper strategy made the government stopped the war.

Works Cited

Berkowitz, William. “The Impact of Anti-Vietnam Demonstrations upon National Public Opinion and Miltary Indicators.” Social Science Research 2 ( March 1973): 1-14.

Chatfield, Charles, and DeBenedetti, Charles. An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

DeBenedetti. An American Ordeal. 174-177.

Menashe, Louis  and Radosh, Ronald. Teach-Ins U.S.A.: Reports, Opinions, Documents. New York: Praeger, 1967.

Mueller, John F.  War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. New York: John Wiley, 1973.

New York Times  6.1 (1965), February 11.

New York Times 10.11 (1965) April 18.

Salisbury, Harrison, E.  A Time of Change: A Reporter’s Tale of Our Time. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Shapiro, Herbert. “The Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights Movement,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 16 (winter 1989).

Skolnick, Jerome. The Politics of Protest. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.

Small, William. To Kill a Messenger: Television News and the Real Word. New York: Hastings House, 1970.

Small,  Melvin. Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Quoted in Small.  Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. 110.

Small, Melvin, and Hoover, William D.  Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Zaroulis, Nancy and Sullivan, Gerald. Who Spoke Up? American Protest against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

Zaroulis and Sullivan. Who Spoke Up? 135-142.

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