Domestic protests against American participation in the Vietnam War have been credited with shortening the war by both anti-war protestors themselves, and by supporters of the war effort, who felt that fears of a domestic backlash forced both Presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon to limit US involvement in the conflict. However, this view of the anti-war movement’s influence and impact has arguably been significantly over-stated.
Domestic opposition to the war was diverse in character, composition and strategy. Its roots lay in 1950s peace organisations such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), and the Students for a Democratic Society. However, before 1965, it made little impact on the public consciousness, with the overwhelming majority of the population supporting Johnson’s decision to enter the war in 1965. Perhaps understandably, this decision provided fuel to the anti-war movement, and campus-based protests such as the ‘Teach-Ins’ at Michigan State and Berkeley universities grew in number as the conflict continued. Protests even spread to US Army bases, such as Fort Hood, where three soldiers were imprisoned in 1966 for refusing to serve in Vietnam. In April 1967, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King added his voice to the protests arguing that the ‘madness of Vietnam’ needed to cease, with an immediate, unilateral US withdrawal.
Even so, such protests were very much the exception, and opponents to the war were dismissed as communist agitators or propagandists for Hanoi. The 1968 Tet Offensive (the Communist attack on South Vietnam) provided a dramatic impetus to anti-war protests, broadening opposition to the war, and gaining a high profile critic of US strategy in the form of Walter Cronkite (influential reporter for CBS) who articulated the shock many felt at the scale of the communist attack, which resulted in him arguing that a negotiated peace was the best outcome available to the US. Johnson’s decision not to run again for president in 1968 and to end the bombing of North Vietnam were partially attributable to the effect of ‘losing’ Cronkite, but also to the threat posed by the poster boy for the mainstream anti-war movement Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 Democrats presidential primary campaign. Furthermore, many of his advisors, including his past and current Defense Secretaries, experienced serious doubts about the merits of US involvement in the war.
‘Peace With Honor’
The real successes of the anti-war movement occurred during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Whilst his victory in the 1968 Presidential election owed much to his pledge to achieve ‘peace with honor’, his attempt to win the war through large scale escalation was thwarted by a combination of increasing public demonstrations, such as the Moratorium March on Washington, 15 October 1969, when 250 000 protestors converged on the capitol; the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings, featuring ex-servicemen ‘confessing’ to their crimes in Vietnam; and the demonstrations in front of the White House on 9 May 1970; and, most significantly, by a Congress intent on limiting where and how US forces could fight in South East Asia. The 1970 Cooper-Church Amendment prevented US forces from being deployed outside Vietnam, and by the end of 1972 it was clear that it was only a matter of time before Congress ultimately cut funding for the war in Vietnam.
The role of domestic opposition
However, there are very strong arguments to challenge the role of domestic opposition in bringing the war to a swift conclusion. Perhaps the most obvious argument focuses on the actual length of the war: US ground troops were involved for eight years, four years longer than the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, and for five years after the Tet Offensive. If the anti-war movement was so effective, why did the war last so long?
Secondly, throughout the conflict, public opinion remained broadly supportive of presidential policy towards Vietnam, indeed Nixon won nearly 61% of the vote, carrying 49/50 states in the process in the 1972 election, in a country where Gallup estimated fewer than 30% of the population believed the US should have gone to war in Vietnam.
Finally, the movement itself was too divided to have any real impact on decision-making. Ironically, this fragmentation occurred at the point when the anti-war movement appeared to have experienced a critical breakthrough: 1968. Whilst establishment figures such as Cronkite calmly called for a negotiated peace, extremist groups such as the Weathermen were prepared to raid draft offices and attack Dow Chemicals, the company which produced napalm.
As a result, the movement appeared to have had little direct influence on public opinion; the most influential factor in turning the people at home against the war was the lack of any hope of victory, and not the protests on the streets, bases and campuses.
Taken from Vietnam War: History In An Hour by Neil Smith