“Make Love Not War”: Protests in the United States over the Vietnam War

Student protesters marching down Langdon Street at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the Vietnam War era in January 1965 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Sixties were filled with new fashions, great music, break-through technologies—and lots of protests. Some protests advocated for Civil Rights, while many sought to put an end to the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War dominated the mid-to-late sixties and taught American elected officials the limits of their powers and their failure to play the role of an international patrol. Americans were angered by the atrocious behavior that the U.S. government used to prevent Communism from taking over Vietnam. This caused some of the largest protests in American history, with protesters ranging from businessmen and women to long-haired hippies. The United States foreign policy in Southeast Asia caused great debates among Americans, and the Vietnam War also became notoriously known for being a battle between the U.S. government and its citizens.

During the Kennedy administration, the United States initiated its struggle to prevent Communism from taking over Vietnam. Desperate to achieve success, the newly elected President John F. Kennedy approved the assistance of advisers to support the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (ARVN) and he authorized the use of chemical herbicides, such as Agent Orange and napalm. Although Presidents Truman and Eisenhower provided resources to help France combat communism, it was President Kennedy that deepened this commitment. During his presidency, the number of American military advisers sent to Vietnam reached 12,000. Then, in November 1963, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had the U.S.-appointed South Vietnamese leader Ngo Diem and his brother killed. Twenty-one days later, President Kennedy was assassinated.1

The insurgence of U.S. involvement in Vietnam caused protests in the United States by religious leaders, students, workers, and minorities. Americans were against the United States’ approach to “containing” Vietnam’s communism. Such protests started out on college campuses, where many students and professors dedicated their time to criticizing American policy. Students organized boycotts, marches, strikes, teach-ins, and sit-ins. Some even appeared at their universities with Vietcong flags and chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?”2 Typically, such protests were put down by police officers using tear gas and nightsticks or by arresting students. Protests grew and became even more popular after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which gave the president unlimited war powers.3

As the first televised war, with television networks having full-time teams in Vietnam, Americans changed the way they thought about the war. Americans watched the atrocities that Vietnamese civilians were facing every night from their living rooms. This worsened when Johnson’s administration announced that more than fifty thousand men were being drafted to go to Vietnam. The first U.S. ground troops arrived in Vietnam on March 8, 1965, immediately followed by a sequence of U.S bombings of defoliants flown over North Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder. Once again, this caused distress across America, and in response, the University of California-Berkeley created the International Days of Protests on October 15 and 16 as the official days for anti-war protests to occur across the United States. Other civilians had stronger responses to this, such as that of peace movement activist Alice Herz. Herz urged Americans to become aware of the issue in Vietnam, and she gained recognition as the first person in the United States to burn herself to death in protest to Operation Rolling Thunder.4 To address this, President Johnson went to Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965 to give a speech that pleased many Americans as he reiterated the motives behind the war, “We want nothing for ourselves—only that the people of South Viet-Nam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.”5

Vietnam War Protesters on Memorial Bridge, Washington, D.C., October 1967 by Frank Wolfe | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The rise in support did not last long as radical groups continued to hold even more protests. On April 17, 1965, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held the first major anti-war protest in Washington, D.C.6 There, they created the famous slogans of the period, “Make Love, Not War” and “Burn Cards, Not People.” Four months later, the first International Days of Protests occurred. Over 100,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. and in New York City to rally against the war, and it was there where the first person publicly burned his draft card.

Protests also broke out in several high schools, including an important protest in Des Moines, Iowa. Several high school students decided to wear black armbands to school as a way to demonstrate their opposition to the war. Once the students arrived at school, the administrators ordered the students to remove the armbands or they would be suspended. When two students, Mary Tinker and John Tinker, refused to remove their armbands, they were suspended. Their parents sued the school district and the case wound up in the Supreme Court. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court ruled that the students had the right to freedom of speech even when they were on school property under the First Amendment.7

The war was not only worsening in Vietnam, as the number of American casualties grew, but it also became more crucial in the United States. Opponents focused on posting newspaper ads with signatures of men saying they would not fight the war; others burned American flags, or performed alternative service to avoid being drafted; and some even fled the country, with at least 1,000 Americans migrating to Canada to avoid the draft.8 Americans were even more critical of the war when President Johnson asked Congress to implement a 10-percent surtax to the federal income tax as a “special wartime surcharge on individual and corporate income taxes.”9 At first, his request was fought by many, but by June of 1968, Johnson signed the Revenue and Expenditure Control Act.10 The act would go through the mid-1970s to help raise enough money to fund the war. Even though it exempted low-income taxpayers, many Americans refused to pay their taxes, including two celebrities, Joan Baez and Jane Fonda.

Disputes between government officials, minority groups, and religious groups surfaced. One of the first government officials to speak against the war was the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Arkansas Senator, James William Fulbright. Minority groups protested against racism, poverty, and the U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Mexican Americans formed the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, which then formed the Chicano/a Movement. At first, the movement supported President Johnson due to his responsiveness and recognition of Mexican Americans as an “estimable class of Texas citizens.”11 President Johnson continuously emphasized his desire to eliminate poverty and racism. However, when promises were not being accomplished because “budget cuts that hurt impoverished minorities” were linked to “the cost of the ongoing war in Viet Nam,” many were angered.12 Some Mexican Americans related to the injustices that Vietnamese civilians encountered because they were “both members of the Third World in that both were a non-white people suffering from the exploitative nature of U.S. imperialism and capitalism.”13

Anti-Vietnam War protest March from U.S. Consulate 7 Wynyard Street to Hyde Park, Sydney, NSW in February 1966 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, religious groups and some minority groups approved of the war at first. American Roman Catholics, including Catholic church officials, supported the war primarily for their opposition to communism according to their religious ideology. However, some bishops resigned their positions and founded an organization called the Clergymen’s Emergency Committee for Vietnam, with over two thousand ministers, rabbis, and priests signing an advertisement that stated, “In the Name of God, Stop it!!”14 Jewish Americans and African Americans were more likely to be supporters of the war, mainly because of their loyalty to President Johnson. Jewish Americans were hostile to the Soviet Union because of the heinous treatment of Jews during World War II. Nonetheless, this changed with the election of President Richard Nixon, with fear that if they opposed American foreign policy, it would recreate Antisemitism. Simultaneously, African Americans were unlikely to oppose the war due to the recent signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Johnson, along with his creation for the Great Society programs. Although, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that the “war had spread beyond its physical horrors to wreck the Great Society and threaten American principles and values,” many African Americans began to oppose the war.15

Another anti-war protester was heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, also known as Muhammad Ali. When he was told that he was being drafted into the war, he refused to serve and claimed to be a conscientious objector. Then in June 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and had his boxing license removed for three years. To this Ali stated,

It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. … I find I cannot be true to my beliefs in my religion by accepting such a call. I am dependent upon Allah as the final judge of those actions brought about by my own conscience.16

Ali conducted speeches at universities about his opposition, while also trying to appeal his conviction. Finally, in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction in Clay v United States. The Justices ruled that Ali did meet the requirement of two of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status.17

The war promulgated an even greater problem among American soldiers in Vietnam, particularly drug abuse. Because drugs, including heroin, opium, and cocaine, were incredibly cheap, several GIs became addicted to them. By the late 1960s, the U.S. government had to implement testing and rehabilitation programs to control drug abuse by American soldiers. The draft system in the United States typically drew on minorities and working-class citizens, which provoked many anti-draft protests. Young Americans enrolled in college as a way to receive “college deferments…that delayed their eligibility for conscription.”18 While some were able to flee the country, low-income individuals and minorities had no option but to join. While in Vietnam, soldiers, also referred to as GI’s—government issue or general infantry—knew that their mission was to “kill the Communists and to kill as many of them as possible.”19 It had been recorded that few radical opponents believed U.S. soldiers were “willing agents of a racist and imperialist foreign policy that had become America’s chief way of dealing with the Third World in the twentieth century.”20

In January 1968, when millions of Americans believed the U.S. was winning the war, North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong soldiers attacked multiple cities in South Vietnam in a mission known as the Tet Offensive. The name Tet was given by North Vietnamese troops in honor of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. In retaliation, the U.S. sent more than half a million U.S. soldiers to Vietnam. Shorty after, in early February 1968, America’s most trusted man and CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite, traveled to Vietnam to cover the truth and impacts of the Tet Offensive. As the “voice of truth for America,” his commentary in Vietnam had a major impact on Americans.21 Upon his return, Cronkite delivered his famous “Report from Vietnam.” His report indicated that the war was “mired in stalemate” and proposed that the only way out was through an honorable peace.22 Americans were shocked to hear that the U.S. was dishonest about the war and thus, many Americans no longer supported the war nor President Johnson. It is believed that this is what caused President Johnson to announce that he would not seek re-election in 1968.

After President Johnson refused to run for reelection, Republican candidate Richard Nixon won the election by campaigning that he planned to end the war through “peace with honor.”23 His proposal, known as “Vietnamization,” aimed to strengthen South Vietnamese troops to fight the war and slowly remove American troops. By 1969, the U.S. withdrew 25,000 troops from Vietnam. In order to avoid anti-draft protests, President Nixon implemented the Commission on All-Volunteer Force, which drafted men based on their criminal records and those that volunteered. His popularity did not last as long as he expected, since it was publicized that he approved the secret invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, hid American mortalities, and spied on U.S. citizens that protested the war. This led to the revitalization of protests across the United States, with one of the largest created by the New Mobilization Committee to End the War named the “March against Death” on November 13 and 15, in which every protester carried a sign with the name of an American killed in Vietnam. Meanwhile, many pro-war urban laborers called on peace demonstrators to “Go back to Russia” and carried posters that read “America, Love it or Leave It.”24

Outside Michigan Stadium, on Greene Street: Beginning of a University students’ Anti-Vietnam War march, Ann Arbor, September 20, 1969. | Courtesy of Flickr.com

Some Americans became even more adamant about putting an end to the war by using violence and rebelling against the U.S. government. An organization called Weather Underground placed a bomb in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to protest the U.S. invasion in Laos. Although nobody was hurt, it cost $300,000 in damages.25 In April 1971, hundreds of mothers of American soldiers that were killed in Vietnam and Vietnam veterans united to march to the Capitol. Known as Operation Dewey Canyon III, GIs threw the medals and ribbons they earned in Vietnam onto the steps of the building. A month later, the 1971 Mayday anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. was held from May 1st to May 3rd. It aimed to shut down all federal government offices to demonstrate to President Nixon that Americans would not cooperate unless the war was put to an end. As a result of the Mayday protests, more than 13,000 people were arrested.26

To make matters worse, on June 13, 1971, the New York Times published classified government documents concerning the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers. The papers showed that the administration claimed that the reason the U.S. continued in the war was, “70% to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat; 20% to keep South Vietnam (and adjacent territories) from Chinese hands; 10% to permit the people of Vietnam a better, freer way of life” and revealed that the U.S. had no chance at succeeding.27 In response, the U.S. Congress repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on December 31 and created the Cooper-Church amendment to stop the funding of the invasion in Cambodia. Two years later, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, which agreed to end the war. By August, Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment that banned all funding for military activities in Vietnam. Finally, the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in 1973. Consequently, South Vietnam’s economy collapsed and what had been prevented for over ten years finally occurred: Vietnam fell into the hands of Communism.

The Vietnam War was not only a war against communism but also a war in America. The United States’ decision to interfere in the Vietnamese battle for independence and fight against North Vietnam created great debates in America. Television, newspaper and magazine networks dedicated a lot of their time to the war. The opposition to the war was also given recognition by many politicians, celebrities, and writers who contributed to the movement by signing ads, raising funds, and endorsing peace candidates. Even Hollywood films were created in response to the American protests against the government’s involvement in Vietnam, such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and M*A*S*H (1970). This war has been one of the longest and most controversial wars in American history. It instigated some of the largest protests, marches, sit-ins, and strikes all across the country that will always be remembered.

  1. Robert Freeman, The Vietnam War: The Best One-Hour History (Palo Alto, CA: Kendall Lane Publishers, 2013), 6-11.
  2. David W. Levy, The Debate over Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995): 135.
  3. Robert Freeman, The Vietnam War: The Best One-Hour History (Palo Alto, CA: Kendall Lane Publishers, 2013), 12.
  4. Jon Coburn, “”I Have Chosen the Flaming Death”: The Forgotten Self-Immolation of Alice Herz,” Peace & Change, 43, no. 1 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1111/pech.12273.
  5. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, (1965) Volume I, entry 172,   Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office (1966), 394-399.
  6. William W. Riggs, “Students for a Democratic Society,” Students for a Democratic Society. Accessed March 27, 2020. https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1201/students-for-a-democratic-society.
  7. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 393 US 503 (1969).
  8. Tom Hayden, Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (Routledge Press, 2015), 208.
  9. Joseph J. Thorndike, “Historical Perspective: Sacrifice and Surcharge,” TaxAnalysts, December 2005. http://www.taxhistory.org/thp/readings.nsf/cf7c9c870b600b9585256df80075b9dd/6b24abb33fe1996c852570d200756a5d?OpenDocument.
  10. Revenue and Expenditure Control Act of 1968: explanation of the bill H.R. 15414 as agreed to in conference, Revenue and Expenditure Control Act of 1968: explanation of the bill H.R. 15414 as agreed to in conference § (1968).
  11. Lorena Oropeza, Raza Si!, Guerra No: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era (University of California Press, 2005), 50.
  12. Lorena Oropeza, Raza Si!, Guerra No: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era (University of California Press, 2005), 58.
  13. Lorena Oropeza, Raza Si!, Guerra No: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era (University of California Press, 2005), 95.
  14. David W. Levy, The Debate over Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 100.
  15. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,” Atlantic, (1967): 93.
  16. DeNeen L. Brown, “’Shoot Them for What?’ How Muhammad Ali Won His Greatest Fight,” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 16, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/15/shoot-them-for-what-how-muhammad-ali-won-his-greatest-fight/.
  17. Clay v United States 403 US 698 (1971).
  18. David Card and Thomas Lemieux, “Going to College to Avoid the Draft: The Unintended Legacy of the Vietnam War,” The American Economic Review 91, no. 2 (2001): 97.
  19. James Lewes, Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War (Praeger, 2003), 2.
  20. David W. Levy, The Debate over Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 60.
  21. Biography.com Editors, “Walter Cronkite Biography,” A&E Networks Television, October 31, 2019. https://www.biography.com/media-figure/walter-cronkite.
  22. Walter Cronkite, Report from Vietnam, New York, New York: CBS News, February 27, 1968. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dn2RjahTi3M.
  23. Richard Nixon, “Address to the Nation Announcing Conclusion of an Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam – January 23, 1973 ” Richard Nixon Foundation,” Richard Nixon Foundation, August 18, 2017. https://www.nixonfoundation.org/2017/08/address-nation-announcing-conclusion-agreement-ending-war-restoring-peace-vietnam-january-23-1973/.
  24. David W. Levy, The Debate over Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 113.
  25. “Bomb Explodes in Capitol Building,” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 16, 2009. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bomb-explodes-in-capitol-building.
  26. Yulia Senina, “Washington, DC Protests against the War in Vietnam (Mayday), 1971,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, February 3, 2012. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/washington-dc-protests-against-war-vietnam-mayday-1971.
  27. “193. Paper Prepared by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McNaughton),” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, Accessed March 24, 2020. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v02/d193.

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30 Responses

  1. Lesley, I really enjoyed how you included the political, economic, and even some legal aspects of the Vietnam War. It is very interesting that the United States government was so heavily invested in something that was largely unpopular and against the will of many Americans. I also find it interesting that the protests started in Universities. The more I read about protests, the more I find that they are started or primarily carried out by the youth. I find that encouraging that our generation is capable of much change.

  2. Such an interesting and informative article. So captivating! I have heard about the Vietnam War and protest, however didn’t know the in depth details. Great job, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. The extent of the protest was honestly remarkable… from school protests, to burning flags and sadly people leaving the United States for a haven from the draft. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. Great job!

  3. This article really helped me understand how much of a turning point the 60’s were. The mass protests against the war in Vietnam were a huge step away from the social norms of America. In the 50’s conformity and peace was expected by all, to protest and be vocal about injustices was seen as awful by many. Yet, many stood up for what they believed in. The government obviously didn’t take too kindly to so many people against their war efforts. President Johnson kept pushing the war forward though. It really makes me wonder what history would have been had Kennedy not been killed. Vietnam was a really devastating war for the soldiers, and those against it in the states. It was truly a very influential, and chaotic time in American history.

  4. I have always been very interested in the 60’s era because of how that point in time changed everything. It was one thing after another in that point of time. This article was very informative over the wars during that point in time which is an extremely important part in history. I loved how this article briefly went over a bit of each points in the era.

  5. This article is so well written and engaging! I always thought that the 60’s was such an interesting time in American history, and the protests against the Vietnam War were so famous but when we’re taught about it in high school it’s always glossed over. This article was a really great and informative overview of all the ways in which the protests and the Vietnam war were received and how multifaceted it all was.

  6. The 60’s was one of the most chaotic decades in history, it was filled with many changes in attitudes regarding sex, drugs, music, and perspective. I really like how the author was able to clearly explain how Americans felt about the war and their sentiments they had towards the U.S. government. In addition to this, the article does a really good job explaining the perspectives people faced both within American and within Vietnam. Americans and the government were truly divided during this time which is understandable because the Vietnam war was not a necessary international problem that the United States should have involved themselves in.

  7. very good article, a friend of mine is a Vietnam Vet and always says this was a war that shouldn’t have happened. The death toll was tremendous and the live effects are devastating. He was so young when he went to war and came back as he says it, a lost man. Questions and controversy will always follow with this event, some agree with and others will disagree with but that’s what happens in war. We need to make peace in our world not hate.

  8. This is a very well written article full of information and details about how Americans felt about the Vietnam War. I had previous knowledge about the United States during the Vietnam War as many of us have due to history classes, but I did not know several things that you mentioned. For example, I did not know about the high school protests like the one in Des Moines, that had two students suspended and ended up being a case in the Supreme Court. Also, I did not know that Muhammad Ali was drafted and refused to go and was forced to pay a fine for refusing. Great read!

  9. This is a very informative article and I have learned a lot through reading about the Vietnam War and that era. War is unfortunately inevitable, but this war caused such a large divide within America, and it caused a lot of controversy. I knew about the draft, but I didn’t realize how hard people were trying to avoid the draft, by burning flags, and fleeing to Canada; also, children in high school were being activist against the war by wearing the black armbands. I didn’t even know we went as far as harming our capitol, the Weather Underground placed a bomb at the capitol causing 300,000 dollars in damages. What an interesting and scary time in America.

  10. I have learned a lot about the Vietnam War and all of the protests that happened throughout the time period I think what will always get me is the fact that media was part of the censoring which caused great conflicts in the country. I feel as though because the media was so involved with the war that the people started to lose major trust in the government.

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