The Vietnam War Protests

The Vietnam war protests,or Anti-war movement, initiated by college students, was instrumental in questioning the policies surrounding America's involvement in Indochina's affairs.

Twenty five years have passed since the United States officially relinquished their involvement in Vietnam. Not since the Civil War had the country been so divided. Every American family was impacted, losing husbands, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and friends. Over 50,000 Americans were killed and many of those who returned suffered and still suffer deep physical and emotional scars. Many more veterans took their own lives, were treated as social outcasts or ended up on America's streets among the homeless. What the war did to Vietnam and to the Vietnamese people was even more drastic. By the time Saigon fell to invading North Vietnamese forces on April 29, 1975, close to 2 million Vietnamese had died. Countless others perished or disappeared later in Cambodia during the carnage perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnam conflict was a war whose origins many did not understand, that seemed an exercise in futility, and that left a nation questioning the policies of a government they'd always trusted.

Vietnam has always been rife with conflict. Migrants from China first settled in the tiny, lush country bordering the South China Sea over 3000 years ago. Vietnam boasts a diverse topography of valleys, rivers and highlands. It is home to over 40 million people whose origins stem from an equally diverse mix of tribes and kingdoms that subsisted mostly on what they harvested on terraced parcels of land. Rice was the greatest commodity and is still a major export today. Invasion by neighbouring armies from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and China posed a constant threat. China did finally manage to impose its rule over the country, but the Vietnamese eventually overthrew the imperial yoke in 938 AD. A succession of Vietnamese Emperors brought peace, stability, prosperity and the opportunity for Vietnam to create its own national identity.

Rebellions were common over the next 500 years as Vietnam continued to grow and change, not only its political views but also its varied religious ideologies like Buddhism and Taoism. French and British domination also threatened. The French established sovereignity in 1863 and maintained it for almost a century. Vietnam became a country of the rich and the poor, of corruption, of subjugated peasants, of bandits and frequent uprisings and revolts. France built opulent cities like Saigon and Hanoi, European-styled mansions and churches, plantations and industries that bolstered their economy but did little to help the peasant. They also introduced a new cash crop - the poppy. Opium trade and export was soon as prolific and profitable in the region the French now called Indochina as the rice trade. Japan too was looking at Vietnam as a means to feed its emerging country and its future armies.

The early 20th century also saw the rise of Ho Chi Min, a young student who prescribed to leftist doctrines and whose dream was to lead his people and Vietnam into independence. As eventual head of the Vietminh guerrilla movement, and with help from British, Chinese and American allies, he would succeed in 1945. But France wasn't willing to forget about Vietnam. Revolution would eventually divide the beleaguered country into North and South and initiate a decades-long and bloody conflict that would not only include France, China and Japan but the United States as well.

Seven presidents were involved with decisions that impacted America's presence in Vietnam: Truman, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. Harry Truman initially supported France's dispute with communist leader Ho Chi Min in the early 1950's. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy terms America's presence increased, politically, economically and militarily.The OSS, now the CIA, was also deeply involved with covert intelligence operations as early as 1944, not only in Vietnam but in neighbouring countries.

By 1959 Vietnam was divided into North and South and in July of that same year 2 American soldiers died after a Viet Cong attack in Bien Hoa. Continued unrest within Vietnam escalated into revolts against the repressive regime and the highly publicised self-immolations of Buddhist monks, their deaths also protests against the strict regime . In November of 1963 a military coup toppled president Ngo Dinh Diem's government and the next day he and his brother were assassinated. Events were leading inexorably to full scale war and by August of 1964, after the North Vietnamese attacked an American destroyer, Congress gave Lyndon Johnson carte blanche authority to initiate troop movements into Vietnam.

It wasn't until Johnson began his massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam in 1965 that the Antiwar Movement actually found its roots and dug in. Words like "counter culture", "establishment", "nonviolence", "pacification", "draft-dodger", "free love", "Kent State", and "Woodstock" were added to the American vocabulary. It was the beginning of the hippie generation, the sexual revolution and the drug culture. The country's youth, the ones dying in the line fire, began demanding answers to America's high profile presence in Vietnam. They wanted to know why peace talks were organized and continually failed. They wanted to know what they were fighting for. Extensive media coverage brought the violent and bloody guerrilla war home each night to every American living room. People realised that the glowing reviews of the war effort their government had been releasing were "sanitised" and far from the truth. Even congressional senators began questioning Vietnam policies. Through it all the bombings continued and more and more of America's young GI's came home in body bags.

Once the draft was introduced young people on college and university campuses all around the country began to organise protests against the war. Teach-ins and student organizations like the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) held rallies and marches, the first of which happened in Washington in April of 1965. Over the next 2 years the anti-war movement snow balled. Activists, celebrities and musicians like Abbie Hoffmann, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jane Fonda, Jefferson Airplane, and countless others took up the Anti-war cause and waved Anti-war banners. Their speeches and their music reflected the anger and hopelessness that Americans felt over the Vietnam war. Even the GI's stationed overseas began supporting the Anti-war movement in whatever capacity they could, from wearing peace symbols to refusing to obey orders.

By 1967 America was mired in its own urban problems. As the bombings and body count in Vietnam continued to escalate so did civil unrest. 100,000 Anti-war protesters gathered in New York and thousands more in San Francisco. There were urban riots in Detroit. Johnson's support was falling drastically on all fronts. Anti-war rallies, speeches, demonstrations and concerts continued being organized all over the country. There was a backlash against all that was military. Soldiers returning home from the war were no longer regarded as heroes but as "baby killers". Young men sought to evade the draft by being conscientous objectors or leaving for Canada. North Vietnam's bloody TET Offensive of 1968 and the resultant horrendous casualties the Americans suffered eroded the situation at home even further.The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy also sparked racial tension and unrest. Wisely Lyndon Johnson did not seek re-election.

Richard Nixon's number one campaign promise to Americans was that he'd end the war with "Vietnamization", or systematic troop withdrawals. Yet the American presence in Vietnam remained high and casualties mounted, as did the cost of running the war effort. Taxpayers were paying 25 billion dollars per year to finance a conflict no one believed in anymore. The Woodstock concert brought 500,000 together from across North America in a non-violent protest against the war. Nixon's plan to attack communist supply locations in Cambodia failed and set off another round of protests. The Kent State student protest in May of 1970 turned deadly when National Guardsman fired into crowds, killing 4 students and injuring dozens more. Students all across the country became enraged and over the next few days campuses all over the US came to a virtual standstill.

As the year drew to a close Nixon's plans to end the Vietnam war had not been realized. American citizens were not impressed, however, after Kent State Anti-war activism seemed to wane. Yet the people still demanded to know why their country was involved in a war where a resolution seemed impossible. 1971 also saw the Mylai massacre come to light, an atrocity committed by American soldiers that shocked the world and gained huge media attention. Another round of peace talks were organized on the heels of this controversy but again all attempts to end the fighting in Vietnam failed.

Bombings raids on North Vietnam were re-escalated in the spring of 1972, after peace talks headed by Henry Kissinger once again collapsed. The cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were subjected to night raids by American B-52 bombers that was unprecedented and that left the world in shock. Peace talks resumed in Paris and by the end of January, 1973, a pact had been signed by the United States, South and North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. By March all American troops were pulled out of the country and systematic release of prisoners of war on both sides was initiated. Yet by the time the Watergate scandal came to light and ruined Nixon's presidency at the close of 1974, Communist forces had overrun Saigon. Within a few short months most of Indochina would fall into Communist hands. The Anti-war movement's mantra of "what are we fighting for" seemed eerily prophetic.

Twenty five years have passed since the end of the Vietnam war. During that time Americans and the world learned more about the history of the conflict and why it all began in the first place. Many agree that the Anti-war movement had significant impact on the length and perhaps even the outcome of the Vietnam war. Others might disagree saying that the massive protests were part of an eroding and troubled society. One thing is certain however -- the Anti-war movement left an everlasting mark on an entire generation and its country.

© High Speed Ventures 2011