Youth Protest of the Vietnam War
In 1961 president Kennedy decided to send American troops to Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism and to show the United States’ strength of resolve. At the time he did not know the turmoil he would bring to his own country. The United States was split between those who believed it was our part to get involved in Vietnam and those who thought it was none of our business. As the war continued people’s opinions intensified, especially student’s. Youth protests during the 1960’s changed the way many Americans viewed the Vietnam War.
In the early 1960’s protests first became a way of change for the civil rights movement. Then as men started going off to war it became a way of displaying activism. Liberal cities with big universities were the first to experience the antiwar movement. The cities of Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Chicago, East Lansing, Lawrence, Madison, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis saw the movement in full effect (Anderson 4-5). Some people believed that the protesters were a disgrace for betraying their own country (Dudley 83).
Teach-ins became a way of educating students about what was really happening in Vietnam. Speeches, songs, discussions,
and seminars helped get the students involved at the teach-ins. After the first teach in occurred on March 24, 1965, at the University of Michigan, hundreds more started taking place within a few weeks. All the administration could do was to send for government officials called truth teams. When that did not work, the government realized they should not reveal their policies to the public (Dougan and Weiss 87-88). The students from the University of California at Berkely felt like a minority when no one took them seriously at their campus demonstration in September 1965 because of their long hair and ragged clothes (Kent 74). Many youth joined organizations that were against the war. They would go to protests such as the one that took place on April 17, 1965. The 20,000 protesters that were present in Washington that day showed how the peace movement was growing. A few days later, thirty-three antiwar organizations came together to form the National Coordinating Committee To End the War in Vietnam. Another group, Vietnam Day Committee, attempted to stop troop trains but were unsuccessful. Both groups joined together to lead demonstrations in ninety-three cities, in what was called the International Days of Protest (Dougan and Weiss).
The International Days of Protest that took place on October 15 and 16 in 1965 included 100,000 activists that participated not only in the cities but on college campuses as well. The way of protest in each of these places varied. In
Madison, eleven people were arrested when they tried to make a citizen’s arrest on a commander of a local air force base by
accusing him of war crimes. At a University of Colorado
football game, students flashed antiwar slogans to the fans at halftime. Students in Michigan held a 48 hour peace vigil and also picketed the local draft board. New York had a parade in which 20,000 people were involved in and a speak out that 300 people attended at New York’s arms induction center (Anderson 141).
The Students for a Democratic Society was one of the best known and largest organizations. With Tom Hayden, from the University of Michigan, as their president and spokesman, many people who were activists in or out of the group were inspired. The members said that college students can change society by acting against racism, nuclear weapons, and other wrong doings (Dudley 118-19). The Students for a Democratic Society usually were a nonviolent group, until 1968 when the Weatherman Faction, a group of radicals, started a terrorist campaign against the United States government. In October they bombed a CIA building, an army recruiting office, and a couple of police stations (Hoskyns 189).
That was not the only time activists and protests got violent. A riot broke out in Chicago at the National Democratic Convention. The police and 7.5 thousand United States troops attacked the demonstrators (Hoskyns 189). In the following years
the number of violent protests increased.
Trying to escape the draft became an organized action (Hoskyns 187). At the Whitehall Street induction center in New
York City, a crowd of 400 picketed. A man by the name of Christopher Kearns, along with some others burned their draft
cards in a pot. A photograph happened to be taken of him doing this and was put in Life magazine. The picture influenced many others to burn their draft cards, but also inspired legislation to make a new law. For destroying a draft card or Selective Service documents, it would cost someone a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison (Anderson 139).
In October of 1965, the most momentous strike of the year took place. David Miller, a 22 year old pacifist, broke the newly made law by burning his draft card, and was sent to prison. After that incident, numerous draft resistance groups popped up all over the United States with the attitude of Not With My Life You Don’t, which they would usually display on a button (Dougan and Weiss 88). Burning draft cards was not the only way thousands of youths escaped the draft. They also faked homosexuality, madness, injury, flunking mental tests, or by staying in school or getting married, others simply fled the country(Anderson 140).
On April 15, 1967, the activists wanted to make a point that protesters were not just radicals and political idealists but were ordinary men and women. There were 300,000 demonstrators made up of all different kinds of people from Quakers to
students. Even mothers with their babies were in New York City for the biggest antiwar demonstration in American history. Two months later a committee organized a plan to end the war. All over the country students, ministers, housewives, and young
professors talked to their neighbors about their outlook on the war. They also organized antiwar groups, passed out leaflets, and discussed and lectured about the war. Over two months since the plan began, support for the war dropped 12% (Dougan and Weiss 88).
Though the antiwar protesters changed the minds of prowar people, the draft did not stop and neither did the number of American deaths in Vietnam. Protest and education were not working, so antiwar activists decided to attack the main powers of the military at induction centers and the Pentagon. On October 17, 1967, a group of 3,000 protesters were gathered around an induction center in Oakland, California. When they refused to leave, 25 of them were arrested and 20 were injured by the police. Three days later, 10,000 protesters showed up at the induction center because they were angry with what happened a few days earlier. For once the large group felt like it was in power as it blocked the streets with whatever they could find (Kaiser 42).
Antidraft actions took place in 15 other cities. In Washington, 75,000 protesters came to rally against the government at the Pentagon (Dougan and Weiss 89-90). The people
represented every area of America with young and old, men and women, and people of every race (Kent 76). After the speeches, there was a march in which some activists put flowers in the barrels of the soldier’s guns and others talked harshly to them.
That night after the press had left, the soldiers and federal marshals beat the protesters (Kaiser 42). When the demonstration came to an end, 700 people had been arrested and twice that number had been hurt (Dougan and Weiss 91).
In November and December of 1967 a violent antiwar demonstration took place at the University of Wisconsin and another at the Whitehall induction center in New York. For five days the protesters fought a guerilla war against the 4,000 police in New York(Dougan and Weiss 91). The American Civil Liberties Union said that the New York police had completely lost their ability to distinguish between disorderly conduct and free assembly. They also believed that the police had used needless violence when making arrests (Archer 59).
Nixon’s decision to send arms, advisers, and ground troops into Cambodia outraged many antiwar people. Not only were college campuses angered but so were some people in the high levels of government. A petition of protest was signed by more than 200 government officials. Students felt they were betrayed by Nixon’s break on the promise of peace. One incident that affected the lives of many happened at Kent State University (Kent 98).
In May of 1970 the National Guard was called to stop an
angry group of protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The activists had set fire to the Campus Reserve Officers Training building. The National Guard shot into the crowd of unarmed students and 9 students were wounded and 4 were killed. The nation was startled by the shootings (Kent 98-99). The first
sustained national strike took place in American history, when 450 colleges and universities were closed. Many aggravated
students started setting fires to ROTC buildings and other military properties at their school. During the year of 1970, 7,200 students were arrested (Archer 7) and an estimated 4 million students took place in protests (Dudley 217).
The Kent State incident caused a psychological change for many students involved with protests. They began to realize that they could die for their participation in antiwar demonstrations (Dudley 218). The shootings brought the war to a higher level of awareness (Kaiser). The division of society was also brought to its peak.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s more people were changing their opinions from prowar to antiwar, especially older Americans. George Wallace was a forceful speaker for the prowar side. He would often attack people’s beliefs that were different from his own. Like many Americans, feeling like victims of a system that had someone else’s interests at heart, Wallace began to question the reason for the United State’s involvement in the war. At a bar, a construction worker spontaneously burst out in
rage against the war, while watching a young boys funeral on television (Dougan and Weiss 102).
When the African American men left to fight in the war they felt good for supporting their country in the Vietnam War. By the time they returned back home, some found themselves strongly against the war and they became more aware of the inequalities in
the United States (Dougan and Weiss 95). Other soldiers that had been returned home might have changed their views on the war because of the lack of support they got from their peers and country.
Throughout the 1960’s antiwar activists influenced other people their age and anyone else who was interested, to take part in protests. In 1965 a rally in Boston only had about one 100 participants. Four years later another demonstration was held in Boston, this time it had 100 thousand people involved (O’Neil 110). Mark Rudd, the president of the Students for a Democratic Society, knew how to get his view across to millions. On the second day of students occupying the Columbia buildings, he met with the press for an interview (Kaiser 166-67).
We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly headstrong-and we were right. I regret nothing (Anderson 1)! That quote came from Abbie Hoffman’s last speech in 1989. Beyond the turmoil of the 1960’s the development of a youth culture was uniquely different, in the sense that they disagreed. They were the first to actively fight for what they believed needed to be
changed. They became opinionated about the Vietnam War from teach ins and other discussions or lectures. This enabled them to help inform others and aid them in seeing why the war was wrong. They joined organizations that would lead protests and guide them in their activism. By seeing large organized groups of people that all believed in the same thing and took it very seriously they persuaded people that there must be some truth to
what they were saying. The long length of the Vietnam war and the increased casualties began to play heavily on the minds of the American public. The deaths of young soldiers spurred many angry youths to speak out against the Vietnam war.
Anderson, Terry. Movement and the Sixties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Archer, Jules. The Incredible Sixties. San Diego: HBJ, 1986.
Dougan, Clark and Stephen Weiss. The Vietnam Experience: Nineteen Sixty-Eight. Boston: Boston Publishing Company.
Dudley, William. Ed. The 1960’s Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.
Hoskyns, Barney. Beneath The Diamond Sky Haight-Ashbury 1965- 1970.New York: Simon ; Schuster Editions, 1997.
Kaiser, Charles. 1968 In America. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Kent, Deborah. American War Series: The Vietnam War. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1994.
O’Neil, Doris. Life: The 60’s.Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1989.