The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement
by Ian Sinclair
26 October 2017
The new 10-part Vietnam War documentary from legendary American filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has garnered much praise (in the Guardian and the Morning Star television guides), along with some searing criticism from journalist John Pilger.
In addition to the conflict in South-East Asia, the series covers the extensive and diverse anti-war movement back in the United States, the influence of which continues to be contested today. For example, in his 2012 study Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement Simon Hall, currently a Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds, argues “when it comes to the ultimate test – whether it helped to end the war in Vietnam – it is far from clear that the anti-war movement had any meaningful impact at all.” Interestingly, many anti-war activists at the time also saw the movement as powerless against the US military machine, according to historian Tom Wells.
The impact of social movements is certainly often difficult to quantify. The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. ‘Decision-makers’ are usually loath to admit they have been swayed by public opinion on matters of war and peace. And there are many influences on governments and public opinion during wartime, including domestic and international politics, geopolitical concerns and the progress of the war itself.
However, despite these caveats the evidence of the power of the anti-Vietnam War movement is clear. Wells, who interviewed over 35 senior US government officials from the period for his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, notes “If many protesters failed to appreciate their political clout, officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations did not.” Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration: “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.” For Moorer the movement “had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”
Wells elaborates: “The movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.”
US dissident Noam Chomsky remembers becoming active against the war in 1962, when the US intervention in Vietnam was still relatively light. “You couldn’t get two people in a living room to talk about it”, he notes. “In October 1965… in Boston… we tried to have our first major public demonstration against the war on the Boston Common, the usual place for meetings”, he recalls. “I was supposed to be one of the speakers, but nobody could hear a word. The meeting was totally broken up—by students marching over from universities, by others, and hundreds of state police, which kept people from being murdered.”
From these modest and difficult beginnings, the movement – which continued to be unpopular throughout the war according to opinion polls – grew in tandem with the increasing levels of US military aggression in Vietnam. According to Gallup, in 1965 24 percent of American felt sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. By 1971 the figure was 61 percent.
Like Wells, the historian Melvin Small also believes the anti-war movement had “a significant impact” on the Johnson and Nixon administrations managing the war, highlighting two key points of influence – October 1967 and October 1969. Informed by interviews with US policymakers and archival research, Small argues in his 1989 book Johnson, Nixon and The Doves that the famous March on the Pentagon in 1967, which involved 35,000-50,000 protesters marching to the heart of military power in Washington, “shocked” the Johnson administration. By early 1968, Pentagon officials were warning a further increase in US troop levels in Vietnam in the face of the public’s “growing dissatisfaction” risked provoking “a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Clark Clifford, who served as US Secretary of Defence for a short period from 1968-69, said this advice had a “tremendous” impact on him.
In autumn 1969, President Richard Nixon was threatening North Vietnam with an escalation in violence if it didn’t play ball in peace negotiations. The historian Marilyn Young notes the proposed assault – known as Operation Duck Hook – “explored a new range of options, including a land invasion of the North, the systematic bombing of dikes so as to destroy the food supply, and the saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.”
However, Small notes The Moratorium – a series of demonstrations held across the country in October 1969 that drew more than two million people – “helped to convince Nixon that Americans would not accept the savage blows envisaged by Operation Duck Hook.” Nixon’s memoirs support this conclusion, with Tricky Dicky writing that after the huge protests “American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.”
“The protester’s victory over the war machine was not, of course, absolute”, Wells notes. The movement had not prevented the war’s escalation, some two million Vietnamese deaths, or the 58,000 Americans who returned home in a body bag. “Nonetheless, their influence on their government had been profound”, he explains. “Had they not acted, the death and destruction they mourned would have been immensely greater.”
Wells sets out a number of other effects of the decentralised, often chaotic anti-war movement: it fed the deterioration in US troop morale and discipline; hastened troop withdrawals, promoted congressional legislation that limited US funds for the war; and applied pressure on the Nixon administration to negotiate a settlement of the war. Writing in 1988, McGeorge Bundy – National Security Advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – argued that public opinion was a key factor behind why the US government never seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. One could also point to longer term influences, including playing a key role in germinating other social movements such as the environmental movement, and its constraining effect on US military actions abroad until the epoch-changing 9/11 attacks.
“The movement cannot be measured on the basis of its instrumental achievements alone”, argues scholar Winifred Breines. “The whole culture was transformed.”
Why is it important to highlight the power and influence of the American anti-Vietnam War movement over 50 years later in a British newspaper?
Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary introduction to the new edition of her powerful book Hope in Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities provides a good explanation. Quoting theologian Walter Brueggemann that “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair”, Solnit argues established power is always keen to present the status quo as “immutable, inevitable and invulnerable”. Highlighting the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement gives hope, showing people that protest and activism – broadly nonviolent in nature – is a powerful force that can compel significant changes in government policy and save lives.