By Dennis Gilbert, Martin Bennett and Paul Gratz
The last national protests against the Vietnam War occurred 50 years ago, in late April 1971: 500,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington, D.C., and 200,000 in San Francisco to demand immediate and unconditional withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.
That same week, 800 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) threw their military medals onto the Capitol building steps to demonstrate their opposition to the war.
On May 3, D.C. police jailed nearly 12,000 anti-war demonstrators for sitting down in the streets in an attempt to disrupt the federal government.
Simultaneously, hundreds of “Out Now” anti-war demonstrations were organized across the country.
At the time, the three of us were students at the University of Oregon. We were part of the Spring Action Coordinating Committee, a coalition of students, faculty, clergy, veterans and community leaders who organized a week of May Day protest actions.
On May 1, 1971, 2,000 anti-war opponents rallied peacefully in downtown Eugene. On May 5, several hundred protestors marched on the campus ROTC (officer training) building and then continued downtown to block entrances and close down the Selective Service, Army recruiting and IRS offices.
That week, the university faculty voted for a complete withdrawal of American troops by Dec. 31. In late May, 58 percent of Eugene voters approved a ballot referendum demanding the troops’ withdrawal by year’s end.
Most student activists (including ourselves) had turned against the Vietnam War years earlier. We had organized a range of predominantly nonviolent protests: draft resistance, educational teach-ins, marches, vigils and civil disobedience; a student strike (in May 1970 after the Cambodia invasion); assistance to soldiers who deserted and fled to Canada after being ordered to Vietnam; and in 1968 support for anti-war Presidential candidates Democratic Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, as well as incumbent Oregon Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield. Both were outspoken critics of the war.
Half a century later, how shall we evaluate the anti-Vietnam War movement?
According to historian Christian Appy’s recent book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, the movement helped to shape public opinion and move opposition to the war from the political margins to the mainstream. A 1965 Gallup Poll found that only 24 percent of Americans believed our military intervention was mistaken. By 1971, 61 percent of Americans polled favored withdrawal by the end of the year.
Anti-war criticism of American intervention, eventually discredited the ‘Cold War’ anti-communist ideology used to justify American involvement. The movement shattered America’s myth as a “shining city on the hill” and a universal force for good — “chosen by God” to export our political-economic system to less-developed nations.
African American civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X stressed that American intervention was driven by anti-Asian racism, deeply embedded in nineteenth-century “yellow peril” stereotypes.
The anti-war movement and television news coverage exposed pervasive U.S. military atrocities and human rights violations, such as the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of unarmed women, children and elderly men. According to University of Washington and Harvard Medical School researchers, “carpet bombing” (that included the toxic defoliant Agent Orange) and “search and destroy” missions in South Vietnam’s countryside caused an estimated 2 million civilian deaths.
By the early 1970s, the anti-war movement converged with active-duty soldier protests both in Vietnam and stateside. Morale plummeted, desertions skyrocketed, entire platoons refused to engage the enemy in combat. “Fragging” — attacks against gung-ho officers — increased dramatically. At home, thousands of active-duty GIs and veterans joined anti-war marches, and troops avidly read underground anti-war newspapers edited by soldiers.
Eventually, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird warned that the soldiers’ revolt could approach “crisis proportions” if the troops were not immediately withdrawn.
According to Appy and other historians, the anti-war movement did not end the war, but surging negative public opinion pressured President Lyndon Johnson to stop the bombing and begin negotiations in 1968. It then compelled President Richard Nixon to seek a cease-fire and negotiated settlement in 1972 — much earlier than he otherwise would have.
The historical evidence suggests that the anti-war movement restrained policymakers and thwarted major escalations. In 1968 President Johnson denied the military’s request to increase American troop levels from 536,000 to 736,000. In 1969 and 1972, President Nixon considered using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam but ultimately pulled back.
Pushed by anti-war public opinion and the GI rebellion, bi-partisan Senate and House majorities in 1972 threatened to cut off funding for the war. By March 1973, Nixon was forced to sign a peace agreement, halt the bombing of North Vietnam and withdraw all American combat troops.
Co-author and disillusioned Rand corporation researcher Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department report on the war, to U.S. newspapers. The study, first published by the New York Times in June 1971, disclosed that both Democratic and Republican administrations had systematically lied about the war and attempted to suppress the growth of anti-war public opinion. By 1972, a record 65 percent polled said the war was “morally wrong.’’
In the 1960s, young people provided leadership of the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements to curb American intervention in Vietnam and make America a more just and equitable society. Today, once again, with the explosion of mass movements such as Black Lives Matter, Climate justice, gun control, Fight for $15 and LGBTQ rights, youth lead the way.
We should not forget the enduring legacy of the Vietnam anti-war movement and how organized citizens influenced public opinion, checked the power of the imperial presidency and played a major role in ending the war.
Dennis Gilbert is instructor of physics at Lane Community College. Martin Bennett is instructor emeritus of American history at Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County, California. Paul Gratz is a retired public health educator in Santa Cruz County, California.