The Vietnam War was arguably one of the most controversial wars of the 20th century. The conflict was as significant in the streets of the USA as it was in the rice patties of Vietnam.
Americans were protesting the war almost from the beginning of their countries military presence in south east Asia. The protests moved into the national spotlight in 1965 after starting off as small college campus movements when the USA began open, large scale bombing missions in North Vietnam. People were told the US forces were at war to stop Communism yet were seeing American bombs killing civilians. This cast doubt over the whole war, even more than when US troops first landed on Vietnam soil in 1964.
By 1967 the financial and humanitarian cost of the war was excruciatingly high as the US continued to be outmanoeuvred in a foreign field. $25 billion a year and over 120,000 casualties did plenty to fuel the fires of resentment. October 21st of the same year saw 30,000 protesters march on the Pentagon to show their nations leaders that the war had done far too much damage to American society. A protest of this size could not be ignored by President Lyndon Johnson and its highly possible that the rise in protests along with the tide of the war turning against the US help make his decision to not run for a second term.
The mid to late sixties were a challenging time for African Americans. The struggle for civil rights was ongoing and one leader of the movement provided a huge boost for the anti-war campaign. Martin Luther King Jr. condemned the war for being the reason federal funds were being directed away from domestic programmes designed to improve the quality of life of millions of Americans. He also raised the issue of how such a high percentage of casualties in Vietnam were African Americans, further lighting the touch paper of injustice and the people’s desire for peace.
Mohammed Ali was perhaps the most famous African American protester; the World Heavy Weight champion boxer rejected the draft call and risked a prison sentence.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” — Mohammad Ali, 1967.
In a decade where the USA was telling its people it was fighting communism, civil rights were still a dream for many African-Americans.
It wasn’t just US military action which turned the public against the war. The Tet offensive of January 1968 saw North Vietnam forces attacked US and South Vietnam positions. It was a shock to the American people that their soldiers were being thrown into a war which they were now losing. By the following month a poll suggested that only 35% of Americans approved of how Lyndon Johnson was handling the war. By the late 1960s many anti-war protests included Vietnam veterans. The soldiers coming home, often physically or mentally scarred, were turning on their government. The pressure on the White House was building.
For one of the first times in history, pictures of war were broadcast into the living rooms of everyday people. TV and newspapers brought along detailed coverage of the conflict in Vietnam and they put names to the faces of the troops fighting through the streets and jungles of South East Asia. Seeing the destruction of a conflict on the other side of the world helped to show Americans exactly what was going on. What they saw was enough to turn many against the war.
Any war will have at least some level of approval at the start. However, if a nation’s people see their family members returning home in coffins without any real progress being made, then hatred towards the conflict will inevitably grow. The US emerged itself into the Vietnam War to stop the spread of communism, but instead it gave Americans a chance to show the world that there truly is power in the people.