The Vietnam War Protest Movement

The Vietnam War and opposition to it are responsible for some of the most enduring images of the 60s. The anti-war movement in the US was one of the driving forces of counter-culture of the decade, as it drew together several other social movements. Many individuals who were inspired to become activists for Civil Rights, for example, found themselves drawn to anti-war causes due to its anti-racist and anti-imperialist principles. Equally, many students were already politically active on campus and many felt that anti-war causes were a natural extension of their liberal politics. In this article, we will explore the background of the war itself, key anti-war protests, and some of the groups involved in organising against the war.


The Vietnam War, or Second Indochina War, was officially fought between North and South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975. It was fought in Vietnam, as well as areas of Cambodia and Laos. North Vietnam was governed by Ho Chi Minh and its allies included China and the Soviet Union. South Vietnam was backed by the United States, South Korea, and Australia, among others. Due to the Communist and anti-Communist opposing forces, it has been described as a ‘proxy war’ of the Cold War era. The United States government began lending military support to South Vietnam after French forces pulled out of the country in 1954 following their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

As the war intensified in the 60s, the US government implemented a draft (conscription) system for the first time since the Second World War. However, since the draft allowed for men to defer enlisting in order to continue their studies, and since college students tended to be middle-class, white, and affluent, it disproportionately affected working-class and Black men. This would prove to be one starting point for anti-war sentiment in sections of the public, which only grew as more men became eligible for conscription.

Members of the military police keep back protesters during the sit-in protest at the Mall Entrance to the Pentagon (1967)
US Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first resistors

Although anti-war protests are an iconic and enduring image of the 1960s, the first protest against US involvement in Vietnam was as early as 1945, when US troops involved in transporting French soldiers condemned the use of US military resources “to subjugate the native people”. However, mass mobilisation proper against the war did not begin until the late 1960s.

The first civilian anti-war protestors were largely made up of groups who had already been radicalised via involvement in the Civil Rights movement and Marxism, with significant overlap between the two. Others came in via campus politics, perhaps through participating in groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, formed in 1960), which was also a socialist organization. It is therefore unsurprising that Marxists and other left-wing activists opposed the war on the basis of anti-imperialism and anti-racism.

The first anti-war protest in the US was organised by the War Resisters League, which held a vigil at the US Mission to the UN on 21st September 1963. They subsequently picketed an appearance by Madame Ngô Đình Nhu, the First Lady of South Vietnam, in New York City on 9th October 1963. During 1964, several protests saw crowds in the low four-figures. This year also saw the first public burning of draft cards, in a protest by twelve men again in New York City. In December, the first nationwide organised protest took place, with marches across the country from coast to coast.

Dissent grows

SDS grew as a major agitating force after its formation and very much hit its stride in 1965. In March that year, it held the first ‘teach-in,’ in Michigan where SDS was founded. A protest tactic that would go on to become emblematic of the anti-war movement on campus, it was organised by members of SDS and the University of Michigan faculty as an alternative to a one-day teaching strike. Approximately 3,500 people attended the event to listen, discuss, and debate. It was not without controversy; the one day-and-night event received three bomb threats and was itself protested by Young Republicans. However, it blazed a trail for other teach-ins on campuses across the country until the end of the war.

Two particularly striking examples of anti-war protest came in November 1965. Two men – unrelated and unknown to each other – died by self-immolation as an act of protest. Norman Morrison, a Quaker, set himself on fire outside the Pentagon office of Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defence. With him was his one-year old daughter Emily, who was completely unharmed. A week later, Robert Allen LaPorte, a Catholic and member of the Catholic Worker Movement did the same outside the United Nations building in New York.

However, an often overlooked act of self-immolation came earlier that year in March. Alice Herz, who was 82, died ten days after setting herself on fire in Detroit. All three stated prior to their deaths that they had tried every other form of protest to no avail. They were undoubtedly influenced by the death of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who self-immolated to protest the subjugation of Buddhists in South Vietnam in 1963. Although Herz’s death generated little attention at the time, Morrison and LaPorte’s actions drew considerably more interest and public sympathy. Despite this, they did little to change government policy.

Mass mobilisation

1967 saw the March on the Pentagon, organised by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (or the Mobe for short). Approximately 70,000 people attended the rally at the Lincoln Memorial, with 50,000 of those going on to march to the Pentagon itself. Of those, 650 people were arrested for acts of civil disobedience on the Pentagon steps. Abbie Hoffman, one of the march’s organisers, stated that the goal was to encircle the building and levitate it to exorcise the evil within – a statement that even the organisers acknowledged was largely for shock value. Protesters were met by armed security forces, which gave rise to one of the most iconic images of the decade: Flower Power, featuring an activist placing a flower into the barrel of an officer’s gun.

Richard Nixon won the 1968 Presidential election, and assumed office in January 1969. In the first year of his presidency, approximately 10,000 US soldiers were killed in Vietnam, compared to 34,000 in the several years prior. Despite his public desire to achieve “Peace with Honor” (i.e., to withdraw US soldiers without being seen to have lost the war) it was evident that his policies marked no major departure from the previous administration. Conscription increased, deaths rose, and the views of the American public became increasingly polarised.

On 15th October 1969, the Mobe organised a protest called the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. This including demonstrations and teach-ins across the US, but most significantly the Moratorium March. 250,000 people marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, led by Coretta Scott King. Other demonstrations were well attended, with New York also reaching a six-figure turnout. Unlike the March on the Pentagon and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which ended in violence and arrests, the Moratorium March was completely peaceful.

U.S. Marshals removing one of the protesters during the outbreak of violence at the Pentagon building during the Vietnam War Protests (1967)
National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A month later, a second Moratorium Day was called. Incredibly, attendance dwarfed the first Moratorium. This was due to the release of two documents: the first showing that a US colonel had ordered a South Vietnamese official to be executed on suspicion of being a Viet Cong spy, and the second showing that Lieutenant William Calley had ordered his company to carry out the My Lai massacre. Both of these, particularly the latter, became lightning rods for anti-war protest as examples of US brutality. In San Francisco, up to half of school students truanted in order to attend demonstrations. In Washington D.C., 500,000 people gathered directly opposite the White House. Pete Seeger, along with the massive crowd, sang ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ Washington D.C. had never seen so many demonstrators at this point in history.

Regardless, President Nixon stated “under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by [the protests]” and the war continued. At this time, the country was deeply divided almost entirely into two equally-sized pro- and anti-war factions. Indeed, Nixon is credited with popularising the phrase ‘silent majority’ in reference to the pro-war American public.

Beyond the decade

The Vietnam War ended in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon (or the Liberation of Saigon, for the North Vietnamese government). By the end of the war, there were over 58,000 direct US casualties, as well as over 300,000 injured. Regarded as a defeat for the US and its allies, it triggered a national identity crisis that would last decades, nicknamed ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.

The anti-war movement is linked inextricably with the counterculture of the 1960s. Artists, writers, musicians, poets, activists, and revolutionaries all found themselves campaigning to end the war, even if their methods differed. Beyond the counterculture, the anti-war movement encompassed perhaps the broadest range of demographics of any mass movement in US history, including students, soldiers, mothers, and the clergy. It is impossible to overstate its reach. And yet, it seemed to have no impact on the government’s actions in Vietnam. Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut summed it up best:

“During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”