The Nature of the American Anti-Vietnam War Movement and its Effect on Policy Making
The anti-Vietnam War movement, in the United States, was not homogenous or contiguous by any stretch of the imagination. The movement was comprised of old, academic elites, young, “hippie,” college students, communist sympathizers, and military veterans. Needless to say, the movement was extremely decentralized. However, the prevailing perception of the movement, which survives to this day, was that it was essentially driven by counter-cultural, bearded, free-loving, college juveniles.1 In considering the movement’s impact on actual policy-making in Vietnam, this perception is significant. In order for this cause and effect scenario to exist, the general public must be converted to the viewpoint of the movement, which, in its early stages, did not reflect majority opinion in the U.S. But the anti-war protesters, while garnering much publicity and owning significant numbers, were out of touch with mainstream America. Therefore, mass perception and dominant social values limited, if not entirely precluded, the impact the anti-war movement had on public opinion, and, consequentially, its effect on policy.
While the impact was limited, there can be no denial some existed, as the national media delivered many of the events directly into American living rooms, forcing society to perceive them. The clues pertaining to the significance and nature of this perception on public opinion are important but spotty and can create a nebulous picture. Additionally, a persistent cognitive association between general anti-war sentiment and massive, organized physical protests lingers to this day. However, such a link is superficial, if not entirely spurious. The social, political, religious and moral values of those involved in anti-war protests will never be scientifically measured. However, one does not need to qualify the actual philosophical make-up of the protestors to draw useful conclusions. This is true because only the perception of the American public regarding the protesters is necessary to make inferences about the latter’s impact on the former. So, if the American public believe something about the protesters to be true, and this belief precludes any sort of ideological common ground, then the actual philosophical make-up of those marching on the streets does not matter in the context of this paper; the protesters impact on policy, through public opinion.
While American society did not share a monolithic perception of anything, there was an observable social standard, whether relating to physical appearance, type of lifestyle or manner of speech, held by enough of society to make it a relevant factor. This social standard is readily observable in 1960’s newspapers, for example, a San Francisco newspaper, reporting on a 1965 UC Berkeley protest, thought it relevant to note that 50% of the participants were bearded males.2 The slogan “Clean for Gene,” used by the McCarthy campaign in the 1960’s, an attempt to convince the young, long haired activist supporters of Eugene McCarthy (virtually all of which were against the Vietnam War,) to fit social standards, illustrates the importance of the “clean-cut” image for obtaining popular support. Also, a 1969 New York Times article noted that “[A prominent anti-war group] see[s] the broad community support that was so evident in many places breaking down in a conflict between radicals and centrist critics of the war.”3 The use of the word “radicals” reflects a social construction, created by those holding claim to the aforementioned social standard. The use of this construction in the New York Times article indicates a perception, apparently popularly held in the U.S., of antagonistic dissonance between the moderate, or socially constructed “normal,” American and the counter-cultural activist. This dissonance, it can be reasonably deduced, was significantly deleterious to the anti-war movement’s objective of eventually affecting political change.
Even during times of significant public dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, the American public held a very unfavorable opinion, in general, of protesters. In 1968, a crucial year with regards to public opinion permanently turning against the war, Vietnam War protesters received an average favorable rating of 28.4 percent.4 Vice President Spiro Agnew, who’s administration had been elected by a landslide majority, in October, 1969, encapsulated the nature of the majority opinion of the protesters when he referred to them as “impudent snobs.”5 During the same year, during an interview with the New York Times, a soldier stationed in Saigon said about the protestors, “I think the demonstrators are crazy. I don’t think they know what they are talking about.”6 Such quotes, alone, do not necessarily reflect mass perception, but, backed by statistical data, they “breathe life” into the numbers. The very public who was turning progressively more against the war also held protestors in very low esteem. The fact that these two public perceptions were coincidental is very damning to any argument purporting the anti-war movement as a significant engine behind public discontent about the war.
The potency of the effect of the anti-war movement is sometimes measured by the prevalence of organized events or the number of participants involved. Many critics of these indicators point to the lack of congruency between the chronology of physical participation in protests and that of public opinion against the war. Writing less than five years after the war the sociologist E.M. Schreiber argues just that.
“If the decline in the American public’s support for the war in Vietnam were attributable to anti-war demonstrations, it would be reasonable to expect that this support (as indicated, for example, by the Vietnam-related Gallup poll questions) would have dropped off after major demonstrations took place.”7
Gerard De Groot, modern historian and contributor to The Pacific Historical Review, held a similar view, only with slightly different logic. He argued, “…In the months that followed [a major ant-war protest]… VDC activists [an early, prominent anti-war organization] failed to build upon the triumph of May 21, and by its first anniversary the group was a spent force…”8 Specifically, De Groot takes special interest in the “gulf between the moral protest of the campus movements and the more pragmatic opposition which eventually arose when the public cams to realize the war was not being won.”9
Perhaps the most significant dissonance between the American public and the anti-war movement were the ideals each held as central to their opinion about the war. At anti-war demonstrations, there was certainly a dearth of logical dialectic meant to promote thoughtful evaluation of the the pros and cons of the war, so that participants could make the most informed, practical decision. Demonstrators seemed to be more focused on moral and political issues which they considered paramount to the nuances of American foreign policy. In other words, policy in Vietnam, for the “counter-cultural” demonstrator was merely an offspring of a world view that championed peace and brotherhood (among other less universal ideals). In the minds of many protestors there was no place for the justification of war, under any circumstances. This clashed with the “normal,” popular world view which allowed for the justification of war in certain contexts, for example, if it was worth the sacrifice.
These world views, while not necessarily mutually exclusive (as public opinion eventually matching that of the demonstrators) were likely not causally connected, as they were fundamentally different in many respects. Howard Schuman, popularly regarding as a leading scholar on the topic of the impact demonstrations had on public opinion, writing near the conclusion of the war, argued along a similar line.
“Two distinct measures of opposition to American involvement in Vietnam can be traced over the past seven years. One is the intensity and scope of college-related protests against the war. The other comprises the results of Gallup polls and similar opinion surveys based on cross sections of the entire American adult public. Both measures show increasing disenchantment with the war, and it is very easy to treat them as simply two aspects of the same thing. There is some truth to this, but even more error. The college-based protest has focused on moral objections to the use of American military power in Vietnam. The general public disenchantment, however, seems to have been largely practical, springing from the failure of our substantial military investments to yield victory.”10
Schuman is arguing that the moral issue of American military power being used against civilians was the primary focus of demonstrators; however, that may fall short of fully elucidating the differences between them and the general public. Not only were many of the demonstrators driven by moral issues, but there were also observable political agendas that found their way inside (or even helped found, depending on one’s interpretation) the anti-war movement.
A New York Times article, Vietnam Protest: Confrontation or Persuasion?, covers the concern of many moderates within the anti-war movement that their organizations are being marginalized by “radicals.”11 In the section entitled “Concern at Radical Air” the author writes, “In other words, the march has the air of a radical effort to remake American society, not a broad-based protest against the Vietnam War.”12 It should be noted that majority opinion regarding the Vietnam War, even when overwhelmingly negative, never included such concerns. In fact, it would be reasonable to infer that such an initiative, essentially to overhaul American values and society, were extremely unpopular. Moreover, any movement, not only associated with, but also fundamentally driven by, such a goal must have been threatening to the general public, therefore completely removing much of the movement from serious consideration in the debate over Vietnam.
The subject matter found at anti-war demonstrations consisted of well beyond that which related to the war. De Groot wrote, about one of the protest events, that “organizers… wanted a carnival atmosphere, and this is what they achieved. Comedians, folksingers, and mime artists provided… relief.”13 Beyond the different attractions that were meant to draw an eclectic mix of people, there were a myriad of different political allegiances and philosophical world views. De Groot continues, “Given the wide range of political positions, the content of the speeches varied enormously. For instance, Gruening’s support for a negotiated peace contrasted sharply with M. S. Arnoni’s call for a volunteer force to fight on the side of the North Vietnamese.”14 These inconsistent views reflect several different ideological starting points. In fact, many protest organizers, driven to simply end the war for moral reasons, were not interested in constructive policy alternatives. De Groot writes that “[protest organizers] had always intended to draw supporters together around a single issue, not a single solution.”15 Stephen Smale, a prominent figure in the early anti-war movement, responsible for organizing several events, made his position on the matter clear: “We didn’t spend much time on analysis and theory. Our mode was one of continually doing things, all kinds of things, which would make Vietnam Day into a bigger and sharper anti-war protest…. It was more like an exciting creative challenge… to make Johnson cringe.”16 Smale, when asked about his long-term goal for his movement, answered he wanted to “see some form of socialism in the U.S… but above all we’d like to see this country run like the VDC. [his protest group]”17
The above quote, and the countless like it, underscore the attitude of many of the demonstrators; one that seeks to gain a massive following that agree on ending the Vietnam War, regardless of other beliefs. Grasping this mentality is crucial to understand the “radicalism” that readily developed under the massive tent of the anti-war movement. Due to the extremely eclectic ideological mix of demonstrators, there was a high chance one of those groups would alienate a “moderate” American. There are several sub-groups within the movement who would not have been considered “radical,” by most Americans, which still may have contributed to the deterrence of, what one political scientist refers to as “mediating links” between demonstrators and the general public.18 Patriotic Americans who may have been open to the idea of turning against the war, were certainly going to be hostile to those within the anti-war crowd who were openly calling for the support of North Vietnam. Veterans and their families were likely to object to the epithet, “baby-killer” that was frequently hurled at returning soldiers. During a time of intense racial conflict in the southern U.S., the strong civil rights contingent of the anti-war movement likely repelled some white southerners. Staunch capitalists were not likely to follow communist sympathizers and the middle-aged working class was not very likely to identify with free-love and open drug use.
All of these different interest groups were united by a single issue, and while they certainly did not agree on everything, many in the general public cognitively lumped them together. This tidy arrangement, which was simple and convenient, kept demonstrators, and their rhetoric, at odds with general public opinion, and, thus, on the fringe of the debate. Many in the movement sensed this fracture, creating a division as to what direction to take as a result. As the aforementioned New York Times articles put it, “The issue is whether to enlist the mass American public against the war, by moderate techniques, or to go for more militant protest.”19 The author speculates, “The danger of moving from the peaceful expression of anti-war feelings… to more militant aims and methods is obvious. Instead of an inchoate mass of centrist opinion eager for an end to the war– now reflected in the polls– there would be the risk of polarization.”20 This quote raises the possibility that, not only could the protests enervate an increase in anti-war sentiment among the general public, they could actually decrease it.
The fear expressed in the article is legitimized by quotes of several key anti-war leaders. “The [Vietnam Day Committee] consciously decided to have nothing to do with liberal America. ‘We didn’t mind alienating liberals,’ Smale recalled; ‘We didn’t need them.’”21 This quote from such a prominent anti-war leader begs the question; if not the liberals, and not the conservatives, and not the moderates, who then? As if an act of defiance from a group of soldiers determined to fight an impossible, last stand, many protesters turned to civil disobedience, knowing fully that this would not directly alter public opinion. Vietnam Day Committee’s newsletter said that civil disobedience
“is justified and necessary not only on moral grounds, but also on political grounds…. When a country’s institutions stifle its thought and poison its moral health, civil disobedience is the only recourse…. We must say to Johnson, Inc.: ‘If you want to go on killing Vietnamese, you must jail Americans.”22
This highlights the tendency of activists to rely on shock value rather than reason or argumentation. This form of “expressive politics” tended to exacerbate the problem of ideological disorganization. As the disorganization became progressively more apparent, the border between the desire to affect change, and act out of simple spite became more blurred.
One of the main justifications for many in the anti-war movement to abandon the attempt to alter public opinion was calm protests would be ignored by the media.23 This indicates the importance of the media in, not only acting as a soap box for anti-war activists (if they could get their attention), but also in filtering everything relating to Vietnam to the general public. The different forms of media carried with them different opportunities for anti-war demonstrators. Perhaps the most valuable, television, would broadcast powerful images of massive demonstrations which, on some level, must have impressed everyone who witnessed them. Newspapers were far less effective for demonstrators, as the interpretation of the writers could bend the story into whatever the former liked. However, while editors could select certain segments of their footage to show, raw images, would be presented to each individual for interpretation. In other words, television served as an instrument of demonstrators to reach the world in a purer form than radio reports, or newspaper articles.
However, this medium may have caused more harm than help for those demonstrators still hoping to affect change. As stated above, much of the anti-war movement had given up on reaching the masses, instead deciding on civil disobedience. Images of scruffy, bearded, hippies struggling, sometimes violently, with policemen only enhanced the alienation of the groups. Demonstrators, failing to appreciate this, took comfort in the logic that “respectable protest would be ignored by the media,” and that “liberal Democrats loyally supported Johnson.”24 These two arguments were reasonable and supported by the facts. Lyndon Johnson was the candidate of “moderate” liberal America. Therefore, if Johnson was unwilling to pull out of Vietnam, his supporters were not likely, due to political allegiance, to turn against the war either.
This created a scenario in which the protesters had two choices: either engage in peaceful debate, which likely would have been futile in expediting a change in public opinion against the war, or engage in civil disobedience, and attempt to shock the American public in a way that may “leap-frog” the necessity for dialectic. The anti-war movement remained split on this issue for its duration, but the perception of the movement by the general public tended to focus on the disobedience. A prime example of this dichotomy was, in late 1965, years before the apogee of the movement’s internal divisions, “one group of VDC members drew up plans for a non-violent parade while at the same time another equally bona fide faction distributed leaflets calling for a distinctly aggressive strategy. ‘Bring a picket sign on a sturdy, not too short, stick.’”25 Actions that attracted many event organizers were those that would “increase the number of people who are opposed to the structure and value system of American Society.”26 The ostensible, specific goal of the anti-war movement, to end the Vietnam war, drifts farther and farther away the closer one looks at their actual rhetoric. The implications of this with regards to an effect on “normal” society are obvious. The anti-war movement remained on the periphery and its relationship with larger anti-war sentiment runs parallel. Each are virtually, causally unrelated.
If the demonstrations did not cause a significant shift in public opinion, what did? Can it be as simple as dissatisfaction with the military events on the ground? Strategically speaking, was the Vietnam War simply un-winnable? In order to answer these questions one must consider the societal differences between “popular” wars and the anti-war sentiment surrounding Vietnam. One of the most salient differences was, as alluded to before, television. Technological advances in communication would have a profound effect on every societal topic during the Twentieth Century, especially from the 1950’s on. As perhaps the quintessential example, television coverage of the Vietnam War would bring the horrors of combat into American living rooms, exposing the general public to aspects of warfare which they would have been able to cognitively filter-out in wars past. Michael Mandlebaum, writing about Television’s effect on the Vietnam War, argued that, “It is certainly true that public opinion ultimately determined the American policy in Vietnam.”27 If the protesters, as shown above, did not affect change in the general perception of the war, an alternate causal explanation is necessary. The advent of television news is, at least, a better candidate.
Lyndon Johnson was convinced that “if [America’s] previous wars had been televised, the United States would not have persevered in fighting them.”28 Johnson knew that his leash regarding Vietnam was tight. Ordering an undeclared war in which successes were difficult and progress was, many times, stagnant, was a significant hurdle to climb even without television. Unflinching coverage fueled these already-existing frustrations with raw video footage of American young men being brutally killed, and pathetic Vietnamese civilians suffering tremendously. In other words, the emotional impact on television viewers may have eventually deteriorated the will of the American public to support the war. David Culbert theorized that two, main, televised events did more than any other to influence public opinion about the war:
For American viewers,. Television in 1968 captured… moments of violence in a way which defines the potential of a visual medium to change or affect viewer responses–[one of which being] The assassination of a Vietcong terrorist on the streets of downtown Saigon, on 1 February, at the start of the Tet Offensive…”29
Alan Brinkley, said of the televised execution, “no single event did more to undermine support in the United States for the war.”30 A grad student interviewed in 1968 said “I was just watching the news. General Loan pulled his gun and shot the man, and at first I could not believe that it was happening…. After that I became active in the anti-war movement.”31 These quotes elucidate a causal factor in public opinion which is virtually impossible to quantify; the latent emotional effects of visual stimuli on reason. However, these effects can’t be ignored as there are countless quotes which suggest violent images did alter opinions about the war.
The general public put significantly more faith into the news media than it did protesters. One man, Walter Cronkite, may have done more to effect American policy on the war, with the utterance of one sentence, than the entire anti-war movement did in a decade of demonstrating.
“But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then would be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend Democracy, and did the best they could.”32
Though disputed, according to his Press Secretary, Johnson is reportedly to have told him that “if he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost Mr. Average Citizen.” Furthermore, it “solidified his decision not to run again.”33 The political implications of this, if true, are huge. It would mean that the media had a direct effect on a presidential outcome with a single broadcast. Even if only partially true, there is no correlative impact by anti-war demonstrations on anyone inside the administration to compare. While Johnson was displeased by such demonstrations, he never indicated that they changed his mind on policy matters.
In conclusion, there is no evidence to support the argument that the anti-war movement had a significant direct or indirect impact on policy. While there is strong evidence to suggest that public opinion did have significant influence on decision-making regarding the war in Vietnam, there is extremely little that links the general public with the demonstrations. In fact, there is more evidence that suggests the general public ignored, or reacted negatively to the anti-war movement than vice versa. The mass media represents a much more viable causal factor in the eventual changing of public opinion against the war. The general public, and their social biases, would simply not allow themselves to embrace the rhetoric of the eclectic counter-cultural demonstrators, whose ulterior motives, many times, took them in a violently opposite ideological direction. Much of the protest community, embracing this reality, resorted to civil disobedience, relying on shock tactics, which pushed them farther into the social periphery of the United States.
1Lunch, William and Sperlich, Peter. American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam. The Western Political Quarterly. Vol. 32, No. 1, (March, 1979) pp. 32
2De Groot, Gerard. The Limits of Moral Protest and Participatory Democracy. The Historical Review, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Feb. 1995), pp. 103.
3Lewis, Anthony. Vietnam Protest: Confrontation or Persuasion? New York Times. Oct. 22, 1969. pp. 46
4Schreiber, E.M. Anti-war Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam. pp. 229.
5Lewis, Anthony. Vietnam Protest: Confrontation or Persuasion? New York Times. Oct. 22, 1969. pp. 46
6Robinson, Douglas. Vietnam Protest Called a Success. New York Times. Oct. 18, 1969. pg. 7.
7Schreiber, E.M. Anti-war Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam. The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Jun, 1976), pp. 226.
8De Groot, Gerard. The Limits of Moral Protest and Participatory Democracy. pp. 95
9Ibid. pp. 96
10Schuman, Howard. Two Sources of Antiwar Sentiment in America. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Nov, 1972) pp. 513.
11Lewis, Anthony. Vietnam Protest: Confrontation or Persuasion? New York Times. Oct. 22, 1969. pp. 46
12Ibid. pp. 46
13De Groot, Gerard. The Limits of Moral Protest and Participatory Democracy. pp. 102
14Ibid. pp. 103
15Ibid. pp. 103
16Smale, Steven, Some Autobiographical Notes. (Unpublished, 1990) Derived from De Root Article. pp. 99
17De Groot, Gerard. The Limits of Moral Protest and Participatory Democracy. pp. 107
18Schreiber, E.M. Anti-war Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam.
19Lewis, Anthony. Vietnam Protest: Confrontation or Persuasion? New York Times. Oct. 22, 1969. pp. 46
20Ibid. pp 46
21De Groot, Gerard. The Limits of Moral Protest and Participatory Democracy. pp. 104
22Ibid. pp. 104
23Ibid. pp. 104
24Ibid. pg 104
25Ibid. pg. 107
26De Groot, Gerard. The Limits of Moral Protest and Participatory Democracy. pp. 108
27Ibid. pp 158
28Mandlebaum, Michael. Vietnam: The Television War. Daedalus. Vol. 111, No. 4, Print Culture and Video Culture (Fall, 1982), pp. 157
29Culbert, David Television’s Visual Impact on Decision-making in the USA, 1968: The Tet Offensive and Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. Journal of Contemporary History Vol 33 No 3 (Jul. 1998) pg. 422
30Ibid. pg. 422
31Ibid. pg. 423
32Widely quoted. Multiple sources in multiple mediums.
33Culbert, David Television’s Visual Impact on Decision-making in the USA pp. 43