The Protest Movement of the Vietnam Era: How It Changed America

The Protest Movement of the Vietnam Era: How It Changed America – History Essay
Throughout the history of the United States of America, support for the various wars that our nation has waged is varied. Many wars were backed by the American public,

while many were shot down and widely criticized. Throughout the early 20th century, support for the several wars that America waged were generally accepted by the American people. World War I was known as “the war to end all wars” and even though we didn’t join the Allies until three years into the war, the reason we entered the war (militarily) was because our ships were being attacked by German U-boats. World War II was known as “the last good war”, and we entered that war after the assault on Pearl Harbor. The Korean War was a short war that most Americans supported even though it was seen by many as unnecessary. The Vietnam Conflict showed the true strain of control that the American public had on its population. The demographic that truly emerged during the Vietnam era was the college student. It was during these turbulent times that the lives of the entire American population raced toward the chaos that engulfed the 1960s and 1970s. The average American protested against the American government and its actions against Vietnam, and therefore forever changed the course of American history.
Long before Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the United States would use any method necessary to expunge the Communist forces of North Vietnam out of the democratic nation of South Vietnam, the American public had begun to question the actions of the government. During the Korean War (1950-1953), many Americans wondered what the troops were doing there in the first place. After all, half of America didn’t even know where Korea was in the world. All they knew is that that nation had nothing to do with the domestic problems that were occurring in America. That war lasted only three years, but many families experienced the death of loved ones through the conflict. Therefore the general feelings the nation had going into Vietnam were not to be too worried. This was the time when people trusted their government. They believed that the war would be quick or would only last a few years. Little did they know that the course of the war, and the feelings of the nation, would change for the worse, and change the position of power the American government had over its people. (Caro)
Although large protests against America’s involvement in Vietnam did not take place until 1968 and 1969, minor protests began as early as 1964. When Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1965, only a small percentage of the American public initially opposed the war. The people who initially objected the involvement in the conflict fell into three broad categories (Johnston and Noakes). First, people who had strong political feelings towards a nation under pressure from larger powers wanted them to be liberated from all “guidance” that larger nations wanted to give. They wanted the United States, the Soviet Union, and China to stay out of Vietnam and allow them to form their own nation based on their heritage and their own values. The second group was what people know now as the “doves”. This group was made up of pure pacifists who didn’t agree with or associate themselves with anyone who believed in using warfare as a diplomatic solution. The third and by far largest of the groups were the liberals who believed that the best way to stop communism from spreading was by encouraging the use of democratic reform. These men and women were mostly young college students who were just learning the ways of a democratic government (Johnston and Noakes). These people were born in the 1940s and 1950s and grew up in a stable and prospering nation. Now after the effects of the Korean War on America, the youth of the nation was used to being pushed aside by their government and not being informed on what the nation was really doing. After experiencing a war that cost thousands of lives and left the United States with a stalemate, the youth was beginning to learn how our government was flawed against itself (Suri). They learned that even though men like Franklin Roosevelt brought the nation through World War II, some leaders could drag the United States into meaningless conflicts, and therefore break apart the country’s prosperity. One thing that all these main groups had in common was that they believed that Vietnam should be allowed to decide what government its nation should have, and that the United States should leave Vietnam to the Vietnamese. Little did these men and women know that their feelings and actions would drive a nation into chaos (Rhodes).
The first march on Washington that protested against the United States involvement in Vietnam took place in December 1964. About 25,000 people took part (Suri). Although it was small compared to the other mass marches that occurred in the proceeding years, it showed how dedicated protesters had become to their cause. No matter how dangerous it would be to support their cause, they would support it through fire and rain. At this time the conflict in Vietnam was still a problem that didn’t affect the average American citizen. Some young men even chose to join the military in order the better their education and serve in a prospering nation’s army. Little did these men know that they were the first of many to set foot in the jungles of Vietnam, and the fighting that began with them would begin the largest protest movement that the United States had ever had (Schulman).
My great uncle Tom Swick was in the first Marine Corps division sent over to Vietnam. When he graduated from high school in 1964 from Norwalk St. Paul’s, he immediately decided to join the Marine Corps. In his own words he said, “I was young and stupid. Simple as that. Some of my buddies joined the [Marine] Corps and I was to put it simply we all just joined up thinking it be a good, fun year or two wherever we were sent to. We had no idea what we were doing, hell we were still kids. I was 17 and the rest of my buds were 18. Kids will be kids though, and we would find out we had a lot of growing up to do.” (Swick) The training was pretty extensive, and as a result Tom said that the best brainwashers in the world have to be the American military. “We were not just taught like teachers teach in a classroom. We were drilled, and drilled, and drilled again and again and again. That was a small hell in itself, but it taught me more discipline than my parents ever did, not saying that it’s their fault or anything. Brainwashing is a great technique for the military to use but the strange thing is that you don’t even know when it’s happening to you.” (Swick) After boot camp, he and the rest of the new privates prepared to be sent over to Vietnam. They were to be the first division sent over to take the place of a division of military advisors that Kennedy had sent over in 1963. Tom’s reaction when he arrived in Vietnam was very different from what he had thought it would be: “I expected the jungle and all that, but the heat, and all the moisture in the air was just terrible. Some days on reconnaissance missions we all felt like we were boiling. Walking 10-15 miles in that kind of weather was tiring. I mean you had the heat plus you had your pack, rifle, and all the other shit that they made you drag with you.” (Swick) His trials during the 10 month period that he spent in Vietnam changed his life and he said himself that “My experiences will always be in the back of my mind.” His time in Vietnam taught him some of the greatest lessons of his life. “I’m not one for picking what branch [of the military] is better than the other, but the best thing I can say about the Marine Corp is that they taught me to say alive…I’m not a war historian or anything like that but I’ll be damned if [William Tecumseh] Sherman wasn’t right when he said war is hell. It is, and it always will be and there is nothing to justify going to war. Nam taught me that nothing good can come out of war. The only thing left afterward is bitterness and death.” (Swick) The horrors that Tom saw in the jungles of Vietnam were something that he shook him to the core, even today over 40 years after. “I made a lot of friends in my division. I mean after all we were all practically the same age learning from each other. The men that I was with got killed out there in the middle of ambushes and even while walking along in the jungle. I think about the way they looked after they got hit and even today I get chills up and down my spine.” (Swick) One story caught my attention and gripped my heart. My Uncle Tom took about twenty minutes to tell this story, but I will summarize it, even though nothing could ever compare listening to the real thing. During an excursion in the jungle near the demilitarized zone, my Uncle Tom and about 15 other people were marching towards the drop off zone when they were ambushed by the enemy. “The sad part is that I never saw what the bastards looked like. I couldn’t picture a face to hate when I slept at night.” (Swick) Only five of the men made it back to the helicopter with no wounds. Seven of the men died on the way back to the base. “Men’s backs were blown out, men’s heads were half gone, and almost everyone around me was bleeding and screaming in pain. In the helicopter on the way back, all I did was stare at the ground below.” (Swick) Only a few weeks later, Tom would be on his way home to the United States. One of my favorite quotes from my interview with my Uncle Tom was this one: “You’ve never been scared until you’ve been shot at, and you’ve never felt more nuts then when you are firing at the enemy.” (Swick) Although my Uncle Tom had experienced a lot on his many missions throughout the land of Vietnam, the one thing that stuck in my mind were his thoughts on what happened to him when he returned home to the United States. I will never forget what he told me in our interview that day. I asked the question: “How were you treated when you got home from Vietnam?” His first answer was: “I don’t think you even want to hear what they did.” (Swick) All I did was say that the whole point of this interview was to paint the whole picture of what happened during the protesting of the Vietnam War. What he told me disgusted me. “I will always have my war experience in the back of mind, because I can never forget that. And I learned to forgive the Vietnamese for what they did. They did it for their country. But what I can’t do and who I can never forgive were the people who spit, yelled, jaunted, and screamed at the soldiers returning home.. They called us baby killers, agent death, rapists, and a thousand other things. It was just horrible. I remember that day so well unfortunately. I pray to God for forgiveness every day, but I don’t think I will ever find it in my heart to forgive those people for what they did to me and my fellow soldiers.” (Swick) My great Uncle Tom’s experiences as a solider and the reaction he got from the protestors were going to be experienced by over five hundred thousand men. When I asked him if he had ever thought about protesting and deserting during his time in Vietnam, he answered, “The fighting men of Vietnam would not enjoy the backing even by their own nation, and that was the biggest let down to us all” (Swick).
As the war continued, more and more Americans began to turn against it. As my Uncle Tom found out when he returned to the United States and was harassed by protestors. People were becoming particularly upset by the use of chemical weapons on the Vietnamese homeland. The use of napalm and Agent Orange were killing the vegetation and in some cases killing and infecting civilian villagers. The effect of chemical weapons and even the presence of soldiers in the Vietnamese homeland caused great fear and the Vietnamese people became extremely secretive, silent and afraid. My Uncle Tom said that the one thing about the villagers in Vietnam he could remember distinctly was their eyes. “When you looked in their eyes you could see sadness, death, and anger all boiled into one. It was one of the most haunting things I have ever experienced.” (Swick) While the mere presence of the United States soldiers struck fear in the Vietnamese, the use of the chemical weapons caused them to run in fear, or even join the Vietcong in order to defend their families and homes. In 1967, the protest movement took a turn towards supporting the National Liberation Front (Vietcong). A group of distinguished academics stationed in New York set up the International War Crimes Tribunal. After interviewing many witnesses, they came to the conclusion that the United States was guilty of using chemical weapons and terrorism against the civilian population of South Vietnam and North Vietnam. They stated that napalm, Agent Orange, and other weapons used against the Vietnamese violated international law. They also stated that the United States Armed Forces were guilty of capturing and torturing captured prisoners and raping innocent women and children. The Tribunal even went so far as to compare the United States involvement in Vietnam to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Europe during World War II (Suri). During November of that same year, Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore followed the example of Buddhist monks and burnt himself to death. Buddhist monks had been burning themselves alive in the streets of Saigon ever since the United States became involved in Vietnam as early as 1961. In the weeks to follow two other pacifists named Roger La Porte and Alice Herz followed Morrison’s example. It would seem as if the support for the war had already begun to wade. One eyewitness testified they heard Morrison utter these final words, “May I burn as our nation burns Hanoi.” (Suri)
The event that truly pushed the envelope on the protest movement was the use of the draft to enlist men. The catch was that you had to be wealthy, or you had to have a position of power to ultimately avoid the draft and send someone in your place. This made the Vietnam War a poor man’s war, as all the other American wars had been. The rich men sit back and watch the news as the young poor and middle class men die for the cause. This decision to use the draft dramatically increased the risk of causing a young man to protest against going to war. In order to keep the support of some of the influential members of the middle class, students were exempted from the draft. However, the students and young men and women who were not students throughout the United States still protested against at what they considered an attack on a person’s right to decide for himself whether they should fight for their country. In 1965, one of the first publically burned draft cards was that of David Miller. The police arrested him and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison without parole. His actions inspired thousands upon thousands of over men to burn there draft cards in groups (As it was harder to arrest a group of people then just one person burning his draft card). Possibly the most heartbreaking opposition to the war came the soldiers who fought in the war. Many soldiers began to question the morality of the war once they began fighting. They couldn’t even think for themselves, or so they thought. They wondered what they were doing it a place they didn’t even know fighting for a cause they didn’t even believe in. One soldier, Keith Franklin, wrote a letter that was only going to be opened if he was killed in battle. During a routine reconnaissance mission, he was killed on May 12, 1970. In his letter he wrote these words: “If you are reading this letter, you will never see me again, the reason being that if you are reading this I have died. The question is whether or not my death has been in vain. The answer is yes. The war that has taken my life and many thousands before me is immoral, unlawful and an atrocity… I had no choice as to my fate. It was predetermined by the war-mongering hypocrites in Washington. As I lie dead, please grant my last request. Help me inform the American people, the silent majority who have not yet voiced their opinions.” (Rhodes) When soldiers began having reactions like this to the Vietnam War, they began their own form of protest. In 1967, Vietnam Veterans Against the War was formed. They were all former soldiers who fought in Vietnam and they demonstrated all over America. One veteran officially apologized to the Vietnamese people: “I hope someday I can return to Vietnam and help to rebuild that country we tore apart.” (Johnston and Noakes)
Overall the Vietnam War changed America for the better. Although the war ended with over fifty thousand men being killed, the people of America learned not to trust your government. Although life shouldn’t be lived that way, a person must always learn to question what is going on in the world, and not trust everything your government tells you. When the youth of America began to rebel against the conservative supporters of the war inside the American government, the future of the youth of America began to unfold. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, the youth of the nation would become a driving force in the political machine. The liberalism of America stalled during the 1980s, but in our decade, the hope that the nation will return to a progressive state that moves towards working hard to make a great society for all Americans. And as my great Uncle Tom said at the end of my interview with him, “I pray to the Lord every night and thank him that I am alive to this day, and I hope I will never have to see another national tragedy like this occur ever again.” (Swick)

Works Cited
Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1983.
Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991.
Johnston, Hank and John A. Noakes. Frames of Protest: Social Movements and the Framing Perspective. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., August 2005.
Rhodes, Joel P. The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era. New York: Praeger Publishers, 2001.
Schulman, Bruce J. Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism: The Vietnam Era. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.
Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Boston: Harvard University Press, January 2005.
Swick, Thomas. Personal Interview. February 18, 2006. 23 March 2005. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “The War Years”. 20 October 2005 15 January 2005. White House: The American Presidents. 21 October 2005