Vietnam War Protests

The 1960s was a turbulent time for the United States at home and abroad. Their faraway war and the divisions back home were causing widespread violence. People would no longer stand for it and took it upon themselves to affect change. What was the reason for the Vietnam war protests, and how did they begin?

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Table of contents

    Vietnam War Protests Causes

    The 1960s in the United States was a time of uncertainty, with the undercurrent of marginalised voices driving for change. There was existing concern about the state of affairs at home due to the highlighted plight of African Americans at home and abroad during the Civil Rights movement. 1962 had also brought about a tense nuclear standoff with the Cuban Missile Crisis between the US and the Soviet Union. Seismic events such as these brought about a counterculture aiming to question authority and promote peace and tolerance.

    Vietnam War Protests A circle with a writing in it that reads a free university in a free society sds StudySmarterFig. 1 Students for a Democratic Society slogan.

    On university campuses, a new breed of left-wing politics was thus born. It departed from the traditional socialist narrative against demonstrations, rejecting Marxist and Capitalist doctrine. What began as localised groups of students became more nationally coordinated after the escalation of the US bombing in North Vietnam in 1965.

    The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) formed in 1960 and, as the war progressed, became the leading anti-war group. The SDS was more practical and militant in its designs and abandoned those who sought a political route for reform.

    Vietnam War Protests Dates

    Significant anti-Vietnam war protests occurred between 1965 and 1971. What were the key events in this period?

    Vietnam War Protests Timeline

    Let's take a look at a timeline of the Vietnam War Protests.

    1965The SDS held its first 'teach-in' at the University of Michigan. 3,000 people attended various lectures to learn about the Vietnam War and why it was undemocratic to prop up an authoritarian South Vietnamese government. In the same year, 20,000 gathered in Washington, DC.
    1967Spring Mobilisation Committee to End War in Vietnam aimed to unify localised dissent against the war to a greater scale, with full knowledge of the media coverage they would garner. They organised groups of liberals, radicals (who wanted to ignore Vietnam completely), and pacifists (who wanted to negotiate with the North Vietnamese) into a single mass. Massive protests followed on 15 April, with 200,000 attending in New York and 50,000 in San Francisco.
    1968The Tet Offensive from the North Vietnamese demonstrated that the war was going badly, not as President Johnson wanted his fellow citizens to believe. This began to sway public opinion that had previously favoured the war.
    1969Believing that the rhetoric of new president Richard Nixon had not changed anything, protestors attempted to halt normal activities by holding a Moratorium on 15 October, which over 100,000 people attended. The notion was that action would continue until the war ended.Nixon countered this with his 'silent majority' speech in early November, claiming the quieter voices still supported him and that the United States needed to be united against the enemy. He reintroduced his idea of Vietnamization as a solution to appease his critics. In response, the radical New Mobilisation Committee organised half a million protestors who marched on Washington DC on 13-15 November to demand an immediate end of the Vietnam War in a 'March Against Death'. 31,000 Americans had died in battle since the war began.
    1970The United States' bombing and deployment of troops to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of transport links that ran through neutral Laos and Cambodia, led to further protests. On 4 May, the National Guard opened fire on the protestors - killing four students and injuring nine others. This resulted in the closure of 500 campuses and a protest of 100,000 in Washington, DC, on 9 May. In Jackson, Mississippi, two more students were killed two weeks after.
    1971Vietnam Veterans Against the War organised protests in Washington, DC. Army veterans hurled their war medals at the steps of the White House to show their disgust at the continuation of the war in neighbouring Laos.
    1973The United States and North Vietnam signed a peace agreement.

    There were more protests after this, but it is essential to remember that by 1970, and after a shift in President Nixon's policy toward Vietnamization, the demonstrations were more focussed on the US invasions of Cambodia and Laos.

    Vietnam War Protests President Nixon StudySmarterFig. 2 President Nixon.

    Nixon proposed a Vietnamization policy that would, in theory, allow the staggered withdrawal of United States troops by giving the South Vietnamese more agency so that the two sides could solve the conflict independently. He coined this term to contrast the American interference and escalation under his predecessor's presidency.

    Vietnam War Protests Participants

    As mentioned, the Vietnam War protests originated on university campuses. However, as the cost of the conflict became more apparent to the average American, other groups and individuals also opposed the war.

    Vietnam War Protests Black and white image of Thich Quang Duc Self-Immolation in 1963 StudySmarterFig. 3 Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation in 1963.

    A South Vietnamese monk became emblematic of opposition to the United States' interference in Vietnam as early as 1963.

    Why did this photograph of Thich Quang Duc have such an impact in the US?

    Images of Thich Quang Duc shot to fame as they were broadcast across the United States. The Buddhist monk used self-immolation as an act of martyrdom. Ngo Dinh Diem's puppet government, controlled by the United States, was prosecuting Buddhists during a religious holiday by outlawing religious flags and icons. At the same time, the leader seemed to be turning a blind eye to the activities of Roman Catholics. In the ultimate act of defiance, the monk doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire. This led to a handful of copycat protest suicides back home, notably a 19-year-old girl in Los Angeles, California, as late as 1970.

    It begged the question, did the monk have more in common with anti-war protestors than the American government in his quest for tolerance and peace?

    Students for a Democratic Society

    Formed in 1960 to engage with the complex inequalities involved in the civil rights movement, the Students for a Democratic Society began taking an interest in events in Vietnam. They believed the war was undemocratic and fought against the draft, which could force ordinary Americans to fight if they failed to dodge it.

    They got their message across through 'teach-ins', occupations of campus buildings, and increasingly large protests. As the war progressed, the organisation became fractured. Some factions, such as The Weatherman, wanted to use terrorist means whilst others turned attention back to civil rights. They were nonetheless instrumental in the initial development and momentum of the protests.


    A lasting legacy of the Vietnam War is the catalogue of anti-war anthems that have endured since. The 1960s was when young people were experimenting with drugs and authority was being challenged, and music reflected this.

    Songs from musicians of the period reflected much of the desire for world peace that was evident in the manifesto of the SDS, which critiqued the establishment's stance on war and civil rights.

    Did you know?

    Neil Young's song 'Ohio' directly lamented the murder of the four students at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970.

    Muhammad Ali

    The most famous dodging of the draft came from boxing great Muhammad Ali. In 1967, he refused to join the United States Army on religious and ethical grounds. This resulted in him being stripped of his heavyweight title. He was also fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in jail. While he avoided prison, he would not box for another three years.

    The following quotation reflected how a faraway country in Asia had little importance to the everyday lives of an American. Burning the draft papers also became commonplace at protests.

    I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong.1

    - Muhammad Ali, as recorded in Slate Magazine, 28 April 1967

    The Civil Rights movement

    Important figures within different factions of the civil rights movement also denounced the Vietnam war. The first to do so was Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam. Known for his militant stance against authority, he predicted the failure of the United States where the French imperialists had failed before.

    Martin Luther King, who had previously supported the war, changed his position in 1967. He declared all war an evil and highlighted the disproportionate number of African Americans sent to the front line.

    Vietnam Veterans Against the War

    Perhaps one of the more surprising organisations involved in the anti-war protests were some veteran soldiers who had served in Vietnam. Their act of defiance came in 1971 when 1,000 protestors marched on Washington DC over six days. Thousands of medals were thrown at the steps of the White House to demonstrate the disgust of former soldiers at President Nixon for allowing the war to spill into the innocent neighbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos.

    Effects of Vietnam War Protests

    While the Vietnam protests reflected the mood of some Americans, it is perhaps shortsighted to suggest that they directly affected United States war policy. Until 1968, opposition to the war was still largely marginalised. Mitchell K Hall acknowledges that the consistent and heightened levels of protest and opposition played a role in de-escalating the conflict in the social alarm and unrest it caused. However, he places greater importance on the role of the media, whose attitude changed markedly after the surprise of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive.2

    In addition to this, the war's human cost was becoming unjustifiable, and the war looked increasingly unwinnable. The general public began to approve of the message for peace, but in 1968 only 28.4% of people viewed protestors favourably.3 Thus, the human cost and protracted nature of what was increasingly seeming an unwinnable war, as highlighted by the media, were more significant factors in the United States' withdrawal.

    Vietnam War Protests Summary

    In conclusion, what began as a group of organised students became a multifaceted movement of different groups and individuals. Despite their differences, they demonstrated their ability to unite and produce the most prominent anti-war protests in United States history.

    Vietnam War Protests Black and white image of the Amsterdam Protest in 1972 StudySmarterFig. 4 Amsterdam war protest from 1972.

    Protests were not confined to the United States either, as people from around the world echoed the sentiment of anti-war Americans. From Amsterdam to Caracas, people united in their quest for peace.

    Vietnam War Protests - Key takeaways

    • The Vietnam Anti-war movement began on university campuses with organisations such as the Students for a Democratic Society organising 'teach-ins' and small-scale localised protests in 1965.
    • With increased United States involvement, protests became more militant and nationalised. Different groups and individuals became involved, from musicians to war veterans.
    • The protests culminated in 1969, when 500,000 people were involved in the March against Death.
    • In 1970, the protests resulted in injury and death to participants, with four students killed in Ohio and two more in Mississippi.
    • The protests reflected anti-war sentiment but were not the biggest reason for the United States' de-escalation of the Vietnam War.


    1. Stefan Fatsis, 'No Viet Cong ever called me ******', (June 2016)
    2. Mitchell K. Hall, 'The Vietnam War Era Antiwar Movement', OAH Magazine of History. Vol. 18, No. 5, Vietnam, (Oct 2004) pp. 13- 17.
    3. E. M. Schreiber, 'Anti-War Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam', The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Jun 1976), pp. 225-236.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Vietnam War Protests

    What were the Vietnam War protests?

    The Vietnam War protests were a series of demonstrations against the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.

    Why were there protests during the Vietnam War?

    In the 1960s, there was questioning among students about the US government and how the country was run. Amidst the threat of nuclear war and the Civil Rights movement was the fear of the United States becoming too involved in Vietnam and costing innocent lives.

    Who protested against the Vietnam war?

    Many different groups protested during the Vietnam War including students, veterans, monks and celebrities.

    How many people protested the Vietnam War?

    It is difficult to say the exact number of protests worldwide, though it is certainly in the millions.

    What was the largest protest of the Vietnam War?

    The largest protest of the Vietnam War was the March on Washington in 1969.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Complete the name of the organisation: Students for a ................. Society

    Which other movement was influential alongside the anti-war movement in 1960s America?

    Which group organised the March Against Death in 1969?

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