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Speaking Out Against the Vietnam War

Because the scope of U.S. involvement in Vietnam was limited in the late 1950s and early '60s, public opposition was also limited. Yet with the 1964 presidential elections, a large-scale antiwar movement began to take shape. Lyndon Johnson ran as a "Dove" or peace candidate, pledging to not send U.S. boys to Vietnam. By contrast, the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, ran as a "Hawk," or war candidate, to the point of even advocating the use of some tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

The peace movement clearly supported Johnson, and the election was an easy victory for him. Ironically, though, the bombing of North Vietnam and the commitment of U.S. combat troops to Vietnam took place within months of Johnson's election. As a result of this increased role in Vietnam and the perception that Johnson had deceived voters, the antiwar movement emerged for the first time as a national phenomenon with a clear agenda and not just an outgrowth of presidential politics.

Spreading the word with teach-ins

A primary goal of the antiwar movement in its infancy was to educate national leaders and the American public. The tools to accomplish this education were teach-ins, which began in earnest in 1965. Believing that government policy was based upon ignorance and mistakes, intellectuals sought to educate the public to solve the problems.

Teach-ins were informal lectures and discussions given by professors and graduate students and open to anyone interested in the topic. The idea was that exposing people to the facts and raising questions could move people to action. After enough people were motivated, the government would be forced to listen as well. In a May 15-16 teach-in, for example, participants from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the State Department debated policy over a radio link connecting 122 colleges nationwide.

As college professors spoke out about the Vietnam War, President Johnson responded in a speech at Johns Hopkins University on April 7, 1965, stating that he was ready for negotiations regarding a free and independent South Vietnam, yet he wouldn't deal with the National Liberation Front (the political branch of the Viet Cong). Johnson's speech angered many antiwar groups and moved them to action. Throughout 1965, the teach-ins continued at campuses across the nation.

Holding early marches and demonstrations

On April 17, 1965, ten days after Johnson's Johns Hopkins speech (see the preceding section), SDS held its first march in Washington, D.C., to protest the war. A few thousand protesters were expected, yet some 25,000 people showed up, making it the largest antiwar protest in the city's history. Other large demonstrations soon followed:

  • On October 15, 15,000 people marched in Berkeley, California, and another 20,000 marched in Manhattan, New York.
  • On November 27, another demonstration in Washington drew 25,000 protesters.

Though these demonstrations were small compared to those of the late '60s, they were record setting for their day. Public demonstrations were the next logical step to take after the teach-ins, because the teach-ins seemed somewhat like preaching to the choir. Protesters were moving beyond words, reason, and education to place pressure on policymakers who seemed to be ignoring the will of the people, as expressed in the 1964 election.

Initiating civil disobedience

Many protesters who joined the emerging antiwar movement were veterans of the civil rights movement and understood the value of civil disobedience, particularly in the form of public moral sacrifice. In August 1965, Vietnam Day committee members (a group formed to coordinate antiwar activities in California) began to lie down on railroad tracks in northern California in order to block the movement of troops trains in the area. Another 350 protesters were arrested in Washington for civil disobedience for attempting to disrupt the government. Over the same summer, protesters began to burn their draft cards.

Following the lead of the Buddhist monks

In 1965, another form of protest emerged — that of public suicide to draw attention to the war. The first suicide occurred on a Detroit street corner on March 16, when Alice Herz, an 82-year-old pacifist, doused herself with cleaning fluid and ignited it. Herz left a note condemning President Johnson for trying to wipe out small nations and explaining that she was protesting in the same way that the Buddhist monks had in Vietnam in 1963. Though this was the act of a single protester the media coverage shocked many into asking questions about the conduct and morality of the war.

On November 2, a 32-year-old Quaker made the ultimate sacrifice as an act of moral persuasion. Norman Morrison carried his infant daughter with him to the Pentagon, where he set her down and, standing in front of the office windows of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Like Herz, Morrison was consciously trying to emulate the monks. McNamara, one of the chief architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam, witnessed the suicide. He was shocked by the protest and in his memoirs referred to the incident as a personal tragedy.

One week later, a 22-year-old man named Roger La Porte killed himself in the same manner in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York. La Porte, like Herz and Morrison, sought to make a religious statement against the war in Vietnam.

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