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The Vietnam War Opposition in America Finds Meaning

Had the Vietnam conflict in 1964 been a brushfire, the war in 1967, by comparison, was a raging inferno. The United States had committed more than 365,000 troops to Vietnam by the beginning of 1967, and the number of casualties had risen to more than 6,600 dead. The events in Southeast Asia were a part of everyday life in the United States and few people had not been affected directly or indirectly. Public interest and scrutiny paralleled military escalation, and Congress began openly criticizing the Johnson Administration.

Speaking out on the floor

By 1967, Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Greuning no longer were alone in their opposition to the war. Members of the Democratic and Republican political parties joined them in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Republican Mark Hatfield won a Senate seat from Oregon in 1966 because of his antiwar platform and other Republicans voiced opposition to the way President Johnson was handling the war.

Several governors joined in opposition to the war, including New York's Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania's William Scranton, both influential members in American politics. More important, Johnson also began losing Democratic support in the Senate from majority leader Mike Mansfield (Montana), J. William Fulbright (Arkansas), George McGovern (South Dakota), and Robert and Edward Kennedy (New York and Massachusetts). On November 30, 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy (Minnesota) announced his candidacy for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination against Johnson on an antiwar platform.

The rise of congressional opposition to the Vietnam War was not so much universally against American involvement in the conflict as it was in protest against Johnson and how the military was conducting the war. Many in Congress lamented that an explanation of the U. S. commitment had never been publicly debated, relying instead on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution for justification. A questionable decision by Johnson (based in part on the strength of his conviction that the United States was just in its actions in Southeast Asia) prevented public debate and thereby fueled the antiwar movement by allowing speculation to remain unchecked.

When members of Congress turned against President Johnson, he showed no sympathy. Public debate to justify American involvement in the Vietnam War was not an option for Johnson. As noted Johnson historian Robert Dalleck argues:

  • Johnson formulated policy and created legislation in private. Public debate did not fit into his style.
  • Johnson's personality lent itself to unilateral action rather than open debate, and it dominated those around him. He did not encourage discussion contrary to his own view.
  • Johnson had a great sense of loyalty to those who fought and believed that opposing a conflict in which Americans were risking their lives was treason.
  • A public debate would recognize and legitimize the antiwar movement.

Most important, Johnson believed that most Americans supported the war effort, which eliminated the need to have a debate.

Many scholars have argued that a public debate in early 1965 or 1966 would have satisfied the vast majority of Americans who opposed radicalism but were frustrated with the seemingly endless and bloody war in Vietnam. The failure to conduct such a debate allowed many to believe that the president had something to hide in America's involvement.

Questioning credibility and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Throughout 1966 and early 1967, the antiwar movement became an increasingly legitimate concern within the political establishment. More influential politicians voiced support for the protestors. Gaining momentum, the antiwar movement became more visible and vocal. The military's reporting of the war and the response of the media enhanced the antiwar movement's claims that serious difficulties were happening in Vietnam.

The body count was one aspect of the war of attrition — a strategy devised to kill more North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong (NVA/VC) soldiers in South Vietnam than the DRV could replace in a timely manner. Because few indicators showed whether the United States was winning the war, using the number of NVA/VC killed in action justified American tactics and helped gauge whether the United States was coming out on top.

However, the use of the body count is highly inaccurate and open to criticism. The problem: Officers were encouraged to provide these statistical results for the war managers in Washington. The numbers never were accurate because some officers inflated their body counts to advance their careers or they simply guessed because guerrilla warfare in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam made counting bodies difficult. In 1967, members of the media began questioning whether numbers the military was providing were accurate, because the NVA/VC continually matched the U.S. escalation, fielding an army when their casualty numbers suggested they'd otherwise be unable to do so. The credibility gap emerging between what the military said and what it did added fuel for the fire in the antiwar movement. The credibility gap wasn't limited to the military. President Johnson and politicians justifying the war often were discovered providing only part of the truth when discussing U.S. strategy and tactics in Vietnam. Questions put forth by war critics went unanswered, and debate on the course of the war often was structured by the Johnson Administration to provide only a minimal amount of information.

Mobilizing in spring to end war in Vietnam

In 1967, a new coalition emerged in the antiwar movement. The Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam consisted of academics, students, radicals, and old liberals. Included in the leadership were long-time members of the antiwar movement: A. J. Muste and Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Stokely Carmichael. The primary goal of the organization was to coordinate national antiwar demonstrations.

The first target date was April 15, 1967, with one demonstration on the East Coast and another on the West Coast. More than 130,000 people joined the march in New York City, including approximately 150 men burning their draft cards. Almost 70,000 protested in San Francisco. The event was the largest single organized protest of the war up to that point and created an impression that the antiwar movement had the support of the average American.

In October 1967, a demonstration against the war brought more than 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. Half of the protesters marched on the Pentagon only to be met and stopped by armed U.S. Army personnel. Flowers and songs were met with guns in a highly publicized event that gave the odd feeling that the United States government was under siege and overtly authoritarian in its response. Many people outside the antiwar movement believed that the presence of armed military personnel at antiwar demonstrations was a strong indication that American society was unraveling.

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