The movement against the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War began in the U.S. with demonstrations in 1964 and grew in strength in later years. The U.S. became polarized between those who advocated continued involvement in Vietnam and those who wanted peace.
Many in the peace movement were students, mothers or anti-establishment hippies. Opposition grew with participation by the African-American civil rights, women's liberation and Chicano movements and sectors of organized labour. Additional involvement came from many other groups, including educators, clergy, academics, journalists, lawyers, physicians, Rights Movement leaders and military veterans. Opposition consisted mainly of peaceful, nonviolent events; few events were deliberately provocative and violent. In some cases police used violent tactics against demonstrators. By 1970 a steadily increasing majority of Americans considered US military involvement in Vietnam to be a mistake.
The reasons behind American opposition to the Vietnam War fell into several main categories: opposition to the draft; moral, legal, and pragmatic arguments against U.S. intervention; and reaction to the media portrayal of the devastation in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam War protesters, Wichita, Kansas, 1967
The draft, as a system of conscription which threatened lower class registrants and middle class registrants alike, drove much of the protest after 1965. Conscientious objectors did play an active role although their numbers were small. The prevailing sentiment that the draft was unfairly administered inflamed blue-collar American and African-American opposition to the military draft itself.
Opposition to the war arose during a time of unprecedented student activism which followed the free speech movement and the civil rights movement. The military draft mobilized the baby boomers who were most at risk, but grew to include a varied cross-section of Americans. The growing opposition to the Vietnam War was partly attributed to greater access to uncensored information presented by the extensive television coverage on the ground in Vietnam.
Beyond opposition to the draft, anti-war protesters also made moral arguments against the United States' involvement in Vietnam. This moral imperative argument against the war was especially popular among American college students, who were more likely than the general public to accuse the United States of having imperialistic goals in Vietnam and to criticize the war as "immoral.” Civilian deaths, which were either downplayed or omitted entirely by the Western media, became a subject of protest when photographic evidence of casualties emerged.
Another element of the American opposition to the war was the perception that U.S intervention in Vietnam, which had been argued as acceptable due to the Domino Theory and the threat of Communism, was not legally justifiable. Some Americans believed that the Communist threat was used as a scapegoat to hide imperialistic intentions, while others argued that the American intervention in South Vietnam interfered with the "self-determination" of the country. They felt that war in Vietnam was a civil war that ought to have determined the fate of the country and, therefore, America was not right to intervene.
With no clear sign of victory in Vietnam, the media images of American military casualties helped to stimulate the opposition of the war in Americans. On April 4, 1967 in New York City, Civil rights leader Martin Luther King detailed his rationales for opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. King claimed that America had rejected Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary government which he said was seeking Vietnamese self-determination. Ho's government, said King, "was a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.”
The U.S. became polarized over the war. Many supporters of U.S. involvement argued for what was known as the domino theory, a theory that believed if one country fell to communism, then the bordering countries would be sure to fall as well, much like falling dominoes. This theory was largely held due to the fall of Eastern Europe to communism and the Soviet sphere of influence following World War II. However, military critics of the war pointed out that the Vietnam War was political and that the military mission lacked any clear idea of how to achieve its objectives. Civilian critics of the war argued that the government of South Vietnam lacked political legitimacy, or that support for the war was completely immoral.
The media also played a substantial role in the polarization of American opinion regarding the Vietnam War. For example, in 1965 a majority of the media attention focused on military tactics with very little discussion about the necessity for a full scale intervention in Southeast Asia. After 1965, the media covered the dissent and domestic controversy that existed within the United States, but mostly excluded the actual view of dissidents and resisters.
The media established a sphere of public discourse surrounding the Hawk versus Dove debate. The Dove was a liberal and a critic of the war. Doves claimed that the war was well–intentioned but a disastrously wrong mistake in an otherwise benign foreign policy. It is important to note the Doves did not question the U.S. intentions in intervening in Vietnam, nor did they question the morality or legality of the U.S. intervention. Rather, they made pragmatic claims that the war was a mistake. Contrarily, the Hawks argued that the war was legitimate and winnable and a part of the benign U.S. foreign policy. The Hawks claimed that the one-sided criticism of the media contributed to the decline of public support for the war and ultimately helped the U.S. lose the war. Author William F. Buckley repeatedly wrote about his approval for the war and suggested that "The United States has been timid, if not cowardly, in refusing to seek 'victory' in Vietnam." The hawks claimed that the liberal media was responsible for the growing popular disenchantment with the war and blamed the western media for losing the war in Southeast Asia.
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