Protest and Dissent at Home During the Vietnam War
Protest and Dissent at Home
The Vietnam War was different from World War II in almost every possible respect. The United States entered World War II as a united nation; no one objected to fighting Japan, because Japan had directly attacked the United States. Once the United States was involved, there were no serious objections to sending troops to Europe as well. Americans believed that it was right and proper for the United States to aid its European allies in the fight against Germany. In addition, the United States had come out of World War I strong and victorious; Americans expected the same result in World War II. The moral issues surrounding World War II were simple and clear: to defend Europe against unprovoked German aggression, and to defend the United States against Japan.
The Vietnam War was different in many respects. The moral issues were murky—so much so that a large-scale antiwar movement developed. Americans joined the antiwar movement for a variety of reasons. Some were pacifists who did not believe in any war. Some wanted their tax dollars to go to the social programs of the Great Society rather than to the Defense Department. Some were afraid that the war would escalate into a nuclear conflict. Some did not understand why the United States was interfering in the affairs of a tiny, poverty-stricken Asian nation on the other side of the world. Some knew young men and women who were serving in Vietnam and wanted their loved ones home again. Some were angry that black men were expected to fight and die for a nation that discriminated against them at home; boxing champion Muhammad Ali was only one of many Black Muslims who requested conscientious objector status on the grounds of religion.
Television coverage made a significant contribution to the antiwar movement. The Vietnam War was the first war to receive daily TV coverage in an era when almost every American home had a TV set. People had seen newsreel footage of World War II and the Korean War in movie theaters, but this was not the same as seeing such footage every evening in one’s own home. Television coverage was big business; TV news networks joined the major newspapers in sending reporters and photographers to Vietnam to cover the action.
Americans soon became aware that the optimistic statements from the White House did not seem to match the unrelenting combat they saw on television night after night. Journalists in Vietnam who saw the action for them- selves also criticized the administration for having lost control of the war.
On April 17, 1965, some 20,000 people came to Washington, DC to hold the nation’s first large-scale antiwar protest. The organizing group, Students for a Democratic Society, sent Congress a petition calling for an immediate end to the war. Similar demonstrations would be held often during the next ten years. Many young men burned their draft cards in protest, or fled to Canada to avoid having to serve in a war that they thought was unjustified. Others agitated for more political power. Young men could be drafted into the military at age 18; they argued that if they were old enough at 18 to die for their country, they were old enough to vote for the leaders who sent them to war. There was widespread support for this logic, and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, was ratified in 1971.
The antiwar movement divided the generations. The World War II generation felt that the young antiwar protestors were unpatriotic and cowardly. In countless families, parents found themselves at serious political and philosophical odds with their sons and daughters.
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