The Four Stages of the Antiwar Movement

"New groups exposed President Nixon's escalation of the bombing war, named the corporations profiting from it, publicized the torture of political prisoners in the "tiger cage" prisons of South Vietnam, pushed scientists to boycott war research and denounced the use of toxic defoliants like Agent Orange." (Photo: Thiago Santos/cc/flickr)

The Four Stages of the Antiwar Movement

The 10-year movement to end Vietnam was a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed.

The Vietnam antiwar movement, famous for its sound and fury, deserves credit for more. We were the first mass movement against a war in American history and one of its great moral crusades, yet most Americans recall only enormous protests and social chaos. In fact, the 10-year movement, in which I played a role, was a complex phenomenon that evolved strategically as circumstances changed. It can be broken down into four overlapping stages.

The first stage, in 1964 and 1965, was led by two groups: left-wing activists organized into peace groups opposed to the Cold War and American intervention abroad, and college students who had come of age during the Southern civil rights movement and had seen how readily the government could divert its gaze from injustice. When the war expanded in 1965, the fledgling movement adopted two strategic goals: to give activists enough knowledge about Vietnam to be able to draw others into action, and to normalize opposition, since many Americans were hesitant to oppose their own country in a time of war.

The peace groups educated the public and the press. The students invented a new way to train activists, the remarkably successful campus teach-ins, and between March and June, over 120 were held across the country. Public protests were organized to normalize opposition. In April, Students for a Democratic Society drew a surprising 20,000 to the first. In November, the peace organization SANE sponsored another, with a similar turnout. By the end of 1965, this first stage had largely succeeded. Activists gained a deep knowledge of Vietnam and the war, and protests, while still small, did normalize opposition despite accusations that they were un-American. Seeds of doubt planted in the press and the public would flower later.

But the war only escalated. In early 1966, troop deployments, American casualties and draft calls dramatically increased, and college students and their middle-class families, for whom military service was not on the agenda, took notice. Their self-interest triggered a second stage of the antiwar movement, with much bigger and more numerous protests. Establishment voices, including Senator Robert Kennedy and the influential columnist Walter Lippmann, spoke out against the war. Senator J. William Fulbright held televised hearings that brought antiwar views directly into American homes. Throughout 1966 and 1967, leaders from politics, science, medicine, academia, entertainment, the press and even business announced their opposition to the war.

In this second stage, our strategic objectives were to unite various strands of antiwar opposition behind widespread draft resistance and to build opposition to force a political end to the war. Large protests sprang up across the country. In April 1967, a milestone was reached when 500,000 demonstrated against the war in New York, the largest such gathering in history. Self-interested draft avoidance evolved into morally driven draft resistance. The thousands of young men, including Muhammad Ali, unwilling to kill and ready to sacrifice themselves to incarceration or a life of exile moved people of all ages. Their cause inspired others to more forcefully oppose the war.

At the same time, a growing split between protest and resistance became evident. On Oct. 21, 1967, 100,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a demonstration. But this time, 50,000 broke away to join the illegal March on the Pentagon, more Americans ready to commit nonviolent civil disobedience than at any time in history. Thousands broke through military police lines, and a few even penetrated the Pentagon itself. Hundreds were arrested, many of them younger, angrier and more frustrated than the men and women who had led the first wave of opposition.

Protesters attempted to shut down induction centers in Berkeley, Calif., and New York City. Troop trains were impeded. Campus protesters blocked access to military and C.I.A. recruiters. Clergy members dumped blood on draft records. Hippie organizers manipulated the media with attention-getting stunts. Racism became a focus when it was revealed that blacks were drafted, assigned to combat units and killed at rates significantly higher than whites were. In 1968 the nation, and the war, seemed to be spinning out of control: The Tet offensive, the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the widespread racial rebellions and the police violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago all made it clear that the political system would not stop the war or reduce the racism and poverty crippling the country. In November, the election of Richard Nixon confirmed those fears.

The two-part strategy of the movement's second stage, to build a mass movement and convert it into a political force, had succeeded in the first part but failed in the second. With Nixon's presidency, the strategic rationale for this approach collapsed and pushed the movement into a third stage.

Large protests continued, but few believed they would stop the war. Alienated and enraged, we moved on to widespread civil disobedience, rejection of mainstream lifestyles, violent clashes with police and militant opposition to the government. Our strategy, less coherent than in earlier stages, was to force an end to the war by creating instability, chaos and disruption at home.

Loyalties shifted. Earlier, the dominant slogan had been, "Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?" In 1969 it became, "One side's right, one side's wrong, victory to the Viet Cong." Blacks were in revolt after dozens of urban rebellions. Students were further radicalized by the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. Combat soldiers, one in six of whom were addicted to heroin, were refusing to fight, and "fragging," or killing, officers who ordered them into combat.

Returning soldiers formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War, some tearfully confessing to atrocities committed there. Organizers distributed antiwar literature at military bases, opened coffeehouses nearby to attract antiwar soldiers and helped G.I.s publish antiwar newsletters. Draft resisters had inspired the second stage of the movement. In the third, antiwar G.I.s played that role, and with a much angrier edge.

Rejecting the social order, many activists called themselves revolutionaries. Some embraced Marxist ideologies, often becoming trapped by the arcane factional disputes that seethed among them. Such disputes destroyed Students for a Democratic Society and encouraged a remnant to go underground and set off a series of bombs that humiliated themselves and discredited the movement.

The third stage expired in May 1971. After memorable protests by antiwar vets, including one in which 800 men threw their combat medals over a fence surrounding the Capitol, an attempt by 20,000 activists to shut down the federal government in Washington failed. But a few weeks later, the release of the Pentagon Papers drove public opposition to the war even higher.

Spreading public opposition should have been a victory for the movement; instead, it threw it into crisis. Seasoned activists were moving on to complete deferred professional or academic goals. Many of us who remained realized that a majority of Americans had turned against the war but they felt unable or unwilling to join us because our militancy required them to risk arrest or injury. A new strategy was needed, and a fourth stage of the antiwar movement emerged.

We gave up our militancy, developed inclusive tactics and tried to build a political force to thwart Nixon's policy of turning over the war to the South Vietnamese government, called Vietnamization. This was not done to repudiate our past but to be more effective going forward. Very quickly, new organizations sprang up to involve people in actions that did not require significant risk.

New groups exposed President Nixon's escalation of the bombing war, named the corporations profiting from it, publicized the torture of political prisoners in the "tiger cage" prisons of South Vietnam, pushed scientists to boycott war research and denounced the use of toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. Activist groups opened direct talks with the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and sent delegations to the North. Networks of draft counselors were created. Antiwar candidates ran for office. A blossoming infrastructure gave the antiwar movement radio news outlets, documentary film capability and a syndicated news service. Law firms formed to defend its work, and networks of donors were created.

Two nationwide organizations rapidly developed. The Indochina Peace Campaign, with dozens of offices and chapters, produced educational material, coordinated protests, promoted lobbying and published a newspaper. Medical Aid for Indochina, which I led, raised money for medicines and medical equipment that we sent to North Vietnamese hospitals treating the civilian victims of American bombing.

Despite all our work, Nixon expanded the bombing of North Vietnamese cities throughout 1972. Hoping for better terms, he sabotaged peace talks before the November election, then mercilessly bombed Hanoi just before Christmas, destroying Bach Mai, its largest civilian hospital. Having failed to improve his negotiating position, and in the face of outrage over the Christmas bombing, including a well-publicized drive to rebuild Bach Mai with American donations, he signed the Paris Peace Accords in late January 1973, largely bringing America's combat role in South Vietnam to a close.

That ended the war for the military, but not for the antiwar movement. The South Vietnam regime lived on, funded by American dollars, and its war with the North continued. Nixon had to get those dollars from Congress, and knowing that Congress could be lobbied, we saw it as the weak link in the chain holding up South Vietnam. Antiwar groups, with significant support from labor and religious networks, created the Coalition to Stop Funding the War, an enormous lobbying campaign to cut funding for South Vietnam. The national networks and experienced organizers of the antiwar movement's fourth stage joined the coalition and coordinated aggressive lobbying efforts in congressional districts across the country.

As each of several congressional appropriations for South Vietnam came up, the coalition successfully whittled it down. Over the next two years, the South Vietnamese military ran out of fuel and ammunition and was forced to retreat. The Saigon regime, never supported by more than a small minority of its own people, finally collapsed on April 30, 1975.

Graham Martin, the last American ambassador in Saigon, called our lobbying campaign "one of the best propaganda and pressure organizations the world has ever seen." No doubt this was self-serving hyperbole to cover his own failure to counter us, but he was right in a way: The fourth stage of the antiwar movement had mobilized enough people to force Congress to finally end the war.

Across a decade of activism, we were often a tactical mess, but our leadership was strategically coherent and relentlessly determined. On the other hand, the war was always a much bigger mess, and it never benefited from strategic coherence. In the end, it was the war that was lost and the peace that was won.

© 2023 The New York Times Company