THE VIETNAM WAR AND ITS IMPACT ON AMERICAN SOCIETY
Since the 1950s the United States had supported noncommunist South Vietnam against the North, led by communist and nationalist Ho Chi Minh. The South Vietnamese government also had to fight the Vietcong. communist guerrillas who lived in South Vietnam but supported the North. During the Kennedy administration the number of American advisors in Vietnam increased. American officials became increasingly suspicious of the effectiveness of South Vietnamese president Diem; in the fall of 1963 these officials supported (or orchestrated, depending on which historian you read) the assassination of Diem.
Shortly after becoming president, Lyndon Johnson decided that to achieve victory, the war in Vietnam had to be intensified. In August 1964, Johnson announced to the nation that light North Vietnamese gunboats bad fired on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is in international waters. Some historians are skeptical that these events ever took place. Nevertheless, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president the power to “prevent further aggression” in Vietnam; this resolution allowed the president to control the war without the necessity of consulting Congress.
Throughout 1965, 1966, and 1967, America continued to increase its commitment in Vietnam; by early 1968 nearly 540,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam, Beginning in 1965 bombing campaigns against North Vietnam became commonplace. American soldiers in Vietnam became increasingly frustrated by the jungle tactics used by their enemies, by the fact that one’s friend by day might be one’s enemy by night, and by the seeming lack of effectiveness of the South Vietnamese army.
A key battle of the war was the Tet Offensive, which began on January 30, 1968. During the first day of the Vietnamese new year, the Vietcong initiated major offensives in cities across South Vietnam. Saigon, the capital, was even attacked, and for several hours the Vietcong held the American embassy. In the end, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese suffered major losses as a result of the Tet Offensive, Nevertheless, this was the battle that began to conclusively turn American public opinion against the war. The sights on television of American forces trying to recapture their own embassy back certainly made many question the idea that “victory was just around the corner,” which is what was being told to the American people by military and civilian officials.
The Vietnam War drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House. Diaries of several in Johnson’s inner circle show that he was consumed by the war. In February 1968 Johnson began his reelection bid by taking on Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who was running on a peace ticket, in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Johnson won, but got only 48 percent of the total votes to 42 percent for McCarthy. Johnson considered this a humiliation, and one month later pulled out of the presidential race. Johnson endorsed Vice President Hubert Humphrey for president, By this point Robert Kennedy had also announced his candidacy.
Throughout 1968 support for the Vietnam War continued to fade in America. The Republican candidate for president, Richard Nixon, gained support when he proclaimed that he had a “secret plan” to end the war. Reports of the brutality of the war also shocked many Americans. Many were disturbed to find that Americans were using napalm, a substance that sticks to the skin and burns, on civilian villages. The story of the 1968 My Lai Massacre, where nearly 200 Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men were murdered by American soldiers, horrified many Americans. Some Americans began to wonder what the United States was doing in Vietnam, and what the war was doing to the United States.
The student protest movement also began to furiously campaign against the war. Student activists had previously been active in the civil rights movement. In 1960 the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization was formed. The Port Huron Statement was the founding document of this organization, and called for a less materialistic society that encouraged “participatory democracy.” SDS would become one of the major student organizations opposing the war.
The Free Speech Movement had grown at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 when school officials refused to allow political materials to be distributed on campus. Campus buildings were occupied, as students demanded college courses more relevant to their lives. Tactics used by Berkeley students were copied by students at colleges across the country.
The Vietnam War greatly expanded the student protest movement in America. Many students were passionately opposed to the war on moral grounds; to be fair, others were part of the movement because they didn’t want to be drafted. Television pictures of young men burning their draft cards were commonplace. Antiwar demonstrations that had attracted a few hundred people in 1964 were now attracting thousands; a 1967 antiwar rally drew 500,000 people to Central Park in New York.
1968 saw the protests grow, both in numbers and in intensity. Events of 1968 convinced many young people that getting involved in mainstream politics (as Eugene McCarthy had tried to get them to do) was fruitless. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed in the spring of that year; to many, that left the presidential race between two representatives of the old guard, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. What, many students asked, was the point of even getting involved in politics if candidates like that were the end result? In the spring of 1968 major protests broke out at Columbia University; in August as protesters chanted “the whole world is watching,” Chicago police officers brutally beat students and others who had shown up to protest at the Democratic National Convention. By 1969 disputes over how much violence is acceptable began to tear SDS apart as well.
Another group of revolutionaries in the 1960s rejected political involvement and supported cultural revolution instead. Members of the counterculture rejected America and its values as much as antiwar protesters did, but believed that personal revolution was most vital. These “hippies,” or countercultural rebels, often had little to do with members of SDS; the revolution of the hippies consisted of growing one’s hair long, listening to the “right” music, and partaking of psychedelic drugs. Timothy Leary and other proponents of LSD implored young people to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Sexual freedom was also commonplace in the counterculture. A birth control pill had been approved by the federal government in 1960; a button worn by many in the 1960s stated “If It Feels Good, Do It!” The Mecca for many of these rebels in 1967 was San Francisco, where the music and lifestyle of groups such as the Grateful Dead personified the counterculture of the 1960s. The Woodstock Music Festival of 1969 was the most outward manifestation of the “peace and love” rebels of the 1960s. For members of the counterculture, personal rebellion was a much more valid form of rebellion than political rebellion; it should be remembered that Pete Townshend of “The Who” threw radical political organizer Abbie Hoffman off the stage at Woodstock.
Richard Nixon was elected in November of 1968, and soon announced his policy of Vietnamization of the war, which consisted of training the South Vietnamese army and gradually pulling American forces out. By 1972 American forces in Vietnam only numbered 24,000 (as the numbers of soldiers in Vietnam lessened, so did the antiwar protests). In April of 1970, however, Nixon announced that to support the South Vietnamese government, massive bombing of the North was needed and that the war needed to be extended into Cambodia to wipe out communist bases there. Colleges campuses across the country, for one last time, joined together in massive protest. At Kent State University four students were killed by National Guardsmen who opened fire on the protesters; two students were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi. American public opinion at this point was deeply divided on the war; two days after Kent State nearly 100,000 construction workers marched in New York City for the war.
In 1971 the Pentagon Papers were leaked by a former Department of Defense employee, Daniel Ellsburg. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had deceived the American public and the Congress about Vietnam as early as 1964. By this point, most Americans awaited the end of American involvement in the war.
American was involved in negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris. Negotiations intensified in December 1972 when President Nixon ordered the heaviest bombing of the war against North Vietnam. In January 1973 it was announced that American forces would leave Vietnam in 60 days, that all American prisoners would be returned, and that the boundary between North and South Vietnam would be respected. On March 29, 1973, the last American soldiers left Vietnam; 60,000 Americans had died there. On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, ending the Vietnam War. The last Americans had left the country one day earlier.