The long, costly, and unpopular Vietnam war started in 1955 and ended in 1975. Civil war ignited in Vietnam when North Vietnam and South Vietnam argued over to stay A democratic nation or to turn to communism. The United States allied itself with the democratic South and justified the war with the noble cause of preventing the spread of communism. Americans believed that defending South Vietnam was important as communism was threating free governments everywhere and a lack of intervention could promote further uprisings across the globe. However, this war dragged on over twenty years and cost the lives of 58,220 American soldiers. More and more this war seemed unwinnable and the American people gathered in protest to end it causing problems for the American government and military. Like all wars, there was small movements against the United States involvement in Vietnam. These movements began among peace activists and on college campuses arguing against the war on moral and economic grounds. They believed that all the military spending on the war was taking away from social programs such as welfare, housing, and urban renewal, not to mention the thousands of people dying on both sides of the conflict. This essay will analyze how the antiwar movement on Vietnam, both on the home front and within the military, effected the American military.
Draft evasion has always been a part of any war the United States participated in as it brings the war directly to the people’s door step. During the Vietnam war, between 1964 and 1973, the United States military drafted 2.2 million American men into obligated service. However, during the Vietnam War era, draft evasion and resistance had hit a historical peak in early 1970 of 209,517. To many, being sent overseas to a war, especially one they did not believe in, seemed like a death sentence. Citizens would flee to Canada, try to obtain conscientious objector status, would not report for duty, or would try to claim disability. The antiwar protests saw the draft as an immoral way to continue to fuel the political agenda in Vietnam and knew that without soldiers to fight America would have to pull out eventually.
Future discontent in the war would further escalate after the Presidential election in 1963 when Lyndon B. Johnson was put into office. During his race against Barry Goldwater he preached peace and won the favor of the people by promising to not escalate the war effort in Vietnam. During a campaign rally in Ohio, Johnson stated, “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” However, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution forced President Johnson to exponentially increase the United States military presence to help continue the defense of South Vietnam from communism. This escalation in military presence, as well as the increase in drafted citizens was a major turning point that shifted the antiwar protests on college campuses, to a movement across the nation. The citizen’s mistrust and hatred for the government was at its peak, so much so that Robert Watts, a black militant, said to a rally in Washington that, “if they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ.”
In the end, there were too many people avoiding or resisting the draft to punish. To try and calm and appeal to citizens, President Carter’s first act as President was grant a “full, complete and unconditional pardon,” or amnesty to Vietnam draft resisters. If they would not go to war at least they could stimulate the economy and contribute through the work force. The combination of rebellion inside the military and the civilian antiwar movement acted as another restraint on the American government’s ability to conduct military operations successfully in Vietnam. The draft dodgers created manning issues during the Vietnam war and fostered a distrustful relationship between the citizens and their government. However, this back and forth between the antiwar participants and the American government led to the draft being abolished by President Nixon in 1973. To this day the draft has never been used again and the military has become a total volunteer force, thereby creating a more trusting and efficient military.
The persistence of the Vietnam antiwar movement on the home front had a direct impact on policy makers who were uncertain about decisions happening in the government. The participants of these many protests and marches held signs stating, “Get the Hell Out of Vietnam” or “Hell no I won’t go” greatly impacted the conduct of the war, restricting the escalation of force, and accelerated troop withdrawals. One of the most prominent antiwar protest occurred on October 21, 1967 when 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and later that night would march on the Pentagon asking for an end to the conflict. Another catalyst for the movement and the protests when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. openly opposed the war on moral grounds. He spoke of the misconduct of the government pulling from domestic programs to fuel the war, as well as the disproportionate number of African American soldiers the government was sending to Vietnam and into direct combat where they died in “extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.” Under much scrutiny, Army and Marine commanders worked to lessen the amount of African American soldiers they used. This caused manning problems as African American soldiers made up the majority of combat units, especially rifle squads and fire teams.
The height of the protests came after the Tet Offensive where North Vietnam communist soldiers launched a massive assault on South Vietnam and American soldiers.
Although the offensive was handled well by the American soldiers it was still a grueling loss of life on both sides. News of this sent waves of discontent throughout the American population and acted as a catalyst for the most intense period of antiwar protests. A Gallup poll of President Johnson’s approval ratings after this incident showed that only 35 percent of citizens approved of his handling of the war and 50 percent were disapproving. After the Tet offensive and the outrage that fallowed, the organization of Vietnam Veterans Against the War formed and protested in their wheelchairs and crutches. In April of 1971 nearly 1,000 veterans marched on the Capitol building and threw awards they had received during the war at the foot of the building. This event along with the protests had devastating effects on the soldiers on the front lines causing rebellion within military units. Later that same year in June the military publication, Armed Forces Journal, published an article called, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” and it stated, “The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. armed forces are, with a few salient exception, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.”
While anger and discontent grew more and more on the home front, so too did it grow within military units. Seeing the antiwar movement back at home, soldiers sympathized with the movement and began their own. Soldiers fell into one of two categories when opposing the war. There were those who signed antiwar petitions, attended rallies, and spoke openly to the public demanding an end to the war. The other category were soldiers who directly disobeyed orders, refused to fallow commands, sabotaged military operations, and in rare cases attacked higher ranking members of the unit. Across all military branches, Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, antiwar groups sprouted up within the enlisted and junior officer ranks. Together they would protest in or around military bases and pass around petitions to end the war. One of the most famous petitions demanded an end to the war and to bring military members home and it was signed by 1365 active duty service members.
The voices of the service members were not heard by the officers appointed over them nor was it heard by the government officials who controlled their lives. Soldiers took matters into their own hands and resisted against their superiors. The most common form of this resistance was being absent without leave (AWOL). In 1971, 17 percent of Army soldiers were AWOL and the desertion rate increased 400 percent between 1966 and 1971. This would total to the amount of seven divisions by the end of the year, greatly decreasing military presence and effectiveness during the war. To no surprise, African Americans were the leading racial group that was most rebellious, as they were the ones being most abused of all the service members. They would ban together, inspired by both the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement back home, to oppose their white superiors which caused challenges in maintaining order and authority over military units.
While refusing to show up for duty was the most common type of resistance throughout the military forces, the most significant, and the one with that caused the most breakdowns in unit effectiveness, was combat refusal. Multiple times Army combat units would refuse to fight. In April of 1970, CBS News reported an incident where the 7th Cleverly refused to march down a jungle path as they believed it to be too risky. A news headline by the New York Daily News read, “Sir, My Men Refuse to Go!” “Weary Viet GIs Defy Order,” covered the story of sixty men who refused to fallow direct orders from their commander.
As the Vietnam war continued and the death counts and the conditions worsened, more often were there acts of resistance within the military. By 1970 the Marine Corps and Army were experiencing acts of defiance from all over Vietnam and even on military instillations within America. Soldiers would intentionally slack off and not do their jobs or show other forms of not cooperating with their superiors. This reached a point with the military’s operational capacity was effectively crippled and could not continue missions until either order was restored or the men got what they wanted. This type of command climate was toxic and led to unproductive military units across Vietnam. Evidence of the continued deterioration of the military was the horrific prevalence of fragging fellow American soldiers. This included attacking someone with a fragmentation grenade, which was a very deadly weapon in close quarters. By July 1972 the total number of fragging incidents reached 551, totaling 86 deaths and over 700 injured. The targets of these horrific acts were mainly those who gave the orders, officers and noncommissioned officers.
President Nixon began to withdraw ground forces from Vietnam in preparation for ending the war. However, disagreements between Vietnam leaders and President Nixon led to further use of force, but this time through the air with operations such as LINEBACKER and LINEBACKER II. The constant onslaught of the Vietnamese people caused by these devastating bombings quickly caused moral amongst the soldiers in the Navy and Air Force to drop, as well as increased refusal to fight. Soldiers on multiple aircraft carries began to organize antiwar protests and sign petitions to return home. Other petitions tried to keep aircraft carriers from leaving their ports for deployment. Incidences such as with the U.S.S. Constellation and the U.S.S. Coral Sea, organized a petition and protest deploying to Vietnam.
In both cases, thousands of service members voted to stay home. If protests and petitions would not work the soldiers would result to sabotaging the ships. There were two notable acts of sabotage that costed the military millions in damages and delayed deployment of those ships by months. The first incident occurred on the U.S.S. Forrestal. On this aircraft carrier a fire was set upon the ship which burned the admiral’s room, were it is speculated to have started, and heavily damaged the ship’s radar and communication systems. The second incident occurred on the U.S.S. Ranger. Service members put two 12-inch bolts and a paint scrapper into the engine gears which caused major damage and the repairs delayed its deployment by three months.
On both sides of the Vietnam war, at home and overseas, American citizens and military members tried to stop the war however they could. At home, outraged citizens burned their draft cards, defected, marched, and protested to persuade policy makers to deescalate the conflict in Vietnam and bring the soldiers home. Service members resisted their superiors anyway they could from going AWOL, refusing to fight, sabotaging equipment, or directly attacking their superiors. The antiwar movement within the military itself got to the point where it was no longer an effective fighting force. As word of these extreme acts of defiance and lack of moral reached government officials, it was clear to them that troop withdrawals from Vietnam needed to be accelerated not only to satisfy the people, but to protect soldiers and their comrades from themselves. The actions opposing the war both at home and overseas heavily contributed to America’s ability to continue its military campaign. The conduct of war, the restrain on its escalation, and accelerated troop withdrawals were all directly inflicted by the antiwar movement.
Through great loss, hatred, and mistrust the events that transpired thought out the antiwar movement did cause positive change for America’s military. For one, it ended the draft that had been a part of the military’s policy since the Civil War. It was greatly misused and was the spark that started multiple retaliations against the government. Now, America uses an all-volunteer fighting force that started the positive change between the government and the citizens. It was also a more affordable military that was more engaged and more willing to fight the nations wars. The antiwar movement also contributed to the fear of America being locked into “another Vietnam” war. The outrage from civilians and service members caused government officials to be very careful in committing military assets to another country’s problems. This is known as the “Vietnam Effects,” or the “Vietnam Syndrome,” and it is what describes
America’s reluctance to send soldiers overseas until it is absolutely necessary, or because it protects national interest. The Vietnam war, as well as the antiwar movement, caused great changes in military policy that would carry on into future conflicts. The military was forced to change how it conducted itself abroad while still accomplishing the commander’s end state and mission statements. No longer would they destroy and kill needlessly, but use the minimal amount of force that would accomplish the mission with the least amount of fatalities. It is important to not completely destroy the enemy as it will contribute to winning the hearts and minds of the county’s citizens that will pave the way for a better future and relationship between the nations involved. The antiwar movement was an important part of American history that forever changed how the government uses the military to fight and win the nation’s wars, as well as how the military operates before, during, and after war.