A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


The 60’s were a time of grassroots movements. You’ve already studied the Civil Rights Movement and the Student Movement. This chapter focuses on the Anti-War movement, and is meant to supplement the text, not to replace it.

            These grassroots movements are not to be taken for granted. Please don’t file them in the bin with all the other prosaic historical facts you’ve learned--and perhaps forgotten. Consider this: more than half of voting age Americans can’t even be bothered to vote. So when citizens not only vote, but also take to the streets to influence their government, that’s noteworthy. And when people actually commit years of their lives to organizing these demonstrations and to participating in them, at some risk to their careers, their physical safety--even their lives, then notice should be taken.

            During the 60’s, the largest anti-war movement in U.S. history mobilized to oppose our longest, most unpopular war. For at least 8 years--1965 to 1973--the sound of angry chanting and marching feet could be heard in this land. Particularly between 1967 and 1972, events seemed to spin out of control during America’s “war at home.”  University buildings were taken over. Students went on strike.There were bloody confrontations between protesters and police or National Guard forces. Protesters were killed. There were assassinations. There were self-immolations. A presidency was toppled. Bombings were carried out by secret groups. The Black Panthers were on the march. The Women’s Movement, The Native American Movement, the Chicano Movement, and soon the Gay Movement, were all emerging.
            It was as if the CRM and the protest against the war had unleashed a vortex of energy. Suddenly everything was being questioned, from the draft to education to religion to what one should eat. To student radicals, nothing was sacred. Time collapsed, history accelerated, whole generations of change seemed to occur in mere months. In June you couldn’t believe (perhaps couldn’t even remember) “where you were at” in January. All you knew is that it was exciting, even intoxicating, to swim in this rushing river of change. Kids who were raised to be enthusiastic, obedient consumers were now making history, by trying “to make the Revolution” or by turning on and dropping out, or all of the above. The war had to be ended, but the future beamed with bright, utopian possibilities,both political and cultural. Indeed, the “war at home” coincided with the growth of the Counter-Culture--hippie-dom, and it was sometimes hard to know where one sphere of change ended and the other began. There was no telling where this line was to be drawn among young people, or even within the individual youth.

            In the 1930’s, protesters--even communists--led fairly conventional lives once their meetings were over. As the 60’s deepened, however, our anti-war protesters were also living in communes, smoking marijuana, and listening to Dylan, Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones (among others). To some it seemed that the war (and the movement to end it) had unleashed revolutionary forces. Well, if not Revolution, it at least appeared that we were headed to some kind of civil war or national nervous breakdown.

            All this may sound exciting, but it was also terrifying, incomprehensible, and deplorable to most of those on the other side of the generational divide, those millions President Nixon later called “the silent majority.” From the off-campus perspective, hippies seemed a horde of bizarre, drugged-out barbarians assaulting the very gates of civilization. Student protesters appeared anti-American, irresponsible, morally self-righteous, intolerant, and even treasonous. Rooting for the victory of the Viet Cong, as some protesters did, didn’t exactly harmonize with traditional notions of loyalty. How dare these middle-class kids, blessed with the opportunity to attend fine universities, turn around and spit in the eye of the very society that endowed them with such privileges! The 60’s were not a time for quiet conversation; there was more shouting across the generation gap than listening. Families were rent asunder, with parents sadly realizing that their “children were beyond their command.” Perception was in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders were never further apart.

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            As you now know, there was a student movement (SM) developing before the Vietnam War. We went through some of the reasons for it. It was only in 1965, that the SM developed into an anti-war movement. The draft ensured that student attention would turn from civil rights and campus issues to the conflict in--hey, where is that place?--Vietnam. “Hell no,” large masses of students chanted, “we won’t go!”

            The first national anti-war demonstration was held by SDS (“Students for a Democratic Society”) in 1965 in Washington DC. Even the organizers were surprised that 20,000 people turned out. In class,  I will sketch some of the main events of the Anti-War Movement, but remember there were thousands of demonstrations every year, all over. So these are just the most memorable events. Hopefully they will serve as landmarks on this very busy landscape. Before I do that, however, let me mention some of the main trends that characterized the movement.



• Over time the Anti-War Movement (Henceforth: “the Movement”) grew, from a few thousand to millions (though millions also continued to support government war policies);

• As time went on tactics became more militant, utilizing not only picketing, but obstruction, civil disobedience, destruction of draft cards, resistance to the draft, etc. As was said then, the Movement went from “Protest to Resistance.”

• Violence also increased, though not among all wings of the “the Movement,” which ranged from student radicals to Quakers to Catholic priests to ordinary middle-class citizens. Even among student radicals there were many different groupings, all of which had different ideas about how to best end the war. Violence was most closely associated with a student faction named the Weatherman, which targeted symbols of the “war machine”;

Why violence? The reasons varied.  Sometimes the violence was started by the police or police agents. To an extent, it was encouraged by the  media which grew bored with ordinary demonstrations. To keep opposition to the war visible, you had to keep the media interested. As far as the media was concerned, the more dramatic the demonstration, the  more newsworthy it became. If you defied this logic you found your demonstration reported way back on page 60 with the underwear ads. But there were also some student radicals who believed that the best way to support the Vietnamese people in their struggle for independence was to make the revolution here. After all, that was the duty of the revolutionary, and many students of middle class origin and privileged upbringing now saw themselves as revolutionaries, committed to fundamental change at home and liberation of the Third World oppressed abroad. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!”

• Which brings me to this point: The movement became a school for radicalization. For participants, opposition to the war frequently was a first step to a growing commitment to  change American society in a more radically democratic direction. For many, understanding the nature of the war, of how and why we became involved, led to  a more critical understanding of American society and its deficiencies. Most student activists in the Movement came to see the war not as an “accident” that America stumbled into, but rather as a natural outgrowth of rigid Cold War thinking, imperial ambitions, and capitalism’s insatiable need to find new areas of the world to exploit. To anti-war radicals, the war “grew out of the system.” Therefore, the war needed to be stopped and the “system”  needed to be changed, or there would be more Vietnams in our future. For these Americans, Vietnam was a mirror and we needed to have the courage to look into it.

• Being in the Movement was not just how you “did” politics. It  became a way of life. It shaped the music you listened to, how you lived and dressed, what you talked about most of the time.

• Much as contradictions in the Abolitionist Movement helped “born” the first Women’s Movements in the 1840’s, so did contradictions in the Anti-War Movement help “born” the Women’s Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Women, busy fighting for black equality or freedom for the Vietnamese, woke up one morning, looked around, and found it impossible to tolerate the sexism of their “brothers” in the Movement. The world changed forever in the blink of an eye.


All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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