Ideology in The Vietnam War
America's First "Living Room War"
The Vietnam War was the first televised war in American history—a "living room war" experienced by families as they gathered around the television each evening to watch the national news. Photographers and cameramen delivered horrifying images, including the charred body of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, the assassination of a Viet Cong sympathizer, and the bloodied, deformed corpses of Vietnamese villagers slaughtered in American "search and destroy" missions. American reporters, traveling alongside U.S. troops, broadcast the gritty reality of life—and death—on the Vietnam warfront.
The national and local printed press was also an important site for information about the war. National publications such as the New York Times published detailed reports from the warfront. One dispatch from Jack Langguth in June 1965 included descriptions of the carnage left after U.S. saturation bombing and napalm strikes in Quang Ngai—hundreds dead, many more severely wounded, burned, or mutilated, and most of them women.63
Some military personnel returning from the warfront revealed their often dismal and cynical impressions of American involvement in Vietnam. In an essay he entitled "The Whole Thing Was a Lie," Donald Duncan, a top-ranking sergeant who served in Vietnam for one and a half years, argued for a full U.S. withdrawal. His frank indictment of the war, published in Ramparts magazine in February 1966, glorified neither side in the struggle: "The world is not just good guys and bad guys," he explained. "Anti-communism is a lousy substitute for democracy. I know now that there are many types of communism but there are none that appeal to me. In the long run, I don't think Vietnam will be better off under Minh's brand of communism. But it's not for me or my government to decide. That decision is for the Vietnamese."64 Duncan's comments revealed the underlying paradox behind the Cold War; in striving to defeat communism, the United States subverted many of its own cherished values and liberties, and made bedfellows of anti-democratic regimes simply because they were "the enemy of our enemy."
Local newspapers also relayed information about the war, sometimes through the publication of soldiers' letters home, which often included gut-wrenching stories about terrible battles with the Viet Cong, senseless killing, and plenty of confusion and frustration about military operations and U.S. goals.
Year after year Americans bore witness, through mass media, to the bombing, the firestorms, the shooting, the killing of Vietnamese, and the deaths of U.S. soldiers. Yet, year after year American leaders, without explaining the terms of war, told the nation to accept it as necessary. Many simply couldn't adequately respond to the question, "Why are we in Vietnam?"; the answers often made no sense. Few political leaders—Democrat or Republican—were honest about U.S. policies in Vietnam, and most refused to acknowledge blunders, missteps, or failure.
Americans could tolerate such mixed messages for only so long. Living in the United States during this time, historian Marilyn Young explained, "meant having guilty knowledge of the [Vietnam] war and of the government's lies about it," and by the late 1960s, that became too much for many to bear.65
By 1967, a massive anti-war movement had taken shape all across the United States. Unlike earlier incarnations of anti-war organizations, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which was filled with college activists committed to educating the American public about Third World nationalism and the history of colonialism, the new movement was far more diverse. People from all sorts of political, social, racial, and religious backgrounds united around the demand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and an end to American intervention in the war in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of people—including a wide range of people such as college student Mario Savio, movie star Jane Fonda, socialist Tom Hayden, black radical Bobby Seale, Vietnam veteran Jan Barry Crumb, anarchist Abbott (Abbie) Hoffman, and pacifist civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.—attended demonstrations in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Oakland, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
The Many Voices of the Anti-war Movement
Despite the appearance of uniformity among those protesting the war, all activists did not share the same anti-war ideology, and all activists did not practice the same tactics.
Black power and civil rights activists, for instance, linked the ongoing African-American struggle for equal rights to the anti-war movement. By the late 1960s, it became clear to them—and to many Americans—that although the long fight to desegregate the U.S. armed forces had been won, equality had not. A disproportionate number of those young American men sent to fight in Vietnam, and a disproportionate number of those who died in the war, were black. Latino rights activists, too, noted that young Mexican and Puerto Rican men bore the brunt of the fighting.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. initially opposed the war on purely pacifist grounds, but by the spring of 1967 he began to argue that far more was at stake than the moral integrity of the nation. The failure of President Lyndon Johnson's plan for a war against poverty, he argued, was directly connected to the expanded war in Vietnam. "I knew," King preached in April 1967, "that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."66
On college campuses, student organizations continued to offer "teach-ins" to fellow students and to members of the community to help people understand the issues that political leaders refused to discuss, and to create awareness of the extent of the war and the number of American men and Vietnamese citizens dying each day. More confrontational demonstrators burned their draft cards; others screamed slogans such as "Hell no, we won't go," "One, two, three, four, we don't want your f---ing war," "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today," and "Draft beer, not boys."
But perhaps the most passionate and most effective protest demonstrations were those led by veterans from the warfront. Throughout the war, those most vocal and most consistent in their opposition to the American war in Vietnam were those who had to fight it. They stood in stark contrast to college antiwar demonstrators—many who accepted student deferments and remained exempt from the military draft, safely shielded from the realities of war. Thousands of returning soldiers, most of them white, but many black and Latino, some deserters, most irreparably damaged, expressed anger and resentment that they—those too poor, too unconnected, or too patriotic—sacrificed the most for a war created by government elites who refused to accept responsibility for their disastrous foreign policies.
A Vietnamese War
In the end, however, no protest demonstration or anti-war campaign ended the war in Vietnam. Those, like President Richard Nixon, who blamed the anti-war movement for American failures in Vietnam, were just as wrong as those anti-war activists who believed that in fact they had forced a stoppage. The decision to end the war was never in the hands of the U.S. government or the U.S. people; the decision ultimately rested with the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese alone.