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THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES The US anti-war movement was made up of five main groups: pacifists, religious groups, social revolutionaries, ordinary citizens and veterans. Pacifists and some church people had opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam since the early 1960s. Their opposition was based on moral arguments – all wars are immoral and should be actively opposed. David Dellinger, from the War Resisters League (WRL), was one of the leading figures in this group. The WRL opposed both the war itself and conscription, and encouraged young men to refuse to serve. It also organised non-violent protests against the war. At the extreme left of the anti-war movement were the social revolutionaries – political activists who opposed the very nature of American society and saw the war as symbolic of the nation’s excesses. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were the best known of this group. They were the leaders of the Youth International Party, known commonly as the Yippies. The social revolutionaries wanted to end the war by creating havoc in America – paralysing the country through massive demonstrations and other activities. Both these groups had been involved in anti-war action from the early 1960s. However, their activities had been very small – little more than “lonely vigils”. Nevertheless, the peace movement swelled with the arrival of US ground troops in South Vietnam in 1965. Universities began holding ‘teach-ins’, where students could listen to prominent people present the case for and against American involvement in Vietnam. The most famous anti-war intellectual at the time was Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics at MIT. The problem for the anti-war movement in 1965 was that that the majority of Americans felt it their patriotic duty to support the troops in Vietnam, even if they might have had reservations about their role there. Jerry Rubin helped organise one of the first teach-ins, at the University of California in Berkeley, in 1965. As a former journalist, he understood that the anti-war movement had to generate publicity. This led him to organise demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations and blockades (of munitions trains or troop transports). David Dellinger visited North Vietnam, to see for himself the effects of the US bombing campaign. What gave the anti-war movement its real impetus was General Westmoreland’s demand for 500,000 troops to be sent to Vietnam, and the fact that these troops would be rotated on a 12 monthly basis. This meant that millions of American boys would be sent to war, and that millions would have to deal with the dilemma of whether or not to go. As the war dragged on, an increasing number of soldiers were killed or wounded in Vietnam – increasing public awareness of the conflict like nothing else could. Their parents, relatives and friends saw Senator Eugene McCarthy as their best prospect of ending the war. McCarthy stood for nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1968, on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam. Another demonstration which helped generate support for the anti-war movement was the Pentagon blockade, organised by Abbie Hoffman in October 1967. 50,000 people surrounded the Pentagon, intent on preventing anyone from entering or leaving. Scuffles broke out, and the protest turned into a running battle. 1,000 people were arrested. Jerry Rubin saw this as a turning point in the anti-war movement, capturing the imagination of young people across the country. The Tet Offensive also had a significant impact on public opinion in America. Contrary to General Westmoreland’s statements that victory was in sight, Tet demonstrated that the US had made little progress militarily in the previous three years. The images sent back to the United States – of the Viet Cong entering the US embassy, of General Loan executing a suspected VC soldier – convinced an increasing number of Americans that the nation’s efforts were futile, and that the price of victory was too high – both in financial and human terms. More and more Americans lost faith in their leaders, who they believed were deceiving them. However, not everything went the anti-war movement’s way. In the first place, Robert Kennedy decided to run for the presidency, on an anti-war platform. This took support away from the other peace candidate, Eugene McCarthy. When Kennedy was assassinated, McCarthy’s support never returned to the level it had been prior to Kennedy’s entry into the presidential race. In addition, the anti-war movement helped to secure the election of the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, by organising demonstrations outside the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago, in August 1968. The protest organisers were hoping 100,000 people would turn up, but fear of police brutality meant that the number was only 5,000. In response, Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, brought in 26,000 police and National Guardsmen. When the demonstrators ignored the mayor’s refusal to approve their march, Daley sent in his forces. Protestors were beaten senseless. A later report described the event as “a police riot”. The organisers, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were given prison sentences for inciting violence, though these were later overturned on appeal. The images from Chicago shocked middle America. Instead of blaming the police for the brutality, people blamed the demonstrators, and abandoned the Democratic Party. McCarthy failed to get the Democratic nomination, and Republican candidate Richard Nixon went on to win the election, promising peace and security. Nevertheless, Nixon’s determination to achieve peace on his own terms soon helped build support for the anti-war movement. Nothing helped more than Nixon’s decision to abolish draft deferment in 1969. Up until that time, young men could defer their military service if they enrolled in university. This effectively excluded the children of the rich, leaving the war to be fought by poor whites, blacks and Hispanics. However, once the children of the wealthy were forced to face the choice of service, exile or prison, they too turned against the war, as did their parents. By the late ‘60s, an increasing number of veterans were also opposing the war. Many burned their uniforms and tossed their medals away, and joined the anti-war movement. This sent a powerful message to mainstream America: if the soldiers themselves did not support the war, why should the citizenry? By this time, however, the Nixon Administration was committed to the policy of Vietnamisation – the progressive withdrawal of US ground troops and their replacement by soldiers from the ARVN. This, to a considerable extent, mollified public opinion in America, since the majority of those opposed to the war were primarily opposed to direct US participation, not the war itself. Even some of the anti- war movement’s own leaders later suggested that their own role had been minimal. Eugene McCarthy, for example, believed “that the war would have ended just about when it did, even if there had been no protest, if I had not campaigned, because they didn’t end it on policy finally: they ended it because they were losing it, and – you know – the soldiers wouldn’t fight.” David Dellinger believed that the war was ended by a combination of US protest and Vietnamese resistance. As the respected US television commentator Eric Sevareid explained, “You weren’t really fighting just a military force. You were fighting a society, a society equipped with total faith.” It was that kind of faith that Americans lacked.
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