18 Seiten, Note: 2,0
1 Introduction: The War in Vietnam – a Total Failure of the United States?
2 Protest Movements - A Cultural Perspective
3 The Anti-Vietnam War Protest Movement in the United States
3.1 Roots of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement
3.2 Forms of Protest against the Vietnam War
3.3 The Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights Movement
3.4 Discussion of a Protest Song
4 Conclusion: Impact of the anti-Vietnam War Movement
In 1973 the American President Richard Nixon declared a so-called “peace with honor” to mark the end of the military intervention of the United States in Vietnam, a war that began without any declaration of war. But in how far can the ending of the Vietnam War be characterized as a “peace with honor”?
The wars in Indochina were a product of European colonialism. France established control over Vietnam in the nineteenth century. Resistance against colonialism erupted in the aftermath of the First World War that left the French empire greatly weakened. Vietnamese nationalists, led by Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed the independence of Vietnam from France and defeated the French in the battle of Dienbienphu in 1954. Vietnam was supposed to become an independent nation in 1956, after the withdrawal of France from Indochina. In the north of the country Ho Chi Minh, who was a communist revolutionary and supported by the Soviet Union and the People`s Republic of China, held power. Vietnam became part of the Cold War conflict when the United States refused to sign the “Geneva Accords” that claimed the independence and reunification of Vietnam because they feared the country would become a communist nation. The political system in Vietnam was crucial for the United States because, according to the “domino theory”, which was promoted during the Cold War, surrounding countries could follow and become communist nations as well, if Vietnam came under communist influence.
In the following years the United States supported a former monk, Ngo Dinh Diem, who demanded an independent, non-communist government in South Vietnam. However, Ngo Diem fell was plagued by guerillas and sectarian violence in South Vietnam. He eventually died in a military coup. Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States from 1963 to 1969 and John F. Kennedy`s successor, decided that only direct military intervention could save the country from communism and from 1965 on, after bombing raids on North Vietnam, American combat troops were deployed in Vietnam.
During the war in Vietnam, the United States bombed Indochina with a total tonnage of bombs that exceeded the amount used by all opposing parties in World War II. Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants were employed, later detected to have caused cancer in thousands U.S. soldiers. The following table, based on the “Indochina Newsletter” from 1982, gives an overview of the losses due to the Vietnam War (from: Williams 1987, 7):
illustration not visible in this excerpt
By 1968 most Americans wanted out of Vietnam but did not want to lose a war to a communist government backed by China and the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon, elected President, began to withdraw the American soldiers and promised to achieve an honorable settlement. In January 1973 he finally negotiated a peace settlement in Paris. As a consequence, prisoners of war could return home and the war came to a formal ending. Richard Nixon could present his “peace with honor” agreement. Nevertheless, North Vietnamese troops were allowed to stay in South Vietnam and shortly after the U.S. pullout South Vietnam became communist as well (History of Vietnam War based on: Hixons 2000, 7-11).
The majority of the American public disagreed with Richard Nixon`s perception of the ending of the Vietnam War as a “peace with honor”. The war in Vietnam had triggered protest and political opposition all over the country and the final outcome of the conflict was regarded as insufficient, the war seemed to have been fruitless. The extent and the intensity of the antiwar protest in the United States from 1965 through 1971 can be seen as the most significant movement of its kind in American history (cf. Small 2000, 1). Some scholars argue that the antiwar movement was helping to bring an end to the U.S. involvement whereas others claim that the movement had only little impact on the conflict.
The American intervention in Vietnam left the United States disillusioned, the general public confused and in collective pain of having lost so many soldiers and having killed so many human beings. The war divided the American public into “war hawks”, a term that was used to describe the people favoring the war and “war doves”, a term used for their antagonists who favored a peaceful solution in Vietnam. However, the consensus in the United States was that the Vietnam War had been a colossal mistake. More than 58,000 Americans died and millions of American citizens stood up in protest against the war for the first time in the United States´ history (cf. Hixons 2000, 11).
The intention of this essay is to critically examine the antiwar protest movement in the United States from its beginning in the nineteen-sixties through to its aftermath in the nineteen-eighties and to work out its impact on the American foreign policy and society. First, the concept of protest movements will be outlined from a cultural perspective. In the following, the antiwar protest in the United States will be studied, putting emphasis on the roots and the forms of the movement and examining the sources of the antiwar sentiment in America. Beyond that, the antiwar movement will be linked to the civil rights movement of the mid-sixties. In a final passage, this essay will discuss a protest song of the antiwar movement and state, in a concluding paragraph, what effects the movement had on the United States` citizens and government.
Hank Johnston, who is an associate Professor of Sociology at San Diego State University, introduces methods for the cultural analysis of protest movements in the first chapter of the research volume “Culture, Social Movements and Protest” (see: Johnston 2009). Johnston treats culture in its manifold aspects and introduces fundamental categories for the analysis of protest movements and protest campaigns in cultural studies. Regarding protest movement research, the author states:
“When we refer to culture in everyday parlance, we recognize that different people have different assumptions about the world, categorize in different ways, and adhere to different values and beliefs, all of which significantly shape behaviors and all ways of thinking. This commonsense notion of culture can be applied readily to social movements insofar as participants often hold values, attitudes, beliefs and ideological orientations that are often quite distinct from the broader culture and those shifts in beliefs cause social change” (Johnston 2009, 4) .
It obvious that the gap between mainstream culture and protest culture is crucial for the theory of protest movements. The bias between the commonsense notion of culture and the beliefs of the protesters is what triggers the protest. The beliefs of the protestors can be called “countercultural”, since these different assumptions about the world, these differing social values, contrast with the average understanding of common cultural values. The most interesting aspect of the analysis of protest movements and campaigns is the impact of the movement. Movements have an impact insofar as they can “shift beliefs” and, thereby, “cause social change”. Hence a social movement is “successful” when the common cultural values, beliefs and ways of thinking are altered due to the impact of the protest movement.
In his essay, Hank Johnston discusses three fundamental categories for the cultural analysis of protest movements and campaigns. These three major classes are, according to the author, “performances”, “artifacts” and “ideations”.
Cultural performance is the most fundamental of the three categories. Performances are “encounters to which social actors bring their ideas of how the world is or should be, offer them up to social discussion (…) and then act” (Johnston 2009, 26). Performances are extremely important to gain the interest of various audiences that become aware of the existence of the movement. Performances might be protest marches, demonstrations, press conferences, musical performances or even violent confrontations with counter-movements or authorities. Performances are extremely important for social movements because the understanding of the protest by the broad public is what eventually causes collective action and public discourse.
Artifacts are “the results of performances, the products that become (…) available as the foci and/or the raw materials for subsequent performances” (Johnston 2009, 15). These artifacts are usually items that are created by social actors, constitute sources of meaning, shape actions themselves and often require active complicity of other social actors (cf. Johnston 2009, 15). Artifacts of protest movements might be distinct clothing of all protesters, protest songs, pieces of property from a famous protester or texts and essays.
The ideations of a protest movement are, unlike performances and artifacts, primarily cognitively based. “Participants in social movements bring values, norms, attitudes, beliefs and ideological orientations to the movement performances” (Johnston 2009, 21). Ideations are the common, cognitive ideational content of the movement, the collective social values and norms that the rebellious group shares, taken from social experiences, stored in memory. These cultural values are usually, as already stated, different from the commonsense notion.
Obviously, “performances”, “artifacts” and “ideations” influence one another when a social movement comes into action. For example, performances can be based on artifacts or ideations, artifacts can show ideations and ideations can be expressed via performances or artifacts, as shown in this chart:
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In May 1971, 61% of all Americans regarded the U.S. intervention as a major mistake and advocated the withdrawal of combat troops from Vietnam (Schumann 2000, 128). How can such a broad public opposition emerge?
The first major protest against the war in Vietnam occurred at the University of Michigan in March 1965, shortly after the first bombings of North Vietnam. Faculty members and students attended a series of lectures and discussions about the war, concluding with protest songs and speeches (cf. Schumann 2000, 128). In the following months similar campus protests spread all over the USA (see: Heineman 1993). It is assumed that the broad public was awakened by the college protests because soon public discourse on the war in Vietnam began (Schumann 2000, 128). In 1965, when the first campus protests rose, only 24% off all American adults regarded the U.S. intervention as a mistake. Six years later, in 1971, a majority of Americans demanded the withdrawal from Vietnam (Schumann 2000, 128).
The scholar Howard Schumann argues that the broad opposition to the Vietnam War was not only due to moral indignation. As a reason he suggests “a distinction between moral criticism of the goals and nature of the war and pragmatic disillusion over failure to win it” (Schumann 2000, 127). A Survey by the research center of Michigan, conducted in 1968, states that open protest against the Vietnam War, as open protesting in general, was not regarded well by the great majority of American adults. The poll data shows that about 70% of American adults regard protesters as rather unfavorable. However, more than half of the people regarding the protesters as unfavorable called for unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam (Schumann 2000, 130). This is why Schumann proposes that the college-based protest was almost entirely led by moral criticism whereas the public opposition to the war was based on pragmatic disillusion due to the long and frustrating nature of the war, the lack of clarity about the goals of the war and the high costs in American lives and money.
Benjamin Harrison, from the University of Louisville, argues that “the anti-war movement of the 1960s against the Vietnam war has its roots in the collective experiences of the two world wars and the Great Depression” (Harrison 2000, 23). He claims that the disillusionment over the last wars and the shock of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lead to a re-examination of American values by the generation of the baby boomers that started to rebel against their conservative parent generation. This rebellious spirit of the time helped to produce the antiwar protests of the nineteen-sixties as well as other protest movements (cf. Harrison 2000, 27). The ideologically motivated opposition against the Vietnam War, by the college protesters for instance, can hence be regarded as a product of changes in American demography and culture (social change). So the Vietnam War movement has to be interpreted within the broad sweep of modern U.S. history, rather than narrowly as a response confined to the events in Southeast Asia. The struggle of the American baby boomer generation for their own self-actualization in the second half of the 20th century and the rebellious spirit of the nineteen-sixties fostered the protests against the war in Vietnam.
It is evident that, taking the given information into account, the campus protests against the war can be regarded as an ideologically motivated protest movement since a small group of people that shared ideations started to protest against common U.S. culture. The protest was recognized by the broad public and the protesters were able to share their thinking, raising the interest of the common people in the Vietnam War. The attitudes, values and ideological orientation of the protesters were distinct from the attitudes and orientation of the culture the protest was embedded in, since the movement was seen as a protest movement and evaluated negatively by the broad public. This is why the orientation of the protesters can be called “countercultural”.
However, one has to divide the opposition to the Vietnam War into ideologically motivated dissent and pragmatic disillusionment with the execution of the war. The ideologically motivated protest against the Vietnam War has to be interpreted within modern U.S. history, taking into account changes in American society, the rebellious spirit of the nineteen-sixties and changes in demography. Moral criticism of the Vietnam War triggered what was formally recognized as the anti-Vietnam War movement. The movement was strongly interlinked with other movements of the time, such as the civil rights movement, the gay liberation movement and, predominantly, with the hippie movement and the general peace movement.
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