AP®︎/College US History
The student movement and the antiwar movement
Read about the student protests against the Cold War in the 1960s.
- The student movement arose to demand free speech on college campuses, but as the US involvement in the Vietnam war expanded, the war became the main target of student-led protests.
- News coverage of the war, which included graphic visual testimonies of the death and destruction in Vietnam, turned US public opinion increasingly against the war.
- Revelations that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied to the American people about the war undermined the public’s trust in government.
Origins of the student movement
The student movement arose at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, when students involved in civil rights activism chafed at the university’s sudden attempt to prevent them from organizing politically on campus. The Free Speech Movement arose to challenge the university’s restrictions on political speech and assembly.
Soon, other student groups were springing up across the nation with similar demands. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) formed at the University of Michigan and issued the Port Huron Statement, which criticized US foreign policy and attacked the Cold War assumptions underlying it.
Some of these student groups became a major part of the New Left, a broad-based political movement that challenged existing forms of authority, while others embraced a counterculture that promoted sexual liberation and unabashed drug use.
Black and white photograph, taken from the stage, showing Swami Satchidananda addressing a crowd of thousands at Woodstock.
Vietnam and the rise of the antiwar movement
As the US involvement in the Vietnam War intensified, so did antiwar sentiment. Especially after 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the US troop presence and bombing campaigns in Vietnam, the war became the focal point for student political activism.
Black and white photograph showing a group of young men and women marching and carrying signs protesting the Vietnam War.
Student groups held protests and demonstrations, burned draft cards, and chanted slogans like “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Massive US spending on the war effort contributed to skyrocketing deficits and deteriorating economic conditions at home, which turned more segments of the American public, including religious groups, civil rights organizations, and eventually even some Vietnam veterans, against the war.
Although antiwar activism constrained the president’s ability to further escalate the war effort after 1965, it also lent credence to the conservative portrayal of a chaotic society desperately in need of “law and order.” In 1968, Richard Nixon successfully campaigned for the presidency on the basis of such rhetoric, which implied a harsh approach to dealing with antiwar activists and other challengers of the status quo.
Once in office, Nixon attempted to quash domestic dissent by reducing the US troop presence in Vietnam and reforming the draft. The elimination of the draft and its replacement with an all-volunteer professional army was a major lasting consequence of the antiwar movement. At the same time, Nixon authorized the FBI and the CIA to expand their surveillance and harassment of antiwar protest groups.
The role of the media in the antiwar movement
The role of the news media in the antiwar movement increased both antiwar sentiment and hostility towards antiwar activists. As investigative journalists began digging into the official version of the US war effort, they began to uncover the truth of conditions in Southeast Asia. Graphic images of death and destruction displayed on the nightly news turned the American public ever more sharply against the war. At the same time, news media coverage was frequently hostile to the activists themselves, and thus contributed to the conservative backlash against the antiwar movement.
In 1971, the New York Times broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, a Department of Defense report that concluded that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had systematically lied to the American people and Congress about the extent of US involvement in the Vietnam war. Together with the Watergate scandal, which involved Nixon’s authorization of the illegal wiretapping of his political enemies, the Pentagon Papers undermined the trust of the American people in its president and government.
What do you think?
Why did US public opinion turn against the Vietnam war?
What are the key arguments of the Port Huron Statement?
Do you think the news media turned more people against the Vietnam war or against the antiwar activists?
What were the long-term consequences of antiwar activism?
Want to join the conversation?
- "The elimination of the draft and its replacement with an all-volunteer professional army was a major lasting consequence of the antiwar movement."
But the draft is still legal? Is it not? What is the point of the Selective Service System if there is no draft? I know that they have no called a draft since Vietnam, but that is not to say that the government couldn't, right? Am I wrong about how this works?(15 votes)
- Yes, the army is now not draft chosen and all volunteer, however for example if WWIII were to break out and it were a ground war the draft would be re instituted and the people who submitted their names under the Selective Service Act would be drawn.(13 votes)
- Any links between the My Lai massacre and these protests?(5 votes)
- Definitely. The My Lai massacre became one of the most infamous incidents throughout the entire war. I believe this event is why men fighting in the Korean War were called "baby killers" by protesters. A certain protest cry, addressing President Johnson, said, "Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" The very idea that children were being killed by US soldiers horrified and angered many students. I think we can safely conclude that anti-war activism was only made fiercer following the massacre.(9 votes)
- What was Woodstock(4 votes)
- Woodstock was a big music festival back in 1969 held in upstate New York. It was basically one huge rock n roll concert that lasted 3 days and attracted lots of hippies. The point of it was '3 days of peace, love, and music', as a statement of counterculture.(10 votes)
- Why did US public opinion turn against the Vietnam war? can anyone guess?(1 vote)
- The US public opinion turned against the Vietnam war because of several reasons. First of all, the war was largely televised. In 1965, when the American public was shown another side to the Vietnam War, people started asking questions and raising eyebrows. Like @bj22100 said the uncensored images did contribute to the shift of the American public. Secondly, the antiwar movement. Protests led by students and hippies raised awareness about the atrocities of the Vietnam war. Furthermore, the Kent State shootings in May 1970. Four students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard while attending a protest after the events in Cambodia. This event helped shift American sentiment about both the Vietnam War and the Anti-war movement. Lastly, the drafting of college students (and men all over America) into the military. By 1966 if students scored below a certain point, they would be immediately pulled out of college. This is when the Anti-war movement shifted from a movement of ETHICS to a movement of SELF-PRESERVATION. Once the general public had loved ones and themselves being directly affected by the Vietnam war, opinions changed.
Sorry if this is a bit too lengthy (not to mention two years late!)
hope this helped :)(7 votes)
- Is there any link between Hippies and Socialism?
Is the 60s the beginning of a more left leaning academia or was it before?(2 votes)
- Hippies were a movement independent of socialism although they both didn't like the established government. Though before in history academia had been lift leaning, this were a huge resurgence of that fact since the 1950s and the parents of the 60s generation were incredibly reserved.(4 votes)
- Did the protesting work? Did any USA officials stop it (or at least try?)?(2 votes)
- Yes, the government couldn't put up with the protests any longer. Although people say we lost the war, we won militaristically and lost politicaly. (This means that we were winning the war, but the government ordered an evacuation. So the Viet Cong won the war.)(3 votes)
- In paragraph 5, what is the difference between enlisting and drafting?(1 vote)
- From the author:Good question! "Enlistment" is when a person signs up for military service by choice. If you or I decided today that we would like to serve in a branch of the armed forces, we would go to a recruiting station and enlist.
Drafting is when a government forces individuals to serve in the military. In the US context, men between the ages of 18 and 25 could be forced to serve for a period of several years (both in wartime and peacetime) or face criminal charges. This system was in place from 1940 to 1973, and was mostly phased out at the end of the Vietnam War due to the unpopularity of the draft system.
Today, American men must register for 'Selective Service' (being selected for military service) at age 18, in the event that another draft takes place, but since the 1970s all American service members have volunteered for duty.(4 votes)
- Were the Pentagon Papers completely accurate? Or were they bias?(2 votes)
- " At the same time, Nixon authorized the FBI and the CIA to expand their surveillance and harassment of antiwar protest groups." Why did Nixon expand the harassment of the protest groups?(2 votes)
- Richard Nixon was mentally ill. He saw people who disagreed with him as enemies, and saw the government resources under his control (such as the CIA and FBI) as instruments for punishing them.(1 vote)
- Why did student movements grow dramatically in the USA in the 1960s?(2 votes)