By the time of the Tet Offensive, the antiwar movement in the United States had been in full swing for quite some time. The 1960s in the United States were already a quasi-revolutionary period: the civil rights movement had flourished under Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders, and the post–World War II “baby boom” had produced an especially large youth generation, who thanks to postwar prosperity were attending college in large numbers. Not surprisingly, a large student protest movement emerged as U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew.
In 1959, students had founded the semi-socialist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Many students at universities across the country held “teach-in” rallies, which quickly transformed into protest marches as the war progressed. By 1965, after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the SDS began to organize protest rallies against the Vietnam draft, and some students publicly burned their draft cards. Thousands of young draft dodgers fled to Canada and other countries to escape military service.
In many respects, the student antiwar movement reflected growing disillusionment among young Americans about politics and society as a whole. Influenced by the writers of the rebellious Beat Generation of the 1950s, young people in the United States expressed frustration about racism, gender issues, consumerism, and authority in general. Many voices in this emergent counterculture of the mid- to late 1960s challenged conventional social norms by embracing sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll music.
These hippies and so-called flower children won the support of a surprising number of academics, including the sociologist Alfred Kinsey, who intellectualized the sexual revolution. The counterculture movement reached its peak in August 1969, when about 400,000 people descended on the Woodstock Music and Art Festival at a farm in upstate New York. With its combination of rock music and radical hippie politics, drug culture and free love, Woodstock became a symbol of the antiwar movement and an expression of the American youth counterculture of the 1960s in general.
Although the student and hippie movements were the most visible antiwar efforts, concern about Vietnam was certainly not limited to college campuses. As early as 1965, a Gallup Poll showed the war to be the number-one national issue among the American public in general. Prominent Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright added fuel to the fire when he published his antiwar and anti-Johnson book The Arrogance of Power in 1966. He also chaired a series of nationally televised hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966, even calling in George F. Kennan, who originated the concept of containment, to voice opposition to the war.
In 1967, in an attempt to stem the growing protest movements, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the CIA to investigate prominent antiwar activists, even though the CIA could legally spy only on foreigners. In addition, Johnson ordered the FBI to use its counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, to monitor activists as well. Loyal FBI agents assigned to COINTELPRO arrested many protesters without legal cause or on phony conspiracy charges. Johnson’s illegal use of these government security agencies against U.S. citizens angered many and only worsened public discontentment about the war.
As the war dragged on, antiwar marches and protests intensified and at times became violent. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, thousands of city police officers attacked antiwar protesters gathered outside the convention hall with billy clubs and tear gas. The most infamous and tragic incident occurred in early May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, where National Guard troops called in to calm the scene ended up firing on a crowd, killing four students. The killings touched off protests at hundreds of college campuses across the United States; many of these also turned violent, and two more students were killed in mid-May at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Inevitably, an anti-antiwar movement developed as pro-war “hawks” tried to counter the antiwar “doves.” In the face of the growing din of antiwar activists, President Richard M. Nixon claimed in a November 1969 speech that antiwar protesters constituted merely a small but vocal minority that was attempting to drown out the “silent majority” of Americans who did not harbor such “fervent” antiwar sentiments.
In May 1970, just days after the Kent State shootings, a group of construction workers in New York City broke up a student antiwar demonstration, beating up a number of students and storming City Hall. Not long after this Hard Hat Riot, another rally in the city drew 100,000 people to protest against the students, whom they saw as wealthy, spoiled brats who were busy protesting while working-class, non–college educated young Americans were dying in Vietnam.
The enormous opposition that the Vietnam War provoked was virtually unprecedented in U.S. history and created an antiwar subculture whose ideology has continued to have a profound impact on American society up to the present day. The antiwar movement and corresponding anti-antiwar movement also exposed class tensions within the United States. Ironically, it was the relatively well-to-do young Americans of the student protest movements who were most likely to receive draft deferments from the government. Some went to great lengths to avoid the draft, while those who were drafted could often parlay typing skills or a few business courses into safe assignments, doing administrative tasks away from the front lines. While relatively well-off college students protested the war stateside, young people from lower-class families made up the vast majority of the soldiers who actually fought and died in Vietnam. In this respect, the war was in many ways a working-class war fought by those from poorer, less-educated backgrounds.