For more than 40 years, the Vietnam War has been among the most potent reference points in American politics, one that we routinely use to argue for the folly or wisdom of a particular policy. George H.W. Bush famously declared that the 1991 Persian Gulf War would “not be another Vietnam,” and each succeeding president—Bill Clinton in the Balkans, George W. Bush in Iraq, Obama in Afghanistan—has had to confront criticism that they were repeating Vietnam’s errors. To call something “another Vietnam” is to condemn it as ill-advised, hubristic, perhaps immoral, and likely to unnecessarily endanger American lives.
Alongside the remembrance of the flawed policymaking of the Vietnam era, however, stand memories of the anti-war movement. This remembrance is dominated by images of mass protest: marches in the streets, a young woman putting a flower in a National Guardsman’s rifle barrel. These recollections conjure the notion of a peaceful, morally principled, populist uprising that forced the nation’s leaders to change course. It is thus not surprising that Vietnam-era protests have been a go-to comparison in the current moment. Noting that attendance at the Women’s March was higher than any anti-Vietnam protest in the 1960s suggests the degree of discontent with the Trump administration. But Vietnam is more than simply a yardstick by which to measure a movement. To compare the Trump resistance to the anti-Vietnam efforts is also to make an implicit moral claim about the righteousness of the protest and the injustice of what is being protested. It also makes an argument about the potential for change.
Historical analogies are always imperfect, and they can rarely withstand scrupulous attention to the specific contingencies of each historical moment. But nuanced comparisons can be instructive, and the desire to find an echo in a particular historical period is often itself revelatory. In this sense, we can learn something about the present in the broader history of the anti-war movement.
One important lesson, as we look back at the resistance to the war in Vietnam, is that the marches were not the movement. Despite their dominance in American public memory, marches were a component of an already-extant anti-war effort, not the sum total of it, a point that longtime anti-war activist Todd Gitlin recently made in the New York Times. The first major anti-war march in 1965 was organized by Students for a Democratic Society, which had released its Port Huron Statement in 1962 and had been involved for three years in peace actions and anti-nuclear activism. The recent marches likewise do not represent the arrival of a new group of activists. They have brought together both those newly inspired to protest and those who have long-standing ties to social-justice movements, including efforts to achieve women’s rights, a living wage, immigrant rights, universal health care, and racial justice. Yet as the Times points out, what remains unclear, for the moment at least, is whether and how those who marched might be encouraged to participate in a sustained, broader movement and supported as they do so.
By the late 1960s, marches had become a central and influential aspect of the anti-war movement, but they were never the only front on which activists fought. There was activism against corporations and universities that provided research and materiel in support of the war effort and opposition to military recruitment. There were teach-ins and draft resistance. On several campuses, students outraged over the use of napalm targeted its manufacturer, Dow Chemical, by demanding that their institutions sell Dow stock, end research collaborations with the corporation, and bar it from recruiting on campus. Elsewhere, students marched and staged sit-ins against ROTC programs; at Harvard, students successfully pressured the faculty to end the program.
Activism happened off campuses as well. The Quakers sold booklets that taught potential draftees how to gain conscientious objector status, and a Chicano group produced a booklet that listed the various draft categories that would make one eligible for a deferment with instructions on how they could be obtained. Around the country, the war’s opponents counseled draftees on how they could avoid service, and inside the military a similar resistance movement grew. And the movement was global. An organization in Toronto, for example, offered a “Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada” to assist those fleeing the draft. The dominance of anti-war marches overshadows these other forms of activism, ones that often directly assisted the populations in the United States most vulnerable to the war’s violence.
In the current moment, effective protest must encompass a similarly diverse set of efforts, and there are important resonances that suggest what sort of efforts might deserve support. Efforts like “Grab Your Wallet” and #DeleteUber have shown that boycotts remain effective in pressuring organizations that support the Trump administration and its agenda. The various “alt” Twitter accounts that federal employees are surreptitiously managing, and the news last week that many career diplomats had sent a dissent cable to the State Department, illustrate the enduring power of informal and formal protest within institutions. Likewise, the attorneys and translators who descended on airports in the wake of the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration reveal the continued importance of efforts at assisting the populations disproportionately affected by troubling policies.
One more pitfall of relying on the popular memory of anti-Vietnam marches, as opposed to its more complicated history, is that doing so can obscure the reality that the anti-war movement was diverse, diffuse, and often contentious. The movement, that is, was not simply protesters locking arms as they marched, singing protest songs, or practicing free love. Rather, it included everyone from isolationist conservatives to the Black Panther Party, Quakers to Trotskyist yippies, Catholic nuns to hippies, and this constellation of organizations and individuals could often agree on little more than their desire to see the war end. Some activists saw the Vietnam War as uniquely misguided while others were pacifists who opposed any military intervention. Some believed the war was a tragic affront to American values while others hoped opposing it would create an opportunity to radically remake what they saw as a decadent, declining culture. For some, the war was the wrong way to achieve the United States’ Cold War objectives; for others, it was another instance of a long history of imperialism defined by the persecution and exploitation of people of color both at home and abroad. There were also deep divisions over what tactics protesters should embrace: Was civil disobedience effective? Were largely symbolic actions, like burning draft cards, worthwhile? Was violence ever ethical?
The movement also sometimes struggled to be truly intersectional. Some leaders in the black American freedom struggle, for example, feared that speaking too forcefully against the war might endanger support for civil rights among the public, Congress, and the Johnson administration. Some working-class Americans, even if they opposed the war, looked askance at what they saw as a movement largely populated by people whose class privilege insulated them from the war’s violence. This history reveals the challenges of building a movement that is truly inclusive, and the challenges and successes of the 1960s warrant close study in 2017.
Despite their dominance in American’s popular remembrance of the war, marches and protests were hardly the entirety of opposition to the Vietnam War. This does not mean that marches are not a crucial component of activism, or that individuals should not turn out in support of causes that matter to them. Marches raise visibility around issues, put pressure on political decision-makers, and galvanize support for the cause. Certainly this was true in the Vietnam era. To focus only on these moments as the relevant comparisons to contemporary activism, however, is shortsighted. It threatens to obscure the realities of the anti-Vietnam War movement in all of its diversity and complexity, realities that may hold important lessons for contemporary social protest efforts.