Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Anne Adams

The anti-war movement reassessed

Drawing lessons from the anti-Viet Nam war movement to build a strong anti-intervention movement today

First Published: Unity, Vol. 8, No. 8, May 24-June 5, 1985.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The Viet Nam War will be remembered as a turning point in U.S. history not only because it was an unprecedented defeat for US imperialism, but also because it gave rise to one of the largest domestic protest movements in US history.

Between 1961, when the U.S. began to increase economic and military aid to south Viet Nam, and 1975, when the national liberation forces captured Saigon abroad and powerful movement to end the war sprang up and swept the entire country. At its height, the anti-war movement involved millions of people from coast to coast.

The Vietnamese people’s fierce resistance, along with the anti-war movement forced President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election and curbed Nixon’s and Kissinger’s aggression. The U.S. military was directly undermined by massive draft resistance, dissension within its ranks and desertion. By early 1969, opinion polls indicated that a majority of Americans opposed the war.

How was this movement built? What were the conditions which gave rise to it? What forces were involved? What tactics were utilized? What form did it take? And most importantly, can this movement be replicated to put an end to U.S. intervention in Central America?

Birth of the anti-war movement

There had been small sporadic protests against U.S. intervention in Viet Nam throughout the early 1960’s by traditional peace and disarmament groups such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Socialist Party.

But it was not until the first national anti-war march on Washington in 1965 that the anti-war movement began to become a mass movement. This mass anti-war movement had its roots in the civil rights struggle which shook U.S. society to its foundations in the 1950’s and 1960’s, exposing the utter hypocrisy of American democracy. It paved the way for many to’ question President Kennedy’s claim that the U.S. was defending “freedom and democracy” in Viet Nam.

African Americans were among the first to understand the unjust nature of the war in Viet Nam. Groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee took early stands against the war and linked the oppression of Black people in the U.S. to what the U.S. was doing in Viet Nam.

The Civil Rights Movement was also the catalyst for the new student movement. Many Northern white students had participated in the freedom rides in the South and had witnessed firsthand the brutal violence of the ruling class against Black people exercising their democratic rights.

It was on April 17, 1965, that 25,000 took part in the first national protest against the war in Washington, D.C., organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The main leaders of SDS were all veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

This first demonstration broke down the old McCarthy era anti-communist policies of SANE, League for Industrial Democracy (LID), the Socialist Party and others, when SDS refused to exclude communists from participating in the march. Despite loud protests, SDS’s non-exclusionary policy remained.

The students broke with the traditional peace leadership’s reluctance to directly criticize the U.S. government. These early struggles set a precedent by building a broad united front against the war while allowing for independent views to be put forth.

A mass movement grows

Throughout 1965, as the Johnson administration began bombing north Viet Nam and the active draft was reinstituted, the anti-war movement grew spontaneously, especially on the college campuses. Teach-ins were held; young men began to burn their draft cards.

Viet Nam was now a national issue. As the Johnson administration increased the number of troops being sent to Viet Nam, splits began to surface within the ruling class. In 1966, at the initiative of Senator William Fulbright, U.S. involvement in Viet Nam was openly questioned in Congress. The growing debate spurred Ohio Congressman Wayne Hayes to advise his colleagues, ”Keep your head down, don’t get tangled up in the row over Viet Nam if you want to come through the ’66 (congressional) elections!”

In the next two years, as U.S. troop strength grew from 23,300 to 485,600 in 1967, the anti-war movement stepped up its activity. Students at the University of Wisconsin threw recruiters from the Dow Chemical Company, which made napalm, off campus. The Reverend Philip Berrigan was arrested for destroying draft records in Baltimore. Five thousand people tried to shut down the Oakland, California, military induction center, fighting the police in the streets.

That fall, 100,000 people marched on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. At a critical point in the march, 10,000 demonstrators, mostly from SDS and the Yippies, broke through a line of federal troops to raise the National Liberation Front (NLF) flag at the Pentagon. The ruling class moved to open violence– police brutally beat and arrested over 700 people. Protesters burned draft cards inches away from pointed ends of bayonets.

1968-72: the movement at its height

After the Tet Offensive in January 1968, there was growing criticism in Congress that the war was “unwinnable” and that the U.S. should get out. Faced with an increasingly unpopular and losing war, President Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election that November. The administration, now on the defensive, put a ceiling on troop commitments and decided that responsibility for the war would be gradually shifted to south Viet Nam.

But the U.S. remained entrenched in Viet Nam. As the draft calls continued and casualties mounted, as war atrocities such as the My Lai massacre were revealed, public sentiment against the war grew. The invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the renewed bombing of north Viet Nam and the mining of Haiphong harbor in 1971 showed many people that while Nixon and Kissinger talked about “withdrawal” “de-escalation” and “peace,” they were really involved in the opposite. The history of the government’s intentions and deceptions was exposed in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

Draft evasion and resistance grew; in the first quarter of 1970, the Selective Service could not fulfill its quota. There was also mass civil disobedience, as in 1971 when 14,000 people in Washington, D.C, were arrested, the largest mass arrest in U.S. history.

Opposition to the war grew within the military. GIs, especially Afro-Americans, refused to fight, turned on officers, and deserted in growing numbers. In 1967, the number of deserters was 47,000; in 1971 there were 89,000.

The year 1968 witnessed a marked escalation in ruling class-sponsored violence against democratic forces in the country, including the anti-war movement. In that year alone, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and students at Columbia University and antiwar protesters at the Chicago Democratic Convention were viciously attacked by riot police.

In 1969 thousands of demonstrators in Washington, DC, were tear-gassed. In the spring of 1970, students at Jackson State and Kent State were killed by police and National Guardsmen. In August 1970, police attacked and killed three people at the anti-war Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles. Leaders of the Black Panther Party were murdered and jailed.

These experiences fueled anti-imperialist and revolutionary consciousness and struggle in the U.S., particularly among Black people and other oppressed nationalities, as seen in the urban rebellions that swept the country in 1967 and 1968, and in the growth of revolutionary Black organizations.

Again, as with the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960’s, the revolutionary Black liberation struggle paved the way for many students and youth in the anti-war movement to move towards revolutionary politics.

Thousands of activists came to understand that the war was not simply a “mistake” but the result of a whole system of exploitation, oppression and aggression. They saw that the enemy was not the Vietnamese people, but the system of imperialism itself. They consciously sided with the Vietnamese people, and other nations and peoples of the third world who were fighting for national liberation and independence–as well as with the struggles of oppressed minorities in the U.S. While there were tendencies that were ultraleft or alienated the masses (such as the Weathermen, who moved toward terrorism), on the whole these new revolutionaries played an important role in the anti-war movement. They educated many more people about the nature of imperialism and the right of self-determination and they built solidarity with the Vietnamese and other third world liberation movements. They boldly challenged the system and struggled against efforts to tie the movement to the tail of the liberals.

Many of these students embraced revolutionary Marxism and saw the struggle of youth in connection with workers and oppressed nationalities. They rejected therevisionist Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which both refused to unite with the revolutionary Black Liberation Movement and which tailed the liberal Democrats in the anti-war movement. These revolutionaries would form a major component of the new communist movement that emerged out of the 1960’s.

As the mass movement developed and different people turned towards revolution, differences emerged within the anti-war movement. Sectors of SDS began to reject the very notion that broad mass mobilizations could affect national policy, while other revolutionary forces wanted more anti-imperialist politics injected into the mobilizations. Meanwhile, the traditional peace and left forces, including the CPUSA and the SWP, stepped up their own organizing.

Two coalitions formed in 1970. The National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC), led in large part by the SWP, opposed raising any non-war related issues or utilizing any tactics other than completely legal mass marches, on the basis that they might “alienate” organized labor. The Trotskyites also opposed support of any peace negotiations as a form of “selling out!”

The People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ) advocated building a multi-issue movement that utilized a variety of tactics. While this group was more progressive than NPAC, it too had failings in addressing and incorporating the issues and demands of oppressed nationality peoples in the U.S.

These coalitions were mainly responsible for the remainder of the large peace marches after 1970. While these broad mobilizations were important throughout the anti-war years in crystallizing mass opposition to the war, they were only one front in the overall battlefield against the war. Independent local activities including teach-ins, draft counseling, etc., reached millions more.

The last years

The National Liberation Front forces in Viet Nam, supported by mass opposition to the war and the growth of the revolutionary movement in the U.S., forced the Nixon administration to withdraw most U.S. ground troops from Viet Nam by August 1972. But the war continued as Nixon shifted the U.S. strategy to “Vietnamization” (using south Vietnamese troops), combined with massive bombings to force a negotiated settlement favorable to the U.S. ) With U.S. ground troops withdrawn, the size of the anti-war movement decreased, but activists continued to press for an end to the war. The movement responded to Nixon’s renewed bombings and mining of Viet Nam’s harbors with mass demonstrations and campus strikes. The PCPJ and other forces continued to pressure the U.S. to sign and implement an agreement to end the war based on the seven-point peace proposal advanced by the National Liberation Front (NLF).


The Viet Nam War, and the opposition movement it gave rise to in the U.S., took place at a particular time in history, a time when there was already broad social upheaval in the country, when national liberation and revolution were spreading around the world, and when U.S. imperialism was just beginning what would become a strategic decline. The conditions and particularities of the situation today are different, and activists concerned with U.S. intervention in the third world cannot expect to duplicate the anti-Viet Nam War movement.

For one thing, the bourgeoisie has summed up that its failure to formally declare war against Viet Nam gave the anti-war movement wide latitude. In the future, open anti-war organizing may be considered treasonous and illegal.

Nonetheless, the anti-Viet Nam War movement provides the left with some lessons that can be useful in building the anti-intervention movement today, helping it avoid the mistakes of the past.

First is the need to closely analyze the objective conditions and tailor our tactics accordingly. No one set of tactics will necessarily be decisive. Letter writing, lobbying, mass demonstrations, teach-ins, union resolutions, civil disobedience and militant confrontations with the state carried out singly or in different combinations can all be appropriate or inappropriate at different times.

If we learned anything from the anti-Viet Nam War movement, it was the profusion of tactics, often developed through local initiative, which ultimately educated, involved and mobilized literally millions of people across the country. There was a groundswell of opposition to the war which unleashed the infinite creativity of people on the local levels. Activists who were in close touch with the concrete local conditions developed the most effective tactics, which were then copied nationally.

Second, large mass mobilizations put on by broad coalitions were important, but they were large and they were broad primarily because tens of millions of people opposed the war. Building a broad anti-war and anti-intervention movement is not simply a matter of engaging in “coalition politics.” Building coalitions, while important, cannot substitute for the hard, and at times, tedious work of building up support in local area after local area and sector after sector of the population. There are no magical “get-rich-quick” schemes to rapidly create a strong anti-intervention movement.

Third, work opposing the war was carried out on many different levels, and even the smallest contradictions among the capitalists were utilized in order to broaden and deepen the united front against the war. In the course of the Viet Nam War, activists learned that only a small handful of capitalists benefited from U.S. intervention, and the vast majority of people in the U.S. did not. As the anti-war movement and the Vietnamese struggle intensified, even sectors of the capitalists came to oppose the war.

Fourth, when different forces come together, struggle over differences should be handled in a non-antagonistic, mutually respectful fashion. The left should struggle to raise the level of the mass struggle in accordance with the objective conditions and strive to unite all who can be united to oppose U.S. aggression.

Fifth, that working in a united front does not preclude, and in fact demands, the exercise of independence and initiative by working class and left forces. This means the building up of an independent force and presence, particularly among the working class, oppressed nationalities and other progressive sectors. Consistent internationalism and support for the right of self-determination must be promoted. The growing numbers of people who opposed the war on an anti-imperialist basis provided a depth and consistency to the antiwar movement especially towards the end.

And lastly, anti-intervention movements should ensure the full participation of oppressed nationalities. The Black Liberation Movement, in particular, played a leading role in the struggle against the system in the 1960’s. It was a powerful anti-war force in its own right, and it also objectively enabled the anti-war movement to move to higher levels of political understanding and struggle. Yet the antiwar movement remained generally segregated, reflecting the overall state of society. Chauvinism within much of the movement’s leadership, especially in the traditional peace and liberal sectors, was a major shortcoming that held back the movement.

Overall, the anti-war movement showed that the masses of people in the U.S. will not support imperialist aggression un-questioningly. The movement imbued a whole generation of people with a sense of the importance of upholding the right of self-determination. The anti-Viet Nam War movement demonstrated that the people of the U.S. are part of the worldwide struggle against imperialism, and that the peace and anti-intervention movement in the U.S., which is today struggling for nuclear disarmament, non-intervention in Central America and an end to South African apartheid, is a potentially even more powerful movement.