The Vietnam Protest Movement began slowly, grounded in the Cold War scare itself. The protesters believed the war was wrong and they thought that the United States shouldn’t be involved. They were countered by those who supported the war and saw the protesters as unruly and disruptive. It goes without saying that to understand the protest movement in the United States, one must understand the events of the war. This timeline is an attempt to integrate the two.
(Note: The timeline of events is in plain text, the protest timeline is in quotes. Terms you should know are in bold.)
Background: In World War II, Nazi Germany invaded France, leaving French colonies to fend for themselves. Subsequently, Japan occupied French Indochina, including Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The Viet Minh, a communist led group of Vietnamese, emerged as an expression of Vietnamese nationalism. After Japan’s surrender, the Viet Minh continued as the controlling group in Vietnam.
September 1945: Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, declares the independence of the Vietnamese people, renaming the country the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).
France doesn’t want to grant the country independence and attempts to regain control. The United States provides monetary and weaponry aid to the French.
April 1954: Geneva Peace Conference – Representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, France, and Great Britain come together to try to resolve several problems related to Asia, especially the conflict in Vietnam.
May 1954: The war ends at Dien Bien Phu with the defeat of the French.
July 1954: The Geneva Agreements are signed. France loses control of Indochina.
Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia are granted their independence, but Vietnam is divided at the 17th parallel. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam will control the North and the French will retain control of the South pending elections within two years to choose a president and reunite the country.
The non communist government of South Vietnam and the United States refuse to sign, but the US does agree to abide by the agreement.
1956: Reunification elections are anticipated, but the US government fears the results. Consequently, the US commits to the establishment and support of the Republic of Vietnam (known as South Vietnam.) The country will be led by Ngo Dinh Diem. He is an anti communist with few Vietnamese supporters, and needs the support of the US to stay in power.
Late 1950s: The communist led force known as the Viet Cong challenges the authority of the Diem government. The Viet Cong begins to gain support in rural areas of the South. They are supported by Ho Chi Minh’s government, and supplies are provided through a system of paths that lead through the South known as the Ho Chi Minh trail.
1960s: Protest groups form to speak against the use of nuclear weapons. They eventually switch their focus from nuclear issues to the war in Vietnam.
1961: The US supported forces begin to lose control. President Kennedy increases the number of advisers from 600 in 1960 to 16,000 in 1963. Still, he rejects providing direct US military support.
Diem loses support among the Buddhist community. He suppresses the Buddhist protests in Saigon, Hue, and other Buddhist led cities.
The US believes new leadership is needed in South Vietnam. General Duong Van Minh and supporters overthrow the Diem Government.
1962: The Selective Service or “draft” is implemented by the US government.
1962: Bob Dylan debuts a partially written “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Greenwich Village, telling the audience,
“This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write no protest songs.”
“Blowin’ in the Wind” goes on to become possibly the most famous protest song ever, an iconic part of the Vietnam era. Rolling Stone magazine ranks “Blowin’ in the Wind” number fourteen on its list of the top 500 songs of all time.
November 1963: Diem is assassinated.
1963: Madame Nhu, a representative of the South Vietnamese Diem government, tours the US, dividing students on college campuses into two camps — pro war and anti war.
Students at the Universities of Michigan and Chicago engage in silent anti war picketing. Protests at Harvard and Princeton are more boisterous.
Students at Fordham and Georgetown are pro war, cheering Madame Nhu and labelling her a “fighting lady.”
November 22, 1963: President Kennedy is assassinated. Shifting gears, President Johnson decides on a military, not an advisory, focus in Vietnam. He approves a covert expansion of military force.
January 1964: Johnson supports another military coup, elevating General Nguyen Khanh to power.
August 2, 1964: Three North Vietnamese patrol boats fire on the US destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, increasing American support for the war effort in Vietnam. The Maddox returns fire, and with the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga sinks one of the patrol boats and damages the other two.
Johnson sends an official warning to North Vietnam, and deploys another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy, to assist the Maddox in its patrols of the Gulf.
August 4, 1964: The US suspects the North Vietnamese of another unprovoked attack. Johnson responds with a retaliatory strike against North Vietnam.
August 7, 1964: The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gives President Johnson full authority to take any necessary measures against threats in Vietnam and commits the United States to the protection of the people of South Vietnam.
The escalation of the war now has popular approval. President Johnson can use any military force that he sees fit to keep North Vietnam and the Viet Cong from taking control of the South.
Late 1964: The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) meet. approving a proposal for an anti-war march and advocating that the US get out of the Vietnam War.
Many peace groups — SANE, Student Peace Union, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Turn Towards Peace, and several others — refuse to participate in the SDS march, citing the failure of the SDS platform to propose alternative policies in Vietnam. Groups also criticize the SDS for allowing communist organizations to participate in their march. Given the Cold War atmosphere and pervasive anti-communist fears in the US, the non socialist protest groups fear they will lose credibility if they march alongside communist groups.
Start of 1965: A dramatic escalation of bombing in Vietnam leads to our first direct military engagement in Indochina.
1965: Herbert Aptheker, leader in the American Communist Party, and SDS member Tom Hayden travel to Hanoi. After this trip, many other members of the protest movement follow suit, including Jane Fonda.
January 9, 1965: A civilian group led by Premier Troung Van Huong overthrows the military government in South Vietnam.
January 27, 1965: General Nguyen Khanh, supported by South Vietnam’s military, overthrows the new government. The US government worries about the stability of the South Vietnamese government.
February 7, 1965: The Viet Cong dynamite the American barracks at Pleiku and bomb a nearby US airbase. Within 10 hours, the Americans begin a massive bombing campaign in the North.
February 19, 1965: A 3rd coup takes place in South Vietnam. The Khanh government is toppled in favor of the civilian government of Dr. Phan Huy Quat.
March 2, 1965: The US launches Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive bombing campaign. The increase in fire power requires an increase in troops.
March 24-25, 1965: The University of Michigan holds the first of many “teach-ins.” Over 3,000 students and faculty meet to participate in lectures, debates, and discussions about American involvement in the war.
The next day Columbia University stages a teach-in with 2,500 participants.
By the end of the 1964-1965 school year over 120 schools hold similar events.
April 1965: President Johnson approves an increase of 18,000 to 20,000 troops.
April 17, 1965: Twenty thousand people — mostly students — gather at the Washington Monument for the SDS march down the Washington Mall. Communist Party members march under their official banner. Judy Collins sings Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.”
SDS president James Potter makes the closing speech.
. . . the war “has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy. . . . What kind of system allowed good men to work such evil? We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.”
The march is a turning point whereby priorities switch from a general interest in nuclear weaponry and an end to the Cold War to the more specific purpose of ending the war in Vietnam.
May 21-23, 1965: The University of California at Berkeley holds the largest teach-in to date with more than 30,000 participants.
June 1965: US military force reaches 74,000 troops.
October 1965: Protest groups arrange the first broad based protest called The International Days of Protest with nearly 100,000 participants from 80 cities and several nations. There are multiple arrests.
In New York City, 22 year old David Miller burns his draft card. FBI officials retrieve the remains of the card and later use it as evidence to send Miller to prison for 2 years.
November 1965: Pacifist groups support draft burning in NYC.
November 27, 1965: Thirty thousand people join in a march sponsored by SANE. The purpose of the march is to urge the governments of both the United States and North Vietnam to engage in a cease fire and a bombing halt. The group circles the White House and then proceeds to the Washington Monument for speeches and songs. Speakers include Dr. Benjamin Spock, Coretta Scott King, and SDS president Carl Oglesby. Oglesby’s rant against liberals gains the most applause. He asserts:
The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal . . . We have become a nation of young, bright-eyed, hard-hearted, slim-waisted, bullet-headed make out artists, a nation — may I say it ? — of beardless liberals.
After the march, the radical activists publicly attack the tactics of liberal groups.
December 24, 1965: President Johnson orders a Christmas time bombing halt. The pause remains in effect until January 31, 1966.
End of 1965: US claims a total of 148,300 troops in Vietnam.
1966: Protest groups organize marches against the war, the draft, and the use of Napalm.
January 28 – February 18, 1966: Senator William Fulbright (D-Ark.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, begins nationally televised hearings on the war. Lieutenant James Gavin and Ambassador George Kennan of “containment” fame challenge the justifications for the war. Thus, the hearings mark a turning point because they show that to oppose the war doesn’t automatically mean that one is a bad American.
February 5, 1966: Vietnam War veterans begin to participate in the anti war movement when over 100 vets march to the White House and return their service medals and discharge papers in protest.
February 23, 1966: A group of 4,000 demonstrate outside New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel where an awards ceremony is being held honoring President Johnson’s efforts for peace. A pacifist, Jim Peck, confronts the president as he stands to accept his award, shouting “Mr. President, Peace in Vietnam.” Peck is quickly escorted out but this begins a phase whereby demonstrators confront the president directly.
March 1966: Public demonstrations in Hue, Danang, and Saigon, led by Buddhist monks, fuel public backlash against the war. Participants include students and labor activists denouncing the American presence in South Vietnam. Americans wonder why the United States tries to help people who don’t want their help.
December 1966: US troops increase to a total of 189,000. The Viet Cong increase their troop power in South Vietnam to 282,000.
January 1967: President Johnson increases the ceiling on the number of troops to 525,000.
April 4, 1967: Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speaks against the war at Riverside Church in NYC.
Late 1967: On several occasions throughout the year, protest groups arrange draft card burnings and turn-ins.
October 16: National Draft Card turn-in
October 16-20: Oakland Stop the Draft week
December 4: National Draft Card turn-in
December 4-8: New York Stop the Draft week.
1967: Arlo Guthrie records “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Guthrie’s call to resist the draft and end the war in Vietnam is unusual in two respects: its great length (18 minutes) and the fact that it is mostly a spoken, very funny monologue. For some radio stations, it is a Thanksgiving tradition to play “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” It’s certainly a Thanksgiving tradition in the Wolfe household.
1968: Protest groups continue their support for draft resistance.
April 3: National Draft Card turn-in
May 17: Raid on Catonsville, MD, draft board office
November 14: National Draft Card turn-in
January 30, 1968: The Tet Offensive shows the American public that the war is not proceeding as they believed. Many more Americans begin to doubt the administration’s war policy.
January 31, 1968: During a ceasefire imposed by the North Vietnamese for the Tet Holiday, the Viet Cong attack several significant urban centers. In total, they attack 44 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, and 5 major South Vietnamese cities. They also attack the US embassy in Saigon.
Although the US soon regains control, the American people see the attacks as a sign of North Vietnamese strength.
March 16, 1968: The My Lai Massacre. Read all about it here.
March 31, 1968: In a public address, President Johnson speaks of renewing peace talks and halting the bombing north of the 20th parallel. He announces that will not accept a presidential nomination in 1968.
The administration realizes that the US will not achieve victory in a limited war. It also accepts that the American public will not accept an open-ended military commitment in Vietnam.
Leaders in the anti war movement go on the offensive, convincing the American public that President Johnson’s speech did not end the war.
April 4, 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. The country erupts in violence. Seventy-five thousand federal troops and guardsmen join with local police to contain violence in 10 cities. In total, there are 711 recorded fires, 46 deaths, and 200,000 arrests.
June 5, 1968: Robert F. Kennedy wins the California primary, but is assassinated as he is giving his victory speech.
August 1968: The Democratic National Convention is held in Chicago, IL. Mayor Daley refuses to issue demonstration permits and promises a swift end to any illegal demonstrations.
August 23, 1968: Demonstrations begin when members of a protest group unveil their candidate, a pig, demanding that he have the same rights as other candidates. The police quickly arrest the leader of the demonstration.
August 24, 1968: A group of women picket the convention “to see what the police reaction is going to be.” The police don’t attempt to stop the picketers.
In the evening, Allen Ginsberg holds another peaceful protest in Lincoln Park. At the 11:00 PM curfew, police escort the few protesters who refuse to leave out of the park. People disperse chanting “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Daley right over” and threatening violence.
August 25, 1968: Violence erupts after the police stop a rock concert.
August 26, 1968: Violence continues. After leader Tom Hayden is arrested, several people climb the Civil War memorial and decorate it with NLF (National Liberation Front — Viet Cong) flags. Police force the demonstrators off the statue and break one person’s arm.
That same evening in Lincoln Park, protesters throw rocks at police cars breaking the windows. The police respond by clubbing offenders and non-offenders alike. Hayden is arrested again and jailed.
During the remaining days of the convention, violence escalates. After the initial upsurge. police counter any attempts made by protesters to return to non-violent action. After Hubert Humphrey secures the Democratic nomination, McCarthy supporters and workers join the demonstrations. The protests grow more violent.
Late 1968: After the 1968 Democratic National Convention, many members of anti war groups feel they’ve lost the rationale for their protests. Some think that the war is ending.
1969: President Nixon realizes that the war in Vietnam must end. He begins a bombing campaign in Cambodia.
Start of 1969: The number of US troops in Vietnam reaches 541,000, but soon Nixon begins a slow withdrawal.
January 19, 1969: The protest group Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam) attempts to regain power by organizing a “counter inaugural” protest against Nixon’s Inauguration. Only 10,000 demonstrate, but methods are more violent than the old tactics used in peaceful demonstrations.
January 20, 1969: Violent protesters gather along Nixon’s parade route throwing sticks, stones, and smoke bombs. On Nixon’s orders, the police arrest 88 people.
Following the failure to rally a large crowd and the outbreak of violence within the protest, leaders of Mobe decide to suspend further activity.
Other groups continue to protest:
SWP (Socialist Workers Party) organizes a GI-Civilian demonstration. CALCAV (Clergy and Laymen concerned about Vietnam) organize a demonstration in Washington; they also meet with Henry Kissinger in the White House. Two weeks after the Kissinger meeting, they announce that they are ending their moratorium on criticism of President Nixon.
Several pacifist groups become more prominent.
March 29, 1969: The Justice Department arrests 8 activists who participated in the demonstrations in Chicago, charging them with conspiracy and traveling across state lines to incite riot. They become known as the Chicago Eight.
The Nixon Administration’s Operation Minaret, illegally wiretaps suspected left wing organizers.
April 1969: Four days of protest are planned for Easter weekend. Tactics include leafleting, teach-ins, parades, and festivals.
Interfaith religious groups hold a 17 hour vigil at the Philadelphia draft boards on Good Friday. They read the names of 33,000 Americans killed in Vietnam.
On Easter Sunday protest groups symbolically crucify 4 men and plant the crosses in front of the White House.
June 1969: Nixon announces the withdrawal of 25,000 troops.
July 1969: Nixon imposes a “go-for-broke” strategy in Vietnam, designed to end the war either by negotiation or force.
September 1969: Nixon withdraws another 35,000 men.
November 13, 1969: The demonstration known as the March Against Death begins. Protesters march single file through Washington, each stopping in front of the White House and voicing the name of an American soldier killed in Vietnam or a Vietnamese village destroyed by the war. The march lasts 40 hours and 45,000 people participate. At the end of their march, demonstrators deposit their name placards into one of 12 coffins placed at the foot of the capitol.
December 1969: Nixon announces the withdrawal of 50,000 troops.
1970: The student movement regains momentum. A Gallup poll shows that 69% of students considered themselves doves, twice as many as in 1967.
Meanwhile, an emerging violent radical protest group, The Weathermen, seeks to change the protest movement.
March 1970: Nixon announces another withdrawal of 150,000 troops in an effort to stop protest rallies to end the war. There is no progress at the Paris Peace talks.
April 1970: President Nixon announces that he plans to invade Cambodia. The student movement explodes. Activists begin demonstrations in New York and Philadelphia.
May 2, 1970: Students attending a Black Panther support rally at Yale University propose a national student strike to demand immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Within days, strikes spread to over 100 schools.
University of Maryland students launch a “hit and run” attack on their ROTC building. Princeton students firebomb a local armory.
May 4, 1970: At Kent State, students battle with local police for nearly three hours. A curfew is put in place. The ROTC building on campus is set on fire, and students hinder firefighters by slicing their hoses and throwing rocks. Ohio’s governor calls in the National Guard. Guardsmen fire into the crowd, killing 4 and injuring 13.
The Kent State killings spur massive protests with 1.5 million students walking out of classes across the country, effectively shutting down a fifth of college campuses.
May 14, 1970: The Mississippi National Guard attacks a dormitory at Jackson State killing 2 students. Peaceful protests on campus increase; only 4% turn violent.
The Kent State and Jackson State killings provide a new rallying point for activists. The American Civil Liberties Union begins to campaign for the immediate withdrawal of troops.
1970: Bob Dylan says Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam” is “the greatest protest song ever written.” The lyrics are simple; the story is powerfully sad.
1971: Protests continue, but lose their luster.
January 31 – February 2, 1971: Vietnam Veterans Against the War hold their Winter Soldiers Investigation on American war crimes in Vietnam. The testimonies are read into the Congressional Record but garner little attention.
March 1, 1971: A Weatherman group detonates a bomb in the Men’s Room of the US Capitol building.
April 24, 1971: A large protest is held in Washington — estimates range from 250,000 – 500,000 people.
Spring 1972: The North Vietnamese launch the first major offensive since Tet.
Late 1971 – 1972: The protest movement becomes retaliatory in nature.
December 1972: Known as the Christmas bombing, the US military drops more than 36,000 tons of bombs in 12 days, exceeding the total dropped from 1969-1971.
December 1972: A massive protest is held to oppose the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong.
End of 1972: American and North Vietnamese negotiators reach an agreement in Paris. The US forces the agreement on the South.
January 20, 1973: Twenty thousand people attend a “Plea for Peace” concert at Washington Cathedral on the occasion of Nixon’s second inaugural.
January 21, 1973: Members of the VVAW (Vietnam Vets Against the War) march from Arlington National Cemetery to the Lincoln Memorial; 85,000 people attend the afternoon demonstration.
January 27, 1973: A ceasefire is signed.
January 27, 1973: The Paris Peace Accords are signed. Most members of the anti war movement disband. Local chapters of protest groups close their doors.
1975: The North Vietnamese launch an attack on South Vietnam effectively reunifying the government under communist control.
Photograph by Washington Area Spark