Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement
New York: Routledge, 2012
Paperback. xii+193 p. ISBN 978-0415800846. $26.95
Reviewed by Stephen A. Bourque
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Simon Hall’s Rethinking the Anti-War Movement is a British historian’s take on a divisive time in American history that produced an ideological divide that still exists in the American psyche and political establishment. For those enrolled in colleges and universities, understanding this period can be difficult. It is especially challenging for students studying under the tutelage of academic professors carrying emotional and intellectual baggage from this era. For example, when I began teaching in 1997 at a university in California, I discovered that the faculty had two separate teaching schedules. One group taught on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the other on Tuesday and Thursday. This was not, as I initially assumed, simply a matter of personal preference and convenience, but a result of profound disagreements that extended back to the late 1960s. Heated faculty debates over the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, feminism, and other cultural issues, created what would become a decades-long ideological rift with sores that never completely healed. Thirty-five years later these wounds continued to fester as this generation of accomplished scholars entered the twilight of their careers and moved into retirement. Those of us who were baby boomers remember those discussions and arguments conducted at school or at home, often words turned violent and the scars remained for many years.
American historians and contemporary authors, a product of these social and ideological brawls, find it difficult to address these issues with reasonable balance.(1) This debate continues in current American society: as recently as the 2004 presidential election, Democratic nominee John Kerry was forced to defend his role as a naval officer in South Vietnam and his subsequent involvement with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Many American politicians over the last two decades – to include, William J. Clinton, George W. Bush, Richard B. Cheney, and a host of lesser candidates – have been forced by media reporters and opposition candidates to spell out what they did, and why, during the Vietnam War. The immediate, continuous, and changing nature of information dissemination has ensured these old ideological struggles remain loosely connected to modern American political society. Despite studies abroad at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Yale University, Hall is unencumbered by the political and social baggage, still present in American academic circles, and he weaves through this dramatic period of protest, emphasizing the events, personalities, and outcomes relevant to understanding modern America. As Hall eloquently says it best, “…the antiwar movement’s ability to provoke both anger and inspiration among Americans, long after the fall of Saigon, serves as a sobering reminder of the powerful hold that the past exerts over the present” .
The author designed the book as a simple, well-organized description of the diverse movement’s key events and personalities. His first chapter explains its context and origin. As most students of American history realize, anti-war sentiment did not begin with opposition to involvement in Vietnam. The Hartford Convention of 1814, Henry David Thoreau’s opposition to the Mexican War, and the various peace movements resulting from the First World War are some obvious examples. With the hype of the “Greatest Generation” still strong, most Americans would be surprised to discover that the government imprisoned more than 6,000 young men for failure to cooperate with draft agencies during the Second World War. Some of the Vietnam era resistance leaders learned the protest trade from their opposition to atomic weapons and as members of the developing civil rights movement. As President Lyndon B. Johnson began to increase the military’s force in Southeast Asia, the foundation for political resistance was already established.
The next two chapters describe some of the movement’s events and personalities. Hall presents the main protest events chronologically from 1965 until early 1971. He explains why each protest happened, what happened, and the outcomes of said protests. In addition to summarizing each year, the author gives the most important events – such as the 1967 march on the Pentagon, the Chicago race riots in 1968, and the Kent State shooting of student protesters in 1970 – extended coverage. Personalities are less handily organized. Hall lists twelve influential people of the period, in no particular order, offered as a sample of the many diverse faces of the most influential participants. A fourth chapter links the anti-war organizations to the other currents sweeping the United States at the time, including the civil and equal rights movements, the New Left, and the quest for gay liberation. The author concludes this chapter by linking the American anti-war movement with anti-war organizations elsewhere in the world.
Hall’s final two chapters evaluate the movement’s strengths and weaknesses and evaluate its legacy. Diversity and creativity, according to the author, reflect what is best about those who participated in this social struggle. However, he also points out that the movement was torn by factionalism, its goals and agenda were often out of touch with mainstream politics, and it always had – and never lost – the taint of it being anti-American. Many veterans of the war have never forgiven actress Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam, for example. It is difficult to evaluate the extent this movement actually had on ending the war. Certainly, it contributed to President Johnson’s decision not to run for another term in 1968 and helped focus President Richard M. Nixon on developing a way out of the war before his 1972 re-election campaign. In addition, veterans of this movement continued their path of activism for many years and transferred their efforts to other causes that continued well into the beginning of this century. Finally, as Hall points out, the “Vietnam Syndrome” affected American military and foreign affairs well into the 1990s, as witnessed by the positive treatment of veterans of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. The author’s analysis is accurate and helpful.
However, from this reviewer’s perspective, Professor Hall has missed two important aspects of the movement: music and the All-Volunteer Army. As any veteran of this era remembers, music was an integral part of the movement. For example, he describes the appearance of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and the group Peter, Paul and Mary, at the November 1969 rally in Washington, DC, as “entertainment” . The only protest singer listed in his chapter on key personalities is Joan Baez. Those who came of age during those years clearly remember the importance of a whole host of singers and groups such as Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and others helping to form our opinion on the war. There is no mention of Bob Dylan’s rallying cry The Times They Are A-Changin’, or Edwin Starr’s rendition of War, a No. 1 hit in 1970. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Ohio and Find the Cost of Freedom get no mention, yet they were important in fueling the anger among American college students. Interestingly, he cites the dean of protest singing, Phil Ochs, six times in his index yet Ochs does not get mention in Hall’s list of significant people. Anyone who has listened to Ochs’ music understands the depth of the protest musical experience. In this same regard, Hall does not identify any concerts, specifically neglecting Woodstock (1969), for affecting anti-war perceptions. Almost everyone in my generation knows Country Joe McDonald’s rallying cry before launching into a classic anti-war song: “Give me an F!” Patterson calls the Woodstock concert the “high point of countercultural expression in the United States.”(2) To understand the emotion and commitment of these protesters, one has to evaluate the effect music had on this generation. It was far more than simply entertainment.
Secondly, he ignores the relationship between the Vietnam War and Selective Service. In this reviewer’s opinion, nothing fueled hatred of the war on college campuses more that the prospect of students being drafted. During the height of the war, a student failing to make progress towards his degree could be reported by the school to the local draft board. If the student was able to make it to graduation, his best course of action was to get into graduate school and reapply to continue being excused from the draft. Some enlisted to avoid serving without choice, others ran away to Canada or other nations willing to offer asylum, while others simple dodged the draft and hid out. It is not surprising, therefore, that candidate Nixon, in November 1967, told law students at the University of Wisconsin: “What is needed is not a broad-based draft, but a professional military corps.”(3) In 1970, the administration eliminated the uncertainty of a student’s future by implementing a lottery system. From then on, those with high numbers knew they were exempt from service and could go on with their lives. From then until 1973, the Nixon administration continued to decrease annual draft inductions until the last draftee entered the Army.(4) From 1965 until 1970, the prospect of personally having to serve in Vietnam` fueled many young men’s participation in the protest movement. Certainly, it is one aspect that deserves discussion. Therefore, from this reviewer’s perspective, it is difficult to explain why anti-war protests were so intense without considering the constant drumbeat of anti-war songs and the personal prospect of ending up as a draftee.
With those caveats aside, this is a solid student text that goes behind the scenes and explains the origins and events of one of the most dynamic periods in American history. Well-written, it will help students grapple with this period and explain the background to presidential political discussions in the 1990s. Certainly, he helps to explain why many from that generation, this reviewer included, carry with them so many conflicting memories.
(1) A notable exception is James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations : The United States, 1945-1974, ed. C. Vann Woodward, Oxford History of the United States, Vol. X (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
(2) Ibid. : 710-711.
(3) Bernard Rostker, I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2006) : 35.
(4) Ibid. : 198, 265.
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