Peace movement

1968 was an important year for the protest movement. Despite the fact that activism continued apace, they were increasingly restricted in what they could do by the authorities and their tactics became less effective. To understand these changes and get an impression of what influence the peace movement had really had throughout the nineteen-sixties, it is important to look at what they did, how people responded and why it was successful, or if not, why it failed. What is important to keep in mind as well is that the movement was very much influenced by domestic developments, rather than what was going on in Vietnam itself, a disconnection that ended up hurting the movement.

One important reason why the peace movement failed is that their strategies changed very little over time, giving their activism a repetitive character. Another factor in this is that their strategies were unappealing and had little to do with was happening in Vietnam. Unlike the civil rights movement, which made the stakes of racism and segregation clear, peace activists just protested, expressing their discontent but not really doing anything. As a result, Mailer felt he “could not make the essential connection between that and Vietnam” (Miami 152), failing to see how their actions are relevant or why he should get involved. Attempts by some activists to associate themselves with the Viet Cong were similarly misguided. Although it presented a bold move in opposition to the American government, it is hard to see “how demonstrating with an N.L.F. flag was going to spark a mass movement to end the war” (Mailer Armies 128), as it was a radical move that alienated rather than attracted mainstream audiences. Deloria also highlights their choice to focus on one tactic as a major flaw, especially because flag burnings only upset supporters of the war and were not constructive. The McCarthy campaign, although ultimately unsuccessful, had potential. Deloria suggest that “the shift of antiwar youth from demonstrations to political action may well be the saving movement of contemporary society” (We Talk 98), as a way to start a dialogue on the war.

‘A sense of danger had come to the American left.’ (Mailer)

Government repression
This failure to come up with an effective strategy led to a rapid decline around 1968, as they failed to make any concrete gains. These problems were made worse by the increasing violence from authorities, which was already noticeable during the march on the Pentagon. As Mailer remarks, “a sense of danger had come to the American left, not to the brave students who had gone South years ago to hunt for Negro rights, but to the damnable mediocre middle of the Left” (Armies 97). It also indicates that there were a considerable number of activists who had not actively fought for civil rights and who had until then not really faced a lot of opposition. Over the next year that changed, as authorities responded ever more fiercely, sometimes even in a very violent manner as they did in Chicago.

It is not surprising then that a year later, these protesters were “no longer the same young people who had gone to the Pentagon” (Miami 206), suggesting something happened during the year 1968, or perhaps during that very week in Chicago, which permanently altered the movement. Happy spectacles like those put up at the Pentagon no longer seemed appropriate and a pessimism came over many activists. The effects of this went beyond the anti-war movement, as the protest strategy had been copied mostly from the civil rights movement, who had used it effectively in the early years. According to Thompson,  “the whole concept of “peaceful protest” died in Chicago” (“Memoirs of a Wretched Weekend in Washington” 178), marking it a turning point not just for the peace movement but for protests more generally, also affecting what was left of peaceful civil rights activism at this moment.

Changes in public opinion
Although these explanations are helpful in understanding what happened to the peace movement, this decline is still somewhat surprising given that historical accounts often speak of 1968 as the year that  public opinion turned against the war. The decline therefore occurred in spite of the fact that discontent with the war grew and public opinion was increasingly on their side. Although this is borne out by historical works, this is hardly noticeable from these accounts. For these authors, it was clear that the war in Vietnam was atrocious and it had been going on for some time now, so that 1968 was not too special to them. Individual events, like the Tet Offensive or the My Lai massacre are not really discussed in these texts, because those incidents were just further evidence of what they already knew. It also shows that they saw Vietnam as something larger, rather than a simple foreign policy conflict. To understand this, some other explanations beside the increasing government suppression and the failure to mobilize effectively are important to consider.

‘Vietnam was a sort of umbrella-issue.’ (Thompson)

For one, it was a sizable movement that raised major questions about the United States, but it consisted for the most part of young people, often students, who had little experience with activism and in most cases intended to be peaceful. Still, the FBI tried to give the impression that these protesters would “want to overthrow the government and its constitution with foreign aid” (“The State of the Union: 1975” 927), in an attempt to turn public opinion against the protests and make it easier to silence opposition. This is something that happened in more extreme forms with some of the civil rights organizations at that time as well. Another reason why the peace movement may not have benefited from changes in public opinion is its lack of character. The war in Vietnam also attracted many people who were not really politically engaged at all, but felt they had to act and decided to join the protests. This made the war “a sort of umbrella-issue, providing a semblance of unity to a mixed bag of anti-war groups with little else in common” (The Great Shark Hunt 180), which made it difficult to keep it together and attract new support. As the odds were increasingly stacked against them, people were not inclined to join, and many gave up the fight, as a result of which the movement unraveled rapidly.

Discussion Questions:

  • What were the most important reasons why the peace movement failed?
  • Is there anything they could have done to make their protests more appealing or effective? Might doing something besides protesting have helped? 

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