Vietnam and the Anti-War Movement
The American presence in Vietnam peaked in 1968, as did public opposition to the war. More than 30,000 U.S. soldiers had died by that point, and the average age of a casualty in Vietnam was 20. Sixty-one percent of all the men who fought in Vietnam were 21 or younger. In January, North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive, one of the largest battles of the war, in which they attacked nearly all of the south’s regional capitals and the American base at Khe Sanh. Although the Tet Offensive failed to inspire an uprising of South Vietnamese, it demonstrated that the war was not proceeding as well as many Americans believed. That year, opinion polls demonstrated that a majority of Americans had doubts about the war.
Antiwar demonstrations and activities spread throughout the country in the following years, with more than 500,000 marchers converging in Washington, D.C. in November 1969. Students occupied the administration buildings at universities throughout the country, most notably at Columbia University, which sometimes provoked violent clashes between student organizers and police. The closing years of the 1960s also saw revelations about the American conduct of the war: military veterans and journalists documented egregious violations of the laws of war, including the massacre of civilians at My Lai and the indiscriminate bombing of enemy territories.
The antiwar movement gained popularity, but lost some of its focus after the 1968 Democratic convention. Disagreements over tactics and political values split the movement into several factions. Believing that a purist nonviolent approach was doomed to failure, groups such as the Weathermen began to directly attack governmental targets, including non-lethal bombings of the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, military offices, and police buildings. When the president announced in April 1970 that American forces had begun bombing targets in Cambodia, spontaneous demonstrations occurred across the country. At one such demonstration, National Guard soldiers fired on a crowd of student protesters, killing four and wounding 16. At the same time, a backlash against the countercultural movement and its association with drugs and sexual liberation undermined popular support for the antiwar effort. While over 20,000 Americans died in Vietnam between 1968 and 1972, Vietnamization and the withdrawal of American troops was largely successful in blunting the force of antiwar protests.