Though the first American protests against U.S. intervention in Vietnam took place in 1963, the antiwar movement did not begin in earnest until nearly two years later, when President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered massive U.S. military intervention and the sustained bombing of North Vietnam. In the spring of 1965, “teach-ins” against the war were held on many college campuses. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first national antiwar demonstration in Washington; 20,000 people, mainly students, attended.
As the war expanded—over 400,000 U.S. troops would be in Vietnam by 1967—so did the antiwar movement, attracting growing support off the campuses. The movement was less a unified army than a rich mix of political notions and visions. The tactics used were diverse: legal demonstrations, grassroots organizing, congressional lobbying, electoral challenges, civil disobedience, draft resistance, self-immolations, political violence. Some peace activists traveled to North Vietnam. Quakers and others provided medical aid to Vietnamese civilian victims of the war. Some G.I.s protested the war.
In March 1967, a national organization of draft resisters was formed; the Resistance would subsequently hold several national draft card turn-ins. In April 1967, more than 300,000 people demonstrated against the war in New York. Six months later, 50,000 surrounded the Pentagon, sparking nearly 700 arrests. By now, senior Johnson administration officials typically encountered demonstrators when speaking in public, forcing them to restrict their outside appearances. Many also had sons, daughters, or wives who opposed the war, fueling the sense of besiegement. Prominent participants in the antiwar movement included Dr. Benjamin Spock, Robert Lowell, Harry Belafonte, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Encouraged by the movement, Senator Eugene McCarthy announced in late 1967 that he was challenging Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries; his later strong showing in New Hampshire was seen as a major defeat for Johnson and a repudiation of his war policies.
The Johnson administration took numerous measures to the antiwar movement, most notably undertaking close surveillance and tarnishing its public image, sending speakers to campuses, and fostering pro-war activity. Many administration officials felt foreign Communists were aiding and abetting the movement, despite the failure of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI to uncover such support.
In 1965, a majority of Americans supported U.S. policies in Vietnam; by the fall of 1967, only 35 percent did so. For the first time, more people thought U.S. intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake than did not.
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