See also Vietnam War & Military Draft — Documents and Stories
Skip Background Introduction
[BACKGROUND: For more than a decade, a series of unpopular "authoritarian regimes" in South Vietnam were kept in power by U.S. money, political influence, 15,000 military "advisors," and an arsenal of American arms. Yet despite everything Washington had done to prop it up, by the end of 1964 the dictatorship was tottering on its last legs — their soldiers were refusing to fight, rebels controlled large areas of the country, the cities seethed with unrest, and rich government supporters were fleeing with their wealth to safe havens in Europe. During the U.S. presidential campaign of 1964, Barry Goldwater the Republican candidate had urged direct combat intervention including the use of atomic weapons. Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic incumbent repeatedly promised to, "Never send American boys to fight in Vietnam," (though it was later revealed he had already decided to do just that and the preparations were well underway).
Johnson was reelected by a landslide, in part because of his Vietnam promises. On March 8, 1965, he broke those promises by launching a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam and pouring American combat troops into South Vietnam. He claimed they were fighting to "defend democracy" — a claim later proved false when the secret Pentagon Papers were leaked. By the end of 1965, almost 200,000 American military personnel were "in country." Eventually, 3,400,000 Americans fought in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to keep unpopular, pro-U.S. governments in power. At least 58,000 American and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian lives were lost and millions more were crippled and maimed.
A majority of the American military personnel serving in the war zone were directly or indirectly coerced into uniform by the draft. But under the biased Selective Service system, Blacks, Latinos and poor whites were far more likely to be drafted than middle and upper-class whites. The sons of the affluent could avoid conscription (and the war) by attending college which those at the bottom of the economic pyramid could neither afford, nor gain admission to because of inadequate public school systems. Young men from wealthy families with elite political connections were given preference in joining "weekend warrior" National Guard units that would never be called up for Vietnam. Once in the service, nonwhites were more likely to be assigned to front-line combat units. The result was Black and Latino casualty rates proportionally higher than those of whites. When nonwhite GIs returned, they came back to southern segregation & denial of voting rights, and myriad forms of racial discrimination nationwide. Eventually, anger over these issues became summed up in the slogan, "No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger!"
LBJ's rush to war brought into the open long-festering splits among politically-active liberals. The architects of the Vietnam War were Cold War, anti-communist, establishment-liberals. Most notable among them were Johnson, Humphrey & other administration officials, members of Congress, noted academics & intellectuals, and labor & religious leaders. Opposing them on many issues were the "Peaceniks" or "Doves" — liberals who opposed militarism and nuclear weapons, defended civil liberties in opposition to red-baiting witch-hunts, and fought for economic justice despite being labeled "reds" or "pinkos" by the establishment-liberals. Some of them held elected office, but most were community leaders, professors, student & union activists, leftists, pacifists, and men and women of faith. These two wings of the liberal camp united to defeat Goldwater in the '64 election, but the Doves soon broke with the Johnson administration over both Vietnam and the inadequacy of anti-poverty efforts. Yet even within the Peacenik ranks, issues related to communism and fears of being associated with communists remained confusing and divisive.
Within the Freedom Movement, anti-war sentiment among activists, both Black and white, rose quickly. Many reacted viscerally to white America forcing Black and other nonwhite GIs to fight and die for democracy 10,000 miles away when it was denied to them at home — and also to the obvious racial disparities in combat casualties. Others were angered that "War on Poverty" promises were dying in the Vietnam jungle as funds that might have been used for education and scholarships, jobs and job-training, adequate housing, and improved health care were diverted and squandered on bombs, bullets, and war-profits. Some civil rights activists were devoted to nonviolence in all aspects of their lives, many opposed all wars, or all wars except those of immediate self-defense. Others viewed the Vietnam War in racial terms as a white super-power suppressing the freedom aspirations of non-white people. Some broadly viewed all U.S. military interventions in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as attempts to thwart anti-colonial liberation struggles and impose American neo-colonial economic hegemony over Third World nations.
But not everyone in the Freedom Movement opposed the Vietnam war. Some supported it as their patriotic duty, some from deeply held anti-Communist beliefs, some out of sincere loyalty to President Johnson and the Democratic Party. Others voiced support for the war despite their private reservations out of fear that public opposition would cause LBJ and the national power-elite to end their support for Black civil rights or retaliate against organizations and individuals who criticized the war.
Between 1965 and 1967, SNCC, CORE, Dr. King and SCLC all came out in opposition to the Vietnam War. Their action was highly controversial. Conservatives denounced anti-war statements as "close to treason." Dixicrat segregationists who had long opposed the Freedom Movement charged that anti-war activists were "un-American," and "Communist sympathizers." The northern, Democratic Party leadership and apparatus that had generally been supportive of civil rights rallied around LBJ and criticized Blacks who took an anti-war stand as "ungrateful," "unpatriotic," and "divisive."
The national leaders of the Urban League and NAACP also condemned Freedom Movement leaders and organizations who opposed the war, as did other Black leaders who were closely allied with LBJ and northern Democratic politicians. Thus, the broad Civil Rights Movement splintered over Vietnam. Eventually, some of those who initially condemed Vietnam War opponents came to adopt an anti-war position themselves — others did not. Bitter and divisive controversies over Vietnam continued among Black leaders for years.]
Vietnam and the Assembly of Unrepresented People
Vietnam War: Taking a Stand
A Time to Break Silence Dr. King Condemns the Vietnam War
Dr. King's First Statement on Vietnam, August '65.
First SNCC Statement on Vietnam, January '66
Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Martin Luther King. Riverside Church speech, April '67.
Address to Anti-War Marchers, Martin Luther King. Riverside Church speech, April '67.
Journey to North Vietnam,, Diane Nash Bevel. Freedomways, 1967
See also Vietnam War & Military Draft — Documents and Stories
See also Vietnam War & Civil Rights Movement for web links.