The student movement and the antiwar movement


  • The student movement arose to demand free speech on college campuses, but as the US involvement in the Vietnam war expanded, the war became the main target of student-led protests.
  • News coverage of the war, which included graphic visual testimonies of the death and destruction in Vietnam, turned US public opinion increasingly against the war.
  • Revelations that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied to the American people about the war damaged the public’s trust in government.

Origins of the student movement

The student movement arose at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, when students involved in civil rights activism rejected the university’s attempt to prevent them from organizing politically on campus. The Free Speech Movement arose to challenge the university’s restrictions on political speech and assembly.

Soon, other student groups were springing up across the nation with similar demands. Some of them criticized US foreign policy.

Some of these student groups became a major part of the New Left, a broad-based political movement that challenged existing forms of authority. Others embraced a counterculture that promoted sexual liberation and unabashed drug use.

Vietnam and the rise of the antiwar movement

After 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the US troop presence and bombing campaigns in Vietnam, the war became the focal point for student political activism.

Student groups held protests and demonstrations, burned draft cards, and chanted slogans like “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Massive US spending on the war effort came at the expense of economic conditions at home. More segments of the American public, including religious groups, civil rights organizations, and eventually even some Vietnam veterans, turned against the war.

Antiwar activism gave rise to the conservative portrayal of a chaotic society desperately in need of “law and order.”

In 1968, Richard Nixon successfully campaigned for the presidency by offering a harsh approach to dealing with antiwar activists and other challengers of the status quo.

President Nixon attempted to silence domestic dissent by reducing the US troop presence in Vietnam and reforming the draft. At the same time, he authorized the FBI and the CIA to expand their surveillance and harassment of antiwar protest groups.

The role of the media in the antiwar movement

The role of the news media in the antiwar movement increased both antiwar sentiment and hostility towards antiwar activists. As investigative journalists began digging into the official version of the US war effort, they began to uncover the truth of conditions in Southeast Asia. Graphic images of death and destruction displayed on the nightly news turned the American public ever more sharply against the war. At the same time, news media coverage was frequently hostile to the activists themselves, contributing to the conservative backlash against the antiwar movement.

In 1971, the publication of the Pentagon Papers revealed that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had systematically lied to the American people and Congress about the extent of US involvement in the Vietnam war.

Source: The student movement and the antiwar movement
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