Protests against the Vietnam War did not start when America declared her open involvement in the war in 1964. America rallied to the call of the commander-in-chief and after the Gulf of Tonkin incident it became very apparent that few would raise protests against the decision to militarily support South Vietnam. America had been through nearly twenty years of the Cold War and they were told by the government that what was happening in South Vietnam would happen elsewhere (the Domino Theory) unless America used her military might to stop it. Involvement in the Vietnam War was very much sold as a patriotic venture so few were prepared to protest. If there was to be a political protest, it never became apparent in Congress where the entire House voted to support Johnson and only two Senators voted against US involvement.
The war had been sold to the US public as one where a sophisticated and ultra wealthy super-power would have few problems defeating a Third World nation that North Vietnam seemed to represent. The protests against the war started to pick up when body bags started to return to America in increasing numbers. The war that had been sold to the US public as one where victory was guaranteed was in reality taking many young lives. In May 1968, 562 US troops were killed in one week alone. Coupled with these casualty figures were stories that eventually came out about atrocities committed by US troops against the very people they were meant to be defending and supporting. The most infamous was the My Lai massacre. This event actually highlighted to the US public the enormous strain frontline troops were experiencing on a daily basis against a supposedly inferior enemy. 1968 seems to be the key year for protests. To some, especially the young, America was not only sacrificing her male youth but the government was also sanctioning the death of children not only in South Vietnam but also in the North with the blanket bombing raids that were occurring on almost a daily basis. One cry of the protesters particularly hurt President Johnson:
“Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?"
However, it would be wrong to assume that everyone protested against the American involvement in South Vietnam. While there were those who were vociferous in their condemnation of US policy in South Vietnam, a Gallup poll held in 1968 showed that 46% of Americans approved of Johnson’s handling of the war while 50% believed that it was essential to combat the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia.
International coverage of the protests showed that as the years moved on the protests got larger and more vocal. In March 1966, 50,000 anti-war protesters took part in a rally in one of America’s most famous cities – New York. With a population that ran into millions, it could be argued that they represented a very small minority of the city. In 1967, 100,000 took part in a protest rally in Washington DC. In 1971, 300,000 took part in an anti-war demonstration in the same city. This particular protest involved many veterans from the war. When they publicly threw away their medals and medal ribbons, many in America were shocked that those who had worn the uniform of the US military had come to think that the only way ahead was to discard the very things that had been issued to them to represent their bravery – their medals. Many veterans used the opportunity to throw their medals on the steps of the Capitol building.