How this 1967 Vietnam war protest carried the seeds of American division (2023)

They were in the belly of the beast. Marching on the Pentagon, control centre of the world’s most powerful fighting force, protesters against the Vietnam war were confronted by military police (MPs) with rifles pointed directly at their heads. Among the demonstrators was a long-haired man with a bulky sweater – and a bunch of flowers.

“All of a sudden, this hero put a flower in the barrel of the rifle pointed at his head, and everyone was disarmed on both sides,” participant Bill Zimmerman recalled. “The MPs had a ‘what the fuck is this?’ expression. Then I realised what he was doing and thought it was brilliant. He worked his way down the line and I saw him put seven, eight, maybe 10 flowers in rifle barrels. The crowd surged and I couldn’t see him any more.”

Zimmerman and fellow activists will be back in Washington this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the march on the Pentagon, a moment of flower power and turning point in the anti-war movement. More than 600 people – including novelist Norman Mailer – were arrested on 21 October 1967 for acts of civil disobedience, a day after a revolt against the draft led to the turning in of a thousand draft cards.

The audacious siege of US military headquarters was a milestone in the shift from pure protest to mass resistance. Half a million people would march in Washington in 1969. Four million high school and college students would go on strike in 1970 in response to the invasion of Cambodia. Zimmerman continued: “When you believe your government is committing crimes or failing to meet the needs of its people, you have to stand up and say something. If they still don’t listen, you have to do something more dramatic. The lesson of that day is with enough people you can overcome police power – resistance works. Today we Americans certainly have ample reason to protest and resist.”

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The Pentagon protest was also a vivid demonstration of division in America. It would be followed by years of unrest including, in 1970, the deadly shooting of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. The turmoil revealed a nation more deeply split than at any time since the civil war a century earlier, with protesters castigated as traitors, veterans returning to insults and the very meaning of patriotism suddenly uncertain. The rift has arguably never healed but rather become a scab picked at by the “culture wars”, Iraq war and now the presidency of Donald Trump.

Zimmerman, who features in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s critically praised PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, was 26 and working at Brooklyn College at the time. He remembers watching almost daily TV footage of US planes dropping bombs and napalm on villages, killing thousands of people as body bags came home. Yet supporters of war had slogans such as: “My country, right or wrong.”

‘It was clear we were being ignored’

Zimmerman took a bus to Washington, where the plan was to “hijack” an anti-war rally at the Lincoln Memorial and turn it into a march on the Pentagon. “We saw this as a potential turning point in the movement,” he said. “We had been protesting for three years and often felt frustrated at the lack of impact on policy. It was clear we were being ignored. Just as the war had escalated, we felt we had to escalate our protest.”

The rally crowd was more than 100,000 strong, with speakers including pacifist Dave Dellinger and paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock and musicians such as the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. The Washington Post reported: “At the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd that had gathered was in a football-afternoon mood as it lined the banks of the Reflecting Pool. There were hippies and housewives, veterans and aging pacifists, but the overwhelming majority were college or high-school aged students.”

(Video) America's Secret Vietnam War School to Fight Dirty

About 50,000 people then marched across the river to the Pentagon: at one point a line of people stretched all the way from one to the other. Zimmerman said: “When I saw the number, I was elated. I realised we had succeeded in moving from protest to resistance. This was probably the first time anywhere in the world – except maybe with Gandhi in India – that 50,000 people were willing to commit civil disobedience.”

As Burns and Novick’s series has highlighted, the Vietnam war opened a cultural faultline that never went away. Zimmerman, who became a political consultant based in Los Angeles, added: “There was polarisation that occurred around Vietnam in which the right called the left traitors to the country; that’s a powerful word to use 20 years after world war two. We flipped early into calling our opponents fascists; that’s also a powerful word to use 20 years after world war two. It was not just a bitter disagreement. It became a battle between two sides that saw each other as unpatriotic and traitorous.”

How this 1967 Vietnam war protest carried the seeds of American division (1)

The protesters arrived without a plan of what to do next. Some spoke of “levitating” the Pentagon and “exorcising” the evil spirits inside. More radical elements tore down temporary fencing as police and marshals, heavily outnumbered, scrambled to stop them. Zimmerman glimpsed protesters heading for an unguarded door on one side of the building. Marshals raced to block their access but 10 made it inside, only to be quickly seized and roughly thrown out. Teargas was fired and rifle butts used to beat back the crowd.

By late afternoon, the protesters had overcome two fences and pushed up to paratroopers with rifles and fixed bayonets, just 20 yards from the building. Zimmerman said: “We thought, maybe we can only go so far but, as we got closer, we saw they were younger than we were, like 19 or 20, probably with no training in crowd control. It occurred to us there was no way they had live ammunition: the government would not risk troops firing on American citizens. That emboldened us.”

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Thousands of protesters sat on the grass or pavement directly in front of them. Zimmerman was in the front row and talked to the soldiers about the war and why he opposed it. “Some tried to maintain a military demeanour with stiff upper lips. There were hundreds of them so there was a lot of communication. In a few instances some talked back, gave counter-arguments, nodded and shrugged. They were confused and some of them may have been leaning against the war. I don’t think they were able to maintain military discipline; we were all contemporaries.”

A short distance away, MPs emerged from behind the paratroopers, holding rifles without bayonets at a 45-degree angle, pointing directly at the demonstrators’ heads. “We couldn’t be absolutely sure they didn’t have ammunition.” It was then the man with flowers came forward, a moment captured on film and newspaper front pages, although his identity is a mystery.

Evening turned into night and speakers used bullhorns and urged the paratroopers to switch sides. At about 9pm, Zimmerman recalls, one dropped his rifle, threw down his helmet and moved towards the crowd, but he was grabbed from behind and led away. Draft cards were burned on bonfires but, around midnight, the paratroopers seized the initiative and protesters were arrested or brutally beaten or chased away. By dawn, the crowd was down to several hundred.

‘Our country is far more polarised than it was in the 60s’

The rancour caused by the civil and political divisions over Vietnam continued through the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the issue of nuclear proliferation, and reignited during the Iraq war under George W Bush. “The bitterness has escalated one step further in the presidency of Donald Trump.

(Video) Why Did the US Enter the Vietnam War | US Army Documentary | 1965

“I think the country has become far more polarised than it was in the 1960s, in part because of the changes in news and communications. Back then there were three major networks and a newspaper in every major city. Nowadays when you have a division on the internet and cable news, there is no sense of common information that could be an anchor for reconciliation.”

Commemorative events include a vigil at the Pentagon on Friday featuring Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, a series of panel discussions on Saturday and a concluding gathering at the Vietnam Memorial that night.

Organiser John McAuliff of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, was another participant in the march. The 75-year-old said: “People were singing, This Land is Your Land and America the Beautiful. In some ways I think of it as the last patriotic peace demonstration. People still felt that protest had an effect. The mainstream media treated it as a violent confrontation, as if it was anarchy – a totally different sense from being there.”

Yarrow, 79, said the march spurred him to mobilise artists for further political action. “I realised something evolving in this country for a long time had become a crisis of a moral sort. It was a war based on a tissue of lies. Music played a very important role in the anti-war movement in terms of conveying the message internalised in people’s hearts and reignited every time the song was sung.”

But he added: “The United States does not look at its mistakes and reflect on them and consider what did we do wrong and how can we make amends. We did not do it in Vietnam or Iraq or after we tortured prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Where is the United States’ capacity for self-reflection and to learn from its mistakes? We are not doing what Germany did after the war.

(Video) The Vietnam War | Part 1 | Vietnam and the War | Free Documentary History

“We are in perhaps the most dangerous time we have lived in in our lives in terms of the things we believe in. The divisions and the failure to address them led to the chasm we will have today. This might be the time to come to terms with it. Either we slide into the abyss or we look at the inequities that mean we could become tribalised in the extreme.”


What did the Vietnam War protests accomplish? ›

Anti-war activities, particularly large-scale resistance to military conscription, forced an end U.S. combat operations in Vietnam and a suspension of the draft by January 1973.

For what 3 reasons did the protesters oppose the Vietnam War? ›

Many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, appalled by the devastation and violence of the war. Others claimed the conflict was a war against Vietnamese independence, or an intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable.

What was the biggest protest against the Vietnam War? ›

Anti-War March on Washington. Image Source: The King Center. April 17, 1965 was the largest anti-war protest to have been held in Washington, D.C. up to that time. The number of marchers (15,000–25,000) was close to the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam at the time (less than 25,000).

What were some of the methods used to protest the war in Vietnam? ›

Antiwar marches and other protests, such as the ones organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), attracted a widening base of support over the next several years, peaking in early 1968 after the successful Tet Offensive by North Vietnamese troops proved that war's end was nowhere in sight.

What was the Vietnam protest movement? ›

The Vietnam-era antiwar movement may count as the largest sustained protest movement in the history of the United States. Opposition to US military involvement in Southeast Asia began in the 1950s and started to attract media attention in 1963 as the Kennedy Administration pushed combat troops into Vietnam.

Why did people protest the Vietnam War quizlet? ›

Youths opposing the war did so for several reasons. The most common was the belief that the conflict in Vietnam was basically a civil war and that the US military had no business there. Some said that the oppressive South Vietnamese regime was no better than the Communist regime it was fighting.

Were the Vietnam War protests peaceful? ›

Numerous people protested the Vietnam War for these and other reasons as well. These protests usually were peaceful and included such things as burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada or some other country to escape the draft, protest rallies and marches, or simply remaining enrolled in college to avoid the draft.

What was the impact of the anti Vietnam War movement? ›

The anti-war movement did force the United States to sign a peace treaty, withdraw its remaining forces, and end the draft in early 1973. Throughout a decade of organizing, anti-war activists used a variety of tactics to shift public opinion and ultimately alter the actions of political leaders.

How many dodged the draft in Vietnam? ›

In all, half a million Americans dodged their Vietnam War service. They were fugitives until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter ordered a general amnesty.

What happened in 1967 in the Vietnam War? ›

Late May 1967

In the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, Americans intercept North Vietnamese Army units moving in from Cambodia. Nine days of continuous battles leave hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers dead.

How did the government respond to the Vietnam War protests? ›

The Nixon administration responded with a police force of 12,000 men and arrested 7,000 protestors. While the effort did not stop traffic for long, the enormity of the protest pushed Nixon to accelerate the nation's exit from Vietnam. Protests continued until American involvement in the war ended in January 1973.

What were the protests of 1967? ›

Anti-Vietnam war protesters rallied to Washington on Saturday, October 21,1967, in the first national demonstration against the war. The Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam organized the protest to get national visibility for the anti-war movement.

What tactics did protesters use? ›

Blocking traffic on major roads, peacefully stopping economic flows and/or disrupting daily life for the community are tactics sometimes used by protesters. These tactics can call attention to an issue quickly but can also alienate potential supporters who are inconvenienced by the disruption.

How did the Vietnam War affect American public opinion? ›

As reports from the field became increasingly accessible to citizens, public opinion began to turn against U.S. involvement, though many Americans continued to support it. Others felt betrayed by their government for not being truthful about the war. This led to an increase in public pressure to end the war.

Did the Vietnam War help or hurt the civil rights movement? ›

The Vietnam War had a major impact on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The war helped to split the struggle for social justice at the very time that it was achieving its greatest successes. The factionalism over whether or not to support the war decimated the crusade for human equality.

How did Americans feel about the Vietnam War? ›

As the war continued and more young men were drafted, it became increasingly unpopular with the American public. Photographs and videos shown on the news, many of which were graphic and upsetting, brought the war into the American home.

How many people protested the Vietnam War? ›

In Washington, D.C. nearly 100,000 people gather to protest the American war effort in Vietnam. More than 50,000 of the protesters marched to the Pentagon to ask for an end to the conflict.

Did the Vietnam War have a positive or negative impact on the US economy? ›

The Vietnam War severely damaged the U.S. economy. Unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the war, President Johnson unleashed a cycle of inflation. The war also weakened U.S. military morale and undermined, for a time, the U.S. commitment to internationalism.

What was the most significant cause for the anti war movement? ›

The Vietnam War sparked a mass antiwar movement employing the civil disobedience tactics and grassroots mobilizations of the civil rights struggles.

At what age can you no longer be drafted? ›

The Selective Service System will start calling registered men ages 18-25 for duty. The men will be called in a sequence determined by random lottery number and year of birth. The men will be examined for mental, physical, and moral fitness for military service.

Who Cannot be drafted? ›

  • The Vice-President of the United States, the Judges of the various Courts of the Untied States, the heads of the various executive departments of the Government, and the Governors of the several States.
  • The only son liable to military duty of a widow dependent upon his labor for support.

What was the youngest age to be drafted in Vietnam? ›

Before the lottery was implemented in the latter part of the Vietnam conflict, there was no system in place to determine order of call besides the fact that men between the ages of 18 and 26 were vulnerable to being drafted. Local boards called men classified 1-A, 18-1/2 through 25 years old, oldest first.

What were the 3 main causes of the Vietnam War? ›

In general, historians have identified several different causes of the Vietnam War, including: the spread of communism during the Cold War, American containment, and European imperialism in Vietnam.

What war was the US involved in in 1967? ›

1967 in the Vietnam War
← 1966 1968 →
Anti-Communist forces: South Vietnam United States South Korea Australia Philippines New Zealand Thailand Kingdom of Laos Republic of ChinaCommunist forces: North Vietnam Viet Cong Pathet Lao People's Republic of China Soviet Union North Korea
6 more rows

What was the main reason America lost the Vietnam War? ›

Basically because the Vietnamese wanted to win more than the Americans did. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, the Americans were an invading force, and the Vietnamese were fighting on their own soil. Second, the Americans were not willing to make an all-out commitment to win.

How did the US government justify the Vietnam War? ›

The US justified its military intervention in Vietnam by the domino theory, which stated that if one country fell under the influence of Communism, the surrounding countries would inevitably follow. The aim was to prevent Communist domination of South-East Asia.

How did the Vietnam War come to a conclusion? ›

Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam in 1975, and the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the following year.

How did the American war effort in Vietnam lead to rising protests and social divisions back home? ›

How did the American war effort in Vietnam lead to rising protests and social divisions back home? President Johnson sent more troops to Vietnam to win the war. But as casualty lists got longer and victory seemed further away, more people questioned the war.

What was the issue in 1967? ›

A half-century ago, protests erupted around the world against the Vietnam War, Montreal hosted Expo '67, race riots in the U.S. destroyed parts of Detroit and other northern cities, Elvis Presley married Priscilla in Las Vegas, O.J.

What movement happened in 1967? ›

The Civil Rights Movement took a radical turn in 1967, led by activist group the Black Panther Party. As thousands flocked to San Francisco for a summer of love, African Americans continued to fight hate and racial injustice across the country.

What caused the 1967 riots? ›

Incidents of police brutality and harassment of African Americans were the immediate triggers for almost every episode of "civil unrest" during this era. In Detroit, the specific trigger was a police raid on a "blind pig," an after-hours bar, in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967.

What are protesters not allowed to do? ›

You may not:

Block access to sidewalks or buildings. March in the streets without a permit. Disrupt counter-protests. Engage in speech that is obscene, makes knowingly false statements of fact, or that is likely to incite an immediate disruptive or dangerous disturbance.

What rights do protesters have? ›

The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views through protest. However, police and other government officials are allowed to place certain narrow restrictions on the exercise of speech rights.

What were the main issues for protesters in the 1960s? ›

During the early years of the 1960s, most protests were in the form of non- violent marches, sit-ins, and picketing. Issues at hand were freedom of political speech and action, civil rights, nuclear testing, compulsory ROTC, the draft, and the Vietnam War (Phillips, 1985).

How did the Vietnam War affect the economy? ›

On the international side, the war had a direct role in creating the massive deficit in the United States balance of payments. This in turn ultimately led to the devaluation of the dollar and the end of the Bretton Woods system.

How did the Vietnam War change American culture? ›

This new pop culture sensibility embraced a provocative anti-authoritarianism that offered a clean break from the sunny optimism of most films and music in the 1950s and early 1960s. The war sparked an era of distrust, paranoia and cynicism among musicians, filmmakers, novelists and comedians.

What was the economic impact of the Vietnam War? ›

Based on the current dollar value, the Vietnam War cost the equivalent of about $1 trillion.

What was the outcome of the Vietnam independence movement? ›

Finally, in January 1973 a peace treaty was signed by the United States and all three Vietnamese parties (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Viet Cong). It provided for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops within 60 days and created a political process for the peaceful resolution of the conflict in the south.

How did protest music affect the Vietnam War? ›

Music gave soldiers a way to start making sense of experiences that didn't make a lot of sense to them,” Bradley says. Songs that spoke directly to the war were proof that people were talking about this cataclysmic event, and a way to safely express the ambivalence that many in the field felt.

What did the student movement accomplish? ›

Impact of the Student Movement

The engagement of young people and students was significant, and their efforts led to essential changes in the civil rights movement and freedom of speech for students. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded civil and voting rights for Black Americans.

What was the impact of the Vietnam War on the civil rights movement? ›

The Vietnam War had a major impact on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The war helped to split the struggle for social justice at the very time that it was achieving its greatest successes. The factionalism over whether or not to support the war decimated the crusade for human equality.

What was the Vietnam War about short summary? ›

The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

What was the real reason for the Vietnam War? ›

The United States entered Vietnam with the principal purpose of preventing a communist takeover of the region. In that respect, it failed: the two Vietnams were united under a communist banner in July 1976. Neighbouring Laos and Cambodia similarly fell to communists.

Did Vietnam gain independence after the Vietnam War? ›

2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam from France. The proclamation paraphrased the U.S. Declaration of Independence in declaring, “All men are born equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness!”

Did music play a role in protesting the Vietnam War? ›

Much of popular music in the 1960s was another means of protest for an audience that was against the Vietnam War. Several now-influential music artists used their talents to appeal to a wide audience that was against the war.

What impact does protest music have on social movements? ›

Through a combination of music, which evokes emotion, and lyrics, which present the message, protest songs aim to motivate people to take action by changing the way we feel about the division between “us” and “them.”

What was the purpose of protest music? ›

Protest music is music that aims to send social messages and make a change (associated with a movement for social change or other current events through music). Often using the popularity of the artist to bring more attention to a particular issue.

What were the 3 main protests of the 1960s? ›

All of the protest movements of the 1960s captured public attention and raised questions that were important to the nation. The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the gay rights movement demanded that Americans consider equality for all citizens in the United States.

Why did students protest the Vietnam War? ›

Demonstrations grew in 1966, spurred by a change in the Selective Service System's draft policy that exposed students in the bottom of half of their classes to the possibility that their deferments would be revoked and they would be drafted.

How did the Vietnam War transform American politics and culture? ›

The Vietnam War had a profound effect on America. Domestically, the unpopularity of the war led to the end of the military draft in 1973, and since then, the U.S. has yet to conscript troops from the general population again. The war also drastically decreased Americans' trust in political leaders.


1. Anti-War Movement project | "Peace & Love My Dudes
(Hector Aguiniga Lopez)
2. How US Could Have Won Vietnam
(The Infographics Show)
3. LBJ's News Conference, 11/17/1967. MP597.
4. ch 18) The Impossible Victory: Vietnam
(andi burridge)
5. The Vietnam War | Part 2 | The TV War | Free Documentary History
(Free Documentary - History)
6. Vietnam War, 1st Cavalry Division - 250123-01 | Footage Farm Ltd
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