Historian George Herring wrote about the antiwar movement in his excellent book America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (2nd edition; 1986).
The impact of the antiwar protests remains one of the most controversial issues raised by the war. The obvious manifestations of dissent in the United States probably encouraged Hanoi's will to hold out for victory, although there is nothing to suggest that the North Vietnamese would have been more compromising in the absence of the movement. Antiwar protest did not turn the American people against the war, as some critics have argued. The effectiveness of the movement was limited by the divisions within its own ranks. Public opinion polls make abundantly clear, moreover, that a majority of Americans found the antiwar movement, particularly ts radical and "hippie" elements, more obnoxious than the war itself. In a perverse sort of way, the protest may even have strengthend support for a war that was not in itself popular.
But then he proceeds to analyze the movement a little more carefully.
The impact of the movement was much more limited and subtle. It forced Vietnam into the public consciousness and challenged the rationale of the war and indeed of a generation of Cold War foreign policies. It limited Johnson's military options and may have headed off any tendency toward more drastic escalation. Perhaps most important, the disturbances and divisions set off by the antiwar movement caused fatigue and anxiety among the policymakers and the public, and thus eventually encouraged efforts to find a way out of the war.
The seeming contradictions in his account, e.g., the movement was ineffective and unpopular and yet it made the public question the assumptions of the war, reflects the complex way that a protest movement like that works. It's a complex process.
And it's an unusual process. Most foreign policy priorities barely hit the radar of the general public. Most of them are usually the concerns of particular interests and are followed closely only by a subset of the public. The interest of corporations like Microsoft or Yahoo in trade policies with China, for instance.
But in cases like the Vietnam War, the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War,more general public attention is engaged. And suddenly you have the Cindy Sheehans of the world thinking that the voters in a democracy should have a say in a major foreign policy issue even if they're not planning to invest billions abroad. Maybe they've "only" invested the life of a loved one, as in Sheehan's case.
The editors of Vietnam and America: A Documented History (Marvin Gettleman, et al; 1985) make an important observation about public opinion and the Vietnam War:
Whether the majority of Americans at any point supported the government's policies in Vietnam (or even knew what they were) is a matter of debate. Those who contend that they did cite some polls. But answering a question on a poll does not indicate the quality of either support or opposition. Whatever polls did or did not say, the American people never supported the war strongly enough to agree to pay for it with taxes, or even to demonstrate for it in significant numbers, much less to go fight in it willingly. Nor were they ever willing to vote for any national candidate who pledged the nation to fight until "victory." In fact, from 1964 through the end of the war, every nominee for president of both major parties, except Barry Goldwater in 1964, ran as some kind of self-professed peace candidate. It was the opponents of the war, not its supporters, who showed their resolve by expending time and money, risking arrest and loss of jobs, and making existential commitments with their lives. (my emphasis)
That quotation relates to public opinion on the war, not on the antiwar movement. But it gives a good, brief summary of some of the relevant factors in looking at both. They go on to describe some of the demographics of the movement, the realities of which most certainly do not fit comfortably with the conservative narrative on the anti-Vietnam War movement:
Who were the people opposed to the war? Contrary to the impression systematically promulgated by its detractors ever since the antiwar movement began, opposition to the war was not concentrated among relatively affluent college students. In fact, every scientific poll and study has demonstrated that throughout the entire history of America's involvement in Vietnam, opposition to the war was inversely proportional to both wealth and education. The lower the income, the greater the opposition to the war; the lower the level of education, the greater the opposition to the war. Blue-collar workers generally considered themselves "doves" and tended to favor withdrawal from Vietnam, while those who considered themselves "hawks" and supported participation in the war were concentrated among the college-educated, high-income strata, including professionals. This is not surprising if one considers which people were forced to do the fighting and to make the economic sacrifices. The results of lower-class opposition to the war showed up on what were ultimately to be the most decisive fronts: the cities and the army.
Again, this does not speak directly to the question of the popularity of the antiwar movement, although it relates more closely to its effectiveness. But it also suggests just how much counterfactual conservative propaganda claims have fogged up popular views of the Vietnam War period, especially views of the antiwar movement. Which is why such claims need to be examined with a particularly critical eye.
Public attitudes toward the war pre-Tet
The year 1967 was arguably the "tipping point" year for public opinion on the war. That year, public approval of Johnson's handling of the war had fallen to 28% in October. This timeline is important, given the propaganda myths that conservatives have built up over the decades about the 1968 Tet offensive and the perfidious media.
I quoted this passage from Herring in a previous post, but I'm including it here again:
By late 1967, for many observers the war had become the most visible symbol of a malaise that had afflicted all of American society. Not all would have agreed with [Arkansas Sen. William] Fulbright's assertion that the Great Society was a "sick society," but many did feel that the United States was going through a kind of national nervous breakdown. The "credibility gap" - the difference between what the administration said and what it did - had produced a pervasive distrust of government. Rioting in the cities, a spiraling crime rate, and noisy demonstrations in the streets suggested that violence abroad had produced violence at home. Increasingly divided against itself, the nation appeared on the verge of an internal crisis as severe as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Anxiety about the war had not translated into a firm consensus for either escalation or withdrawal, but the public mood - tired, angry, and frustrated - perhaps posed a more serious threat to the administration than the antiwar movement.
So by 1967, the Vietnam War had come to stand for a number of disturbing developments in American society.
That timing - 1967 - is very important. In the preferred narrative of our war-loving rightwingers, the turning point in the war was the Tet offensive of 1968. In this script, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong tried to stage a major uprising in South Vietnam which was decisively defeated militarily. But because of the evil, anti-American media (they usually call it Liberal Media; it's an open guess how many of them use that as a eupemism for Jewish Media), the morale of the gutless civilians back home collapsed and they turned to follow the hippie antiwar movement and prevented our faultless military from consolidating their brilliant victory.
It was St. Reagan who successfully elevated this view (perhaps in a slightly cleaned-up form) to canonical Truth for Republicans. Lou Cannon wrote in his 1991 President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime:
[Reagan's] legacy of optimism was especially important to the two million members of the U.S. armed forces, all of whom now were volunteers. Reagan made it a point to heap praise on these men and women, saying; that they served for little pay and less respect "on the frontlines of freedom." In his 1980 campaign he had called the Vietnam War "a noble cause," and he recognized that the U.S. military establishment remained disaffected and disillusioned by the results and domestic unpopularity of that war. Reagan tried to restore national pride in the military "after a time during which it was shamefully fashionable to deride and even condemn service such as yours." The military responded by honoring Reagan. In a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base eight days before he left office, Reagan received the grateful tributes of the nation's military leaders and said, in a hoarse voice, that serving as commander in chief was "the most sacred, most important task of the presidency."
There was never a time when it "was ... fashionable to deride and even condemn" military service. During the Vietnam War as today, it was not difficult for anyone but the most dyed-in-the-wool militarists and war fans to distinguish between the war and the warrior. Even that's overstating it. Rightwingers were lavish with their criticism of Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policies, and they obviously didn't think that was equivalent to deriding and condemning military service.
Sure, there are people today, like the Swift Boat Liars for Bush, who derided and condemned John Kerry's military service in Vietnam. But it took the Bush dynasty to make such condemnation and scorn of heroic military service into the Republican Party line.
But we can see in that quotation from Reagan the dishonest and highly-polemical notion that critics of the Vietnam War were hostile to the soldiers themselves. See the quotation from Spiro Agnew in 1970 in this previous post for an example from a decade earlier.
This propaganda, though, had other political usages than simply trying to tar the Democrats with an unpopular image. Cannon describes how Reagan ignored the advice of Richard Nixon to not allow the military to be spared from budgetary discipline:
Nixon's warning made no impact on Reagan, whose aides had learned during the 1980 campaign that it was impossible to persuade him to put a price tag on the military force he thought necessary to preserve the peace. Reagan refused to do so, saying that the size and shape of the U.S. military force should be determined by the military strength needed to match the Soviet Union rather than the exigencies of the federal budget. Eventually, economists Martin Anderson and Alan Greenspan fashioned their own estimate of defense costs w so that Reagan could present a coherent budget proposal in the major economic speech of his campaign. But Reagan did not know or care what numbers his economists had used to construct this mythical budget, and their estimates were never made explicit.
This attitude provided rich rewards to war profiteers and to members of the officer corps who went on to make a second career working in that sector. It also led to incredible boondoggles, the worst of which is the Star Wars program that is still with us today. Spending money on things like, say, reinforcing levees in New Orleans were distinctly lower priorities for the Reagan Republicans than providing fat defense contracts to their corporate sponsors.
A civil-liberties source of revisionist views of the antiwar movement?
Herring's book also suggests a reason why more liberal- or antiwar-minded historians might be attracted to the idea that the antiwar movement was ineffective or counter-productive. He critically describes Johnson's domestic espionage programs against the antiwar movement, such as the CIA's illegal Operation CHAOS, which engaged not only in information-gathering but "soon shifted from surveillance to harassment and disruption." And this was before Nixon and his "plumbers"!
Herring introduces that discussion this way: "Mistakenly believeing that the peace movement was turning the public against the war, [Johnson] set out to destroy it."
Presenting the story in this manner lends emphasis to how abusive and paranoid the domestic-espionage programs really were that eventually, under Nixon, blossomed into the network of scandals known as Watergate. But while I'm sympathetic to that part of the argument, I just think its factually wrong to dismiss the effect of the antiwar movement on shifting public attitudes. At best, it's a groos oversimplification - and that's putting it generously. Mostly, the claim is just Republican Party propaganda.
(While I'm on the subject, I'll just say briefly that it's unthinkable to me that the Bush-Cheney administration isn't doing something very similar right now on the domestic political-espionage front, although the actual evidence is limited at this point.)
The real-time politics of the Vietnam War
Johnson and his military men presented a happy-face version of the Vietnam War in 1967. In November, Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam, announced, "I am very, very encouraged. ... We are making real progress." In a formal speech to Congress, he presented a rosy picture, as well.
It was in light of this happy-talk optimism, which was really a continuation of years of the same, that Congress and the public processed the Tet offensive, which began in early 1968. Militarily it's generally agreed that the action was a military victory for the US. But it hardly fit the rosy view of the war that the Johnson administration and the generals had been presenting to the public.
It provided dramatic images to illustrate the fact that the other side was far from defeated. Herring writes of the bloody battle for the old imperial capital of Hue that the US and South Vietnam lost 500 killed with an estimated 5,000 dead for the enemy (although the unreliable body counts of enemy losses were one of the Army's most consequential failures in the war). in addition, "The bodies of 2,800 South Vietnamese were found in mass graves in and around Hue, the product of Vietcong and North Vietnamese executions, and another 2,000 citizens of Hue were unaccounted for and preseumed murdered."
To most Americans, this didn't look like "light at the end of the tunnel," the phrase that was then used for what we call the ever-elusive "tipping point" in Iraq. And Herring argues that the conventional view that it was a clear-cut victory for the US and South Vietnam in strictly military terms is likely overdrawn:
If ... Tet represented a "defeat" for the enemy, it was still a costly "victory" for the United States and South Vietnam. ARVN forces had to be withdrawn from the countryside to defend the cities, and the pacification program incurred another major setback. The destruction visited upon the cities heaped formidable new problems on a government that had shown limited capacity to deal with the routine. American and South Vietnamese losses did not approach those of the enemy, but they were still high: in the first two weeks of the Tet campaigns, the United States lost 1,100 killed in action and South Vietnam 2,300. An estimated 12,500 civilians were killed, and Tet created as many as one million new refugees. As with much of the war, there was a great deal of destruction and suffering, but no clear-cut winner or loser.
For what it's worth, a 1975 English-language account published in Hanoi gives this version of the outcome of Tet. From The Long Resistance (1858-1975) by Nguyen Khac Vien:
The 1968 Tet offensives and uprisings proved that the liberation forces were able to spring closely coordinated onslaughts everywhere at a time when the Americans and the puppets [South Vietnam] had brought their own effectives to the highest level, and when their propaganda unceasingly tries to convey to the world the impression that the NFL had been completely crushed by US military power. The NFL's resounding victories deeply stirred world and American opinion Washington had to relieve Westmoreland of his command in Indochina and replace him by General [Creighton] Abrams.
Not only was the Pentagon compelled to appoint a new commander-in-chief, it had also to completely change its strategy. It was impossible to send to Viet Nam the 200,000 men required by Westmoreland after the 1968 Tet losses. Abrams received the order to hold on to a defensive strategy, and instead of launching operations to "search and destroy" the NFL regular units, he confined himself to "clearing and holding" the areas surrounding major cities and bases, particularly Saigon.
In reality, the claim of an "NFL" (French initials for National Liberation Front, aka, Vietcong or NLF in the more common American usage) victory in the Tet offensive doesn't hold up in military terms. Also, even the Pentagon wasn't quite foolish enough after Tet to claim that the NLF "had been completely crushed."
On the surface - and where else do the OxyContin crowd operate? - this Vietnamese Communist account would reinforce the argument of the conservatives that Tet made the gutless civilians back home stop "supporting the troops" in the "noble cause." But it should be obvious even to them that the Communist side would be happy with any development that would lead the US to decrease its support for the South Vietnamese "puppet" government.
The "puppet" description for the South Vietnamese government is basically accurate, which was always the core of the US problem in South Vietnam, whether the cause was noble or otherwise. Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese government were genuine nationalists and were recognized as such by the Vietnamese. In our propaganda-saturated times, I suppose I need to say here that saying that they were "genuine nationalists" is not the same as saying they were nice people. The South Vietnamese government, on the other hand, was viewed as completely dependent on the United States, which it was.
One of the fatal consequences of that dependence was that the Army in the Vietnamization program taught the ARVN to fight the American way: conventional warfare with heavy firepower and strong air support. But the ARVN wasn't facing Soviet Army Central pouring through the Fulda Gap. They were facing a guerrilla war which had reached the stage which included conventional warfare, as well. And even in the conventional engagements with the enemy - Laos in 1971, the North Vietnamese offensive of 1972 - their alleged success was largely the creation of imaginative public relations functionaries.
Did the public fail to "support the troops" as they should have?
Did the turn of public opinion against the war mean that the cowardly public prevented our flawless generals from winning the war? Only if you take the fanciful "what if" hypotheticals spun to bolster this contention seriously.
The core problem of the United States in Vietnam is that the stake that the enemy had in their goal - taking over all of Vietnam - was far greater than the stake (real or perceived) that the US had in Vietnam. Given that disparity, and given the practical impossibility of the US simply overwhelming the enemy militarily, it was inevitable that the United States would decide to cut our losses and leave.
And even in 1967, a large part of the American public had recognized that "winning" in Vietnam was not possible at a price the United States was willing to pay.
In fact, the US government's support of the South Vietnamese regime extended well beyond the time when most Americans were ready to see the thing wrapped up and to get the US out. Many of the officer corps who failed to live up to their continuous stream of promises of being on the verge of victory found the idea of a civilian stab-in-the-back attractive. And many conservatives found that criticism amenable to the militaristic tone in politics that they preferred.
It also proved very useful for defense companies pushing boondoggles like Star Wars.
But the argument that all that was needed for our invicible generals to win in Vietnam was a little more public backbone essentially assumes that the war was ultimately a testosterone contest between Americans and the Vietnamese Communists. Herring addresses the problem of that assumption this way (my emphasis):
The fundamental weakness of many of the lessons learned thus far [he's referring in particular to the we-could-have-won-it-scenarios] is that they assume the continued necessity and practicability of the containment policy, at least in modified form, thereby evading or ignoring altogether the central questions raised by the war. The United States intervened in Vietnam to block the apparent march of a Soviet-directed Communism across Asia, enlarged its commitment to halt a presumably expansionist Communist China, and eventually made Vietnam a test of its determination to uphold world order. By wrongly attributing the Vietnamese conflict to external sources, the United States drastically misjudged its internal dynamics. By intervening in what was essentially a local struggle, it placed itself at the mercy of local forces, a weak client, and a determined adversary. It elevated into a major international conflict what might have remained a localized struggle. By raising the stakes into a test of its own credibility, it perilously narrowed its options. A policy so flawed in its premises cannot help but fail, and in this case the results were disastrous.