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Foreign Policy, Vietnam War, and Watergate, The Anti-Vietnam War Movement

containment doctrine, Antiwar protests, William Fulbright, draft cards, draft boards

By the start of 1968, Johnson encountered mounting opposition to the war. An antiwar movement had arisen in 1964 and 1965 as Johnson began to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. In 1965 students and teachers at the University of Michigan held one of the first campus teach-ins to spread information about the war. Teach-ins soon were held at many colleges and universities. Antiwar protests evoked massive support among draft-age youth, half of them college students. Chanting activists disrupted draft boards, burned draft cards, occupied campus buildings, and marched on the Pentagon.

The Johnson administration faced political critics as well. Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright began to hold hearings that questioned why the United States was fighting in Vietnam. Fulbright stopped supporting Johnson when he learned that the president had exaggerated enemy aggression at the Gulf of Tonkin. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called the bombing campaign a failure and left his post in 1968. European allies also criticized the American role in Vietnam.

At home, the war generated intense debate. “Hawks” assailed the policy of limited war and favored an all-out effort to defeat Communism in Vietnam. Some contended that politicians prevented the military from winning the war, or that military leaders had no strategy for victory. Others held that the antiwar movement stifled support for the war, ruined morale, and undercut the military effort. “Doves,” in contrast, believed that the United States should never have become involved in Vietnam. The conflict, they argued, was essentially a civil war, and contrary to containment doctrine, its outcome was irrelevant to American security. To some critics, the war was unwinnable, and stalemate was the best foreseeable outcome. In any case, doves argued, the United States should negotiate with North Vietnam to end the war quickly.

By 1968 antiwar sentiment affected electoral politics. Challenging Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota campaigned against the war. McCarthy roused fervent support among the young, and Vietnam swiftly became the major issue of the 1968 presidential race. Reconsidering his earlier policies, Johnson limited bombing in Southeast Asia and initiated peace talks with Hanoi and the NLF. After he was challenged by McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson decided not to seek reelection and withdrew from the race. The president became a political casualty of the Vietnam War.

In 1968 an aura of crisis grew with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April and of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June. In Chicago during the summer of 1968, violence erupted when police attacked antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention. In the election that fall, Richard Nixon defeated Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, and third party candidate George Wallace.

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