Vietnam and Opposition at Home

During the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 Americans died and more than 300,000 were wounded. The United States entered the war incrementally between 1950 and 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson began aggressively bombing North Vietnam and sent U.S. Marines to defend South Vietnam. The U.S. became involved in the war for a number of reasons, many of which evolved over time. Increased U.S. involvement was matched by a rise of antiwar protest in the 1960s, as dissenting groups formed at many of the nation's universities, including University of Wisconsin campuses. In the early 1960s, however, the majority of Americans supported the Johnson administration's claim that it was fighting to stop communism in Southeast Asia, as the country had in Korea a decade before, and were unaware that this gradually escalating war would forever alter American society.

The war was a military struggle fought primarily in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. It pitted the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF, or Vietcong) against the United States and the South Vietnamese army. From 1946 until 1954, a unified Vietnamese population had fought for their independence from France. At the end of that struggle, the country had been temporarily divided into two governing units. North Vietnam was allied with the Soviet Union and China and was governed by Vietnamese communists who sought to unify Vietnam under a communist government like that in China. South Vietnam, on the other hand, many of whose leaders had collaborated with the French, was allied with the United States and sought to create a democratic capitalist society.

As the two governments continually fought against each other after 1954, the United States began to supply more and more aid and soldiers to South Vietnam. In 1965, when it appeared the North might win, the U.S. sent large numbers of troops to prevent the South from collapsing. By 1969 more than 500,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Vietnam and another 1.2 million were positioned elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Although Congress never officially declared war, the conflict in Vietnam took the lives of many soldiers and brought social, political, and economic costs. Ultimately, the U.S. failed to achieve its goal of propping up the government of the South, and Vietnam was reunified under Communist control in 1975 as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

More than 57,000 Wisconsin residents served in Southeast Asia; 1,239 did not return. American soldiers were, on average, younger than those who had served in World War II, nineteen as compared to twenty-six. They also came from disproportionately from rural and urban working-class backgrounds. Because the army had a policy of rotating servicemen into Vietnam for a year at a time, soldiers returned home individually rather than as members of a military unit, undermining the cohesiveness found in previous wars.

Although many Americans supported the Vietnam War, as the Johnson administration increased U.S. involvement dissatisfaction turned into organized protest, especially on college campuses. Early protests were organized around questions about the morality of U.S. military involvement. Antiwar sentiment increased following the Tet Offensive of 1968 and after Johnson's successor, President Richard M. Nixon, escalated U.S. involvement, and the war claimed large numbers of U.S. lives. Protests also grew rapidly after the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and the Christmas Eve bombing of Hanoi in 1972 brought international condemnation. Soon, virtually no college or university in the United States was without an organized student movement, often led by the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or allied groups.

During the 1960s, the University of Wisconsin-Madison gained a reputation as one of the nation's most radical campuses. Students and professors began to organize teach-ins on the war in 1965. The teach-ins were large forums for discussion between students and faculty about the war. Students marched to protest the Vietnam War, burned draft cards, and confronted army recruiters. In October of 1967, UW students protested against the makers of the weapon napalm, Dow Chemical Company, who were recruiting at the Madison campus. The resulting police action and violent confrontation helped to radicalize many formerly apolitical students. The October riot was part of an anti-Dow protest that had begun months before the company's representatives arrived on campus and would have long-lasting effects.

Another, more disturbing, event took place on August 24, 1970, at UW-Madison's Sterling Hall, home to the Mathematics Research Center, a U.S. Army-funded facility which many protesters believed contributed to the death and destruction in Vietnam. A group of young men known as "The New Years Gang" detonated a bomb outside the east wing of Sterling Hall, killing physics researcher Robert Fassnacht and injuring four others. While many feared that the bombing would escalate tensions and encourage more violent protest, the bombing actually helped to discredit the peace movement on campus.

Throughout the period of these protests, North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces managed to occupy more and more territory in the South. Their successes, combined with growing voter disenchantment with the war in the U.S., prompted the government to start peace negotiations, which were signed in January of 1973; U.S. troops were withdrawn two months later. The end of hostilities finally came in April of 1975, when the southern capital of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) fell to communist forces.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Stevens, Michael, ed. Voices from Vietnam. (Madison, Wis.: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1996)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to artifacts: Engine fragment from the van used in the Sterling Hall bombing, 1970Engine fragment from the van used in the Sterling Hall bombing, 1970
Link to book: A guide to forming antiwar organizationsA guide to forming antiwar organizations
Link to book: Letters home from Wisconsin men and women serving in VietnamLetters home from Wisconsin men and women serving in Vietnam
Link to images: Vietnam War photographs by Dickey ChapelleVietnam War photographs by Dickey Chapelle
Link to manuscript: War veterans advocate for peaceWar veterans advocate for peace
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