The student movement and the antiwar movement

Read about the student protests against the Cold War in the 1960s.


  • The student movement arose to demand free speech on college campuses, but as the US involvement in the Vietnam war expanded, the war became the main target of student-led protests.
  • News coverage of the war, which included graphic visual testimonies of the death and destruction in Vietnam, turned US public opinion increasingly against the war.
  • Revelations that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied to the American people about the war undermined the public’s trust in government.

Origins of the student movement

The student movement arose at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, when students involved in civil rights activism chafed at the university’s sudden attempt to prevent them from organizing politically on campus. The Free Speech Movement arose to challenge the university’s restrictions on political speech and assembly.1^1
Soon, other student groups were springing up across the nation with similar demands. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) formed at the University of Michigan and issued the Port Huron Statement, which criticized US foreign policy and attacked the Cold War assumptions underlying it.
Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962
Introduction: Agenda for a Generation
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people -- these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract "others" we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.
While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration "all men are created equal . . ." rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.
We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers undernourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth's physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than "of, by, and for the people."
Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered, but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international disorder, supertechnology -- these trends were testing the tenacity of our own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize their application to a world in upheaval.
Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority -- the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will "muddle through," beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now . . . .
Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity -- but might it not better be called a glaze above deeply-felt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today . . . .
Some of these student groups became a major part of the New Left, a broad-based political movement that challenged existing forms of authority, while others embraced a counterculture that promoted sexual liberation and unabashed drug use.2^2
Black and white photograph, taken from the stage, showing Swami Satchidananda addressing a crowd of thousands at Woodstock.
Swami Satchidananda giving the invocation at the opening ceremony of Woodstock, a three-day-long music festival held in August 1969 on a farm in upstate New York. 400,000 people attended the festival, which featured popular performing artists like Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who. Image courtesy Mark Goff.

Vietnam and the rise of the antiwar movement

As the US involvement in the Vietnam War intensified, so did antiwar sentiment. Especially after 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the US troop presence and bombing campaigns in Vietnam, the war became the focal point for student political activism.
Black and white photograph showing a group of young men and women marching and carrying signs protesting the Vietnam War.
Students protesting the Vietnam War in 1965. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Student groups held protests and demonstrations, burned draft cards, and chanted slogans like “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Massive US spending on the war effort contributed to skyrocketing deficits and deteriorating economic conditions at home, which turned more segments of the American public, including religious groups, civil rights organizations, and eventually even some Vietnam veterans, against the war.
Although antiwar activism constrained the president’s ability to further escalate the war effort after 1965, it also lent credence to the conservative portrayal of a chaotic society desperately in need of “law and order.”3^3 In 1968, Richard Nixon successfully campaigned for the presidency on the basis of such rhetoric, which implied a harsh approach to dealing with antiwar activists and other challengers of the status quo.
Once in office, Nixon attempted to quash domestic dissent by reducing the US troop presence in Vietnam and reforming the draft. The elimination of the draft and its replacement with an all-volunteer professional army was a major lasting consequence of the antiwar movement. At the same time, Nixon authorized the FBI and the CIA to expand their surveillance and harassment of antiwar protest groups.4^4

The role of the media in the antiwar movement

The role of the news media in the antiwar movement increased both antiwar sentiment and hostility towards antiwar activists. As investigative journalists began digging into the official version of the US war effort, they began to uncover the truth of conditions in Southeast Asia. Graphic images of death and destruction displayed on the nightly news turned the American public ever more sharply against the war. At the same time, news media coverage was frequently hostile to the activists themselves, and thus contributed to the conservative backlash against the antiwar movement.5^5
In 1971, the New York Times broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, a Department of Defense report that concluded that the Johnson and Nixon administrations had systematically lied to the American people and Congress about the extent of US involvement in the Vietnam war.6^6 Together with the Watergate scandal, which involved Nixon’s authorization of the illegal wiretapping of his political enemies, the Pentagon Papers undermined the trust of the American people in its president and government.

What do you think?

Why did US public opinion turn against the Vietnam war?
What are the key arguments of the Port Huron Statement?
Do you think the news media turned more people against the Vietnam war or against the antiwar activists?
What were the long-term consequences of antiwar activism?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
  1. See W.J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War: The 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  2. See Robert C. Cottrell, Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Rise of America’s 1960s Counterculture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
  3. See Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2002).
  4. Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 143.
  5. See Melvin Small, Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).
  6. See Steve Sheinkin, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2015).
Full text of the Port Huron Statement courtesy H-Net.