[Dissertation] Protest music and the Vietnam War

Cet article est une dissertation rédigée pour le cours « Communication and Dissent Voices » à SUNY New Paltz. Il revient sur les origines de la guerre du vietnam et le rôle de la musique dans les mouvements contestataires aux États-Unis. 

The Vietnam war or the sixties in general is a very interesting era in terms of social movements in the United States and the world. As a very controversial conflict, it led to the creation of a pro-war movement supporting the nation against communism, but it more importantly led to the rise of protest movements against the war, mainly created by a new generation of youth, the baby boomers. At the same time, the sixties were a revolution in the world of music, and this is not a coincidence. Indeed, as Terry H. Anderson indicates in his essay “American Popular music and the War in Vietnam” (2001), “popular music has reflected the attitudes of the American people toward the war in Vietnam,” which explains the rise of protest music during this decade. As protest movements grew, music followed, and as the baby boomers were rejecting the establishment and standards of the time, new genres of music emerged, dealing with subject matters that corresponded to their values. Therefore, studying music during the sixties is interesting to understand the era since it mirrored the thoughts of the time. The same way, protest music, which became essential in the 60s, was a great communication tool for the different anti-war and even pro-war movements. This paper will first briefly review the War in Vietnam and try to understand the conflict, before focusing on the major protest movements that emerged with it and finally studying the importance of protest songs of the sixties.

In 1955, after the First Indochina War, Vietnam was divided into two parts: the North was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam controlled by Ho Chi Minh, a communist leader, and the South was the Republic of Vietnam, led by Ngo Ding Diem, an anti-communist. However, few Vietnamese were on his side which is why he needed the support of the United States. Therefore, his authority was challenged by a communist political organization called the National Liberation Front (NLF), often referred as the Viet Cong, a contraction of Việt Nam Cộng-sản, Vietnamese Communist. They had their own army and were very close to Ho Chi Minh’s government as they were actually endorsed by it. Moreover, South Vietnam also lost support from the Buddhist community, a people that was mostly suppressed by Diem’s catholic government. The American government thus decided that it was necessary to stabilize South Vietnam, mostly to prevent it from becoming communist. Diem’s government was overthrown, with the support of the United States. However, it still wasn’t stable, especially because of the power of the Viet Cong which attacked South Vietnam and the U.S military forces several times. South Vietnam was a victim of many coups, sometimes supported by the American government, and it mostly showed the instability of the state. One of the turning points of this conflict took place in the Gulf of Tonkin, in August 1964, where the U.S destroyer USS Maddox was attacked by three North Vietnamese boats. Two days later, USS Maddox as well as a second destroyer that had been sent in the area were attacked again. For the first time, the United States used its military power in Vietnam. The incident eventually led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized to “take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force.” This main escalation of the war will allow for a massive U.S involvement in Vietnam using as much military force to prevent North Vietnam and communist forces from taking control of the South because they feared that if Vietnam became communist, “the rest of the area would shortly follow.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) This phenomenon was called the Domino Theory and was a prominent fear of American leaders during the Cold War in general, and it remained the main justification for their intervention around the world. After China became a communist country, Korea followed and North Korea became communist as well despite the involvement of the United States. It was believed that if South Vietnam became communist as well, then other close countries such as Thailand or Indonesia would fall into communist rule as well. Then, from 1965, a few events led to a greater escalation of the war and the sending of troops. For example, the overthrowing of the government of South Vietnam, replaced by a government that lasted eighteen days before being overthrown again. Once again, it confirmed the instability of the state. Conversely, the North remained quite stable, which explains why many south Vietnamese were more and more interested in communism. After another coup and several attacks against South Vietnamese and American soldiers, “the United States launched Operation Rolling Thunder”, consisting in 8 weeks of “massive bombing,” which “marked a milestone in American involvement in the war.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) From this moment, more and more troops were sent to Vietnam. In April 1965, Johnson approved an increase of 18,000 to 20,000 men. Another troop increase in June 1965 brought the military force to 74,000. By the end of 1965, Washington claims a total of 148,300 troops in Vietnam. By December 1966 troops increase to a total of 389,000.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.)  The highest number was reached in 1969, with 541,000 soldiers. When Richard Nixon became President, he was still in favor of Vietnam and believed that American involvement was positive for Asia. However, he still had the end of the war in sight. He started slow withdrawal of troops in June 1969 and wanted to find an agreement with Ho Chi Minh, even though it didn’t mean that violence decreased. Fighting continued for years, and not much was done for peace. One example of violence during this period was the Christmas Bombing, which dropped “more than 36,000 tons of bombs” in twelve days (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) An agreement was finally found in late 1972, which forced the U.S government to withdraw the remaining of the troops. “Both sides established a cease-fire on 21 January 1973. Two years later, the North Vietnamese launched an attack on South Vietnam effectively reunifying the government under communist control.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) Therefore, in a few words, the American involvement in Vietnam did not prevent it from becoming a communist country, despite the massive casualties. Indeed, 58.000 American soldiers, 1,1 million North Vietnamese fighters, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 2 million civilians were killed.

At the same time, on the American ground, the war led to the rise of a massive protest movement. According to Amanda Marie Carr-Wilcoxson, “The Vietnam protest movement in the United States remains one of the most controversial movements in American History.” The history of those movements actually mirrors the Vietnam War itself, as it started very slowly and became bigger as the war increased. At the very beginning the movement did not really concern Vietnam itself but the Cold War in general. Two major movements can be noted, anti-war but also pro-war, or anti-communist. The very first large movement is McCarthyism, that emerged when Senator Joseph McCarthy “stated that he had a list of known communists working in the U.S. government.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) From then on, “anyone expressing himself as different from the norm became identified as a communist or communist sympathizer.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) However, not all Americans had this fear of Communism. “As Mme Nhu, a representative of the South Vietnamese Diem government, toured the United States, students on college campuses split between pro-war and anti-war. The Universities of Michigan and Chicago reacted with silent picketing. Harvard and Princeton also protested Mme Nhu’s presence with louder demonstrations. Conversely, students at Fordham and Georgetown cheered Mme Nhu and labeled her as a “fighting lady.”” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010.) In 1965, as the war escalated because of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the protest movement escalated as well. A group named the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) started to talk against the draft, which sent young men from age 18 to Vietnam and proposed a march against the Vietnam War. “SDS advocates that the U.S. get out of Vietnam for the following reasons: (a) the war hurts the Vietnamese people, (b) the war hurts the American people, and (c) SDS is concerned about the Vietnamese and American people.” (Wells, 1994) Also, “teach-ins” became frequent on American campuses, which consisted in organizing an “overnight debate” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p28) and discussions about the involvement in the war. As it began in early 1965 at the University of Michigan, it quickly spread in the whole country with thousands of participants. “On 17 April 1965, twenty thousand people gathered at the Washington Monument” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p28) with many students, adults, politicians, and celebrities. It is one of the first main protests of the movement against the Vietnam War. It is that year that most of the main organizations emerged, and Carr-Wilcoxson devises them into three categories. First, there are the “liberals and left-liberals” who basically used nonviolence in order to protest the cold war in general, using the argument of the Vietnam War. This category includes groups such as SANE and Americans for Democratic Action. Then “the radical left”, who believe that America is “the true evil”, calling it “Amerika” as a reference to fascism, including the groups SDS, Socialist Workers Party or young Socialist Alliance, and wanted to use violence to create a revolution. Finally, the “new pacifists”, such as War Resisters League, Committee for Non-Violent Action, or the Fellowship of Reconciliation, “partially believed in the Marxist philosophy but did not adhere to the Marxist solutions.” They were against violence in general and believed that capitalism was its main cause. Although their ideology was close to the radical lefts, they believed that the Viet Cong were “not correct in their plight” and refused the use of violence. In October 1965, almost a hundred thousand people participated in The International Days of Protest around the country and the world, with many participants publicly burning their draft cards as a strong symbol against the violence of the war. In November of the same year, Norman Morrison, 31 years old, set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon in order to protest the Vietnam War. Nine days later, Roger Allen LaPorte commits the same act in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. These acts of self-immolation was a way to reproduce similar sacrifices committed by Buddhists who protested against repression in South Vietnam, particularly the one of Thích Quảng Đức who set himself in a fire in Saigon two years before. Once again, very strong visual symbols are used. Following those events, more and more events are held in the country such as draft burning ceremonies or marches, and even trips to Vietnam. The most important ones being the march of November 27, 1965, that gathered thirty thousand people in Washington, or in February 1966 when a hundred veterans « marched to the White House and returned their service medals and discharge papers in protest of the war.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.36.) 1967 also was a crucial year for protests against the war, during which many important anti-war events were held around the country. A major boost was given to the movement when “Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke against the war” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.37.) in a speech in which he called for the end of the war. Even though most of the protests were non-violent, it sometimes led to chaos. In August 1968 for example, the period during which the Democratic National Convention was held, many violent protests happened. On August 25, a rock concert was stopped by the police, after which “many of the attendees became abusive. They turned over garbage cans and pounded on cars. The police responded with tear gas. The tear gas victims threw rocks and chanted insults. The next day the violence continued when after leader Tom Hayden’s arrest, several people climbed the Civil War memorial and decorated it with NLF flags. Police responded by ripping the offenders off the statue and breaking one person‟s arm” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.42.) During this period, violence was made both from the agitators’ group and the control group, always responding to each other. After these events, protests became more and more violent, especially with the election of Richard Nixon. In 1969, a new protest group called the National Mobilization Committee (Mobe) was founded, promising the use of non-violence. One of their most famous demonstrations is the March Against Death which began on November 13, 1969.  The march was held in Washington, D.C, and departed “at the west of Arlington Memorial Bridge. Every hour twelve hundred marchers crossed the bridge, each bearing the name of an American soldier killed in Vietnam or a Vietnamese village destroyed in the war. They marched in silence, single file through Washington, each stopping in front of the White House and stating the name he or she carried. The powerful march lasted forty hours with the participation of forty-five thousand people.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.46.) In 1970, the movement kept growing, especially “[a]fter President Nixon announced his plans for the invasion of Cambodia in April” when the movement “exploded” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.47.) especially among students. The most significant and controversial campus protest of the movement took place at Kent State University in Ohio. “Students battled with local police for nearly three hours” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.49.), they set buildings in fire, sliced firefighters’ hoses, and threw them rocks. The governor called the national guard, who fired into the crowd. As a result, four people were killed and thirteen were injured. This day, which is remembered as the “Kent State Shootings”, or “May 4 massacre,” led to “massive a movements of student protests”, during which “1.5 million students walked out of classes across the country effectively shutting down a fifth of the college campuses.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.49.) This event also inspired Neil Young in writing the song “Ohio”, which peaked at number 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and is now considered as the “greatest protest record” (Lynskey, 2010.)

Indeed, the Vietnam protest movement saw the rise of protest music, which became extremely popular. Vietnam became one of the main topics of songs, especially rock songs, often called “popular music”. “Almost seventy percent of the five-star albums [of rock’n’roll] were released during the conflict” (Anderson, 2001, p.51.) Indeed, the new generation of baby boomers wanted to listen to new genres that corresponded to their styles, rather than country music that their parents used to listen to. “Lyrics also changed significantly. During the 1950s, almost ninety percent of the top ten songs concerned romance or courtship, the theme of just over seven percent of those songs during the next decade. In the 1960s, social protest and antiwar lyrics appeared on the chats for the first time” (Anderson, 2001, p.51) Protest music actually reflects the movement in itself, becoming more and more popular as the movement was growing. “Historians of the ’60s have recognized the importance of music as a lens for understanding movements, attitudes, and opinions.” (Bradley, 2018.) In an article for the New York Times, Vietnam Veteran Doug Bradley considers that “[m]ore than any other American war, Vietnam had a soundtrack, and you listened to it whether you were marching in the jungle or in the streets.” He states that rock music in the sixties helped people in the United States to join the anti-war movement, but also helped soldiers in Vietnam “to build community, stay connected to the home front and hold on to the humanity the war was trying to take away.” His article focuses on the different interpretations whether you were in the movement in the United States, or if you were in Vietnam: “the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Purple Haze” meant one thing in an LSD-friendly dorm room and another to troops who associated it with the color of the smoke grenades used to guide helicopters into landing zones.” (Bradley, 2018)

In a study called “Protest Song as Rhetoric,” (1983) Professor Elizabeth Kizer defines protest music as the following: “(1)expressions of discontent that imply a need for change, (2) represent the needs of an individual or a special interest group, (3) may be adapted by and utilized as ideological statements of a social movement, whether it was the original intention or not, (4) may inspire the creation of other messages against the status quo, (5) may be used to stimulate thought or reinforce and modify attitudes” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.54.) She also says that protest songs can fall into two categories: “deliberative” and “epideictic.” Deliberative protest songs “suggest a specific change”  while epideictic songs “simply state the status quo is incorrect but do not suggest a change.” (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010, p.57.) Since artists wanted to have the largest audience possible, Kizer states that most protest songs of the era were epideictic. It doesn’t say to the listener what they have to do or to think, it only says that the war can be bad. However, what becomes interesting when studying them is asking the question “Why is the war bad?” Professor Kizer finds four subcategories in her studies: physical destruction, emotional destruction, lack of necessity, and immorality. Four sub-categories are also found within the deliberative songs: Education about the war, Deliberative Protest Songs, Peaceful Protest, and Violent Upheaval. One of those songs will be analyzed in this essay. In 1969, the band Creedence Clearwater Revival performed the song “Fortunate Son”, which could be considered as an epideictic song, stating the immorality of the war. The song will be analyzed using most of the seven variables “which have the potential to affect the rhetorical transaction in music” according to Irvine and Kirkpatrick in The musical form in rhetorical exchange: The ethical reputation of the source; The nature of the instrumental source; The lyrical structure of the song; The melodic structure of the song; The nature of the chord structure and progression; The structure of the communicative situation; The rhythm. (Irvine and Kirkpatrick, 1972.) The group had obviously a great ethical reputation at the time since most of their songs were very popular in the sixties among young Americans. Moreover, two important members of the brand were selected in the draft, and even though they were lucky enough to go in the reserves, it makes their message more powerful because they are concerned with the issue. The nature of the instrumental source, the rhythm, the nature of the chord structure and progression and the melodic structure of the songs are interesting in this case because the band was used to making softer rock, while this one has a kind of raging melody which emphasizes the message and their feelings. The “upbeat and uplifting melody” (Yanik, p.49) makes the song pleasant to listen despite the protesting lyrics. Indeed, Anderson found out in a survey that “over seventy percent of all students […] wrote that they are attracted more by the “sound” of a song than by its meaning.” This way, making the song pleasant to listen, almost motivational, will help it becoming popular and listened even by those who don’t feel concerned by the war. Concerning the communicative situation and the lyrical structure, the song shows a good example of the polarization of the movement. Using the expression “some folks”, John Fogerty, the singer, and writer of the song creates a contrast between those “folks”, which would supposedly make anything for their countries, and the singer, who doesn’t want to fight although he needs to. Yet those folks are “fortunate sons”, or even “senator’s sons”, who are wealthy enough to escape the draft, which makes of the song as a good reflection of the numerous anti-draft protests that were held in the sixties. It is a clear denunciation of “the wealthy, especially those who inherited their wealth, and the politicians are the clear villains who order the young working-class males to war while protecting their own children from participation.” (Yanik, p.49) Also, the repetition of “It ain’t me”, stays in the mind the listener and helps, once again, to make the song popular. Some even thought it was a patriotic song that complained about the lack of patriotism of the troops. The ambiguity of the lyrics makes it even more powerful, as some people would be listening to an anti-war song without even knowing it.

Again, protest music is interesting because it reflects the protest movements. Yet it is important to remind that even if antiwar movements were more not as prominent, a lot of Americans were pro-war and anti-communist. Therefore, even though the majority of the protest songs opposed the war, some songs, particularly within country music, conveyed patriotic messages. In 1966, “approximately 120 pro-war songs were recorded by country-western singers” (Anderson, p.53.) For example, “Hello Vietnam”, made the top country chart in 1965 and remained number one for three weeks. This country song performed by Johnnie Wright takes the point of view of a soldier who has to leave his family to go fight in Vietnam, and yet the song remains openly pro-war as can be stated by the fifth stanza: “I hope and pray someday the world will learn, that fires we don’t put out will bigger burn. We must save freedom now at any cost, or someday our own freedom will be lost.” The success of the music can be understood as country music remained popular in a more traditional America who did not particularly agree with the anti-war movement. The fact that the song became so popular is a perfect illustration of the growing political divide in the United States.

Even after the end of the war, Vietnam was still a prominent topic in protest music, as a way to denounce the psychological state of the veterans and remind how bad the war was. “Still in Saigon”, released in 1982 by The Charlie Daniels Band states “My younger brother calls me a killer, And my Daddy calls me a vet.” (Anderson, 2001, p.62.) Therefore, popular music is an excellent way to understand society. Rock, country of folk songs of the sixties and after are a good reflection of American people’s sentiment towards the war, whether it is for or against it. As a very controversial movement, not all Americans were in the streets to protest and this is why music permits to remind us what the general public opinion was and give a voice to the ones who preferred to remain silent.


  • Anderson, T. H. (1986). « American Popular Music and the War in Vietnam”. Peace & Change, 11(2), 51
  • Carr-Wilcoxson, A. M. (2010). Protest Music of the Vietnam War: Description and Classification of Various Protest Songs.
  • Rodnitzky, J. L. (1999). “The Sixties between the Microgrooves: Using Folk and Protest Music to Understand American History, 1963-1973. » Popular Music and Society, 23(4), 105–22
  • Wells, T.  (1994).  The war within : America’s battle over Vietnam.  Berkeley, CA : University of California Press
  • Irvine, J. & Kirkpatrick, W. (1972) “The musical form in rhetorical exchange.” Quarterly Journal of Speech Volume 58, 1972 – Issue 3
  • Kizer, E. (1983) « Protest song lyrics as a Rhetoric.” Popular Music and Society, Volume 9, 1983- Issue 1
  • Lynskey, D. (2010) “Neil Young’s Ohio – the greatest protest record” Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/may/06/ohio-neil-young-kent-state-shootings
  • Bradley, D. (2018) “I Served in Vietnam. Here’s My Soundtrack.” Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/opinion/vietnam-war-rock-music.html
  • Yanik, Sophia K., « A Narrative Inquiry of Protest Songs: Comparing the Anti-War Music of Vietnam and Iraq » (2016). Sociology and Criminal Justice Undergraduate Honors Theses. 2.


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