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Effects of American Dissent on Elections & Vietnam War Policy

Effects of American Dissent on Elections & Vietnam War Policy
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  • 0:02 Entering the Vietnam War
  • 1:41 The Election of 1968
  • 3:57 The Vietnam War under Nixon
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

During the Vietnam War, public opinion and antiwar dissent had a profound impact in the United States. The voice of the people influenced not only the election of 1968, but had a significant role in dictating Vietnam War policy.

Entering the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is one of the most controversial topics in American history. Many Americans to this day believe that the U.S. had no business fighting such a costly war half a world away. While a large majority of the public today, and certainly in the later years of the Vietnam War, reflects this sentiment, did you know that the majority of Americans supported the conflict in Vietnam at its onset?

After the division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel, the United States grew increasingly wary of the communist threat in North Vietnam. As the leader of the free world, the United States felt obligated to defend South Vietnam, fearing that if the country did nothing to support or intervene in South Vietnam, it would surely encourage pro-communist activity in the region or in other areas around the world. With the support of the American people, the U.S. government slowly built up its presence in Southeast Asia.

At first, most of U.S. intervention was behind the scenes, especially during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. However, during Lyndon Johnson's administration, this all began to change. The number of troops sent to Vietnam was on the rise, as were climbing casualties and costs. At the same time, the war was broadcast directly into people's homes, allowing Americans to bear witness to the horrors of war.

Mounting discontent came to a head in 1968, after the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive. President Lyndon Johnson's approval ratings took a nose dive. Half the country disapproved of his handling of the Vietnam War, just over a third approved, while the remaining individuals polled were without opinion. These events had a profound effect on not only the election of 1968, but foreign policy in Vietnam through the remainder of the war.

The Election of 1968

As you can imagine, the Vietnam War was the central focus of the election of 1968. The United States was funding a war to the tune of about $25 billion a year. This money was largely leached from social welfare and other domestic programs. At the same time, the public's faith in the United States' ability to win the war was on the decline.

Early in 1968, Eugene McCarthy, a congressman from Minnesota, entered the New Hampshire primary as an anti-war candidate. His campaign, largely supported and run by young and enthusiastic anti-war students, had a strong showing in the primary. Although President Johnson was not officially on the ballot in New Hampshire, he managed to garner a large number of write-in votes. By the end of March, the tremendously popular Robert F. Kennedy also entered the race as a Democratic candidate. Seeing the writing on the wall, Johnson shocked the nation with two announcements:

  • The U.S. planned to stop bombing over most of North Vietnam
  • He was not going to seek re-election

In the wake of Johnson's announcement, the election of 1968 became a true frenzy. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, entered the race. Kennedy continued to gain American support, but his campaign came to a tragic end after he was killed in a California hotel. Ultimately, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party's nomination at the Democratic Convention in August of 1968. As the Democrats chose their candidate, anti-war protesters rioted outside.

Humphrey's Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, took an early lead. Humphrey's campaign was tainted by his close association with the unpopular Johnson administration. Nixon ran on a campaign centered on the concept of ''law and order''; he alleged that Johnson was incapable of managing the Vietnam War and clearly had no control over antiwar demonstrations and civic unrest on the home front. This was made evident by the massive and violent protests that surrounded the Democratic Convention. Though Humphrey's popularity grew at the tail end of the campaign, it was not enough to win. Nixon defeated Humphrey, carrying the electoral votes of 32 states. Nixon's success in the election of 1968 was emblematic of America's widespread frustration and anger with the status quo.

The Vietnam War under Nixon

As the Vietnam War became increasingly prevalent in the United States, a growing antiwar movement spread across the country, inciting riots, protests, and marches. In the final months of his presidency, President Johnson succumbed to public pressure. After announcing in early 1968 that the U.S. would cease most bombing in North Vietnam, he made a second announcement right before the presidential election: that the United States would stop all bombing as it negotiated with the North Vietnamese.

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