In February 1965, President Lyndon Johnson launched a policy of escalating the American military presence in Vietnam. Although President Kennedy had already sent 16,000 military advisors to South Vietnam in 1963, Johnson ordered aerial bombing of North Vietnam, followed by a battalion of marines, and then a request to Congress in the summer of 1965 to draft 184,000 young men to fuel the ground war. Johnson pursued this policy of escalation with no overt declaration of war and little explanation of the mission, save for Vietnam’s role in preventing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
Johnson’s war policy did not go unnoticed. During the early 1960s, a university- and college-based student movement arose. They were dubbed the “New Left” to differentiate this younger generation of activists from older activists had who worked on issues such as nuclear disarmament during the Cold War and the ongoing movement for Civil Rights that began in the 1950s. The Students for a Democratic Society, founded in 1962 at the University of Michigan, is widely considered the first “New Left” organization, soon followed by the organizers of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley that took place in 1964.
As the war began escalating in 1965, anti-war protestors felt called to inform the public about the reasons behind the war and explain why it should be stopped. Faculty members, along with members of the SDS, launched the first day-long “Teach-In on the War in Vietnam” in April 1965 at the University of Michigan. Student activists at UC Berkeley were inspired. As a great number of people involved in the prior year’s Free Speech Moment were facing legal troubles, a new group of leaders emerged, among them was Jerry Rubin, a former UC Berkeley graduate students, Professor Stephen Smale, and local journalist Robert Sheer.
This new group formed the Vietnam Day Committee and in May 1965, organized a 36-hour teach-in event on campus. The event attracted more than 30,000 people—the largest number of any of the 35 other university teach-ins that took place that year. The invited guests at UC Berkeley included Dr. Benjamin Spock, California Assemblymen Willie Brown and John Burton, philosopher Alan Watts, comedian Dick Gregory, student activist Dave Dellinger, journalists I.F. Stone. Writer Norman Mailer’s comment that “President Johnson was a bully with an air force,” was widely reported in the national media.
Berkeley’s Vietnam Day Committee strategized throughout 1965 on how to make a war that was taking place across the Pacific Ocean visible to Americans at home. That May, several hundred students marched down to the Berkeley Draft Board carrying a black coffin. Forty students burned their draft card, an act not yet made illegal by Congress. The Vietnam Day Committee also organized demonstrations along the Santa Fe railroad tracks running through West Berkeley and Oakland taking new inductees to the Oakland Army Induction Center. They were joined by more than 15,000 demonstrators to march toward Oakland where they were met by policemen in full riot gear.
Although UC administrators banned the Viet Nam Day Committee from appearing on campus, other students took up the cause. They held sit-ins around navy recruiters and other pro-war organizations that had tables set up in the student union. The first campus protest against Dow Chemical Corporation, manufactures of the burning, jell-like substance Napalm, took place on Berkeley’s campus in 1966.
Throughout 1967, organizers of “Stop the Draft Week,” along with 3000 demonstrators, focused again on the Oakland Army Induction Center. During the four day protest that grew to more than 10,000 demonstrators, the building was surrounded as protestors handed out leaflets to the inductees, asking them to change their minds and refuse to serve.
By 1968, the antiwar’s movement goal of making the war visible to mainstream America had succeeded. Public opinion polls from 1965 showed that a majority of Americans supported the war. By 1968, those numbers were reversed. It did not help matters that Johnson continued to escalate the war, drafting more than 500,000 Americans to serve in Vietnam by 1968. That year, however, was a turning point. Despite being seen as ready to give up the war, the North Vietnamese were able to launch a massive attack in January 1968 called “the Tet Offensive”. Johnson reelection was challenged by two anti-war candidates, Senators Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, in the Democratic primaries and he chose not to run for re-election. Although former Republican vice president Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 and would continue the war through his aborted second term of office, the anti-war movement, which was birthed on college campus such as UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan could claim credit for drawing national attention to the conflict and perhaps for a speedier withdrawal.