3. Civil Disobedience vs Conscientious Objection
First, we need to clarify the reason we use “civil disobedients” instead of “conscientious objectors” in referring to anti-Vietnam War protesters in our paper. If “conscientious objection” is defined as the personal action of refusing to serve in the military based on moral beliefs or secular reasons, it can only capture a small group of actors. It is more accurate to use the term “civil disobedience” to describe the large-scale, more radical collective actions of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Conscientious objection is derived from the Protestant idea of conscience, and religious people refused to go to wars based on the secular reason that killing is the worse burden and on the religious belief that “the political state shall not require a man to deny his God.” In fact, conscientious objection has a long history in the United States, a country with a strong Protestant tradition, and it “has been permitted since the earliest days of the republic.” The New York Constitution of 1777 stated “that all such of the inhabitants of this State [who]. . . from scruples of conscience, may be averse to the bearing of arms, be therefrom excused by the legislation.” A similar clause was written in the New Hampshire Constitution of 1784: “No person who is conscientiously scrupulous about the lawfulness of bearing arms shall be compelled to do so.”
For civil disobedience, many political theorists have their own definitions. For example, Rawls defines civil disobedience in his book A Theory of Justice as “a public, nonviolent conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.” In regard to the civil disobedience in the context of the Vietnam War, we have our own definition: it is a public, collective action carried out by a group of people motivated by the shared political opinion that the war is unjust rather than personal interest. Compared to the individuality that conscientious objection reinforces, civil disobedience is untenable without collective action. Walzer describes the collectiveness of performing civil disobedience in his book: “Men rarely break the law by themselves, or if they do they rarely talk about it. Disobedience, when it is not criminally but morally, religiously, or politically motivated, is almost always a collective act, and it is justified by the values of the collectivity and the mutual engagements of its members.”
The anti-Vietnam War movement, which was carried out as several mass protests in almost all the major cities in the United States, qualifies as an organized collective action and was one of the largest collective actions in U.S. history. For example, on April 17, 1965, a coalition of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a massive anti-war march on Washington, D.C. Inspired by the civil rights movement, the student protesters were motivated by their belief in peaceful, non-coercive foreign engagement and decided to act out their belief collectively: in its position paper, the SNCC “maintains that [the] country’s cry of ‘preserve freedom in the world’ is a hypocritical mask, behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.” Although the organizers originally expected about 2,000 protesters, in fact about 250,000 protesters came to the demonstration, and the number of the protesters was almost equivalent to the number of the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. This event captured national attention, including the attention of the Johnson administration.
Other than the discrepancies on the definitions, conscientious objectors and civil disobedients received differential treatment by authorities in American history. In addition to the rootedness of Protestant beliefs in the United States, there are other reasons that authorities were more tolerant of conscientious objectors. In political theorist Michael Walzer’s book Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship, he mentions three potential reasons. The first one is that the authorities were familiar with the historical tradition and did not worry about “the infinite extension of the claim.” Indeed, conscientious objectors’ attitudes toward the war could be anticipated, and they did not so much detest wars as detest the consequences of participating in war—killing innocents, which was forbidden. In other words, they had no interest in distinguishing a “just war” from an “unjust war” and extending their claims by supporting one but detesting another. The second reason, related to the first reason, is that the making of such stereotyped claims “did not constitute any sort of political judgement.” Their secular conscience of objection, as Justice Clark suggests in the opinion of United States v. Seeger, was a “merely personal moral code” that was shared with God and other followers of God. In other words, they “urged only their own exemption, adopting an attitude toward war something like a monk toward sex,” and hence the authorities felt no pressure to grant them exemptions since their judgements and policies would not be challenged. Last but not least, the number of conscientious objectors who opposed going to war for secular reasons was relatively small, and these objectors were easy to distinguish, so their existence did not threaten the authorities’ ability to carry out their war policy.
Civil disobedience in protest of the unjust war, in contrast, was perceived as a threat by the authorities. This was not only because civil disobedients made a distinction between just wars and unjust wars, but also because the collective actions they performed resulted from a common opinion which was contrary to the authorities’ judgement. Civil disobedients exceeded the limitations of the personal moral code, questioned judgements made by the authorities, and acted out their beliefs with a group of like-minded people who together could challenge the legitimacy of the authorities. Therefore, the authorities were hesitant to grant the exemption to civil disobedients and even prosecuted them because, otherwise, “the very capacity of the state to carry out its policies—even policies democratically decided upon—would be called into question.”
In general, the characteristics of the anti-Vietnam War movement determine our usage of “civil disobedience” in addressing the movement.
4. Why the war considered unjust?
After examining the historical background of the Vietnam War and clarifying the usage of “civil disobedience” in the paper, the major question we now need to answer is whether the war, as many protesters claimed, was unjust.
In fact, it was obvious that the United States fought a war in Vietnam solely for the purpose of protecting its hegemonic status and capitalist ideology. The United States, as a democratic country, supported other imperialist powers, voided the election of another country, and fought a proxy war at the expense of infringing another country’s sovereignty. The U.S. invasion was unjust because it violated the casus belli principle.
Other than the lack of a just cause, there are many other proofs that the Vietnam War was unjust. According to the just war theory, a traditional military doctrine, there are two principles in judging whether a war is just or not: Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello, justice to war and justice in war. Having a just cause is one component of Jus ad Bellum, and in order to declare a just war, the country needs to ensure that (1) war can only be waged by “legitimate authority to restore justice after an injury has been inflicted” and (2) war is the last resort. For the first rule, the Vietnamese did not first inflict injury on Americans; it was Americans supporting the French colonial power who ruthlessly oppressed the Vietnamese. Although some supporters of the Vietnam War argued that U.S. intervention prevented the authoritarian leader from inflicting harm on his own people and hence restored justice, the reality is that the puppet government in South Vietnam “opened fire on a crowd of Buddhist protestors in the central Vietnam city of Hue. For the second rule, attacking Vietnam certainly was not the last resort. The red scare of the Johnson administration dragged the United States into the war without even considering the alternatives, and the excessive use of armed force demonstrated the incompetence of U.S. foreign policy.
Jus in Bello, justice in war, includes two broad principles of discrimination and proportionality: “The principle of discrimination concerns who are legitimate targets in war, whilst the principle of proportionality concerns how much force is morally appropriate. The U.S. army’s military actions in Vietnam followed neither principle. The soldiers not only used excessive force against the Viet Cong but also did not distinguish the targets and hence killed many civilians. Some of the soldiers even intentionally killed civilians for pleasure. For example, the My Lai Massacre was a mass killing of unarmed Vietnamese civilians conducted by twenty-six American soldiers, and 500 civilians, including females, elders, and infants, were ruthlessly killed. The most shocking thing is that these soldiers, who killed civilians for fun, were not punished by martial law, and only one of them was sentenced for three and a half years. The banality of their actions cannot be covered by the “collateral damage” excuse. Considering the death toll of the Vietnamese, more than 2 million Vietnamese died in the war, and the U.S. army directly or indirectly killed more than 1.1 million North Vietnamese. The whole tragedy proved that the U.S. army had used excessive force and it was morally inappropriate. Therefore, judging from the consequences, the U.S. army’s military actions during the war were unjust.
In general, the Vietnam War, which failed to comply with the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello principles, was an unjust war; the law that forced people to fight such a war would therefore be considered as an unjust law. The unjust characteristic of the Vietnam War gave the anti-war protesters the moral foundation to dissent and to defy the law.
5. Different interests, same opinion: the diversity of the protesters
Some critics of the anti-Vietnam War movement argued that the main purpose of the protesters was to shirk military service. In other words, they believed that the protesters wanted to dodge the draft instead of demonstrating civil disobedience, and they disguised themselves as civil disobedients to look for their own exemption. Although we will prove that this argument is untenable, it is true that civil disobedience is performed out of common opinions instead of common interests. Hannah Arendt, one of the most famous political theorists in the area of civil disobedience, drew the distinction between conscientious objection and civil disobedience and reinforced the importance of “common opinion” in her article “Civil Disobedience”:
“We must distinguish between conscientious objectors and civil disobedients. The latter are in fact organized minorities, bound together by common opinion, rather than by common interest, and the decision to take a stand against the government’s policies even if they have reason to assume that these policies are backed by a majority; their concerted action springs from an agreement with each other, and it is this agreement that lends credence and conviction to their opinion, no matter how they may originally have arrived at it.”
The proof that the protesters of the anti-war movement were united by common opinion not common interest is that the group was very diverse, and many of the protesters were not affected by the selective military service yet still stood up against the war. For example, many women participated in the anti-war movement and the draft resistance. In the United States, women were exempted from military service and were not required to register, and hence many argued that since women had the “privilege” of not being drafted, they should not meddle with “men’s business.” Many female protesters who were also feminists refuted this argument. They believed that not being drafted by the army was not a privilege but a demonstration of gender inequality, and hence this should not have hindered women from standing up against the Vietnam War due to the solidarity of all the oppressed. For example, Jill Severn, a female protester from the University of Washington wrote,
“It is incongruous and offensive to us that we should be denied leadership or equality in the movement on the basis of our supposedly privileged and protected special position. We demand, and deserve, the right to participate in the movement on exactly the same basis as anyone else: on the grounds of our political beliefs and our equal stake in the future.”
The participation of women out of solidarity not only contributed to the diversity of the movement but also proved that protesters were united in a common opinion.
Moreover, many who obtained the deferments also participated in the anti-war movement. In fact, the draft system during the Vietnam War was unequal in the way that upper and middle class males could easily obtain deferments that protected them from being drafted, yet lower class males, who did not have the money and resources to obtain deferments through loopholes, would be drafted by the army. While many believe that upper and middle class males, who benefited from family wealth, detached from the movement, in Boston, 86% of the anti-war protesters obtained deferments. Protesting against the war brought no benefits for them and would potentially open them to being called for induction. Their actions were not done out of cowardice but courage in pursuing the belief that the unjust war should be ended.
In general, the anti-war movement, as an act of civil disobedience, fulfilled the prerequisite of being a collective action based on a common opinion. As political theorists such as Rawls suggested that civil disobedients should accept the consequences of breaking laws since “fidelity to law is expressed…by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of one’s conduct,” some of the anti-war protesters, confined to the civil disobedience theory, were willing to not only explain the reason behind their civil disobediences but also suffer the consequences of law-breakings. For example, Howard Zinn, a historian and anti-war social activist who was sentenced to jail due to participation in an anti-Vietnam war protest in Boston, faced choices when he demonstrated civil disobedience during wartime. On the day that he was supposed to appear on court, he needed to “[fly] to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to take part in a debate with the philosopher Charles Frankel on civil disobedience.” “I had a choice: show up in court and miss this opportunity to explain—and practice—my commitment to civil disobedience, or face the consequences of defying the court order by going to Baltimore. I chose to go,” he wrote in his article “Voices of A People’s History.” After the debate, he was arrested by police officers and sentenced to jail. Zinn made a well-known statement about the Vietnam war and civil disobedience:
“As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem….Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.”
Because of the existence of civil disobedients like Zinn who instructed the public on the necessity of civil disobedience and chose to defy the law at the risk of being jailed, the U.S. was not dragged into the endless abyss of war and injustice forever.
6. The strategic nonviolent nature of the anti-Vietnam War movement
The 1960s was an era of progressive movements: the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and others. Although these movements were seemingly separate, they were interdependent. For example, student protests at college campuses were typically organized by the same group of “New Left” students, and their experiences of prolonged struggles and the nonviolent strategy that they learned from the previous civil rights movement contributed to the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
In fact, two major “New Left” student associations operated on American campuses: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The SNCC was one of the most important civil rights groups that was originally founded by a group of college students, and it organized the Black Power movement in some Deep South states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Before the organization was “hijacked” by the race radicals, the collaboration between African American organizers and white liberal volunteers in promoting African Americans’ voting rights in the South was considered an exemplar of the inter-racial social movement. Although the SNCC cared very much about the situation of the Vietnam War and decided to issue a public a statement about the war sooner or later, but “it was of secondary importance to organizing efforts in the South” and the SNCC “did not want to risk gains in Black organizing by becoming too heavily involved in anti-war protest.”
The incident that spurred the SNCC to go against the Vietnam War was the murder of Sammy Younge, Jr., a Vietnam veteran and civil rights activist who was shot by white supremacists when he used a “white” bathroom in Alabama. Many were outraged because a veteran was killed because of his skin color. The SNCC released a statement regarding its anti-war stance that noted both Younge and Vietnamese civilians were the victims of injustice:
“The murder of Samuel Young in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam, for both Young and the Vietnamese sought, and are seeking, to secure the rights guaranteed them by law….Samuel Young was murdered because United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The United States is no respecter of persons or law when such persons or laws run counter to its needs or desires.”
In August 1966, the SNCC started to organize the Anti-Draft Protests for its Atalanta Project.
The SDS was another student-organized “New Left” association that had the reputation of being the “intellect of the student left.” In the early 1960s, the SDS was inspired by the SNCC and realized the potential of interracial collaboration in promoting racial equality. Hence, it organized the Economic Research and Action Project, an “interracial movement of the poor,” through unifying unemployed whites and African Americans who suffered from poverty. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for increased military intervention in Vietnam, announcing that draft inductions would increase from “17,000 to 35,000 per month.” This announcement compelled the SDS to organize a series of anti-Vietnam student protests. The SDS not only organized a massive anti-war march on Washington, D.C. with 250,000 protesters, as mentioned in the previous section, but also brought attention to the draft and initiated the draft resistance movement within the student body. The draft resistance movement organized by the SDS had evolved from a small group of University of California–Berkeley students who had “marched on the Berkeley Draft Board, presented the staff with a black coffin, [and] burned their draft cards” to gatherings in major cities of thousands of people who either returned or burned their draft cards simultaneously on October 16, 1967.
Other than the growing war-weariness of the younger generation, the SNCC’s and the SDS’s utilization of the non-violent and self-purification strategies that they learned from past struggles also contributed to the success of the antiwar movement (especially the success of the draft resistance). Martin Luther King, Jr., the most well-known leader of the civil rights movement, certainly inspired these successors. King mentioned his “four basic steps of any nonviolent campaign” in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” The anti-Vietnam War movement that was organized by the SNCC and the SDS captured the essence of King’s instructions regarding nonviolence. During the early stage of the civil rights movement, the SNCC engaged in nonviolent, direct actions almost exclusively. While a few of the SNCC members saw nonviolence as a way of life, many more viewed nonviolence as a tactic that “drew attention to racial injustice and compelled national politicians and their northern white constituents to act on black southerners’ behalf.” During the Vietnam War, many African Americans had “developed a sense of racial solidarity with the Vietnamese,” and hence the SNCC, which had developed nonviolent tactics during the civil rights movement, not only persuaded the public that Vietnamese, like millions of African Americans, were oppressed by the United States systematically, but also turned words into direct actions and disrupted the Atlanta draft board by nonviolent means.
The SDS, on the other hand, focused on “collection of facts” and “self-purification” before taking direct, nonviolent actions. The SDS and some anti-war faculty organized several “teach-ins”—informal lectures and discussions about the Vietnam War—at some major undergraduate institutions such as the University of California–Berkeley and the University of Michigan. The first American teach-in occurred at the University of Michigan with more than 3,000 attendees; fifty-eight professors and other activists were invited to speak about their opinions of the war. The teach-in included “three major speeches [,] each followed by a question period lasting about an hour and a half.” This teach-in inspired similar events at over 120 U.S. campuses. Through these teach-ins, student protesters not only obtained the facts “to determine whether injustices exist,” as King had suggested, but also engaged in the intellectual self-purification that prepared them to devote themselves to the anti-Vietnam war movement. The teach-in became a nonviolent and beneficial tactic for political engagement and “[created] local and national consciousness about the Vietnam War [that] led to progress within the movement.”
In general, the strategic, nonviolent nature of the anti-Vietnam War movement that the protesters acquired from King’s doctrine not only justified the movement itself but also contributed to the success of the movement by influencing public opinion.
7. The legitimacy gap: government oppression and unpatriotic accusation
Although the anti-Vietnam War movement was nonviolent and had a just cause, the protesters still encountered difficulties due to the context of the war. the U.S. government perceived protestors as a threat to the “national interest,” kept them under constant surveillance, and even used armed force to arrest them and oppress the movement. For example, the State of Georgia tried to stop the SNCC’s Atlanta Project on draft resistance by arresting eleven SNCC members and charging one of them with “insurrection” unconstitutionally. Even the peaceful teach-ins “faced backlash from the administration and the government”: for the one held at the University of Michigan, the major organizer received a “warning” letter from the governor, and the FBI even sent undercover agents to attend other teach-ins since the Johnson administration perceived the teach-ins as a potential threat.
One of the most horrific oppressions by a state government was the People’s Park incident in Berkeley, California. On May 15, 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency and sent National Guard troops to suppress the student protesters. The troops fired at the unarmed protesters, killing one death and wounding 128 others.
Arendt talks about the People’s Park incident in her article “On Violence” and the “absurdity” of using force against non-violent, unarmed students:
“One of the nicest examples of theories exploding into absurdity happened during the recent ‘People’s Park’ trouble in Berkeley. When the police and the National Guard, with rifles, unsheathed bayonets, and helicoptered riot gas, attacked the unarmed students—few of them ‘had thrown anything more dangerous than epithets’—some Guardsmen fraternized openly with their ‘enemies’ and one of them threw down his arms and shouted: ‘I can’t stand this anymore.’ What happened? In the enlightened age we live in, this could be explained only by insanity.”
While the government abused its power and used violence against nonviolent protesters, some pro-war conservatives also manipulated public opinion and stigmatized protesters as “unpatriotic hippies.” In The Pro-War Movement: Domestic Support for the Vietnam War and the Making of Modern American Conservatism, Sandra Scanlon talks about the conservatives’ depiction of the protestors as being unpatriotic:
“The growth of the anti-war movement was a clear target for conservative condemnation; its radical elements allowed conservative leaders to claim that opposition to the war was unpatriotic and helped create an alliance, however fragile, between conservatives and elements of the public still committed to the war. As wider segments of the public openly turned against the war after 1967, this alliance became stronger….within the conservative community, it was politicians who were the first to embrace these patriotic themes. They argued that anti-war protesters gave comfort to the enemy, which prolonged the war.”
In fact, accusing protestors of being “unpatriotic” was quite popular during the war, and some politicians, including Reagan, who was responsible for the bloodshed in Berkeley, used this accusation to “fan his own celebrity.” By reframing the Vietnam War controversy “into a simple question of patriotism,” the pro-war conservatives seemly occupied the moral high ground to criticize dissidents.
Given the context of the country being engaged in a military conflict, was the government warranted in arresting and prosecuting protesters, and did the patriotic context of war-making preclude protesters’ justification of their actions? Our answer to both questions is no.
For the first question, we believe that the using violence against citizens engaged in civil disobedience is illegitimate at any time. Arendt’s works, “Civil Disobedience” and “On Violence,” provide theoretical support. The United States, as a constitutional republic, is based on the social contract that Locke proposed, and consent, granted by the people of the republic, is the fundamental element of the social contract and the basis of the government’s power. According to Arendt, consent “is implied in the right to dissent,” so people in the republic have the right to voice their dissent regarding “specific laws or specific policies, which it does not cover even if they are the result of majority decisions”; if necessary, people can even withdraw their tacit consent at any time, and the representatives once empowered by the people would then lose their power. Civil disobedience serves an important purpose as a means for people to express dissent and to test the legitimacy of the law, so it should always be allowed in a constitutional republic, even during wartime.
The oppression of the anti-war protest and the excessive use of violence by the Johnson administration are evidence that a “legitimacy gap” existed between the government and the public. Arendt summarizes her observation of the relationship among power, legitimacy, and violence by saying, “Power needs no justification. What it does need is legitimacy; violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate.” The Vietnam War, in causing a loss of people’s confidence and a loss of the government’s legitimacy, also decreased the government’s power derived from its legitimacy. However, the Johnson administration “naturally [felt] powerful; even when the people [withdrew] the basis of that power, the feeling of power [remained].” Therefore, when the administration was challenged by protesters on the Vietnam War issue, the fear of losing power made the temptation to use violence irresistible and justifiable. The clash between the administration and the protesters, which resulted from the “legitimacy gap,” confirmed Arendt’s observations in “On Violence”: “Every decrease of power is an open invitation to violence—if only because those who hold power and feel it slipping from their hands . . . have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it.”
Regarding the stigmatization made by pro-war conservatives, we would like to argue that “unpatriotic” is an unfounded accusation that confounds one’s native land with the state/government that governs him or her; in the case of the Vietnam War, defying the draft law was a patriotic action that the protesters did out of love for the country. The definition of patriotism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “love for or devotion to one’s country,” but it does not suggest that one must love the state or federal government. Michael Walzer is one of the theorists who distinguish between “country” and “state” in discussing people’s obligations. In the second section of Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship, he writes,
“I do not want to deny the value of living permanently in one’s native land and enjoying a secure political membership there, but I do want to deny the relevance of either of these to the question of ultimate obligation to the state…I think it will be useful to stress a distinction that I have already made: the society into which we are born is not the same entity as the state that governs us.”
Therefore, we believe that the anti-Vietnam War protesters’ disapproval of the draft law and the military actions of the United States in Vietnam should not be considered evidence of their being “unpatriotic.” Instead, the protesters chose to defy the law at the risk of being jailed out of their love for the country and the American soldiers. Because of their dissenting actions, the United States was able to extricate itself from the abyss of war and injustice.
In this paper, we first discuss the historical background of the Vietnam War and the incentives for the United States to join the war, and then we distinguish conscientious objection from civil disobedience and explain the reason for using the latter term in our paper. We justify civil disobedience in the context of the Vietnam War by pointing out the injustice of the Vietnam War based on the just war theory, the fact that the anti-war movement was organized based on the same opinion rather than the same interest, the nonviolent nature of the movement, the illusive legitimacy of the Johnson administration, and the fundamental (though seemingly paradoxical) patriotism of the protesters. We hope the future protesters who pursue justice could learn from the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the strategies that anti-war protesters utilized will be the incredible legacies in contributing to the success of future movements.