How the Counterculture Movement Helped End the War in Vietnam


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

By 1968, 500,000 American troops were in Vietnam even as Americans began to protest US military intervention. In the spirit of the counterculture movement, in the fall of 1967, Abbie Hoffman—a co-founder of the Youth International Party (the Yippies)—organized a march on the Pentagon. Nearly 50,000 protesters descended on the Pentagon, and some broke through the military police lines.

Vietnam anti-war protestors on the Pentagon
Some of the 50,000 who marched on the Pentagon managed to break through military lines. (Image: US Army/Public domain)

The Pentagon against the Yippies

Expressing the spirit of the counterculture movement, Hoffman pledged:

Image of Abbie Hoffman
Unfortunately, Abbie Hoffman’s promises before the march on the Pentagon weren’t fulfilled. (Image: Gotfryd, Bernard/Public domain)

We will dye the Potomac red, burn the cherry trees, panhandle embassies, attack with water pistols, marbles, bubble gum wrappers, bazookas, [and] girls will run naked… [Then the protesters] shall raise the flag of nothingness over the Pentagon, and a mighty cheer of liberation will echo through the land.

The Yippies didn’t quite accomplish everything that Hoffman had promised. The Pentagon held, and 700 protesters wound up in jail. Yet, this event was pivotal in marking a shift in the tactics of the anti-war movement from protest to active resistance. In spite of heavy fines and prison terms, the public ceremonial burning of draft cards had become commonplace since 1965. But by the end of the decade, acts of resistance went further.

Muhammad Ali’s Sentence

Many young Americans fled to Canada to avoid the draft. One who didn’t was the young heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali, who reported to an army induction center in Houston, Texas, in April 1967 when his draft number came up. 

Image of Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali’s stand against the war in Vietnam was crucial as part of the counterculture movement. (Image: Ira Rosenberg/Public domain)

But instead of stepping forward when his name was called, Ali refused. Failing in three attempts to have his draft status changed due to what he identified as his non-violent Muslim faith, Ali was subsequently arrested and stripped of his heavyweight title.

Ali was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the military. He became a hero of the anti-war movement while appealing the guilty verdict. He spoke at colleges around the country, arguing that since the Vietnamese had never oppressed him, he wouldn’t go shoot “some poor, hungry people in the mud for big powerful America”. 

Ali’s argument points to some common theoretical ground between the civil rights and anti-war movements. Many prominent civil rights leaders made the argument that Black Americans and the Vietnamese alike were victims of US oppression.

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Peaceful Demonstrations Take a Sharp Turn

At the beginning of May 1970, students at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio organized protests against America’s continued involvement in Vietnam and military incursion into Cambodia. Most of the demonstrations were peaceful. But the torching of a reserve officer training corps building unnerved authorities, and Ohio Governor James Rhodes called the National Guard to campus. 

This galvanized protesters, who called a rally on May 4, 1970. By noon, thousands of students had gathered while National Guardsmen stood just a field away. Through a bullhorn, a Kent State police officer ordered the demonstrators to disperse. When the demonstrators refused after repeated efforts, and some rocks started to be flung, the commander of the guards ordered his men to load and lock their weapons as tear gas canisters were fired into the crowds. 

As the guards pursued the protesters in order to ensure they dispersed, students taunted the soldiers and pelted them with rocks. When the guardsmen retreated back up a hill, for reasons that remain unclear, a group of guards turned and fired their weapons. Though most of the rounds went into the air, some hit the students. Four students—two men and two women—were killed. Another nine were injured.

The killing of unarmed protesters seemed to epitomize the state-sanctioned violence they were protesting. Rather than dissuade future demonstrations, the Kent State killings inflamed them.

Violence in Vietnam Backfires into America

The Canadian pop and folk musician Neil Young had only recently joined the American band Crosby, Stills, and Nash when he heard the tragic news. He walked outside and, upon his return an hour later, told the band that they needed to record a song he’d just written. It was called “Ohio”. Young sings about Nixon’s “tin soldiers… cutting us down” and the “four dead in Ohio”. The world of violence in Vietnam had come home to roost in the United States.

In many ways, the deaths of the four Kent State students marked the end of the optimism that had so quirkily and yet unabatedly characterized the 1960s counterculture movement. Perhaps the naïve hopes that had guided a generation now seemed desperately damaged. Resistance remained, but it was now based on disillusionment.

The Pentagon Papers

In 1971, the New York Times and the Washington Post published a trove of top-secret defense documents that constituted a history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam across the previous three decades. With the publication of The Pentagon Papers, the United States became implicated in the escalation of the conflict far more than had previously been known. American disillusionment and hopelessness reached new heights. 

Patriotic rhetoric about spreading democracy and freedom around the world crumbled in the face of evidence of US-sponsored rigged elections, corruption, and covert operations. The dozens of volumes of leaked reports also showed that the American government knew it was sending a generation to fight an unwinnable war.

The United States began to pull out of Vietnam in 1973 and completed the withdrawal by early 1975. Its men and women no longer had to fear fighting and dying in a faraway war they didn’t believe in.

But the crimes of a president caught up in a re-election scandal—the Watergate burglary that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation—did not restore many Americans’ faith in their government. Protest may have given way to resistance in the second half of the 1960s, but in the next decade, disillusionment didn’t lead to resistance but apathy.

Common Questions about How the Counterculture Movement Helped End the War in Vietnam

Q: How did Yippie’s march on the Pentagon turn out?

The Yippies organized march managed to round up 50,000 people. Though some protestors broke through military lines, the Pentagon held, and 700 protestors ended up in jail.

Q: What happened when Muhammad Ali refused to join the war in Vietnam?

Muhammad Ali was arrested and stripped of his heavyweight title. Ali was also sentenced to five years in prison.

Q: What was the aftermath of the publication of the Pentagon Papers?

Post the publication of the Pentagon Papers, hopes around the country about spreading democracy and freedom were squashed since it was found that the U.S. government had a hand in corrupt elections and such. Finally, in 1975, America’s withdrawal from Vietnam was complete.

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