Give Peace a Chance: The Antiwar Movement
To protest a $1.50 poll tax to subsidize the Mexican War, literary figure Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail in July 1846 and urged others to join him in a "peaceable revolution." When his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson paid him a visit and asked, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau replied, "What are you doing out there?" The exchange between the two transcendentalists may have been apocryphal, but Thoreau did go to jail rather than support the war. Thoreau was not the first American to question a government-declared war--a peace movement had begun by 1815--nor was he the only person to do so, but he may well be the best known, and he influenced many later antiwar protesters when he declared "The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war."1
Although the 1960s are commonly associated with peace activists and antiwar demonstrations, virtually every major conflict the United States has been involved in since the American Revolution has provoked protests. Opposition to the Vietnam War, however, differed from earlier protests; never before had so many Americans representing diverse organizations publicly questioned and demonstrated against their government in time of war. Whether the antiwar movement was successful in forcing the White House to negotiate an end to American involvement in Vietnam is still the subject of scholarly debate. More certain is that opposition to the America's longest war consumed a generation and left a legacy of ambivalence, bitterness, and animosity.