Scenes From 50 Years Ago This Spring, When Americans Turned Out to Protest the Vietnam War

In Los Angeles, Boston and New York, students and veterans alike challenged the government’s ongoing support for the lengthy war

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A man smokes a cigarette as he talks to an armored guard at a protest in People’s Park circa May, 1969, in Berkeley, California. (Robert Altman / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM | April 3, 2019, 11:31 a.m.

At the start of 1969, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Vietnam. Despite promises from newly sworn-in president Richard Nixon to bring them home and end the nearly decade-long conflict, anti-war Americans were restless. On the first weekend of April, activists staged a series of protests in major American cities and colleges—students at schools like Columbia, Harvard, and Berkeley took to the streets and to their own campuses to protest not just the war, but what they saw as complicity from their own academic institutions. Of specific concern to Harvard students was the school’s ROTC program, which an editorial in the Harvard Crimson condemned: "ROTC is based on the notion that the country's universities should serve the needs of the warfare state,” the paper argued, insisting students on ROTC scholarships be relieved of their military obligations and given alternate funding. In New York City, members of the Black Panther Party took to the streets alongside veterans of the war, while in Los Angeles, high-ranking generals and officials became objects of mockery.

The protests would last through the spring and intensify when, in May of 1969, news of Nixon’s bombing of targets in Cambodia appeared in The New York Times. While Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops in June, the war would continue for four more years, until the signing of a ceasefire agreement in 1973.

clashes between protesters and police
Clashes between protesters and police were especially tense in Berkeley—here, People's Park demonstrators try and wash pepper spray from their eyes at a fountain after confrontations with the police, Berkeley, California, May 1969. (Robert Altman / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
high school protestors NYC
High-school students cutting classes rush onto the already turbulent Columbia University campus in New York City to protest the Vietnam War. April 26, 1969 (Arty Pomerantz / New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
General Waste More Land
Tom Dunphy, dressed as “Gen Waste More Land” and Calypso Joe, dressed as “Gen Hershey Bar,” show newspapers depicting General William Westmoreland and General Lewis B. Hershey during an anti-war moratorium on April 16, 1969, in Hollywood, California. (Robert Altman / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Students for a Democratic Society Queens College
A leader of the Queens College chapter of Students for a Democratic Society speaks to students during a sit-in at the college's administration building. April 16, 1969 (Vic DeLucia / New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
Black Panther Party courthouse protest NYC
View of a line of Black Panther Party members as they demonstrate, fists raised outside the New York City courthouse, New York, New York, April 11, 1969. (David Fenton / Getty Images)
veterans protest 1969
View of U.S. military veterans as they march during an anti-Vietnam War protest, New York, New York, April 5, 1969. Among the visible signs are ones that read "Free Speech For GI's" and "Free the GI Political Prisoner(s); Free the Panther 21." (Anthony Barboza / Getty Images)
Harvard punch ROTC protest
A punch is thrown during a scuffle over the removal of crosses from a mock graveyard intended as an anti-ROTC symbol on the Harvard University campus on April 18, 1969. Some students objected to the presence of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the school. (Ed Farrand / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Berkeley protestor
A protester and a National Guardsman with a fixed bayonet called in by Ronald Reagan to quell the People's Park protests look quizzically at each other, Berkeley, California, May 1969. (Toby Thornton / Underwood Archives / Getty Images)
Students for a Democratic Society march Boston
Demonstrators march in a Students for a Democratic Society protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and in favor of the National Liberation Front in Boston on April 26, 1969. (Charles Dixon / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Angela Serratore About the Author: Angela Serratore is a writer and a contributing editor at Smithsonian.com Read more articles from Angela Serratore and

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