Simon Hall, Rethinking the American Anti-war Movement

IssueOctober 2012
Review by Ian Sinclair

Simon Hall, senior lecturer in American History at the University of Leeds, has written an impressively researched, concise history of the anti-Vietnam War movement. With extensive endnotes and a wide-ranging bibliography, this is a superb introduction for students of the period and those interested in anti-war protest more broadly.

Incredibly, the 4,000 college students who demonstrated in Washington DC in 1962 in support of a conciliatory foreign policy made up, at that point, the largest demonstration in the history of the nation's capital. By the end of the Vietnam War 13 years later, Hall estimates, over six million Americans had been directly involved in anti-war activities, including the famous 1967 March on the Pentagon and the sombre March against Death in 1969.

The book is helpfully structured in sections detailing key events and key figures such as 'yippie' Abbie Hoffman and pacifist AJ Muste, as well as an interesting chapter looking at the movement's strengths and weaknesses.

Hall notes that the movement was often riven with factionalism, with the central split between radicals – who saw the war as a symptom of the wider political and economic capitalist system – and liberals, who believed the war was simply a misguided policy that needed to be rectified.

The movement's strengths – a large variety of activities and a diverse and fluid leadership and membership – are particularly interesting to compare to the British anti-Iraq War movement, dominated by Stop the War Coalition. 'The diversity and creativity of the movement helps explain a further strength – the commitment of antiwar activists and the sustainability of the movement', argues Hall.

Turning to the movement's legacy, Hall maintains that 'it is far from clear that the anti-war movement had any meaningful impact at all', citing polls that showed public opinion was consistently hostile to the anti-war movement.

In contrast, historian Tom Wells, who conducted 36 interviews with senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for his 1994 book on the topic – and whom Hall references over 130 times in the endnotes – argues the anti-war movement 'was perhaps the most successful antiwar movement in history… it played a major role in restricting, de-escalating, and ending the war'.

Of course, Hall doesn't have to come to the same conclusion as the authors who inform his work, but the divergence of opinion in this instance is difficult to understand.

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