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Music Against War: The Example of Vietnam War


In this research, we will be searched this question: "What is the effect of music on the opposition to the Vietnam War?". The aim of the research is to reveal the positive effects of music in the opposition to the Vietnam War. In the first phase of the research, sources such as Vietnam War and music themed books, articles, encyclopedias, magazines will be searched and information will be collected from these sources. In the first part of the research, a historical explanation of the Vietnam War will be given. In the second part, the first protests against the Vietnam War will be given. Then the emergence of protest music will be examined. In the next stage, information about the peak of the protest music and the Woodstock Music Festival will be given. Based on the information we have obtained, we will focus on how the Vietnam War influenced music. The role of music in war will be examined. It will be evaluated how music has become a propaganda tool for opponents of war. The effects of music on social life will be emphasized. An analysis will be made based on the Vietnam War (1955-1975) event. Information will be given about the resources used. The fact that the Vietnam War was the subject of many works such as music, film, documentary and novel effected me to choose this subject. Music, in particular, turned into a propaganda tool during the Vietnam War and mobilized the masses. I also think that “Vietnam War and Music” should be researched in detail.

Brief History of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is a complex and controversial process. In order to understand the protests of the opponents of war, we first need to analyze the Vietnam War well. The aim of this section is to briefly touch upon the historical events of war.

Formerly Vietnam was under Chinese rule and then Vietnam was occupied by the French and Westerners in the 19th century. In 1940, Japan invaded Vietnam. Upon the surrender of Japan, communist movements began in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh established a republic in North Vietnam. In 1954, Vietnam was divided into two. In the north of Vietnam, the Chinese-backed communist state was established under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. In the south, a UK and US-backed administration was established. “At the Geneva Conference in 1954, an agreement is reached that divides Vietnam. A line is created to divide a North and a South Vietnam with the promise of elections in 1956—elections that are never held because, in fact, neither side wants to hold elections. The United States is afraid that Ho Chi Minh will win. Ho Chi Minh doesn't want to hold elections because that would mean a power-sharing scheme for him. He doesn't want to do that either. Two separate states therefore come into emergence: the North Vietnamese state under Ho Chi Minh and the South Vietnamese state under Ngo Dinh Diem.” (Suri, 2017).  “The Vietnam War first began in 1959, five years after the division of the country by the Geneva Accords. In 1959, Ho commenced a guerilla campaign in South Vietnam, led by Viet Cong units, with the goal of reuniting the country under a communist government. Worried about the situation, the Kennedy Administration elected to increase aid to South Vietnam.” (Hickman, 2019). “The most commonly used dates for the conflict are 1959-1975. This period begins with North Vietnam's first guerilla attacks against the South and ends with the fall of Saigon. American ground forces were directly involved in the war between 1965 and 1973” (Hickman, 2019). America has not decided to attack Vietnam at once. US intervention in Vietnam is the product of a policy that has evolved over time. We can define this attack as a gradual process.  In this process, we can say that the US is trying to solve the problem with economic moves by increasing the aid given to South Vietnam. The perspectives of the presidents who working in the war process were also influential in the US policy on Vietnam. The desire to stop communist imperialism constituted the ideological infrastructure of the Vietnam War. With the guerrilla tactic, Vietnam has repulsed the superpower USA. The American people defied the federal government because of the war that it could not solve its purpose.

First Protests Against Vietnam War

Anti-war protests have proceeded as slowly as the war itself. The first protesters were more focused on the threat of nuclear war than on the Vietnam War. In the same period, the US-USSR was in a rivalry. The main event that triggered the protests was the Cold War period nuclear arms race. The fact that people began to protest against these problems provided the basis for protests against the Vietnam War. “In 1963 a divide amongst U.S. citizens began to become evident. As Mme Nhu, a representative of the South Vietnamese Diem government, toured the United States, students on college campuses split between pro-war and anti-war. The Universities of Michigan and Chicago reacted with silent picketing. Harvard and Princeton also protested Mme Nhu‟s presence with louder demonstration. Conversely, students at Fordham and Georgetown cheered Mme Nhu and labeled her as a “fighting lady.” (DeBenedetti, 1990: 91). Protesters argued that this war hurt and worried the Vietnamese people as well as the American people. The biggest protests during this period took place on university campuses. In addition, large protest groups were established during this period. “On 17 April 1965, twenty thousand people gathered at the Washington Monument. Most of the participants were students, but some were adults.” (Wells, 1994: 25). “Among the people who attended the march were folksingers Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs. Collins sung, TheTimes they are A-Changing. Other speeches given in the march were by Senator Gruening, who called for immediate bombing halt and peace negotiations. Members marched down the Mall singing “We Shall Overcome” to the steps of the capital. Here they offered their proposals for exiting Vietnam from immediate withdrawal to peace negotiations. The march broke up quietly late in the afternoon.” (DeBenedetti, 1990: 112). This march was a first for the Vietnam War. The point of view of the protest groups and artists had changed. Protesters focused on the Vietnam War by removing nuclear weapons from their agendas.

As the Vietnam War lasted for many years, anti-war public opinion in the United States grew stronger. At first, the US people supported the Vietnam War, but as the war went on, the truths was revealed. The US press hid images of torture, death and rape from the public. When these facts emerged, protests emerged in the regions of the country where the young population was dense. The biggest mistake of the US in the Vietnam War was that it continued the war for many years.

“Unlike the 1940s – when Americans thought the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and Nazi aggression in Europe justified the sacrifices of war – young people in the 1960s were deeply suspicious of the government’s decision to go into Southeast Asia. As the military’s commitment grew and the body counts piled up, many couldn’t understand what they were fighting for.” (Sklaroff, 2017). The American soldiers who participated in the Vietnam War were unaware of what they were fighting for. University students were not sent to war, and almost all of the soldiers sent to Vietnam were workers. In fact, we can say that these workers were sent to death. We see that the government keeps educated citizens away from war.

Emergence of Protest Music

Every person has some connection with music. We can even say that music is much more effective than other types of protest. Many different types of music are used for protest purposes. Thus more people are affected by the protest. When people listen to music, they feel the emotions that music tries to tell. They discover the meaning of songs. In this respect, the power of music to reach people is very high. Music was used as a means of protest during the Vietnam War. We can define protest music as a music that reflects the thoughts of the society, expressed their dissatisfaction and allows the creation of messages against the status quo. Songs are usually written by educated members of society. The Vietnam War is seen as the top of American protest music. The music world did not remain silent in this long war. Since war-era musicians were critical of the government, people, especially the younger generation, found their own voices, thoughts and perspectives in the musicians. Musicians began to represent the thoughts of the people and became the voice of the American people. Thus, musics about the war emerged. The message of anti-war music has often been the bad administration and decisions of the American government. In fact, when we look at the music during the Vietnam War, it took its power from the civilian people. The conservative side backed the Vietnam War.  The conservative side were angry with those who opposed protests, demonstrations and military orders on university campuses. They were also angry to those who questioned their love of the country. “Country music artists like Merle Haggard remained supportive of the government throughout much of the war, but in comparison to the popularity of countercultural anthems, its pro-America messages were overshadowed.” (Scott, 2018).

The war has left lasting traces on American society. In the music of the Vietnam War period, the mood of the period is clearly understood in the words shaped by the influence of peaceful and humanist movements. The influence of music was not limited to American society. This musics with radio, albums, tapes reached Vietnam soldiers. In this way, music gained a different and deep meaning in Vietnam. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Purple Haze” meant one thing in an LSD-friendly dorm room and another to troops who associated it with the color of the smoke grenades used to guide helicopters into landing zones. “Ring of Fire,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Riders on the Storm” — all of them shifted shape in relation to the war.” (Bradley, 2018).

“In the early 1960s, before the antiwar movement gained a measure of popularity, folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary (Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers), Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others spread the antiwar message through their music.” (Meisenzahl and Peace, 2017). 

“One of the first large antiwar concerts took place at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on September 24, 1965. Billed as a “Sing-In for-Peace,” sixty performers entertained and led songs for an audience of 4,600.  The performers included folksinger Pete Seeger and an avant garde rock group called The Fugs who played a raunchy satire, “Kill for Peace.” (Meisenzahl and Peace, 2017). This concert led to major music festivals to be held later. This concert, which was attended by many artists and spectators, attracted a great deal of public attention.

The impact of the Vietnam War on American public has grown from day to day, and over time the war has become the main topic of the agenda. In the war debates, the American people were divided into supporters and opponents. The same happened in the music area. “With the US divided between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, music became a powerful communication tool for both sides.(Brummer, 2018). The pro-war sides of society was called hawks. The hawks were generally conservative and at the same time nationalistic. These people thought that it was necessary for the US to enter the war. The anti-war side of society was called doves. Doves consisted of people who criticized the mismanagement and wrong decisions of the federal government. These people thought that the US was fighting a meaningless struggle. “Most music stuck to one of two themes: patriotism or homesickness. Patriotic songs, like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” were written by professional composers, many of whom never saw battle. While these songs didn’t protest the war outright, they did covertly express an anti-war sentiment. The song “Lorena” may have been primarily about a Union soldier’s longing to be with his lover, but also reflected a desire for the fighting to end." (Hill, 2016). We can say that the soldiers in Vietnam mostly adopted songs about returning home. It is quite natural for the soldiers to turn to songs about themes such as returning home, being back with the lover, being a family again. Therefore, it is seen that songs often have themes of longing and sadness.

The Top of the Protests: Woodstock Festival

The results of the Vietnam War in the late 60s were very bad. The war had caused great wounds in society. The people living in a chaos began to protest against the war. In this period, it was very important to instill hope and provide an atmosphere of peace. “The hippie counterculture, which emerged in the late 1960s and grew to include hundreds of thousands of young Americans across the country, reached its height during this period of escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War, and subsided as that conflict drew to a close.” (Pruitt, 2018). Hippies refuses American culture. The hippies, who adopted the rock music style, advocated an environmentalist view. They attracted attention with their colorful clothing and long hair. They had a different view from the current American society. The hippies saw the government as the main source of war. Hippies united with political radicals to support the Vietnam War. But it's not right to call the hippies protesters. They expressed their reactions not by marches but by songs.

“In August 1969 Woodstock Music festival is arguably the most influential musical event that spread the message of peace towards the close of the decade. Billed as “Three days of peace and music,” the event attracted several thousand concertgoers, mostly due to its vast lineup of several well-known rock artists. Perhaps the most memorable act came from influential rock guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix when he played a searing rendition of America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner. The August 17 performance, which lasted just under five minutes, featured Hendrix manipulating his guitar’s sound by employing distortion and whammy-bar techniques. The end result was a remarkably realistic imitation of several war sounds, including machine gunfire and explosions. Equally important, Edwin Starr’s Motown anthem “War” convinced many listeners of the complex horrors of the Vietnam War through an instantly-recognizable melody.” (Hopkins, 2012). Edwin Starr's song is the most effective protest song that directly criticizes the Vietnam War. At the same time, Starr's song reflected the theme of peace and love to the public. When we examine the songs recorded during this period, we can see that most of them belong to the genre of rock music. The majority of the participants at the Woodstock Music Festival were young people who adopted the hippie style. The American youth did not want to die for a meaningless war by going to Vietnam. Young people who opposed the system came together with this festival. “Festivale Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Santana, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead ve The Who gibi müzisyenler katıldı.” (Rosenberg, 2019). The Woodstock Music Festival was the largest and most influential of the open air music festivals in the anti-Vietnam War. The Woodstock Music Festival has been the subject of several documentaries.

“The I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” recorded by Country Joe McDonald in 1966, became an anthem of sorts for the antiwar movement and was sung at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969.
And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.” (Meisenzahl and Peace, 2017).

When we look at McDonald's song, we see that people do not know what they are fighting for and that this war has no purpose. It was mentioned that due to the tempo and the heavy conditions of the war, the soldiers did not have time to think why they were fighting. In addition, this song emphasizes the state of the soldiers' inner worlds and psychologies.

“Martha and the Vandellas’s “I Should Be Proud” (1970):
And they say that I should be proud; he was keepin’ me free.
They say that I should be proud, those too blind to see.
But he wasn’t fightin’ for me
My Johnny didn’t have to die for me.
He was fightin’ for the evils of society.” (Meisenzahl and Peace, 2017).

Martha and Vandellas's song "I Should Be Proud" voiced the voices of relatives and families of those who went to war. Unlike the other protest songs, we see that the feelings of those waiting for them instead of soldiers are given. In this sense, a different perspective was created.


The protest movement against the Vietnam War is still one of the most debated issues in American history. Protesters questioned the reasons for the government's insistence on this meaningless war. The Vietnam War debates influenced the music of the period. When we examined the music of the period, there were many anti-war and pro-war songs. The anti-war group was described as doves, while the pro-war group was called hawks. When these songs are examined, it is seen that the goals of the two groups are mentioned.

In this study, the positive effects of music against the Vietnam War were emphasized. In the view of songwriters, the Vietnam War is a bad event. They saw this war as unnecessary and immoral. They thought the war had physical and emotionally destructive effects.

Music was used as a propaganda tool in opposition to the Vietnam War. During this period, many anti-war protests took place. After these marches, many songs were written and many films were made. The Woodstock Music Festival was of great importance for the instillation of hope, love and peace to the public. Many important musicians and bands participated in this festival.

Rebellions are built on hope and music nurtures hope. The rise of music will not break a siege, overthrow a government or end a war. However, these will strengthen and inspire to society. This inspiration makes music a powerful symbol of war and resistance. Nowadays, Vietnam War music has become a big part of American pop music in terms of its foundations and effects. This generation carried the spirit of protest to the future and passed it on to future generations. Protests against the war paved the way to imagine a better world where people cared about each other and lived in peace.


Bradley, D. (2018). I Served in Vietnam. Here’s My Soundtrack Date of Access: 06.01.2020.
Brummer, J. (2018). The Vietnam War: A History in Song Date of Access: 06.01.2020.
DeBenedetti, C. (1990).  An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era. New York: Syracuse University Press.
Hickman, K. (2019). An Introduction to the Vietnam War Date of Access: 07.12.2019.
Hill, F. (2016). Songs of War: The Evolution of Protest Music in the United States Date of Access: 07.01.2020.
Hopkins, A. (2012). “Protest and Rock n' Roll During the Vietnam War”. Inquiries Journal, 4(11), 1.
Meisenzahl, A. & Peace R. (2017). Protest Music of the Vietnam War Date of Access: 08.01.2020.
Pruitt, S. (2018). How the Vietnam War Empowered the Hippie Movement Date of Access: 07.01.2020.
Scott, C. (2018). What’s that sound: How the Vietnam War changed American music Date of Access: 06.01.2020.
Sklaroff, R. (2017). During Vietnam War, music spoke to both sides of a divided nation Date of Access: 15.12.2019.
Suri, J. (2017). The Vietnam War Date of Access: 06.12.2019.
Wells, T. (1994). The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam. California: University of California Press.


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