Anti-War Demonstrations: Are They Moral?

“It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

When I lived in the Twin Cities back in the early 80s I used to read a publication called Vital Speeches of the Day, which I’d check out from the Roseville Public Library. Occasionally I would photocopy certain speeches so I could keep them as reference materials and mental fodder for freelance writing. Last week while organizing a filing cabinet I found a folder titled Sixties with photocopies of a number of these speeches, including this one here titled Anti-War Demonstrations: Are They Moral?

The speech was delivered by a student named Mark Arnold at Oberlin College on May 22, 1967. (Trivia: I did a piano recital at Oberlin four or five years earlier when I was 10 or 11.)

Several things struck me about the speech, which opens with the sentence, “I am opposed to the war in Vietnam.” The first paragraph itself outlines a number of reasons why we ought not be in this war. Later in this paragraph he states, “I believe it imperative for the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam as soon as it possibly can.”

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MAY DAY 1971. Public domain.

What’s strange, however, is the follow up to this opening. “And it is for that reason (because I believe it is wrong) that I today urge you and your fellow students to end the antiwar demonstrations. I repeat, I urge you and your fellow students to end the antiwar demonstrations.”

His argument for having the antiwar demonstration stop is based on his conviction that they won’t work. Demonstrations didn’t stop World War I or WWII. The only thing they will accomplish is to have the war be prolonged because it will give North Vietnam the false hope that they can win. (Emphasis mine.)

Any honest assessment of the situation in Southeast Asia shows that the war was already lost. From the vantage point of the future, it’s apparent that the ones holding tight to a false hope were the American leaders prosecuting the war.

After his opening salvo Mark Arnold proceeds to essentially mimic parrot-like all the reasons why we have to finish the war and win. First, our government is good and so, by extension, are the intentions of our troops. Second, the Viet Cong are taking advantage of an unstable South Vietnam government. Third, the superiority of our air, naval and ground forces is self-evident. And fourth, most importantly, the thousands of anti-war protests in the U.S. are confirming that we do not have the resolve to win.

He then, mistakenly, asserts that “such demonstrations have not and cannot significantly alter the American policy in Vietnam.”

I’ve spent much of my adult life wrestling with how to write about my experience of having been part of the biggest antiwar protest in U.S. history — and the one with the most arrests — in May 1971. After much reading and research, I’ve gained many insights. Here are a few.

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1) The war was built on a foundation of lies and an incorrect understanding of the motivations of Viet Cong. Our leaders lied to the American people in order to gain the support it needed to justify sending their children to the other side of the world.
(See: The Cold War Killing Fields by Paul Thomas Chamberlin.)

2) For several years most of the media was complicit, accepting the “party line” being doled out by the Pentagon and the president.

3) Most mass movements don’t “just happen.” They are usually organized and orchestrated by people with agendas. The May Day demonstration in Washington D.C. 1971 had been envisioned and executed by the same cast of characters who organized the 1968 protests during the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

4) Protesting is actually written into our U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

5) The biggest mistake presidents Johnson and Nixon made was to write off these marches and sit-ins because they believed they were being directed by the Soviet Union.

6) A Lesson from the Bent Penny Brigade
There are people who looked like protestors who were agents of the government. They were fakes. At the May Day rally in 1971, 200 posers mixed in with the crowd with bent pennies in their pockets to identify them if arrested. (See story link below.)

In light of the above, this question comes to mind: Was the student who gave this speech earnest in his antiwar rhetoric? Mark Arnold lays out the very arguments that LBJ and other government officials used when denouncing the antiwar movement. Did his audience accept everything he said at face value? Was he himself a shill?

In the past half century there has been an immense decline in public trust. According to this week, 77% of Americans trusted “the government in Washington always or most of the time.” Last year this was 17%. According to Gillespie, “When it comes to the presidency, trust has toppled from 73 percent in 1972 to 45 percent. For Congress, the drop is even worse, plummeting from 71 percent in 1972 to 38 percent in 2019. Trust in the Supreme Court has followed the same general trend.”

It’s possible Mark Arnold is still alive. I’d be curious how he feels today about this speech he gave at Oberlin.

Related Links

Two Days In October: PBS Documentary Points to Fall 1967 as the Vietnam War’s Turning Point
May Day 1971: A Lesson from the Bent Penny Brigade.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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