In contrast to the universal public support of World War II, the Vietnam War is widely denoted as a groundbreaking conflict in which many soldiers and civilians did not approve of the American Intervention. With the widespread proliferation of record players and radios throughout the decade, this discontent was frequently channeled through the medium of music. Artists utilized their popularity in a wide array of genres, including, Rock & Roll, Motown, Soul, and Folk, to spread a message of peace and love to Americans at home and abroad. At the peak of the countercultural revolution, anti-war songs aroused a widespread public outcry against a war that was costing thousands and thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. To the soldiers in the field, music provided a sense of unity and connection to home in a dark and desolate jungle all the way around the globe. While the individual reactions to both groups differed at home and abroad, music had positioned itself in a place of prominence and drastically influenced the culture of Americans in the battlefield and home front.
Political implications of the Vietnam War
As the Vietnam War continued into the later half of the 1960s, dissatisfaction and protests against the war gained critical momentum and the anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society, reached maximum power in 1968.
Civil Rights activities, such as Muhammad Ali, opposed the war and outright refused to fight in it because the United States sold the war to the people as a liberation of South Vietnam from Communism. The United States said it was giving freedom to the Vietnamese, yet at home, African Americans were not enjoying those same basic liberties that the United States said to have held so dear.
Muhammad Ali videos:
Even leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. publicly denounced the war because he believed that domestic funds were being reallocated to the war effort. He also disavowed the war because of the clear trend that proportionally more African Americans were dying in in the line of duty that whites.
As the war continued, the North Vietnamese continued to have military success over the United States. In 1968, as the Students for a Democratic Society gained momentum, national support for the war dwindled to 50% support for the war and only 35% approval for Lyndon B. Johnson’s war plan. To add even more against the current war strategy, injured veterans began to protest against the involvement in Vietnam too.
In March of 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection in the upcoming presidential election after losing the New Hampshire primary to an anti-war candidate.
See his speech here:
Later that year, Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election on the platform to, ironically, reinstate “law and order.” He was able counteract the youthful anti-war protestors by saying the minority will not overwhelm the “silent majority.” In 1969, Nixon instituted the U.S. draft lottery, the first since World War II. This caused mass protests, backlash, and many young men fled to Canada in fear of being drafted to fight in the war.
Here is a video of the draft lottery in 1969:
However, Nixon also implemented the plan “Vietnamization” which would transfer the majority of the war effort from the American forces to the Vietnamese forces to continue the battle against Communism and allow the US to withdraw from the conflict zone. In 1969, Nixon declared the ending of the Vietnam War but the US did not fully exit until 1973.
Nixon on Vietnam War:
Soldiers and Music
When we think of the Vietnam War, we often think of the division between pro-war and anti-war sentiments in the United States. On the battlefields in Vietnam, however, there was a sense of unity and a common bond among servicemen, largely powered by music. Music fostered comradeship and was a survival or coping mechanism for American soldiers serving in Vietnam, not only through the sentiments professed through the lyrics, but also through the medium by which music was transmitted and the practice of listening.
“My earliest Vietnam memories aren’t about guns and bullets, but rather about music. … I knew one thing for sure. Music was going to get me through my year in Vietnam. Did it ever. In fact, it’s sustained me for the past 45 years, as it has countless other Vietnam veterans.”
-Doug Bradley, Vietnam veteran and co-author of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War
Songs did not have to be explicitly about the war to resonate with the servicemen, but rather soldiers would often appropriate the meanings of songs to fit their wartime circumstances. Such songs often professed sentiments of loneliness and alienation from loved ones on the home front, which resonated in common among soldiers, as they all longed for home, their friends, and their families. For example, the John Denver song “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” popularly performed by folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary, struck a chord with soldiers’ longings for home and for departure from Vietnam and the war.
“Leaving On a Jet Plane” –
Another song that generated a desire to return home for servicemen was “Green, Green Grass of Home,” recorded by Porter Wagoner, as its lyrics would evoke memories of life at home, both the idea of American soil and ideas of spending time with family and other loved ones.
“Green Green Grass of Home” –
With some musicians writing pro-war songs full of sentimentalism and patriotism back in the states, the men serving the country in Vietnam used such music as a venue for parody. Servicemen sometimes wrote their own lyrics to the tunes of such patriotic songs. The musical parodies they would write not only brought servicemen together in an activity of expressing their feelings, but also served entertainment purposes. For example, the song “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” by Green Beret Barry Sadler, told the story of fearless heroic American soldiers in Vietnam who die in service but are representations of American pride. Servicemen parodied this tune with a song of their own, titled “The Ballad of ASA,” the ASA being the Army Security Agency. Their recreated lyrics read, “Drunken Soldiers, Always High / Dropouts from old Sigma Phi / Men who bullshit all the way / These are the men from the ASA,” referring to struggling servicemen fearfully trudging their way through the war, sans feelings of patriotic heroism or sentimentalism.
The Medium of the Music
With the radio being the transmitter of American-produced music to the soldiers in Vietnam, soldiers felt a sense of connectedness to the home front. Scholars have called radio the Internet of the Vietnam War era for its capacity to connect people across the globe, but have noted differences between radio and digital technology in the context of the power of music to bring soldiers together. Instead of each soldier having his own musical playlist, as such is the case for people in a digital landscape, listening to the music on the radio was something all servicemen did in common. Thus, not only did the lyrics and tunes unite the servicemen, but the technology by which it was transmitted and the practice of listening was a method of soldier bonding.
The role of radio technology on the American soldiers in Vietnam is showcased in the film Good Morning Vietnam. While the film does not necessarily show the uniting power of particular songs on the servicemen, it demonstrates the ability of a radio broadcasts—which in this movie are filled with much comedy, in addition to music—to make soldiers feel close to each other and closer to home.
Racial Barriers and Music
A source of both unification and division, the music popular among Vietnam soldiers is a paradox resolved only when seen through the lens of the nation the soldiers represented. Like the frequently segregated society at home, the popularity of specific genres of music often fell along racial lines—Southern Whites listened to country, Northern and Western Whites listened to Rock and Roll, and Black soldiers listened to Soul. However, as the Civil Rights Movement began to deteriorate racial barriers back home, other musicians like Jimi Hendrix caused this same effect in camp life through their music. Not all of these artists provided a distinct anti-war sentiment through their music and lyrics, but soldiers adapted their general themes as a source of escape from the horrors of war.
As country music was the one of the most prominent genres of music in the South, Southern white soldiers took their love of this music with them overseas. Soldiers often related to the genre’s easygoing, relaxing nature and its ability to tell a story. While these songs didn’t create a sense of rebellion against the war, the pictures the war painted of general, everyday life at home produced a sense of longing for soldiers to return home. The style of music created a yearning to return home to their wives and family, yet also provided respite to those who had been jilted due to the war. Soldiers affected by this would turn to the radio to hear Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and find escape from the war and the problems it caused through music.
Northern Whites tended to prefer the genre of Rock and Roll to relate to the misery and suffering in Vietnam. Although the artists did not intend for it to be about Vietnam, The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” became a unifying song for soldiers disenchanted by the horrific conditions of the Jungle and a war that many did not desire to fight. Songs like these encompassed a shared sentiment among soldiers in a war largely devoid of national pride and patriotism. Additionally, Creedence Clearwater Revival produced a number of hits including “Fortunate Son”, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, and “Run Through the Jungle”, that soldiers directly identified with. The idea that “I ain’t no millionaire’s son” particularly resonated with Northern Whites that felt exploited by draft rules that favored the rich. These songs, whether directly associated with protest or not, created a sense of unity among soldiers that wanted to return home.
As the Black Power movement was coming into full swing during the later half of the ‘60’s, Black Soldiers rallied behind the music that embraced their race. Soul Music became a unifying factor for soldiers to rally around music exemplified racial pride. Songs like James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” showcased this sentiment among African Americans. Additionally, Soul music provided an escape from the horrors of the war, shown particularly well through this excerpt by soldier Gerald McCarthy on Soul Music: “we’d forget where we were, what was going on, and for a song or two we would be somewhere else, living a double life in the world and pretending we were cooler than we really were, dapping and throwing down hands and learning about the soul of it”. Soul music served the dual purpose of taking pride in the progression of the Civil Rights Movement on the homefront and providing an escape from the war.
Like the Civil Rights Movement broke down racial barriers in the US, Jimi Hendrix’s Rock and Roll broke down Racial Barriers abroad. The immensely talented musician actually served in Vietnam briefly, but was discharged because his brain “could not function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar”. Hendrix’s blistering experimental guitar in “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Machine Gun” replicated the sounds of the battlefield through his recording. Additionally, his crowning achievement “Purple Haze” described the confusion experienced by a soldier on the battlefield and was also interpreted as the perspective of the last breaths of soldier dying. These songs distinguished Hendrix as one of the greatest guitar players of all time, and both black and white soldiers closely related with the experiences his sounds portrayed.
This clip from Forrest Gump gives a solid representation of the unifying aspects of music in camp life. “Fortunate Son” blasts through the background as the soldiers are being flown into a land far away to fight in a war that they care little about. Then, as Forrest and Bubba are walking through camp, “Respect”, “Build Me Up Buttercup”, and “Sloop John B” play through soldier’s radios in the background, encapsulating the power of soul, popular music, and protest rock and roll to bring soldiers of all races together.
The music during this period appeared to mirror society back home. Although soldiers tended to gravitate to genres of music that represented their racial backgrounds, music, like the Civil Rights Movement at home, also began to break down the racial barriers that had separated soldiers in nearly every war up to this point. Music and its proliferation through the radio became a common thread that soldiers shared in their longing to escape from the jungles of Vietnam and return home.
Veterans and Music
Soldiers upon returning home from the war utilized music as outlets of frustration and methods of coping. Although protest music was abundant, music of all genres acted as a forum for soldiers to connect with emotions they could not deal with elsewhere. Many vets simply talk about what songs they connected with, while many others created their own music in response to what they saw overseas.
Connection to music was an important rehabilitation experience for many returning veterans.
Backing of musicians allows for other supportive organizations. As Bobby Muller of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) pointed out, many veterans were hesitant to identify themselves because of the negative feelings toward the war. The support of artists like Bruce Springsteen, both through music such as Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and through fundraising, allowed organizations such as the VVAW to get on their feet. These organizations nearly always played music at their events- a popular song was Dan Daley’s “Still in Saigon,” sung by Charlie Daniels.
The VVAW became a very high profile organization, known for their involvement in highly publicized events such as the Winter soldier investigation (Jan 31- Feb 2 1971) and the Dewey Canyon II demonstration (April 19-23 1971) at which there was musical performances by veterans. These events in turn inspired music, such as Graham Nash’s “Oh!Camil” about the trivialization of violence.
Soldiers in rehabilitation and hospitals used music to motivate them through the difficult readjustment period. As Lewis Leavett, a worker at a veterans’ hospital, pointed out, all of the soldiers from different backgrounds gravitated toward the same songs. Soldiers often preferred the new rock music that was written after Vietnam because it did not have negative memories from before the war attached to it. This included the Beatles’ White Album, which although not written in America, forged a connection between soldiers and their troubled emotions.
Many of the programs started with the funding received encouraged veterans to make their own music. This psychological rehabilitation was considered by many to be even more important than its physical counterpart. Music allowed the veterans to acknowledge and express feelings, often suicidal or fearful, that they had kept pent up. The compilation Next Stop is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008 includes two discs of music written entirely by Vietnam veterans.
Furthermore, soldiers were able to use music to publicize issues they had faced overseas. A major problem for many was Agent Orange, a chemical used widely in Vietnam that later caused birth defects in the veterans’ children and grandchildren.
One of the most popular albums among soldiers was not written by a veteran himself, but a veteran’s brother. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is an R&B soul album cited by many veterans as the composition that best expressed their thoughts and feelings on their war experiences. The album follows the story of a young soldier as he goes to war and comes home. The songs represent the soldier’s confusion and turn to drugs, finally ending in a repetition of the opening motif to symbolize the cycle of violence. Veterans cited a “feeling of alienation” that they received when they returned to protests at home, and praised the album for capturing their inner struggle through song.
Civilians and Music
Rock & Roll
Music is often used as a tool in which a person can find relativity to his or her own life as mentioned in several different ways thus far. In essence, music makes us feel. As the Vietnam War intensified, music was largely symbolic of the tensions looming society. It also helped people post-conflict. Rock and Roll in particular played an extremely influential role to culture at this time, sparking a realm of emotions in response to the reality of war. In fact, the Vietnam War has often been recognized as “America’s first Rock and Roll war” because of the extent in which the genre dominated so many aspects of life during this era.
The Rolling Stone’s 1966 hit “Paint It Black” was released in the midst of the Vietnam War, yet developed its most notable association to the occurrence as it was played in the ending credits of Full Metal Jacket in 1987. Although it’s intended meaning had no relation to the war, it resonated in many combat veterans struggling with what they had been exposed to overseas. The song especially seems to trigger any feeling of depression lurking inside as it speaks a great deal about loss.
The 1969 Woodstock Music Festival is largely symbolic of the anti-war attitude that some Rock and Roll artists possessed and attempted to promote to others. Much of the crowd at this event featured members of the counterculture, who actively protested against the Vietnam War. The festival embodied three days of peace and love in sharp contrast to the ongoing war and hatred in Vietnam. Woodstock closed with Jimi Hendrix’s own electric-guitar rendition of the Star Spangled Banner to emphasis these messages.
Protest through Motown and Soul
Like many other aspects of the media, Forrest Gump portrays Vietnam as a watershed moment for African Americans. And in many aspects it was; with African American men and white men fighting side by side for the first time since the Revolutionary War. Bubba and Forrest fought alongside each other to enforce freedom. However, for many African Americans at home, they did not see the strides they were hoping for. African Americans were still waiting for their own freedoms to be enforced, rather than trying to enforce them abroad. Because of these feelings, we see coming out of this period a distinctly African American genre of protest music of Motown and Soul.
“There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children. There’s something wrong with that press!’”
Martin Luther King epitomized the African American protest feeling toward the Vietnam War in his “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” speech. He talks about the moments of hope in the Johnson administration like the Civil Rights Act along with other Great Society program as now being ignored because of the escalation in Vietnam. He points out the war targeted poor, and especially young black men by allowing college students to draft dodge. African American boys enlisted at much higher proportions. He points out that these boys coming out of “Georgia and East Harlem” are busy securing other people’s freedoms when their own are not guaranteed themselves. Other frustrations with Vietnam that other Civil Rights activists had is that the black men in the army would deliberately be put in the line of fire and, like after WWII, would be denied their GI Benefits after service. They would use this opportunity to get out of poverty and then be killed in the process.
“I should be proud, he was fighting for me…but he wasn’t fighting for me, my Johnny didn’t have to die for me, he was fighting for the evils of society”
Motown and Soul music draws from the sentiments expressed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech. In 1970, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas recorded a song called “I Should Be Proud”. A popular Motown group, this is a piece of music that protests against Vietnam and the motivations for the war. The “evils of society” Reeves sings about is the hypocrisy exhibited by the United States. Her “Johnny” died fighting for the liberties of other people, when he could not even use his own liberties.
One of the most well known Motown songs of the time is Edwin Starr’s “War”, recorded in 1970. Although this song never specifically mentions race, I think it is still important not only because of the black artist’s popularity, but because it signifies a period in the Civil Rights movement. Starr says there “has to be a better way” than war, or violence, to get freedom. This represents the non-violent, or Freedom Now, phase of the Civil Rights movement, the rejection of violence as a means to an end. Freedom Now protesters were against the war because many of them believe in peace in order to get results.
“The revolution will not be televised…the revolution will be no re-run brothers, the revolution will be live”
At the same time as Vietnam, the Black Power movement was gaining more and more popularity. In 1970, Gil Scott Heron recorded “The Revolution will not be Televised”. Less soul and motown and more a precursor to later genres of rap, this protest song quickly became the slogan for the Black Power movement. It calls for an uprising in the United States, saying that unlike Vietnam, citizens are not going to be able to simply watch it on their TV, but to experience it. On top of being a source of shock for citizens to the atrocities of war, the television only reinforced the idea for African Americans that their government was not concerned with their freedoms at home, only in the face of communism.
Motown and Soul music presented a different facet of Vietnam protest music. It not only protested the war, but the fact that the war distracted from the Civil Rights movement and took advantage of young black men. These ideas of protest over the war and Civil Rights melded in African American music during the Vietnam war era.
On the home front, civilians rallied around the explicitly anti-war messages of popular artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and John Lennon. The Woodstock festival, in which thousands of Americans joined together in a three-day musical event to showcase the values of peace and love, epitomized the countercultural opposition to the war. Additionally, Black Americans used Motown and Soul music to join together in unison and stand against a war that called allegedly would show the prosperity and hope of democracy, yet only displayed the hypocrisy of American domestic policies. While the individual uses of the music differed, all Americans utilized the medium as a rallying point for their social agenda.
Halfway around the world, the soldiers in Vietnam found common ground in the music that flowed through their radios and record players. While the lyrics of their favorite songs were not always intended to reflect the horrific conditions of the war, soldiers frequently appropriated the lyrics to fit their current situation. Songs such as Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze exemplified ubiquitous confusion in the jungle, while Porter Wagoner’s Green Green Grass of Home highlighted the soldier’s longing to return to their lives and families. To all soldiers, however, music was an indispensable part of their everyday lives that allowed them to cope with the appalling conditions abroad and aided in their rehabilitation upon returning home.