The American war in Vietnam had a long history, beginning with the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia and extending through the fall of Saigon in 1975. In between, emotions among the American public regarding the war ranged widely and encapsulated a number of rationalizations.
During the war in the Pacific, the United States allied itself with local guerrilla forces united for the common purpose of defeating Imperial Japan. Among those with whom the United States forged alliances was the Vietnamese nationalist-communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh. It was, as with the alliance with the Soviet Union, one of convenience in the face of a common foe.
The United States had no territorial ambitions in Southeast Asia, but its wartime ally France sought to recolonize the territories of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which it had lost to Japanese invaders. Rather than remain united with the forces under Ho and work towards a unified Vietnam under communist leadership, the United States supported France and framed the developing conflict there within the context of a strategy of containment intended to limit communist expansionism supported by the Soviet Union (and, later, communist China).
This background is provided for a reason: opposition to the US role in Vietnam began almost immediately, well before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the eventual escalation of the American role there. Members of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the precursor to the later creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, who had worked with Ho Chi Minh, believed that US policy in Vietnam was heading in the wrong direction. To OSS veterans like Archimedes Patti, the United States had erred badly in not continuing to work with Ho, who some viewed as driven more by nationalistic sentiments than by ideological orientation.
As American involvement in Vietnam grew, especially during the 1960s, opposition to the war emerged for a variety of additional reasons. Some Americans opposed the war because they believed that it was an internal conflict—in effect, a civil war—in which the United States had no legitimate role. Others argued that the war represented a misplaced fear of communism, while some were outright supporters of the spread of communism, a category that included members of the entertainment establishment like actresses Julie Christie and Jane Fonda, who infamously visited with North Vietnamese troops, posing on an antiaircraft weapon used to shoot down American aircraft and making propaganda broadcasts opposing the United States—broadcasts used to demoralize American prisoners of war in North Vietnam.
Much of the opposition to the war in Vietnam emanated from concerns regarding the way the war was being conducted by the United States. While most Americans initially supported the war, the failure to prevail despite the scale of carnage being visited upon the targets of American bombers began to erode that support. In fact, there was rarely agreement within the United States government and the armed forces regarding the optimal strategy and tactics with which to defeat the Viet Cong and, following the Viet Cong’s defeat, the North Vietnamese Army, which was supplied by the Soviet Union and China. American decisionmakers lacked a solid understanding of the enemy it was fighting, and most American military offices had little understanding of the unique qualities needed to fight a protracted, committed insurgency such as that posed by the Viet Cong.
Opposition to the war continued to mount with revelations of deception on the part of the American government under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson—revelations that emerged with publication of the Pentagon Papers—and the Nixon administration’s bombing of Cambodia.
In short, the opposition to the war in Vietnam grew for a number of reasons, including nightly images on American television of American casualties and the destruction of the Vietnamese countryside. That opposition began before the American military’s involvement and extended throughout the duration of the war.