The Vietnam War

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How did the Vietnam War impact the civil rights movement?

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Both the Vietnam War and racial inequality were in some sense manifestations of the same thing: entrenched attitudes and governmental policies that were unfair and oppressive. It is not so much that the war "impacted" the civil rights movement as it is that each phenomenon increased the feeling, especially of young and progressive people in the 1960s and early 1970s, that there was something wrong with the way the United States had been (and was still being) governed.

A disproportionate number of African American men served in the Vietnam War. The rationale for the war was that the US was fighting for "freedom" in South Vietnam, to prevent the spread of Communism. But most black people in the US asked, quite realistically, why the government was sending them to fight for other people's freedom when, at home, their own freedom had been denied for so long, and despite the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there was discrimination against them in jobs and housing, along with such obvious economic inequality between white and black Americans.

For progressive white Americans at the time—and even many conservatives eventually—the Vietnam War seemed a pointless, un-winnable conflict. Usually, white progressives were reflexively sympathetic to the civil rights movement without necessarily being directly aware of the disproportionate numbers of African American men serving in the war. It is true, however, that the consciousness of racial injustice at home reinforced the sense that the war was wrong and vice versa. Also, some Americans (initially only the more "radical" ones) apart from their general sense that American involvement in Vietnam was wrong, began to see the war itself as racist, as a kind of neo-colonialist effort to control non-white people.

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The Vietnam War was a conflict between North and South Vietnam with regards to the spread of communism. The communist North was supported by other communist countries while the South was supported by anti-communist countries, among them the United States. In South Vietnam the anti-communist forces faced off against the Viet Cong, a communist front.

The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was seen as ironical by the civil rights movements because in spite of their fight for democracy abroad and involvement of black soldiers, the situation was different back home as affirmed by sustained discrimination against black society.

The escalation of the war also impacted the U.S. economy and funding that would have helped impoverished black communities was being channeled to fund the offensive. This caused a series of serious reactions from the Civil Rights groups who saw this situation as a deliberate attempt to slow down their activities.

Mohammed Ali, the renowned boxer, refused to enlist in the U.S. military citing his conscious conflict regarding the war. According to him the U.S. government was using black soldiers to fight in a war to further their own interests while the same community was being oppressed back home. At the same time other members of the black community saw an opportunity to liberate themselves and their society through participation in the war. These conflicting sentiments generated discussions around the Vietnam War and how it was negatively impacting the civil rights movements and the black community at large.

Black soldiers in the war came back home emboldened since they went through the same experience as their white counterparts and while in the bush, they had to rely on each other. This information was used by civil rights groups to dismiss the white supremacist ideologies and principles.

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The Vietnam War hurt the Civil Rights Movement in at least three ways.  These ways included:

  • It took attention away from civil rights.  The public, the government, and the media only have a limited amount of attention to give.  When something as big as the Vietnam War is commanding a lot of attention, everything else comes to seem less important.
  • It helped split the civil rights community.  There was controversy over whether to support the war and this led to diminished unity among those who supported civil rights.
  • It cost a lot of money.  This meant that there would be less money available for social programs like those the civil rights advocates would have wanted.  President Johnson tried to do both for a while, but that was untenable.

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