Justifying the Civil Disobedience During the Vietnam War


The 20th century was the era of war and militarism. World-scale wars like the WWI and the WWII and the proxy wars such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War caused tremendous casualty and death, and the Cold War which is purely about ideology and country power also caused long-lasting, dreadful psychological effects. The 20th century was also about nationalism and patriotism. The relationship between nationalism and war is like the chicken or egg question in which it is hard to know which came first, yet they usually accompany each other.

In Europe, the overheating nationalism directly contribute to expanded Prussia, and after Prussia was defeated, it again gave the rise of Hitler in Germany.

On the other side, by combating with Nazis Germany and later on, the Soviet Union, American people had develop a strong patriotic sense and national pride. The Bolshevik government of the USSR based its nationalities policy on the principles of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and although the idea of “nation” is purely bourgeois and should be abandoned according to the Marxist ideology, the government still permitted “Russian superiority over other nations” in practice.

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The idea of “fight for your country if you are needed” become an unquestionable and legitimate. Like many countries, the United States applied conscription, commonly known as the draft, during most of these conflicts.

Selective Service Act of 1917 grant the U.S. government the power to raise the army through drafting, and substitutes were not allowed. Citizens who were chosen had to fight and kill in representing the country’s will, and absolute obedience was expected.

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Although military service is mandatory, civil voluntarism still prevailed during the wartime. Countries like the United States and France had a long tradition of conscientious objection; Conscientious objectors, people who “claim the right to refuse to perform military services,” usually make their claim based on their moral belief and personal liberty argument.

Up through the Vietnam war, a broadest civil disobedience was formed in opposing the unjust war in America. Different with the conscientious objectors in the previous wars who refused to go to war in general based on a individual religious aversion to violence, the anti-war protesters, no matter they were drafted by the army or not, objected to the specific war for democratic and political reason and had formed a series of collective actions. They demonstrated their objection by gathering on college campuses and the open spaces of major cities such as Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, and burning the draft card. Some of the protesters themself, confined to the civil disobedience theory, were willing to not only explain the reason behind their civil disobediences but also suffer the consequences of law-breakings–many of them were arrested by the policies and sentenced to be jail due to their actions.

Out of the love for the country and the people and the belief that the war was unjust, anti vietnam war protesters against the rulings and the laws. However, their civil disobedience actions encountered some difficulties due to the sensitivity of the time and context and the lack of statutory protection. The restrictions majorly resulted from two aspects: the public opinion and the government attitude. Due to the rising patriotism and nationalism during the wartime, avoiding military service was usually perceived as an unpatriotic and cowardly act and disapprove by the major Public.

According to the surveys conducted by the Gallup Poll, the approval rating of the war were more than 50% until the end of 1968!. Meanwhile, since the pro war activities had stigmatized the protesters and mass movements, many Americans “can only recall the enormous protests and social chaos” until today?. Meanwhile, since the LBJ administration perceive the anti-war protests based on democratic and political reasons as illegitimate actions, it not only resulted in more and more protesters were arrested when the time past but also put the burden of proof on the shoulders of protesters in regard to the legitimacy of their actions.

Since many protesters chanted to disobey/ resist the unjust law and the illegitimate authority, “which side has more legitimacy” became a question. While acknowledging the difficulties that both citizens and soldiers face in enacting civil disobedience and military disobedience during the wartime, political theories that can justify their actions become extremely crucial. In this paper, I am going to argue that although the patriotic context of war-making renders the act of disobedience particularly troubling for the state, and often for some pro-war conservatives, who see such act of disobedience as subversive and unpatriotic, yet the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, as one of the most organized civil disobedience movement in the last century, can be justified based on

  • the injustice of the war,
  •  the protesters’ same opinion about the war,
  • the nonviolent nature of the movement, and 4
  • the illusive legitimacy of using violence by the government.

The Historical Background of the Vietnam War

It is a common knowledge that the Vietnam War is a Cold War-era proxy war aimed at defeating the Communist government in Vietnam and it biggest supporter as well as our worst enemy–the Soviet Union. However, the reasons for direct military actions and and the consequences of the intervention remained unknown for many people. In fact, during the Other than dropping the iron curtain in Europe, these two superpowers also circle in competing for the control over Asia’s future. After the retreat of the Japan, the East Asia was in turmoil. The U.S. had serious concern about the spread of Communism in Asia after the Chinese Communist Party, which was sponsored by the Red Russia, defeated Kuo Ming Tang, a democratic party supported by the U.S., and China became the second largest communist regime in the world.

In order to prevent communism from further spreading to the rest of the Asian regions, the U.S., based on the Domino theory, needed to fight proxy wars against the USSR in Asia. Korea and Vietnam are two nations that “were divided into communist and democratic regimes;” the United States then moved to prop up and fortify its support for the non communist governments as “open confrontations and civil war erupted.” In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, a communist and a nationalist, led an anti-imperialist movement to resist France’s colonization that had lasted for decades.

Out of the fear that Vietnam would became another China, the U.S. first financially supported imperialist France to “reestablish their former colonial assets,” and after France failed, it gave military supports to the democratic government in the south which ‘voided’ the election in which Ho Chi Minh was likely to become the president. After the Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnam leader lost popularity, the United States than supported the army to kill Diem and replaced him with other vietnamnesses. In 1964, America eventually entered the wars by first bombing the Northern Vietnam then deploying more troops to Vietnam. The Vietnam War began.

Civil Disobedience vs Conscientious Objection

First we need to clarify the reason we use “civil disobedients” instead of “conscientious objectors” in addressing the Anti-Vietnam War protesters in our paper. We believe that the term “conscientious objection” means the personal action of refusing to serve in the army based on moral beliefs or secular reasons, and the term only captures a narrow group of actors. It is more accurate to use the term “civil disobedience” to describe the large scale, more radical collective actions of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Conscientious objection was first originated from Protestant idea of conscience, and religious people refused to go to wars for the secular reason that killing is the worse burden and for the belief that “the political state shall not require a man to deny his God.

” In fact, conscientious objection has a long history in the United States, a country with protestant tradition, and it “has been permitted since the earliest days of the republic.” According to New York Constitution of 1777, “That ll such of the inhabitants of this State…from scruples of conscience, may be averse to the bear of arms, be therefrom excused by the legislation.” The similar clause was written in the New Hampshire constitution of 1784, “No person who is conscientiously scrupulous about the lawfulness of bearing arms shall be compelled to do so.” For civil disobedience, many political theorists have their own definitions. For example, Rawls defines civil disobedience in his book A Theory of Justice as “a public, nonviolent conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.”

In regard to the civil disobedience in the context of the Vietnam War, we have our own definition: it is a public collective action carry out by a group of people who, with the prove that the war is unjust, share the same political opinion instead of same personal interest. Compare to the individuality that conscientious objection reinforce, civil disobedience is untenable without collective action. Walzer states the collectiveness in performing civil disobedience in his book: “Men rarely break the law by themselves, or if they do they rarely talk about it. Disobedience, when it is not criminally but morally, religiously, or politically motivated, is almost always a collective act, and it is justified by the values of the collectivity and the mutual engagements of its members.” The anti-Vietnam War movement, carrying out as several mass protests in almost all the major cities in the U.S., not only qualify as an organized collective action, but also is one of the largest collective actions in the American history.

For example, on April 17, 1965, a coalition of students for Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a massive anti-war march on Washington D.C. Inspiring by the civil right movement, the student protesters were motivated by the anti-war, anti-coercive foreign engagement and decided to act out their belief collectively: in the position paper written by the SNCC, they “maintain that [the] country’s cry of ‘preserve freedom in the world’ is a hypocritical mask, behind which it squashes liberation movements which are not bound, and refuse to be bound, by the expediencies of United States cold war policies.” Although the organizers originally expected about 2000 protesters, in fact about 250,000 protesters came to the demonstration, and the number of the protesters were almost equivalent to the number of the soldiers fought in Vietnam.

Such a collective movement is on the front page of the major Newspaper that day and catch national attention, including the attention of the LBJ administration. Other than the discrepancies on the definitions, conscientious objectors and civil disobedients had received differential treatments by authorities in American history. Other than the reason that protestant belief was deep rooted in America, there are other reasons that authorities had been more tolerant to conscientious objectors. In political theorist Michael Walzer’s book Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship, he mentions the three potential reasons.

The first one is that the authority was entirely familiar with the historical tradition and not worry about “the infinite extension of the claim.” Indeed, conscientious objectors’ attitude toward the war could be anticipated, and they didn’t so much detest wars as detest the consequences of participating in war– killing innocents, which is forbidden. In other words, they had no interest in distinguishing the “just war” from “unjust war” and extending their claims by supporting one but detest another.

The second reason, related to the first reason, is that the making of such stereotyped claims “did not constitute any sort of political judgement.” Their secular conscience of objection, as Justice Clark suggests in the opinion of United States v. Seeger, is a “merely personal moral code” that share with God and other followers of God. In other words, they “urged only their own exemption, adopting an attitude toward war something like a monk toward sex,” and hence the authority feel no pressure to grant them exemptions since its judgements and policies wouldn’t be challenged.

Last but not least, the number of conscientious objectors who opposed to go to war for the secular reason was relatively small and these objectors were easy to distinguish, so their existence didn’t hinder the authority carrying out its war policy. Civil disobedience to the unjust war, by contrary, was perceived as a threat by the authority. This is not only because civil disobedients make a distinction between just wars and unjust wars, but also because of the collective actions they perform resulted from a common opinion which was contrary to the authority’s judgement.

Civil disobedients, exceed the limitation of the personal moral code, question judgements made by the authority and act out their belief with group of people who share similar belief that together may potentially shaken the legitimacy of the authority. Therefore, the authority has always been hesitant to grant the exemption to civil disobedients and even prosecuted them because “the very capacity of the state to carry out its policies – even policies democratically decided upon – would be called into question.” In general, the characteristics of the anti-Vietnam War Movement determine our usage of “civil disobedience” in addressing the movement.

Why the War was Considered Unjust?

After examining the historical background of the Vietnam War and clarifying the usage of “civil disobedience” in the paper, the major question we now need to answer in justifying the anti-war movement are and whether the war, as many protesters claimed, was unjust. In fact, it was obvious that the United States fought a war in Vietnam solely for the purpose of protecting its hegemonic status and capitalist ideology. The United States, as a democratic country, supported other imperialist power, voided the election of another country, and fought a proxy war at expense of infringing another country’s sovereignty.

The U.S. intention and the cause of the invasion were unjust by any means, in other words, raising such a war went against the casus belli principle. Other than the lack of the just cause, there are many other proofs that the Vietnam War was unjust. According to the Just War Theory, a traditional doctrine that many military leaders had followed for centuries and some political theorists still refer to until today, there are two principles in judging whether a war is just or not: Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello, justice to war and justice in war. Having a just cause is one component of Jus ad Bellum, and in order to declare a just war, the country need to ensure

  • war can only be waged by “legitimate authority to restore justice after an injury has been inflicted”
  • war is the last resort.

For the first rule, the Vietnam did not first inflicted injury on Americans, it was American support the French colonial power which ruthlessly oppress Vietnameses. Although some supporters of the Vietnam War argued that the U.S. intervention prevent the authoritarian leader from inflicting harm on their own people and hence restore justice, the reality is that the puppet government in the South was the one who “opened fire on a crowd of Buddhist protestors in the central Vietnam city of Hue.”

For the second rule, attacking Vietnam certainly was not the last resort. The red scare of the LBJ administration directly dragged the U.S. into the war without even considering the alternatives, the excessive use of armed force demonstrated the incompetence of U.S. foreign policy. Jus in Bello, justice in war, includes two broad principles of discrimination and proportionality: “The principle of discrimination concerns who are legitimate targets in war, whilst the principle of proportionality concerns how much force is morally appropriate.” The U.S. army’s military actions in Vietnam followed neither principles. The soldiers not only used excessive force against “the Viet Cong,” but also were too careless to distinguish the targets and hence kill many civilians. Some of the soldiers even intentionally kill civilians for the pleasure.

For example, the My Lai Massacre was a mass killing of unarmed Vietnamese civilians conducted by twenty six American soldiers, and 500 civilians including females, elders and infants were ruthlessly killed. The most shocking thing is that these soldiers, who killed civilians for fun, were not punished by the martial law, and only one of them was sentenced for three and half year. The banality of their actions cannot be covered by the “collateral damage” excuse. Considering the death toll of the Vietnamese, more than 2 million of the Vietnameses dead in the war, and the U.S. army directly or indirectly killed more than 1.1 million Vietnamese from the North. The whole tragedy proved that the U.S. army had used excessive force and it was morally inappropriate. Therefore, judging from the consequences, the U.S. army’s military actions during the war were unjust.

In general, the Vietnam War, failed to comply with Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello principles, was an unjust war; the law that forced people to fight such a war would certainly be considered as the unjust law. The unjust characteristic of the Vietnam War granted the anti-war protesters the moral foundations to dissent and to defy the law.

Different Interests, Same Opinion: the Diversity of the Protesters

Some critics of the anti-Vietnam War movement argued that the main purpose of the protesters is to shrink military service. In other words, they believed that the protesters gather for the personal interest of dodging the draft instead of for the purpose of demonstrating civil disobedience, and they disguised themselves as civil disobedients to look for their own exemption. Although we will prove that this argument is untenable, there is one thing they pointed out is true: the civil disobedience is performed out of common opinions instead of common interests.

Hannah Arendt, one of the most famous political theorist focus on topic of civil disobedience, once draws the distinction between conscientious objection and civil disobedience and reinforce the importance of “common opinion” in her article “Civil Disobedience”: “we must distinguish between conscientious objectors and civil disobedients. The latter are in fact organized minorities, bound together by common opinion, rather than by common interest, and the decision to take a stand against the government’s policies even if they have reason to assume that these policies are backed by a majority; their concerted action springs from an agreement with each other, and it is this agreement that lends credence and conviction to their opinion, no matter how they may originally have arrived at it.”

The proof that the protesters of the anti-war movement were united by the common opinion not the common interest is that the group was very diverse, and many of protesters were not affected by the selective military service yet still stood up against the war. For example, many women participated in the anti-war movement and the draft resistance. In the United States, women were exempted from the military services and were not required to register, and hence many argued that since women had “privilege” to not be drafted by the army, they shouldn’t meddle with “men’s business.”

Many female protesters who were also feminists refuted this argument. They believe that not being drafted by the army is not a privilege but a demonstration of gender inequality, and hence this should not hinder women from standing up against the Vietnam War due to the solidarity of all the oppressed. For example, Jill Severn, a female protester from University of Washington wrote, “It is incongruous and offensive to us that we should be denied leadership or equality in the movement on the basis of our supposedly privileged and protected special position. We demand, and deserve, the right to participate in the movement on exactly the same basis as anyone else: on the grounds of our political beliefs and our equal stake in the future.”

The participation of women out of the solidarity not only contributed to the diversity of the movement but also prove a fact that protesters were united for the common opinion. Moreover, many who obtain the deferments also participated in the anti-war movements. In fact, the draft system during the Vietnam War was unequal in the way that upper and middle class males could easily obtain the deferments that protected them from being drafted yet lower class males, who don’t have the money and resources to obtain deferments through loopholes, would be drafted by the army. While many believe that upper and middle class males, who benefited from family wealth, detached from the movement, in Boston, 86% of the anti-war protesters obtain the deferments! Protesting against the war brought no benefits for them and would potentially made them being called for induction.

Their actions were not out of cowardice but courage of pursuing the belief that share by many Americans: the unjust war should be ended. In general, the anti-war movement, as an act of civil disobedience, fulfilled the prerequisite of being a collective action based on a common opinion. As political theorists such as Rawls suggested that civil disobedients should accept the consequences of breaking laws since “fidelity to law is expressed…by the willingness to accept the legal consequences of one’s conduct,”12 some of the anti-war protesters, confined to the civil disobedience theory, were willing to not only explain the reason behind their civil disobediences but also suffer the consequences of law-breakings.

For example, Howard Zinn, a historian and anti-war social activist who was sentenced to jail due to participation of anti-Vietnam war protest in Boston, facing choices when he demonstrated civil disobedience during wartime. On the day that he was supposed to appear on court, he needed to “[fly] to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to take part in a debate with the philosopher Charles Frankel on civil disobedience.”: “I had a choice: show up in court and miss this opportunity to explain—and practice—my commitment to civil disobedience, or face the consequences of defying the court order by going to Baltimore. I chose to go.” he wrote in his article “Voices of A People’s History”. After the debate he was back to Boston University, he was arrested by police officers and was sentenced to jail. Zinn made an well-known statement about the Vietnam war and civil disobedience: “As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem….Our problem is civil obedience.

Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.”14 Because of the existence of civil disobedients like Zinn who instructed the public the necessity of the civil disobedience and chose to defy the law at the risk of being jailed, the U.S. was not dragged into the endless abyss of war and injustice forever.

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Justifying the Civil Disobedience During the Vietnam War. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/justifying-the-civil-disobedience-during-the-vietnam-war-essay

Justifying the Civil Disobedience During the Vietnam War

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