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“It is a given of U.S. history that war kills reform. Populism could
not outlive the Spanish-American clash; progressivism largely succumbed to
World War I; ‘Dr. New Deal’ gave way to ‘Dr. Win-the-War…;’ [and] Korea
overwhelmed Truman’s Fair Deal.” Connecting these examples with the
1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s biographer Robert Dallek asserts, “Vietnam largely
stalled the War on Poverty and blocked Johnson’s reach for the Great Society.
The country,” Dallek concludes, “ha[s] never had the psychological and fiscal
wherewithal to back reform and war at the same time.”1 Eclipsing the reform
movements of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, by reordering presidential
priorities and draining the federal resources employed in domestic
reformation, disillusioned those seeking internal improvements. There were,
of course, other factors responsible for the growing disillusionment with
Washington. Johnson’s rhetoric, aimed at promoting a new social order he
called “the Great Society,” promised opportunity to the downtrodden and an
economic safety net for the fiscally less fortunate. Defining his goal in a
special message to Congress on 16 March 1964, Johnson hoped to build “‘an
America in which every citizen shares all the opportunities of [this] society,
in which every man has a chance to advance his welfare to the limit of his
capacities.’”2 Unfortunately for Johnson, the Vietnam War smothered the
Great Society and its programs.
Dallek, Robert, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1998), 399.
Speeches of the American Presidents Ed. Janet Podell and Steven Anzovin, Second ed.
(New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 2001), 726.
Certain segments of the American population, those most lifted by
Johnson’s rhetoric, had farther to fall when he broke his promises of reform.
Particularly, the Civil Rights Movement, and blacks in general, felt
abandoned by the shift in the President’s focus after 1965. In addition to the
condemnation that “the administration’s record on race and poverty [was] a
five-year string of ‘broken promises,’” those active in the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee, anxiously searching for a strong federal
government to enforce new legislation, quickly discerned the distinction
between Washington’s rhetoric and reality in the Deep South.3 Highly touted
by Johnson as bills capable of securing first-class citizenship and the right of
democratic participation for African Americans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964
and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, similar to the Great Society programs,
failed to alter many local conditions. Not long after the passage of these new
legislations, blacks learned “that recalcitrance and intransigence on the part of
state and local officials [could] defeat the operation of the most unequivocal
civil rights legislation.”4 This failure of enforcement with regards to civil
rights legislation resulted from federal inaction. It was accompanied by
spreading disillusionment with Washington’s move away from the Great
Society and domestic reform and towards war in Vietnam. Together, these
developments had a profound effect on the Civil Rights Movement. Offering
blacks a concrete manifestation of American Society’s ills, the Vietnam War
acted as a catalyst encouraging the newly militant criticism of the Movement
to the foreground. This effect, most notably exemplified in the radicalization
of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), resulted in a
usurpation of the Civil Rights Movement by the Black Power movement.
Accordingly, blacks, in lieu of ineffective government legislation, sought
equality through self-reliance, self-respect, and self-actualization.
Borstelmann, Thomas, The Cold War and the Color Line (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1998), 219.
“Special Report” from SNCC dated 23 March 1965, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-1968,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 1 Folder 6.
At the dawn of the 1960s SNCC, staffed by idealistic, young college
students, began demonstrating against segregation and racial injustices in the
southern Black Belt. The “remarkably successful lunch counter sit-ins of
1960” and the “‘freedom rides’ of 1961” popularized SNCC among southern
blacks as well as northern whites.5 Then, on 28 August 1963, the newly
elected SNCC chair John Lewis delivered an inflammatory speech at the
“March On Washington” condemning America’s institutionalized racism and
segregation. Focusing “SNCC’s prevailing distrust of institutions,” John
Lewis hoped to “build durable and powerful alternative” establishments based
on the values behind the Civil Rights Movement in order to rebel “against
existing authority” and display dissatisfaction with the “established power.”6
It was this institutional authority that early SNCC staffers sought to disrupt in
an effort to combat the two problems of southern black Americans, namely:
“they are poor and they are black. All other problems,” Stokely Carmichael
wrote, “arise from this two-sided reality.”7 SNCC’s pursuit of institutional
change centered around the registration of southern black voters in the hopes
that achieving enfranchisement might lead to political representation, an
avenue through which to change the dismal conditions of southern blacks.
Striving toward such long-term goals as integration and racial
equality through necessarily short-term strategies like voter registration
proved difficult. For example, in Dallas County, Alabama in 1963, “the
majority of the residents…[were] Negroes (57%), but only 0.9% of the
eligible Negroes [were] registered to vote.” Similarly, neither “adjoining
Wilcox County…nor Lowndes County [had] ever had a Negro voter” despite
Carson, Clayborn, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 233. See also Burns, Stewart, Social
Movements of the 1960s: Searching for Democracy (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990),
Carson, In Struggle, 163 and 211.
“What We Want” from Stokely Carmichael, dated 1966, Social Action Vertical File,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 6.
the fact that the percentage of the black population in these counties was 78%
and 81%, respectively.8 Consciously choosing Selma, Alabama for its
historical symbolism, on 7 October 1963 SNCC launched Freedom Day and
the “‘One Man—One Vote’” campaign to register black voters.9 A “slave
market before the Civil War” and the “birthplace of the [White] Citizens
Council in Alabama,” Selma was 57% black, “but only about 1 percent of the
eligible Negroes were registered to vote.”10 “Sheriff Clark’s posse” and
Mayor Smelley’s troopers met the hundreds of blacks seeking registration on
Freedom Day in Selma, 1963.11 The violent confrontation that ensued
highlighted two important themes that would dominate the enfranchisement
struggle of blacks in the South. First, Freedom Day, 1963 solidified SNCC’s
place in the Civil Rights Movement. According to a participant, “‘Nothing
like this ever happened to Selma…until SNCC came here.’”12 More
important to the brewing discontent of blacks in the Movement, Freedom
Day, 1963 saw federal troops and F.B.I. agents watching passively as violent
confrontations took shape. This displayed “the impotence of the federal
government.” Regarding the “right to decide who will and will not govern,”
SNCC complained, “the federal government is nowhere to be found.”13
In an effort to address these claims of federal inaction and attend to
the disparities within American society that resulted in the internal unrest
articulated by SNCC, Johnson pursued the creation of a “Great Society.”
Morally inclined, Johnson defined the War on Poverty and the Great Society
as “‘a struggle to give people a chance. It is an effort,’” he said, “‘to allow
[all people] to develop and use their capacities, as we have been allowed to
develop and use ours, so that they can share, as others share, in the promise of
“Special Report” from SNCC dated 4 February 1965, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-
1968, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 1 Folder 6.
Zinn, Howard, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 148.
Ibid, 150.
Ibid, 165.
“Special Report” from SNCC dated 23 March 1965, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-
1968, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 1 Folder 6.
this nation.’” Johnson explicitly targeted blacks with his promising rhetoric.
Responding to the recent upsurge in discontent, he declared his intentions to
“‘battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law
requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin.’”14
Consequently, Johnson pushed for passage of an antipoverty bill. According
to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, in 1964, “60 percent of
Negro children in America were growing up in poverty-stricken families”
compared to a much smaller percentage among their white counterparts.15
Also addressing the conditions of southern blacks, on 2 July 1964 Johnson
signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning “discrimination in
places of public accommodation.” Many blacks saw 1964 and the legislation
Johnson seemed committed to enacting as an indication of a federal
government finally acting on behalf of the black population and, perhaps, a
newfound attention to the plight of southern blacks. Therefore, blacks in the
Southern Black Belt anxiously waited to reap the benefits promised by the
Great Society legislation of 1964.
If Freedom Day, 1963 exhibited federal inaction and the ability of
local governments to disregard the law, it also demonstrated the desire among
blacks to gain a political voice. Uplifted by the Civil Rights Act of July 1964,
SNCC staffers hoped to use their newly legislated equality to gain that
political right in the South. Therefore, in August of 1964 SNCC “initiated a
campaign to sign up voters for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
(MFDP)…to challenge white Democrats for recognition as the legitimate
Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention.”16 Flirting
with the ideals of the Black Power movement before they were carefully
articulated, Carmichael concluded “about the Democratic Party that it was ‘as
Speeches of the American Presidents Ed. Janet Podell and Steven Anzovin, Second ed.
(New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 2001), 726, 733.
Muse, Benjamin, The American Negro Revolution: From Nonviolence to Black Power,
1963-1968 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 92-95.
Burns, Social Movements of the 1960s, 29.
ludicrous for Negroes to join as it would have been for Jews to join the Nazi
Party in the 1930s.’”17 Unfortunately, President “Johnson was adamant
against seating the challengers,” who arguably were more representative of
Mississippi than their white counterparts. The White House “did not lift a
finger to help; in fact, [it] quietly did all [it] could to bury the challenge.”18
Judging federal actions in Selma in 1963 and again in Mississippi during the
summer of 1964, SNCC realized the intent of the President. Whether
passively allowing a violent backlash against blacks trying to register legally
to vote or actively seeking to rebut a legitimate southern political voice, the
federal government and its officers failed to defend the constitutional rights of
a large segment of the population. SNCC, perceiving federal inaction as
symptomatic of institutionalized racism and segregation, sought legislative
measures to protect the rights of the citizens it represented. However,
Johnson’s Great Society rhetoric, and even his legislative accomplishments of
1964, failed to substantially alter the entrenched racial barriers in American
With the promise of delivery from poverty and inequality, blacks’
expectations were high. On the fringes of America for so long, many African
Americans felt rejuvenated by the White House’s promise of upward
mobility. Accordingly, much room was left for disappointment. In fact,
Budget Director Charlie Schultze, alarmed by the pledges Johnson was
making, expressed this potential, declaring, “‘States, cities, depressed areas,
and individuals have been led to expect immediate delivery of benefits from
Great Society programs to a degree that is not realistic.’”19 Indeed this was
the case. “The War on Poverty” and other Great Society programs, argues
Benjamin Muse, “had raised expectations faster than [they] had solved
Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, 186.
Burns, Social Movements, 32. See also Untitled document, Howard Zinn, Papers:
1956-1970, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 3 Folder 5.
Dallek, Flawed Giant, 330.
problems.” Civil Rights leaders were also quick to voice their
disappointment with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for its “inadequacies.”
Criticized for “making hardly more than token changes” by SNCC’s press
secretary Jack Minnis, the Act, it was clear “from the outset,” was “an
unenforceable law.”21 As the Civil Rights Act of 1964 failed to alter historic
Southern realities and the Mississippi Free Democrats’ challenge to the
existing democratic delegation was squashed, the African American belief
that “law and established authority were instruments of white oppression”
was further impressed upon them.22 In this way, the War on Poverty, the
Great Society programs, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while originally
passed to offer equal opportunity, aroused disappointment.
This disappointment resulted in a heightened level of restlessness,
surfacing most notably in Selma in 1965. If the summer of 1964 saw the
Civil Rights Movement and blacks at large grow increasingly dissatisfied
with the federal government, 1965 saw the culmination of this dissent. While
Johnson was pressing for new legislation to alleviate the conditions of the
poor and equate the races, SNCC continued its voter registration efforts in the
Deep South. Organized jointly by SNCC and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, “a march from Selma to Montgomery, to demand the
right to vote and to protest state and police brutality” on Sunday, 7 March
1965 drew the support of thousands of blacks.23 Struggling to refocus “‘the
attention of the nation and Congress on the State of Alabama and the plight of
the disenfranchised blacks,’” SNCC hoped to voice the grievances following
Muse, The American Negro Revolution, 286.
Burns, Social Movements of the 1960s, 160. See also, “Life With Lyndon in the Great
Society, Vol. 1, No. 19” dated 10 June 1965, Social Action Vertical File, Wisconsin State
Historical Society Archives, Box 47.
“Life With Lyndon in the Great Society, Vol. 1, No. 18” dated 3 June 1965, Social
Action Vertical File, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 47. See also
Muse, The American Negro Revolution, 170.
“Enclosed is Information on Today’s Brutality in Selma, Alabama” from SNCC dated
7 March 1965, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-1968, Wisconsin State Historical Society
Archives, Box 1 Folder 6.
the ineffective legislation of 1964.24 As the protestors made their way to
Montgomery, they crossed the Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River to find
Sheriff Jim Clark and “a solid phalanx of helmeted and gas-masked state
troopers, who with little warning lunged at them, smashing heads and lobbing
tear-gas grenades.”25 Termed “Bloody Sunday” for the violence that ensued,
7 March 1965 highlighted the resistance of local southern constituencies to
reform. Moreover, when asked by a reporter whether he “intended to send
federal marshals or military personnel to Selma” in order to protect the rights
of the blacks trying to register, Johnson “restated his intention to use the civil
rights act and the courts to assure the right to vote.”26 Federal inaction, it
seemed, applied even to incidents of police brutality against peaceful protests.
However, as the public grew aware of the brutality inflicted upon the
peaceful marchers from television and radio reports, Johnson decided he had
to act. While Johnson had hoped to “‘wait until [he] had an opportunity to
see the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) in operation before’” taking up new
legislation, the events of “Bloody Sunday” and the resultant public outcry
forced Johnson to take up one more piece of legislation.27 Relying on his
rhetorical capabilities once again, on 15 March 1965 Johnson delivered a
speech to a special joint session of Congress against the immoral and anti-
American practice of denying citizens the right to vote. Denouncing the
registration procedures of southern registrars, Johnson reminded Congress
that “‘the Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because
of his race or color…. It is wrong—deadly wrong,’” he continued, “‘to deny
any of your fellow Americans the right to vote.’” Finally, in an effort to
bridge the growing divide between himself and his black constituency,
Johnson concluded:
Carter, Dan T., The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New
Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, Second Edition (Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 246.
Burns, Social Movements of the 1960s, 36.
Dallek, Flawed Giant, 214.
Ibid, 214.
‘Even if we pass [the Voting Rights Act of 1965], the battle will not be over.
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into
every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to
secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be
our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must
overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall
The symbolism of his last sentence was hard to miss. However, blacks that
had believed Johnson’s rhetoric before were not satisfied. The reaction of
SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement to Selma and the Voting Rights Act of
1965 was not one of appreciation towards Washington. Instead, the events of
early 1965 led to, in the opinion of John Lewis, chairman of SNCC, “‘a
problem. The guys,’” in SNCC, he worried, “‘are not non-violent any more.
They’re ready to fight.’”29 The events of Selma in 1965, as opined by Lewis,
were a culmination of discontent and therefore instrumental in the Civil
Rights Movement’s shift towards radicalization.
Not long after Johnson made his speech to the joint session of
Congress, SNCC released a position paper refuting the impact of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965. Pointing out that Johnson had touted the Act as targeting
and eliminating “‘racial discrimination in every aspect of the electoral process
and thereby ensur[ing] the right of all to vote,’” the SNCC position paper
referred to the language of the bill to contest the validity of this claim.30
While the bill did outlaw “tests and devices” in the registration process,
common manipulations used by southern registrars to prohibit blacks from
registering, the SNCC paper criticized Section 3(A) of the Act, proclaiming
that “under the terms of the bill, the old modes of discrimination could
continue unabated and unrestricted in any area in which more than 50% of the
Speeches of the American Presidents Ed. Janet Podell and Steven Anzovin, Second ed.,
“Selma, Alabama—March 7, 1965” from SNCC dated 7 March 1965, Alicia Kaplow,
Papers: 1965-1968, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 1 Folder 6.
“The President’s Proposed 1965 Voting Rights Bill” from SNCC not dated, Howard
Zinn, Papers: 1956-1970, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 3 Folder 5.
Emphasis added.
voting age population had voted in the November, 1964 election.” Indeed,
the bill only guaranteed the rights of 50% of the population. The SNCC
paper concluded, “Local officials disfranchise Negroes, and the U.S.
Government appears powerless to prevent it, existing legislation
notwithstanding.”32 To be sure, many blacks, including some SNCC staffers,
were enthused when the President assured them, in the cadence of the
Movement’s anthem, that the legislation would correct past wrongs.
Unfortunately, “the omnibus law was nowhere near as strong as the activists
had wanted.” As a result, SNCC’s program secretary Cleve Sellers
suggested, blacks “‘wanted to show…the federal government and poor
southern blacks in other Selmas that we didn’t intend to take any more
shit.’”33 On the contrary, SNCC activists, no longer hopeful that the federal
government could provide any help, decided to criticize openly the
administration to show less radical blacks that relying on a racist institution,
as evidenced by the dead-ends of 1964 and 1965, led nowhere.
After the Alabama campaign and its outcome resulted in further
disillusionment, SNCC encouraged mass militancy as the only alternative to
entrenched racism. Learning from their experiences in Selma both in 1963
and 1965, from the MFDP incident and the Civil Rights Act of the summer of
1964, from the examples of federal inaction and the ability of local and state
officials to usurp the federal government on many occasions, and from the
undeniable discrepancy between Johnson’s rhetorical promises and southern
reality, SNCC after 1965 mobilized the growing disillusionment and
dissatisfaction among blacks. The radicalization of the Movement during
1965 resulted from these domestic instances of unmet promises, SNCC’s
Ibid. See also “The New Voting Bill: Rhetoric and Reality” from SNCC dated 23
March 1965, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-1968, Wisconsin State Historical Society
Archives, Box 1 Folder 6.
“The New Voting Bill: Rhetoric and Reality” from SNCC dated 23 March 1965, Alicia
Kaplow, Papers: 1965-1968, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 1 Folder
Burns, Social Movements of the 1960s, 154. See also Carson, In Struggle, 159.
realization that racism in America was institutionalized and thus non-
combatable from inside that bureaucracy, and the frequency of federal
neglect. In addition, however, international events during 1965, by offering
substance to a feeling of discontent, also pushed the Movement away from
the white institutions with which it once sought cooperation.
Just as American society experienced turmoil during 1965, the
international arena also faced political convulsion over the war in Vietnam.
Holding ground in South Vietnam proved costly for the Johnson
administration. While it was necessary to act in accordance with the
prevalent U.S. foreign policy of the Cold War, namely containment, Johnson
“feared that a larger U.S. involvement in Vietnam might divide Congress and
keep him from working his will on domestic reform.” Nevertheless, “he had
no intention of letting Vietnam succumb to communism; it would undercut
him at home the way China’s ‘loss’ had plagued Truman and the Democrats.”
Also important was a demonstration of Johnson’s toughness to assure the
Chinese and the Soviets that, like Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis,
he would act strongly and efficaciously abroad.34 However, just as the Civil
Rights Movement desired more attention and the poor blacks yet unaffected
on any satisfactory level sought welfare resources, the Johnson White House
removed itself still further from the Movement and domestic reform. The
Vietnam War, then, worsened the rift between the white bureaucracy and the
Movement, and resulted in more alienation and a focal point to which the
Movement could attach its criticisms of American society.
Operating within the confines of the Cold War American foreign
policy of containment, the Johnson administration looked at Vietnam as a
battleground between democracy and communism. In the postwar era, the
Dallek, Flawed Giant, 100.
U.S. adhered “‘tenaciously to a strategy of containment of expansion by’”
communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic
of China.35 Fearful that any apparent U.S. inability to thwart a communist
advance in Vietnam might “jeopardize the security of many other Asian
nations” and result in “adverse reactions among our friends and allies,” the
Johnson administration decided to take a stand in Vietnam.36 Pursuant to the
“domino theory,” a failure “to counter [the] Communist war of national
liberation” in Vietnam could encourage “insurrectionary wars” throughout the
area with the possibility that the whole of Southeast Asia might go
communist.37 As a result of the policy of containment, and the tangent theory
of dominoes, the Johnson administration, in the words of Secretary of
Defense Robert McNamara, chose Vietnam to “‘demonstrate U.S. power and
determination…to Asia and the world at large.’”38 The U.S. national security,
according to the Johnson White House, required a firm stance against the
communist insurgency in South Vietnam.
As a result of the containment policy and the consequent strong
stance the U.S. took in Vietnam, the American reputation quickly became
associated with the outcome there. With Vietnam understood in Washington
as a “test of [American] willpower, credibility, [and] prestige,” the conflict
promised to serve “as a symbol of American [Cold War] resolve throughout
the world.”39 Therefore, the U.S. must not, according to Ambassador
Maxwell Taylor, “‘leave Vietnam with [its] tail between [its] legs’” because
the “‘consequences of [such a] defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin
Ayres Jr., B. Drumond, “Westmoreland Urges Aid to Vietnam,” The New York Times,
29 May 1975, p. 3.
Zagoria, Donald S., “Who’s Afraid of the Domino Theory?,” The New York Times, 21
April 1968, p. SM28.
Weigley, Russell F., The American Way of War: A History of United States Military
Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 460.
Young, Marilyn B., The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990, 110.
Ibid, 179. See also Gaddis, John Lewis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical
Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1982), 265.
America would be disastrous.’”40 Consequently, the Johnson administration
elected Vietnam as the international stage where the U.S. would project itself
as the guarantor of freedom. In doing so, the administration bound its
reputation to Saigon and its geopolitical credibility to its effort at preventing
the fall of the undeveloped “dominoes” in Southeast Asia. As a result of
equating U.S. national security to the containment of communism in Vietnam,
Johnson considered defeat too politically expensive and went to increasingly
great lengths to avoid it.
As the conflict in South Vietnam intensified, Johnson and his advisors
feared a national security crisis. Consequently, the President, much to the
dissatisfaction of those involved in the Movement, decided to deploy troops
to Vietnam on 1 April 1965. Eight months after the deployment, SNCC
vocalized its anger releasing a position paper titled “Statement by the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the War in Vietnam.” Citing
hypocrisy and immorality on behalf of the federal government, SNCC
supported the “men in this country who [were] unwilling to respond to a
military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to U.S.
aggression in Vietnam in the name of ‘freedom’ we find so false in this
country.” Charging the U.S. government with duplicity, SNCC claimed that
if the government could not deter “the rule of terror and oppression” from
operating “within its own borders,” then it certainly could not claim to be
doing so in Vietnam. Instead, the authors of the SNCC position paper
maintained that the U.S.’s “cry of ‘preserve freedom in the world’ [was] a
hypocritical mask behind which it squashes liberation movements which
[were] not bound…by the expediencies of U.S. Cold War policies.”41 A
government that did not cultivate freedom at home, SNCC argued, could not
claim to do so abroad.
Kahin, George McT., Intervention (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), 238.
“Statement by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the War in
Vietnam” from SNCC dated 6 January 1966, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-1968,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archive, Box 1 Folder 8.
SNCC compared the proportion of blacks dying in Vietnam to the
black proportion of the overall U.S. population. Although by the end of the
war the percentages were almost identical, between 1965 and 1967 “blacks
comprised more than 20 percent of American combat deaths, about twice
their portion of the U.S. population.” Supplementing these statistics, SNCC
asked why the U.S. government was “willing to make the Negro 100 percent
of a citizen in warfare, but reduce him to 50 percent of a citizen on American
soil.”42 Following, SNCC wondered, “Where is the draft for the freedom
fight in the U.S.?” Most basically, SNCC articulated two critiques at once.
The authors of the position paper pointed out that “Negroes [were] called on
to stifle the liberation of Vietnam, to preserve a ‘democracy’ which does not
exist for them at home” in an effort to unmask the incongruity between
federal expectations of blacks and federal resolve to protect those same
people.43 SNCC argued that defying the draft and working with the
Movement should be the priority of all men because American society at the
time, with many injustices and inequalities yet unresolved, was not worth
fighting for.
In addition, SNCC claimed it immoral that the U.S. should expect
black men to fight the Vietnamese because of the commonalities of their
struggle. Stemming from the hypocrisy critique, the immorality denunciation
of the Vietnam War claimed that blacks fighting in Vietnam “would be
looked upon as traitors by all the Colored People of the world” were they to
“risk [their] lives and kill other Colored People…so that the White American
[could] get richer.”44 Labeling the U.S. an “octopus of exploitation [with] its
tentacles reaching from Mississippi and Harlem to…Vietnam,” Stokely
Appy, Christian G., Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 19-20.
“Statement by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the War in
Vietnam” from SNCC dated 6 January 1966, Alicia Kaplow, Papers: 1965-1968,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archive, Box 1 Folder 8.
“The War on Vietnam” from SNCC not dated, Howard Zinn, Papers: 1956-1970,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 3 Folder 5.
Carmichael reminded blacks that “colored brothers the world over…want the
same things we do, the right to live in dignity free from imperialist aggression
and oppression.”45 The intensifying feeling of alienation from the Johnson
administration, a result of the disheartening experiences of domestic civil
rights organizing and now the war in Vietnam as well, caused SNCC to “link
their cause directly to that of revolutionaries abroad.” Consequently,
disillusioned blacks exchanged their “white liberal allies at home for what
they believed was membership in an international struggle for liberty by
people of color.”46 “‘Our struggle,’” Carmichael announced to potential
Third World allies, “‘[are] one and the same…[and] should be coordinated.’”
Identifying themselves as the American counterparts to the Vietnamese
citizens fighting for self-determination, Carmichael and his supporters saw
the “‘racist and imperialist’” American regime acting congruently at home
and abroad.47 It was immoral, Carmichael concluded, for the U.S.
government to expect blacks to abandon their brothers in arms. Instead,
blacks should embrace their international complements and, united, engage
their common enemy.
The main critiques of the Vietnam War, then, suggest SNCC’s
displeasure with the white leadership making the decisions to fight for the
“freedom” of South Vietnam. The same establishment that all too
conservatively addressed the issue of racial discrimination in the American
South was extending itself abroad and “civil rights workers…worried that the
administration was embarking on another war before the struggle to
liberate…the South was won.”48 Moreover, the “racist administration”
expected blacks to fight against those in Vietnam experiencing the same
“What We Want” from Stokely Carmichael dated 1966, Social Action Vertical File,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 6. See also “Black Youth Must
Struggle for the Liberation of their Own People” undated document, Social Action
Vertical File, Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 6.
Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, 220-221, 205.
Carson, In Struggle, 276.
Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, 180-181.
injustices at the hands of the U.S. government that blacks suffered
domestically.49 Therefore, with the limited attention the Movement had
received prior to 1965 quickly waning, the militant attitude among blacks that
the administration was immoral, hypocritical, insincere, and untrustworthy,
and therefore required no allegiance from a segment of society so frequently
cast aside, was reinforced. In this way, the Vietnam War offered tangible
critiques of an unrepresentative, oppressive administration and an outlet for
blacks to express their disillusionment.
Similar to the shift in attention away from the Civil Rights
Movement, the Vietnam War also distracted attention and resources from the
Great Society. Perceiving Vietnam as a “sea in which he and his highest
hopes could be lost,” Johnson agonized over the fact that, again, he believed
“U.S. national security dictated against abandoning Vietnam.” Thus, he
decided to “risk the adverse consequences of a larger war” in order to bolster
the U.S.’s national and foreign policy interests. Put simply, if “losing the
Great Society was a terrible thought,” then “losing a war to the Communists”
was unthinkable.50 In order to put more resources into the war effort, Johnson
refused priority to the achievement of civil rights legislation and Great
Society programs. While SNCC had long since articulated the sentiment
among blacks that “the civil rights laws and antipoverty measures had done
little to change fundamental conditions for blacks,” a change in Johnson’s
rhetoric, from a War on Poverty to a “‘Strategy Against Poverty’” for
example, surely meant that, as SNCC long suspected, “military spending was
replacing funding for the poor at home.”51 Consequently, SNCC felt not only
justified in criticizing the government (it certainly felt justified before), but
also realized it had solid grounds upon which to rest that criticism.
Untitled and undated document from SNCC, Howard Zinn, Papers: 1956-1970,
Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives, Box 3 Folder 5.
Dallek, Flawed Giant, 242, 278.
Ibid, 412, 405. See also Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, 203.
This reallocation of funds from domestic reform efforts to the war
struggle in Vietnam became pronounced by early 1967. With American
national security tied to the outcome in Vietnam, Johnson’s close adherence
to the doctrine of containment and his fear of falling dominoes pushed him to
progressively transfer attention and resources abroad. For example, in fiscal
1967 the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the “central antipoverty
agency,” received “$138 million less than Johnson” had promised it.52
Apportioned only 45 percent of their expected budget, the OEO was forced to
deal with a president “crimping the war on poverty…and trimming
antipoverty costs” in an effort to maintain sufficient funding for the escalating
war in Southeast Asia.53 Furthermore, when the Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary John Gardner asked the President
for “larger appropriations for [the] social programs” proposed by Johnson
himself, the President “had to turn him down and cut even more than Gardner
assumed HEW would get.”54 To be sure, the balance created by these
budgetary adjustments was converted into military resources. As Johnson
denied the OEO and HEW their promised capital, he asked for a
“supplemental $700 million appropriation for Vietnam.”55
In the aftermath of the disappointments of 1964 and 1965, SNCC
desired an outlet for their anxieties. The fact that the Civil Rights Movement
was receiving less attention and funding was irrefutable. Even worse, not
only were welfare programs sacrificed for the war effort, but blacks were also
being asked to participate in the conflict producing that effect. No longer
struggling to find a tangible hook upon which to hang their disillusionment,
SNCC and the militant blacks took a stand against the Vietnam War, a
manifestation of the hypocrisy, immorality, and injustice pervasive in
American society. As a result, blacks saw the realization of power for
Dallek, Flawed Giant, 404.
Ibid, 333.
Ibid, 402.
Ibid, 269.
themselves as the only way to righ

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