It is important to acknowledge the Anti-Vietnam War demonstration as a crucial moment in British history, and a formative event in how we express public dissent today. To mark the 50 year anniversary of the Anti-Vietnam War demonstration that took place on March the 17th 1968, we’ve put together this blog exploring the events of the day, and the connections to another significant anti-War protest which followed over 30 years later: the anti-Iraq War Demo of 2003. Both protests are explored in our short story collection, Protest: Stories of Resistance, which aims to celebrate and show you Britain’s rich and radical history through street level perspectives.
For those that don’t know, the Anti-Vietnam demonstration was spurred by the opposition to the escalating role of the United States military in the Vietnam War, growing into a broad social movement particularly populated by students: the 1960s were a time when the number of people entering higher education grew exponentially. The political atmosphere permeated college campuses where political activity increased and student activism expressed scepticism against imperialistic goals of the US. The argument against the immoral intentions of the war was especially popular amongst students in comparison to the general public, as they believed America was wrong to intervene in the fate of another country. Following the free speech movement and the civil rights movements in the US, students and young people were also more likely to critique the draft (a system of compulsory enlistment for state service, typically in the armed forces) which threatened lower class and middle class registrants. Western media also became a subject that drove protests as initially civilian deaths were either downplayed or omitted from the media. When there was greater access to uncensored information, presented by the television coverage on the ground in Vietnam, what was seen outraged and infuriated people.
The US and UK were finding it hard to suppress the stories and photos of the atrocities being committed and the power of new media was prominent to the protestors. Russ Hickman’s afterword which accompanies Alexei Sayle’s story on the protest in the anthology shows us this:
“Previously marches I’d been on had been fairly sedate affairs … but the demonstration of 1968 felt different- more visceral; we knew people were dying in Vietnam whilst we were protesting.”
Over 10,000 had rallied peacefully in Trafalgar Square, but violence broke out when the protesters assembled outside the U.S. embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. The embassy was barricaded by hundreds of police, standing shoulder to shoulder. Tensions rose as the crowd stood their ground and mounted officers rode at the demonstrators. The protesters broke through the police ranks onto the lawn of the embassy, tearing up the plastic fence and uprooting parts of a hedge. During the protracted battle, stones, earth, firecrackers and smoke bombs were thrown. The concern for media exposure was evident as it was later learned photographers and reporters had been cleared from the square, lest they captured the ensuing violence that was enacted on the protestors. The aftermath was more than 200 people arrested, 86 people treated for injuries, and fifty people taken to hospital including up to 25 police officers.
Thirty five years later, the resilience of protestors damning involvement in foreign wars was again displayed on the 15th of February 2003, when thousands of people worldwide marched against the UK and US involvement in the Iraq War.
In 2002, the United States government, led by the president George W. Bush, began to argue for the necessity of invading Iraq as the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was violating UN resolutions, primarily on weapons of mass destruction. In response to the declaration, on the 15th of February 2003 there was a coordinated day of protests across the world, where more than 600 cities expressed opposition to the imminent Iraq War. In the UK, while the Anti-Vietnam demo was concentrated in London, the anti-Iraq War demo saw people travelling and gathering all over the United Kingdom – in Glasgow, Belfast and London. A clear evolution had taken place between the two protests, with technology and communication advances no doubt increasing the ability to mobilise the masses across the country.
The anti-Vietnam War demo was an important chapter in the history of modern day protests, encouraging people-power to flourish in the years following it. In the anti-Iraq War demonstration, for example, there was a huge growth in the number of people protesting; in fact, there was so much of an increase that the exact number of people attending could not be confirmed. The British Stop the War Coalition claimed the protest in London was the largest political demonstration in the city’s history; police estimated the attendance was well in excess of 750,000 people and the BBC estimated that around a million attended. The huge gathering of people far and wide was felt by Laleh Khalili and explained in her afterword following Kate Clanchy’s story. Laleh was moved and proud of the citizens of her country:
“All I remember is a rambunctious joyous sense of commonality of purpose…for me that day of protest was something bigger, something more consequential: registering the extraordinary power of popular voice…. because that day was not only about committed activists coming into the streets, but about the people who ordinarily minded their own business.”
Though the protests did not prevent the war from taking place in either instance, the work of the protesters did not go in vain. The Iraq march in particular was not viewed as a failure as those marches have echoed through subsequent national decisions of both the US and the UK. The memories of the march have overshadowed or thwarted parliamentary and congressional votes for more intensive engagement in other Middle East wars, whilst tarnishing the reputation of Bush and Blair. Furthermore, the biggest success of the march was the social movement being described by researchers as ‘the largest protest event in human history.’ Protestors gathered and stood united to fight for what they truly believed, and long may they continue to do so in the face of war.
Protest: Stories of Resistance will be released in paperback in the UK on the 5th April. Preorder your copy now!
Namra Amir is an intern gaining work experience at Comma Press. She has an International BA in English Literature from University College Dublin and is currently studying for her MA in Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing in the University of Manchester.