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Student anger over the Vietnam War erupted into violence in the ’60s − a terrorism expert explores if the same could happen today

Javed Ali, University of Michigan, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

Following a wave of pro-Palestinian protests led by students at universities across the country, a few schools, like Brown University, say they are considering divesting from companies that support or work in Israel.

In most circumstances, with summer on the horizon, the friction between protesting students and university administrations appears to have diminished, at least for the time being.

The dramatic scenes of police and state troopers dismantling student encampments on campuses and arresting protesters have sparked some accusations of heavy-handed law enforcement tactics. At the same time, some law enforcement agencies have said that extremist agitators who are not actually students contributed to the clashes on university campuses in April and May 2024. At least in the case of the Columbia University protests, about 29% of the people that New York police arrested were not affiliated with the school.

I am a former senior U.S. government counterterrorism official and scholar of national security and terrorism. The wave of recent pro-Palestinian, student-led protests reminds me of another tense era in the U.S. that was also prompted by U.S. engagement in a foreign war – the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Students’ anger over the long-running U.S. war in Vietnam reached a boiling point on Aug. 28, 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That’s when police and protesters violently clashed on the streets in what is known as “The Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

The U.S. accelerated its support of the South Vietnamese government against communist North Vietnam fighters in the mid-1960s, shifting from military training to carrying out overt and direct U.S. combat operations. This happened after August 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked U.S. destroyers in what is called the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

 

By spring 1965, the U.S. military was engaged in ground, air and naval operations against North Vietnam and their supporting Viet Cong insurgent fighters.

Anti-war protests in the U.S. also began around this time. A socialist group called Students for a Democratic Society, which opposed U.S. imperialism, played an active role within this anti-war movement that grew as U.S. military operations in Vietnam continued in 1966-68.

Meanwhile, President Lyndon Johnson announced in March 1968 he would not seek reelection and was halting U.S. bombing operations in Vietnam. This opened the door for Vice President Hubert Humphrey to run against Republican challenger Richard Nixon that summer.

Various student groups and anti-war organizations, including members of Students for a Democratic Society, protested Humphrey outside the Democratic National Convention’s meeting in Chicago in late August 1968. They were angry that Humphrey did not strongly denounce U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Some protestors held signs that said, for example, “Imperialism Saigon Prague” and “Cease Fire Now.”

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