On April 24 1971, around 175,000 people protested in Washington D.C. against the raging Vietnam War. The American government had been involved in the war since 1965, and public support for the conflict was rapidly decreasing. From the war being costly to a lack of direction, there were a variety of reasons why the public gathered on the lawn of the Mall. At the time, this protest in Washington D.C. was the largest demonstration against an American war the nation had ever seen. 

In this post, we examine how the Washington Post reported on the demonstration. Analysing genuine newspaper reports from the time is a fascinating way to learn about the protest, since we can read about the event through the eyes of those who witnessed it unfold. From eyewitness accounts of protestors to a survey about the attendees, the Washington Post reveals the true nature of the demonstration to its readers. 

We’ve used the Washington Post for the purpose of this analysis, which you can find on our US website, but you can also read a genuine British newspaper from this event by searching for the date in our 1971 newspaper archive. 

Turn the page to: 

protests against the vietnam war

The Washington Post front page, Sunday, April 25, 1971


Why Did People Protest Against The Vietnam War?

There were many reasons why members of the public began to protest against the Vietnam War. For some, moral reasons prevented their support, and they were continually horrified by the devastation taking place and the violence committed against those involved. Other people disliked the war due to it being seemingly unwinnable and lacking objectives. 

Some people argued that the war was against Vietnamese independence, which contradicted the American democratic values the nation so strongly exerts to the rest of the world. The war was also proving to be very costly, and when the draft system came into place, around 40,000 young men were being drafted into service in Vietnam every month.

At the end of 1965, many liberals began to make their voices heard, especially on college campuses where the anti-war movement really began to take shape. Even veterans who had fought in the war themselves attended demonstrations. In a famously known act of defiance, the Beatles member John Lennon handed his MBE back to Queen Elizabeth II as an act of protest against the war.

By the time 1971 came around, a growing number of citizens were beginning to resent American involvement in the war, it no surprise that around 175,000 attended the Washington D.C. demonstration to protest. 

protests against the vietnam war

John Lennon and Yoko Ono continually protested against the Vietnam War. Their famous Christmas song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” was written as a protest song.
Image: Voices Film and Television


“End War Now, Throng Demands” 

protests against the vietnam war

The Washington Post headline, Sunday, April 25, 1971

The newspaper report in the Washington Post on Sunday, April 25, 1971, features the headline “End War Now, Throng Demands.” The newspaper immediately makes awareness of the fact that the protestors were hoping for an almost immediate end to the war, wishing it to be brought to a “speedy halt.” The report, written by staff writers Paul W. Valentine and Richard M. Cohen, stresses the immediacy of the protestors’ demands. They write that: 

“Speakers were more insistent, more specific in their demands for an end to the war now, not tomorrow.”

After initial disputes over the number of attendees, it was eventually claimed by a police press spokesman that the estimate was around 175,000. The demonstration was a first in many cases, with the report claiming that: 

“…it was different in several ways from those of the past. It was the first large-scale demonstration to be held at the Capitol. Those in the past usually occurred at the Ellipse or the Washington Monument.” 

The Washington Post also writes that the demonstration drew more support from Congress than any demonstration of the past, with endorsements from 10 senators and at least 29 representatives. The demonstration was also different from anti Vietnam War protests due to the fact that the demonstrators had become more radical in their message, suggesting that opposition to the war had grown in strength and an immediate end was more strongly desired. 

However, despite these strong demands, the President was not actually in Washington D.C. at the time of the protest:

“…the man at whom the demonstration was directed – President Nixon – was at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains.”

protests against the vietnam war

Image of the crowd gathering at the protest from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971


Setting the Scene

“The occasional smell of marijuana wafted past the statue of John Marshall, the nation’s first influential Chief Justice where a contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War had dumped their battle ribbons and medals Friday in symbolic rejection of the war.”

The newspaper making reference to the smell of marijuana provides links to the “hippie culture” of the 1970s, who were notoriously known for opposing war and advocating for peace. It is also clear that it was not just young, hippie, college students protesting the war – even Vietnam war veterans took to the lawn to dispose of their personal items to show their opposition.

The newspaper report continues to set the scene for readers by discussing some of the pictures and flags held by those demonstrating:

“Some demonstrators carried large pictures of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and Mao Tse-tung, chairman of the China Communist Party.” 

With other people marching with red banners of the Workers League, waving flags and wearing buttons, the journalists clearly got a sense of the liberal and communist outlooks of many of the attendees. 

The newspaper report goes into detail to explain the nature of the protest and the activities of those who got involved. The report claims that: 

“Every statue, every tree, seemed to hold a demonstrator. At the foot of the Capitol, the equestrian statue of Gen. U.S. Grant was host to an alien rider – a young man who held an upside-down American flag, the traditional distress signal. A Vietcong flag flew from the top of another, nearby statue.”

These acts of defiance are very symbolic, suggesting that the protest was relatively nonviolent and demonstrators tended to fly flags and linger around notable statues to get their message across. We can also see that many of the demonstrators were doing their own thing or simply hanging around on the lawn when the report states that: 

“Despite the lure of some big names on the speaker’s platform….many of those massed at the base of the Capitol were inattentive and preoccupied with other interests.”

It seems like the protest was an opportunity for anti-Vietnam War demonstrators to all come together in a mass gathering and occupy the Mall, with less organisation and concentration on speeches. With members of the public having a variety of reasons to oppose the war, the demonstration was a chance to gather all opposers together, no matter their reasons. The newspaper continues: 

“They danced and clapped to music, drank wine from community bottles,  pushed publications and their own opinions, toppled a portion of the fence designed to keep them from the base of the Capitol, flipped Frisbies and denounced the war in terms ranging from philosophical to the obscene.” 

“On the fringes of the crowd, small impromptu groups rallied around musical instruments to dance and sing. Other persons rested quietly, listening to speech, or slept.” 

vietnam war protest

Demonstrators in Washington D.C., April 1971
Image: Wikimedia Commons


The Demonstrators 

The Washington Post provided readers with a lot of information about the demonstrators themselves, including their backgrounds and their political outlooks. Notably, journalists recognised the lack of black participants in the crowd:

“Only a small number of blacks participated in the march and rally – a pattern typical of past peace demonstrations.”

The reporters interviewed a black demonstrator, a man named Leo Davis, who was a Vietnam veteran. He claims that: 

”Black people think that demonstrations against the war are a waste of time, and to them time is money…”

“Most black women have to stay home and take care of their kids. Black men have to work. Black people are just too busy trying to survive to march up and down Pennsylvania Avenue…”

From Leo Davis’ viewpoint, we can understand a bit more about the nature of war protests and the impact of racial inequality on protest crowds. Racial inequality at the time made it more difficult for the black community to find work and childcare, meaning they have less free time on their hands to attend protests. Despite this being the largest demonstration against an American war, black citizens still had to concentrate on their own lives and families. 

The newspaper also reported on the means of transport of the demonstrators, showing that the masses of people heading for the Mall had caused huge hold ups in Washington D.C.:

“Despite caravans of chartered buses, chartered trains and one young woman on roller skates, most of the demonstrators seemed to have come by car. At 11 a.m., while thousands already were marching, police reported a three-mile backup at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. Two hours later, the backup had been reduced to a mile.” 

anti vietnam war demonstrations

Sub-headline from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971


Desired Outcomes and Effectiveness

protests against the vietnam war

Sub-headline from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971

Staff Writer Jim Mann wrote a section in the Washington Post issue, discussing the general feeling of the protest. Despite the protestors wishing for the war to come to an immediate end, Jim Mann believed attitudes were a lot more calm than previous protests against the Vietnam War. He also states that, in contrast to the alleged message of the protest: 

“Those who marched here yesterday did not seem to come with the belief that this would be the cataclysmic event to end the Indochina War. Their aspirations appeared more limited.”

Jim Mann believed: 

“The protest might help: it might give an added push, swing a few more congressmen and a few more presidential candidates. But it was carried forth almost like a “protective reaction” demonstration – as if to show the President that the opposition continues to have its political clout.”

The writer also referenced a 19-year old-student, Dave Black, who had hitchhiked for 30 hours to attend the protest. He was asked what he believed the weekend of protesting would result in, and the student just shrugged. Apparently, “He wanted the war to end, and it was worth a try.”  

Another middle-aged veteran claimed the protest “will do more for us than for the President… it may end our frustration,” suggesting he doesn’t believe the protest will immediately end the war. 

In reality, the protestors and Jim Mann were right about the protest not leading to an immediate end, since American involvement in the Vietnam War would continue for another 2 years. 

protests against the vietnam war

Image of demonstrators marching up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Washington Post, April 25, 1971


Violence and Police Action

The Washington Post reported that there were very limited incidents of violence at the protest, meaning on the whole, it was peaceful. The report states that: 

“Despite a heavy and obvious police presence, there were few incidents and no known charges of police brutality.”

The police were also not cracking down on open bottle drinking at the protest, potentially because they were keeping an eye on possible violence or they were hoping not to antagonise the demonstrators. According to the Washington Post, “the march down Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol rally went smoothly,” with no mass violence. The report also states that: 

“Earlier in the day, about 30 uniformed members of the American National Socialist White Peoples Party (formerly American Nazi Party) scuffed briefly with a few marchers at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Police made six arrests.” 

“In contrast to some past anti-war demonstrations here, there was no violence during the march and rally and virtually none afterwards.” 


Survey of 500 Demonstrators

anti vietnam war demonstrations

Sub-headline from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971

Writers David R. Boldt and Sanford J. Ungar wrote about the Washington Post survey on 500 random demonstrators at the protest. The survey had some interesting results and is very useful in teaching us the demographics of those who attended. 

According to Boldt and Ungar, “two-thirds of them came from more than 200 miles away,” revealing that the protest had reached far across the country and did not just consist of people living close to the capital. Also, the fact that “More than a third were attending such a protest for the first time” may suggest that more and more people began to oppose the war as it raged on, and many new protestors had decided it was time to get involved. This was the case with a 54-year-old furniture store proprietor, who claims that: 

”I’m a member of the silent majority who isn’t silent anymore.” 

Anti Vietnam War demonstrations were beginning to attract a wider array of people such as this gentleman, who, as a business owner, started recognising the economic effects of the war.

Political Outlook

anti vietnam war demonstrations

Survey results from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971

The above image shows the political outlook of those surveyed by the Washington Post, which helps us understand the political nature of the protest. Over half of those surveyed defined themselves as liberals, with 23% of people claiming they are radicals and just 3% conservative. 

Geographic Location 

anti vietnam war demonstrations

Survey results from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971

The newspaper also examined where in the country protestors had travelled from. The majority were from New York, New Jersey and Delaware (31%) and only 1% came from the Far West. 

Age

The Washington Post survey discovered that the overwhelming majority of protestors were young people under the age of 30, with just 16% of protestors aged over 30. Most of the people that were surveyed were high school or college students. 

Tactics and Effectiveness

The survey participants were also asked if they believed the protest would help speed up American withdrawal from Vietnam, with the results showing that 70% said it would. 52% of those surveyed also said they would approve of “mass civil disobedience” as a tactic to rapidly end U.S. involvement in the war. 

protests against the vietnam war

Sub-headline from the Washington Post, Sunday, April 25, 1971


From analysing this rare Washington Post edition, we are able to discover what the protest was like through the eyes of those who attended. We’ve also been able to see how the public at the time would have read about the events of the protest, just one day after it took place.