Antiwarriors – Melvin Small

Melvin Small is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.  He received his B.A. from Dartmouth University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.  Small is a noted scholar of the Vietnam War era focusing on the antiwar movement and on Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  As a historian of U.S. diplomacy, his scholarship examines the relationships between public opinion, domestic politics and foreign policy, a subject reflected in his monographs Johnson, Nixon and the Doves, Democracy and Diplomacy, and The Presidency of Richard Nixon.

In one of his more recent studies, Antiwarriors, Small examines the antiwar movement that developed in the 1960s that protested against the Vietnam War.  This book is a work of synthesis based on the existing scholarship and, as a result, is not grounded in primary sources or archival research.  However, by combining the existing scholarship, Small examines the interaction of multiple forces during the era that are usually explored separately including how the press and presidential administrations viewed the antiwar movement and antiwar politicians; how the antiwar movement affected the policies of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; how antiwar tactics and strategies changed and developed; how the portrayal of the antiwar movement by the press affected popular perceptions; and how the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy in a democracy (Small, xii).   Like scholars before him, Small examines the development of the antiwar movement from the late 1950s through 1960s by focusing on the Civil Rights Movement, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Women’s movements, workers rights movements, and the Free Speech Movement, and shows how these unique and individual movements came together in the mid 1960s to protest the actions of the United States government in Vietnam giving them the label antiwarriors.  However, by placing the numerous antiwar groups under single moniker, Small creates some problems that he fails to address.

First of all, Small never defines or actually states who is an antiwarrior or why certain groups are considered antiwarriors.  Even if the term is amorphous, Small should state why certain groups were antiwarriors and why others were not.  This is especially important when small discusses, and very briefly at that, the extreme elements of the antiwar movement – the hippies, the yippies, and the Weathermen.  While small does seem to include them in his discussion, he is often dismissive and critical of their actions and fails to show how these groups emerged from the early stages of the protest movement.  Instead, Small finds these groups to be distractive as they created a negative image of the antiwar movement and drew the press’ attention away from the thousands of regular Americans protesting the war and, while this is true, this is the reason they need to be incorporated into his study.  They were the focus of the media and the government.  By marginalizing these groups’ actions and treating them as an isolated group rather than a part of the antiwar movement, Small ignores the recent scholarship by Jeremy Varon and Jeremi Suri that shows that these groups were attached and developed out the same movements as the more mainstream antiwar groups.

Another problem with Small’s narrative is his failure to describe how these amorphous antiwar groups communicated and worked together.  These groups were scattered across the country and of differing sizes but Small never addresses how they came into contact with each other, how they worked together, how they planned and organized events?  This is especially evident when he describes the antiwarriors as “less cohesive and more fragmented than it had ever been before” (Small, 119) but then six pages later describes these fragmented groups as “the organized antiwar movement” (page, 125).  This inconsistency needs to be addressed by the author.  Are these antiwar groups an incohesive group that at times merges together and, if so, how do they communicate and work together as group?  By further discussing the interworking of the antiwar movement, Small can create a more comprehensive understanding of how the antiwarriors worked together protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Ultimately, these are minor criticism as Small’s narrative an excellent work of synthesis that clearly achieves its objectives and demonstrates both Presidents Nixon and Johnson’s reaction to the antiwarriors and their strategies for dealing with the antiwarriors whose movement stymied many of their Vietnam policies.  Furthermore, he shows that while the antiwarriors did not end the war, they were able to prevent the war’s escalation at two critical moments in March 1968 and October 1969.  The first following the Tet Offensive, when General Westmoreland asked for more soldiers, caused the antiwar movement to unite and prevent Johnson from intensifying the war.  The second came in 1969 when President Nixon scrapped Operation Duck Hook following the successful Moratorium demonstration in October 1969.  This nationwide movement that involved millions of Americans showed that a significant portion of the American population disagreed with the government’s policies in the war.  These specific examples and the actions taken by the antiwarriors to frustrate the executive branch described by Small reveal the power these groups held during the Vietnam War.

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