Essay on How Did the Vietnam War Affect the Civil Rights Movement

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The 1960s in America were a turning point in world history. It’s marked by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, antiwar protests, and the “generation gap”. The sixties were also called “the swinging sixties” because of the emergence of a wide range of music such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon.

Kennedy vs. Nixon debates

In the early 1960s, there were a series of debates between John. F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. These were the first presidential debates that aired on TV and they attracted enormous publicity. Millions of Americans tuned in to watch and form an opinion about the candidates. Richard Nixon insisted on campaigning until just a few hours before the first debate which was on Monday, September 26th, 1960 in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately for him, he was very sick and was recovering from an illness. He looked very pale, tired, sweaty, and underweight. It was not a good look for him. In contrast, Kennedy was well-rested, and confident and was prepared thoroughly for the debate beforehand. Millions of viewers tuned in for the first debate, roughly 70 million. Although the first debate was successful for Kennedy it didn’t guarantee him the win.

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Another milestone for television at the time was the third debate that broadcasted split screen the two candidates that were on two opposite sides of the country so they could converse in real-time. Nixon was in Los Angeles while Kennedy was in New York. Bill Shadel moderated the debate from a third location in Chicago. The main topic of this debate was whether military forces should be used to prevent two islands' archipelagos off the Chinese coast from falling to communist control.

John F. Kennedy’s Administration

On the 20th of January 1961, John F. Kennedy was elected as president of the United States of America. His first mission was to create an elite army unit called the Special Forces or Green Berets to combat Soviet insurgencies around the world. He continued the nuclear arms race against the Russians. On another note, he created the Peace Corps, a government-funded program that sent out American missionaries across the world, mainly third-world countries, to spread American values. Some issues required quick and rational decision-making during his presidency such as the threat of the Cuban missile crisis, the erection of the Berlin wall, and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Brigade 2506 was a CIA-sponsored rebel group that was made up mostly of Cuban exiles and soldiers. They tried to invade and overthrow the communist government of Fidel Castro, who led a communist regime. They hoped that the people would rise against Castro and support the American troops. Unfortunately, the invasion Bay of Pigs lasted three days and it was a failure because it was defeated by the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. It was launched from Guatemala and Nicaragua. There were 118 killed, 360 wounded 1202 captured from the Brigade, and 176 killed and more than 500 wounded from the Cuban Armed forces. This invasion was a disaster and made JFK, who didn’t even send air support, look bad in the eyes of the Americans and the Soviets.

Another problem that required quick thinking and decision-making was the erection of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was a structure put between the eastern and western parts of Berlin to prevent eastern Germans from finding a haven in the more prosperous and safer western part. JFK visited Berlin in 1963 and gave the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech that made the audience cheer. From this speech, Kennedy recovered his image as a president. During the speech, he gave western Germans hope and he promised that the US would help in the event of the eastern Germans deciding to invade.

Continuing the nuclear warheads race that started in the 1950s, Kennedy was ready to use those deadly weapons if necessary. In 1962 Kennedy was informed that the Soviets had created missile sites in Cuba. Those sites were allegedly going to be used to attack the US. JFK’s resolution to the threat was to place a blockade on the island so the Soviets couldn’t bring in more weapons. From this resolution a conflict arose between the US and the USSR and people were concerned that this might escalate quickly. Fortunately, there was a mutual agreement from both sides to resolve the conflict. The US promised not to invade Cuba and dismantle their sites in Turkey that targeted Russia. The Soviets agreed to dismantle their missile sites and not attack the US.

That didn’t stop the USSR and the US to continue developing their nuclear warheads but fortunately, they signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban in 1963 which prohibited the test and use of nuclear weapons underwater, in space, or the atmosphere. It allowed underground testing as long as it didn’t leave any radioactive debris. Both parties realized that the use of nuclear weaponry would eventually lead to severe and dire consequences.

Civil Rights Movement

Segregation was a big issue in the 1950s. While America was prosperous most of the opportunities and rights did not include African Americans. One of the big steps forward was the desegregation of schools. Another step key moment in the civil rights movement was when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to stand up from a seat that was to a white person in public transport in Montgomery, Alabama. Unfortunately, that rebellious act led to her arrest.

The pursuit for racial equality was on in the 1960s in the USA. African Americans were oppressed and most of them were in poverty. From these circumstances, the Civil Rights movement was created which was heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Junior.

In 1963 MLK Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which he gave his famous “I Have a dream” speech. In his speech, he called for economic, racial, and civil rights among Americans. He delivered his speech in front of two hundred and fifty thousand supporters in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The speech began with the Emancipation Proclamation which freed millions of African American slaves in 1863 and he claimed that a hundred years later African Americans are still not free.

This famous speech had a positive effect on African Americans. It helped the poor, raised the minimum wage, and put an end to labor discrimination. It also incentivized JFK to support and enforce civil rights more actively and a call to action was carried for Congress to pass a law that made discrimination in public accommodations illegal. President Johnson, appointed after Kennedy’s assassination, built on the civil rights movement and pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or national origin. It also protected colored people from being discriminated against in schools, hospitals, and other public institutions. In 1968, The Fair Housing Act discriminated against purchasing houses illegally, and that provided even more rights to people of color. Unfortunately, even though these laws and acts were passed there was still racism in the US.

The Green Book

The Green Book is a movie that is set in the 1960s and shows the segregated and somewhat racist America at the time. It also portrayed issues such as inequality between social classes. The movie revolves around two characters, Tony Lip, and Don. Tony Lip is an Italian looking for a job after losing his job at a bar he used to work at. Don is an African American who is a virtuoso. He plays the piano and is among the elite most of the time. Don hires Tony as his chauffeur to take him from place to place so he plays the piano. There are differences between the characters. At numerous times in the movie Tony stereotypes Don as the typical African American but sees that he is nothing alike. Tony grew up in the streets and you could say that he is rather ignorant, but he learns to be more accepting of other people as he travels from gig to gig with his boss. Don on the other hand learns to loosen up a little from time to time and that the street culture is more dangerous than he thinks it is. They both overcome their differences at one point in the movie due to them both being unequal to the white middle- and upper-class person.

Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War

Johnson was appointed president right after Kennedy’s assassination and he was set on realizing some Kennedy initiatives that weren’t realized, particularly in the fields of economics policy and civil rights. LBJ was also set on the idea of winning the fight against the communist in Vietnam which is a war that Kennedy started. Throughout his presidency Congress enacted over 200 laws and programs that provided healthcare, public housing, expanded transportation, and defended civil rights. As mentioned above, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a huge stepping stone for equality among Americans. The war in Vietnam was a big government spending that was an issue for Johnson, but he was determined to win the war.

Although the Americans had the weaponry and technological advantage, the Vietnamese had the advantage of knowing the land and the local people. By the end of 1965, he had drafted over two hundred thousand troops. The war escalated and despite the bad circumstances President Johnson reassured Americans that the war was a sure victory and that everything was going according to plan. The only issue was that the press was showing the complete opposite which was the truth. Not everything was going according to plan. The media showed massacres of civilians and brutality and people’s approval of Johnson quickly dropped.

Anti-war protests

Anti-war protests were initiated by young people in America. They wanted to break down social norms, fight for the minorities’ civil rights, and protest the ongoing war in Vietnam. Their rebellion was expressed by the way they clothed themselves and their lifestyle. The young generation was more liberal, expressive, and sexual. They called themselves hippies.

It started as a political activism among university students and quickly grew into a movement. In the 1960s Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS for short was created at the University of Michigan which became their headquarters. They did a few protests and campaigns against Johnson. The Free Speech movement was carried out when Johnson tried to control the political activity at the University of California. In 1965 a nationwide campaign against the military draft in the US. One of the most famous demonstrations was the one in 1968 at Columbia University, where students protested government plans to relocate black housing to build a gymnasium.

The Graduate

The Graduate is a movie that shows how the new cinema wave called “The New Hollywood”, aimed to tackle new subject matters and criticize them which was not culturally appropriate before.

The movie has a western European style – some comedic situations and shots are unexpected which was typical for the French cinema at the time. The movie is about a recent college graduate, Ben, who has excelled in his studies and extracurriculars but is unsure what to do with his future. While his parents want him to pursue another degree he chooses to loosen up and have some fun with his summer. That’s how he engages in casual sex with Mrs. Robinson, who is his father’s friend’s wife. At first, he is unsure whether to do it, but he at least tries it once. Then they start doing it more frequently. Mrs. Robinson is portrayed as an alcoholic, a product of the typical 1950s housewife. Her daughter Elaine is a smart, beautiful, and bright young girl who inevitably Ben falls in love with. There’s a conflict of interest between Ben and Mrs. Robinson because she doesn’t want him to date her daughter, but he ends up doing it anyway. The movie ends with Ellaine and Ben eloping and creating a new future for themselves.

American Graffiti

American Graffiti is a movie about the positive side of the 1960s – before JFK’s assassination. It perfectly portrays the period when Kennedy was president and the “American Dream”. Moreover, it represents the carelessness and the freedom that the youth have. Cars are a big focus here, characters are connected with different types of cars and it could be analyzed what type of person they are according to the car paint, modifications, etc. The soundtrack is mostly rock and roll music which was typical for the time. It exemplified young rebelliousness through the character Millner, a soft-hearted rebel who never wants to grow up. On the other end of the spectrum is the other character, Curt, a boy from the middle class who will soon be off to college. Curt has doubts about his future and what the college can provide him. He pursues a blond woman throughout the movie and it only occurs to him that he will probably never see the girl that he’s been chasing all this time again. This existential realization disillusions him and him to reality. The so-called American Dream is shattered into pieces.

Apocalypse Now

Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a movie about the Vietnam War and it portrays the grotesque atmosphere, and what the soldiers have been or have gone through. It tells a story about a captain named Willard and his mission to kill Colonel Kurtz. The Vietnam War has taken a toll on soldier’s minds because it made them go mad from being subjected to the gruesome reality of war. Willard can’t sleep well and becomes an observer of other soldiers getting high on LSD or weed just to survive the nightmarish situation they’re put in. The boundaries of what’s moral and rational are blurred and this makes the perfect example of how people rely on their ego to survive. Events in the movie are nightmarish and others are ridiculous to the point where the viewer is left confused. The cinematography is executed perfectly to make an impact on the viewer’s psyche. Coppola portrays the loss of conscious morality to the extent where there is disassociation with normality.


To conclude, America in the 1960s went through a rough political change. It’s a double-edged sword – minorities gained rights and some of acts the that were passed by Congress helped people of color to have equal rights but on the flip side the impact of the Vietnam War undermined and shattered the illusion of the “American Dream”. This social change was not from a sudden revolution in culture and society but was laid out throughout the years and it peaked in the 1960s. Hippies laid out the foundation for liberal America – the freedom to do whatever and be whoever you want.

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