For LIFE’s recent book revisiting the events of the Vietnam War, Daniel S. Levy and photographer Joe McNally visited people who had been involved in many sides of the conflict, including the anti-war movement. On the anniversary of the Jan. 30, 1968, beginning of the Tet Offensive — a campaign that energized such protests — we present the following excerpt of Levy’s conversations with four key anti-war activists from that time:
Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a cofounder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society. Vivian Rothstein was a community activist. Abe Peck was a member of Chicago’s underground press. Ross Canton was a decorated soldier who, upon returning home, joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Here, during a sit-down with Levy in Santa Barbara, California, this group discusses not only their shared antiwar past but how they view their legacy today.
LIFE: How did you get involved in the antiwar movement?
Rothstein: I got recruited in the Mississippi freedom summer program in 1965. I decided I wanted to be an organizer. Then I got invited by Tom Hayden to go to a conference in 1967 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, to meet representatives of the provisional revolutionary government in South Vietnam, to actually meet the grass-roots opposition in South Vietnam. From that I got invited to go to North Vietnam. The experience crystalized my commitment to end the war.
Canton: I was one of those poor white draftees. I was neutral with the war, until I got drafted. My first day out in the field in Vietnam our point man got wounded by a nine-year-old kid, and I thought, So that’s the enemy? I was in the field three weeks when I got wounded the first time. The third time I spent nine and a half months in the hospital. I had shrapnel in my brain and was not supposed to survive. But I did. It crystallized my feelings about the war and how I was very angry. Once I got out I joined the Monterey chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Flacks: I went to teach at the University of Chicago in 1964. A few months later a group of people in Ann Arbor [Michigan] started the action, which they called a “teach-in.” Classrooms were used for debate, discussion, forums about the war. By the end of the academic year there were a thousand campuses where something like a teach-in had occurred. To me, that was the step I needed. I then devoted a great deal of my energy to being active in that role as a professor and as a campus leader.
Peck: I tumbled into the movement. I went to the Summer of Love in San Francisco, five guys in a Volkswagen van. My pivotal moment was driving to the Pentagon Demonstration in 1967. I saw everything from people putting flowers in guns to people storming the building to just having a sense of just how outraged we all were by the war.
LIFE: What did your families think of this?
Flacks: My parents were schoolteachers in New York, active in building a union. In the McCarthy Red Scare era, they both were purged along with several hundred other left-wing, commie-oriented teachers. I was 25 by the time I was taking a stand against the war. They supported me.
Canton: I grew up with a single mother who did the best she could. My father, an Italian immigrant, joined WWII early on, and was in the 101st Airborne for five years. Got wounded. He would have been prowar.
Peck: My parents weren’t radicals at all. My dad was a liberal Democrat, very working class.
Rothstein: My mother had a progressive heart, but we were raised with this sense that we lived in an ominous world that could turn against you at any moment. But when she heard me speak about my trip to Vietnam, she got herself involved.
LIFE: Describe the time, if you would.
Rothstein: When I went away to college that first fall, Kennedy got shot. There was a sense that it was a chaotic political environment. We weren’t being told what was going on. That engagement in the civil rights movement and the free speech movement gave the feeling that you could actually make a difference, that you needed to take a stand. I think we felt a sense that we could actually help end the war.
Flacks: The draft was an expression of this militaristic, imperial power that we were opposed to. I was in the early founding of the Students for a Democratic Society. We thought we were responsible for having to have an antiwar movement. We thought the demonstrations of larger numbers of people would have an effect on policy, and that was perhaps naïve. A new lever that SDS perceived for a change of the policy was people being forced to fight the war had the opportunity to resist it. It was a strategic kind of effort: We who were in opposition to the war, if we ourselves refused to fight, and got other people to refuse to fight, the policy would have to be reexamined.
Peck: A lot of it was exhilarating, the idea that you could set the country on the right way, change the world, build a new society, stop the war. There was a concept of “right action”—that this was really the thing to do. I had great trepidation about the Chicago Convention in 1968, but I still had to go to the park. You had to show up.
LIFE: Did dissidents have regular contact with the veterans?
Rothstein: There was the GI coffeehouse movement. These were independent coffeehouses that were set outside the bases. Women staffed those. I helped to recruit people. I worked at Fort Leonard Wood. The idea was not to push any kind of line. But there was antiwar material there and underground newspapers. It was a very subversive strategy, because it was a place where guys could talk about what was really going on. It was brilliant.
Peck: There was this kind of ring around the military to support people making decisions of conscience.
Canton: Returning veterans who were against the war were very dangerous, because we could tell what was true and what was not true. The whole idea of winning the war was deflated by all these Vietnam veterans coming back and saying that is not true. That really took hold. After [I spent] time in the hospital, I went back to Fort Ord and trained troops to go to Vietnam. We gave them the straight line. We told them that it was all bullshit.
LIFE: What was your experience with the mistreatment of vets?
Canton: It never happened to any of the Vietnam veterans I was associated with—getting spit on at the airport, “baby killer!” and all those kinds of things. By 1969 there was a coalescence of trying to have the veterans and the soldiers be a part of the antiwar movement and not disenfranchising them because they served over there.
LIFE: How were women in the antiwar movement viewed?
Rothstein: The [anti] draft movement was very focused on men. Eventually we started building independent women’s organizations and did antiwar activities. Women Strike for Peace was in there from the very beginning, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
LIFE: If so many opposed the war, why was it so hard to stop?
Flacks: Both Johnson and Nixon said explicitly that no matter what public opinion said about the war, it would go on. It really [defies] explanation why, in the face of a popular mood against the war, these Presidents would feel they had to continue it. Vivian and I went to this conference in Bratislava, meeting the Vietcong, the North Vietnamese folks. They wanted to tell us that the U.S. had been defeated in the war, that there was no conceivable military strategy that the U.S. could deploy that would allow the U.S. to win. There was insight there into the limits of American power. It was reinforced a few months later during the Tet Offensive.
LIFE: So, at the end of the day, were all the protests useful?
Flacks: If you add up the numbers of protests after Kent State, it is the largest mass demonstration in American history.
Rothstein: The amazing thing is hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose this war. That they cared that much, that they would put themselves at risk—it is really remarkable. What could you think of today where hundreds of thousands of Americans would get up off their couches and demonstrate?
Peck: A lot of good things came out of that period amid the tumult and the personal destruction.
Rothstein: Things have changed. There is no draft. Nobody can get over there to meet with the enemy and see what is going on. The press has to be embedded. They have changed the conditions.
LIFE: Talk about the radicalization and splintering of the movement.
Rothstein: There was all this chaos. The black communities were exploding. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. There was a lot of agitation. There was a lot of militancy on campus, and the repression came in—Kent State, the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, the attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Convention. People felt like they were coming to get us. People felt like the stakes were really high, and we weren’t winning on the civil rights front, we were not winning on the antiwar front. I think some people became adventurist because they couldn’t figure out a strategy that was going to work. It was a totally wrong strategy. You don’t end an international conflict by breaking storefront windows.
Peck: People got extraordinarily frustrated. There were internal revolutions. It splintered . . . It was almost a Revolution of the Week Club.
Canton: We were having infiltrators. The FBI parked out in front of my house. Everybody who was a leader in the Monterey chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had their phones tapped and were followed.
Peck: During the Democratic Convention our paper’s windows were shot out and the only car on the street was a police car. The FBI came to look for my parents to find out more about me. They couldn’t find my parents, but they found Mrs. Schwartz, my neighbor. And they asked, “What kind of boy was he?” and she said, “Oh, he always held the elevator doors.”
Flacks: The founding people and elected leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society were on [an FBI] list. In May 1969, a guy called me who said he was a newspaper reporter wanting to interview me about student protests. He attacked me . . . and left me there bleeding. There was the Legion of Justice, a vigilante group. There is circumstantial evidence they were perpetrating this kind of activity and operating in connection with government intelligence.
Rothstein: I was organizing youth in Berwyn and Cicero, Illinois. We started a coffeehouse in a church, and the Legion of Justice shot crossbow arrows into the church. They found it so threatening that young people would sit and just talk about life, the draft or maybe whether they wanted to go to college. Nobody got hit. I remember going into meetings and being greeted by the Chicago police officer who was with the Chicago Red Squad, “Hey, Vivian. How are you doing?” They knew every person’s name.
Flacks: Whatever splintering there was, there was [also] a thread of more strategic action. People like Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda and others organized a campaign to get Congress to stop appropriating money for the war. And that was successful.
The shocking thing is that the American majority turned against the war in the late ’60s. The morale of the troops was collapsing by the late ’60s. Establishment intellectuals were writing about how the youth of America was turning against the society. And yet it still took six years for the war to be brought to an end after that.
LIFE: Looking back, your final thoughts?
Peck: I don’t have laments. We were learning as we went. As the Grateful Dead would say, it certainly was a long, strange trip. Being in the underground press gave me a really enduring appreciation of the First Amendment, which I have always defended since then.
Rothstein: For years I was very fearful that anybody would know about me going to North Vietnam. In those days it was considered a traitorous thing to do. Now it’s a really great thing to say I did. When I was in Vietnam, the Vietnamese said, “You are the true sons and daughters of Washington and Jefferson.” They had a real sense of an American tradition. I think in retrospect, what I did was in the best interests of the country.
Looking back now, we can all be proud we took those risks, but at that time we had no idea what it would be like in 40 or 50 years. I feel proud of the things that I did. I feel it took too long to end the war. I think history has not really taken on the Vietnam War and how right we were about the enormous destruction of Vietnam and the destruction it caused in our country. The antiwar movement is really not given the credit that I think we deserve.
Peck: There is no antiwar memorial.
Flacks: I would argue that at the time, the best interests of this country were not served by a leadership getting us into war but [by] the people who were trying to stop the war. [Also] I have a positive view of some of the changes in society that have come out of this period. The idea that the U.S. should fight that kind of war is illegitimate now. The draft is illegitimate. I can’t imagine a possibility of reviving conscription in this society. I know in my bones that if the move to restore the draft was made, there would be massive protests on college campuses right away.
The Vietnam War ended the capacity of people to be innocent and hopeful about political leaders. There is something healthy about that skepticism.
Canton: The reason we were out protesting was because we cared. It was about caring for certain types of freedoms—caring about certain things that were being done in our name. Most of us, our parents were immigrants who really came here for the American Dream. We grew up with that idea that it would be a new country, a new world and a better world. And it was a better world.
Peck: On a good day we wanted America to live up to its promise.
Canton: Yes. Exactly.
LIFE’s book The Vietnam Wars: 50 Years Ago–Two Countries Torn Apart is available here.