The Vietnam Conflict (which many people call a war, though it was technically a police action on the part of the United States since the U.S. never technically declared war on North Vietnam – that doesn’t mean it wasn’t awful and warlike, because it was) existed from 1955 to 1975 – twenty years of fighting and chaos that left an indelible mark on the world at large. American involvement started as early as 1950, when military advisors starting arriving in South Vietnam to protect it from a takeover from communist North Vietnam. American troops started arriving, and many were there by 1961, the number tripling by 1962. In 1965, United States combat units began arriving in theater, and the conflict reached a crucial point in 1968. Nixon’s Vietnamization efforts started pulling troops out of combat in late 1968 and 1969, and US military involvement officially ended in 1973. Fatalities were heaviest among the Vietnamese – with 1-3 million civilians and solider killed. There were about 300,000 Cambodian deaths, and anywhere between 20,000-200,00 Laotian deaths. American casualties came to about 58,000, with over 153,000 wounded.
Many people in the United States protested the war, and some did it with song. Here is a list of the top 10 Vietnam Protest songs.
10. “Give Peace A Chance” – John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band
This song, written by John Lennon during he and Yoko Ono’s “bed-n” for peace, was recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. A myriad of influential people at the time, including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, the Smothers Brothers, and Petula Clark, were present at the time of recording, and the song became an anti-war anthem. At Vietnam Memorial Day, October 15, 1969, half a million demonstrators sang the song, something that made Lennon proud as he wanted to create a protest song that was for the Vietnam generation. The song has been covered by many artists, including U2, Aerosmith, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Louis Armstrong, and Ringo Starr.
9. “War Pigs” – Black Sabbath
There is some controversy over whether this is truly a Vietnam protest song. The time period and lyrics certainly fit, though Ozzy Osbourne has said that the band was oblivious to the Vietnam conflict, that the song was a war protest song in general – mainly protesting the rich politicians who wage wars for financial gain. Bassist Geezer Butler, however, said that the song was truly against the Vietnam war. Who, I wonder, remembers that time frame better? The song was notably covered by the band Faith No More, on their 1989 album The Real Thing. Other notable covers include that of Gov’t Mule, The Flaming Lips, Cake, Tesla, Weezer, Godsmack, and Barenaked Ladies, and The Dresden Dolls would usually close their shows with the song.
8. “I Should Be Proud” – Martha and the Vandellas
A pretty rare cut, it’s hard to find the lyrics on the web, though you can hear the song on our YouTube channel for this list. The song has the distinction of being the first Motown song to protest the Vietnam conflict, and the lyrics center around a woman who hears that her boyfriend has been killed in battle. She says she “should be proud,” but all she wants is for him to come home again. Though the song was written by Joe Hinton, Pam Sawyer, and Henry Crosby, Martha Reeves took the message to heart, as her brother had died in Vietnam.
7. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – Arlo Guthrie
While not an emotionally evocative song, it tells the story of a young man, arrested for littering, ends up in court, and is fined $50 and told to pick up his trash. Later he is drafted, but because of his criminal record he is sent to the Group W bench, where draftees are evaluated because of their criminal records and it is decided whether or not they are fit for military service. If they are, they are given a “moral waiver” and sent to battle. The character in the story is declared unfit for military service. Guthrie’s song ran more than 18 minutes, and he first performed it on a New York radio station. The song was based on Guthrie’s real-life experiences and was later turned into a feature film, starring Guthrie as himself.
6. “Volunteers – Jefferson Airplane
While the inspiration for the song originally came when Marty Balin woke up one morning to the sound of a truck, and looked outside and saw that the truck had Volunteers of America painted on the side. He anad Paul Kantner wrote the song, but the lyrics are clearly anti-Vietnam. Even if the band didn’t intent it to be, it because a sort of anti-Vietnam conflict anthem, and has been used in Vietnam-era war movies, notably Forrest Gump.
5. “Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire
Written by P.F. Sloan, a 19-year-old songwriter who would go on to form The Grass Roots, this song was recorded by The Turtles and The Byrds before McGuire recorded it, early on a Thursday morning in 1965, with the lyrics written on a crumpled sheet of paper. McGuire, a burgeoning solo artist, didn’t really like the song, but his delivery with its rough and scratchy vocals, made the song even more popular. The song warns of apocalypse brought on by acts of war, and became a Vietnam conflict protest anthem.
4. “Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Fortunate Son” appeared on CCR’s 1969 album Willy and the Poor Boys. The band wrote the song out of indignation that the grandson of Dwight D. Eisenhower would, through his financial and political connections, probably not have to go to Vietnam. The song, told from the point of view of a young man not “fortunate” enough to have wealth or power, who has been drafted. The song has been a mainstay in many Vietnam-era films, including Forrest Gump, Live Free or Die Hard, and the satire film Tropic Thunder.
3. “What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye
In addition to being Rolling Stone‘s 4th greatest song of all time, “What’s Going On” is, in a lot of ways, the quintessential peaceful protest song, and is still relevant today. It was the title track of the 1971 album, which saw Gaye turn to a different style of music than his previous pop Motown recordings. Gaye contributed to the writing of the song, a practice that was rare for him, because he was so disturbed by the climate of war in the U.S. Gaye’s brother Frankie had been to Vietnam, and regaled Marvin Gaye with the horrors he had experienced, so the song was personal for Gaye, and became a lasting and poignant commentary on the state of unrest in the world.
2. “For What It’s Worth” – Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield released this song, written by Stephen Stills, in 1967. While the song was written as a response to the Sunset Strip riot, and not so much to the Vietnam conflict, it became a protest anthem, and the impact it had on the youth of the time is undeniable. There was a little debate as to whether or not this song should be included on the list at all, especially so close to number one, but we have to take into account not only why the song was written, but how it was received. And it was embraced by the nation’s youth as a protest against not only what was happening in Vietnam, but also in America regarding the youth protesting the crackdown on, well, protesting and gathering.
1. “War” – Edwin Starr
Originally recorded by The Temptations, Motown Records had no intention of releasing the song as a single, until they received a number of requests, so they had Edwin Starr record the song to protect The Temptation’s reputation, since the song was such an obvious anti-Vietnam conflict song. Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield wrote the song in 1969, and after he heard about the indecision surround a possible re-recording of the song, he volunteered for the job. Starr won a Grammy for the recording, and the song remains the most powerful anti-war anthem to date.