Jon Shefner, Ph.D., is head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Tennessee. His scholarly work focuses on sociology, political science, and social movements. He is the co-author of several books, including Globalization and Beyond: New Examinations of Global Power and Its Alternatives and Agenda for Social Justice: Solutions 2016.
Dr. Shefner was interviewed for the East Tennessee PBS mini-series, The Vietnam War: East Tennessee, about U.S. social unrest during the Vietnam War, modern wars, and contemporary social justice movements. He appears in the episode A Sense of Revolution. Following is an edited transcript of his interview. The interview was conducted and filmed by Nolpix Media. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of Dr. Jon Shefner, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of East Tennessee PBS or Nolpix Media.
What makes a protest work or not work?
Protests have really large contexts. Protests differ by issues They differ by who exactly is doing the protests. They differ by strategies. They differ by audience: Who is the target of the protest, or who, at least, are you trying to convince. They differ by moment in history. They differ how important issues are to the audience. The differ by how much information is held by the audience.
So one of the things that makes all protests effective or non-effective is how much the audience cares about it, and how much information they have.
You know, in the Vietnam protest, of course, although the protests targeted governments, they targeted the population and citizens, as much or more, under the expectation that those citizens would then pressure the government.
So if you think about, regardless of the strategy, the very fact that over the course of the Vietnam War, people, the citizens of the United States, have much more information in the mid-to-later part of the war, than they had at the earlier part of the war, made any protest more effective.
Other than that, it’s hard to make generalities, right? Protests different in their kinds of dramatic content, and so there are moments when, protests are relatively traditional demonstrations or rallies. And then there are those where the drama is much more necessary. So, it might be civil disobedience. It might be breaking into a draft board. And the question is: What are we trying to accomplish in what we are doing? Are we trying to disrupt the draft board? Are we trying to go for greater media attention? What’s the question? What are we trying to achieve?
The only way the effectiveness of protests can really be assessed is with the specifics of the goals. And the other part of that is, in a long term historical event, such as the Vietnam War, you can’t really tell what’s effective, or you can’t always tell what’s effective at the moment. It takes the passage of history to understand. The same is true with the civil rights movement, or other large movements for social justice or social change.
Why do you think the modern wars, the Gulf War, Iraqi Freedom, and Afghanistan, why do you think they are not attracting a large anti-war protest movement?
I think we are talking about a couple of different things. The Afghanistan conflict versus the Iraqi conflict.
The Afghani conflict began after a very clear threat on our own soil, 9/11. So, people’s attention was caught. People were in a position of a mixture of fear and anger. And there was a real desire, I think, among a lot of folks, for some kind of revenge. I think that crossed partisan distances. I think it crossed a lot of political differences.
The basis of your question about the Iraqi War is actually wrong. There were really large worldwide protests against the Iraqi invasion. And in fact, the argument has been made that those protests were much larger than the protests against the Vietnam War, kind of at its comparable moment. So long before we were even in Iraq, there were hundreds of thousands of people, in the south, across the nation, who were protesting against the build up to that war.
Now, I think that one of the things that has kept that protest from being sustained is the disproportionate body count, for lack of a better word. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers have died in those conflicts, but there are fewer than proportionately over time than were killed in Vietnam.
Now my understanding is that many more were hurt in the Iraqi conflict, but because of body armor, and various other technological improvements in warfare, fewer of them were killed. And I think that, quite honestly, there’s a difference between a moment when Walter Cronkite is saying, night after night, during the Vietnam War, “X” number of U.S. soldiers were killed today, or this week, and a different kind of media attention with few numbers.
So I think it has to do with different kinds of media attention. And I think it has to do with different kinds of body counts. Sorry if that’s harsh. But I also think that part of it has to do with who exactly is in Iraq and Afghanistan dying. Who are the U.S. soldiers?
And because it was a draft, the Vietnam War, even though there were any number of deferments for people who were in a position of privilege, whether it was students or others, it was somewhat more of a more democratic draft. That is to say, more people were in danger of being drafted.
The all volunteer Army that has been instituted, that has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, is more an army of underprivileged. Soldiers from more underprivileged backgrounds help us understand why fewer people were in the street for longer. Many people were in the streets in the beginning.
Can you speak about mental health attitudinal changes between WWII generation, the Vietnam generation, and the modern generation?
I think it’s pretty clear that PTSD accompanies warfare, period. So that the generation that fought in WWII were likely to have suffered PTSD. It was not recognized as a general health issue. The counterpart of that, in terms of a health issue, is that they were given free cigarettes. That’s just another indication of how knowledge of health issues evolves over time. Mental health was not nearly as focused on, among that generation. Certainly not among those soldiers, or ex-soldiers.
I think, after a period of time, of Vietnam, it was harder to put into a box. There were, as I understand it, there were about a million U.S. citizens who served in Vietnam. And there was a societal shift in how one spoke about oneself. The Vietnam generation spoke more about their feelings, about a variety of things. So one would expect that led to people talking about their experiences in the war, more generally…or in a different way, in speaking about the war and its effects more than those who preceded them.
Because they were able to speak a bit more about their experiences, certainly not enough, and certainly not getting the treatment they required. That opened the door for further discussion currently.
The problem for governments with PTSD, and those kinds of traumas, is that the people we want to think of as warriors, and as our supporters, and the people who fought for us, come back often damaged in a way that indites the war itself.
So some of the things that people witnessed in WWII, and then in the Vietnam War, and certainly in the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts, are experiences that really bring to the fore some of the horrors of war for every side. And so, that’s not the story that governments want to tell about warfare. Governments want to tell the story that we are in the right, that our soldiers are heroic, and they come, if not unscathed, able to continue on with what they do, and in many cases it’s not what happens, it’s not a real history.
People who suffer these kinds of traumas, in many ways, are telling us the unofficial history about what warfare really does to them and others.
Can you talk about the polarization the Vietnam War brought to this country?
The polarization was both an issue of the moment and a long standing issue. Your question suggests that there was that divide, that there were those who supported it regardless, but I think with more information over the period of 11 years of that conflict, less and less of that information was taken at face value. More criticism was offered by protesters, more criticism was offered by media, more criticism was offered by people in government, and so that reflects the reactionary patriotism. “It’s right because the government told us it was right,” I think, diminished over time. It’s not that it disappeared entirely, but it diminished over time. More and more people were very critical of the war over time, including those who supported it previously.
I think that polarization ended up being manifested in a couple of different ways. There was a portrayal of the protester, and that portrayal was somehow very different culturally. I think those kinds of cultural assignments around issues of sex, around issues of drugs, around issues of politics, etc., ended up playing into other political polarizations in the United States over time. I think in many ways, they’re still playing out. For example, current media portrayals of protests. If you see local news, national news, or whoever it is, it doesn’t matter how many grandmas are out there protesting. It doesn’t matter how many gray-hairs like myself are out there protesting. If there’s some guy out there in a wacky outfit, that is the person who gets the media attention. That’s in part because of the way media works, because it wants to sensationalize things, but it also plays into that polarization of different cultural positions.
Do you think the Vietnam War protests affected the soldiers who were fighting in Vietnam?
I think the protests against the war affect U.S. soldiers in a number of ways. There was clearly anger at not being supported, especially in contrast to the two recent wars, or relatively recent wars, that those soldiers grew up knowing about. In Korea and World War Two there was no question about the enemies. There was much less dissension about the nobility of the cause, the reason for the cause, how the cause was created. So, I’m sure the protests for some soldiers had some impact, making them quite angry, and feeling unsupported.
I would suggest that one of the other impacts is them feeling supported by the protesters. Feeling that the people back home were trying to get them back home as quickly as possible. We know, for example, an organization such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, that those protests helped those veterans find their voices in protesting against the war, and they became an enormously legitimate, active, and well regarded set of voices against the war, because they were speaking from their own experience. They were speaking from what they saw, and what they opposed because of what they saw.
Do you think the protests brought about a faster end to the Vietnam War?
Yes, I think the Vietnam protests unambiguously brought a quicker, speedier end to the war. I think it had probably more impact during the second half of the war when that transition and support began to happen among the American populace. I think there is no question that it became an increasingly costly political moment for the Johnson administration, and then for the Nixon administration. As I understand it, the anti-war protests had a great deal to do with President Johnson deciding not to run for a second term. The Nixon campaign ran on the expectation that they would end the war. Of course, it didn’t happen until a good deal later. So I think those protests had a very real impact on the war in that way.
I also think that it the war continued because the United States Army, the United States military, did not know how to lose a war, and that’s what was happening in Vietnam. They were losing a war. And they were so unaccustomed to losing a war because their military success, in the previous three wars, there was no real capacity to reflect on what’s the best way to get out. The fact that there was undocumented untruths being told, as well, by the military, and by the politicians, about how the war was fairing, also acted to delay the ending of the war…. But I think there is no way of understanding that war without recognizing that protests helped bring it to an end.
Did the Vietnam Era, and the protests, bring about any other changes, besides trying to bring a quicker end to the war?
I think the protests and the whole change of attitudes among many American citizens has had an enduring political impact on the political makeup of the United States. It was not the first time our government lied to us about a variety of conflicts across the globe. Small ones, but ones that we were very involved in, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The United States lied to us in many ways about the Bay of Pigs.
What happened in Vietnam was an extended period of deception. What exactly were we being told. And then, an extended period of, if not deception, the molding of information, and the molding of news, that after a period of time, the media contradicted, and returning soldiers and others contradicted.
What I think ended up happening, and I think another really important part of that long conflict, and the way people’s minds changed, was that we felt we could indeed be in the wrong. I think what really happened was this enduring sense of change, ended up allowing U.S. citizens to distrust their government more, in ways they had not done before. To believe that, perhaps, and I don’t know if this was shared by a lot of people, but certainly by some, that on top of U.S. civil rights violations, and the long standing absence of human rights, especially of African Americans, that there was really a history of the United States being in the wrong, and that’s not something that was part of our way of thinking, at least a large sector of our population’s way of thinking. With the Watergate scandal immediately following the Vietnam War, this kind of reinforced this notion that, “yep, government can lie to you.” I think that really had an enduring effect.
It created a much larger dose of skepticism among those U.S. citizens who genuinely pay attention to what’s going on, and I think that helps us understand why the anti-Iraq War protest movement was so strong in the streets, because of a real skepticism of what our government was telling us, which in fact, ended up being borne out. There were no weapons of mass destruction. And there are real reasons, then and now, to take the information that our government gives us with some careful skepticism. There’s one people won’t like.
Were poverty stricken people or black men targets during the Vietnam War?
I’m hesitant to say black men and disadvantaged people were more targets then, than they are now. And that they have been. I think the all volunteer Army has created a situation where people of color and disadvantaged minorities, and disadvantaged poor white, enter into the armed forces in numbers that equal, or may have surpassed, I don’t have the information.
I certainly think that disadvantaged minorities were targeted back then, and I think they continue to be now. Both racial and class minorities.
Is it a myth that Vietnam War soldiers were harassed and verbally abused upon their return home?
The response by the U.S. public of poorly treating U.S. veterans, I think, has been blown out of proportion. There has been scholarly work on those kinds of interactions, and they were far fewer than one would expect from how that has increased as a popular story, as a myth.
I’m sure there were soldiers who were poorly treated. I’m sure there were soldiers who did their best on their return to get out of their uniforms as quickly as possible. We know they weren’t welcomed back.
I think some of the stories of treatment were exaggerated, in at least number. That’s what the scholarly work on this has shown. I think one of the things that has happened though, because of that discussion, but also because of the understanding that the damage that war did to a whole generation, especially of young men, is that subsequent anti-war movements have been less focused on the soldiers themselves, as in some way playing a coupable part, and more focused on part of what we are about in this protest, the protest against Iraq, a protest against the later proceeding of the war in Afghanistan, after the initial invasion.
I think those protests have much more carefully understood that those soldiers themselves can indeed be victims.
Do you think the Gulf War’s heavy emphasis on “Support the Troops” was in response to Vietnam?
I think the notion of the two joined chants, “Support the Troops,” and “Bring Them Home Now,” had everything to do with the harm that the Vietnam War had done to a previous generation, and also, it came about because of some of that myth about poor treatment of those veterans. There’s no question that the Vietnam War veterans came back to a very different social context than, for example, the World War Two veterans, or even the Korean War veterans.
The Vietnam Veterans came back to a context where the United States was doubting the rightness of the war. The correctness of the war. They were doubting the truthfulness of their leaders, military and political, and we were losing. And those were historical trends and historical moments that had negative consequences for those veterans in ways that their predecessors had not suffered.
Why are the modern war veterans having a hard time transitioning when they come back?
I think one of the reasons some of those veterans are having difficulty in transition is, again, this issue of the social context. The political context. Once again, we have been lied to. Much less in the Afghani conflict, but more in the Iraqi conflict.
I think some of the transitions have been made more difficult because of the increased technological capacity of warfare, and how more people survive, but they survive in the context of severe physical damage. Their lives may be better protected, but their physical and mental well being is not, necessarily.
I think many of them came back to a nation in recession. There were/are diminished economic opportunities for them to return to. I also think they have, especially as time wore on, returned to a war weary society. People who do not want to victimize soldiers, but people are tired of the whole war society.
The U.S. economy from 1945 to 1975 was at its strongest. The economic opportunities for vets, not just through Veterans’ bills, and not just through mortgage, but through the standard economic opportunities, were much, much greater. The decline in the U.S. economy from 1975 is part of the context which has indeed made it harder for the Vietnam vet. The post-9/11 recession, it was short, but it was real. With the 2008 recession, you’re talking about an economic context that veterans return and their opportunities are nowhere near they were in times past. And this, I think, has had a real impact on people’s lives.
What is the stereotype of the Vietnam vet (homeless, addicted, motorcycle riding) v. reality?
The stereotype of the Vietnam vet that you’re suggesting is of a person who is damaged in some fashion. Damaged and can’t come back to the norm. I’m sure that the data does not bear that out, first of all. I’m sure that the majority of the folks who came back have been able to lead productive and useful lives. But there’s a function of this notion that a damaged veteran fits, or fulfills. And that is, that we as a nation were damaged. And so that individual Vietnam vet stereotype, not reality, but stereotype helps us, I think, key into this notion that the nation, in and of itself, was damaged from that conflict.
How does police response affect public perception, or public opinion, about a protest?
Police response helps mold public response to protests in a variety of ways. But you have to think beyond just the police response, and you have to think about who the police are responding to. So two recent waves of protests, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, faced very different police response.
The police were much more generous, the police were much more willing to let long standing occupations, like Occupy Wall Street, continue, and I think that has a lot to do with who were the protesters. The protesters were largely young, white, middle class kids. In contrast, the response to Black Lives Matter was enormously militarized. Large contingents of police in body armor with heavy weapons and heavy machinery were out confronting many of those protests, and that had to do with the protesters themselves. Police perceived the feeling of threat from that community, even though the protesters themselves were the ones being threatened. I think the police response has everything to do with the hierarchy of power in the United States. The police are going to respond to young, white kids in very different ways than they are going to respond to people of color and disadvantaged people.
During the Vietnam War there was religious based support for the war. Please describe.
There was certainly religious based support for the Vietnam War back in that time. But, the religious right really did not become organized as such until the post Vietnam era. And the religious right became organized in large part in response to, or by creating the culture wars, that in some ways emerged out of the Vietnam War, and that polarization between different kinds of political and cultural positions. So the religious right really was successful in their support of Ronald Reagan and the Reagan presidency. A little less so in the first Bush presidency. But certainly, even more successful in their backing of the second Bush presidency. I think the religious right continues to play a very strong, and in some ways, disproportionate role because believers in the United States, as a proportion of the American public, are actually diminishing. But the strength of the religious right continues.
Do protests work? Why or why not?
I think there is no question that protests work, as a general statement. But I think one has to immediately step back and think about what kinds of protests: for whom and by whom.
We spoke earlier about the strong protest in response to the initial buildup to the Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands of people were mobilized across this country, and millions across the world. Those protests did not work. They did not work in large part because the context in which we were protesting. The climate of fear and the climate of enormous deception by the government had not provided the foundations for a successful protest against that invasion, specifically the Iraqi invasion.
Audiences have to care about these issues. They can care about them in abstract ways. They may think there is an issue of justice and rights being violated. They can care about them in much more concrete ways. For example, their livelihood is threatened.
But they have to be convinced to care. Convincing people to care is part of the process of creating a protest context. The people who protest have to be seen in some way as legitimate, as opposed to the crazy individual the media always has to show, regardless of how many other people may be there. There has to be seen a realistic resolution. How will a protest lead to a realistic resolution? I don’t think there’s a question in looking at U.S. politics, whether it’s in the 1960’s and ‘70’s or today. In looking at politics internationally, there is no question that protest has an impact. What has to happen after a protest is there has to be an infrastructure built to address whatever is being protested, or whatever a protest is trying to uncover.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
There is another way to understand protest that a number of people still fail to understand. Protest is part of politics. In the United States, we often think that there is one way of doing politics, and that is through institutional political efforts: calling on your representative, senator, congressman, whatever. But protest is always about politics. And people often take the protest route because they do not feel like they have access to their political representatives. They don’t feel they have the access to voice their opinions in ways that others do. Think about Black Lives Matter. People didn’t take to the streets only because their community was being targeted and harmed. They took to the streets because that was the avenue they had to make their political statement. Because their political statements were being squashed or quieted in the more traditional or institutional way. Politics is protest. And protest is politics.