10 Significant Protest Songs of the Vietnam War | History Hit

10 Significant Protest Songs of the Vietnam War

John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their 'Bed-in', 1969.
Image Credit: Koch, Eric / Anefo / CC / Wikimedia Commons

The controversial and bloody Vietnam War spanned two decades, took the lives of over 3 million people – more than half of whom were Vietnamese civilians – and fundamentally altered the course of history forever. Attitudes towards the war divided Americans from the outset; financially, the war cost more than $120 billion, contributed to widespread inflation and severely aggravated Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union.

However, the psychological devastation of the war was immeasurable. By late 1967, around half a million US troops were in Vietnam, and drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder, mutinies and attacks by soldiers against commissioned and noncommissioned officers were at an all-time high among troops. Between 1966 and 1973, more than 503,000 US military personal deserted and a significant anti-war campaign took hold within the US.

Bombarded by horrific images of war, citizens at home made their views known via protests and popular culture. Some of the most enduring anti-war sentiment was distilled through protest songs which were sung and broadcasted far and wide. Today, they are some of the most poignant reminders of the tumult and horrors of the conflict.

Here are 10 of the most significant anti-Vietnam War protest songs of the age.

Eve of Destruction by P.F. Sloan (for Barry McGuire) (1965)

Eve of Destruction was actually written by 19-year-old P.F. Sloan, a staff songwriter at Barry McGuire’s label. McGuire recorded it in one take in spring 1965. Tackling themes such as racism, hypocrisy and injustice and taking aim at the Vietnam War with lyrics such as ‘You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’, You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin”, the song quickly became number one in the US, and reached the top ten in many other countries. However, many radio stations refused to play it.

We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place by The Animals (1965)

This song was most popular with US forces stationed in South Vietnam, and was frequently played by radio DJs. Surveys in the time since have shown that it was the song they claimed to most identify with during the conflict, and has since been inducted onto the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list.

Bring ‘em Home by Pete Seeger (1966)

Washington, D.C. Pete Seeger, noted folk singer entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of American, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Image Credit: ttp://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d41983 / CC / Wikimedia Commons

Pete Seeger was one of the most famous folk music artists of the 20th century. His song Bring ’em Home was often sung during anti-Vietnam War protests. Cleverly, he asserts that he wishes to bring the soldiers home because of his love of the country, since many who were in favour of the war accused anti-war activists of being anti-American. Later, Seeger adapted the song to protest US wars in the Middle East.

Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie (1967)

Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant Massacree is an epic 18 minutes in length and mainly consists of a spoken ‘talking blues’ monologue. It is a deadpan protest against the Vietnam War in the form of a comically hyperbolic yet mainly factual account from Guthrie’s own life which refers to an incident where he was convicted of illegally dumping rubbish, which in turn endangers his suitability for the military draft. Today, it is tradition for certain radio stations to play the song on Thanksgiving.

Backlash Blues by Nina Simone (1967)

Nina Simone adapted a civil rights poem by Langston Hughes into a protest song against the Vietnam War. The name ‘Mr. Backlash’ often referred to slave owners because of their tendency to whip enslaved people’s backs, and Simone uses the metaphor in this instance to refer to the American government. Lyrics such as ‘Raise my taxes/Freeze my wages/Send my son to Vietnam’ protested the war, while the song was also a rallying cry in favour of black emancipation and civil rights.

I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag by Country Joe MacDonald (1967)

Country Joe McDonald performing at Kralingen Music Festival, 1970.

Image Credit: Noord-Hollands Archief / CC / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most memorable moments of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 was Country Joe MacDonald’s solo performance of I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, a clearly anti-Vietnam War song. Featuring lyrics such as ‘and it’s one, two, three what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam’, the song was a counter-cultural hit.

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

One of the most famous protest songs of the Vietnam War, Fortunate Son is less explicit in its criticism of the war in particular, instead angling for the unfairness of class with regards to war. Using lyrics such as ‘It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no’, the song states that rich men make war while poor men have to fight them.

Give Peace a Chance by Plastic Ono Band (1969)

In 1969, the anti-Vietnam war movement was gaining traction. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were staging a ‘Bed-in’ in their honeymoon suite in Montreal, and it was from his bed that Lennon along with some friends recorded this anti-war anthem on an acoustic guitar, some microphones and a four-track tape recorder. Just a few months after it was recorded, musician Pete Seeger led a crowd of half a million demonstrators through Washington D.C. on Vietnam Moratorium Day, who sang the song and interspersed it with phrases such as ‘Are you listening, Nixon?’ and ‘Are you listening, Agnew?’

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War by Edwin Starr (1970)

The rallying slogan ‘War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing’ became an oft-cried slogan throughout the Vietnam War, and during subsequent conflicts around the world. Though the song was originally recorded by the Temptations in 1969, it was feared that the counterculture soul song might not resonate with fans of the otherwise sweet vocal group, meaning Edwin Starr’s became the definitive version, climbing to number one in the charts in 1970.

Orange Crush by REM (1988)

Though not strictly sung during the Vietnam War itself, the song Orange Crush is important for highlighting an element of the long-term physical damage that the war waged. It references the government’s use of the herbicide known as Agent Orange that removed trees and foliage that the Viet Cong otherwise used to their advantage during the war. Many diseases were later found to be associated with the herbicide, including heart disease, Parkinson’s, diabetes, prostate and lung cancer.

Lucy Davidson