There’s Somethin’ Happening Here
Music and the Vietnam War

By: Ryan Baxter
The Vietnam War is the most widely hated and unsupported war in American history. Never before have the people of the US so widely despised a war, and never before has history been so quick to criticize the government’s decisions during war. In 1973, when Elton John released “Daniel,” which was written about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran, only 18% of Americans approved of Richard Nixon’s handling of the war (Gallup).

Later that year, the US withdrew all combat troops from Vietnam, which drew wide support from across the nation. The most accurate reflection of this widespread discontent with the war can be found in the music of this time period. Artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Buffalo Springfield expressed their discontent with the war by recording protest songs, which are now famous both for their cultural impact and immense popularity.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, or CCR, found immense success with their 1969 hit titled “Fortunate Son.” In it, the band expresses its discontent with how Vietnam was being supported almost solely by government officials, who seemed exempt from sending their own families to fight, while the common man was being shipped to a nation on the other side of the globe via the draft. In the chorus, lead singer John Fogerty sings the iconic line: “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son” .  This lyric demonstrates the feeling among American youth, not just the band members, that Vietnam was a war run by politicians and that young Americans were the ones being forced to fight and die for a for a cause which they saw no need to support.

Many young Americans felt similarly to Muhammad Ali  when he stated “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” This widespread questioning of the motives behind the war inspired many groups, such as CRR, to create music reflecting these sentiments. Many young people turned to public protest in order to demonstrate their displeasure with the war. While these protests were usually peaceful, some turned violent as protesters clashed with police. Many college campuses, most famously the University of California, Berkeley, erupted with protests as students expressed their displeasure with the war, and were met with resistance from politicians and establishment figures who supported the war.

A combination of distaste for the Vietnam War and support for the student protesters prompted Buffalo Springfield to pen their hit “For What it’s Worth,” which encapsulates the feeling of disillusionment regarding the war. In the song, lead singer Stills sings:

“There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear”

Later in the piece, Stills croons,

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind” .  

  These two lines reflect much of the nation’s feeling of trepidation regarding both the war and without the consent of the people. e government’s response to protesters at home. Many felt ill-informed by the government regarding the war, and were displeased with how troops were continually being sent to Vietnam  without the consent of the people.

To further understand the effect of the war on music and vice versa, I interviewed Derek Waring who was a disc jockey during this time period in Modesto, California. Waring worked at KFIV, which was a rock-and-roll station in the Central Valley. For much of the war, Waring had his finger on the pulse of the nation by having access to the most popular anti-war songs on the charts. He specifically recalls “For What it’s Worth” as “a mantra for how people felt about the war and the government.” These songs, among others, had an immense impact on the politics of the time.

To Waring, the order of operations was simple; “The drumbeat of opposition to the Vietnam War was growing louder and louder. And the musicians/writers of the time were writing about and fueling public sentiment and public opinion was having a major impact on politics.” Clearly, the effect of this music on the people was massive; it shifted public opinion, even in a small rural town like Modesto.

As the war dragged painfully on, these songs began to fuel a fire of disapproval of the war. Waring explains “the cumulative effect [of protest music] was to eventually turn the tide of history with regard to the Vietnam War. What started out as protest songs here and there became a movement, a mission, a world changing event.” The early works of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had by 1971 developed a full-blown campaign for peace, now led by chart-topping hits, like “Imagine” by John Lennon, or “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.

In 1973, a meek 18% of American approved of the Vietnam War, compared to its 65% approval rating when America first entered the conflict in 1965 (Gallup). This transformation was due in no small part to radio. Radio, as Waring put it, “was pretty much the extent of our ‘Social Media’ back then.” By allowing for easy and frequent access to protest music, radio gave young Americans a new perspective on the war that they could not gain simply by reading the newspaper or watching the nightly news programs. According to Waring, constant exposure to protest music made it “impossible… not to have been personally affected by the music” and its themes. To put it frankly, without radio and protest music, there are no widespread protests like the ones in Berkeley in 1968, San Francisco in 1967, or Chicago in 1968.

The Vietnam War might not have ended as soon as it did if the public had not turned so violently against it, and many more American soldiers could have died in Vietnam, further adding to to the already immense casualty cost of the war. As Waring states, “people had found a way to get their very important messages across to millions of people in a relatively short period of time. Little did we know then where that concept would lead us, huh?”

Vietnam 1967
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Mohammed Ali 1960's
Marvin Gaye
Joan Baez
K5's Derek Waring

Editor's Note:

Ryan Baxter is currently 16 years old and is a senior at San Clemente High School in San Clemente, California. He plays on the baseball team, enjoys going to the beach, and is an Eagle Scout. Ryan looks forward to  attending a four-year university and pursuing a career in Neurology after college.