If anything the Vietnam War was a conflict that changed the discussion about war in America. Both sides (America and North Vietnam) fought a war based on the perceptions of public opinion and would achieve victory only through wining the desired effect on the civilian population. The US wanted to win the hearts and minds of Vietnam, while the Vietnamese communists’ objective the whole time, as General Giap puts it, relied on “… absolute political superiority, on the righteousness of our cause, and on our people’s unity in struggle”. In the end Giap’s objective was more easily achieved.
By 1969 the majority of Americans had grown to disapprove of the Vietnam War, only a minority (a very vocal and substantial one) of people actively mobilized against it. The end of the Vietnam War (or at least US involvement in it) would be a major cause in the growing counterculture and hippy movement mainly populated by young, liberal, middle class “kids”. While this group might not have been very representative of most of America, it was also a key point of American focus during the war and helped to put pressure on the American government. This population would find refuge and a place to grow in the hot bed of idyllic middleclass white “kids” that is college campuses. The Students for a Democratic Society or SDS would help create this.
Even at the small private college where my mother went (Phillips University) there was a hunger strike against the war. College campuses across America became the incubator for political dissent against the war. Then the shootings at Johnson State and Kent State truly showed how impactful college campuses were on the anti-war movement. The youth and educational institutions of America would continue to be a focal point for political discussion and a hot bed for discontent keeping with the developments of the Vietnam War.
Giap, Vo Nguyen. The Political and Military Line of Our Party
On August 15th 1969 Joe McDonald was pushed off onto a relatively small wooden stage surrounded by a sea of around two hundred thousand people. The seasoned musician would later say: “I was scared”. Simply wanting to fill time in between sets, backstage personnel had handed “Country” Joe a forgotten Yamaha FG 150 acoustic guitar with a rope around it for a strap. As Joe started his band’s popular anti-Vietnam War song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” he had changed the beginning cheer from F-I-S-H to F-*-C-K. This completely improvised performance would prove to be one of the greatest moments in Woodstock history, and its popularity would show the ever growing frustration of the American public with the Vietnam War.
After “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” appeared as the title song to Country Joe & The Fish’s second album, it sold well for a year. Even getting into the top 40 chart. It wasn’t necessarily a popular song but was one of those songs that everyone knew. In its satirical message was a feeling that most Americans could relate to. Of course it was more popular to the hippy subculture, but it was also able to resonate with many every-day Americans.
The Vietnam War was considered the first televised war, in that: the American public got to see actual hostilities and their consequences. By the time Country Joe sang that fateful song at Woodstock, American media had been thoroughly introducing the public to the war (and the Tet Offensive) for 3 years. This is what gave his performance at Woodstock such potency. Due to the fact that the song itself wasn’t necessarily popular, but the idea and the way in which, and passion for said idea, was sold by McDonald to a war weary nation that was all too aware of the grotesque form that the Vietnam War was in. After the Vietnam War America would enter into a new era of conflict that had a new more transparent dialog with its public.
War was no longer that distant thing fought by heroes against villains. It was in America’s living rooms, in its minds. It was fought by people… against people… for the people.
One of the more remarkable aspects of my research project into Veder’s “Burst of Joy” is its continuing relevance in American life.
This July 1999 article, from the Youngstown Vindicator, mentions that this photograph was featured in a 1999 Turner Network TV show called “Moment of Impact.” Veder says in the show, “You have to anticipate action. Everything looks routine, and then suddenly all hell breaks loose.”
This quote got me thinking. In 1999 most Americans probably thought that there was no chance the United States would ever enter into a conflict like the Vietnam War again. The Cold War was over and while terrorist attacks occurred, they rarely occurred in the United States. Did anyone who read this really “anticipate action,” in the sense that we’d be at war again? Yet just two years later, the United States would be at war again in a conflict that has many parallels to the Vietnam War.
I’m interested to discover if Veder’s photo was used in the decade that followed. Was it used to remind Americans, awaiting the return of their loved ones from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, that wars come to an end? Or was it used in a different manner, perhaps to remind Americans of the high costs of war? Let’s not forget, Lt. Col. Stirm spent six long years in a prison camp.
Paper source: (Youngstown) Vindicator, 17 July 1999, C6