With recent developments in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, protests have risen across the nation and on UCLA’s campus. Below, the Pacific Ties News team examines United States involvement in and reactions to Israel-Palestine with a comparable conflict: the Vietnam War.
Noted as one of the most unpopular wars in American history, the Vietnam War spanned 21 years from 1954-1975. The Vietnam War was preceded by the First Indochina War, in which the Viet Minh defeated France and ended French Imperial presence in Indochinese regions. The Geneva Accords, signed in July 1954, signified the resolution of the conflict and split Vietnam at the 17th parallel into North and South Vietnam. South Vietnam was to be led by Emperor Bao Dai, whereas North Vietnam was to be under Ho Chi Minh’s communist rule.
The Vietnam War was characterized as a civil war between North and South Vietnam. The North wished to establish a communist regime modeling that of the Soviet Union and China, while the South wished to maintain a government more aligned with the visions of American military advisors – more democratic. The United States feared that a free election would result in a unified control under communists, and in its mission to strengthen and defend democracies internationally, allied with South Vietnam.
American involvement began on November 1, 1955, when President Dwight Eisenhower designated a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to train and provide American assistance to the South Vietnamese military, known as the Viet Cong. Previously, a MAAG had been deployed by President Harry Truman in September 1950 to support French troops as a colonial power in the First Indochina War in 1950. While Eisenhower’s policy for advice was reportedly limited and the number of official advisors never exceeded 1000, the MAAG sent in 1955 was used to advocate for a significant U.S. presence in the country throughout the conflict.
President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961 and emphasized the importance of a free South Vietnam – he and his close advisers believed that Vietnam was an opportunity to test the American government’s ability to work against “communist subversion and guerilla warfare.” Under his presidency, the United States renewed its commitment to participation in the Vietnam War, and sent in another 18,000 military advisors. They authorized the use of strategies like napalm, defoliants, free fire zones and jet planes. However, these efforts were not as successful as hoped and Kennedy’s office faced a crisis by July 1963, as Buddhist protests against the South Vietnamese government were breaking out.
In response to these protests, President Kennedy tried to persuade South Vietnam’s President Diem to reform the government in Saigon. However, Diem declared martial law and responded by raiding their pagodas. Diem was assassinated and overthrown in November 1963 by the South Vietnamese military, privately sanctioned by President Kennedy and the United States government through covert planning. President Kennedy’s commitment to the domino theory reinvigorated American activity in the war, as he believed that building “the cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia” would illustrate U.S. motivations to challenge the spread of communism in the “Third World.”
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which allowed the President to take all “necessary measures” in this global conflict. Though he had run on a campaign that promised not to escalate American intervention in the Vietnam War, he eventually expanded the war by ordering 210,000 American ground troops to Vietnam. They conducted search and destroy missions in the South and organized bombings in the North, creating mass destruction. Even with American support, the Ho Chi Minh Trail – a military supply route for supplies to be sent to North Vietnam and sympathizers in the South – and other supply lines could not be cut. By 1967, the American military goal was more to avoid an embarrassing defeat, rather than assisting South Vietnam. However, after the Tet Offensive of early 1968, many policymakers were convinced that the costs of winning the war were not proportional to the U.S. national interests, and Johnson halted American bombing in the North shortly after.
By April 1969, more than 500,000 military personnel from the United States were stationed in Vietnam. Following President Nixon’s election, American troops began to withdraw from Vietnam and the military draft was conducted with a lottery system. In 1972, when peace talks halted momentarily, the United States continued bombing North Vietnam at a larger scale with Operation Linebacker II (also known as the Christmas bombings), leading to even more calls for the end of American involvement in this war.
A cease-fire agreement was signed in late January 1973, and the United States agreed to withdraw from South Vietnam, though no comparable group did so for North Vietnam – this was perceived as a possible measure for the United States to maintain face. South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam two years later, in 1975.
Similarly, the United States has been involved in another controversial war for decades. While the international conflict in Palestine can be traced back to the end of the 1800s, it became a larger global war in 1947 — and it’s still alive and well today. It’s based on conflicting land/statehood claims between Israel and Palestine for the region encompassed by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Jordan River to the east.
In 1922, the UK was granted a mandate over Palestine, a former Ottoman territory, by the League of Nations. They declared it a “Jewish national home,” despite the longstanding existence of Palestinians in the region. During World War II, many Jewish immigrants fled Nazi persecution to Palestine. In response to the overcrowding and declaration as a Jewish national home, Palestinians rioted and rebelled against the British mandate. After recognition of the conflict in 1937, the UK issued a limit on Jewish immigration to the region in 1939. However, in 1942, Zionists in the United States met in New York to adopt the Biltmore Program, which called for unlimited immigration to Palestine, and its establishment as a Jewish Commonwealth.
In February 1947, the UK relinquished its mandate over Palestine and gave the responsibility of the land to the UN. In November of the same year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to divide Palestine into two states – a Jewish state and an Arab state – and to leave Jerusalem under UN trust. The proposed plan allocated one-third of Palestine’s land, including some of the most desirable regions, to the Jewish state. It also recommended a “population exchange,” as with the proposed partitioning of land, the Jewish state would contain more than 225,000 Arabs, while the Arab state would have approximately 1,250 Jews. This resolution was rejected by the Palestinian Arab leadership, who felt that it was unfair and violated the UN Charter. Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, regardless of the Palestinian refusal of this arrangement.
Jewish militias proceeded to attack over 500 Palestinian villages, and thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee. During the 1948 Palestine War, also known as the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Israel claimed 78% of Palestinian land, exiling 80% of the Arab population. Israel banned non-Jewish refugees from returning to this land, ignoring UN calls for refugee return, property restitution and compensation. The Nakba (Arabic definition: “catastrophe”) resulted in the mass displacement and dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians. This ethnic cleansing continued after the war’s end in 1949, as Palestinians in Israel were forced to live under martial law and new Jewish settlements replaced destroyed Palestinian towns and villages. Today, Palestinians could be facing another Nakba. Recent conflicts in 2023 between Israel and Hamas have led to the highest number of Palestinian casualties since the 1948 war.
In 1967, the Six-Day War was fought and won by Israel, leaving nearly 20,000 casualties among their Arab neighbors. Israel effectively took control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (regions where Palestinians lived), the Sinai Peninsula and all of East Jerusalem. Throughout the following 35 years, there were several conferences, accords, and agreements signed in an attempt to bring peace and partitioning to the region – the Camp David Accords, Madrid Peace Conference, the Oslo Accords, Gaza-Jericho Agreement, Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, Oslo II Accords and the Camp David Summit. Violence continued in the region throughout these years, with the Passover Massacre of 2002, the First and Second Intifadas (Palestinian uprisings), several attacks at the Gaza strip and conflict over Jerusalem.
The United States has been a key player in this conflict for more than 50 years. Shortly after World War II, the U.S. joined the UK in the recommendation of moving 100,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine in 1946 to a neither Arab nor Jewish state. The U.S. recognized Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948, the first country to do so. After the aforementioned 1967 Six-Day War, the United States joined mediation efforts for the Arab-Israeli conflict with other international superpowers, namely Britain, France, Russia and the United Nations.
It wasn’t until Israel struggled to defend itself during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that the United States committed to intervening with diplomacy in the region. This was a significant event for U.S. foreign policy, as this war prompted oil producers in the Middle East (OPEC – Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) to impose a damaging oil embargo on the Israel-supporting U.S.
As he was leaving office in 2001, President Clinton proposed his parameters for “a comprehensive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians,” including the establishment of a Palestinian state that would accommodate “Israel’s security requirements and the demographic realities;” an international border security presence in a non-militarized Palestine; and an undivided Jerusalem open for worship to all. In April 2003, the Quartet – a group composed of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – met to lay out a “Road Map to Peace” based on reforms for Palestine to halt terrorism in exchange for the end of Israeli settlement. This map was drafted by the U.S. State Department without direct participation from Israel or Palestine.
In 2011, the United States began assisting Israel in building its Iron Dome, a “short-range anti-rocket, anti-mortar, and anti-artillery system.” It is part of a larger system to enforce the apartheid in Palestine, as defined by the Human Rights Watch. The U.S. has approved approximately $2.6 billion as of 2022 for this specific purpose.
With President Trump’s administration came even more support for Israel in the war, both ideologically and through funding. In 2017, as Palestinians protested and were killed along the Gaza border, the Trump administration officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced plans to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. With this action, the United States assigned the Holy Land to Israel and effectively destroyed immediate hopes for peace in the Middle East.
As Israel’s greatest ally, the U.S. has provided unconditional aid totaling over $158 billion to Israel since WWII, which is greater than the aid provided to any other nation. While the Biden administration has pledged $121 million in aid to Palestinians in Gaza facing retaliatory fire from Israel following the 10/7 attacks, the U.S. has also committed to sending Israel equipment, such as guided-missile carriers and F-35 fighters. Because of American support, Israel has been able to significantly develop its military, which has been repeatedly used to contribute to violence against Palestinians in Gaza.
In comparing the two conflicts, there is substantial overlap in the United States’ active contribution toward military advising, weapons and funding. With the Vietnam War, the United States actively sent troops in loud defense of international democracy for years. The U.S. also more quickly withdrew from Vietnam in order to save their reputation. However, with Israel and Palestine, the U.S. has supported the war on a much larger scale for decades through funding, weapons and gifted aid under claims of supporting national interests. America has played a large role in developing international treaties and negotiations, most failing to acknowledge the effects of Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The Vietnam War also introduced an unprecedented increase in public and youth activism as one of the most significant collective anti-war movements and protests. As public morale was high when the US entered World War II, many government officials believed it would remain that way with the Vietnam War. However, public sentiment was far from expectation.
Reasons for the protests included opposition to the draft, which many thought was unjust, as the Selective Service System (the conscription system) forced young underprivileged men to fight. These underprivileged men were mostly from the poor, working class or minorities in their society. Some were against the war itself, questioning its necessity. Additionally, as the war progressed, many Americans were concerned about the high number of casualties and ethics about the treatment of civilians and soldiers. The protests grew in size and intensity throughout the early 1960s and into the 1970s, eventually leading to the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1973.
The explanation for the phenomenal number of objections also lies in the newly intensive media coverage of the war, giving The Vietnam War the nickname “television war”. According to the US national archives, the percentage of Americans who possessed a television soared from 9% to 93% from 1950 to 1966. Cameras on combat fields allowed the mass public to see what was actively going on on the battlefield and witness the gruesome violence and explicit bloodshed, depicting the futile hope of the US winning this war.
Because of the extensive TV coverage of the war, it raised awareness among youth who were eager to take action. Youth activism was one of the most critical parts of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and became a cultural trend: students would chant on the streets slogans such as “Draft beer, not boys” or “One, two, three, four, We don’t want your fucking war.” Protest songs were also integrated into cultural trends, for example, John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” (1966) and “Imagine” (1971).
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed in 1960, was a significant student activist organization that played a pivotal role in organizing many protests against the Vietnam War, famously coordinating the March on Washington on April 17, 1965. This was one of the first major anti-war demonstrations with the number of participants ranging between 15,000 to 25,000, similar to the number of US soldiers present in Vietnam at that time. Tensions between the students and law enforcers escalated during one of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, specifically against the attack on Cambodia, at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guards killed four and harmed nine of the students.
Perhaps the most famous demonstration was the Pentagon Riot on October 27, 1967, with more than 100,000 participants protesting at the Lincoln Memorial and then 50,000 heading towards the Pentagon. There were clashes between the protesters and military police, as more than 700 were imprisoned. Another was the 1971 May Day Protests from May 3rd to May 5th, with more than 12,000 people arrested. Aside from the rallying on the streets, the media also played a role when the New York Times published a series of leaked Pentagon papers that included the US’s futile actions in Vietnam, leading to the prominent New York Times Co. v. The United States, where the court deemed that the NYT’s publishing of the papers do not cause defamation and are protected by the freedom of speech, also showed resistance against the government’s participation in the war.
Decades after the Vietnam War, October 7th and the subsequent violence against the Palestinians of Gaza Strip and the West Bank triggered countless protests and demonstrations all over the world for different sides and a change in the American public’s response to the Gaza Strip conflict. The preference is divided along partisan lines, with an increase in Republicans supporting Israel to 71.9%, an increase in Democrats supporting Israel to 30.9% and a decrease in Democrats who wish the government to aid neither side to 57.4%, since June 2023. Most of the older population supports Israel or neutrality. However, since retaliation from the Israeli government on October 7, more and more Americans have sided with neutrality and a ceasefire. This was not the case for the Vietnam War. Gallup surveys from 1965 to 1973 show that all ages and generations were opposed to the war; in fact, the older population criticized the war the most.
Younger generations hold a different view; a poll conducted by the Financial Times shows a preference for Palestine rather than Israel, with 28% of the 18-29 aged population supporting Palestine and 20% for Israel in comparison to 45-64 aged population with only 7% supporting Palestine and 48% Israel. Young activists denounce the Israeli military’s actions and emphasize that Palestinian casualties, including more than 4000 Palestinian children, are much higher than Israeli casualties.
There have been around 400 protests in the US since October 7, with approximately 180,000 participants, for matters related to Israeli occupation of Palestine. While each protest addresses many differing perspectives, from supporting Israel or Palestine, the majority demand a ceasefire. On November 5, there was a huge demonstration in Washington D.C. as a myriad of protestors chanted “Biden, you can’t hide” for the Gaza ceasefire. On November 25, tens of thousands of protestors rallied on the streets of London for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. On November 27, activist Cynthia Nixon and other state legislators and activists launched a five-day hunger strike in front of the White House to press a ceasefire and shame President Biden’s actions.
These are just a few of the countless demonstrations sparkling all across the nation; however, in contrast to Vietnam, there were also many counter-riots to these anti-war demonstrations. Regardless of the difference, there are many parallels between the Vietnam War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that make them both important marks of public activism and freedom of speech and assembly as well as the anti-war sentiments and longing for peace that continue in the modern day.
The 1960s marked a time of civil participation in the wake of domestic and national unrest. The Vietnam War was quickly becoming an issue beyond the fight against communism, as American bodies continued to come back dead and Vietnam continued to scar as a result of American involvement. Many universities began to take part in anti-war protests that were occurring at the time. The demonstrations of the University of California, Los Angeles are documented through alumni newsletters, Daily Bruin articles and galleries.
UCLA’s involvement began in 1966, when an hour-long silent protest of staff and faculty over the Vietnam War was captured on camera by photographer John Malmin.
November 1967 marked the appearance of Dow Chemicals on campus in their attempt to recruit college graduates. Dow was responsible for the production of napalm, a chemical that was used in firebombs during the Vietnam War. More than 500 students protested their presence, as they felt the university was involving themselves in the war by allowing Dow to recruit on their grounds.
As the war raged on, so did student protests. The Daily Bruin staff compiled a timeline of UCLA activism efforts during the Vietnam War era. On November 15th, 1967, 250 students staged a 4 and a half hour sit-in at the administration building in protest of the war. On May 16, 1969, more than 1,500 students gathered outside a Board of Regents meeting, angry that the request of a student activist coalition to speak on issues involving the Vietnam War were refused. On May 21,1969, 1,200 students held an overnight sit-in in Murphy Hall in remembrance of Berkeley student James Rector, who was killed by police gunfire during an anti-war protest.
More than 50 years later, UCLA students continue to exercise their power of protest during the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Students and organizations across campus have organized vigils, walkouts, rallies, and protests since October 12, 2023, as reported by the Daily Bruin.
Walkouts composed of hundreds of students, many wearing face masks to protect their identities, were held in October in support of the Free Palestine Movement. These walkouts were organized by a number of student groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA and the UC Divest Coalition at UCLA. UCLA professors Saree Makdisi and Sherene Razack held a virtual teach-in to educate students and community members on the conflict. The teach-in was recorded and posted by SJP at UCLA.
The most recent event was a die-in held on November 30 in front of Royce Hall. The die-in was hosted by SJP at UCLA alongside the UC Divest Coalition at UCLA, Jewish Voice for Peace and other student organizations. Students participating at the die-in recognized the victims by reciting their names. The die-in also showcased posters critiquing the UCs and the President of the United States for funding and supporting the genocide.
There were also events in support of Jewish students, with a protest on October 30 and rally on November 7. These events were hosted by alumni, as well as on campus organizations Bruins for Israel and Hillel at UCLA.
The UCLA chapter of UC Divest Coalition’s November 16 protest showed similarity in approach and handling to the May 16, 1969 Vietnam War protest. On November 16, 2023, protestors called for awareness of the Palestine movement and for the UC to divest from BlackRock, a management firm who has alleged ties to the Israeli military, gathered outside the UC Board of Regents meeting at the Luskin Conference Center. As with the Vietnam War protest outside the May 16, 1969 Board of Regents meeting, UCPD were employed to break up the demonstration.
Both the Vietnam War and Israel Palestine movements called attention to companies the UC affiliated with, and what message the UC conveyed by associating with those companies. With Dow Chemicals in 1967 and BlackRock in 2023, the UCLA community has protested UC involvement in these issues that lie underneath outside affiliations.
In both cases, students were at the forefront of campus activism. The students in 1965 immediately responded to the Vietnam War, even in the face of opposition from the UC Regents or law enforcement. Today, students continue to lead efforts in response to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Alexander Harris, a third-year history and sociology student and member of UC Divest, was interviewed by the Daily Bruin during the October 12 walkout for Palestine.
“Part of what makes this college and what makes our culture is the ability of people to speak freely – the ability of people to organize, interact with one another and to talk about what really matters to them,” he told the Daily Bruin.
To this day, UCLA student groups continue to maintain efforts to bring attention to what is happening in Palestine. If the Vietnam War student efforts are any indication, UCLA students will have no problem pushing further forward as long as they feel more needs to be done to serve justice.
The long-standing Israeli occupation of Palestine has spurred federal response from the United States government similar to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Beyond government involvement, the public are also gathering in the streets to voice their opinions and take strong stances over the Israel and Palestine conflict through demonstrations.
One of the most significant participants of protest has come from student populations. UCLA holds a rich history of community action in response to the Vietnam War, and the protests organized in response to the Israel and Palestine conflict today reflect a similar mobilization of student force.
The United States government has long been invested in international affairs. To the same degree, the American public has long utilized their freedom of speech to voice their opinions on transnational human rights issues. History has shown time and time again the dissonance between the state and its people—but more importantly, resurfaces the question of who really wins and loses when America decides to take a stab at conflicts within the global sphere.
Authors: Dora Gao, Chloe Nimpoeno, Chelsea Tran
Copy Editor: Shune Kawaoto
Visual Credit: John Englart