When Lou Lipsitz, a former professor at UNC, recalls his involvement in anti-Vietnam War activism, he remembers a frenzy of activity and energy.
On Dec. 11, 1968, he publicly debated the director of public relations at Dow Chemical Corporation about the company’s involvement in the production of napalm and other weapons used in Vietnam.
Lipsitz now says he questioned the morality of the war from the start, a position reflected in a Daily Tar Heel article that documented the debate.
“Dow has decided to trust that there is a fundamental decency in American policy; to accept their rationales for our Vietnam involvement; to swallow military assurances of careful use of weapons; and to believe that the existence of highly-imperfect democratic processes in itself reason to dismiss all questions of despotism and immorality,” he said. “In all these decisions Dow is wrong.”
The Dow debate was just one of many examples of anti-Vietnam War activism at UNC, but anti-war advocacy didn’t stop there. The legacy of anti-Vietnam War activism lives on in contemporary student and faculty organizing.
Present antiwar activism
Today, the conflict in Iran and other instances of militarization on and off campus have prompted college students across North Carolina to protest.
Ava Erfani, a junior at UNC, said she thinks the public has largely accepted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “forever wars.” She organized a UNC protest of the Iran conflict in January.
“I think the reason that I wanted to start to protest here on campus was because we were at the start or brink of something rather than something that has been going on for almost as long as I’ve been alive,” she said.
Erfani said she does not expect there to be a coherent anti-war movement at UNC.
“People are students; they’re not activists,” she said. “For the most part, people’s primary role is not to protest a war that their government is simply getting into, like we shouldn’t have to do this.”
Jody Anderson, a founding member of Youth Fighting U.S. Empire and a student at N.C. State University, said he thinks conditioning, media coverage and a lack of awareness of the impacts of United States foreign policy limit students’ involvement in antiwar activity.
“Our worry is that even though people are receptive to it, they’re not necessarily connecting with it on a level of ‘I have to do something,’ and that’s what we would really like to inspire,” he said.
Lama Hantash, a Duke University senior and the treasurer of Duke Students for Justice in Palestine, helped organize a rally against former Trump Administration National Security Advisor John Bolton’s speaking engagement last month.
She said organizers initially planned to obtain all the tickets to the event, a percentage of which are reserved for Duke students, but couldn’t because they sold out almost immediately.
“What I think it was emblematic of is that Duke students by and large do not have an analysis of foreign policy that includes empathy for the other, for the victim,” she said. “Instead, they’re more preoccupied with a proximity to power that is afforded at an institution like Duke.”
Despite their passion, many of these activists question their impact, a challenge which prompts debate about the most effective organizing strategies.
Calvin Deutschbein, a doctoral student at UNC, said they tend to prefer anti-war activism that directly responds to military occupation and expansion within the United States, like the militarization of police on campus.
“I think the antiwar movement on campus at UNC has really heavily indexed people around the fact that the United States is at war abroad and exerting influence where it should not do so, outside the borders of the United States,” they said. “But we’re also to a degree under forms of partial or at times complete military occupation, especially in the American South and especially in areas in the American South where there’s antiracist or labor organizing taking place.”
Race and the draft
Many experts and activists believe that, since the U.S. abolished military conscription in 1973, the nature of the conversation about war has changed.
Mitzi Bond, who graduated from UNC in December of 1972 said that while at Carolina, she wrote about the Vietnam War in Black Ink, a subsidiary of the Black Student Movement at UNC.
She said that when she started school in 1969, there were 65 Black students in her class. By the end of her first semester, there were 30. Low retention rates increased Black students’ risk of being drafted, she said.
“There were a couple of young men that started Carolina with me that I knew who did wind up dropping out, and they were drafted and it was overseas,” she said. “One of them returned, and one of them did not.”
The oppression of Black people in the U.S. further complicated their military involvement.
“There was an attitude for people to feel they were on the outside looking in and that the government is asking you to fight for them, but yet you don’t have certain rights to things at home,” Bond said.
Benjamin Waterhouse, an associate professor of history at UNC, said the freedom to protest is in many ways a privileged freedom.
“It’s from the people who don’t feel like the consequence of their action is going to lead to them getting drafted and sent off to Vietnam,” he said. “It’s another way in which the draft is really critical to this story because it actually acts as both an impetus to protest and as a deterrent to protest, certainly among the people who are the most vulnerable.”
Waterhouse said people have speculated that antiwar protest has been muted in the past 20 years, particularly among the middle class and college educated.
“The argument for the '60s is that the very real presence of military conscription mobilized a lot of people to care about the issue,” he said. “The inverse of that would seem to suggest that, in the absence of a draft, it’s easier for some people not to get as worked up about it.”
Lipsitz said the burden of a war should be shared fairly through a society.
“There would have been a lot more protests about the Iraq War if there had been a draft,” he said.
Patricia Sullivan, an associate professor in the Department of Public Policy and the Curriculum in Peace, War, and Defense, said it is unlikely that the draft will be reinstated because of how the military has evolved.
“The amount of time, money, equipment per soldier has just skyrocketed, requirements for being in the military in terms of education, physical fitness, mental fitness, all that stuff, have greatly increased,” she said.
Deutschbein said that in addition to directly opposing wars and fostering education and awareness, it is important to build class-consciousness and solidarity with international communities within the United States.
"Whatever the government does and however we have to work around that, we’re sort of building toward a more responsible relationship with the global South and other areas under military occupation and colonization," they said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.