Rallying Signs: Vietnam Posters Express Outrage

Few things have caused a greater schism in American society than the Vietnam War.

The 1960’s encompassed a time of political, racial, social, and cultural unrest as the U.S. became polarized between those who advocated continued involvement in Vietnam and those who wanted peace. Central to the conflict was the fact that many did not understand the origins of the Vietnam War or the reasons behind the U.S. decision to intervene. To a majority of Americans, the war seemed futile and pointless, and it left the nation questioning the policies of a government it had always trusted.

The movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War began with demonstrations in 1964 and grew in strength over the next few years, peaking in 1968. Many in the peace movement were students, mothers, or anti-establishment hippies, but there was also involvement from educators, labor unions, clergy, journalists, lawyers, military veterans, and ordinary Americans. Expressions of opposition ranged from peaceful nonviolent demonstrations to radical displays of violence.

In terms of peaceful nonviolent demonstrations, a large number took place independently on college campuses, while national demonstrations took the form of Marches on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of people and continued up until the war’s end in 1975.

Out of these demonstrations arose countless posters and political signs harboring anti-war messages and slogans. Some are direct and simple, a call for something; others, with sharp and severe messages, prompt a double-take; some are sad, while others mock through ironic jokes and a biting sort of sarcasm; still others are vulgar and obscene, placing blame as they look for a scapegoat and search for someone to blame.

Here are some particularly poignant rally signs and posters from various anti-war demonstrations:

CALL FOR ACTION - A fairly generic rallying sign calling for the end of the war and the return of U.S. soldiers.

DESPICABLE DRAFT - The poster reads "I don't give a damn for Uncle Sam" and protests the draft. Uncle Sam was a familiar character on recruitment posters.

MASTER PUPPETEER - This photo shows two protesters, one labeled "Saigon Puppet" and the other "U.S. Imperialism."

A SIGN TO LAST THE AGES - A rallying sign featuring one of the most familiar and famous messages of the 1960's: make love, not war.

COME WITH ME - A sign calling for those opposed to the war to participate in a protest march.

A NEW HITLER? - One of the more darkly labeled rallying signs, this poster compares President Nixon to Hitler, substituting a swastika for the 'x' in Nixon's name.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY - This poster suggests that the war's effects are not only taking a toll in the U.S.

PROTEST POSTERS - A group of protesters walk with rallying signs reading: "Bring the Troops Home Now," "War No More," "End the War in Vietnam Now," and "Self Determination for Vietnam."

LEADING THE WAY - This rallying banner leads a group of marchers protesting the Vietnam War.

Watch this video for a deeper look at Vietnam War protests. 

Vietnam Era Spawns Countless Protest Posters

With a vividly graphic design, this poster makes no qualms about protesting the Vietnam War. As turbulent sentiments arose from the American public concerning the purpose and justice of the Vietnam War, countless posters were created in political protest.

SPEAK OUT - This protest poster makes no qualms about objecting to American actions during the Vietnam War.

Interestingly, when the Vietnam War started, only a small percentage of the American population opposed it. Objections to the war came from people with left-wing political opinions who hoped for an National Liberation Front (NFL), or Viet Cong victory; pacifists who opposed all wars; and liberals who believed that the best way of stopping the spread of communism was by encouraging democratic governments rather than employing force.

The first march to Washington against the war took place in December, 1964. Only 25,000 people took part but it was still the largest anti-war demonstration in American history.

As the war continued, more and more Americans turned against it. People were particularly upset by the use of chemical weapons such as napalm and agent orange. In 1967, a group of distinguished academics under the leadership of Bertrand Russell set up the International War Crimes Tribunal. After interviewing many witnesses, they came to the conclusion that the United States was guilty of using weapons against the Vietnamese that were prohibited by international law. The United States armed forces were also found guilty of torturing captured prisoners and innocent civilians. U.S. behavior in Vietnam was even denounced as being comparable to Nazi atrocities committed in World War II.

The decision to introduce conscription for the war increased the level of protest, especially among young men. Students in particular began protesting at what they considered was an attack on people’s right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to fight for their country.

In 1965, David Miller publicly burnt his draft card and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. His actions inspired others and throughout America, Anti-Vietnam War groups organized meetings where large groups of young men burnt their draft cards.

Protest reached a peak point later in 1965 when the U.S. began its heavy bombing of North Vietnam. Anti-war marches, especially those organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), attracted an ever-widening base of support, culminating in 1968 after the successful Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese proved that the war’s end was still a long time coming.

Between 1963 and 1973, 9,118 men were prosecuted for refusing to be drafted into the army. The most famous of these (an interesting tidbit in my opinion) was Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion.

This poster, with its clearly agitated subjects calling out yells of dissent, perfectly captures the protest, instability, unrest, and tumult felt in America during this time period.

‘Make Love, Not War’

‘Make Love, Not War’ –it’s a popular phrase, and easily recognizable. I’d say most people with any sense of history or pop culture could trace its beginnings to the Vietnam War, the 60’s, a protest movement, or at least reference hippies. Oddly, though, nobody could say with one hundred percent certainty who first coined the phrase, because nobody knows.

The famous anti-war quip, ‘Make Love, Not War’ seems to have arisen on the slogan scene in the 1960’s as suddenly and without notice as the “Keep Calm and Carry On” phrase today.

The slogan 'Make Love, Not War' originated in 1965 during the midst of Vietnam War protest rallies and remains a popular and well-known anti-war phrase today. First printed on buttons, it has been reproduced on all forms of memorabilia.

Primarily used by those in protest of the Vietnam War, there are two alleged stories that detail the phrase’s beginnings, although all can agree that it first appeared in 1965.

A substantial claim to the phrase has been made by Diane Newell Meyer, who was in 1965 a student at the University of Oregon. Meyer claims to have written “Let’s make love, not war” on an envelope and pinned it to her sweater before attending a protest rally in 1965. In an August 2010 article in Oregon’s Mail Tribune newspaper, Meyer spoke of coining the term:

“It just popped into my head – I remember I started giggling when I wrote it,” Meyer said. “I know I hadn’t read it anywhere before. There is no way to prove it but I think I’m the person  who invented the phrase.”

Photographed at the rally wearing the phrase, the picture was distributed by the Associated Press and even made it into the New York Times, and presumably, the phrase gained momentum from a widespread readership.

The other claim of ownership is made by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, an activist couple who founded the Chicago Surrealist Group and who were largely involved in Vietnam War protests. In 1965, the Rosemont’s owned a shop called the Solidarity Bookshop in Chicago, Illinois. In the United Kingdom’s Creative Review, a monthly publication covering communication arts worldwide, Penelope Rosemont tells her side of the story:

“In March 1965,” Rosemont says, “we wanted to do a button. The slogan we thought of first was the old…’Make Peace, Not War’ but it seemed too tame for the 60’s. Several of us together at Solidarity Bookshop – myself, Franklin, Bernard Marszalek and Tor Faegre – thought about this and what we came up with finally was ‘Make Love, Not War.’” http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2012/january/make-love-not-war

The famous 'Make Love, Not War' slogan first appeared in print on buttons like this one, allegedly an original made at the Solidarity Bookshop in Chicago, Illinois.

Whether or not the Rosemont’s actually coined the phrase, they are credited with being the first people to print the slogan on memorabilia. Thousands of ‘Make Love, Not War’ buttons printed at the Solidarity Bookshop were distributed at the Mother’s Day Peace March in 1965 and were instrumental in popularizing the phrase.

The 'Make Love, Not War' phrase continues to be reproduced in new ways and incorporated into modern graphics.

A few other popular Vietnam anti-war chants and phrases:

  • “Draft beer, not boys.”
  • “Hell no, we won’t go.”
  • “Eighteen today, dead tomorrow.”
  • “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

Listen to John Lennon’s song, “Make Love, Not War,” inspired by the anti-war slogan.

A Personal Picket Sign

I liked this poster immediately. It’s innocent, almost childlike, which contradicts strongly with its poignant message. The words seem etched in crayon, and the handwriting—a bit off kilter—as well as the scribbled coloring, are in line with its simple theme.

A sunflower coupled with a simple and direct message is the basis for Lorriane Schneider's 1967 poster protesting the Vietnam War.

But I like it even more now that I know the story behind it.

This poster was created by a mother. Like any mother having brought life into the world, she was dedicated to preserving it.

Concerned that her eldest son would be drafted into the army and shipped off to Vietnam, Lorriane Schneider designed the print in 1967 to protest the war, the draft, and the growing number of American deaths. She chose a flower, a ubiquitous symbol of hope at the time, and drew four leaves on the stem, one for each of her four children.

Out of the poster a movement grew.  Begun by only 15 ladies, the organization Another Mother for Peace was founded later in 1967 with a mission of “educating women to take an active role in eliminating war as a means of solving disputes between nations, people and ideologies.” It continues today as a non-profit, and the group uses the print as its official logo.

Despite the poster’s quiet appearance and soft style, it drove a loud and stirring movement. Even without the in-your-face, bold approach common to a lot of protest art, the poster and its message gave way to a striking anti-war statement.

This poster is notable not because of what it looks like, but because of what it achieved.

Schneider called it her “personal picket sign.” But she didn’t carry it alone.