In the September 1966 issue of Esquire magazine, readers were able to catch a brief glimpse into the life of Tommy Rodd, an upper-middle class teenager with a bright future who refused to register for the military draft and fight in Vietnam. Rodd was no coward. Unlike the wars of the 21st Century, Vietnam, as seen by men like Rodd, was an everyday affair with television footage of jungle carnage and body bags shipped home to the quiet communities of white picket fences and steepled churches. Tommy Rodd was a pacifist who chose federal prison rather than a rifle. He was able to make this choice because the war filtered into every American living room.
Pacifism and the Openness of War in America
In 1916 Jeanette Rankin became the first woman to be elected to Congress. A Montana Republican, Rankin was one of the few representatives to vote against the war declaration taking the United States into the Great War and sending thousands of troops to the blood soaked battlefields of Europe. She was not reelected.
Representative Rankin was not the only person opposed to the futility of the European conflict. Many Americans were appalled by the images of trench warfare and the staggering numbers of casualties. Rankin opposed war on pacifist grounds.
Rankin ran again in 1940 and won. War once more lingered in the shadows and despite the protestations of isolationists, other Americans, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, appeared to be steering the nation toward participation in the conflict. From propaganda to the reality of despotism in Europe and Asia, the openness of war was in every newspaper and magazine. In London, Edward R. Morrow riveted the nation with his radio broadcasts of the Blitz.
Rankin Votes against War with Imperial Japan
When Speaker Sam Rayburn called for a roll call vote in the House on December 8, 1941, everyone held their breath as he went through the states alphabetically, eventually coming to Representative Rankin. Rankin had attempted several times to gain the attention of the Speaker only to be declared out of order. Her nay vote was the only vote opposing the declaration of war.
Korea and Vietnam Cast Doubt on the Righteousness of War
The Korean War was fought, ostensibly, to thwart Communist expansion and Americans who opposed the conflict risked being labeled Communist sympathizers. Vietnam, however, was a different war. Some Americans began to question containment and President Johnson’s escalation of the war after 1964 began to attract questions and protests, notably among young Americans being drafted to fight.
The media abetted these protests by offering a forum to dissenting Americans as well as projecting the images of war on nightly news broadcasts. This increased during the presidency of Richard Nixon who came to see the media as an enemy. For conscientious objectors, the images of war confirmed what many already knew: the government’s explanations were duplicitous.
Robert F. Drinan, S.J., who served in the Congress for five terms and sat on a joint congressional committee investigating the Watergate allegations, wrote that, “…the peace community would complain that they had been gagged if the government pressured them to cease their vigorous claims that the government is excessively belligerent and warlike.” But this was only possible as long as the nation’s media accurately reported the course of the war.
The Lessons of Pacifism, Activism, and Change through Media Openness
Sociologists refer to the success of the “Lilliput Strategy.” Often used to describe anti-globalism, the same coalescence of often disparate groups both during and after Vietnam gave rise to entire new movements. These movements believed that change was possible. For pacifists, it also meant a greater accountability of the U.S. government and a rejection of long held policies supporting despotic regimes.
At the same time, war became less visible. Congress replaced the military draft with an all volunteer force and the role of media coverage in conflict areas was curtailed. During President Reagan’s first administration, for example, the Grenada operation was carried out in secrecy, without media coverage.
Additionally, 21st Century wars are remote and media coverage is tightly controlled. The conflicts impose no sacrifice on Americans who, for the most part, cannot even identify Afghanistan or Yemen on a map. Unlike the extensive media coverage of Vietnam at the time Tommy Rodd received his draft card or Representative Rankin’s anti-war votes earlier in that century, military footage today is carefully orchestrated and any hint of a draft is speedily quashed in the Congress. No Americans want another Vietnam.
Lifting the Fog of War
From protest music to student activism, Vietnam was the last conflict that polarized a nation largely due to media coverage. In 2011, war coverage is carefully scripted despite on-going polls that demonstrate a willingness among many Americans to dramatically cut defense appropriations. As long as war is sanitized by the media, pacifism and activism will be checked and there will be no withdrawal of consent among Americans.
Jeremy Brecher and others, “Globalization and Social Movements,” Globalization: The Transformation of Social Worlds (Wadsworth, 2012)
Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Can God & Caesar Coexist? (Yale University Press, 2004)
Mark Hamilton Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era From Elvis To The Fall Of Richard Nixon (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Bernard Weinraub, “Four Ways to Go: Tommy Rodd Went to Jail,” Esquire, September 1966