The Anti-War Movement

Perhaps the most significant protest in London in the 21st century was the 2003 march against the Iraq War. It left a defining impression on this generation, and for many young people such as myself, it was our first form of exposure to the sight of large scale resistance to state power. However, these protests had a significant predecessor; the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and 70s. There are many similarities between both, such as the mobilisation of different people form varying backgrounds, and regions of the country, though both also differed significantly.

The 1960s anti-war protests saw the introduction of a new type of opposition, seeing the rise of student mobilisation. Despite the fact that the media were also united in opposition to the Vietnam war, their coverage of the protests were overwhelmingly negative. Todd Gitlin identified “deprecating themes” employed by newspapers, using tactics such as ‘trivialization…presenting the protestors as extremists’ and ’emphasising internal dissension’. Gitlin’s view is confirmed by Daniel Hallin. He wrote that the movement was only capable of getting coverage in the news by ‘playing the deviant role’. This differs a little from the views of Tilly, who argued protests tend to seek media coverage so they can portray their worthiness, so the public can see a sober tone, that they can respect. Mark Donnelly writes that the media’s attempts to smear the protestors served the purpose of legitimising the ‘coercive response of police and security forces’. This was despite the fact that support for the right to protest was actually high in the U.K. Perhaps this reveals a cycle of protest scenario, where the reaction of the press to the protests, was a response to the newer, more liberal culture. It resulted in a stronger response from the press, which then saw a spiralling sequence of events, resulting in the deviant role being adopted by the protestors.

Before carrying on, it is important to note, that social movements are not always progressive, and can also be regressive, or voice oppressive views. We can see this today with the EDL marches through England’s streets. In the case of the Vietnam War, the pro-Vietnam movement held a sit-in at the Oxford Union in June 1965. Public figures were invited, such as the former US ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, and the British Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. This obviously achieved the aim of broadcasting their worthiness, through the use of authority, lending them an image of political viability.

In contrast, the movement against war struggled to gain press coverage for their actions, as can be seen by that fact that a several thousand-strong CND march on 29 May, was ignored by influential newspapers such as The Times. Despite this positive display of numbers and unity, we can see that the press was not interested in portraying it. One positive though, was the fact that the protests actually attracted a cross-section of society. People from different political views, as well as differing socio-economic backgrounds, were in opposition to the war. This large coming together resulted in two main umbrella organizations dominating; the British Campaign for Peace in Vietnam (BCPV), and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). Their views differed to a great extent, as the BCPV believed in implementing the 1954 Geneva Agreements. In contrast, the VSC campaigned for North Vietnamese victory, arguing that supporting the diplomatic process was useless as the President Johnson was ‘manipulating the United Nations’. By 1967, the VSC had gained the dominant position, and despite the dichotomy within the movement, many protestors remained a part of the movement, representing ‘a varied cross-section of strongly held political viewpoints’. Nick Thomas writes that the fact that many people remained as part of the movement, shows that their commitment to the cause was so strong. This view is in accordance with that of Tilly’s; that such a display is attractive to the public. It shows how passionate protestors are, when they are willing to commit to a cause, even if they are opposed to the ideological route it takes. Their actions were committed to stopping the Vietnam War.

Another example of showing commitment was opposition to the press, who were pushing for legitimising the greater use of force by the police. As mentioned earlier, this was a response to the progress that had been seen in society, that resulted in the positive reaction to protests, and the belief that demonstrators had the right to voice their opinions. Charles Brockett writes that, “prior to the onset of the protest cycle, escalating repression will deter popular mobilisation against a regime.” However, despite this argument, and the call to greater oppression by the media, the protestors braved the streets and remained committed to the cause, displaying their bravery against the establishment.


Vietnam War protestors in London, 1968


Moving on to the Iraq War protests of 2003, we can see that tactics had evolved. By applying the Three Stage Model developed by Doug McAdams, we can analyse this. McAdams wrote that: 1. movements emerge out of the dominant cultural context. 2. They then evolve and develop their own cultural norms, ideas and forms. 3. During and after the lifespan of the movement, those evolved elements are diffused back into the dominant culture. From this, we can conclude that movement cultures are not created from scratch; they originate from cultural formations that already exist, meaning that in a way, they actually reflect cultural norms. I believe that this is an example of creating a legitimate image of worthiness.

Anti-war protestors march past Big Ben during a demonstration against war on Iraq, February 15, 2003..

Iraq War protest, 2003, London


 “Every guerrilla must know how to use the terrain of the culture that he is trying to destroy” – Jerry Rubin

The Stop the War Coalition was influential in shaping views towards the Iraq War, and also benefitted from the consensus against UK intervention. Opinion polls showed that opposition to the war without UN backing was as high as 63% according to MORI. In addition, though official figures are mixed, 1 million people marched upon Trafalgar Square, on 15 February, making it the largest ever demonstration in the United Kingdom. This mobilisation shows a successful campaign that convinced many across the country to march. An ICM poll for The Guardian, (February 14-February 16, 2003), showed that 6% of people claimed that someone from their household went on the march or intended to. This translates, according to Stop The War, to 1.25 million households. Commitment to the cause was also shown through the fact that protestors travelled to London from across the UK, showing their passion. In addition, they showed their worthiness through impassioned speeches from politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn and Charles Kennedy. Furthermore, it was supported by Greenpeace, and also saw the Daily Mirror handing banners and flags to protestors. Referring back to Doug McAdam’s model, we can see that the Stop the War Coalition did borrow from the mainstream culture to an extent, by engaging with the establishment, and using the weight of Parliament, and the media to press their cause.

Unity was also on display, as Euan Ferguson noted in The Observer that “(as well as the usual suspects)… there were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society”. This shows similarity to the Vietnam protests, as we can see the mobilisation of a cross-section of society. Despite differences, they marched together in unity, such was their commitment to the cause, in their rightful opposition to the illegal war. Although it was a failure in preventing the war, it did succeed in tarnishing the image of Tony Blair, and showing the establishment, that invasions of the Middle East would not be tolerated. Whether this influences future government policy is something that we must still wait to see. However, it did apparently influence Miliband’s opposition to air attacks on Syria, when he argued lessons must be learned from Iraq.

In conclusion, we have seen that successful movements can both engage with the dominant culture or rail against it. Theories will not always apply to every protest, as context, as always in history, is important in shaping events and decisions. Whereas the Vietnam protestors used extreme measures to gain press coverage, the Iraq War was much less extreme in this sense, and borrowed a great deal from the dominant culture. Though both failed to prevent the wars, it must be remembered that the political context made it almost impossible for them to achieve these aims. In the case of the Vietnam War, Cold War tensions were at their height in the 1960s. Regarding the Iraq War, following the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror rhetoric, and the strong relationship between Blair and Bush, it was also unlikely the war would be halted. Nevertheless, the protests have gained great notoriety in hindsight, and tarnished the perpetrators in an extremely negative light, as well as influencing Labour’s position on airstrikes in Syria.


  • Nick Thomas, Protests Against the Vietnam War in 1960s Britain: The Relationship between Protestors and the Press, Contemporary British History, Vol. 22, No. 3. September 2008, pp.335-354, Routledge
  • Mark Donnelly, Sixties Britain
  • Gary T. Marx, ‘External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements’, The Dynamics of Social Movements, 1979
  • Charles Brockett, ‘The Repression/Popular Protest Paradox’, Mark Traugott, ed., Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, 1995
  • Doug McAdams, ‘Culture in Social Movements’, Buechler and Cylke, Social Movement: Perspectives and Issues, 1997
  • Jerry Rubin, Do It!, Scenarios of the Revolution, 1970
  • Craig Murray, Katy Parry, Piers Robinson, and Peter Goddard, Reporting Dissent in Wartime: British Press, The Anti-War Movements and the 2003 Iraq War