Ok, so you may know that a few of these are about the Vietnam War (1955-1975), but some are a bit more obscure or surprising. The Vietnam War is one of the least understood, most contested and divisive wars in American history. The war was so hotly opposed by the American public that returning veterans did not receive the hero’s welcome that previous generations of soldiers had. Within the military itself, morale was low owing to the inconclusive end of the war, the draft, and the length and brutality of the war.
The anti-war movement in the U.S. spawned a number of songs. Here are 5 songs about the Vietnam War era, including the protests against it, the heightened political tension of the time period, and the long-term effects.
- “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival – 1969
“Some folk are born made to wave the flag, whoo they’re red, white, and blue and when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you. Lord, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son.”
“Fortunate Son” addresses class differences when it comes to war. The songwriter himself, John Fogerty, is a veteran, having served in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. He was inspired to write the song by hearing about wealthy, privileged people’s son’s receiving deferments for military service or given choice positions in the military. While the song doesn’t specifically address the Vietnam War it was inspired by that era with the draft going on and the anger that many felt about being drafted to fight in a war whose cause was ill defined. Many did not know what they were fighting for and felt they were fighting for rich leaders’ interests. Fogerty was also inspired to write the song because of the broader idea that wars were instigated by the wealthy leaders but actually fought by the poor soldiers. The song was released at the height of anti-war sentiment as the Vietnam War continued to escalate after promises that the U.S. would soon pull back. It quickly became an anti-war anthem and hit.
- “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- 1970
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own, This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”
“Ohio” was a direct reaction to the deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Students had been gathering to protest the recently announced Cambodian campaign which escalated and expanded the Vietnam War. National Guardsman had been called in prior to the incident because of general campus unrest, riots, and destruction of property in the area. The National Guardsman were dispersing a large group of students and had nearly cleared the area when they shot into a crowd, killing 4 and wounding 9 others. The exact reasoning for why the Guardsman decided to open fire is still unknown. Two of the students killed were not even participants in the protest but had simply been walking between classes. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the song after seeing images of the incident in Life Magazine. The song was banned on some radio stations because of its challenge to the Nixon administration, but it quickly became a popular song with counterculture anti-war protesters.
- “War” by Edwin Starr – 1970
“War, huh, good god, What is it good for, Absolutely nothing, listen to me
Oh, war, I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes
When their sons go to fight, And lose their lives.”
Originally recorded by the Temptations, “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label. The label ultimately decided to withhold the version recorded by the Temptations because of concerns of upsetting the group’s conservative fans. Instead, it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr. The song became a number one hit and is one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. It was released in 1970, after the My Lai Massacre had been made public and as the Vietnam War escalated into Cambodia, both events causing anti-war sentiment to grow in the U.S. As such it resonated with the growing negative public opinion of the war. The song has gone on to be featured in a number of movies and television shows. Bruce Springsteen added the song to his live sets in the the 1980s. The lyrics speak a broad anti-war message rather than specifically targeting the Vietnam War, giving the song a long life and making it applicable to all wartime peace efforts.
- “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye – 1971
“Father, father, We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way, To bring some loving here today
Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see, Oh, what’s going on.”
The original version of this song was inspired by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops. He witnessed police brutality towards anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California and shared the experience with a songwriter friend of his, Al Cleveland. The result was passed over by the Four Tops who felt it was too risky to record a protest song. Thus, Benson gave it to Marvin Gaye. Gaye, who was and remains more well known for love songs such as “Let’s Get it On,” added his own touches, influenced by his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, and his own take on what he saw going on in the U.S. Gaye explained his inspiration by saying, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” The song captures the dissatisfaction of many with the Vietnam War and the overall political atmosphere of the country at the time.
- “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen – 1984
“Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A….
Come back home to the refinery, Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man, He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone…”
This song, released almost 10 years after the Vietnam War ended, speaks to the aftermath of war and the effects on returning veterans. Commonly used as simply a patriotic song because of its “Born in the U.S.A” refrain, its meaning is a bit more complicated. Like CCR’s “Fortunate Son” it speaks to the class differences in the experience of war, but more generally it addresses the way Vietnam veterans were treated after the war. The veteran in the song was drafted and sent to war for an unclear cause and then returned and, despite being a veteran, struggles to find work and a place in society, haunted by those he lost in Vietnam. The song uses the chorus to highlight the hypocrisy of the treatment of veterans.
All of the songs on this list, while against the Vietnam War, were not necessarily against the soldiers themselves. They were against the decisions of the government and these songs actually lamented the loss of soldiers’ lives, the unfairness of the draft, and, like Fortunate Son and Born in the USA, lamented the treatment of soldiers, especially poor ones, as pawns and the treatment of veterans after the war. However, the Vietnam War remains an unpopular war and that public opinion has affected veterans, with many returning home to a public that saw them as part of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, and meaningless war. Two of the songs, Ohio and What’s Going On, focus on the treatment of anti-war protesters, arguing against police brutality and defending their right to protest.
The impact the war and the draft had on the military has led the military to be volunteer only since then, owing to large scale disciplinary problems, low morale, and other issues. The impacts of the war also continue to affect Vietnam.
To read more about the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre, and protest music, see the links below: