Historical story

The protest songs of the Vietnam War

In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson plunged his country into the Vietnam War. Almost twenty years after the Second World War, the new post-war generation thought it was time to put an end to all these international tensions. The American presence in Vietnam fueled all kinds of protest songs.

In the early 1960s, several American singers began to complain in their lyrics about abuses in their country. Poverty and racial inequality were especially popular topics. The social issues inspired protest song became a genre in its own right through the music of Robert Allen Zimmerman, who became world famous under his stage name Bob Dylan.

On the precise meaning of songs like Blowing in the Wind (1963) and The Times they are a-changing (1964) there is still a difference of opinion, but that Dylan wrote them with major socio-cultural changes such as the Civil Rights Movement in mind is fixed. The song Masters of War (1963) is one of the first examples of a popular protest song against the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson began deploying US military personnel in Vietnam on a large scale. This after his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in November 1963, had already sent the first ground troops to the country in 1961. Both presidents were afraid that the communist Vietcong, the North Vietnamese army, would gain power over the entire country.

Although Kennedy had already paved the way for American intervention in the war, Johnson was seen as the main aggressor domestically by sending thousands of additional ground troops. When President Richard Nixon succeeded him in 1969 and announced that he wanted to start immediately with the withdrawal of troops, at least 30,000 American soldiers had died in Vietnam.


The sheer number of casualties in the Johnson period was completely wrong with the increasingly engaged American population. In the course of the 1960s, a new generation that had not experienced war began to realize what they saw as meaningless suffering on the other side of the world. Driven by new protest songs, demonstrations against the war were increasingly organized.

One of the highlights of the "protest generation" was the legendary Woodstock music festival, held in August 1969 in the town of Bethel, New York. The band 'Country Joe and the Fish' performed their world famous song I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag one of the most outspoken songs against the Vietnam War.

The lyrics of the song are a sarcastic parody of "Uncle Sam" (the US state) that calls on young men to come forward and then die senselessly one by one on the battlefield, without even being asked if they know why. to fight. The lyrics of the chorus are the simple but telling “And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam” .

At the same music festival, Richie Havens played the song 'Handsome Johnny', a general protest song against war but at that time mainly associated with fighting in Vietnam.

Richie Havens also draws attention to the senseless fighting and dying in the war. He also articulates the helpless feeling that plagues many young Americans; the feeling that, despite all the anger and protest, the warfare continues:“Hey, what's the use of singing this song, some of you are not even listening. Tell me what it is we've got to do:wait for our fields to start glistening".

Jimi Hendrix's performance at Woodstock has taken on an almost legendary status, including the outrageous and sarcastic version of 'The Star Spangled Banner', the American national anthem he played there.

In the Netherlands, too, the protest movement against the war in Vietnam increasingly gained a foothold. In mass demonstrations, people shouted 'Johnson killer.' (when protesters were fined for insulting a befriended head of state, they stated they were just shouting 'Johnson miller'). And here too, protest songs were written. The extraordinarily civilized, but perhaps very striking 'Good night Mr. President' by Boudewijn de Groot is one of the best known.

Many of these protest songs now have a proven eternal value, also in the Netherlands. Good night Mr. President since De Groot sang it to President Johnson in 1966, it has been heard at some point during the reign of almost every American president. From Nixon who got his hands dirty in Cambodia and Laos to Clinton who bombed the former Yugoslavia. In 2003, when thousands demonstrated in Amsterdam against the plan of then-President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, punk band De Heideroosjes played a cover version of Good night Mister President.

On February 10, 2010, current US President Barack Obama did something extraordinary. He invited a slew of protest singers, including Bob Dylan, to the White House to pay tribute to “the songs that made America what it is today. A free and just society”.