Student activism and protests against the Vietnam War

Event date(s)

17 March 1968

Description/importance

By 1968, the Vietnam War was subject to substantial international protest, with students playing a major role in staging demonstrations in many countries. British anti-war activism is primarily associated with three large-scale events in London, taking place on 22 October 1967, 17 March 1968 and 27 October 1968. Of these gatherings, the March demonstration attracted particular attention, as protesters clashed with the police on Grosvenor Square, the site of the American embassy. Students from Newcastle attended the protests, having travelled to the capital to express their opposition to the war. Such activism was at odds with the line put forward by the leader of the National Union of Students, who advised them to stay away. Yet, their activism could also take other forms: the same year, students at Newcastle University compiled a report (War – A New Perspective) that examined the role of chemical and biological warfare in Vietnam. As Sylvia Ellis (1998, p.  61) has noted, 'although the authors claimed it was not an anti-Vietnam war pamphlet, the findings condemned the American government's decision to put research and development on chemical warfare into practice'.

This is not to say that Newcastle was a hotbed of anti-war activism. An article in the Times Educational Supplement of April 1968 noted that 'Newcastle is a long way from China or Cuba, or even Grosvenor Square' and conceded that the 'picture of the typical Newcastle student' might be ‘apolitical and conservative with a small "c"'. The experiences of Tariq Ali, leader of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, seem to confirm this impression. In October 1968, Ali visited Newcastle University to address a student meeting. The local student newspaper The Courier described the event as a 'damp squib', claiming that most members of the audience had either disagreed with Ali or been disinterested in his speech.

That said, university settings were not the only place where protest could occur. As early as 1967, an anti-war vigil took place outside St Nicholas Cathedral, bringing together members of local churches as well as students campaigners. It is also worth noting that the Vietnam War also became an issue among school students, as evidenced by The New Rutherfordian, the end-of-year magazine of Rutherford Comprehensive School. In 1968, it featured a poem entitled 'The Tragedy of Vietnam', with the author deploring how kids who were his age or younger were suffering at the hands of the US army. One year later, the magazine featured a student poem entitled 'Propaganda from the Substratum'. It tells the story of a force rising up from as the minority after their land is destroyed by 'the tyrants who kill' and the 'creators of death'. Such examples illustrate that, while not giving rise to a large-scale movement, the consequences of American actions in South East Asia could trigger debates and expressions of solidarity on Tyneside.

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Further reading

Primary Sources:  'London Riot: Student View', The Courier, 20 March 1968; Peter Scott, 'Rugby Beats Politics', The Times Educational Supplement, 18 April 1968; 'Tariq Ali Fails to Explore', The Courier, 16 October 1968; 'Newcastle Student Representative Slams NUS', The Courier, 30 October 1968; John R. Noble; 'The Tragedy of Vietnam'; The New Rutherfordian, 1968, p. 22; Ian Waugh; 'Propaganda from the Substratum'; The New Rutherfordian, 1969, p. 22.

Secondary Sources: Sylvia Ellis, 'A Demonstration of British Good Sense? British Student During the Vietnam War' in Gerard DeGroot (ed.); Student Protest: The Sixties and After (London: Longman, 1998) [with a specific section on protests in Newcastle]. Texts providing the broader context of anti-war and student activism in this period include Sylvia Ellis, 'Promoting Solidarity at Home and Abroad: The Goals and Tactics of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in Britain', European Review of History, vol. 21, no. 4 (2014), pp. 557–576; Holger Nehring, The Politics of Security: British and West German Protest Movements and the Early Cold War, 1945–1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 259–276; Carolin Hoefferle, British Student Activism in the Long Sixties (New York: Routledge, 2013).