We look back on a nationwide organizing project that mobilized thousands to oppose the Vietnam War.
By Melissa Lee
In 1967, media coverage of the war in Vietnam was flooding the airwaves with images of American soldiers in body bags, dead Vietnamese civilians, and villages burned to the ground. In cities across the U.S.—from Pasadena, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts— tens of thousands of young people joined anti-war demonstrations, helping to build a nationwide movement to end the Vietnam War.
Eighteen-year-old Wendy Batson of Kansas City, Missouri was one of these protesters. In the summer of ’67, Wendy, a member of the Penn Valley Friends Meeting, had just graduated high school and was preparing to enter college. But after long discussions with her parents and her meeting, she decided she would first take part in a weeklong training for Vietnam Summer in Ohio. The training prepared participants to spend their summers canvassing door to door, collecting signatures for petitions, organizing community speak-outs, mobilizing support for public referenda on the war, and working as draft counselors.
The experience “kicked off for me, even faster and sharper, a real focus on the war as the primary event of my youth,” Wendy says. “For those three months before I took off for college, there was this heady sense of being swept up and engaged in real historical issues. When I look back on it now, of course it astounds me what was both put on us and what we were dealing with.”
The Vietnam Summer project had officially launched on April 23, 1967 at a press conference with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam in Cambridge. “It is time now to meet the escalation of the war in Vietnam with an escalation of opposition to that war,” Dr. King proclaimed. “I think the time has come for all people of good will to engage in a massive program of organization, of mobilization.”
The American Friends Service Committee was involved from the start of the campaign, providing $20,000 to the Vietnam Summer committee to get the project started. The project closely aligned with AFSC’s existing Vietnam Peace Education program, which was also designed to educate and engage people in local communities about the war. In addition to providing funds, AFSC produced a manual for volunteers, fliers and newsletters, and vivid posters designed to generate emotional public response.
The Vietnam Summer project initially called for 10,000 volunteers, but by the end of the campaign, there would be 26,000 volunteers as well as more than 500 staff working on 700 local projects across the country. The impact was profound and far-reaching, activating tens of thousands of people to organize with their neighbors and communities against the war.
Jeff Jaffe was among those eligible for the draft who opposed the war. Like many of his peers, he says he “felt disenfranchised, we had no voice in what was happening because no one was listening to us. But we were not about beating the draft—we were trying to change society. … We believed that the war and the draft were evil and someone had to stand up against evil.”
Richard Fernandez, co-director of the Vietnam Summer project says “It was also a time of great courage—a lot of people put their lives on the line, put their jobs on the line, willing to risk for the sake of peace. … We were a generation that for some reason or another thought we could alter the world. There wasn’t anything that we didn’t think we could change for the better.”
Vietnam Summer demonstrated the true power of grassroots organizing and became an example that would shape other movements for years to come. Activists succeeded not only in influencing the American public, but also in swaying members of Congress and other elected officials, shifting the national conversation and making it difficult to justify continuing the war in Vietnam.
And for countless individuals like Wendy Batson, that summer would become a springboard for a lifetime of working for peace and justice. Wendy went on to work at AFSC for five years, serving in multiple roles—including as a youth anti-war organizer in Chicago and later with her husband Bob Eaton doing post-war reconstruction in Indochina—before moving on to lead humanitarian efforts with other organizations.
“Vietnam Summer was this breathless sense that I was participating in something that really mattered, and I’ve come to realize it was a great gift,” Wendy says. “The trajectory of early community organizing, of early draft counseling, of questioning larger movements within the society, and looking at injustices that began spilling beyond Vietnam ended up—unbeknownst to me at the time—defining my whole life.”