Youth, Mass Culture, and Protest: The Rise and Impact of 1960s Antiwar Music

Essential Question

How did antiwar protest music provide a voice for those opposed to the Vietnam War?


Just as the United States has a long, complicated history of war and international conflict, so too has the nation seen resistance to that activity. During the 1960s, however, protest against war became a particularly visible part of American life. Television, a relatively new phenomenon, showed both graphic, often brutal images of the Vietnam War and footage of social and political unrest at home. In this period, protest music was among the most powerful means of voicing opposition to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Although protest music was not new — one finds rich examples of music calling for change in slave spirituals, labor songs, and even the popular songs produced on Tin Pan Alley during the first World War, for instance — it reached new heights in the 1960s, as many young Americans, facing mandatory participation in the war, grew increasingly outspoken in their dissent.

Prior to the antiwar demonstrations on and around college campuses, the Civil Rights movement in particular had increased student activism. As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, many in that age group faced the disconcerting reality of conscription. Even before they shipped out, those who were drafted had begun to see the horrors of the war, most notably on television. The growing presence of television in nearly every American household thus exacerbated divisions over the conflict and helped fuel the antiwar movement. What Americans watched on television each night shaped their perceptions of the Vietnam War, which came to be known as the “living room war.” For some young Americans, called on to fight but unable to vote until the age of 21, the situation was unacceptable.

Social protest provided young people with a voice they didn’t always have at the ballot box. Popular music, already a vital part of youth culture by the mid-1960s, became a vehicle through which they could hear their concerns put to music. The music helped to build the antiwar community. In earlier eras, protest music sometimes had a subtle tone, propelled by acoustic instruments. By the late 1960s, however, it took on the instrumentation of Rock and Roll and made its way to the top of the charts. Not until 1971 did the 26th Amendment grant suffrage to 18-year-olds, empowering those most directly affected by the military draft. With the war increasingly unpopular at home and no American victory in sight, the United States negotiated a peace treaty and withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. The music of 1960s protest, however, remained among the era’s most enduring legacies.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The changing media representation of war during the Vietnam era
    • The growing opposition of many citizens, particularly young Americans, to the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s
    • The influence of the baby boom, popular media, and popular music on the antiwar movement
    • The role of protest music in giving Americans who could not vote in the mid-1960s a public voice on political issues
    •  The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze and evaluate multiple historical sources, including images, statistics, videos, and music
    • Practice literacy skills, such reading, speaking, and writing
    • Understand music in relation to history and culture