Protest Songs of 1960’s

Rhetoric in the Form of Music

Protest Songs from the Vietnam War

    When someone talks about rhetoric, what comes to mind most often is speeches.  However, rhetoric takes on many forms; speeches, letters, poetry, and even song.  In the volatile years between 1963 and 1973, the youth of America united against the older generation in their fight against the Vietnam war.  They protested in the streets, held sit-in, and dodged the draft.  The biggest voice in this battle, however, was the protest songs that came out in this era.  This paper will argue that the music of that time was the rhetoric of a generation.    

     The classical rhetorician, Gorgias, states,  “Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity” (Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 2001).  It is my belief that this is one of the truest statements ever spoken.  However, it is not words alone that are powerful, but rather the context of the words, the style in which the words are delivered, as well as the audience hearing the words.  Plato spoke often of the logos or logic of an argument, the pathos or emotions of the argument, and ethos or the character of the rhetor in rhetoric, and each speaker must be deliberate in their choice of words to as well as how these words are delivered.  It is the responsibility of the hearer to decide how to interpret those words and determine if the speaker is trustworthy. To a generation of young adults who were tired of the same rhetoric given by not only the lawmakers but of an older generation who saw the world differently, the rhetoric in the form of song was a way for the youth to put into words all the anger and frustration they were feeling. 

     November 22, 1963 began a time of upheaval in the United States that lasted close to 10 years, the effects of which can still be felt today.  John F. Kennedy, one of our most beloved presidents of the 20th Century was assassinated, and Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as his predecessor.  Johnson won the election in 1964 and was sworn in as the elected President on January 20, 1965.  On March 8, 1965, the United States landed its first wave of troops on the Vietnam shore.  We did not leave there until March 29, 1973.  From the beginning this was a controversial war.  Shortly after the troops landed, Tom Paxton released the first protest song “Lyndon Told the Nation.”  Many more followed in the eight years of our involvement, which became the fuel and the voice of the population under the age of 35.  Because of the carefully chosen words and the deliberate way they were presented these artists were able to use their ethos to unite and give a voice to these young people.                         

     When we went to Vietnam, the Nation was war weary.  There had been four wars in forty years.  During World War II, our young men enlisted in the military in droves.  Nazism was a direct threat, and millions of innocent people were being interred in camps and killed simply because of their birthright.  But it became personal when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  American’s banded together, and our nation truly became the United States.

     Vietnam was not the same.  This was a civil war in a small country half a world away.  Most Americans had never even heard of this place until North Vietnam wanted to re-absorb South Vietnam and become one country again.  Our young men did not want to go to another foreign county to fight, and possibly die, especially in a situation that had nothing to do with us.  Protests began to form in the streets.  College students held sit-ins where they congregated in areas such as college football stadiums, sat on the grass and refused to leave.  There would be speeches, and the protest songs would either be blasting from speakers or would be sung by the crowd.  They would build bonfires and throw their draft cards in.  Young men fled to Canada in droves.  A line was clearly drawn between the World War II generation and the Baby Boomers, the children born between 1945 and 1963.   The older generation thought the “kids” were un-patriotic, and the younger generation came to mistrust the “Establishment,” those in power, whether it was the government or big business or even their parents.  Thus, the phrase “Generation Gap” was born, and our nation became divided.

     While correspondents had been sent to cover the other wars for newspapers, this was the first televised war.  Every night the fighting in Vietnam was brought into our homes in living color.  We as a nation saw the jungles that hid the Viet Cong snipers so well.  We saw the villages that had been raided by both sides.  We could hear the babies crying and the women screaming when the reporters were with the troops that were close to those villages.  Every night with dinner, we were treated to the horrors of war, as up close and personal as possible through a television screen.                              

     As a rhetorician, Gorgias’ style has often been characterized as “overly antithetical and symmetrical in structure and overly alliterative and assonant in sound.  Listening to Gorgias apparently aroused a shared sense of participation in a kind of wisdom available no other way.  The power of his words was akin to magic, conjuring up conviction where no knowledge had existed before.” (Gorgias, Introduction, 2001).  His ability to not only mesmerize his audience, but to speak to what the audience wanted and needed to hear gave him his popularity.  His style and word choice were always appropriate, he was able to stir the imagination, and he relied heavily on pathos, using the emotion of the crowd to make his appeals.

     Like Gorgias, the songwriters and singers who led this generation with their rhetoric conjured up conviction, gave the audience a sense of participation, and used pathos to put into music the high emotion that was fueling a generation lost.  From the “Summer of Love” to Woodstock to Kent State, the songs spoke to these baby boomers in a form that they could identify with, and in a manner that they imitate and repeat.  The songs spoke to the frustration and anger that these men felt in being forced to go fight a war they didn’t want and felt the nation should not have been involved in, making these songs the anthems for an angry generation. 

     When Lyndon Johnson was the Democratic candidate for president in 1964, one of the promises of his campaign was that the United States would not become involved in the Vietnam War.  He was inaugurated on January 20, 1965, and then deployed 2,000 Marines on March 8.  America was told that these soldiers were there to protect the U. S. air base in Danang, and that we would not escalate.  However, as the war went on, “Johnson carried out the military escalation quietly and almost clandestinely. The bombing of North Vietnamese cities was not announced to the press, the soaring military costs were met by borrowing rather than tax increases, and most significantly no Congressional approval was sought for the dramatic increases in troop numbers.” (White, 2012).  This secrecy only added fuel to the fire that was already beginning to burn in the college students in America. 

         Just as Gorgias used pathos and his speaking style to mesmerize the audience, Tom Paxton used the same rhetoric when he wrote the first Vietnam protest song called “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation”.  The chorus directly answers Johnson, “And Lyndon Johnson told the nation, have no fear of escalation, I am trying everyone to please, though it isn’t really war, we’re sending fifty thousand more, to help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese.”  (Paxton, 1965). In this song, Paxton exposed the lies being told by Johnson and the Government. Paxton chose his presentation very carefully.  His use of an acoustic guitar and the style of folk music made the music and lyrics very easy to duplicate by the general public.  The simple way he delivered his rhetoric was pleasing to the ears but contained a powerful message of deceit.  

     Because of Johnson’s contradiction, the American youth began to doubt and mistrust the government and what we were being told.  If the war was not going to be escalated, why were so many more soldiers being sent?  Vietnam had been a divided country for 10 years before the first American troops invaded the country.  The rhetoric of the American Government told us that communism was a threat to our way of life.  Yet it was allowed to go unchecked in North Vietnam before the North attempted to absorb South Vietnam in the 1960’s. 

     Paxton again conjures up conviction with his lyrics, “I got a letter from L.B.J, It said, “This is your lucky day”, It’s time to put your khaki trousers on, Though it may seem very queer, We’ve got no jobs to give you here, So we are sending you to Vietnam” and then closes with “Well, here I sit in this rice paddy, Wondering about Big Daddy, And I know that Lyndon loves me so, Yet how sadly I remember, Way back yonder in November, When he said I’d never have to go”  Even though Paxton was not in Vietnam, the way he wrote the lyrics in first person gave the audience a sense of participation and added authority to the singer. 

     Paxton’s rhetoric is questioning, as a voice of this generation, why are our young men being sent to this place, when repeatedly Johnson’s rhetoric said that America would not go to Vietnam, that the troops that were sent were just there to protect our nations interest in the country, and our involvement would not escalate. Because of Johnson’s contradiction, the American youth began to doubt and mistrust the government and what we were being told.  If the war was not going to be escalated, why were so many more soldiers being sent?  Vietnam had been a divided country for 10 years before the first American troops invaded the country.  The rhetoric of the American Government told us that communism was a threat to our way of life.  Yet it was allowed to go unchecked in North Vietnam before the North attempted to absorb South Vietnam in the 1960’s. 

     There were two groups who mostly led the protests of the Vietnam War.  The first were the Hippies, but they were discredited by the older generation since it was felt that all they wanted to do was smoke dope and blame the government for everything that went wrong in their lives.  These were referred to as “The Great Unwashed.”  Hippies preferred their hair and beards long, wore sandals, travelled the country in Volkswagen vans, and many lived in communes where they shared the work and the fruits of their labor.                                                                      

     The second group was college students.  In 1940 America, only 3.8% of females and 5.5% of males attended college.  In 1962, attendance effectively doubled with 6.7% of females and 11.4% of males heading to universities. (Statista, 2018)  This was because after the soldiers came home from World War II, the nation was in an age of prosperity, and there was a “Baby Boom,” where the birth rate soared.  The GI Bill allowed these veterans to enjoy a better standard of living.  College was no longer just a dream for the kids born during the years of the boom.

     Since scenes of the Vietnam war were splashed across the television screen on the nightly news, we were exposed to the horrors of the war.  Young people had greater exposure to the world and new ideas being thought of, tested, and coming to fruition.  Colleges, such as Berkley in California were more liberal schools and were not afraid to push the boundaries.  The students were finding their own voice in the world.  No longer were they willing to accept what their parents told them as how they should live their lives. 

     Gorgias, in order to retell the story of Helen of Troy, wrote an essay entitled “Encomium of Helen.”  In the last paragraph he tells us, “I have by means of speech removed disgrace from a woman; I have observed the procedure which I set up at the beginning of the speech; I have tried to end the injustice of blame and the ignorance of opinion; I wished to write a speech which would be a praise of Helen.” (Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 2001).  In this speech, Gorgias took the facts from the kidnapping of Helen of Troy and re-told the story from a different perspective.  He took the same facts that other writers used to condemn Helen and he used those same facts to exonerate her.  Most blamed her because she was beautiful, but Gorgias said that it was not her fault that she was beautiful.  She was blamed for falling in love, “But if it was speech which persuaded her and deceived her heart, not even to this is it difficult to make an answer and to banish blames as follows.” (Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 2001).

     The protest songs used retelling of the facts as the basis of their rhetoric.  Neil Youngs used this tactic in his rhetoric when he wrote the song “Ohio” in 1970 after the massacre at Kent State University.  On May 4,1970, the unthinkable happened.  Students at Kent State University in Ohio staged a sit-in protest on the football field after the bombing of Cambodia.  When the students refused to disburse, it was decided that the Ohio National Guard be called in, armed with live ammunition. The students began leaving and some of them did throw rocks.  One guardsman was hit on the arm by a rock, and then suddenly shots were being fired into the retreating crowd.  After the shooting stopped, four college students lay dead across the campus, two males and two females, aged 18 and 19 years old.  Two of the dead were protestors, the other two were students simply leaving one class and heading to another.  This event also known as the “Kent State Massacre” caused the biggest rift in the nation and was the one that took the longest to forgive. 

     As Gorgias used the same facts as the other writers who blamed Helen to re-tell the story and exonerate her, Neil Young wrote the song “Ohio” using the facts to exonerate the students and place the blame on the State Government.  The song also placed blame on Nixon and the United States Government since it appeared that the actions were condoned by those in power.   The lyrics were simple but spoke volumes, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. We’re finally on our own, This summer I hear the drumming ,Four dead in Ohio, Gotta get down to it, Soldiers are cutting us down, should have been done long ago. What  if you knew her, And found her dead on the ground, How can you run when you know?” (Young, 1970)  Because of its few lyrics and simple melody, it was easy for this song to become an anthem for the protestors.  The tin soldiers referred to the Guardsmen, basically calling them toys who were playing soldier.  The drumming spoke to the winds of change that was coming.  The Government would do whatever it took, including murder, to stop the protests and the students speaking out.  The song ends with a repeating of “Four Dead in Oho.”  The repetition of this line drove home the fact that four lives were taken unnecessarily.  The pathos in this rhetoric spoke directly to the anger and mistrust that the students felt for the “Establishment,” the American Government, and anyone over the age of 35.

      Gorgias speaks to virtue and truth versus deceit when he writes “What is becoming to a city is manpower, to a body beauty, to a soul wisdom, to an action virtue, to a speech truth, and the opposites of these are unbecoming.  Man and woman and speech and deed and city and object should be honored with praise if praiseworthy and incur blame if unworthy.” (Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 2001).  The protesting rhetoricians saw the secrecy and deceit coming from Johnson and Nixon and with their rhetoric was calling these Presidents unbecoming and unworthy.  In 1969, President Johnson chose not to run for another term as President, and Richard Nixon was elected, taking office in January of 1970.  After the shootings, a reporter asked President Nixon about the shootings, to which he responded, “I have asked for the facts and when I get them, I’ll have something to say about it.  But I do know when you have a situation of a crowd throwing rocks and the National Guard is called in, there is always the chance that it will escalate…” (Nixon, 1970).  Nixon attempted to blame the students for the shootings and never acknowledged that rocks should not have been answered with bullets, especially when the crowd was retreating.  Not once did anyone in any government capacity apologize.  Nixon had no respect for the student protestors, and on several occasions called them bums and thugs. 

     During the Classical Period of Rhetoric an essay entitled “The Dissoi Logoi” was written, however, we do not know who wrote it, and it is credited to Anonymous.  This piece compares the binaries of good and bad, stating that what is seen as bad by one can be considered good by another, such as “Illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors.  And death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the grave-diggers.” (Anonymous, 2001).  It depends on the perspective one is looking from as to whether an event causes prosperity or devastation.  Along these same lines, “When it comes to contests, bey they gymnastic, or artistic, or military – for example, when it comes to games — victory is good for the winner, but bad for the losers.” (Anonymous, 2001).  After all, history is written by the victors.       

     The rhetoric of these binaries was used by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield in 1969 with their song called “War” which was sung by Edwin Starr.  The rhetoric’s chorus speaks to the good and bad of war with the lyrics, “War means tears to thousands of mothers eyes, When their sons go to fight, And lose their lives…it ain’t nothing but a heart-breaker, (War) friend only to the undertaker, Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind.” (Strong, 1969)  The song uses the literal undertaker, but it could also be talking about the people who made the war profitable for themselves, as well as the American Government who had their own reasons for our involvement in this war.  After we left Vietnam, report after report came out that proved that America was lied to about our being there.  It took years for the United States to heal, and the two generations to erase the dividing line. 

     In 1971, James Michener wrote a highly detailed book about the shootings, entitled Kent State; What Happened and Why.  This is 559 pages “crammed with evidence, statements, analyses, and most of those pages suggest also a prodigious effort, on Mr. Michener’s part, to achieve even‐handed treatment of his harrowing material.” (Wicker, 1971).  Wicker, in his review, also states “it is also an attempt to analyze, understand and describe that phenomenon of our time variously described as “student unrest,” “the youth revolt,” “the generation gap,” the “Movement,” or “the kids.”  (Wicker, 1971).  This book was painstaking in its research.  Michener conducted interviews and analyzed evidence to write what he saw was a fair telling of the incident.  He even included interviews with people like “the mother who told. her daughter that she should have been shot if she was demonstrating,” and conclusions such as “it is “middle aged intransigence” to be so “irrationally opposed” to long hair and beards.” (Wicker, 1971).  However, after reading this review, it appears to me that Michener was also taking the facts of the tragedy of the shooting and retelling them in such a way as to appear at first glance that he was showing both sides, but was actually attempting to remove any and all blame from the Governor of Ohio, the President of Kent State, and especially the soldier of the National Guard.

     In the “Encomium of Helen,” Gorgias also wrote “Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works.” (Gorgias, Encomium of Helen, 2001).  This is why rhetoric is taught and studied, why speakers must choose their style and words carefully, and why hearers must listen with both their ears and their minds.  There is another lyric in “War” that states, War has caused unrest within the younger generation, Induction then destruction, who wants to die?” (Strong, 1969).  This lyric sums up the feelings within the young people in America in the Vietnam War era.  The songs of protest that were written and sung during this time were the rhetoric of this generation.  All the lyrics were able to put into words all the emotions that were being felt.                                                     

     I was six years old when President Kennedy was assassinated, and eight when President Johnson sent the first troops into Vietnam.  I remember clearly seeing the war on the news.  I remember watching the footage of Woodstock.  I remember hearing these songs being played on the radio.  I remember hearing my parents talking about the protestors calling them “ungrateful hippies.”  I remember them being outraged at Woodstock.  My entire childhood was marked by this war, the protests, the songs.  There were some days when it felt as though the nation would always be divided between the old and the young. 

     Then one day the war was suddenly over.  The troops came home.  The nation began its long journey into forgiving and forgetting.  However, the old lifestyle that our parents enjoyed never really made a comeback.  Even though the dividing line began to disappear, the kids never looked at the world in the same way.  The world had changed, and the people who were shouting in the streets were now in the business world, but the lessons they learned led their way.  No longer were people willing to just go with the flow, they weren’t afraid to ask questions and challenge the old way of thinking.  Civil rights and the feminist movement grew out of this time.          

     On March 29, 1973, the United States withdrew all troops from Vietnam.  Some say we lost the war, some say we simply withdrew.  Either way, nothing good came from the American involvement there.  In the end, 59,000 American soldiers were killed, hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted, thousands of babies were born with deformities because of “Agent Orange.”  The worst part is that the United States never declared a state of war, but rather it was a police action.  There have been reports released over the years that clearly show that the American citizens were lied to about the war.  However, one question still remains, and will never be answered, is why did the United States go to Vietnam in the first place?

     But, after doing my research, I feel that the saddest part is that President Lyndon Johnson could have and should have gone down in the annals of history in a much different way.  He affected social change and was instrumental in the Civil Rights in this country.  However, instead of being remembered for the good he did, his reputation was sullied by the ugliness of this war.  I don’t know if he listened to the wrong advice or if there was something else at play here, but his entire presidency was blighted by Vietnam.

     The songwriters of the Vietnam era chose song as their rhetoric to oppose what they felt was an unjust war.  These artists not only used pathos in the protest songs to appeal to the audience, but also ethos to call into question the character and authority of the opponents. Because music is universal, the younger generation adopted this rhetoric as their voice.  With the songs as their backdrop, they added speech in rallies to incite the hearers to action.  As far as this generation was concerned, the rhetoric from the “Establishment” were just empty words that didn’t even sound pretty.  The baby boomers used rhetoric to affect change.  The older generation used rhetoric to not only lie, but to blame the youth for the political unrest.  We became the collective enemy to a system that did not want its authority challenged or to have its myth destroyed.

Works Cited

Anonymous. (2001). Dossoi Logoi. In P. a. Bizzell, The Rhetorical Tradition (pp. 48 – 49). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Gorgias. (2001). Encomium of Helen. In P. a. Bizzell, The Rhetorical Tradition (p. 44). Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.

Gorgias. (2001). Introduction. In P. a. Bizzell, The Rhetorical Tradition (p. 42). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Nixon, R. h.-w.-s.-s.-v. (1970, May 5). History Channel, Vietnam War and Kent State Shootings. Washington, D C, USA.

Paxton, T. (1965). Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation [Recorded by T. Paxton]. Elektra Records, New York, New York, USA.

Statista. (2018, 01 01). The Statistics Portal. Retrieved from

Strong, B. a. (1969). War [Recorded by E. Starr]. New York Sony/ATV Music Publishing, New York, USA.

White, D. (2012, 05 01). Open History Society. Retrieved from

Wicker, T. -N. (1971, June 6). Was it, as James Michener says, an accident? Was it manslaughter? Or was it murder? New York, New York, United States.

Young, N. (1970). Ohio [Recorded by S. N. Crosby]. Los Angeles, Record Plant Studios, CA, USA.