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Matthew Jacob 10A 2011

Vietnam War Assignment – Protest Music
1. Protest Music
Protest music can be defined as any song which is used to promote or is associated with a
movement for change in regard to topical current events. The Protest song was one of the
main symbols of the sixties youth culture and was aimed at awakening public awareness. Common
examples of events and movements which have sparked the creation of protest music include the
women’s suffrage, animal rights, and anti-war
movements. One of the most controversial wars
of the 20
th
century, the Vietnam War was the
context for many protest songs which drew on the
widespread anger towards the end of the war in
Vietnam. In Australia alone, an opinion poll in
October 1969 suggested that only 39% of the
population supported the war effort compared
with the 59% that approved of the war in July
1965. The Vietnam War was the first war during
which television technologies were used to
graphically depict the intense battles and as those
on the home front were truly able to see the
atrocities of war that were being faced by the
Australian soldiers over there. The Vietnam War
saw a deep hatred and bitterness in society towards the war effort which had never occurred before
in previous wars due to a number of key factors. It was a war which was fought using a vast range of
chemicals such as napalm never before used which caused horrific injury. Furthermore the troops
that went to fight for the nation had an average age of 20, as opposed to 26 during World War I and
II which created huge political and social divisions adding to the fact that the Vietnam War was never
actually declared but rather we were drawn into it through the United States and no other ally of
America joined the war effort. This led to numerous public rallies and demonstrations as part of the
anti-war effort. So strong was the opposition that the government was forced to alter its laws
regarding conscription as the young men were continually evading military service. Towards the end
of the war in 1970 saw mass public anti-war protests in the capital cities which were called the
Vietnam moratorium marches with over 100,000 people taking part in just one of the marches. Dr
Jim Cairns, a prominent Labour member of parliament was quoted to have said, “What is being done
in the Vietnam moratorium campaign is an example of government by the people taking action
about issues that are important to them.” Folk song musicians and numerous artists across Australia
drew on these public opinions and expressed their feelings against the war effort through their own
medium of song. The anti-war movement in respect to Vietnam was also heavily prevalent amongst
American society, with numerous promises broken by various governments namely Lyndon Johnson
and Richard Nixon culminating in a widespread opposition to the conflict in Vietnam. Established
artists such as John Lennon and a whole group of amateur artists expressed their feelings towards
this contentious war through the medium of the protest song.


Matthew Jacob 10A 2011

2. Protest Song Analysis

Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation
Words and Music by Tom Paxton
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 Viet Nam
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 Viet nam from Viet Namese."
I jumped off the old troop ship,
And sank in mud up to my hips.
I cussed until the captain called me down.
Never mind how hard it's raining,
Think of all the ground we're gaining,
Just don't take one step outside of town.
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 Viet nam from Viet Namese."
Every night the local gentry,
Sneak out past the sleeping sentry.
They go to join the old VC.
In their nightly little dramas,
They put on their black pajamas,
And come lobbing mortar shells at me.
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 Viet nam from Viet Namese."
We go round in helicopters,
Like a bunch of big grasshoppers,
Matthew Jacob 10A 2011

Searching for the Viet Cong in vain.
They left a note that they had gone.
They had to get down to Saigon,
Their government positions to maintain.
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 Viet nam from Viet Namese."
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.
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 Viet nam from Viet Namese."
Tom Paxton is a famous American Folk singer and songwriter whose songs have been renowned for
their emotional attachments and protest qualities. In his 1965 song, ‘Lyndon Johnson Told the
Nation’, Paxton can be seen to directly challenge and even to a certain extent mock and ridicule the
words and actions of the then President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson. The decision to send
American ground troops into Vietnam past when Kennedy had already established when war had
not even been officially declared was met with a range of opinions amongst the American people.
Initially Johnson was not keen to send in troops to South Vietnam and he knew that politically that
this would not be a popular move. Johnson told the Joint Chiefs
of Staff that he would do all that was necessary to support
General Nguyen Khanh, the new leader of South Vietnam but
that this would not include sending in US troops until the
November 1964 Presidential election was over. This difference
in public opinions is highlighted in the opening lines of the
song, “It said this is your lucky day, it's time to put your khaki
trousers on though it may seem very queer “which shows the
initial hesitance to go serve in Vietnam. Despite this, Johnson
had assured the people that America had no choice but to
enter into the battle in Vietnam if it wanted to prevent future
conflicts closer to home and that operation codenamed
“Rolling Thunder” was only meant to last for 8 weeks.
The chorus of the song is perhaps one of the most cynical
elements of the entire song directly focusing the notion of
sending American troops overseas. In recognising this song as
Lyndon Johnson 36
th
President
of the United States
Matthew Jacob 10A 2011

a piece of protest music, one has to look no further than the highly crude and sarcastic language of
the chorus. The first two lines of the chorus, “Lyndon Johnson told the nation have no fear of
escalation” are directly related to the promise made by Johnson in 1965 when he claimed the
sending of another 3500 US marine combat troops to Vietnam was only a short term measure. As it
turned out operation “Rolling Thunder” went on for 3 whole devastating years of brutal combat in
the jungles of Vietnam. As a result of this, Johnson did not even stand for re-election in 1968. The
last few lines of the chorus, “though it isn’t really war, we’re sending fifty thousand more, to help
save Viet nam for the Viet Namese” help define perhaps what can been seen as one of the central
messages behind the protests against the war.
It was Paxton’s view, and indeed the view of many others that America’s involvement in Vietnam
and its eventual defeat was a completely unnecessary act. The highly cynical nature of these few
lines emphasises this view point. The tough conditions of battle are well documented throughout
the song with the use of the first person imitating a solider deployed to Vietnam. Paxton himself had
joined the army following his graduation from college and had only turned to song writing following
his honourable discharge. In this regard, his sympathy for the plight of the soldiers fighting there and
the conditions they were faced with is clearly evident in the lines, “I cussed until the captain called
me down, never mind how hard it's raining, think of all the ground we're gaining.” Furthermore the
pure horror this war in particular with its unique guerrilla warfare style which had never been seen
before is graphically depicted in the lyrics of the song, “They put on their black pyjamas, and come
lobbing mortar shells at me.” Paxton also seems to present the view that the efforts of the American
soldier were always facing an upward battle and not at any point did it seem like taking on the Viet
Cong who had amassed such a huge number of militia would be possible. Once again a highly cynical
tone, “Searching for the Viet Cong in vain, they left a note that they had gone” has been used to
further emphasise the message of failure and the anti-war movement he is trying to convey.
The last main verse of the song perhaps illustrates the central message of the entire song. Having
served in the army for a number of years following his graduation Paxton experienced first time the
hardships and conditions they endured as soldiers. Having heard the promise made by Lyndon
Johnson that he would not be increasing America’s commitments further than what J. F. Kennedy
had already done he was angered when this promise was broken. I believe that the main message
behind the song was a protest against the entire notion of increasing and continuing with the war
effort in Vietnam. Through the highly cynical lyrics of the song, Paxton ridicules the words and
promises made by Lyndon Johnson and challenges the very involvement of the American ground
troops in Vietnam. This song very easily meets the criteria to be classified as a piece of protest music
as it raises awareness of society’s issues and presents an alternative view. Like many other of Tom
Paxton’s protest songs, “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” effectively and successfully fulfils the aims
of protest music through conveying the central anti-war movement in regards to the Vietnam
conflict.