21 Unforgettable Protest Songs from the Vietnam War

Anti-war sentiment has been vocalized for about as long as war itself, but the Vietnam War was the first time in history that it became so widely represented. A lot of this sentiment emerged from Americans themselves, many of whom protested what they saw as an unjust and prolonged conflict marred with imagery of brutal violence and horrific war crimes. A unique manifestation of the “Vietnam Syndrome” was in the form of music as singers and songwriters expressed their opposition lyrically in support of students and anti-war activists. These protest songs have made an indelible mark on that era, bringing not only the anti-war movement to the forefront but also inspiring generations of activists for years to come.

Here’s a list of some of the most iconic songs from the era. Click on a song to read more about it, and for the links to the tracks. For the complete playlist on Spotify, click here.

  1. Almost Cut My Hair – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  2. Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan
  3. Bring ‘Em Home – Pete Seeger
  4. Eve Of Destruction – Barry McGuire
  5. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
  6. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  7. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
  8. I Ain’t Marching Any More – Phil Ochs
  9. Imagine – John Lennon
  10. Masters of War – Bob Dylan
  11. Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  12. Saigon Bride – Joan Baez
  13. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
  14. The Unknown Soldier – The Doors
  15. Turn! Turn! Turn! – The Byrds
  16. Vietnam – Jimmy Cliff
  17. War – Edwin Starr
  18. We Shall Overcome – Joan Baez
  19. What Are You Fighting For – Phil Ochs
  20. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  21. 2 + 2 = ? – The Bob Seger System

1. Almost Cut My Hair – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)

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A popular act of rebellion by hippies was to grow their hair long, and this song explores the desire to cut it either in an act of conformity, or to avoid scrutiny by police and pro-war folks. Feeling dissent and displaying it openly and proudly are two very different things, and cutting one’s hair would be the easy way out. The song by the folk rock supergroup also reveals the motivation of guilt, that the simple act of getting a haircut would signify an abandonment of all those students and protestors risking everything to make themselves heard. It would be regarded by many as one of the most important political songs by David Crosby, even though he felt his lyrics were juvenile.

2. Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan (1963)

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Singer, songwriter and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan originally wrote this song in the context of the civil rights movement, but the lyrics and references to war appealed to the anti-war movement who quickly adopted it. Blowin’ in the Wind asks questions about war and peace, and answers them all with the immortal line “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”, perhaps meaning that the solutions are all around us, but we just can’t see them. It has since been regarded as one of the greatest protest songs of all time, and ranked number 14 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

3. Bring ‘Em Home – Pete Seeger (1969)

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Unlike other songs of the era that banked on anti-establishment sentiment, folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger appealed to the patriotism of his fellow Americans with lyrics like “If you love your Uncle Sam, bring them home”. This song addressed the war directly, calling it out by name and highlighting every possible reason that bringing home the troops was the right thing to do. Seeger also used the song decades later in 2006 during the Iraq war, launching the “Bring Them Home” campaign calling for troops to be withdrawn from the middle east.

4. Eve Of Destruction – Barry McGuire (1965)

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Originally written by P.F. Sloan, folk rock singer Barry McGuire’s rendition became the most popular version of the song. It touches on many topics of the era, ranging from criticising the draft with the line “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’”, to events in the middle east and the civil rights movement. Despite reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the song was banned by some American and British radio stations due the controversial nature of the lyrics, and was even described as “an aid to the enemy in Vietnam”.

5. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield (1966)

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The song was inspired by the Sunset Strip curfew riots, but would go on to become one of the most iconic protest songs of the era. Buffalo Springfield was the house band at one of many nightclubs in Hollywood, California that attracted large crowds of young people, much to the annoyance of local residents. After the city passed strict 10pm curfew laws, large rallies and demonstrations were held in protest which resulted in clashes with the police. As the protestors were hippies and members of the counterculture movement, the song would soon become associated with the anti-war movement as well, though many recognise it by the subtitle “Stop, Hey What’s That Sound“.

6. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

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The term “Fortunate Son” is used in the context of the sons of politicians and wealthy men avoiding the Vietnam War draft, or getting cushy positions where they would not have to see combat. When singer, songwriter and guitarist John Fogerty heard on the news that Julie Nixon was dating David Eisenhower, both descendants of US presidents, it struck him that those born with silver spoons were protected from the consequences of their parents’ actions unlike ordinary, poor boys and men who were sent to fight abroad. Years later, Fogerty would issue a cease and desist order when the song was played at a Donald Trump campaign rally, as Trump was the “fortunate son” who received a draft deferment in order to avoid serving.

7. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones (1969)

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Written by lead vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, the song encapsulates the violence of the era, both of the war abroad and the protests at home in America. While originally inspired when Richards observed people scurrying shelter from a sudden downpour in London, the concept evolved with lyrics going on to state that war, rape and murder were “just a shot away”. Despite the intensity of the song, it ends on a hopeful note, telling listeners that love is “just a kiss away”. “Gimme Shelter” is listed at number 38 on  Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and is considered by many to be the greatest song recorded by the band.

8. I Ain’t Marching Any More – Phil Ochs (1965)

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Often called a protest singer though he preferred to call himself a “singing journalist”, much of Phil Ochs’ music was about civil rights, war and the labour movement. This song in particular criticizes American numerous wars from the point of view of a soldier who is fed up with killing and violence, and would become a staple of the anti-war protests. Ochs famously performed “I Ain’t Marching Any More” at the protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and was subsequently called upon as a witness at the trial of the Chicago Seven where recited the lyrics to the song from the witness stand after the judge denied him permission to perform in the courtroom.

9. Imagine – John Lennon (1971)

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One of the more hopeful protest songs of the time, Lennon would describe “Imagine” as “an ad campaign for peace”. Its’ lyrics like “Nothing to kill or die for” and the message of creating a utopian, peaceful world resonated with the anti-war movement who immediately adopted it. “Imagine” became the best-selling single of Lennon’s solo career, though it offended religious groups with the line “Imagine no religion”, and former American President Jimmy Carter described it being “used almost equally with national anthems”. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked “Imagine” number three on “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, while the Guinness World Records ranked it the second best single of all time after “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

10. Masters of War – Bob Dylan (1963)

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While the song doesn’t directly reference the Vietnam War, it decries all war in general, and the “Masters of War” in particular who according to Dylan were the various facets of the military-industrial complex. The lyrics are hurled towards these men that “build all the bombs” and “hide behind desks” just to turn a profit, while the innocent suffer as a consequence. In his usual style, Dylan uses biblical references to condemn these politicians and industrialists who profit from war, even uncharacteristically wishing for their deaths with the line “And I hope that you die, And your death will come soon”. His vehemence surprised even himself, and is supposed to have said “I’ve never written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one”.

11. Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (1970)

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The Kent State Massacre was the first time American student protestors were killed for protesting the war in Vietnam. The Ohio National Guard opened fire on a peace rally, killing four students and injuring several others. A week later, Neil Young read Life magazine’s article titled “Tragedy at Kent” which described the horror, picked up his guitar and wrote the song in fifteen minutes. After the song recording, Young would claim that David Crosby cried, and his emotion is clearly heard throughout the song, as if he were on the verge of tears. Though the song was banned by a number of radio stations, it was popularised on underground FM stations and became one of the greatest protest songs of the era.

12. Saigon Bride – Joan Baez (1967)

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In this number, singer and songwriter Joan Baez personified the capital of South Vietnam from a soldier’s point of view, singing “Farewell, my wistful Saigon bride”. The song’s melancholy melody mourns the lives and deaths of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, asking “How many dead men will it take, To build a dyke that will not break?”. It goes on in similar fashion, grieving the futility of fighting an unwinnable war and questioning if it is worth it. The song featured on the eponymous 1967 album Joan alongside covers of contemporary rock and pop songs by other artists. While it never reached the popularity of her earlier track “We Shall Overcome”, it definitely belongs in this list.

13. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan (1964)

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Ranked number 59 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time, this song was Bob Dylan’s attempt to create an anthem of change, and was inspired by Irish and Scottish ballads like ‘Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’. It did not mention the Vietnam War specifically, but rather called for people “across the land” to recognize that the country was changing, to accept that fact and not to impede it. It speaks to writers, parents, and politicians, telling them to take heed of the views and mood of the youth, and applied to the civil rights and anti-war movements that were concurrently growing in size and intensity.

14. The Unknown Soldier – The Doors (1968)

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Unlike most songs on this list, “The Unknown Soldier” seems to sympathise with the soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam. Jim Morrison’s perspective may have been influenced by the fact that his father, George Stephen Morrison, was the commander of the U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin during the USS Maddox Incident that sparked American involvement in the war. Raised as an army brat, Morrison would have been more able to empathize with  soldiers, many thousands of whom were killed in action. Morrison directed a promotional film clip for the song which featured a depiction of him being shot and killed, a scene that would be recreated by the band in live shows.

15. Turn! Turn! Turn! – The Byrds (1965)

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Turn! Turn! Turn! Was first written and recorded by Pete Seeger in the 1950s, but only became an international hit in 1965 when it was covered by The Byrds, reaching the number one spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart by December that year. Most of the lyrics are biblical, taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. It took The Byrds 78 takes over five days to record the song, which came out more like a rock ‘n’ roll number than a folk song, and resonated with the American public with it’s plea for “a time for peace”. At the time, the war in Vietnam was escalating and so was the anti-war movement, but this was one of the few songs to be embraced by both sides of an increasingly divided nation.

16. Vietnam – Jimmy Cliff (1969)

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Most of the popular anti-war songs of the era were invariably rock or folk songs, but Jimmy Cliff’s Vietnam was one of the few from a completely different genre that performed as well, becoming an international hit. In fact, Bob Dylan would call it the best protest song he had ever heard. It tells the story of a soldier in Vietnam who writes to his friends, announcing that he’ll be home soon. However his mother receives a condolence telegram shortly afterwards, informing her that her son has been killed. The song ends with a plea to “stop the war”, and uniquely uses an upbeat, optimistic style to deliver a tragic tale of loss.

17. War – Edwin Starr (1970)

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The Temptations first recorded “War” with Motown Records, but both the band and the label felt the song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong was too politically charged for conservative audiences. That’s when Whitfield recorded the more intense version song as a single, this time with “second-string” act Edwin Starr. “War” shot to the top of the Billboard Pop Singles chart, making it Starr’s greatest hit, and was only displaced after three weeks by another song from the Motown label, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross. It is considered to be one of the most popular protest songs in history, and even made it to the infamous “no-play” list following the 9/11 attacks.

18. We Shall Overcome – Joan Baez (1963)

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Pete Seeger first adapted the gospel hymn “I’ll Overcome Some Day” in the 1950s, and it was already known and used as a protest song long before Joan Baez performed it. But it was in 1963 that her performance of the song at a civil rights rally popularised it like never before. The proximity of the anti-war movement amplified the effect of the song, making “We Shall Overcome” synonymous with nonviolent protests not just in America but around the world. The song was used in its original English form in countries across the world including Northern Ireland, Israel, South Africa and Eastern Europe, but has also been translated into languages as diverse as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Malayalam.

19. What Are You Fighting For – Phil Ochs (1963)

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While Phil Ochs music almost always conveyed anti-war sentiment, “What Are You Fighting For” didn’t condemn the Vietnam War directly, but rather asked listeners to introspect on the reasons for going to war. It addressed the root causes that drove people to enlist in the military, like a sense of patriotism and a chance to fight injustice. It told people that these sentiments were hijacked by the media and government, that they were lied to by newspapers and politicians. The song asked people to take a step back, consider all the facts and look inwards at their own consciences, and they would realize that the real war to be fought was at home. Issues like the civil rights movement, income disparity, corruption of the military-industrial complex and police brutality were greater causes to rally against, and if these wars could be won then they would have to fight any more wars abroad.

20. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (1971)

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Many would consider “The Prince of Soul” an unlikely source for a protest song. But when fellow soul and R&B singer Renaldo Benson witnessed the violence of Bloody Thursday in Berkeley, California, it inspired him to write what Rolling Stone magazine would rank the fourth-greatest song of all time, just one spot below John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The violence used against anti-war protestors was the result of Governor Ronald Reagan’s ruthless effort to stamp out dissenting voices in California’s college campuses, and resulted in Benson’s tour bus getting stuck in the traffic and giving him a disturbing view of what was going on. He gave the song to Marvin Gaye, after his own group refused to perform it as they “didn’t do protest songs”, who made some changes based on his brother Frankie’s account of serving for three years in Vietnam.

21. 2 + 2 = ? – The Bob Seger System (1968)

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Though not a commercial success, “2 + 2 = ?” is considered by some to be the most intense, underplayed and visceral anti-war songs of the era. Recorded when he was just 23 and the first single from the newly renamed Band, Seger sings from the perspective of a simple young man who is starting to question a system that is pushing him to fight and kill. And even though he’s not a genius, the answer seems to be as simple as 2 +2. Interestingly, the phrase “2 + 2 = 5” features in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and is an example of governments blatantly yet successfully lying to citizens. The song was a hit in his home city of Detroit, but never really gained traction elsewhere, and is perhaps one of the most underrated protest songs of all time.

There are many more songs from the Vietnam War era that you think might deserve to be on this list, which is entirely subjective, so feel free to contact us with your thoughts and feedback. We can’t promise that we’ll make any changes in which case you are free to protest, which in fact would fit the theme of this article quite nicely.

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