A History of the Anti-war Movement in Portland

Portlanders protesting the assassination of an Iranian general in 2020. Portland has a long legacy of anti-war activism. Image by Karney Hatch via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, anti-war activists in Portland take to the streets to protest the war in Ukraine. Two years ago, they did the same for Iran. As war continues to impact communities here and abroad, anti-war activists speak out about the ways in which war harms us all, while only serving the interests of people in power.

Anti-war activism has risen alongside modern war. Both world wars saw the formation of anti-war organizations, but war resisters and pacifists took on a new level of visibility during the Vietnam War and accompanying years of draft. People in Portland and across the country opposed the war for a variety of reasons, whether they opposed war itself, U.S. intervention in Vietnam altogether, or simply saw the war as a lost cause.

Young people, who were both of the age to be drafted and generally further left politically, took on a significant role in Vietnam-era anti-war activism. College campuses were the stage for protests and political actions. Portland State University (PSU) in downtown Portland saw its fair share of anti-war protests through the course of the war. In May 1970, in the wake of the killing of four student anti-war protesters at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard, PSU students, as well as some faculty, went on a multi-day strike. The strike began with barricades, resulted in talks with the PSU administration, and eventually ended in police brutality towards the protesters.

Similarly, students at Reed College, a small liberal arts school in southeast Portland, worked to protest the Vietnam War and form their own student-led anti-war organizations. In 1964, Reed students founded their own chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a left-wing student organization that was one of the faces of the resurgence of leftist politics in the 60’s and 70’s nationwide. For better or for worse, the organization crumbled in 1969. During this period of increased student activism at Reed, students participated in a number of protests, including one where 20 members of the Reed community were arrested. Even after the Reed chapter of SDS fell though, Reed students continued to be involved in anti-war activism, including the May 1970 PSU strike. SDS saw a brief revival at Reed in 2006 as a part of a nationwide effort to bring back the organization, which appears to have fizzled out, though student activism at Reed lives on.

Local government was faced with finding a way to respond to the wealth of protests during this period. In August 1970, a majority pro-Vietnam War veterans organization called American Legion was coalescing in Portland for their annual convention, and with a featured guest: Richard Nixon. The Federal Bureau of Investigation contacted then-governor Tom McCall to alert him to their concerns about potentially violent public backlash and protest to the convention and specifically, Nixon’s presence. Talk of 50 thousand protesters was thrown around, estimates that would later come out to be practically drawn out of thin air. 

Nevertheless, government officials still feared that the convention would be met with a violent response. Simultaneously, a couple of anti-war Portlanders were also anxious about potential violence that might emerge, and hoped to plan some sort of large-scale event that would make a non-violent statement. After calling the governor’s office, the two parties ended up collaborating on the first and only state-sponsored rock music festival in the U.S.: Vortex I. The governor’s team picked Milo McIver State Park, only a 40 minute drive from downtown Portland, but rural enough to keep people out of the city. Nixon eventually canceled his appearance in Portland, but Vortex went on nonetheless. At its peak, roughly 35 thousand people had gathered in McIver State Park, and only two small protests occurred in Portland over the convention (though that can more reasonably be attributed to Nixon canceling his appearance). 

Additionally, Portland saw conscientious objectors come to Portland to complete alternative service. Conscientious objectors were draft-eligible men who objected to military service on religious or moral grounds, and with demonstration of a sincerely held belief, were allowed to complete alternative civilian service when drafted. Lin Rush is a Vietnam War conscientious objector who moved to Portland to complete his alternative service. Rush became a conscientious objector at age 20 because he was, and is, a Mennonite, one of three historic peace churches alongside the Quaker Friends and the Church of the Brethren. “I grew up in the Mennonite Church,” he says, “and one of the Mennonite Church’s positions has always been pacifism.” Becoming a conscientious objector, he adds, “confirmed that [pacifism] was a position I believed in.” Rush ended up moving from Pennsylvania to Oregon to complete his community service. “At the time,” he explains, “your options were to work in social agencies or healthcare, so I worked in a hospital for two years.” While most of his peers that came to Portland to complete alternative service requirements left after their two years, Rush ended up staying in Portland, where he lives today.

In 1985, after the Vietnam War had been over for a decade, veterans from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam came together to form Veterans for Peace (VFP), an organization which promotes world peace and an end to war, specifically from the perspective of veterans, who have firsthand experience of the horrors of war. The Portland chapter of VFP was founded in the same year, and continues to be active today. 

Mal Chaddock, the president of Portland’s chapter of VFP, has been involved with the organization since 2004. “Anti-war activists,” he says, “are a part of the conscience of a nation, decrying its crimes and demanding an end to criminality.” Chaddock explains that veterans are not “the only legitimate voices on war, but their experiences are an integral part of understanding it.” Even when anti-war activism doesn’t see immediate results, Chaddock still thinks it’s important. “If one does nothing in the face of injustice they are complicit, if only to the tiniest extent.”

Portland has a rich history of anti-war activism, and that legacy continues on today. In 2020, Portlanders took to the streets to protest the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani via drone strike. Organizations like VFP continue to organize anti-war actions. School-based anti-war efforts are ongoing as well, through organizations like the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth, which offers counter-recruiting resources and information regarding how the military positions young people to enlist even without a draft. As we are presented with the horrors of war and its consequences every day on the news, know that there are people working every day against it, and there always have been.

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