In 1963, an obscure Louisiana-based country singer called Bob Necaise released ‘Mr. Where is Viet-Nam’. It was the first record made in the United States to allude to the Vietnam War in its title and highlighted that, according to opinion polls, most Americans paid little or no attention to the developing conflict in Indochina, which would consume their nation for 20 years. In December 1961, under President John F. Kennedy, the US had 3,205 military personnel stationed in Vietnam. This number increased to over 16,000 by the end of 1963 and the conflict began to receive more media coverage. In Necaise’s song, Lil Gary Dee, a ‘little boy not yet four years old’, asks:
Mister where is Vietnam? Is it very far away? I want to see my daddy Will you take me there today?
By the end of the 1960s, this enigmatic country would become the most controversial issue facing the US, dividing society, debated in Congress, demonstrated for and against on the streets – and documented in song.
Vietnam has been called ‘the First Television War’. But, as Billboard magazine reported on 4 June 1966, ‘few conflicts have evoked such a spate of musical production’. As the magazine revealed, well over 100 Vietnam records had been released since that January alone. Fifty years on, more than 5,000 songs have been recorded about the war, forming an international conversation about a conflict that tore apart the fabric of politics, society and culture. With the US divided between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, music became a powerful communication tool for both sides.
‘How many kids did you kill today?’
In the war’s early stages, protest songs voiced the concerns of a minority movement. Most Vietnam songs released during Kennedy’s presidency articulated a reluctance to be drafted. In 1962, the Californian folk duo Goldcoast Singers released ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, with an unambiguous message to the president: ‘I don’t want to go’. Fewer than 80 American deaths were recorded between 1956 and 1962, compared to over 16,000 in 1968 alone.