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Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On"

Angela De Oliveira, Grade 12

America’s involvement in the Vietnam War sparked protests across the nation during the 1960s. Ho Chi Minh (pictured below), the leader of the Vietnam Communists, otherwise known as Viet Congs, had taken control of Northern Vietnam (History.com, 2009). Meanwhile, the ruler of Vietnam, Emperor Bao Dai - inspired by capitalism in the West - had taken control of Southern Vietnam (History.com, 2009). With the nation divided, and each leader wanting the country for himself, war had broken out on both sides.

The United States came into play when they declared their distaste against allies of the Soviet Union, the rulers of Communism, and pledged their allegiance to the President of Southern Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem (History.com, 2009). With support from America, which included training and equipment, Diem was offered a chance of conquering Northern Vietnam.

Following an alliance with America, Southern Vietnam began their offence against Northern Vietnam (History.com, 2009). The bloodshed of soldiers and civilians was rapid and entered the homes of American families through news channels, with gruesome images and details about the war (History.com, 2009). This sparked Martin Luther King and several artists including Marvin Gaye and John Lennon to make their voices heard about their disagreement with the war (History.com, 2009). Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Going On, is one of the most popular and impactful albums he has released in his career. His hit song ‘What’s Going On’ specifically speaks about the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War and all affected by it (History.com, 2009)

Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’

[Verse 1]

Mother, mother

There's too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There's far too many of you dying (Genius)

Sacrifices of War

Marvin Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie Gaye (both pictured on the right, right to left), had gone to fight for Southern Vietnam as an American soldier in the Vietnam War (L.A. Times Archive, 2002). Frankie had frequently sent letters to Marvin, detailing the gruesome details of the war such as the death of soldiers and innocent civilians and the firefights initiated by the North towards the South (L.A. Times Archive, 2002). Thousands of soldiers had been losing their lives to the violence in Vietnam; by November 1967, there had been 15,058 U.S. casualties, and 109,527 wounded (L.A. Times Archive, 2002). Frankie had been the main influence in Marvin’s impactful album ‘What’s Going On’, his letters helping to create Marvin Gaye’s most impactful album of his career (L.A. Times Archive, 2002)

You know we've got to find a way

To bring some loving here today, yeah (Genius)

Silence Is Never An Option

To bring awareness to the events occurring in Vietnam and figure out a fighting tactic, anti-war marches and protests had slowly begun, first taking place on college campuses (History.com, 2010). Students for a Demographic Change (SDS) were a group of college students who had started making a change by organizing small “teach-ins” to speak about their opposition to the way the United States had been handling the war in Vietnam (History.com, 2010). The organization SDS had been the first step in the right direction, into bringing some love, understanding, and unity in a time of despair, violence, and separation.

[Verse 2]

Father, father

We don't need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer (Genius)

Taking the Vietnam War Up A Notch

Despite pressure from the public and continuous assurance that the war was coming to an end, President Lyndon B. Johnson (pictured on the left), President John F. Kennedy’s successor, had decided to send 82,000 combat troops to Vietnam in March 1965, although military leaders were asking for 175,000 more troops by the end of the year (History.com, 2009). Despite concerns from his advisors about the exaggerated amount of troops being deployed, President Johnson had continued to deploy 100,000 troops at the end of July 1965 and another 100,000 in 1966 (History.com, 2009). Gaye is pleading for the President to reconsider the number of lives he is handing over to the army of Vietnam as well as instigating the war even more.

For only love can conquer hate

You know we've got to find a way

To bring some loving here today, oh (Oh) (Genius)


Picket lines (Sister) and picket signs (Sister)

Don't punish me (Sister) with brutality (Sister)

Talk to me (Sister), so you can see (Sister)

Oh, what's going on (What's going on) (Genius)

The Consequences Of Your Actions

In 1970, America and Southern Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in hopes of destroying DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam - Northern Vietnam) supply bases in the area (History.com, 2009). This resulted in the South leading an invasion into Laos to drive out Northern Vietnam. Both these invasions had brought a fresh wave of fury among the anti-war protestors on college campuses across America (History.com, 2009). On May 4, 1970, at Kent University, over 3,000 people had gathered to protest against the invasion of Cambodia and Laos (History.com, 2009). As a result, the national guardsmen had arrived in an effort to disperse the crowd and had killed four students. Ten days later, two students had been killed by police at a protest at Jackson State University (History.com, 2009). Marvin Gaye is speaking about the ‘picket lines and picket signs’ of protestors and the violence, the ‘brutality’ that results from their fighting with police. Gaye would like us all to talk to one another and not resort to violence as if it were the only decision.

What's going on (What's going on)

Yeah, what's going on (What's going on)

Oh, what's going on (Genius)

[Verse 3]

Mother, mother

Everybody thinks we're wrong

Oh, but who are they to judge us

Simply 'cause our hair is long? (Genius)

It’s Not All Sunshine and Flowers

The hippie community had a great role to play in the Vietnam protests and were at the forefront of the movement, strongly believing in fighting against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (History.com, 2018). This group of people were known for their long hair and exuberant clothing and free philosophy. Hippies were known for being young drug addicts who were always searching for a higher purpose in their lives (History.com, 2018). Hippies stood against politics and the structures of society, they lived for themselves and they lived for an experience (History.com, 2018). It isn’t hard to imagine that people would not take them too seriously during their fight against the Vietnam War. But Marvin does not see it that way, because who are we to judge these people just because of their long hair and different views on life?

Oh, you know we've got to find a way

To bring some understanding here today, oh-oh (Genius)


Picket lines (Brother) and picket signs (Brother)

Don't punish me (Brother) with brutality (Brother)

Come on, talk to me (Brother), so you can see (Brother)

Oh, what's going on (What's going on)

Yeah, what's going on (What's going on)

Tell me what's going on (What's going on)

I'll tell you what's going on (What's going on) (Genius)

During the time of the 60s and 70s, when the Vietnam War had divided the nation among young rebels and careful Americans, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, had formed a sense of unity among the people of America. His song enabled others to unite under a common goal, saving the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. Artists, leaders, such as Martin Luther King Junior, and ordinary college students have all the power they need to stand up to the injustice in their country, even if it may not concern them directly. We all have human nature within us, the sympathy and empathy needed to survive. Remember the Students for a Demographic Change, simple young adults with a clear goal and purpose in mind. That goal and purpose grew to the whole of America and made a real difference only a courageous person can begin.

If you had heard Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, would it encourage you to take a picket sign?


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