Vietnam Veterans are “quite different from veterans of earlier wars,” observed Ralph Nader in 1973–then at the height of his fame as a consumer advocate. No prior war, Nader pointed out, had “witnessed such a moral dissent by soldiers and new veterans.” What was it about the Vietnam War that produced this high level of opposition within the military? And what role did this resistance and organizations like VVAW play in ending the war in Vietnam?
The war that the U.S. fought in Vietnam was a war against a people who had been trying to free their country from foreign domination for many decades. A powerful movement–known as the Vietminh and led by Ho Chi Minh–defeated the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during the Second World War.
In 1945, the Vietminh declared Vietnam independent from its colonial master France. The French tried to re-colonize Vietnam, but they were defeated by the Vietminh movement after a nine-year war.
By the time large numbers of U.S. troops arrived in Vietnam, the country had been partitioned, and in South Vietnam, a new revolutionary nationalist movement had arisen called the National Liberation Front (NLF)–known to the Americans as the “Viet Cong.” By 1965, the NLF had been waging a war for several years against the corrupt, dictatorial South Vietnamese government in the southern capital of Saigon.
The U.S. invaded to prevent the NLF from coming to power. Washington sent a huge army, eventually reaching more than 500,000 troops, and it employed the most destructive weapons to destroy the bases of the NLF in the countryside.
For the mainly working-class soldiers who the U.S. sent to fight the Vietnamese people, the war was a huge shock. The young troops had been told that all “struggles for national liberation” were Communist conspiracies, emanating from the ex-USSR or China. They were trained for a war like the Second World War, involving set-piece battles between great armies.
Instead, U.S. GIs found themselves fighting a peasant guerrilla army of young men and women. Washington’s strategy was for a “total war”–so soldiers were ordered to burn down villages, destroy large areas of the countryside and kill as many NLF fighters as possible. The war sickened many U.S. soldiers, seeming to be a pointless exercise in destruction.
Others began to realize that they were fighting on the wrong side. Bill Ehrhardt, a Marine in Vietnam, said the reality of the war produced a “staggering realization.” “In grade school, we learned about the redcoats, the nasty British soldiers that tried to stifle our freedom,” he wrote. “Subconsciously, but not very subconsciously, I began increasingly to have the feeling that I was a redcoat.”
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GI RESISTANCE to the war began much earlier than people realize today. In June 1965, Capt. Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate stationed in Vietnam refused to board an aircraft that was supposed to take him to a remote Vietnamese village. “The Vietnamese war,” Steinke said, “is not worth a single American life.” He was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army.
In February 1966, ex-Green Beret Master Sgt. Donald Duncan, who had served in Vietnam, published a powerful indictment of the war titled “The whole thing was a lie!” in the left-wing Ramparts magazine. Duncan was a militant anti-Communist, but his experience in Vietnam transformed his view of the war. Duncan became convinced that the majority of the South Vietnamese were “either anti-Saigon or pro-Viet Cong or both.”
The Fort Hood Three, a trio of U.S. Army privates–James Johnson, Dennis Mora, and David Samas, all members of the 2nd Armored Division stationed at Fort Hood, Texas–refused to serve in Vietnam. The three were from working-class families, and they denounced the war as “immoral, illegal and unjust.” They were arrested, court-martialed and imprisoned.
In 1967, U.S. Army Dr. Howard Levy refused to train Green Berets at Fort Jackson, S.C. Levy argued that the Green Berets were “murderers of women and children” and “killers of peasants.” He was court-martialed and sentenced to 27 months in a military prison. The colonel who presided at Levy’s court-martial said: “The truth of the statements is not an issue in this case.”
As left-wing historian Howard Zinn wrote, “The individual acts multiplied. A Black private in Oakland refused to board a troop plane to Vietnam, although he faced 11 years at hard labor. A navy nurse, Lt. Susan Schnall, was court-martialed for marching in a peace demonstration while in uniform, and for dropping antiwar leaflets from a plane on navy installations.”
These individual examples of resistance would crescendo into mutinies and desertion, as whole groups of soldiers, sailors and pilots refused to fight the war. One U.S. colonel described the collapse of U.S. forces as equivalent “to the breakdown of [Russia’s] Tsarist armies during World War I.”
In 1967, the growing antiwar movement at home led to the founding of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) by Jan Barry. Barry was an army veteran who had been stationed in Vietnam in 1963. He was disturbed by what he saw there and later dropped out of West Point to pursue a writing career.
During 1967 and 1968, hundreds of veterans joined the VVAW, but the organization virtually disappeared into Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1968. The group revived over the next two years as a result of a political awakening of Vietnam veterans–around such issues as their ill treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals, public exposure of the war crimes committed at My Lai, and the killing of student antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University following Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970.
This revival brought new members who came from mostly working-class families–and who had witnessed some of the worst combat of the war. The most famous was Ron Kovic, whose life was depicted in the film Born on the Fourth of July. Al Hubbard, a Black veteran, raised the need to address the racist treatment of African American soldiers and veterans.
John Kerry also joined at this time. But what made him so different was that he was from a wealthy background and had political connections at the upper levels of the Democratic Party.
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THE TWO historic events organized by the VVAW that would catapult the organization into the leadership of the antiwar movement were the Winter Soldier Investigation and protests in Washington, D.C., called Dewey Canyon III.
The VVAW gave the name “Winter Soldier” to its war crimes investigation as a reference to Tom Paine’s tribute to the soldiers who stayed the course during the darkest days of the American Revolution in the 18th century. The “new winter soldiers,” as they saw themselves, hoped to end the Vietnam War by exposing U.S. war crimes. Al Hubbard said that the purpose of the investigation was to show that “My Lai was not an isolated incident,” but “only a minor step beyond the standard official United States policy in Indochina.”
The Winter Soldier Investigation (the full transcript of testimony is available online) took place in Detroit in January and February of 1971. During that weekend, more than 100 veterans from Vietnam testified about the atrocities that they participated in or witnessed. Another 500 to 700 veterans came from across the country to listen.
The statements of the vets were painful, gut wrenching and tear-filled, riveting and shocking everyone present. Sgt. Jamie Henry said that he witnessed the murder of 19 women and children during his tour of duty, which he reported to superiors, but got no response.
Henry explained how the racism ingrained in soldiers made such atrocities possible. “You are trained ‘gook, gook, gook,’ and once the military has got the idea implanted in you that these people are not humans…it makes it a little bit easier to kill ’em,” he said.
Hundreds of veterans flooded into the VVAW after the hearings–a sign of how dramatically the Winter Soldier Investigation spoke to their own experiences. Other hearings modeled on the ones in Detroit were held across the country, and members of Congress publicly called for official investigations into the charges that the Winter Soldiers raised.
Next came Dewey Canyon III. The five days of protest in April 1971 were named after Dewey Canyons I and II, Pentagon code names for two “limited incursions”–translation: invasions–of the country of Laos, which bordered Vietnam. The VVAW described the demonstrations as a “limited incursion into the country of Congress.”
As many as 2,000 Vietnam veterans came to Washington to protest the war and the treatment they received from the government that sent them to fight. The protesters mercilessly harassed the political establishment in Washington. They sat in at the U.S. Supreme Court to protest the illegality of the war. They humiliated Strom Thurmond, the racist bigot and pro-war senator.
Veterans and Gold Star mothers who had lost a child in the war succeeded on a second attempt to make their way into Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath for the U.S. dead in Vietnam. Jan Barry presented a Congressional delegation with a list of 16 demands from the VVAW, which included: “immediate, unilateral, unconditional withdrawal” of all U.S. forces from Indochina; amnesty for all Americans who refused to fight in Vietnam; a formal inquiry into war crimes; and improved veterans benefits.
There were two high points to Dewey Canyon III. One was Kerry’s powerful speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he asked, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How can you ask a man to die for a mistake?” The moment made Kerry into one of the most recognized figures in the antiwar movement.
The second–and far more important–was a ceremony in which veterans “returned” their medals to the U.S. government, by throwing them over a fence in front of the U.S. Capitol building. Jack Smith, a highly decorated ex-Marine sergeant, was the first to go. He said that his medals were a “symbol of dishonor, shame and inhumanity.”
Smith offered an apology to the Vietnamese people “whose hearts were broken, not won,” because of “genocide, racism and atrocity.” Hundreds of veterans followed him.
The Dewey Canyon III demonstrations were the lead story every night on the television news–and on the front page of newspapers across the country. The face of the antiwar movement–until then associated mainly with college students–had changed for millions of people.
The Vietnam War ended for most Americans in January 1973, when Richard Nixon announced a peace settlement–though, in fact, the fall of Saigon, which marked Washington’s final defeat, was still two years away. The VVAW played an important role in bringing about the end of that war–and to this day, the organization continues, having joined the protest against Bush’s latest invasion of Iraq.
The struggle of U.S. soldiers against the war–and their organization, the VVAW–should be remembered, celebrated and defended. That means challenging the Swift Boat Veterans’ version of history. And it also means challenging the John Kerry of today, who wants to run away from this antiwar legacy.
JOE ALLEN writes for the Socialist Worker.