VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR

AND

THE WINTER SOLDIER INVESTIGATION (1971)

 

Dr. Ernest Bolt, University of Richmond


The most active group active expressing dissent of veterans was Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Formed in 1967 by six veterans involved in a protest march in New York City, by spring 1970, VVAW had 600 members. Over the next several years, thousands more joined.


In 1971 VVAW held "hearings" on the war under the title "Winter Soldier Investigation." At first, this group participated in antiwar protests and demonstrations organized by others. Then, from January 31 to February 2, 1971, VVAW leaders held an investigation of the conduct of the war in a Detroit Howard Johnson motel. Over a three day period, over 100 veterans and sixteen civilians described their war experiences, including rapes, torture, brutalities, and killing of non-combatants. Senator Mark Hatfield (Republican-Oregon) entered the testimony into the Congressional Record and urged hearings on the conduct of U.S. forces in the war. Although the media showed little interest in the Winter Soldier Investigation, veterans such as John Kerry, a VVAW leader by 1971, testified about VVAW's investigation in a Senate committee hearing April 22, 1971.


This group's efforts to document such testimony followed the well-known 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. By the 1971 VVAW hearings, the trial of Lt. William L. Calley by the Army was planned. The 1968 My Lai incident clearly resulted in more antiwar sentiment here in the United States, including these efforts of Vietnam veterans to describe vividly their personal experiences. Calley was found guilty in March 1971. In all wars, both sides have used terror against civilians and war crimes have been featured. There is no better source for this than soldiers' letters and later testimonies to such effects of the Vietnam War.


Richard R. Moser's The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam Era (1996) is the latest treatment of this subject. This title relates to Thomas Paine's criticism of American soldiers of 1776 who were "sunshine patriots" -- leaving service in the revolutionary war at summer's end. He hailed, however, those who were "winter soldiers" -- fighting year-round. Moser's view is that there were "new winter soldiers" in the winter of 1971, those who testified at the VVAW's "Winter Soldier Investigation." Former GIs who had served in Vietnam as citizen-soldiers (nonprofessionals, draftees largely) spoke out as citizen activists for peace and justice. Moser does not use their testimonies to examine "what went wrong" in the military in Vietnam; rather he seeks to understand the extent to which their testimonies "created something good from what was one of the worst experiences of their lives" (p. 1).


Part of the GI dissent Moser examines is familiar -- such as racial tensions at Da Nang following the MLK assassination. There was a similar moment of tensions at the Long Binh Jail. But Moser reports the less known Whiskey Mountain armed protest near Cam Ranh Bay. He uses, also, articles in Bragg Briefs and All Hands Abandon Ship to show early advocacy of "sexual self-determination" in the military, quoting one Vietnam vet: "I got a medal for killing two men and a dishonorable discharge for loving one" (p. 95).


For five days in April 1971 (19-23), VVAW also led demonstrations in Washington. Leaders called their protest "a limited incursion into the country of Congress," as it followed Dewey Canyon I and Dewey Canyon II, code names for American and then ARVN invasions of Laos in February-March 1971. They called their protest effort Dewey Canyon III. The protest lasted a week and included an encampment to protest the war and to lobby Congress. Veterans and mothers of soldiers killed in Vietnam marched to Arlington Cemetery while veteran John Kerry testified against the war during Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings. The protests that week also included "guerrilla theater," with simulated attacks on "civilians" and the attempt of 60 vets to surrender to Pentagon officials for committing attrocities. (The Pentagon turned them away.) VVAW continued antiwar protests in 1972, and as the war ended for us in 1973, VVAW advocated universal amnesty for draft resisters and deserters.


The day after this VVAW-led protest, April 24, 1971, over 500,000 demonstrators arrived in Washington to lobby Congress and to "stop the government" if President Nixon did not stop the war. May 4 saw the arrest of over 1,400 protesters on the steps of Congress. Daniel Ellsberg was one of the ex-Marines who had tried to block DC traffic that day.

 

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