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Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) is a tax-exempt non-profit organization and corporation, originally created to oppose the Vietnam War. VVAW describes itself as a national veterans' organization that campaigns for peace, justice, and the rights of all United States military veterans. It publishes a twice-yearly newsletter The Veteran, previously published more frequently as 1st Casualty (1971-1972) and then as Winter Soldier (1973-1975). VVAW considers itself as "anti-war," although not in the pacifistic sense. Membership varied greatly, from almost 25,000 veterans during the height of the war to fewer than a couple thousand in subsequent decades. While the member veterans were a small fraction of the millions that served between 1965-75, the VVAW is widely considered to be among the most influential anti-war organizations of that era.
VVAW was founded by six Vietnam war veterans, including Jan "Barry" Crumb, Mark Donnelly, and David Braum, in New York City in June, 1967 after they marched together in the April 15, 1967 Spring Mobilization to End the War anti-war demonstration with over 400,000 other protesters. After talking to members of the Veterans for Peace group at that march, Barry discovered there was no organization representing Vietnam veterans.
The VVAW's website summarizes its history, in part indicating that:
|â||Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc. (VVAW) is a national veterans' organization that was founded in New York City in 1967 after six Vietnam vets marched together in a peace demonstration. It was organized to voice the growing opposition among returning servicemen and women to the still-raging war in Indochina...||â|
According to the organization itself, VVAW organized rap groups for veterans in 1970, the predecessor to readjustment counseling at modern Vet Centers. Their website goes on to indicate that they helped draft legislation for education and job programs, and assisted veterans with post-war health care through the VA hospital system, including assisting victims of Agent Orange and other chemical agents. The VVAW advocated amnesty for war resisters.
The fluctuating membership size of this organization has been a point of some confusion, with some sources claiming it peaked at over 20,000 and others claiming it never exceeded several thousand. Several historic events would serve to fuel the organization's rapid growth as well as its decline in membership. The organization remained small until late 1969 when it gained several hundred new members. With the Nixon administration's decision to invade Cambodia and the Kent State shootings in 1970, VVAW's visibility increased, as did their membership, from 1,500 to almost 5000. Publicity from VVAW-sponsored events continued to spur membership growth past 8,500 by the first month of 1971, and thousands more flocked to the organization after Playboy Magazine donated a full-page VVAW ad in its February edition. An FBI informant within the organization notes in March, 1971 that membership had grown from 1,500 to over 12,000 in the past four months. The national televised coverage of VVAW's week-long April, 1971 protest in Washington, DC, and smaller protests in subsequent months continued to increase their notoriety. By 1971, the group had grown to 20,000 members. The organization itself claims a peak membership of over 30,000. Including non-veterans, VVAW had "roughly 50,000" members. By 1972, negotiations at the Paris peace talks were in full swing, signaling the beginning of the end of the war as well as the end of VVAW's primary mission. Membership in the organization diminished as the leadership scrambled to broaden its purpose. Membership requirements were relaxed, and political differences arose as new members fought with old about which direction the VVAW should take. The organization had dwindled to just several thousand members by 1973. With internal struggle still threatening to tear the group apart, 2,000 members demonstrated in Washington in July 1974, demanding universal amnesty for draft resisters and deserters, and universal discharge with benefits for all Vietnam veterans.
Historian Andrew E. Hunt concluded, "Detractors have always cited numbers when criticizing VVAW. At the pinnacle of VVAW's success in 1972, membership rolls listed almost twenty-five thousand card carriers, or fewer than 1 percent of all eligible Vietnam era veterans... By emphasizing the low percentage of Vietnam veterans who paid dues to VVAW, opponents have sought to dismiss the significance and impact of the organization."
During the Labor Day weekend of September 4-7, 1970, Operation RAW ("Rapid American Withdrawal") took place. It was a three day protest march from Morristown, NJ, to Valley Forge State Park by over 200 veterans. They were joined by members of "Nurses for Peace" and other peace groups. Dressed in combat fatigues and carrying toy weapons, the march was designed to dramatize a Vietnam-type search and destroy mission to the Middle America they passed through. Upon entering each town along the march, sweeps were made, prisoners taken and interrogated, property seized and homes cleared with the assistance of previously planted "guerrilla theater" actors portraying civilians. The 86 mile long march culminated in a four hour rally at Valley Forge that over 1,500 people attended. The honorary commander during this event was retired Army Brigadier General Hugh B. Hester. Sponsors included Senators George McGovern and Edmund Muskie, Rep. John Conyers, Paul O'Dwyer, Mark Lane, and Donald Sutherland. Scheduled speakers were John Kerry, Joe Kennedy, Rev. James Bevel, Mark Lane, Jane Fonda, and Sutherland. Congressman Allard Lowenstein, Mike Lerner, and Army First Lt. Louis Font also spoke.
In January 1971, VVAW sponsored The Winter Soldier Investigation to gather and present testimony from soldiers about war crimes being committed in Southeast Asia and demonstrate they were committed as a result of American war policies. Intended as a public event, it was boycotted by much of the mainstream media, although the Detroit Free Press covered it daily and immediately began investigating what was being said. No records of fraudulent participants or fraudulent testimony were produced.
Veterans applying for participation in the investigation were asked if they witnessed or participated in a list of transgressions, including search and destroy missions, crop destruction, and POW mistreatment.
This event was estimated to have cost the VVAW $50,000â$75,000. It was financially supported by the fund-raising efforts of several celebrity peace activists, with actress Jane Fonda soliciting over $10,000 in donations at 54 college campuses for the VVAW. Winter Soldier Investigation testimonies were read into the Congressional Record by Senator Hatfield. In 1972, VVAW continued antiwar protests, and released Winter Soldier, a 16mm black-and-white documentary film showing participants giving testimony at the 1971 hearing, as well as footage of the Dewey Canyon III week of protest events. This film is currently on limited distribution and is now available on DVD.
This peaceful anti-war protest organized by VVAW took its name from two short military invasions of Laos by US and South Vietnamese forces. Dubbed "Operation Dewey Canyon III," it took place in Washington, D.C, April 19 through April 23, 1971. It was referred to by the participants as "a limited incursion into the country of Congress." The level of media publicity and Vietnam veteran participation at the Dewey Canyon week of protest events far exceeded the Winter Soldier Investigation and any previous VVAW protest event.
Led by Gold Star Mothers (mothers of soldiers killed in war), more than 1,100 veterans marched across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to the Arlington Cemetery gate, just beneath the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A memorial service for their peers was conducted by Reverend Jackson H. Day, who had just a few days earlier resigned his military chaplainship. In addition to his passages of scripture and citations of poetry was a personal statement, including the following:
|â||Maybe there are some others here like me--who wanted desperately to believe that what we were doing was acceptable, who hung on the words of "revolutionary development" and "winning the hearts and minds of the people." We had been told that on the balance the war was a good thing and we tried to make it a good thing; all of us can tell of somebody who helped out an orphanage, or of men like one sergeant who adopted a crippled Vietnamese child; and even at My Lai the grief of one of the survivors was mixed with bewilderment as he told a reporter, "I just don't understand it ... always before, the Americans brought medicine and candy." I believe there is something in all of us that would wave a flag for the dream of an America that brings medicine and candy, but we are gathered here today, waving no flags, in the ruins of that dream. Some of you saw right away the evil of what was going on; others of us one by one, adding and re-adding the balance sheet of what was happening and what could possibly be accomplished finally saw that no goal could be so laudable, or defense so necessary, as to justify what we have visited upon the people of Indochina.||â|
The Gold Star Mothers and a few others approached the cemetery gate to enter and lay wreaths, but the gate had been closed and locked upon word of their impending arrival. They placed the wreaths instead along the gate, and peacefully departed.
The march re-formed and continued to the Capitol, with Congressman Pete McCloskey joining the procession en route. McCloskey and fellow Representatives Bella Abzug, Donald Edwards, Shirley Chisholm, Edmund Muskie and Ogden Reid addressed the large crowd in a show of support. VVAW members defied a Justice Department-ordered injunction that they not camp on The Mall and set up camp anyway. Later that day, the District Court of Appeals lifted the injunction. Some members personally visited their Congressmen to lobby against the U.S. participation in the war. They presented Congress with their 16-point suggested resolution for ending the war in Vietnam.
On Tuesday, April 20, 200 veterans listened to hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on proposals to end the war. Other veterans, still angry at the insult to the Gold Star Mothers when they were refused entry to Arlington National Cemetery the previous day, marched back to the front gate. After initial refusal of entry, the veterans were finally allowed in. Veterans performed guerrilla theater on the Capitol steps, re-enacting combat scenes and search and destroy missions from Vietnam. Later that evening, Democratic Senators Claiborne Pell and Philip Hart held a fund-raising party for the veterans. During the party it was announced that Chief Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court had reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the injunction. The veterans were given until 4:30 the following afternoon to break camp and leave the National Mall. This was the fastest reversal of an Appeals Court decision in the Supreme Court's history.
On Wednesday, April 21, more than 50 veterans marched to The Pentagon and attempted to surrender and turn themselves in as war criminals. A Pentagon representative took their names and then turned them away. More veterans continued to meet with and lobby their representatives in Congress. Senator Ted Kennedy spent the day speaking with the veterans. The guerrilla theater re-enactments were moved to the steps of the Justice Department. After a close vote by the veterans, they decided to remain where they were. Many of the veterans were prepared to be arrested for continuing to camp on the National Mall, but none were arrested. Several of the patrolling park police officers reassured the veterans that arrests were not going to be made, despite orders to do so. Headlines the following day read, "VETS OVERRULE SUPREME COURT."
On Thursday, April 22, a large group of veterans demonstrated on the steps of the Supreme Court, and demanded to know why the Supreme Court had not ruled on the constitutionality of the war in Vietnam. The veterans sang "God Bless America" and 110 were arrested for disturbing the peace, and were later released. John Kerry, as VVAW spokesman, testified against the war for 2 hours in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before a packed room of observers and media. The veterans continued lobbying on Capitol Hill all day. A Washington District Court judge angrily dissolved his injunction order, rebuking the Justice Department lawyers for requesting the court order and then not enforcing it. Veterans staged a candlelight march around the White House, while a huge American flag was carried upside down in the historic international signal of distress.
On Friday, April 23, more than 800 veterans, one by one, tossed their medals, ribbons, discharge papers and other war mementos on the steps of the Capitol, rejecting the Vietnam war and the significance of those awards. Several hearings in Congress were held that week regarding atrocities committed in Vietnam and the media's inaccurate coverage of the war. There were also hearings on proposals to end the United States' participation in the war. The vets planted a tree on the mall as part of a ceremony symbolizing the veterans' wish to preserve life and the environment.
Senators George McGovern and Mark Hatfield helped arrange at least $50,000 in fundraising during preparations for Dewey Canyon III. The VVAW paid $94,000 for an ad to advertise this event in the April 11, 1971 New York Times.
In May 1971, the VVAW and former Army chaplain Reverend Jackson Day conducted a service for veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Injured and disabled veterans who were inpatients there were brought into the chapel in wheelchairs. The service included time for individual prayers or public confession, and many veterans took the floor to recount things they had done or seen for which they felt guilt or anger. This was the last service performed by Jackson Day for almost two decades.
Operation POW, organized by the VVAW in Massachusetts, got its name from the group's concern that Americans were prisoners of the Vietnam War, as well as to honor American POWs held captive by North Vietnam. The event sought to tie antiwar activism to patriotic themes. Over the 1971 Memorial Day weekend, veterans and other participants marched from Concord, Massachusetts to a rally on Boston Common. The plan was to invoke the spirit of the American Revolution and Paul Revere by spending successive nights at the sites of the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, culminating in a Memorial Day rally with a public reading of the United States Declaration of Independence.
The event organizers requested permission in advance to camp overnight on the historic Lexington, Massachusetts Green, but were refused by the town Board of Selectmen. On the day of the marchers' arrival in Lexington, an emergency town meeting was held. The Selectmen, citing a town bylaw, insisted that the demonstrators must vacate the Green by 10:00 p.m. The VVAW and town citizens that supported them decided instead to camp on the village green. At 2:30 a.m. on May 30, local and state police awoke and arrested 441 demonstrators for trespassing. All were given the Miranda warning and were taken away on school buses to spend the night at the Lexington Public Works Garage. Julian Soshnick, a Lexington resident and charismatic lawyer of Boston Strangler fame, was among several attorneys that volunteered to represent the demonstrators. He worked out a deal with friend, colleague, and Concord Court Judge, John Forte. The protesters later paid a $5 fine each and were released. The mass arrests caused a community backlash and eventually gave positive coverage to the VVAW.
On December 26, 1971, fifteen VVAW activists barricaded and occupied the Statue of Liberty for two days in a successful attempt to bring attention to the antiwar cause. Simultaneous protests took place across the country, such as at the historic Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia (for 45 minutes) and Travis Air Force Base in California (for 12 hours). Other VVAW members in California also briefly occupied the Saigon Government consulate in San Francisco. VVAW occupied the Statue of Liberty a second time in 1976 to bring renewed attention to veteran issues.
During a four day series of meetings in Kansas City, Missouri on November 12â15, 1971, Scott Camil, a radical VVAW southern coordinator, proposed the assassination of the most conservative members of United States Congress, and other powerful opponents of the antiwar movement.
According to interviews with VVAW members who were present at the Kansas City meetings, Camil suggested something he called "The Phoenix Project," named after the original Phoenix Program operations during the Vietnam War used by the CIA to assassinate the Viet Cong. Originally conceived as an option during the protest march in Washington, Camil's Phoenix Project plan was to execute the Southern senatorial leadership that was backing the war, including John Tower, Strom Thurmond, and John Stennis. In Camil's words:
|â||I did not think it was terrible at the time. My plan was that, on the last day we would go into the [congressional] offices we would schedule the most hardcore hawks for last â and we would shoot them all...I was serious. I felt that I spent two years killing women and children in their own fucking homes. These are the guys that fucking made the policy, and these were the guys that were responsible for it, and these were the guys that were voting to continue the fucking war when the public was against it. I felt that if we really believed in what we were doing, and if we were willing to put our lives on the line for the country over there, we should be willing to put our lives on the line for the country over here." ||â|
The proposed assassinations were to be executed during the Senate Christmas recess. The plan was voted down, although there's a "difference of opinion" as to how close the vote was. It is unclear whether 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry was present for this meeting. His campaign indicated he wasn't there and had resigned from the organization by then. He continued to speak at anti-war events for several more months.
By 1973, US combat involvement in Vietnam ended, and VVAW changed its emphasis to include advocating amnesty for draft resisters and dissenters. President Jimmy Carter eventually granted an amnesty in 1980.
As VVAW gained members in the late '60s they realized that many veterans were having readjustment problems. As early as 1970 VVAW initiated "rap groups" in which veterans could discuss the troubling aspects of the war, their disillusionment with it, and their experiences on arriving home. They enlisted the aid of two prominent psychiatrists, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton and Dr. Chaim F. Shatan to direct and add focus to their sessions. Their continued pressure and activism caused what had been known as "Post-Vietnam Syndrome" to be recognized in 1980 as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The VVAW "rap group" treatment methods are the basis for treating PTSD today.
In 1978 Chicago Veterans Administration caseworker Maude de Victor noticed a pattern in cancers and other illnesses suffered by Vietnam veterans and linked those illnesses with exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange, and its dioxin contaminants. VVAW led veterans organizations in the struggle to force the government to test, treat and compensate the victims of those poisons. Congress mandated a study of Agent Orange in 1979. Veterans sued the herbicide manufacturers, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, in 1982. Two years later the companies settled the suit for $180 million to compensate what at that time was over 200,000 claimants.
These were lonely campaigns since the "main stream" veterans groups regarded Vietnam veterans as "crybabies and losers" in general, and VVAW in particular was seen as being unpatriotic and anti-American. A natural ally, Vietnam Veterans of America, wasn't founded by VVAW member Robert Muller until 1978. It wasn't until 1990 that the American Legion and VVA filed suit against the government for failing to conduct the study ordered by Congress in 1979.
Several members moved on to prominent positions in society. In 1978 former VVAW member Bobby Muller co-founded the Vietnam Veterans of America. Former member John Kerry became Lt. Governor of Massachusetts in 1982, and won a United States Senate seat in 1984. Ron Kovic went on to write Born on the Fourth of July, an autobiography which became an Academy Award winning movie in 1989.
Every five years, members and former members attend regular reunions, with the 1992 event attracting hundreds of veterans to commemorate the founding of the organization twenty five years earlier. VVAW continues to organize programs and fundraising events in support of veterans, peace, and social justice. â
The relatively small group Vietnam Veterans Against The War Anti-Imperialist (VVAW-AI) is not a faction, caucus or part of VVAW. The VVAW web site describes VVAW-AI as "the creation of an obscure, ultra-left sect called the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) ... designed to pimp off of VVAW's history of struggle." In the mid-1970s, as VVAW membership severely dropped after the end of the war, members of Bob Avakian's militant RCP were able to gain influential positions in the VVAW, including the National Office. A rift in the remaining membership formed due to the opposed ideologies, and the RCP group formed a separate organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist (VVAW-AI). VVAW filed and won a lawsuit prohibiting the RCP group from using the VVAW name, logos and materials.
In 1973, after months of heated debate, the VVAW changed the name of the organization to VVAW/WSO (Winter Soldier Organization), and opened its membership to non-veterans as a remedy to its diminishing size. With these relaxed membership requirements, members of ultra-left factions like Bob Avakian's militant Revolutionary Union were able to join VVAW, ultimately leading to a takeover of the VVAWâs National Office and steering committee. By 1975, the RCP cadre had managed to obtain many key leadership positions in the organization, and tried to control the splintered organization. A rift in the remaining membership formed due to the opposed ideologies, and the RCP group splintered off to form a smaller separate organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist (VVAW-AI). With the radical fringe elements influence removed, VVAW dropped the WSO from their name, won the court injunction against the radical group and struggled to rebuild. Deep animosity still exists between the two organizations.
The organization survived the conflict with the RCP and its general decline after the end of the Vietnam War, but as historian Andrew Hunt put it, only as âan ineffectual fragment of its former self. ...VVAW never ceased to exist. It split, dwindled, and underwent additional transformation. Yet it did not fold.â
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