By Courtney Suciu
Founded in 1967, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) is an extraordinary organization which formed to protest the conflict in which the majority of its members had served and fought. It grew to become an invaluable resource and advocate for veterans returning from the war, helping to draft critical legislation for education, employment and healthcare to support them.
As Andrew Hunt, Professor of History at the University of Waterloo in Canada, noted in a recent essay1 for ProQuest, “Before VVAW was created, there had not been anything like it on the same scale.”
Because of its vehement opposition to the war and its high visibility (Hunt pointed out that members of the organization could be distinguished by their military fatigues and creative, often theatrical methods of protest), the VVAW was also extremely controversial. Citizens who supported the war called the group un-American and unpatriotic; “To the Nixon administration,” Prof. Hunt wrote:
VVAW represented a threat to American security and had to be curtailed through covert surveillance campaigns. Behind closed doors, President Richard Nixon gave his blessing to a government offensive against VVAW, encouraging cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local law enforcement organizations to infiltrate, harass and destabilize the group.
For the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where 10,000 antiwar demonstrators met with over 20,000 police and National Guardsman culminating in a four-day long riot, we take a look at one of the most unique protest groups in American history.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention was held in August of one of the most polarizing years in American history. The nation had endured one devastation after another, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed soon by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Brutal images appeared on television of the beatings inflicted by police on demonstrators and onlookers after the Students for a Democratic Society’s takeover of Columbia University.
As the number of U.S. casualties reached more than 15,000, with 40,000 more young men drafted into service each month, there seemed to be no end to the on-going war in Vietnam.
Many Americans, especially young people, felt abused, discarded and disenfranchised by those in power. The convention seemed for them – including the fledgling VVAW – an opportunity to make their voices heard.
In his book The Turning,2 an in-depth history of the VVAW, Prof. Hunt recounted how “two leaders of VVAW worked around the clock, contacting Vietnam veterans across America. They hoped to enlist fifty Vietnam veterans, one from each state, to travel to the Democratic National Convention” to lobby delegates for an antiwar platform.
“The veterans hoped their unique status would help them influence delegates, yet they went to Chicago with few expectations,” Hunt explained, and it turned out their pessimism was warranted. Within the convention, the Democratic Party “adopted a decidedly pro-war statement” and outside the convention, veterans found themselves caught up in the violence between militant activists and the police – a harrowing scene described as a “city under siege.”
Hunt’s book reveals the experience of one former helicopter crew chief and VVAW member who attended the convention and was among those swept into the chaos, “complete with a police helicopter buzzing overhead”:
“[S]eeing those guys up above, looking at the troops and the cops, and knowing they were against me—for me this was as terrifying as anything in Vietnam. Somehow I had become the enemy, the Vietcong of the United States, when all I am is a human being that wants to be human. Just because I hate this war and the kind of things that forced us into it, they’ve made me the enemy of my country.
“The veterans left Chicago feeling depressed and powerless,” Prof. Hunt continued. “Their nonviolent efforts were completely overshadowed in the press by the battle in the streets.” Many of them were embittered by what they suffered at the convention and several them left the VVAW. As a result, the organization was in trouble. With limited funds, resources and manpower, it seemed the VVAW’s days were numbered.
But it turned out, the VVAW was just getting started.
The organization gained momentum in the early ‘70s with controversial activities such as the Winter Soldier Investigation (see below) and protest marches like Operation Rapid Action Withdrawal (RAW) which included dramatic enactments of the type of search and destroy missions that had been conducted in Vietnam.
The VVAW also formed powerful partnerships with celebrities like Jane Fonda, Phil Ochs and Donald Sutherland which helped raise funds and publicize their work, including post-war support for veterans. “Rap” groups were initiated, where veterans could discuss the challenges of returning to civilian life. Members of the VVAW also fought to gain treatment and benefits for veterans suffering from war-related health conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and exposure to Agent Orange.
Despite their influence in ‘70s, in subsequent decades, it was next to impossible for researchers to learn about the people, activities and accomplishments of the organization.
In 1994, Prof. Hunt was a history graduate student in the process of choosing his dissertation topic. “I went to the library in search of a secondary history of VVAW,” he wrote in his essay for ProQuest. “Imagine my surprise when I discovered that no such thing existed.”
So, he set out to write one.
“In those days, the internet was still in its infancy,” Prof. Hunt recalled. “I had to write letters, search through books, and do some telephoning around to discover that VVAW’s papers were kept at the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) in Madison.”
Prof. Hunt made his way to the Wisconsin Historical Society, where with the help of the “wonderful archivists…I discovered at my fingertips a vibrant history, full of drama, begging to be told.”
He continued, “Reading through stacks of correspondence, organizational documents, national office memos, newsletters, press clippings, unpublished first-hand accounts, and a variety of other primary sources, I came to appreciate VVAW’s remarkable history, and I was determined to do it justice.”
Today’s researchers can easily discover an abundance of resources related to the VVAW for insights into the organization, the Vietnam War and veterans’ affairs. In addition to Dr. Hunt’s notable book, The Turning, the primary source documents used in his research are available digitally as the result of a partnership between ProQuest History Vault and the WHS.
The VVAW papers are one of largest collections in the History Vault module Students for a Democratic Society, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the anti-Vietnam War Movement which encompasses documents from a dozen different anti-Vietnam War organizations. Within the VVAW collection students and scholars around the world can easily access records from the organization’s national office related to programs and activities such as antiwar demonstrations and the Winter Soldier war crimes investigation (see below), as well as documents from local chapters related to the peace movement in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
According to Dr. Hunt, much remains in the VVAW papers to be discovered and learned about the organization. “There are still so many hidden histories that await the light of day and the curious eyes of young historians,” he wrote. “The U.S. is unique in being home to the first antiwar organization whose members served in the very war they were protesting – and while it was still underway, no less.”
One of the most profound accomplishments of the VVAW was the Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI), a 1972 media event the organization co-sponsored in Detroit. The 3-day forum featured testimony from veterans about war crimes and immoral conduct by the U.S. Armed Forces and their allies in Vietnam as the result of military policies.
While the conference was well attended by news outlets, it received little attention outside of several articles printed in The Detroit Free Press. Most publications outright refused to cover the hearings. In addition, attempts were made by some members of the media, as well as by government officials, and pro-war individuals to discredit participants in the investigation.
For researchers interested in learning more about the controversy surrounding the WSI, information that was uncovered in the hearings, and the impact of the event, there are several resources to supplement the VVAW documents in ProQuest History Vault and Dr. Hunt’s book, The Turning:
Milestone Films (Producer). (1972). [Video file]. This documentary, produced in conjunction with the VVAW contains film footage of the WSI hearings, as well as some pre-event and post-event footage with commentary. Available from Academic Video Online.
Interview with John Kerry, 1982
Ellison, R. (Producer). (1983). [Video file]. Before serving as U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Senator, John Kerry was an impassioned spokesperson for the VVAW. In this interview, he describes his missions in Vietnam and his participation in the WSI.
Available from Academic Video Online.
The Detroit Free Press
Researchers can glean unique insights about the WSI by exploring coverage of the hearings in one of the few publications that covered them. Articles about the WSI can be explored alongside stories on related events and other news of the day, as well as advertisements, movie listings, editorials and more for a deeper understanding of the cultural climate during the forum. Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan.
War, I., & Glantz, A. (2008). In this book, veterans of more recent conflicts Iraq and Afghanistan describe, in their own words, the crimes of war they witnessed. Available from Ebook Central.
War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldier - What Really Happened in Vietnam
Kulik, G. (2009). A Vietnam war veteran and historian takes a critical look at veterans’ accounts of the atrocities they witnessed in Vietnam. Available from Ebook Central.
Additional ProQuest History Vault modules
American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate
This module, which focuses on records from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon White Houses, contains two major sets of records pertaining to the anti-Vietnam War Movement.
FBI Confidential Files and Radical Politics in the U.S., 1945-1972
These documents provide insight into FBI policies and priorities, the scope of investigations of subversives, the purposes of investigations of liberal and conservative activists, and the bureau’s relationships with other intelligence agencies.
Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy
This module covers U.S. involvement in the region from the early days of the Kennedy administration, through the escalation of the war during the Johnson administration, to the final resolution of the war at the Paris Peace Talks and the evacuation of U.S. troops in 1973.
For further research
Download the essay, explore related content, and watch the video sample Winter Soldier, available in Academic Video Online.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu