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Vets' History: Operation "Dewey Canyon III"
In April of 1971 the war was raging in Indochina. The vast majority of American were sick and tired of it and wanted the war to end. Thousands and thousands were actively demonstrating their opposition to the war as the US government was losing more and more support for its Vietnam policies.
Soldiers in Vietnam were refusing to go on combat missions. At home, veterans formed a national organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). It was in April of 1971 that VVAW held its first national demonstration to protest the war in Vietnam. The demonstration was named "Operation Dewey Canyon III" (Dewey Canyon I and II were secret operations into Laos that were never reported to the American people). It was held in Washington DC from April 18th to April 23rd, and was the most powerful antiwar demonstration held up to that time; it sparked off a series of major demonstrations that made it clear that the American people wanted the US out of Indochina.
A BRIEF BACKGROUND
VVAW had been formed in 1967, but it wasn't until 1970 that the organization realized its potential and began to see the importance of building nationally. In late January of 1971 an investigation into war crimes, with 150 vets testifying from firsthand experience, was held in Detroit. At this 3-day investigation the real basis was laid for organizing VVAW nationally. In mid February a meeting was held in New York bringing together vets from all over the country. There, VVAW became a national organization and the idea of DC III was crystallized. Vets went back to their cities and began to build for the Washington demonstration.
VETS ARRIVE IN WASHINGTON
On April 18th, the vets started arriving in Washington, DC. It was clear that the demonstration would be a success. The vets met in West Potomac Park for a night's encampment. There was a festive atmosphere as vets from different parts of the country came together with a common purpose. Some vets met buddies they hadn't seen since they were in the military.
Talk of how the different chapters were building their activities and who they were aimed at began. During the next several days differences on this point would emerge--whether the focus should be towards relying on congress and the courts to end the war, or towards vets and the American people whose anger would force an end to the war.
On the morning of April 19th the demonstration began. About 900 vets and several Gold Star parents (whose sons had died in Vietnam) marched to Arlington National Cemetary to pay tribute to their fallen comrades who had died on battlefield. As the vets marched across the Potomac River the first confrontation of the week began. Authorities refused the vets entrance to the Cemetary. Enraged, the vets and Gold Star parents held a brief ceremony at the locked gate. A Gold Star father played "Taps" and a wreath was laid at the locked gate.
The vets marched back through Washington to the Capitol steps, vowing to return to the Cemetery at a later date. Once at the Capitol, the struggle came out in the open around who vets should rely on. Awaiting the veterans was a group of Congressmen who talked about how they were trying to end the war. After several had spoken on and on, the vets got impatient. One vet called out, "You've been talking to us long enough, it's time you began listening." Many of the vets agreed wit this sentiment; others did not. Several VVAW leaders tried to channel the demonstration back towards Congress, but it was clear that the sentiment against Congress was beginning to run deep.
The vets marched to the Mall behind the Capitol building and set up a permanent camp for the remainder of their stay. The District Court had ordered that this encampment was illegal, but the court of Appeals reversed the order. The battle for the Mall had begun. In fact the vets were to battle President Nixon and the press as well.
Nixon was getting hourly reports on the vets. His spokesman made a statement to the press that the vets weren't vets at all. The papers began talking about "alleged veterans." This tactic was stopped when the veterans produced over 900 DD 214's (discharge papers).
Meanwhile, 200 vets went to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to listen to hearing on the war. Others lobbied Congressmen or performed guerilla theater around the city. 200 vets returned to Arlington National Cemetery, gained entrance and conducted the ceremony they were refused the day before.
But the big battle of the day came when the Supreme Court reversed the order of the Court of Appeals, and Warren Burger (Chief Justice) gave the vets until 4:30 the next afternoon to clear off the Mall.
On Wednesday the vets continued to lobby Congress. By now it was becoming clearer that all Congressmen were doing was glad-handing the veterans. And the vets began to take a more militant attitude--about 50 vets from New York took over Senator Buckley's office when the Senator refused to meet with them.
VETS DEFY SUPREME COURT
At 4:30 that afternoon, at the time the vets were supposed to clear off the Mall, nobody moved. A deal was offered--the vets could stay buy only if they stayed awake all night. Several VVAW leaders tried to win vets to this deal. After much debate a vote was taken; by a small majority the vets decided to sleep rather than to take the deal. Another vote was taken and all the vets voted to go with the majority. The Justice Department backed down, no arrests were made and the vets won a major victory defying the Supreme Court. That night the vets slept on the Mall.
On Thursday, 100 angry vets marched to the Supreme Court and held a demonstration against the war. The police ordered them away; the vets refused. The cops gave warning but the vets still stayed and all 110 were arrested. The news spread rapidly to the other veterans, many of whom were still lobbying. The anger was deepening and the frustrations of talking to Congressmen was growing.
At the same time the District Court dissolved their original injunction and castigated the Justice Department for refusing to carry out the Supreme Court order. This news was greeted with applause by the great majority of the veterans who were coming to see that relying on themselves and the American people was a better way to direct their antiwar sentiments.
On Thursday night plan were made for the final day of the demonstration. All vets would dispose of their war medals in a concrete act against the war. Another struggle began about how to do it--one suggestion was that all medals be put in a body bag and the bag be presented to Congress. But by now the vast majority of vets no longer wanted to take this direction and another plan was adopted. The vets slept will that night.
On Friday morning, the final day of the demonstration, the veterans lined up and marched to the Capitol Building. By now the number had grown to over 1000. Once at the Capitol they placed a sign marked "Trash" on a statue. One by one each vet approached the statue and a microphone. The vets told their names, their units, and many made statements against the war; then, angrily, they threw their war medals over the fence at the statue and at the Capitol Building itself.
One veteran threw away his nine Purple Hearts. Another threw over the fence a can he used as a result of a war injury. And on and on it went. Discharge papers, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Purple hearts. In all, literally thousands of medals were thrown back at the government that had sent each of the veterans to fight for the US ruling class. Never before had such a demonstration occurred by war veterans. It was unprecedented in the history of the country that veterans protested in such a unified and dramatic way their opposition to a war that was still raging on the other side of the world.
The sentiments of the vets was expressed best by one veteran who tossed his medals away and stated: "If we have to fight again, it will be to take these steps."
With this action the demonstration ended. It abounded in lessons for all vets. During the course of the week the veterans had stood up to and beat all the attempts that the government had used to stop the demonstration. The vets backed down the most powerful apparatus of the country--the President, the Supreme court, the Congress. It forged a unity that was carried on afterwards among the veterans and their organization, VVAW. It precipitated the largest demonstration that ever occurred in Washington--on Saturday, April 24th. It gave impetus to the May Day demonstrations where over 10,000 demonstrators were arrested for fighting against the war. And it gave the American people a clear insight that the war in Vietnam was opposed even by those who fought it.