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VVAW Celebrates Anniversary
By Joe Miller
The U.S. government has finally decided to establish normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam, and this is certainly an occasion to celebrate. It's about time! It must be remembered, however, that our government kept up an economic and political war against the Vietnamese people ever since that day in 1975, April 30, when they took their country back, after nearly thirty years of the intense struggle.
To celebrate the anniversary of that earlier event, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc. (VVAW) and our friends gathered at the Hothouse in Chicago on Saturday, April 29, 1995. This event was first planned at the annual VVAW National Meeting in October 1994. We wanted to have a party to remind people that Vietnam's struggle against U.S. aggression was a just struggle. Further, we wished to remember and to celebrate our role in helping to end the U.S. war against the people of Vietnam.
Nearly one hundred and twenty people attended this gathering for a small donation, half of which would be sent to Vietnam to assist in people-to-people aid projects. There were also VVAW souvenirs for sale and extensive photo displays about the war and our role in the antiwar movement. In addition to scheduled speakers, there was an open speakers' list, which encouraged anyone to come to the mike and express what the struggle in Vietnam meant to them.
The event opened with Barry Romo, one of VVAW's National Coordinators, welcoming everyone in the spirit of celebration. He pointed out that we in VVAW believe that it was a "good thing" when the Vietnamese people finally got their whole country back in 1975. He reminded everyone that even one of the "main architects" of that war against Vietnam now says the war was wrong. It is unimportant whether or not Robert McNamara feels bad about this; it is important that he has confirmed what we have been saying about the war all along, just as with the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Barry then provided the most recent statistics on Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong soldiers, and, nearly 600,000 ARVN soldiers. In addition, there are some 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs, civilian and military. Since the end of the war, 50,000 Vietnamese babies have been born with serious birth defects due to exposure to Agent Orange and other defoliants used by the United States in that region. The effects of such exposure are estimated to continue for another 40 years, that is, sixty years after the war's end! So, while we gathered in celebration of the anniversary of the end of the war, we must also remember the continuing price being paid on a daily basis for the many thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.
One friend who joined the speakers at this party was Dick Riley, longtime peace and social justice activist, and an important figure in the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Chicago for many years. Dick talked about the movement that developed around opposition to the war in Vietnam among young people. He pointed out that, in 1968, when he was only sixteen years old, he was organizing high school students against the war. "We were really young," he said, and there were "so many courageous people." This spirit still lives in young people today, he said, referring to the many young faces in the group that afternoon. In a nod to VVAW, Dick reminded everyone that this organization, is still perceived by activists as being "in the forefront of struggle for social justice." He urged young people to "talk to them, learn from them." He then raised his glass in a toast to the victory of the people of Vietnam.
The group was then entertained by VVAW member Jim Walktendonk, a singer from Madison, Wisconsin. Jim first explained how he drafted in 1968 and then became a dog handler in Vietnam, where he and the dogs were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides every day. After his daughter was born with birth defects in 1976, he and his wife, Sukie, began the search for answers, which led them to work with VVAW on this issue. Jim sang two of his most well-known songs, "That's All He Knows," about a foreman he had to work with in Madison, and "The Claymore Polka," about the fantasies Jim has had when considering payback against Dow and the other chemical companies that have had such a deadly impact on so many Vietnam vets and their families.
Following Jim's set, Barry was about to introduce the owner of the Hothouse to the crowd, when a long distance phone call came in from Australia. It was Graham Bell, an Australian Vietnam veteran and a longtime friend of VVAW. He wanted to send his regards and his support for the celebration to all in attendance. A great cheer went up from the crowd at this announcement.
Barry then introduced Marguerite, owner of the Hothouse, to the crowd. We wanted to publicly thank her for making the venue available to us. Marguerite thanked the crowd for their patronage and pointed out that she saw her role as one who helped to reaffirm principles of social justice and "make connections" between activists. She also said it was "great to see so many young people, because that's how we're gonna beat this thing," referring to the rightward shift in this country reflected in the 1994 elections.
Two graduating seniors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also spoke to the gathering. First of all, Joe Rubas told everyone how he moved from being the National Public Affairs Officer for Air Force ROTC to finally deciding to quit the program as a result of discussions with Barry Romo and others in my course on the Vietnam war. He also talked about how he managed to make connections with his uncle, a Vietnam veteran who had never discussed the war with anyone in the family prior to Joe's decision to split with ROTC. His uncle was "thrilled to death" with that decision and supported him all the way. Joe ended his remarks by pointing out the positive effects Vietnam veterans have had on his life decisions.
The second student, Jason Garcia, was introduced as the first exchange student from the University of Hanoi, beginning January 1996. In his remarks, Jason told of the influence Le Ly Hayslip and her story had on his educational and life choices. Jason had been one of my students when Hayslip's book was used in the Vietnam course, and he worked very hard to bring her to campus in late 1993. His decision to go into the field of diplomatic history, specializing on U.S.-Vietnam relations, was a direct result of these experiences. As Jason told the gathering, he hopes to bring the lesson of the war in Vietnam to future generations of students just as Barry, Le Ly Hayslip, and others had done for him.
As Bill Davis, a former National Coordinator of VVAW, took over the M.C. duties, he introduced two very important figures in VVAW and the struggle for social justice. First, Annie Luginbill, who worked with the Chicago Area Military Project (CAMP) in the 1960s and later connected with VVAW. Annie talked about her move from draft counseling to G.I. counseling to work with veterans. She also told how exciting it was to finally be able to visit Vietnam in 1991 on a VVAW-sponsored trip, after working for so many years in the antiwar movement.
Following Annie, we heard from Maude De Victor, Navy vet and former VA worker who helped expose the Agent Orange cover-up in the late 1970s. For her efforts, Maude was fired from the VA, and has been kept from any sort of federal employment since then. She never lost her spirit or her humanity, and her remarks at this celebration certainly reflected this. "I'm so glad that we survived," she said. She pointed out that our work on the herbicide issue has made it a little easier for people to understand and take seriously the health problems of Gulf War Veterans. This is a contribution that we must not forget, and, while "we've all aged together," according to Maude, we must continue. She ended her remarks by reminding us that her "heart is always with Vietnam vets."
The remainder of the afternoon festivities included more songs from Jim Walktendonk, a surprise song from my daughter, Lisa Boucher, and an even more surprising song from Bill Davis. Other speakers included Bud Sauk, a founding member of Business Executives Against the War in Vietnam; Ray Parrish, VVAW member and Director of the Midwest Committee for Military Counseling (MCMC); John Zutz, a Midwest Regional Coordinator for VVAW (see a printed version of his remarks elsewhere in this issue); and Dong Tizon, of the Philippine Workers Solidarity Committee, among others.
This afternoon was filled with memories, good and bad, with images of struggle, past and present (see Oscar Lopez-Rivera's letter below), and with determination to continue the fight for peace and social justice for all peoples everywhere. We came together in celebration of the victory of the people of Vietnam and in celebration of the contributions we made in helping that victory along. The struggle goes on!