Still a Force for Peace
By Jerry Lembcke (Reviewer)
The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
By Andrew E. Hunt
(New York University Press, 1999)
In my course on public memory and the Vietnam War, I sometimes begin by asking students if they have heard of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Few say they have. Their image of Vietnam veterans is more likely derived from Hollywood films portraying veterans as sad-sack trauma cases, sexual predators, or bare-chested mercenaries returned to jungle warfare. "The Turning" is a straightforward and crisply-written narrative that reasserts the historical record that thousands of men came home from Vietnam empowered and politicized and ready to join the anti-war movement. In it, author Andrew Hunt gives us the best account we have of VVAW, one of the most remarkable expressions of resistance to war in all of history.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War began as a six-man speakers bureau in New York City in 1967 and begin to grow when the small group announced its existence with a full-page ad in the November 19 New York Times. In January 1968 the fledgling organization helped launch the first anti-war newspaper for soldiers, Vietnam GI, and a month later, with membership growing, it moved into offices on Fifth Avenue. By the time the last U.S. troops came home from Vietnam in 1973, VVAW had become a full-fledged national organization with 20,000 members and branch offices in several states.
The stories of what VVAW accomplished along the way and the adversities it overcame make up the core chapters of "The Turning." The appearance of VVAW at the very time when fatigue was taking its toll on other anti-war organizations made it a godsend to the movement. Its leaders brought a new level of maturity and self-confidence to the movement and, with the credentials of "having been there," they had the political cachet that other activists had already spent. When VVAW leader John Kerry implored a congressional committee to end the war in 1971, they listened. In cities and towns across the country, VVAW members and followers merged their fresh energy and new ideas for how to "bring the war home" with existing efforts to educate the American people about the war. Veterans formed guerrilla theater troops to reenact combat operations at sites along roads, in parks, and on college campuses. Mock war-crimes trials were organized to document veterans' testimonies about the use of illegal military tactics in Vietnam. In April 1971, thousands of veterans converged on Washington, D.C. for an encampment to protest the war. Dubbed "Operation Dewey Canyon III," this limited incursion into the nation's capital ended with hundreds of veterans angrily returning the medals they had been awarded for service in Vietnam.
But the heady stories of the war-against-the-war are only one part of the story told by Hunt. From day one, VVAW was under surveillance by the FBI and it was the constant target of the bureau's COINTELPRO campaign to disrupt it and other movement organizations. VVAW leaders were alert to efforts by the FBI and the administration of President Richard Nixon to discredit VVAW as a phony organization whose members were not really veterans, and their guard was always out for agents provocateurs sponsored by the FBI or local police. In the months leading up to the 1972 Republican Party convention in Miami Beach, VVAW was infiltrated by agent William Lemmer who tried to provoke members to engage in violent actions and later falsely testified to a VVAW conspiracy to assault the convention.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War was also burdened by internal disagreements and splits. Tensions within the organization arose in 1968 over whether to support Eugene McCarthy's bid for the Democratic Party's nomination for president. The moderates in VVAW favored the pursuit of peace in Vietnam through the electoral process, while the radicals inclined toward politics in the streets. Two years later, the same issue resurfaced when some members wanted to hold a war-crimes trial in Washington, where it would catch the attention of legislators, while others preferred Detroit as a site because there the event would get the attention of working-class Americans. As the war wound down, moderates like John Kerry, who had annoyed other leaders by his reluctance to do the organizational grunt work needed around the national office, stepped off the VVAW bus to political or academic careers while militants like Joe Urgo, who was the first Vietnam veteran to return to Hanoi as an anti-war activist, left to begin a new organization, VVAW/Anti-Imperialist. The author presents VVAW struggles in what appears to be a fair and even-handed way, using biographical sketches of leaders like Urgo, Barry Romo, Jan Barry, Scott Camil, and John O'Connor, to keep the human dimension of the organization before us.
In the end, Hunt captures what might be the most remarkable feature of the VVAW story: it hasn't ended. The only Sixties-generation anti-war organization that lived to see the new century, VVAW is still a force for peace. Its obituary yet to be written, as Hunt notes, VVAW marked its 35th anniversary by taking out another full-page ad, this one in the November 11, 2002 Nation magazine, opposing the looming war against Iraq.
Jerry Lembcke is associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College and the author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (NYU Press) and "CNN's Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam's Last Great Myth" (Rowman & Littlefield Pub. Co.). This review is reprinted with permission from Humanity & Society Vol. 26, No. 2.