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By John Prados
To suggest that John Kerry lied in describing American atrocities when he returned home from Vietnam, a number of conservative commentators have noted that he relied on the testimony of the Winter Soldier Investigation, a meeting of antiwar vets that took place in 1971. Last week, National Review, editor Rich Lowry described the investigation as a "since-discredited project that gathered first-person accounts of alleged atrocities from American vets." Earlier this month, Eric Fettman wrote in The New York Post that the investigation was hatched by a "conspiracy crackpot" and later exposed as a "mass of fabrications." And a host of conservative websites piled on, explaining to readers that the winter soldiers had long since been exposed as frauds.
The problem with this line of analysis is that the Winter Soldier Investigation was never discredited. A handful of individual stories may have been called into question, but the main thrust of the soldiers' testimonies — that American atrocities were widespread in Vietnam — is today beyond dispute. Indeed the emergence of new evidence during the last 30 years has only solidified the winter soldiers' overall case.
The Winter Soldier Investigation took place in Detroit in 1971. For three days, beginning on January 31, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) related their personal experiences of events that constituted war crimes or violations of international law. VVAW had carefully prepared this public testimony, asking speakers only to relate events of which they had direct knowledge. Veterans wrote preliminary accounts of their testimonies on questionnaires; VVAW staff then went through huge numbers of these questionnaires before selecting the individuals who would be asked to present evidence. Every veteran who presented in Detroit had to show a copy of his military papers (the military form known as DD-214) to demonstrate that he had actually been present at the places and times he was speaking about. The papers of VVAW today contain boxes upon boxes of the questionnaires and records of this event. They show not only that the testimonies were prepared meticulously, but that the evidence actually presented in Detroit in early 1971 represented only a small percentage of the total number of questionable events these soldiers witnessed in Vietnam.
The veterans who appeared at the Winter Soldier Investigation included both officers and enlisted men — more than a hundred in all — with service dates from 1963 through 1970. They represented a wide array of units: the Special Forces (Green Berets); the 1st and 3rd Marine Divisions; the 1st Cavalry Division; the 101st Airborne Division; the 173rd Airborne Brigade; the 4th, 9th, 25th and Americal Infantry Divisions; and other units as well. Soldiers in Detroit testified to civilians killed in "reconnaissance by fire," that is, gunfire aimed at a village before troops entered it; brutal interrogations; people's heads or ears cut off to frighten others; villagers forcibly relocated and their homes destroyed; prisoners mistreated; and numerous other abuses.
Later that year, John Kerry carried these stories to the public in both his congressional testimony and in his public appearances. The allegations were hotly disputed at the time by veterans such as John O'Neill, who has now resurfaced as a leader of the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. O'Neill and Kerry debated each other on "The Dick Cavett Show" on June 30, 1971, with O'Neill demanding that the winter soldiers give "depositions" in order to prove the veracity of their allegations.
But the current claim by conservatives that the Winter Soldier Investigation was discredited can be most directly traced to a 1978 book by Guenther Lewy called "America in Vietnam," which attempted an early form of the argument that the United States won the Vietnam war. In the main, Lewy merely reprised John O'Neill's objections from "The Dick Cavett Show." Lewy's primary evidence consists of noting that VVAW members refused to give depositions. When the Naval Investigative Service tried to pull VVAW members into an inquiry, it found one Marine who either could not or would not give details of what he had seen and allegedly located several other veterans who said they had never gone to Detroit. (O'Neill had cited this same information in his televised debate with Kerry.) But even if true, these incidents were far too limited to establish anything in particular about the Winter Soldier Investigation; the fact that some of the winter soldiers declined to give depositions does not prove or disprove the legitimacy of the entire project. The VVAW leadership left it up to individual members to decide how to respond to requests for depositions. And veterans had good reasons to decline. For one thing, they argued that their purpose was to protest U.S. policy, not to draw attention to individual soldiers. What's more, with the VVAW under direct assault from the Nixon administration, it's understandable that the group's members were loathe to cooperate with government investigators.
The remaining plank in Lewy's case against the winter soldiers consists merely of noting the participation in Detroit of JFK assassination conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. And even in attempting to cast doubt on the veracity of the winter soldiers' allegations, Lewy also wrote that "incidents similar to some of those described at the VVAW hearing undoubtedly did occur"; that policies such as the military's emphasis on "body count" certainly "created an atmosphere conducive to atrocities"; that in 1967 Vietnam field commander General William Westmoreland had to issue orders prohibiting cutting ears or fingers off the bodies of the dead; and that the conduct of a war without fronts "created a setting especially conducive to atrocities."
Other claims put forward at the Winter Soldier Investigation — such as an allegation that the Marines made an incursion into Laos (Operation Dewey Canyon) that was illegal under U.S. law — were later shown to be true. And in the years since the winter soldiers convened in Detroit, the general premise of their gathering has been validated: American soldiers did indeed commit atrocities in Vietnam; the most famous, the My Lai massacre of March 1968, was merely the starting point. The names of villages like Son Thang and Thanh Phong, locales of other acknowledged atrocities, are now burned into the memory of historians. The actions of Tiger Force of the 327th Airborne Infantry in the Central Highlands in 1967 are still today under investigation as war crimes. (Indeed veterans of Tiger Force have acknowledged the atrocities and have appeared on television to describe their roles and remorse.) And the Phoenix Program led to thousands of deaths despite efforts by the CIA's William Colby to impose legal strictures on program activities. As a historian of the Vietnam war, over the decades I have myself heard veterans tell innumerable stories of incidents they saw and would prefer to forget. The truth is that American military tactics and the nature of the war conditioned the ferocity of field operations, while widespread U.S. attitudes of contempt toward the Vietnamese made atrocities all the more difficult to prevent.
The only thing that analysts like Guenther Lewy have shown is that it is difficult to establish precisely how many atrocities took place, or how many Vietnamese, innocent or otherwise, perished as a result of them. Thirty years later polemicists like John O'Neill continue to cloud reality with obfuscation. None of this changes the fact that far from being discredited, the Winter Soldier Investigation has been largely validated. Conservative commentators should stop pretending otherwise.
© 2004, The New Republic. Reprinted with permission.
John Prados is a senior analyst with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.,
and editor, with Margaret Pratt-Porter, of the book "Inside the Pentagon Papers" (University of Kansas Press).