Excerpt from a statement on behalf ofVietnam Veterans Against the War
Delivered to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, April 23, 1971
Reprinted from "Takin' It to the Streets": A Sixties Reader, published in 2003; also available at http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/VVAW_Kerry_Senate.html
"We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country, we could be quiet, we could hold our silence, we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country…that we have to speak out.…"
By the late 1960s there were many groups speaking out against the Vietnam War, but few did so with as much authority as a group known as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). The group was formed in 1967 when six Vietnam veterans met while participating in a protest march in New York City. These six soon expanded their group to include hundreds and then thousands of war veterans who were interested in talking about their experiences both during the war and after their return home. They spoke out against the terrible acts they were forced to commit while waging war in Vietnam but also about the poor treatment that veterans received upon returning home. For example, veterans were often blamed for participating in the war, and they often received substandard medical care at veterans' medical facilities.
By early 1971 the VVAW determined that it needed to become more active in protesting against the Vietnam War. For three days in January, the group held hearings at which soldiers testified about the exceedingly cruel and repulsive actions they had witnessed and committed while stationed in Vietnam. These hearings, held in a Detroit, Michigan, motel, were called the Winter Soldier Investigation. They helped the soldiers realize that they shared the belief that the war in Vietnam was unjust and against their higher ideals as Americans.
In April 1971 the VVAW organized a week-long demonstration in Washington, D.C., that the group called Operation Dewey Canyon III, named after an actual military operation held in Vietnam earlier that year. The protest began with a mass march of veterans and mothers of fallen soldiers to Arlington National Cemetery. During the week, veterans staged street theater performances, simulating attacks on civilians played by actors. Approximately sixty men tried to surrender themselves to the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. military in Washington, D.C., for committing war crimes. On the final day of the protest, two actions occurred: seven hundred veterans threw their medals and ribbons, military honors received for service in the war that the soldiers were protesting against, over a barricade onto the Capitol steps, and twenty-seven-year-old Navy lieutenant John Kerry (1944–) delivered a powerful testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
John Kerry had enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was a senior at Yale University in 1966. Over the course of his sixteen months of active duty in Vietnam, Kerry was injured three times and received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star. He was, by all accounts, an excellent soldier and leader, committed to the safety of the soldiers under his command. He was also an articulate spokesman for the concerns of the VVAW, as is evident in this testimony that he delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt of John Kerry's statement of behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War:
- One of the biggest problems facing American soldiers in Vietnam was the difficulty in identifying the enemy. The principal enemy group, the Vietcong, contained South Vietnamese who supported the efforts of North Vietnam. They looked no different than South Vietnamese civilians. American soldiers were often ordered to kill everyone in a village just because that village was suspected of aiding the Vietcong.
- Before the Vietnam War, the United States had never had a group of veterans who spoke out publicly about their resistance to the war. These veterans felt very strongly that their government had lied to the American people about the reasons the United States was fighting the war and about American troops having success in that war. They felt compelled to speak out against the horror and injustice of the war.
Excerpt of John Kerry's statement on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
I would like to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit—the emotions in the room and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.
They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians,razed villages in fashion reminiscent ofGenghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
We call this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation. The term Winter Soldier is a play on words ofThomas Paine 's in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriots and summertime soldiers who deserted atValley Forge because the going was rough.
We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country, we could be quiet, we could hold our silence, we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, not thereds, but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.…
In our opinion and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminalhypocrisy , and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.
We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from anycolonial influence whatsoever, but also we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.
We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicoptersstrafing them and bombs withnapalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything
The Ultimate Antiwar Song
The Vietnam War came at a time when rock 'n' roll music was going through an energizing process of change and adjustment. The first visit of the rock band the Beatles to the United States in 1964, the merging of folk and rock music in the work of singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the rekindling of blues traditions in American rock, and the growth of FM radio all made rock music a steady accompaniment in young people's lives in the 1960s. As America became involved in the Vietnam War, many rock and folk musicians began to pen songs that offered their protest of the war.
Arguably the best-known and most pointed of all the antiwar songs of the 1960s and early 1970s was the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," first released in 1967 by a band called Country Joe and the Fish. Country Joe was Joe McDonald (1942–), a singer-songwriter who had made a career singing folk songs in the San Francisco, California, area. The song made it to Number 32 on the Billboard Charts (a listing of the most popular songs played on the radio). Other popular anti-war songs of the era were: "Turn, Turn, Turn," by The Byrds; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," by Peter, Paul, and Mary; "Eve of Destruction," by Barry McGuire; "Ohio," by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and "Masters of War" and "Blowin' in the Wind," by Bob Dylan.
"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" (music and lyrics by Joe McDonald)
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to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace, and they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Vietcong, North Vietnamese or American.
We found also that all too often American men were dying in those rice paddies for want of support from their allies. We saw first hand how monies from American taxes were used for acorrupt dictatorial regime. We saw that many people in this country had a one-sided idea of who was kept free by the flag, and blacks provided the highest percentage of casualties. We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs andsearch and destroy missions , as well as by Vietcong terrorism—and yet we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Vietcong.
Werationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly aMy Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.
We learned the meaning offree fire zones , shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives oforientals .
We watched the United Statesfalsification of body counts , in fact the glorification of body counts. We listened while month after month we were told the back of the enemy was about to break. We fought using weapons against "oriental human beings." We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theater. We watched while men charged up hills because a general said that hill has to be taken, and after losing oneplatoon or two platoons they marched away to leave the hill for reoccupation by the North Vietnamese. We watched pride allow the most unimportant battles to be blown into extravaganzas, because we couldn't lose, and we couldn't retreat, and because it didn't matter how many American bodies were lost to prove that point, and so there wereHamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 81s and Fire Base 6s , and so many others.
Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance ofVietnamizing the Vietnamese.
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United Stateswashes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, "the first President to lose a war."
We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?.…
We are here to ask, and we are here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership? We're here to ask where areMcNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatrick , and so many others? Where are they now that we, the men they sent off to war, have returned? These are the commanders who have deserted their troops. And there is no more serious crime in the laws of war. The Army says they never leave their wounded. The marines say they never even leave their dead. These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude. They've left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in the sun in this country.…
We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission—to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more. And more. And so when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say "Vietnam" and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where Americafinally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.
What happened next…
The VVAW was at its peak of influence in 1971 and 1972. It had grown from eight thousand to fifty thousand members during that period, and many of its actions attracted national media attention. In December 1971 VVAW members occupied the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty in New York to protest the bombing of North Vietnam. In the summer of 1972, they demonstrated at the Republican National Convention in Miami. The group peaked at the very time that the antiwar movement as a whole had attained its greatest influence. Protests, rallies, and demonstrations by a variety of groups convinced American politicians that the American public no longer supported the war.
The VVAW's influence declined after 1972, but its most notable spokesman, John Kerry, went on to enjoy a distinguished political career. He was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982 and won a seat in the United States Senate in 1984. Kerry served in the Senate from 1984 into the early 2000s and was, as of mid-2004, the Democratic presidential nominee. In his 2004 campaign, Kerry pointed proudly to both his illustrious war record and his statements in 1971 as the co-founder of the VVAW.
Did you know…
- The withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam began slowly then picked up pace as American politicians looked for a way out. Troop levels declined from a high of 536,100 troops in 1968 to 450,200 in 1969; 334,600 in 1970; 156,800 in 1971; 24,200 in 1972; 50 in 1973 and 1974, and finally zero in 1975.
- As troop numbers declined in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States waged war from the air, with massive bombing campaigns. By war's end the United States had dropped over seven million tons of bombs—five million more than it had dropped during all of World War II—and had destroyed nearly every important target in North Vietnam.
- The last Americans evacuated the capital of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. North and South Vietnam were soon reunited to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and all relations with the United States were severed until 1995.
Consider the following…
- The participation of war veterans in antiwar protests caused great controversy in the United States. Do you think soldiers have the right to criticize the actions of their government?
- John Kerry raised the question of whether there are limits to the actions that soldiers should be asked to carry out to wage war. Are there just and unjust actions in war? Or does being at war remove all rules of conduct? Explain how military leaders should explain these issues to soldiers preparing to go into battle.
- The antiwar movement in the 1960s raised the issue of whether public opinion should influence a president's decisions relating to the waging of war. Is public opinion a legitimate factor for a president to consider when making decisions about war? Do some citizens' opinions—such as those of veterans—carry more weight than others? Explain your position.
For More Information
Bloom, Alexander, and Wini Breines, eds. "Takin' It to the Streets": A Sixties Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Dolan, Edward F. America after Vietnam: Legacies of a Hated War. New York: F. Watts, 1989.
Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Hunt, Andrew. The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement. New York: Crown, 2001.
Stacewicz, Richard. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Wormser, Richard. Three Faces of Vietnam. New York: F. Watts, 1993.
Wright, David K. Causes and Consequences of the Vietnam War. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996.
Battlefield: Vietnam.www.pbs.org/battlefieldvietnam/index.html (accessed on August 1, 2004).
"Sixties Project: Primary Document Archive," The Sixties Project.http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary.html (accessed on August 1, 2004).
Vietnam Online.www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/whos/index.html (accessed on August 1, 2004).
Vietnam Veterans Against the War.www.vvaw.org (accessed on August 2, 2004).
Genghis Khan: A medieval Mongolian warlord known for his brutality.
Valley Forge: The site of a famous battle in the American Revolutionary War (1775–83).
Reds: A slang term for communists.
Hypocrisy : The act of pretending to be something other than what you are, as in the false appearance of virtue.
Colonial influence : Kerry is referring to the Vietnamese attempt to free themselves from the influence of the French, who had once ruled Vietnam as a colony.
Strafing : Raking with gunfire at close range.
Napalm: An explosive liquid bomb used to burn villages and surrounding foliage.
Corrupt dictatorial regime: Kerry is referring to the government of South Vietnam.
Search and destroy missions: Military missions in which soldiers were sent out to find and kill any enemies they encountered, and/or raid and destroy the villages.
Rationalized: Provided rational reasons for actions that were questionable on moral grounds.
My Lai: The site of a U.S. massacre of innocent civilians that came to stand as a symbol of military excesses in Vietnam.
Free fire zones: Areas in which soldiers shot anything that moved.
Orientals: A term formerly used to refer to people from Asia, now little used.
Falsification of body counts: Kerry is referring to the Army's practice of exaggerating the number of enemy soldiers killed, to justify a battle.
Platoon: A unit of soldiers, usually consisting of two squads.
Hamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 81s and Fire Base 6s: Names of Vietnam War battles that are notorious for the loss of American lives and poor leadership by American generals.
Vietnamizing: Vietnamization was the term that President Nixon used to describe his policy of turning over responsibility for conducting the war to the Vietnamese, while withdrawing U.S. troops.
Washes her hands: Kerry is using a metaphor to describe the way the United States was abandoning its early commitment to defend South Vietnam.
McNamara, Rostow, Bundy, Gilpatrick : American military planners Robert McNamara (1916–), Walt Rostow (1916–2003), McGeorge Bundy (1919–1996), and Roswell Gilpatrick (1906–).
Finally turned : Kerry is referring to his hope that the United States will change its policies to better reflect its ideals of freedom and democracy.