Much has been written about the American war on Vietnam and about the war’s large and growing opposition movement at that time. Yet many people still don't know about the antiwar movement that flourished among many of the U.S. troops who served during that war, and the tremendous level of dissent, disobedience, and rebellion that was growing among troops in the late 1960s.
The unpopularity of the war, the backdrop of antiwar and civil rights protest at home, the influence of the counterculture, the dissatisfaction with military authority, the racism within US society and its armed forces – all contributed to a historic wave of soldier protests that began in 1965 and lasted nearly a decade.
Seeds of Dissent
The first acts of active-duty GI protest broke out in 1965 and 1966. They were isolated and individualistic, but they pioneered a set of aims and tactics that would shape the larger wave of protest to come.
In November 1965, Lieutenant Henry Howe was arrested after attending an antiwar demonstration near Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Convicted and jailed for “conduct unbecoming an officer” and "contemptuous words against the President," Howe became the antiwar movement’s first GI cause célèbre. Others soon followed, including Captain Howard Levy, a dermatologist who refused to train Green Berets headed for Vietnam, and the Fort Hood 3, army privates who refused deployment to Vietnam.
By the end of 1966, cases like these had established protest tactics and an agenda for GI dissent that centered around civil liberties, racism, and, above all, the war. Others soon built upon these. In 1966 and 1967, Private Andy Stapp organized a group at Fort Sill, Kansas, that became the American Servicemen’s Union. The ASU framed GIs as the military’s working class and aimed to unionize them along radical, anti-imperialist lines. Around the same time, the Black Power movement emerged within the ranks. In July 1967, William Harvey and George Daniels, two black marines from Brooklyn, organized a rap session with fellow troops, where they declared that black men had no place fighting a “white man’s war” in Vietnam. The soldiers were court-martialed for “promoting disloyalty” and dealt long prison terms.
Up to this time, antiwar activists mostly considered GIs as moral symbols whose participation in the movement could help counter pro-war arguments. But the bulk of the civilian movement did not initially see soldiers as a group to be organized.
By 1968, however, things had changed. The growing numbers of protesting GIs showed antiwar activists that soldiers could be much more than moral props or objects of sympathy; they could be agents for peace in their own right—a major, dynamic constituency of the antiwar movement. GIs offered the civilian movement a new kind of legitimacy, as well as a strategic front that struck at the heart of the war machine. And by the end of 1967, GIs and civilians were building a tighter relationship through common work near military bases from coast to coast.