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By Howard Levy
More than a decade and a half into the “War On Terror,” the United States is still involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and more than 60 other countries in a strategically wrong and unwinnable campaign. I oppose our policy now as I did 50 years ago when I was a doctor serving in the U.S Army. I felt compelled then to oppose another ill-advised, and as it turned out, unwinnable war.
My actions got me sentenced to prison, where I served 26 months. By the time I got out, the civilian movement against the war in Vietnam had exploded across the country, and tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans and active troops had built the largest antiwar movement within the military in U.S. history.
I was a medical student in dermatology in 1961; at that time the military was drafting young doctors. I agreed to join but deferred my service until I could finish my residency in 1965. During that four-year wait the war in Vietnam escalated and so did my conviction that it was morally wrong. I vehemently opposed the war, but I still intended to honor my commitment and do my job.
When I finally entered the Army, I was stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. In my free time I joined a local voter registration drive in the town of Prosperity, an hour from the base.
My civil rights work, and my experiences inside the Army, showed me just how rampant racial injustice was, as black soldiers suffered disproportionately in combat and stateside. Also painfully clear was the toll the war and the draft were taking on working class Americans, who were being sacrificed as cannon fodder to bolster President Lyndon Johnson’s false narrative that the war was just, and could be won.
On base I was assigned to train Green Berets in simple dermatology treatments. It became clear to me that the Army was developing ploys like this to ‘win hearts and minds’ in Vietnamese villages—while still burning them to the ground in search-and-destroy missions. This is an unethical, political use of medicine and it threatens the loss of international codes of protection for all medical providers. Thus Doctors Without Borders and similar organizations have come under military attack in recent years when asked to do the bidding of the American military.
When I refused to continue instructing the Green Berets, the Army brought charges and I was convicted of disobeying an order, promoting disloyalty and disaffection among troops, and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman. My effort to put the war on trial failed when the military court said the truth is no defense.
My own case was an early one of that era, so it got a lot of attention. But the tide of GI resistance was building and kept swelling until it affected military strategy and helped end the ground war.
The real crime is that the Pentagon has commissioned academics to re-write the history of the Vietnam war. The military lied then and you can bet will lie again, this time eradicating memory of the GI anti-war movement.
Future historians choosing to ignore the GI movement will find their reputations in tatters.
In 1968 I was neither politically sophisticated nor a radical by any means. I was a Midwestern 20-year-old and the descendant of soldiers who had fought in every American war since the Revolution. I was not gung-ho about entering the military, but when I left college and lost my student deferment, I became a draftee and went to Vietnam, like so many of my generation.
I never expected to become a war resister, but Vietnam changed me profoundly. The horrors I witnessed and took part in still haunt me, even as I’ve made a measure of peace these past decades.
Vietnam was a shock from my first work detail, patrolling the base in a garbage truck to make sure the Vietnamese people who collected the trash weren’t stealing, or setting traps. Instead I saw parents sifting our waste for food to feed their families.
More shocking were inhumane practices like seeing our troops shoot grenade launchers at Vietnamese tombstones, for target practice. As someone with a proud family history it seemed insane that we would destroy the heritage of the Vietnamese people. Weren’t we there to help them? I couldn’t make myself aim at the gravestones.
But the turning point came when a staff sergeant got me to help booby trap the bodies of Viet Cong soldiers we had just killed in a fire fight. We rolled them over and pulled the secondary pins on two grenades, leaving the primary detonation lever in place. Each grenade was placed, lever side up and under the rib cage, beneath the dead men. Later that night I heard the grenades go off. I knew the comrades of the men we had killed had come to claim the bodies and quite possibly had gotten something extra to go with their grief. I knew I was responsible for taking human life.
I had crossed the line. I had to do something.
Two months later I refused to go out on any more combat missions. It wasn’t an easy choice to say no to my country but my parents had given me a good moral compass and I used it to guide me through two courts-martial and two months
in the Long Binh Stockade in South Vietnam.
In 1986, with Willa Seidenberg, I started a five-year oral history project to document the GI anti-war movement, “A Matter of Conscience: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War.” Through portraits and interviews it tells the stories of 58 American Vietnam veterans who actively opposed the war while serving in the military.
In 1989, exactly 20 years after I had served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon sergeant, I made the first of six trips there to work on various projects. As I met and befriended former Viet Cong and NLF soldiers, I was moved by their stories and decided to record them for history. Our second collection, “Memories of the American War: Stories from Viet Nam,” tells the stories of 90 Vietnamese who opposed U.S. military involvement.
The friendships I have developed through my photographic work with American and Vietnamese veterans has helped me come to terms with my memories of the war and find a limited amount of peace.
Bill Short is a photographer In Los Angeles. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: https://amatterofconscience.com
Among the most popular tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is the War Remnants Museum; it receives more than a million visitors each year. When I first went there in 1994 it was still called by its original name, the American War Crimes Museum. The reference to the U.S. was deleted after diplomatic relations were established between the two former adversaries a year later.
Whatever its name, the museum’s exhibits tell the same story today as when the museum opened in 1975: that during the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, U.S. forces had been guilty of the systematic commission of crimes of war against the Vietnamese people. This was a narrative I had supported as an activist anti-war veteran upon coming home from my own combat tour in 1969.
I had served as a combat intelligence officer with the 11th Light Infantry Brigade – the same unit that had committed the My Lai massacre some eight months before my own arrival. What I experienced there was profoundly transformative. The instances I witnessed that could be legitimately labeled atrocities sickened me, like the torture and beatings of unarmed non-combatants, and the slaughter from relentless air strikes and artillery barrages aimed at a defenseless rural peasantry.
But I was equally disgusted by the demeaning behavior that some American GIs practiced daily toward the people who we were supposedly there to defend and protect. Unleashed on the Vietnamese were not only the apocalyptic fire power of the foreign invader, but the stain of racism deeply embedded in the culture of the American bully, which I vehemently rejected.
Twenty-five years had passed before my first return to Vietnam, but the images displayed in the museum were as authentic to me as they had been during those days of antiwar activism. They matched my personal experience, as well as accounts from scores of fellow veterans, which were made public in 1971 during a series of public hearings I helped to organize throughout the U.S. following the revelation of the My Lai massacre. These antiwar veterans felt that My Lai had been just “the tip of the iceberg;” that American atrocities had been ubiquitous and had resulted from the policies of our war architects.
During that 1994 visit I was drawn to one exhibit in particular on the American use of chemical defoliants, like Agent Orange, to destroy crops and jungle vegetation. Suddenly I found myself standing before my own picture, in the form of a book jacket for G.I. Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War, an account of the health effects of herbicide exposure on American Vietnam veterans that I had co-authored with my longtime comrade Tod Ensign. It made me feel proud to be included among the righteous.
On return from Vietnam Michael Uhl joined the antiwar movement, and organized fellow veterans to make public their personal accounts of American atrocities in Vietnam. He presents this history in the war memoir, Vietnam Awakening.
Contact: email@example.com Website: http://www.veteranscholar.com
Fredy Champagne, aka: Fred Stafford Higdon, Jr.
I was born August 29, 1946. I was 19 years old and politically uneducated. During basic training at Fort Gordon, we heard about Lyndon Johnson was sending the 1st Calvary Division to Viet Nam. We wondered where was this country called Viet Nam.
Service in VN: Enlisted July 15, 65. Arrived in country on 11-29-65 served until 11-26-66. MOS was 11Bravo, infantry rifleman. Stationed in Lai Khe, Song Be province, NW of Saigon. Assigned to the 1st platoon, A Co, 2nd Inf Btn, 2nd Inf Bde, 1st Infantry Division. Rank was Spec 4.
On arrival in country, we were told the enemy were the people with black pajamas and cone hats. On operations in the bush, all the people were dressed like that. Farmers in the fields were being shot down from helicopter gunners. One day while on convoy duty, we crossed an intersection, RR crossing, and there was a young dead VC soldier, tied to a post with wire, and his head was split open by gunfire. This image haunts me still. Forever in my mind, this young soldier was a bucket of brains, with the top half of his skull gone. Sad but true.
I knew then that the war was unjust, and that the generals and politicians were lying to us about the war and it's reasons to intervene in a sovereign country's affairs. I knew something was wrong, but not educated about the politics. I did not know at that time the US had stopped the 1957 elections.
Twenty two years later, I felt the urge to return to Viet Nam and see the country at peace. It seemed that young dead VC was calling me, reminding me I had unfinished business with the Vietnamese people. I fetl the time was right for ending the US Trade Embargo against the Vietnamese people, a war crime. The Veterans Viet Nam Restoration Project was the result. The group's motto was "Wage Peace" of course.
In 1989, along with 17 members of the VVRP I traveled to Vung Tau and worked with Vietnamese workers to construct the Friendship Medical Clinic.
in 1989, working with Le Ly Hayslip, I organized and helped build a medical clinic near Da Nang.
In 1991 I organized and led the first "Peace Walk in Viet Nam", parading through through Hanoi, Vinh, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Saigon in 1991and another in 1993, just before the US embargo was lifted.
The VVRP went on to complete a medical clinic in Yen Vien near Ha Noi, and numerous efforts throughout Viet Nam in the following 25 years. These projects helped veterans heal from the PTSD wounds of Viet Nam, while working for reconciliation with the U.S.
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
March 19, 2018
Friends, colleagues, comrades,
Good morning. My name is Susan Schnall. I was one among many in the United States military who actively resisted the American War in Viet Nam. Today I am President of the New York City Chapter Veterans for Peace, a co coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign, and a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Family ask me why I have this passion for working on issues related to the legacies of the American War in Viet Nam- problems from the past- when there are so many terrible cruelties and atrocities going on in today’s world.
And I answer, because Viet Nam was my war; it was personal to me that my government sent our young men to their deaths, to destroy others in a country over 8,000 miles away. It was and is a war for which I-in particular as part of the American military am responsible. It was our government, it was our corporations, it was our factories that produced weapons of war. It was our military that dropped bombs and sprayed poisons over a land and people that would last for generations.
I come before you today as a Vietnam era veteran of the American War in Vietnam to recognize and take responsibility for my government’s war on your country.
We, the American Vietnam veterans took part in that war; we, the American people allowed that devastation to take place. Those once young American soldiers have become old men and live with the memory of what they did so many years ago to your country and people.
They don’t want to be thanked for their service in Vietnam. They want to be forgiven. Today we have a responsibility to those we harmed, to those who were harmed in our name- to heal those affected.
Thank you to the leadership of the War Remnants Museum and the Vietnamese government officials who have sponsored this exhibit that depicts those active duty Americans who opposed the war in southeast Asia, who supported the Vietnamese struggle for independence and who worked to end our government’s aggression. We will continue to educate the youth in the United States that they can and must oppose our government’s reach into the internal affairs of other countries.
Today we bring before you an exhibit that depicts a very important history about those in the United States military, active duty soldiers, who protested the American War in Vietnam. Some went to prison for several years, some left their families, friends-their known lives- to move to Canada or Sweden and gave up everything to protest an unjust, illegal, immoral war.
It is a history about which the American people know little.
Very few people know about the Fort Hood Three who in 1966 refused orders to ship out to Vietnam, renouncing the war by declaring “We want no part of a war of extermination. We refuse to go.” They were sentenced to three years at hard labor in prison. JJ Johnson, one of the Fort Hood Three is here with us today.
In January 1967 the first alternative GI coffee house was opened in Columbia, South Carolina to provide a space where soldiers could come and talk freely. Judy Olasov worked there, Lee Zaslofsky went there as a GI and later deserted to Canada. He is here today.
Within two years there were more than two dozen coffee houses where soldiers could gather and produce their own antiwar newsapers.
In October 1967 four sailors deserted from the USS Intrepid and fled to Sweden. Mike Sutherland one of the Intrepid Four is here with us today.
By 1968 every major peace march in America was led by active duty soldiers and veterans. One thousand soldiers marched for peace in Killeen, Texas. One thousand Marines marched in Oceanside, California.
During the summer of 1968, 43 soldiers from Fort Hood refused orders to go to Chicago during the Democratic national convention where they would be used to repress peace demonstrations.
Some American soldiers came to Vietnam but refused to continue to fight once they realized the truth about this war. William Short, the photographer who took the 17 photos of individual GI resistors shown here was charged with conspiracy to mutiny when he refused to continue in combat. He was sent to the military prison in Long Binh.
At the Presidio in San Francisco, nine GI’s sat down and sang We Shall Overcome, were charged with mutiny, and faced life sentences. Keith Mather was a leader of that protest. He is here with us today.
The list goes on.
Today we acknowledge that we have additional work to do. We pledge to work with you, toward healing the lasting legacy of the war, to clean up the land of the contaminants we left behind and to heal the people.
We will bring this exhibit back to the United States to educate the American people about the soldiers who fought for peace in support of our sisters and brothers in Viet Nam. We thank you for the opportunity to show this history here in your country first.
One of the least known but most important chapters in the history of the American antiwar movement was the rebellion of troops within the military. In June 1971 the prestigious military publication Armed Forces Journal published an article entitled, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces.” Written by a retired Marine Corps Colonel, the article stated: “The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” In virtually every corner of the military, the burden of fighting an unpopular and unwinnable war led to dissent, social disruption and institutional decay.
When I learned the full story of what happened at My Lai, I was in the Army stationed at Fort Bliss Texas. I enlisted in 1968 for a stateside assignment hoping to skate by and avoid the war, but my conscience wouldn’t allow it. Even though I was stationed far from the front, I was part of the military machine and was contributing indirectly to a war I came to see as unjust and unwinnable.
In basic training they made us watch the propaganda film, Why Vietnam?, with President Johnson drawling on about the supposed noble purposes of the war. Our commanders tried to convince us that we were fighting to defend democracy and help the Vietnamese people. The more we learned about what was actually happening, though, the more skeptical we became. As I talked with vets coming home and began to read about the history of the war, I became deeply alarmed and troubled. I could not be silent about something I knew to be wrong. I felt compelled to speak out against the war even though I was an active duty soldier.
This was a time of growing dissent and unrest within the military, as in the rest of society. A widespread antiwar movement was emerging among GIs. We participated in peace demonstrations, signed antiwar petitions and published underground newspapers at military bases and aboard ships.
Fort Bliss had an active group called GIs for Peace. We organized protests against the war and had hundreds of members and supporters among troops at the base. We published a monthly newspaper, The Gigline, and had our own GI antiwar coffeehouse in downtown El Paso. When those of us in the GI movement saw the news of the massacre at My Lai, we were horrified but not surprised. Our ranks included combat veterans who had recently returned from the killing zones. We knew how the war was being fought: combat sweeps and attacks against villages, free-fire zones, and commanders constantly pushing for higher body counts. The military strategy was to drive people out of their ancestral villages into so-called strategic hamlets. In such a war, we knew, civilian casualties were an inevitable and constant reality.
The massacre at My Lai was the largest and most horrific attack against civilians, but it was not an isolated incident. Villagers in the My Lai region and in many parts of Vietnam were often sympathetic to the National Liberation Front. When U.S. troops suffered casualties trying to ’pacify’ such areas, they sometimes blamed it on the civilians and attacked them as enemy supporters.
At GIs for Peace we put the blame for the massacre on politicians and military commanders. Yes, it would have been heroic if troops had refused orders to shoot civilians, but that’s a lot to ask of a frightened and confused 19-year infantryman in the midst of a bloody war against a popular insurgency. The chief responsibility for the tragedy, we said, was with those who started and sustained the war, not the GIs who were forced to carry it out.
Many of our members at Ft. Bliss were outraged when a low ranking officer Lt. William Calley was the only one convicted for the massacre, while all the higher-ups who ordered the mission got off free. An angry local combat veteran went to the El Paso police department and asked to be arrested, saying if Calley was guilty so was he. GIs for Peace responded by convening a public hearing in which he and other troops testified that they too had attacked civilians and described what they had done.
My Lai was the product of an unjust war that never should have been fought in which American GIs ended up waging war against the Vietnamese civilians they were supposedly sent to protect.
Among U.S. troops in Vietnam, organized dissent were rare, but acts of direct resistance were pervasive and tore at the very fabric of military capability. By 1970 the Army and Marine Corps in Vietnam were experiencing widespread defiance and forms of noncooperation that affected operational capacity. The most significant form of resistance to the war was combat refusal. On August 26, 1969 the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News read “Sir, My Men Refuse to Go!” with the subtitle “Weary Viet GIs Defy Order.”
You can see the front page headline on the wall of this exhibit.
The article told the story of sixty soldiers in an Army company near Da Nang who refused direct orders from their commander. There were many other instances of combat refusal. One study found 35 incidents of combat refusal in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division during 1970. Some of the incidents involved entire units. This was an average of three combat refusals per month in just one division. If we extrapolate the experience of the 1st Cavalry to the other six Army divisions in Vietnam at the time, it is likely that hundreds of mutinous events occurred in the latter years of the ground war. When commanders sent their units into the field, they could not be certain that the troops would follow orders.
The most horrific indication of the breakdown of the armed forces was the prevalence of fragging, an attack with a fragmentation grenade. The Army began keeping records on assaults with explosive devices in 1969. By July 1972, the total number of fragging incidents had reached 551, with 86 fatalities and over 700 injuries. The targets of these fragging attacks were mostly officers and noncommissioned officers. The frequency of fragging in Vietnam War indicated an army at war with itself. It provides grim evidence of the anger and social decay that were tearing the military apart.
As the Nixon administration intensified bombing attacks after 1969, antiwar resistance grew among the sailors and airmen ordered to participate in the onslaught. Starting in 1970 the number of GI antiwar papers in the Navy and Air Force increased sharply. Organized antiwar protest began to emerge aboard several U.S, aircraft carriers. Junior officers and sailors aboard the U.S.S. Constellation and the U.S.S Coral Sea organized petitions against deployment to Southeast Asia.
By 1971 acts of sabotage by Navy crew members became a serious problem in the Navy. Figures supplied to a Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives listed 488 acts of “damage or attempted damage” in the Navy during fiscal year 1971, including 191 incidents of sabotage, 135 arson attacks, and 162 episodes of “wrongful destruction.” Two U.S. aircraft carriers were put out of commission for commission for months by acts of sabotage in July 1972, the U.S.S. Forrestal and the U.S.S. Ranger. These actions caused major damage and disrupted Navy operations.
Antiwar dissent and resistance also emerged in the Air Force. The number of GI papers at air bases jumped from 10 at the beginning of 1971 to 30 a year later. Antiwar coffeehouses opened near several bases, and demonstrations and protest actions occurred at or near air bases in April and May 1972.
As dissent and resistance spread within the U.S. military, morale and discipline collapsed. I argue that by 1970 U.S. ground troops in Vietnam ceased to function as an effective fighting force. This was a factor in the Nixon administration’s decision to accelerate troop withdrawals. Antiwar resistance in American society and in the armed forces limited U.S. military options and contributed to ending the war.
Fifty years after the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre it is worth reflecting on Tet and My Lai as signal events that galvanized thousands of American GIs against the war, inspired them to tell the truth about it and impelled them to resist, even at the cost of being court-martialed or jailed.
The Army had been covering up My Lai for an entire year by the time I arrived in-country. I became a squad leader in Bravo Company, First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, and spent about half my tour in Quang Nam Province, where I witnessed my own My Lai, on a smaller but no less barbaric scale.
Quang Nam was the land of the Sniper and the Booby Trap, populated by people who were farmers by day and guerrilla fighters by night. We had been on a mission four days when another squad in my platoon, on patrol, took a round of sniper fire and decided to pursue. Not surprisingly, they soon encountered a booby trap that killed one man and wounded three others.
The next day we left our night position and set off single file toward ‘Liberty Bridge’ to catch trucks back to our base. As we entered a village along the way, the point squad immediately gunned down several women, children and an old man at the first hut, and civilians at the next hut. Fifteen unarmed people were murdered that day, but there were no repercussions for the perpetrators. No, not as big as My Lai, but it brought into sharp focus the experiences of my entire tour.
It also turned me into antiwar activist. Upon my return to the States, I was assigned to garrison duty in Camp Lejeune, N.C. I joined several other marines there in deciding it was our duty to print the truth about the war in Nam.
Until I got out mid-1972, we wrote, assembled, printed, and clandestinely distributed eight issues of our underground newspaper, RAGE; other marines continued the work until mid-1974—for a total of 18 issues.
Though RAGE was definitely not an example of great journalism, working on it allowed me to redirect my anger and disappointment and try to warn others who were about to be deployed. We weren’t alone. During the war more than 200 underground antiwar newspapers by GIs were published at U.S. bases all over the world—some for many years.
Disaffected draftees and volunteers, enlisted and officers, men and women formed a diffuse but telling indictment of a war machine and political system gone berserk. Our part of the antiwar movement was perhaps not well known outside the military, but the Pentagon took notice. Many dissidents were imprisoned; others were driven into exile in Canada, France and Sweden.
Waging Peace is the first exhibit to feature material from the just-completed archive of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s massive GI Press Colllection. The exhibit features underground newspapers and photographs of soldiers protesting stateside, resisting in Vietnam and organizing in exile—an historic GI resistance that was largely glossed over in Ken Burns' multi-part war documentary.
These are painful memories. But in dangerous times like these, we should remind ourselves of the evils of war.
I was drafted into the Army in 1967. I was against the war and sure as hell didn’t want to go to fight in Vietnam. I connected with the War Resistors League where I met eight other soldiers who had gone AWOL (Absent With Out Leave). We took sanctuary in a San Fransisco church where we chained ourselves together connecting our arms with those of priests and ministers who came to show their solidarity.
At the close of the church service, the Military Police came in, cut our chains and arrested us. The MPs took us to the Presidio military installation and through usinto the stockade. They paraded Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) by to look at us and taunt us. They told us they were going to put us right onto a plane to Vietnam.
While I was at the presidio, there was an incident where an armed guard shot and killed a young soldier, Richard Bunch, who was walking away from a work detail. The saddest and most troubling part was that Bunch was mentally disturbed and the guards would withhold his psychiatric medication.
I didn’t know him well, but I spoke to him briefly several times and the next thing I knew he was murdered by a prison guard, shot in the back as he walked away from a work detail.
Then they had a memorial service. We all went because he meant something to us. He was one of us, not one of them.
The chaplain stated his murder was justifiable homicide. We knew then that the chain of command was trying to cover up the murder.
We decided to do something at roll call after chow. Half the formation followed me onto the lawn. We all locked arms and sat down. From that time on we were known as the Presidio 27.
The Captain ordered us to get up and then opened the book and started reading us the mutiny act. About that time, about sixty Military Police arrived. They put Walter Pawlowski and me in solitary confinement and named us as ringleaders.
Christmas Eve day 1968 we jumped out of a window while we were putting our work tools away and jogged off the post. On New Year’s Eve we went to Canada. I lived there until 1980 when I came back o live with my two children.
I was arrested four years later and served four months in prison before I was finally discharged from the Military in April 1985. My dishonorable discharge states I had been in the military for 17 years and 2 months. You can see a picture of me holding the framed discharge document in a picture on the wall of this exhibit.
Thomas Eugene Wilber
The exhibit you see in this room has special meaning to me because my father, Walter Eugene Wilber is featured in one of the photos here.
On June 16, 1968, flying off the aircraft carrier AMERICA on his twenty-first mission over North Vietnam, Dad parachuted from the spent hulk of his burning F-4J hit by a missile. He landed on the bank of a rice paddy in Nghe An Province. A week later, he was in Hanoi, beginning his 56 months of internment, the first 20 months living in solitary confinement at Hoa Lo Prison. He was 38 years old.
My father was born in rural Bradford County in north central Pennsylvania. The son of sharecroppers, he joined the Navy in 1948 hoping he would be trained to fly. In his early twenties he made two deployments to Korea and continued to fly and deploy over the years. Always eager to do his job, Dad was confident in the Navy’s system of accountability for mission assignments and target choices, the chain of command that rose to the civilian leadership level of the President as Commander-in-Chief. “I was fighting for peace,” he would later remember.
However, in the mid 1960’s things began to change for him.
By the time my father deployed to Southeast Asia, he was well aware of the questions and criticisms mounting among American citizens and the calls to end the war. He listened to the critical words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1967 called for America to end the war.
In succession, he saw Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara inexplicably depart his post, he watched his Commander-in-Chief Lyndon Johnson “quit.”
Imprisoned in Hanoi, Dad had time to listen to his conscience. He thought through the things that he knew and examined them word by word: words from the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, his King James Bible, the words of the commissioning oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. He wanted to make sure he was fulfilling the obligations inherent in those words.
The religious, conservative, right-leaning, career military officer that he was, Dad soon had worked through his own thoughts and concluded that the war was wrong: it was not declared through international or national protocols; it was being directed and sustained by a succession of executive administrations, not by legal declaration of Congress.
To support and defend the Constitution of the United States as best he could from his room in Hanoi, he decided to speak out. Through letters, taped broadcasts, and interviews, he called on Congress to stop the war, urged US citizens to voice their opinions, and exhorted all who might hear him to work for peace. On my 15th birthday in 1970, his taped voice, broadcast over Radio Hanoi, told me that I was “old enough now to work for peace.”
On February 12, 1973, my father left Hanoi with 115 other newly freed captives. Four days later my family and I greeted him at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Over the next few weeks and months, the state of our family would remain strong.
However, Dad’s story had challenged the “official story” of the POW experience. While other prisoners who had spoken out against the war accepted an “amnesty” when they recanted their antiwar statement just before they returned, Dad did not recant; moreover, he announced publicly that the statements he made while in captivity were voluntary.
That is when the real controversy began. A fellow returnee initiated formal charges for collaboration with the enemy against my father and one other returnee. The charges were later dropped, although Dad was prepared for the trial. He remained steadfast, however, certain that we never should have gone to Vietnam and that speaking out against the war had been the right thing to do. He remained steadfast in his personal values as well: religious, conservative, always believing in the higher principles that our country stood for. At 85, Dad died three years ago in Bradford County, Pennsylvania.
Now 50 years from the tumult of 1968 and 45 years from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, we need to remember the dominating presence that the war in Vietnam had over people’s lives, and courage that it took to speak out for peace.
The “voices of conscience” that came out of Hoa Lo prison have a special place in that story, a place that this Waging Peace exhibit will help restore to our memory of the war years.
Thank for you inviting me to share my experiences in the GI coffeehouse movement.
The coffeehouses started when two of my friends, Fred Gardner and Donna Mickelson, came up with the idea to a open San Francisco style cabaret in an army town so that antiwar GIs could find each other and know that they were not alone.
We wanted the coffee houses to be an alternative to the bars and whorehouses and jewelry stores trying to separate GIs from their paychecks.
We provided a safe haven where they could come on their days off, listen to rock and roll and talk amongst themselves.
I was 18 years old, starting my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina in the fall of 1967 when the UFO coffeehouse opened there to serve soldiers at Ft. Jackson.
Donna painted a sign that looked like a Fillmore dance poster declaring us to be the “UFO” Unidentified Foreign Objects like an alien spaceship that dropped out of the sky from another planet.
We covered the walls with posters —Muhammad Ali, the championship boxer who refused to serve in the U.S. Army, a surfing movie, the actress Marilyn Monroe, an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, Stokely Carmichael the civil rights leader, a Toulouse Lautrec art poster, a cannabis plant, John Lennon in “How I Won the War,” Lyndon Johnson holding up a hound dog by the ears...
This sort of restaurant was so culturally different from any other place in the conservative town of Columbia, South Carolina we might as well have been dropped there from outer space.
I immediately embraced the concept and became a regular. I was deeply affected by the Tet Offensive in late January 1968. Days later, the South Carolina state police gunned down a group of black students trying to integrate a bowling ally next to their campus.
One of the very important accomplishments of the UFO — and subsequently other coffeehouses — was that it integrated Columbia, SC, in two ways —soldiers and students and blacks and whites. This was virtually unheard of in those days.
In March I quit school and joined Fred in opening the 2nd coffeehouse at Ft. Leonard Wood in Waynesville, Missouri.
The small town of Waynesville was a hostile environment. The only women in town who would talk to me were prostitutes. I was shot at once when I was driving to pick up pastries to bring back to our coffee house that we called Mad Anthony’s. We were under constant threat. By then I was 19 years old and had never lived outside of South Carolina.
Anti-war movement people visited us from Chicago and other cities. Many would then open up coffee house outside of other military bases. And we were featured in several national publications bringing increased attention to the GI antiwar movement.
After Missouri, I went on to work in San Francisco, then at the Shelter Half coffee house in Tacoma, Washington, near Ft. Lewis & McChord Air Base. Eventually I moved back to San Francisco to support sailors organizing to stop their aircraft carriers from returning to Vietnam.
In late 1969 I decided to put my money where my mouth was and enlisted in the Army to organize from the inside. I felt that that was an important point to make. When I walked into the recruiting office I was stunned to discover that women under 21 years old needed their parents' permission to enlist. I overcame that hurdle, but right before I was to report for duty they told me that 6th Army Command had found me unsuitable for enlistment.
I am very proud of my work in the GI coffeehouse movement, and it pains me greatly that the US government was somewhat successful in its propaganda campaign against us, telling lies such as anti-war protesters spit on GI's returning from Vietnam.
Our slogan was “Support our Soldiers, Bring them Home”.
JJ Johnson’s Remarks at GI Resistance Conference in Ho Chi Minh City
No, Sir. Those words uttered more than a half-century ago prevented my complicity in a war of aggression that my comrades Dennis Mora, David Samas and I branded as immoral, illegal and unjust. And more, those words set me on a path that has led me home to my Vietnamese sisters and brothers and to this important observance.
History records that the Fort Hood Three’s refusal to deploy to Vietnam was significant because it was one of the first and because we three represented to a certain degree a cross-section of the nation – one white, one Latino and one African American. And because we announced beforehand our intentions to disobey and allied ourselves squarely with the anti-war movement, are actions represented a significant political protest.
But each soldier must grapple with his conscience individually. Indeed, before we were driven to Mcguire Airforce Base, each of us was told that the others had already boarded the plane and were on their way to Vietnam. So, let me briefly explain how I came to my decision.
On draft day, Dec. 6, 1965, my opinion about the U.S. war on Vietnam was not yet formed. I later befriended Dennis Mora, who initially refused to step forward for the oath at the Army induction center. We did not take basic training together, but fortunately were in the same unit for advanced training where we formed a Vietnam study group. Dennis’s movement connections proved invaluable, as was David Samas’s perpetual sense of humor.
Before then, from the first day of reception at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, I understood that the treatment, or more correctly, abuse, of the GIs was designed not to train us to promptly obey orders as essential preparation for combat. Instead, I was convinced that our mistreatment was more about crippling us intellectually, shutting down our reasoning so that we would be better prepared to follow along blindly.
I began to view the recent rebellions in our nation’s ghettoes and the emergence of a counter culture in the nation in a different light. Civil liberties and civil rights were in the air and I was being ordered to march lock step in the opposite direction.
My decision not to take part in our nation’s aggression was aided enormously by a mighty support system. My mother, who had a sixth-grade education, did not hesitate to raise her voice on my behalf. My brother threw himself into the anti-war movement. My sisters stood unflinchingly by my side. My father, an active trade unionist and a self-avowed liberation theologian, also bravely joined the fight.
The anti-war movement, of course, lifted us up and amplified our voices. The three of us, rather than moderate our stance to gain more favorable treatment after our court martial, drew from that support to grow stronger and more resolute. Muhammad Ali’s induction refusal and Dr. King’s decision to oppose the war, further validated our stance. Ali drew the connection between Vietnam’s national liberation struggle and Black equality when he famously said, “Why should a Black man go kill innocent yellow people. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”
What we had learned earlier in our study group was being whispered and then shouted throughout the armed forces. The embers of military resistance seemed to burst into flames. This exhibit captures the depth and breadth of that resistance.
That mood was also evident at Leavenworth where weekend movie screenings were accompanied by newsreels. And when news of U.S. military setbacks in Vietnam were reported, Leavenworth prisoners jumped up and cheered. The newsreels were discontinued. Another indicator of the raging opposition to the war was the rise of the prison population from about 500 when the three of us entered in 1966 to more than 1500 when we left about two years later.
Another powerful factor in my refusal and ability to remain steadfast was the Vietnamese people. Of all the material that circulated in our study group, I was most impressed by the writings of Ho Chi Minh. I learned that his name means “He Who Enlightens.” And that he did.
I also saw his example in the courage and leadership of his people that so inspired those of us inside and outside the military. I and the others concluded that if a small nation without the wealth, firepower and resources of the most powerful nation on the globe, can overcome, perhaps we can, too.
I traveled to North Vietnam in 1969 as part of a peace delegation that accompanied U.S. POW’s home. I found my Vietnamese brothers and sisters to be among the gentlest people I had ever met as well as the fiercest fighters. I was moved by their warm embrace and undying solidarity.
Today, I’m proud to stand once again on the soil of those whom I’ve learned so much from and owe so much to. I continue to draw strength from their example. I do not pretend to have the answers to our common struggle for a world of peace, justice, equality and environmental sustainability.
But through it all, I remain optimistic and continue to fight for a world in which mother earth’s bounty will be shared by all. I quote Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy: “Remember, we are many and they are few. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”