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The Movement by American Veterans to expose War Crimes in the Vietnam War

Throughout 1970 and into 1972, American military veterans who had served in Vietnam came forward to publicly denounce the widespread commission of atrocities by U.S. forces, most disturbingly against Vietnamese civilians, that they had witnessed during their tours of combat.

This rising tide of protest by combatants recently returned home was brought forth by two identifiable historical events: the belated revelation of the My Lai massacre, and the insight of antiwar organizers that public disgust following news of the shocking massacre could be built on to draw large numbers of disillusioned veterans into the antiwar movement. No one understood more intimately than those who’d been doing the fighting that, while My Lai was certainly grotesque in the scale of its slaughter, it was by no means exceptional. Mass murder and other atrocities, like torture and the killing of prisoners, were being committed by their units daily, and resulted from policies dependent on the overwhelming superiority and often indiscriminate use of fire power available to American forces who had adopted the cynical metric of counting the Vietnamese dead, combatants or otherwise, to lay claim to battlefield victories.

With the founding of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), returning veterans had already been visibly present in the antiwar movement for at least two years prior to this war crimes-related upsurge of activism in their ranks. The vets in the vanguard of this movement had typically expressed their opposition to the war by participating under their own banners at mass antiwar demonstrations. A few veterans, however, had already given public testimony of American war crimes in Copenhagen (November/December 1967) at the second session of the International War Crimes Tribunal, created by the British philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell.

When a member of the Russell Tribunal migrated back to New York in late 1969, he created the Citizens Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam (CCI) as a vehicle to continue the gathering of veteran testimony for which many in the mainstream media were now open to providing coverage. Leadership at CCI was assumed by two antiwar organizers who had not served in the military, Jeremy Rifkin and Tod Ensign. Their talents combined to put before Americans an uncomfortable picture of the true nature of the war being fought in their name. Rifkin and Ensign were soon joined by military veterans, like Michael Uhl, whose personal experience of the war and access to other veterans, contributed to CCI’s effectiveness.

While CCI activists crisscrossed the country, creating public forums for veterans to provide firsthand accounts of American atrocities, often depending on local VVAW chapters to provide leads on veterans who willing to testify, the antiwar veterans’ movement began to gain the sympathy of the public who might have ignored the critique of the war advanced by the movement at large, but were willing to hear criticism about the war from those who served. With its own membership growing rapidly by mid-1970, VVAW joined CCI in a coalition to organize the Winter Soldiers Investigation, an omnibus presentation of every category of atrocity witnessed by veterans who had fought during every year and in every major military unit during the war.

A political split – a not infrequent occurrence in the fractious confines of the New Left – rent the alliance between CCI and VVAW in the late fall of 1970, and both groups moved forward on separate tracks, but no less committed to the objective of bringing as much attention as possible to the narrative theme that American atrocities in Vietnam were a daily occurrence. CCI assembled the scores of testimony it had been collecting throughout 1970, and held a National Veterans Inquiry (NVI) in Washington, D.C. over the first days of December. The event was widely publicized. Building on this momentum, CCI next organized four days of ad hoc hearings on war crimes on Capitol Hill itself, sponsored by Congressman Ronald Dellums, and attended by a dozen of his colleagues. These hearing took place in April 1971 during a week that saw the grand finale of war related protest demonstrations, and the arrest of nearly ten thousand demonstrators who had participated in acts of civil disobedience on May Day. The Dellums Hearings generated more headlines with shocking revelations, including another massacre. Many of the veterans who appeared at the hearings were also participating in a VVAW encampment on the Washington Mall known as Dewey Canyon III, which President Richard Nixon attempted to remove, but desisted after the Washington police, many of whom had also served in the military, refused to move against the veterans.

VVAW would organize a series of actions around war crimes throughout 1971. The year had begun with the celebrated Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) in Detroit, roughly one month after the National Veteran Inquiry, at which scores of veterans gave accounts of atrocities they’d witnessed,. Despite WSI having been virtually ignored by the media at the time, to the degree historians have taken notice of Vietnam veterans who raised their voices to denounce American atrocities, even as their war raged on in Indochina, it has been by recognizing the Winter Soldier Investigation as the signal representative moment of that campaign by veterans to bring discredit to the war they had come to reject.

The New Legions, Donald Duncan, (Random House, 1967).
Against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the International War Crimes Tribunal, John Duffett, ed. (Simon and Schuster, 1968).
Standard Operating Procedure, (with the cooperation of the Citizens Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Indochina, John Simon Kunen (Avon, 1971).
The Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam, Edited with an Introduction by the Citizens Commission of Inquiry (Vintage, 1972).
Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam, (McFarland Publishers, 2007).
The New Soldier, John Kerrey and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, (Collier, 1971).
The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, (Beacon Press, 1972).


Primary Sources

Documentation on the work of CCI,