In June 1970, a group of American soldiers stationed in Vietnam huddled together to write a letter to an antiwar newspaper in Berkeley, California, called the Ally. They described their feelings towards the war they were being made to fight:
We here at the 86th Maint. Bt. [Maintenance Battalion] have just received a copy of your paper. There are quite a few of us and we all agree your paper is definitely cool. We have all been fucked in some way by this O.D. [olive drab] Army. All of us would like to distribute copies of your paper. Some of us are draftees, the other inlistees [sic], but we all agree that this war is immoral. People here are constantly fucked by the lifers and machine in general. We are from about 10 different states but came together through brotherhood.
They asked for “50 copies of your next issue” to distribute, and they assured the Ally that they weren’t messing around. “We are all very serious about this and will give you all [sic] support we possible [sic] can. There are quite a few heads here that we know would dig your paper.” They ended the letter with a peace symbol and the words “Peace and love, Brothers for Peace,” along with two full pages of signatures with proud declarations of hometowns, military nicknames, and countercultural slogans.
It’s still widely believed that Vietnam-era soldiers – or GIs, as they were commonly called – despised the civilian antiwar movement at home, and that the antiwar movement thrived on denouncing and insulting US troops. This is the received wisdom perpetuated by politicians, Hollywood films like Rambo and Forrest Gump, and tales of returning veterans being spit upon. But, as sources like the letter above show, the relationship between soldiers and the peace movement was more complicated than any simple narrative would let on.
While some GIs did indeed resent the antiwar movement, thousands of soldiers also actively opposed the Vietnam War. They marched, petitioned, and demonstrated. They wrote for, edited, and distributed underground dissident newspapers deep into the military’s ranks. They staffed and visited off-base antiwar coffeehouses. They demanded their civil liberties and they stood up for the idea of Black Power. They formed dozens of dissident soldier organizations. They allied with antiwar civilians and compelled them to treat soldiers as a core constituency within the larger peace movement. They organized everywhere: from San Francisco to New York, from Idaho to South Carolina, from Japan to West Germany — and even in Vietnam.
Antiwar GIs wrote hundreds of letters like the one above. These radical objects illuminate the vibrant, forgotten world of Vietnam-era GI dissent.
The letter to the Ally from the 86th Maintenance Battalion was a collective declaration of conscience, but, crucially, it was also aimed at organizing. The soldiers requested copies of the paper to distribute to their comrades. The Ally was just one of scores of soldier-oriented dissident newspapers that flourished during the Vietnam War. These papers, collectively known as the GI underground press, were platforms for the peace movement. Through examining soldiers’ letters to dissident publications, we gain insight into the details of how hundreds of troops circulated the GI underground press and its antiwar message throughout the Vietnam-era military.
Take, for example, another letter, this one dated January 3rd, 1971, also written and sent from Vietnam.
The letter reads:
We, the undersigned, are writing in request of editions of your paper. We would like as many copies over a hundred if possible. They will be distributed between two companies here in Chu Lai, Viet Nam.
We believe that “The Ally” is of tremendous value in the fight against “the pigs” in the military and are enclosing a $12.00 contribution. We will send more later.
Keep up the good work!
Like the troops of the 86th Maintenance Battalion, the Chu Lai soldiers also volunteered to become distributors of the GI antiwar press. These are just two of many examples of GIs requesting bundles of papers to circulate. The act of distributing these papers allowed troops across the world to join the GI Movement, the term used at the time to describe the global effort by soldiers and their civilian allies to organize antiwar resistance within the military.
Distributing the underground press was one mode of protest for Vietnam-era soldiers, but their letters also reveal more direct forms of dissent. For example:
Dear Friends –
Just a bit of news to let you in on what happens quite often here at Pig Headquarters (HHD, 18th MP Bde), Long Binh. On Memorial day of this year several of the “lower EM” decided to have a war protest parade in the company area. Since the folks at home have the privilege of parading in their hard hats and T-shirts, then we felt it was appropriate to express our sentiments against the war in the same manner.
The results: 8 Art 15’s
The offense: Disturbing the “Peace”
Can you dig that. We had a parade in VN and got busted for “disturbing the peace.” What can I say — FTA.
Getting short and getting out
Letters like these provide evidence of otherwise lost episodes of soldier dissent against the Vietnam War. Many other letters contain similar anecdotes of protest and confrontation.
Soldiers found other ways to participate in the broader antiwar movement. For example, 1,365 GIs signed a full-page ad in the New York Times on November 9th, 1969, that criticized the war and defended the civil liberties of soldiers to protest. This was a bold statement since many signees were sure to suffer harassment or punishment for their participation (indeed, some of them did, as archival records of legal defense groups show).
The timing of the ad was tied to the Moratorium protests, arguably the most iconic episode of the Vietnam antiwar movement. These nation-wide actions in October and November of 1969 amounted to veritable general strikes by the American people against the war. Life magazine reported of the Moratorium protests: “It was a display without historic parallel, the largest expression of public dissent ever seen in this country.”
Hundreds of active-duty GIs enthusiastically supported the Moratorium protests and offered statements of support from as far away as Vietnam. Some wore black armbands to express their solidarity. According to the New York Times, at least 125 troops at Long Binh signed a petition “to express our support for the Vietnam War Moratorium.” Dozens of GIs organized similar petitions and local actions to extend the Moratorium into the ranks of the armed forces. For example, 23 troops signed their names to this Western Union Telegram to Moratorium organizers:
WE THE UNDERSIGNED MEMBERS OF COMPANY E 4TH BN US A MTC FORT SAM HOUSTON TEXAS SUPPORT YOUR EFFORTS IN BRINGING ABOUT A SPEEDY END TO THE WAR IN VIET NAM PS AND LOTS MORE WHO COULD NOT AFFORD TO LIST
The sentiment expressed in sources like these alarmed the military brass and political elites. The US Congress recorded over a thousand pages of testimony when investigating “subversion” in the armed forces. A respected marine historian famously declared “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” in the pages of the Armed Force Journal in June 1971. Two Washington Post reporters spoke of an “Army in Anguish,” while a retired colonel penned a book titled “Crisis in Command.”
Roughly fifty years after the start of major direct US military escalation in Vietnam, it’s worth remembering this lost history of soldier dissent. I’ll highlight two reasons why.
First, GI protest was a vital part of the larger antiwar movement, and arguably its most strategic front. When we imagine the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, we typically think of long-haired students and religious pacifists speaking out on campuses, marching in the streets, or burning their draft cards. We don’t think about troops in uniform circulating antiwar papers, staging peace demonstrations, or petitioning for their First Amendment rights. But the evidence shows that thousands of soldiers participated in these kinds of actions and formed a loose but dynamic alliance with the civilian movement. This testifies to how deep and wide the Vietnam-era antiwar movement really stretched.
Second, the history of Vietnam-era GI protest challenges some common tropes that drive US collective memory of the Vietnam War – for example, the betrayal myth of a soldier-hating antiwar movement that reviled the troops. Politicians and Hollywood have consistently invoked these storylines that help to promote an uncritical celebration of militarism and sideline dissent about the wisdom or morality of a given war.
But the basis for the betrayal narrative is challenged by the mass of evidence that presents a more complex picture of soldiers’ views and experiences of the peace movement. For many soldiers, it was the nature of the war itself that hurt their morale, along with the military’s class hierarchies, disciplinarian institutional culture, and racism. And as their own letters reveal, a layer of GIs proactively joined the antiwar movement and tried to end a war that they felt was wrong. While the protests back home demoralized some soldiers in Vietnam, they raised the spirits of others. As one GI wrote: “We troops here in Vietnam are against the war and the demonstrations in the states do not hurt our morale. We are very glad to see someone cares and is working to bring us home.”
The ways we remember the Vietnam War concern more than just the past. The form this memory takes is linked to the present and helps frame the boundaries and content of political discourse today. The belief that the antiwar movement was antagonistic toward Vietnam-era soldiers still has a deep grip on popular memory and political culture. Looming underneath calls to “support the troops” is the imperative to not repeat the betrayals of the Vietnam War. Too often, this way of thinking slips into an easy embrace of militarism and war-making, as if sympathizing with soldiers entails supporting the war. It’s also based on a faulty interpretation of history, since, as these letters shows, many Vietnam-era GIs not only opposed the war but actually organized against it.
Thousands of soldiers were on the lookout for opportunities to connect with the peace movement, and the peace movement sympathized with GIs and tried to help and work with them. Nearly a half-century later, the shadow of the Vietnam War still hovers over American politics, and this makes remembering the history of Vietnam-era soldier dissent as important as it’s ever been.
All images courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society