The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, making possible a re-united Vietnam, but the bitter divisions and toxic legacies of the war in Vietnam live on.
“In our country, Vietnam is not the name of a small nation with its own rivers and mountains, its little vegetable gardens with lettuce and peppers, its splendid beaches and rice fields, its children learning arithmetic, and the old men who love the roses they grow…” wrote The New York Times Vietnam War correspondent, Gloria Emerson.1
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For our president, commanding officers and diplomats, she continued, Vietnam was an honorable cause defeated by a loss of will at home and a detestable jungle where “our army of children fought an army of fanatics.” For much of the American public, the war was a bitterly divisive issue to put behind them. With no good ending, why dwell on or learn from or lose sleep over Vietnam, unless you had lost a child or were a veteran haunted by its violence.
For some veterans, Vietnam was the place of shame in which they witnessed and committed war crimes, ordered by their government. For others, it was a war in which they shamelessly committed atrocities. For many, it was a war of resistance within a war of aggression, with their resistance expressed in publicly protesting the war in uniform, publishing underground newspapers, black militancy, refusing orders, taking drugs, growing long hair and afros, printing “peace” on their combat helmets, and countless other transgressions of military culture and code.
Vietnam is also the place where many soldiers were poisoned by their own government’s chemical warfare, namely Agent Orange. For them, their children and now their grandchildren, the war has never ended. Nor has it for those veterans who have spent their life atoning for the crimes of war in which they participated. Leaving Vietnam, coming home did not erase the wounds and sorrow of war.
No sooner had Allied forces in Europe defeated fascism, than liberated France turned its military against its independence-seeking colony Vietnam. Thus began a 9-year war that ended in French defeat in Indochina, drew the United States into Vietnam and lured five American presidents increasingly into another country’s civil conflict to protect American geopolitical and economic interests. It concluded with a second Western power defeat by a rural, peasant people in their nationalist struggle for independence.
In April 1950, President Truman matter-of-factly sanctioned $20 million in direct military aid to support the French war against its Indochina colonies – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.2 The iron fist of McCarthyism and the Cold War domino theory combined to push and pull the administration into what would grow to be the American War, as the Vietnamese know it. Larger infusions of military aid, military advisers to build a modern South Vietnamese army and paramilitaries to conduct psychological warfare and military sabotage followed under Eisenhower.
Kennedy vastly increased military advisers and trainers; sent in Green Berets for covert operations; conspired in the overthrow of the corrupt, erratic Diem regime in South Vietnam; and initiated the 10-year chemical assault with toxic defoliants, among them Agent Orange. Despite the covert warfare under Eisenhower and Kennedy, many date the start of the war to March 8, 1965 when Johnson sent in two battalions of combat marines. By July, 100,000 more troops were deployed and bombing of South and North Vietnam intensified, with improved napalm that adhered better to human skin and burned more deeply. A colossal buildup of troops brought more than a half- million US, and some allied, soldiers into the war by June 1968.
Nixon widened the war and unleashed brutal bombing on North Vietnam and North Vietnamese encampments and supply lines in Cambodia and Laos. The bombing of Cambodia killed up to 10 percent of the population, rendered two million homeless, destroyed the peasant economy and created the conditions for the rise of the extremist and savage Khmer Rouge.3
All of the presidents involved acted secretly, trusting neither Congress nor the public’s judgment in Cold War and national security issues, and fearing their dissent. They lied by omission and commission about the buildup to war and the war itself and manipulated the media. When frustrated with not getting their way in Vietnam, each would have liked to wipe the “backward” little country off the map.
The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, making possible a re-united country. The administration, however, continued to keep South Vietnam on life support with military and economic aid, and to bomb Cambodia. As Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese, 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese were evacuated by helicopter from the US Embassy on April 30, 1975. The sight of the United States fleeing from the embassy rooftop with its tail between its legs went viral.
In defeat, “the US was neither gracious nor generous…”4 Four post-war presidents – Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – would spitefully retaliate against the unified Vietnam: refusing to pay the $3.25 billion reconstruction aid agreed to by Nixon, vetoing their membership in the United Nations, maintaining an economic and trade embargo, and blocking international aid. 5
The American war of aggression in Vietnam was a doomed modern military invasion against a popular, rural-based insurgency for independence. In his memoirs, President Eisenhower acknowledged that 80 percent of the Vietnamese might have voted for North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, if the general countrywide election called for by the 1954 Geneva Conference had been held. 6 But elections were stymied by the United States, which backed the corrupt South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.
Why were we there? The political zeitgeist that spawned the Vietnam War was the threat of Communist China at Vietnam’s northern border and fear of the “domino effect” – that is, the progressive fall to Communism of one Southeast Asian country after another in wars of independence. But why destroy Vietnam if Red China is our enemy, retorted Curtis Le May, Air Force commander of the hellish firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II, to this perfidious logic.7 The overarching policy of containing Communism fused with what war historian George Herring describes as “the arrogant presumption that the United States knew best what was right for Vietnam,” 8 corrupting and militarizing five administrations’ foreign policy in Southeast Asia.
Soldiers landing in Vietnam with the simplistic formula of an exceptional nation saving a backward country of peasants from themselves and the threat of Communism learned quickly that theirs was a flawed and impossible mission. Morale and discipline rapidly disintegrated. An Army-commissioned study in 1970-1971 found that more than 50 percent of enlisted soldiers engaged in war resistance, whether by dissident acts, disobeying orders or drug use.9
Most civilians remember the stormy resistance among middle-class American citizens to the Vietnam War: conscientious objector (CO) claims, draft card burnings, draft delinquencies and attacks on draft records; ROTC units expelled from college campuses; anti-war rallies and hundreds of thousands of boisterous war protestors marching on Washington. But fewer know the story of war resistance within the working-class ranks of the military, a resistance that shaped the war’s fate.
From his induction into the Army, David Cortwright, an activist in GIs for Peace, began meticulous documentation of GI resistance to the Vietnam War through a year after he completed his (1970-71) Army tour of duty in Vietnam. Vietnam, as his facts show, was a sea of change in US wars: Not until the Vietnam War, did soldiers resist and revolt massively against the war and sustain their defiance throughout the war, despite the transfer, discharge and jailing of protest leaders. More than 250 GI newspapers were spontaneously launched at US and overseas bases in all branches of the service to counter the war propaganda streaming from the Pentagon. They carried names like Bragg Briefs, Fed Up, the Pawn, Black Unity, WHACK (a military women’s newspaper), Kill for War and All Hands Abandon Ship. Military discharges for misconduct, soldiers going AWOL, combat refusal, mutiny against orders, desertions and fragging (killing officers with fragmentation bombs) broke records, as compared with earlier wars. Unlike earlier wars, most desertions did not happen in the heat of battle, signifying that GIs left the military out of disgust – not out of personal danger.
The wide-ranging, cumulative soldier-resistance to the war was a mainstay of the anti-war movement and, possibly, its most influential base. It created a “manpower” crisis, strained military readiness, undermined the will to fight and forced the government to end the war sooner. Moreover, internal military resistance shifted from one branch to another as each was directly involved in the war, the last being the navy and air force in the intensive bombing of North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
On US bases, political consciousness about the war and the oppressive command and control culture of the military brought soldiers in uniform to the forefront of anti-war demonstrations and marches, and foiled military parades and celebrations. GIs led civilian peace rallies, the first in San Francisco on April 26, 1968, when 40 active-duty soldiers marched at the front of an anti-war demonstration. In the November 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in Washington, DC, 200 GIs led the massive 500,000-strong demonstration. In anticipation of the march, a full-page ad calling for an immediate end to the war and signed by 1,366 active-duty service members from nearly 100 bases and ships around the world was published November 9 in The New York Times.
On “Armed Farces Day” (as it was dubbed) in 1970, 17 anti-war actions took place at Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force bases across the country, causing the military to cancel exhibitions at 28 bases. One of the most eye-catching actions took place at Fort Hamilton, New York, where military band members led a demonstration of thousands protesting the war.
War resistance spread like a virus to every sector of the US military stationed at overseas bases, despite harsh policies forbidding political demonstrations and the lack of off-base civilian support. Thousands of GIs deserted, with particularly high rates in Germany; GI newspapers were launched; GI coffeehouses opened (one in Frankfurt called “The First Amendment”); and anti-war demonstrations were held. Black soldiers in Germany were, as in Vietnam, the most militant and politically sophisticated. In spring 1970, they issued a “Call for Justice” assembly, drawing the largest GI-movement gathering in Europe. The concluding proclamation called for “All GIs out of Southeast Asia now,” and demanded reforms of racial and ethnic discrimination in military prisons, housing and promotions.
In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration changed war tactics before the collapsing army was defeated, and to mute protest at home. Ground war was replaced by more technological and distanced air and naval war, with an increase in saturation bombing. In what was the biggest surprise in war resistance among the military, both Navy and Air Force personnel and junior naval officers mobilized waves of war resistance. Naval officers founded the Concerned Officers Movement (COM) and grew to 3000 members in 20 chapters. Six members held a news conference near the trial date for Lt. William Calley, commanding officer at the My Lai massacre, announcing the creation of a “Citizens Commission of Inquiry” to investigate the war crimes of senior American commanders and national policy leaders who ordered and approved the war’s atrocities.
Naval resistance also took the form of sabotaging war readiness by dropping nuts, bolts and chains into the main gear shaft; cutting fire hoses and mixing fuel in the freshwater supplies – all delaying a ship’s deployment for Vietnam, sometimes for months. A House Committee report admitted that sailor anti-war resistance “undermined naval combat operations during the bombing campaign in 1972” and threatened the culture of discipline in the navy.10
Anti-war activity in the Air Force heated up as the war strategy turned to all-out air war in Indochina with explosives, followed by napalm and cluster bombs. In May 1971, some 300 airmen from eight US air bases in England gathered in Hyde Park London to submit an anti-war petition to the US Embassy. Two combat pilots took the exceptional step of refusing to fly indiscriminant bombing missions over North Vietnam, both citing their conscience as a higher authority. Four others stationed on Guam defied military authority and became plaintiffs with Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman in a May 1973 lawsuit that challenged the legality of the Cambodian bombings. At the height of the air war in Indochina, more than 30 GI newspapers were circulating throughout the Air Force. The rates of desertion, AWOL, disciplinary violations and drug use escalated with each escalation of the air war, constituting what is undoubtedly the most turbulent period in Air Force history.
In April 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) held a five-day war protest encampment named Dewey Canyon III on the Washington Mall, marching to Arlington Cemetery to hold a ceremony honoring the war dead, and to the Capitol to present demands to Congress. Nearly 200 veterans listened to proposals to end the war in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. John Kerry, a former naval officer, spoke before the committee about the failed and criminal leadership of the war, hardened against its veterans-turned-war-critics:” [W]e wish that a merciful God would wipe away our own memories of that [war] service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done … 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…. “11
The protest culminated in hundreds of veterans – some on crutches and in wheelchairs – ripping the war medals and stripes from their uniforms and hurling them at the Capitol, “the building where Congress said yes to the war.”12 This blasphemous action was pivotal in war resistance, being the first time veterans of a foreign war demanded an end to it and threw away their medals in profound regret.
From January 31 to February 2, 1971, more than 100 veterans and 16 civilians testified in Detroit to the war crimes they had committed or witnessed. The event, sponsored by Vietnam Veterans against the War and known as the Winter Soldier Investigation, exposed the atrocities and war crimes committed in the war and indicted the criminal policies that initiated it. Except for Pacifica radio, media outside of Detroit ignored the landmark event. 13
Opening the testimonies, Lt. William Crandell bared the duplicity of US policy: “We went to preserve the peace and our testimony will show that we have set Indochina aflame. We went to defend the Vietnamese people and our testimony will show that we are committing genocide against them. We went to fight for freedom and our testimony will show that we have turned Vietnam into a series of concentration camps.”
“We were given orders whenever we moved into a village to reconnoiter by fire,” shooting anything and everything that might have someone hiding in it, testified Pfc. Allen Akers and others who disclosed killing women, children, animals, elders under the “recon by fire” policy. Kenneth Ruth, who served as an air cavalry medic, described witnessing routine torture of Vietnamese for information, running knives through their ears and burning their penises with cigarettes. Others testified about random burning of villages out of boredom or anger, massacres of civilians in them, pollution of their water supply, brutal Congo war-style rape of women, “beers for ears” competitions, “tear-gassing people for fun,” shoving Vietnamese out of helicopters, firing on refugees – many times for sport, and with officers giving orders. “This is the general attitude…. Vietnamese aren’t humans, they’re targets,” attested Ruth.
Sgt. Michael McCusker, an infantry reporter-photographer serving with infantry units from two divisions, described the universal climate of racist hate: “Within every unit there was the same prejudice … the same bigotry toward Vietnamese. All Vietnamese.” He witnessed American soldiers as they tortured prisoners, committed My Lai-type massacres and serial rape, intentionally napalmed villagers and clubbed children to death. Captain Ernie Sachs, a medevac pilot, spoke of white people being given priority over nonwhite people. In his estimated 500 medevac missions in 13 months, he never evacuated a Vietnamese civilian. “It was squadron policy, unwritten, not to launch for gooks if you could possibly avoid it.”
James Duffy, a helicopter machine gunner, described helicopters swooping in near Vietnamese and dropping their rotor wash on Vietnamese defecating in fields, “blowing them over through the sand and their defecation.” Using Vietnamese skulls as lanterns, and giving hungry kids C-ration crackers laced with a trioxylene heat tab that would burn the membrane out of their throat, were jokes to soldiers like him, admitted Duffy. “They brainwash you. Then, they take all the humanness out of you and you develop this crust which enables you to survive in Vietnam.” The most gruesome witness of atrocity, given by Marine Sgt. Joe Bangert, described a soldier quartering, eviscerating and skinning a dead Vietnamese woman; and the crucifixion of dead Vietnamese stripped and hung on barbed wire fences by other soldiers.
In his closing statement of the Winter Soldier Investigation, M/Sgt. Don Duncan of the 5th Special Forces posed the crucial moral question: How could “otherwise normal individuals” terrorize, torture, destroy other human beings. “How could they have been changed that dramatically in eight weeks of basic training?” In answering, he probed deeper into American culture: “The men did not become racists when they entered the service.” They grew up with it. “It was taught to them” in our homes, our schools, and our culture. “The idea that the United States has a God-given right to go into any country” for its own purposes – for natural resources, as a lesson to China, “is not something they learned in Vietnam.” They learned it here.
Duncan did not ask the other burning moral question at the heart of the Winter Soldiers Investigation. How could otherwise normal young men – with sisters, mothers, wives and girlfriends – commit sexual atrocities, including gang rape and sexual mutilation – with impunity against Vietnamese women and girls? Like racism in culture, a society that is entertained by the sexual objectification and use of women in pornography, sex clubs and prostitution and that tolerates violence against women, socializes boys and young men, way before entering the military, in sexism and misogyny. Such a culture, which also permeates basic training, seasons soldiers at war to commit sexual atrocities.
In closing the Winter Soldier Investigation, Duncan warned, “I fear that many of us, if we don’t shorten up and get the message out, we will have lost our humanity beyond redemption.”
How, then, do veterans work to repair the wrong done in war and restore the self, broken by what they have witnessed and participated in? Many ways.
Claude Anshin Thomas enlisted in the Army at 17. While still a teenager, he killed hundreds of Vietnamese as a door gunner on an assault helicopter, for which he received numerous medals and the Purple Heart. “I had been conditioned to believe that the path to peace passed through killing…. My involvement in this war … scarred my body … my heart … my soul…. But as I pieced together the shrapnel of my life … I discovered that there is no justified killing, no clear separation between good and bad violence, and no rectitude in war.” After years of homelessness and profound isolation, drugs, alcohol and using women for sex, he studied Buddhism and was ordained a monk in the Soto Zen tradition. As a mendicant, he has made pilgrimages in war-torn regions of the world, including Vietnam, where he met with Vietnamese war veterans suffering the same cumulative sorrow of war, the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan to promote peace and nonviolence. 14
“If I had my druthers, I would never speak about Vietnam. I would just stay in my cave, read my books and take care of my flowers. But I know that’s not the reason I survive.” In 1988, George Mizo initiated the Vietnam Friendship Village Project, a collaboration of American, Vietnamese and French combat veterans and former enemies, including the Vietnamese general who was responsible for killing Mizo’s entire platoon in 1968. He explains, “The horrible experiences during the war and the suffering of everybody on all sides inspired me to do something that would be a living symbol of peace, reconciliation and hope.” The Vietnam Friendship Village near Hanoi is an oasis of classrooms, family-style residences, organic fruit and vegetable gardens, fishponds and farm animals where Agent Orange-affected children with mental and physical disabilities live and receive rehabilitation, education and vocational training.
Camillo “Mac” Bica, a Vietnam War veteran, does not want to be thanked for his service, giving five reasons. In the service, he lost his innocence witnessing “the horrible and unnecessary deaths of good friends.” Being thanked for military service reminds him of what he would like to forget but cannot – that he killed innocent people. Words of thanks reinforce his belief that many people haven’t a clue about the reality of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan and remind him that many citizens were either “apathetic” or even supported these wars, but did not have to fight them, avoided fighting in them, and did nothing to end them. Bica would prefer to be thanked for the 45 years following discharge from the Marines in which he has worked for human rights, social justice, and to end “the insanity of war.” He invites those who want to support military members and veterans and express meaningful patriotism to “do what is truly in the interest of the nation and those victimized by war.” Make demands for a more just and peaceful world.
Chuck Palazzo was stationed at Da Nang Air Force Base at the age of 17, where he followed orders and sprayed Agent Orange on Vietnamese forest cover and food crops. The former Marine sold his software company in 2008 and returned to Da Nang where, as a member of Veterans for Peace, he works to build small farms for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and their families. He cried when first visiting child victims of Agent Orange – from “the pain of seeing a deformed body” caused by his actions more than 40 years ago. He and other veterans are committed to supporting the still unsuccessful Vietnamese plaintiffs seeking justice in American courts for three generations of injuries from chemical warfare. “For many veterans, this is a moral and ethical issue,” he says of the toxic contamination of living environments with Agent Orange, land mines and unexploded ordnance left behind by the war.
Susan Schnall, a Navy lieutenant and nurse, worked in 1967 with severely wounded returning soldiers at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California. Once she realized that she herself was employed in the war machine that trained and coaxed American teenagers to kill innocent people in Vietnam, she set out to end the American War in Vietnam. Knowing that American B-52 bombers had dropped leaflets urging Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers to desert the army, she devised the same tactic to spread anti-war views in West Coast military facilities. In February 1969, with the support of a pilot friend, she loaded an airplane with leaflets calling for a peace demonstration to be led by US troops and veterans in San Francisco in the next two days. She dropped the leaflets from several hundred meters over military bases in San Francisco, onto the USS Enterprise and on Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. Dressed in her military uniform she spoke out against the war at anti-war demonstrations. For her actions, she was tried and convicted by a general court-martial, sentenced to six months in prison and dismissed from the military.
In June 2012, Schnall returned to Vietnam to visit the victims of Agent Orange and still-contaminated dioxin sites, this time with a delegation of environmental science and public health professionals affiliated with the organization she co-coordinates, the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. The campaign is a beacon of restorative justice working to attain US funding for rehabilitation centers for multi-generations of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, for environmental detoxification at the more than two dozen Superfund-like dioxin sites in Vietnam and for medical services for the children and grandchildren of US veterans and Vietnamese-Americans born with Agent-Orange diseases and deformities. “We are Americans who come to help heal the terrible wounds of war our country has inflicted. Some of us weep,” she wrote of the 2012 visit with “children disabled and contorted by … chemicals inflicted on their parents.” In final meetings she promised Vietnamese officials that the veteran-inspired campaign to pass a congressional bill – HR 2634 Relief for the Victims of Agent Orange Act of 2011 – “will continue our work until there is justice for the Vietnamese.”
An Unfinished Debt: Agent Orange
During the ten years (1961-1971) of aerial chemical warfare in Vietnam, US warplanes sprayed more than 20 million gallons of herbicide defoliants in an operation code-named Ranch Hand to destroy enemy plant cover and crops, and to clear vegetation around US bases. Agent Orange, the dioxin-contaminated and exceedingly toxic herbicide manufactured by seven chemical companies for the US Department of Defense, constituted about 61 percent of the total herbicides sprayed in the war.
By the end of the war, nearly five million Vietnamese had been exposed to Agent Orange, an exposure that has resulted in “400,000 deaths and disabilities and a half-million children born with birth defects,” according to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report. Agent Orange was so extensively sprayed that all of the two million Americans who served in Vietnam are presumed exposed. The Veterans Administration now associates a multitude of cancers, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease, and birth defects – including spina bifida – suffered by veterans and their children with Agent Orange exposure.
However, it took veterans’ advocates, their lawyers and concerned scientists decades of confronting inept and corrupt government health studies to overcome expedient myths and achieve this governmental acknowledgment of the human health harm of Agent Orange. Vietnam veterans continue to eke out needed health services from a reluctant government, which still contends it used the deadly chemicals to protect the soldiers and refuses to accept any responsibility for multi-generations of Agent Orange victims in Vietnam.
The war persists in the dioxin residues accumulated in the Vietnamese environment and food chain and in the pollution of millions of human bodies, by now transmitted to three generations of Vietnamese. Despite compelling science on the harm of dioxin exposure, the Vietnamese victims have received nothing by way of compensation, cleanup or services from the US government or Agent Orange manufacturers. That is, until 2007 when the US Congress appropriated $9 million for cleanup of contaminated sites and health-related activities. In 2011, US AID joined the Vietnamese government in the first phase of a $32 million dioxin-contaminated soil removal program at a former US air base in Da Nang. “It’s a big step,” said Ngo Quang Xuan, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations. “But in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences, it’s not enough.”
Not nearly enough, given more than three million victims of chemical poisoning and more than two dozen contaminated sites in need of remediation.
HR 2634 -The Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act – aims to give Vietnamese and US veterans’ children and grandchildren who are victims of our chemical war in Vietnam the medical, rehabilitative and social compensation they need, and also remediation of their dioxin-contaminated environment. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Filner (D-California), has 14 co-sponsors in Congress. Send a postcard found on the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign web site to the US Congress asking it to pass HR 2634. Track the bill’s progress on the OpenCongress web site.
Listening to Soldiers and Vets
About the Series
This occasional series features the voices of soldiers and veterans from armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, voices whose moral fiber and clarity were forged in the crucible of war.
William Blum (2004) Killing Hope: US Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II. Monroe, Maine: Common courage Press. p.139. Jonathan Glover (1999) Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 300-302.