A rag-tag army of Vietnam veterans marched into D.C. in their combat fatigues that chill April morning in 1971, their tunics bedecked with medals and battle ribbons. “Hey Nixon, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” they chanted as they tramped toward the Mall.
I was a young reporter then, covering Washington for the Daily World.Already the Nixon administration had been rocked by the Gold Star Mothers who had lost their sons in Vietnam and were now denouncing the war. The draft resistance movement, inspired by the courageous stand of Muhammad Ali and the Fort Hood Three, made the words, “Hell no, we won’t go!” the battle cry of their generation.
Now came this revolt by “grunts” straight from the combat zone. In their Winter Soldier tribunal in Detroit a couple of weeks earlier, the vets testified on the atrocities they had seen or participated in while serving in Vietnam. War crimes like the My Lai massacre were not isolated misdeeds.
The Nixon administration got the Park Police to deny Vietnam Veterans Against the War a permit for their “Dewey Canyon III” encampment on the Mall. I asked VVAW spokesman Tim Butz about the permit denial. He pushed back his floppy jungle hat and laughed. “After what we’ve been through, does Nixon really think he can scare us?”
A day or so later, the vets marched to Capitol Hill. One by one, they threw their combat medals in a big pile near the west steps of the Capitol.
Kerry delivered powerful testimony for the VVAW before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry asked. I remember Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) asking Kerry: “Did you win the Bronze Star?… the Silver Star?… three Purple Hearts?” After each question, Kerry replied, “Yes, I did, Senator.” Said Symington, “That’s good enough for me.”
At the end of that week, April 24, 1971, VVAW marched in the vanguard of 500,000 demonstrators in Washington protesting the Vietnam War. Kerry was there. He has never repudiated his role as a VVAW spokesman.
It is Kerry’s stand against the Vietnam War that enrages the Bush-Cheney gang, not the medals he won for combat valor. Bush and his agent Karl Rove conjured up the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” because they know that Kerry’s courage, both in war and in the struggle to end that war, stands in stark contrast to Bush’s record of failure as “commander in chief.”
Bush’s evasion of military service in Vietnam made it impossible for him to openly wage this smear campaign. So millionaire Bush backers forked over $6.7 million to the Swift Boat outfit to saturate the media with baseless charges.
Antiwar veterans have no argument with those who refused, on principle, to go to Vietnam. But they have deep contempt for the “chicken hawks,” people of wealth and privilege who keep themselves out of harm’s way, but pound the war drums to send working class youth, disproportionately African American, Latino, and poor white, to die for oil and empire.
VVAW played a huge role in the movement that shifted public opinion against the Vietnam War. It became a majority movement that made it impossible for Nixon to continue the decade-long nightmare. U.S. troops were brought home and the Vietnamese people reclaimed their nation.
Today, a majority already says the preemptive invasion of Iraq was a mistake. The toll of American dead in Iraq has topped 1,000. Thousands of GIs are returning wounded in body and spirit. The first step toward bringing the troops home is ousting “chicken hawk” Bush from the White House.
Jan Barry, a VVAW co-founder and a friend of Kerry, told me veterans have had an enormous impact in Kerry’s campaign. “They didn’t even think Kerry would win the nomination until we became involved,” Barry said in Boston following a Veterans for Peace rally on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
With Kerry in the White House, Barry said confidently, “we will be in a far better position to end this war.”
Tim Wheeler is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org