How VVAW Began
January 1, 1970Vietnam Veterans Against the War is holding a 40th anniversary reunion in Chicago August 3-5. The group was founded in June 1967. Here's my recollection of the way it started.
I was mad as hell and nobody would listen. Fortunately, I met some other vets who were also mad as hell and saw how we might get more attention in the debate over our war in Vietnam by making a joint statement. Before I met these other fuming former soldiers, upset sailors, angry airmen and mad Marines, I was a lonely voice of seething outrage.
One morning, I read a dispatch from the war in The New York Times that fueled a big flare of outrage. I dashed off a teeth-grindingly polite but dissenting letter to the editor. I got a two-page reply from The New York Times defending the war policy. So I went the next step. I dug out my war medals and mailed them with a furious letter of protest to my senator, Robert Kennedy. My medals came back in the mail with an unsigned letter stating that the Senator couldn’t accept them. I wrote a blistering letter and mailed the medals to the Pentagon. There was no response from the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. I wasn’t even called back to active duty and berated.
So I upped the ante of protest. Much against my small town, patriotic, Republican upbringing, I joined a peace demonstration. As it happened, I arrived in suit and tie and business raincoat at a massive antiwar march in New York City that drew a large contingent of veterans, who formed a highly visible bloc wearing “Veterans for Peace” hats. At the head of this bloc of veterans was a small group carrying a banner that read “VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR!”
I was drawn like a magnet to this group. But at the end of the march, the vets scattered into the crowd. It turned out that a banner was created for the demonstration, but there was no such organization. That was April 15, 1967. It took a month and a half to track down other vets, draft a statement of purpose and form an organization. After considering other names, we decided the name on the banner clearly stated our purpose.
VVAW founders included Mark Donnelly, Steve Greene, Stan Scholl, Frank Rocks, Dave Braum, Carl Rogers, Shelly Ramsdell and others who joined in the crucial first months of launching a new organization. There were 65 signatures on the “Viet-Nam Veterans Speak Out” ad we placed in The New York Times in November 1967. It was a far better and more effective statement, hammered out by a group of vets, than my lone letter to the editor that was rejected earlier that year. It shook up McNamara, who had the signers investigated by the FBI. It was read into the Congressional Record. It spawned similar ads in newspapers across the country. And it attracted new members.
Launching VVAW was easier, however, than keeping it going. Nixon’s election in November 1968 created a discouraging atmosphere for dissent that lasted through most of 1969. Americans didn’t want to hear anything critical about the war that Nixon promised he’d take care of. During that period, the VVAW banner was kept in the public eye by the Los Angeles chapter headed by James Boggio. Then the national Moratorium movement attracted a new wave of members lead by Kevin Kelly, who found new audiences on college campuses in the fall and winter of 1969-70. A pattern was set in which VVAW waxed and waned on the mood of the nation, news from the war front, and the enthusiasm and project ideas of successive waves of members and supporters.
In 1967, we were young ex-GIs, working to finish college or start a career. We could not imagine what forming a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War would lead to. We hoped the war would be over soon and that we could play a role in changing attitudes to bring that about. We felt we could make a more resounding statement together.