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Why Are We Still VVAW?
By John Lindquist
This article first ran in the Spring 1997, Vol 27, Number 1 issue of The Veteran. 22 years later it is still relevant.
If you have been in VVAW for any length of time, you have heard the question before. At various times in our history the question has come up: Why don't we change our name to Vietnam Veterans Against War? Some people have even suggested we change it to Vietnam Vegetables Against the World. I'm going to review part of our history and try to answer this question at the same time.
In June 1967, six Vietnam veterans marched in an anti-war parade in New York City behind a banner that said "VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR." This was the official beginning of our organization.
After our first year of working against the war, VVAW decided to join in the Chicago protest at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. We functioned as medics and joined in various other aspects of the demonstrations during that week. The police riot that occurred there blew our minds, and not much else was done by VVAW until 1969.
In 1969, the My Lai killings became public, and VVAW again moved into action. The veterans of VVAW thought it was important to educate America about the true nature of the war in Indochina and to expose the lie that My Lai was a one-of-a-kind incident. We wanted to expose the war by giving testimony about crimes we witnessed and policies of the war that were standard operating procedure, such as free fire zones, H&I fire, strategic hamlets, and search-and-destroy missions. Not many GIs were crazy killers, but we knew we wanted to end the war and bring our brothers and sisters home. As warriors ourselves we could speak out with the truth about our war.
These local Winter Soldier investigations (WSI) reinvigorated VVAW and helped lead up to Operation RAW (for Rapid American Withdrawal), a mass march from New York City across New Jersey to Valley Forge, PA. Along the way, VVAW members and friends performed guerrilla theater, helping to bring the war home to the people of America.
From Operation RAW we organized the national WSI in Detroit (January 31-February 2, 1971), and this helped to build for VVAW's most well-known event, Operation Dewey Canyon III in Washington DC, April 19-23 1971.
These five days amazed us and the nation and pissed off Richard Nixon. Fifteen hundred veterans from all over the country lobbied Congress, marched in the streets, educated the people, returned a three-foot high pile of medals, and, on April 24, led the largest anti-war protest in America's history.
The Gainesville Eight trial of 1972-73 pitted VVAW against the power of the FBI and Richard Nixon. They beat us down to three hundred members, but VVAW survived. Our struggle for survival galvanized us into a fighting force waging a battle for peace and justice. During this time we had our first brush with changing our name.
Building up to the National Steering Committee meeting (NSCM) in Placitis, New Mexico in April 1972, some members from Chicago and California floated the idea of changing the name from VVAW to VVAW/WSO (Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization).
Their idea, in a nutshell, was to get out of the "veterans business" and really get into the role of being "anti-imperialist." Fortunately for the organization, the final decision about the name change had to be voted on again in one year's time.
By October 1973, VVAW had declared war on the VA. Across the country we were occupying VA offices and fighting for decent benefits for all veterans. In the midst of all this activity, the idea of changing our name became as popular as a fart in a submarine.
As the 1970s marched on, the fight for universal unconditional amnesty, discharge upgrading, post-Vietnam syndrome, and freedom for Gary Lawton and Ashby Leach drew heavily on our veterans' roots.
Our experience as veterans, warriors, and good organizers also prepared us for one of our longest struggles, the push for testing, treatment, and compensation for Agent Orange (1978-1984).
It started in Chicago in March 1978, when news broke the story of Maude DeVictor, the mother of the Agent Orange struggle. We began the battle at the Spring NSCM meeting in Chicago, and we carried it to Washington, DC more than once. We first created an information packet to educate veterans and their families, the "Agent Orange Dossier." With this we began to build a movement, organize with other veterans, and demonstrate.
We held national meetings in St. Louis and Washington, DC. We occupied the Capitol lawn in Madison, Wisconsin, and marched in Washington, DC. We held Dewey Canyon IV in DC in 1984, and once again slept on the mall. We marched and demonstrated all over the country on this issue.
With the help of Victor Yannacone we helped organize and sign up veterans in the Agent Orange lawsuit against the chemical companies. We did not win a total victory, but this epic battle will forever be a major part of the history of VVAW.
Between 1984 to 1997 VVAW has been small but active. We worked to stop the war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, we helped to organize some of the largest demonstrations against the Persian Gulf War, and we still work for decent benefits for all veterans and normalization of relations with Vietnam. That battle was finally won in 1995 when the US finally recognized Vietnam. Our public speaking in schools and universities about the war in Vietnam also continues.
When we go about our work, we proudly use our name Vietnam Veterans Against the War. On our trips back to Vietnam, our button and name are recognized and respected. Till the last one of us dies, or we dry up and blow away, our name will not change. See you May 16-17, 1997 in Chicago for the 30th Anniversary.
John Lindquist is a former VVAW National Coordinator and a Marine Vietnam Vet.