Such harsh penalties undoubtedly dissuaded many GIs from directly challenging military authority, but other ways were found to debate and protest the war. With the support of local peace groups, coffee houses sprang up near military bases where GIs could freely exchange ideas. GIs began publishing off-base newspapers, one of the first being Vietnam GI in late 1967. More newspapers followed. Cortright counts a total of 259 over the course of the war, although many lasted only a few issues due to personnel relocation. In December 1967, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) was founded by socialist Andy Stapp, who purposely entered the Army in order to organize among soldiers. ASU developed chapters in bases at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered legal assistance to servicemen in support of GI rights. An increasing number of GIs also applied for C.O. status while in the service. Even if denied, their applications backed up the military courts and sometimes delayed deployment orders. At the Oakland Army Base, a primary embarkation point for Vietnam, the Pacific Counseling Service aided GIs in filling out C.O. applications, resulting in 1,200 soldiers successfully delaying their deployment orders by March 1, 1970.
Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation, that involved itself in world affairs only reluctantly, that respected the integrity of other nations and other systems, and that engaged in wars only as a last resort…. But in recent years … the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy have done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country. The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy … The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam the more we are driven toward the conclusion of Senator Morse that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today. That is a terrible and bitter insight for people who grew up as we did – and our revulsion at that insight, our refusal to accept it as inevitable or necessary, is one of the reasons that so many people have come here today.
The first campus teach-in on Vietnam took place at the University of Michigan on March 24-25, 1965, the same month that U.S. troops landed in Danang. Over 3,000 people showed up on the Ann Arbor campus for lectures and discussions that ran through the night. The purpose, as one flyer put it, was to focus attention “on this war, its consequences, and ways to stop it.” The educational venue quickly spread to other campuses. Within one week, thirty-five more had been held; and by the end of the year, 120 had taken place. Some were organized locally, others by the Universities Committee on Problems of War and Peace, a three-year old group based at Wayne State University. For Doug Dowd, a Cornell University professor, lifelong leftist, and activist organizer, the teach-ins were an exhilarating experience. He had gone through the Red Scare period when “you couldn’t get anybody to say anything about the Korean War…. Everybody was scared.” The teach-ins aimed to both educate people on the issues and inspire greater confidence in questioning political authorities and foreign policy experts.
The United Nations Charter (Article 2, Section 4) states, “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state….” See Fredrik Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1 (March 2004); and Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1999).
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Official U.S. denial of responsibility for the death and destruction wrought in Vietnam was reinforced by various cultural expressions. Accounts of the war in films such as The Deer Hunter (1978), First Blood (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Rambo III (1988) present American soldiers as righteous warriors who were prevented from winning by inept Washington politicians, the “liberal” media, and the peace movement. These films were part of a larger reactionary movement designed to restore America’s noble self-image, assuage guilt, and drown out the outrage felt by other Americans convinced that the administration had lied its way into an unnecessary war. Stories were spread that antiwar activists had spit on returning vets and that American POWs were being held in Vietnam, making America appear the victim rather than the aggressor in the war. The “lesson” for the hawkish crowd was that the U.S. should have, and could have, won the war.
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U.S. Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (left, front) and Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. Pham Quang Vinh (right) sign a document to establish a Peace Corps program in Vietnam on May 24. Photo by Kham/Reuters
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Not built in stone or steel, immutable and unchanging, this work remains alive to manifest the Peace Corps ethos – the need to labor, not only to achieve peace, but to maintain it.