The troops deployed to Vietnam in 1965 were among the best in history. However, in 1971 the Armed Forces Journal reported that, "The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century." This breakdown in morale came despite limited one-year combat tours and hedonistic "rest and relaxation" breaks. Historian Cecil Curry says that GIs saw themselves to be "the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful," as many noted on their helmets.
The American military has always experienced dissension. On rare occasions this has taken the form of spontaneous rebellion, such as the mutinies in George Washington's army and the "Back Home Movement" after World War II. More typically, American soldiers have resorted to individual expressions of dissatisfaction—malingering, desertion, alcohol abuse. While such "apolitical" forms of rebellion reached unprecedented levels in the early 1970s, disenchanted soldiers of the Vietnam era also created underground newspapers and other grassroots organizations to articulate antiwar sentiments, institutionalize dissent, and develop a program to reform American society. This political movement within the military was one of the most unexpected and important developments of the turbulent 1960s.
The politics and timing of the Vietnam War presented unique challenges. While some senior officers of the World War II era questioned the war's purpose, it was the public anguish of the "baby boomers" called to fight that characterized the times. Raised in relative affluence, nurtured on John Wayne movies, and inspired by the civil rights movement, the generation coming of age during the conflict became disillusioned by a war with uncertain objectives, a vague enemy, and involuntary conscription. Like the overall turmoil in American society, the decline in GI morale followed the course of American involvement in Vietnam as those who were drafted, enlisted, and commissioned carried their concerns into the military.
Some nine million Americans, one-third of those who reached draft age, donned uniforms during the Vietnam War. An unprecedented number of these servicemen expressed displeasure with military life through traditional means. At least 1,500,000 went AWOL (absent without leave), and roughly 500,000 deserted. During its peak years of engagement, the U.S. Army saw its desertion rate increase nearly 400 percent, from 14.9 incidents per thousand in 1966 to 73.9 in 1971; three times the rate from the Korean War. Between 1970 and 1973, when President Nixon's "Vietnamization" shifted American involvement from a ground invasion to intensified bombing, the Air Force's rates for unauthorized absences tripled. As few desertions took place in Vietnam, most GIs left their posts in protest or despair, not fear.
Soldiers also found other means to escape. Late in the war, over half of the GIs in Vietnam smoked marijuana and 28.5 percent used heroin; 9 percent every day. This was an obvious detriment to combat readiness, compounded by the corruption of the command and allied government's complicity with the drug trade. Stateside, drug use in the ranks was almost as common.
While malingering is known to all armies, by 1970 soldiers in Vietnam had transformed combat patrols into "search and evade" missions. In Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, historians Melvin Small and William Hoover quote one GI as having lamented, "I just work hard at surviving so I can go home and protest all the killing." More troubling to the command was the practice of "combat refusal." Whereas normally soldiers refusing orders would be punished, field commanders were forced to negotiate and make compromises. In April 1970, when CBS news televised a unit refusing to advance, the Army downplayed the increasingly common event. As the air war intensified, similar problems developed in the Navy and Air Force.
Civil war could erupt when GIs and their superiors failed to "work things out." Rebellions were frequent in the military's overcrowded prisons, ranging from the bloody 1968 uprising at Long Binh Jail to a sit-down strike at the Presidio, to race riots at U.S. bases around the world. On two occasions in 1971, military police were deployed against units in Vietnam to protect unpopular commanders. By that time the act of killing a superior with a grenade had become so prevalent that a word was coined, "fragging." Officially there were 1,016 such attempts between 1969 and 1972, resulting in 86 deaths and over 700 injuries. Yet these figures misrepresent the severity of in-service strife as they do not include leaders murdered in the traditional manner, "misdirected" fire. The Army admitted over 1,400 such questionable deaths in 1972.
Sabotage also obscured the distinction between acts of desperation and terrorism. For some, monkey-wrenching the machine by misdirecting paperwork was a spontaneous reaction to command policies. For others, destruction of equipment was a political act to obstruct the war. In 1971 the Navy reported 191 acts of sabotage. The following summer, a paint scrapper and bolts in the reduction gears of the USS Ranger sidelined it from the war for three months, while arson on the USS Forrestal caused over $7 million in damage. With the aircraft carriers disabled, combat operations were significantly disrupted.
By 1970 most Americans opposed the war in Vietnam, and soon it was clear that the U.S. had to disengage. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" asked John Kerry, then a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Trapped in this situation, a survey of a representative hundred soldiers in 1971would have included seven deserters, seventeen AWOLs, twenty regular pot smokers and ten narcotic users, two dishonorable discharges, eighteen men with lesser punishments, and twelve who had complained formally to Congress. Morale had hit rock bottom, but as Kerry noted:
"There is a GI movement in this country now . . . so thirty years from now . . . we will be able to say 'Vietnam' and not mean a desert, nor a filthy obscene memory, but instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning."
The GI Movement
The spontaneous rebellion seen during Vietnam was different only in degree from the types of discontent common to all deployed armies. Unique in U.S. military history, however, the Vietnam War also prompted the transformation of the poor morale of individual GIs into a broader social movement, cohesive around a shared ideology and driven by sustaining institutions. Like the wider upheaval of the 1960s in America, this rebellion within the ranks mixed traditional American values with a new progressive consciousness and leftist rhetoric. Also, as with U.S. intervention in Vietnam itself, GI antiwar dissent began quietly and escalated quickly.
In January 1965, five months after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, West Point graduate Richard Steinke refused to join a unit operating in Vietnam. He was court-martialed and sentenced to two years in prison. That fall Master Sergeant Donald Duncan quit the Special Forces to denounce the war, as did two other Green Berets when they were released from North Vietnamese captivity. In November, Fort Bliss Lieutenant Henry Howe took part in an off-base antiwar demonstration. Although he had participated while out of uniform, he was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and received a two-year sentence.
The case of the "Fort Hood Three" in mid-1966 marked the genesis of the organized GI Movement. Refusing to take part in a conflict they considered immoral, Privates James Johnson, Dennis Mora, and David Samas associated themselves with antiwar organizations, refused deployment, and filed a lawsuit challenging the undeclared war's legality. Although they received three years hard labor, other soldiers followed their example. Among the most famous was Captain Howard Levy, a Fort Jackson doctor who refused in 1967 to train Green Berets because he considered their actions in Vietnam to be war crimes. In a similar case, Captain Dale Noyd, an Air Force officer with eleven years of service, refused to train fighter pilots. During the riot-plagued summer of 1967 two Marines requested a captain's mast at Camp Pendleton to address the war's racist nature. For their efforts they were sentenced to six and ten years respectively. Reacting with such a heavy hand (between 1965-1968 the average sentence for publicly denouncing the war was four years), the Pentagon unwittingly created peace movement martyrs, intensified criticism of military justice, and inspired others to undermine the war effort by advocating for soldiers' constitutional rights.
For example, expelled from college for burning his draft card, Andy Stapp volunteered for the Army in 1966 to organize dissent from within. Despite carefully following the law, he soon found himself in trouble at Fort Sill. In his first court martial Stapp was charged with disobeying an order by refusing to open his footlocker so that political literature could be confiscated, and with having a broken footlocker after his sergeant opened it with an ax. The case garnered national publicity when civil libertarians rallied in Stapp's defense. Found guilty, fined, and demoted, but left at his duty station until forcibly discharged in 1968, Stapp went on to help found a legal defense organization for soldiers, a GI newspaper, and the U.S. military's first trade union, the American Servicemen's Union (ASU), which called for an end to saluting, the election of officers, collective bargaining, adoption of the minimum wage, and the right to refuse deployment to Vietnam. By 1970, the ASU claimed 6,500 members and chapters on 160 bases and 50 ships.
The popularity of the ASU and over a dozen similar organizations demonstrated the GI Movement's new political dimension following the 1968 Tet Offensive. While some of the GI groups were affiliated with outside organizations like the Black Panthers or various Trotskyite parties, the majority were created by soldiers simply caught up with the radical idealism of the time. Fueled by war crime revelations like the My Lai massacre, GI dissent broadened its scope, transitioning from a collection of individual denouncements of the war to a larger movement that sought to confront America's underlying social problems. Soon GI activists were denouncing racism, advocating women's liberation, and boycotting non-union-picked vegetables in the mess hall. No longer out to just end the conflict in Vietnam, dissenting GIs intended to change "the system" that had made the war possible.
The GI Movement was nurtured by two organizational tools often supported by veterans and the civilian antiwar movement: underground GI newspapers and GI coffeehouses—off-base counterculture establishments where soldiers could hang out, to be counseled about conscientious objection and other discharges, and plan antiwar activities. The first such coffeehouse opened outside Fort Jackson in the wake of Howard Levy's stand against the war. Although the idea was initially dismissed by leaders of the student-focused national peace movement, the project's success in encouraging GI antiwar demonstrations prompted musicians and other celebrities to raise funds for over two dozen coffeehouses outside other bases and, in the movement's answer to Bob Hope, Jane Fonda organized a "Free the Army" (FTA) show to tour them. Harassed by authorities, the coffeehouses provided a social outlet and political training ground for thousands of GIs.
The GI press was the GI Movement's most important catalyst. Whereas only three GI newspapers existed in 1967, by 1970 there were over ninety. Filled with reports on the war, advice on regulations, and satirical cartoons about command, the papers gave soldiers a place to voice their grievances and share their goals. While most of the nearly three hundred "undergrounds" were short-lived flyers, some like the Fatigue Press at Fort Hood developed circulations of more than five thousand. Whether passed around the barracks or traded between bases, the GI press facilitated movement building and emboldened dissent.
In August 1968, General William Westmoreland met with President Johnson to discuss the GI Movement. A task force was created to implement and coordinate close surveillance of antiwar actions that might adversely affect Army morale and discipline. Nonetheless, the subsequent punitive transfers, courts-martial, and dishonorable discharges could not stay the tide of dissenting GIs. On November 9, 1969 the New York Times published a full-page antiwar statement signed by 1,366 soldiers. Other headlines announced, as Newsweek did on February 2, 1970, "A New GI: For Pot and Peace." Coordinated with antiwar veterans, GIs became a mainstay at peace demonstrations and, during the nation-wide "Moratorium" of November 1969, soldiers in Vietnam demonstrated by wearing black armbands.
Dissenting GIs began to claim victories when in 1969 public scrutiny forced the Army to abandon charges against the "Fort Jackson Eight" who had organized an on-base forum against the war. Soon thereafter, the Army issued a new directive on dissent that acknowledged First Amendment rights. In 1970 Admiral Zumwalt, the new chief of Navy operations, began liberalizing regulations such as those controlling hair styles. That year the Army granted amnesty to drug users in rehabilitation, and beer was allowed into the barracks. In 1971 the Pentagon established a Race Relations Institute, and by 1972 all ROTC classes were coed.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to assess the GI Movement's success. The Pentagon would not concede that unofficial GI organizations prompted such reforms, nor the creation of an all-volunteer force in 1973. Nor is it possible to discern how GI political activism influenced combat refusals. However, it is clear that dissent and rebellion helped achieve the GI Movement's primary goal. On December 7, 1970, Newsweek reported a "growing feeling among the Administration's policymakers that it might be a good idea to accelerate the rate of withdrawal," noting that "discipline and morale in the American Army in Vietnam are deteriorating very seriously."
Contrary to popular myths, the United States did not lose in Vietnam because the military had "one arm tied behind its back," nor did most veterans return home only to be spat upon by peace activists. Instead, the government and military command found their options limited by widespread mutinies in the field and a swell of GIs that broke ranks to join the peace movement. Many of these politicized GIs and veterans remained active in coming years in organizations that sought reconciliation with Vietnam, progressive social change, and an end to war. Jeff Schutts
Curry, Cecil B. ("Cinncinnatus"). Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.; Gabriel, Richard and Paul Savage. Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.; Haines, Harry, ed. GI Resistance: Soldiers and Veterans Against the War, Special issue of Vietnam Generation 2:1. 1990: 1-118.; Lewes, James. Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.; Moser, Richard. The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966.; Wells, Tom. The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.