During a New York antiwar demonstration on April 15, 1967, Army veteran Jan Barry (Crumb) helped carry a "Vietnam Veterans Against the War" banner prepared by Veterans for Peace, a coalition of ex-servicemen from World War II and Korea. Six weeks later, Barry and a handful of other combat veterans founded an organization to match the banner. As their logo, they adapted the insignia of the U.S. Military Assistance Command -Vietnam (MACV) by replacing the sword, which represented American might piercing the Great War of China and thus the communist threat, with an upturned rifle capped by a helmet that symbolized a dead soldier.
The new group buttressed the peace movement by providing veterans to speak at public events, publishing antiwar ads in major periodicals, and circulating a pioneering newspaper for soldiers, Vietnam GI. Nonetheless, VVAW's earnest plea for peace became lost in the turmoil that followed the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Allied to the emerging GI Movement, VVAW regrouped for the fall 1969 "Moratorium" protests. Larger, with some 25,000 members, and more confrontational, the organization of outraged veterans demonstrated against the expansion of the war into Cambodia, while also protesting the dreadful conditions at Veterans Administration hospitals.
VVAW's most significant actions include: "Operation RAW" (Rapid American Withdrawal) in September 1970, where 150 veterans marched from Morristown, NJ, to Valley Forge, PA, staging mock "search and destroy" missions to shock Americans into acknowledging what the Vietnamese experienced; the "Winter Soldier Investigation" of January 1971, where over a hundred veterans gathered in Detroit to give personal testimony of war crimes; and "Dewey Canyon III," a "limited incursion into the country of Congress" in April 1971, where about fifteen hundred veterans camped on the Mall, held a memorial service at the Arlington National Cemetery, tried to turn themselves as war criminals, and – most famously – threw away their medals. It was at this time that VVAW spokesman John Kerry testified before Congress and demonstrated to the American public how "patriotic" antiwar activism could be.
Historian Gerald Nicosia says that the spirit behind VVAW activism was best manifested in the adoption of the moniker "Winter Soldier," an inversion of Thomas Paine's 1776 observation: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country." Having fought a war that seemed to conflict with American values, and frustrated with the leadership found on the battlefield and in Washington, an increasing number of ex-soldiers felt called to fight American policy. According to historian Jerry Lembcke, by the mid-1970s, 75 percent of surveyed Vietnam veterans were against the war, and 27 percent believed that "imperialism" was the true motive of United States policy makers in fighting it.
Concerned about VVAW's ability to influence public opinion, President Nixon infiltrated the group with agent provocateurs and engaged in the illegal surveillance that led to his downfall with the Watergate scandal. By November 1971 government infiltrators were encouraging VVAW to assassinate pro-war Congressmen. Although such motions were unanimously voted down, moderate members like the future Senator Kerry distanced themselves from the organization. At the Miami Republic Convention in 1972, although key organizers, known as the "Gainesville Eight" were on trial for bogus conspiracy charges, three disabled VVAW members were able to disrupt Nixon's acceptance speech; a scene recreated in Oliver Stone's 1989 film, Born on the Forth of July. As a VVAW activist who had served three tours in Vietnam explained, "We had taken an oath to defend the government of the United States and the Constitution. What do you do when the government of the United States is the enemy of the Constitution?"
After 1973, VVAW tried to grow into a multi-issue organization with a civilian auxiliary, but the group's decentralized structure facilitated its takeover by the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). After a steep decline in membership, in 1978 VVAW forced the Maoist faction to create their own separate organization, "Vietnam Veterans Against the War – Anti-Imperialist." Although weakened by such disputes, VVAW members remained instrumental in campaigns advocating amnesty for deserters and draft evaders, support of Native Americans, and increased medical care and compensation for veterans suffering from PTSD and exposure to Agent Orange. Additionally, VVAW helped promote the publication of poetry by veterans.
Hunt, Andrew E. The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York: New York University Press, 1999.; Lembcke, Jerry. The Spiting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.; Moser, Richard. The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966.; Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement. New York: Crown, 2001.; Stacewicz, Richard. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York: Twayne, 1997.