Andrew E. Hunt’s The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War is an incredibly important book for students of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as a study of Vietnam Veterans Against the War presents an essential counterpoise to all of the literature that attacks those movements as consisting primarily of the children of the elite.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War were one of the most visible anti-war organizations in the United States after the break-up of Students for a Democratic Society and the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice. While SDS was an organization made up of largely radical students and campus intellectuals, and thus easy for the Nixon White House to dismiss, Vietnam Veterans Against the War was an organization made up entirely of veterans. These veterans had seen the horror of Vietnam and as a result of their experiences, came back opposed to the war and increasingly radicalized. While many members were radicalized by their post-Vietnam experience–the failure of the Democratic Party to end the war, the unresponsiveness of politicians to the veterans’ lobbying, and the other movements of the period–there was always a tension between the traditionally “liberal” members and the more radical members. Nevertheless, by the end of the war, the group was denouncing sexism, racism, imperialism, and capitalism and understanding the Vietnam War within the framework of global capitalism and imperialism.
The tactics of Vietnam Veterans Against the War were often dramatic, and consequently, the group was able to draw a considerable amount of media and popular attention. They staged a multiple-day guerilla theatre march through Pennsylvania, dubbed “Operation RAW” in which veterans dressed in military uniforms and carried fake M-16s and reenacting the “search and destroy” missions of Vietnam. At another demonstration they threw their medals on the steps of the capitol in Washington DC and denounced the war. They held highly visible investigations of atrocities in Vietnam and organized veterans to speak at the investigations. They tried to organize services for veterans, and while they lacked the infrastructure to do so, they were one of the earliest groups to make the effort. They tried to directly organize veterans returning from Vietnam by obtaining exit rolls, but the military denied them access while providing the lists to the VFW and the American Legion, and instead Vietnam Veterans Against the War was left to the lengthy process of contacting veterans by word of mouth.
The Turning is essential reading for students of the social movements of the sixties and the Vietnam War. While the ruling class and its media outlets have tried to rewrite the history of the antiwar movement, portraying it as hostile to soldiers and the working-class, The Turning refutes this argument by chronicling the history of a group that consisted of soldiers and primarily members of the working class.
Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, (NYU Press, 2001).