The Contradictions of 1968: Drafted for War, The Westmoreland Cohort Opted for Peace
For a time after World War II, the United States looked like the place where a better world might be made. Its economic power, political democracy, and cultural openness signified that relief from poverty, educational opportunity, and peaceful resolution of conflicts was possible. Into the 1960s, the example of the American post-war experience promised a future of equality, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment within and beyond its own borders. Growing up in small-town Iowa, I absorbed the ethic of the time and place: worked hard, studied hard, and obeyed the rules. Graduation from Augustana College in 1966 was the final punch in a ticket to the good life.
Then came 1968.
Bogged down in a war abroad and unnerved by assassinations and unraveling political institutions at home, America looked less like a city on the hill than a Humpty Dumpty waiting to fall.
The Tet Offensive launched by the Vietnamese communist forces in January 1968 dispelled the imminence of a U.S. victory and exposed the illusion of American’s self-vaunted military superiority. On March 29, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection in the fall. The stalemated war had drained resources from the War on Poverty he hoped would be his legacy; the rising home-front opposition tarnished his reputation with liberal allies.
Johnson’s resignation had left a narrow opening for the anti-war candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but Kennedy’s assassination on June 5 and the violence that shook the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August soured even liberal optimism on the hope for meaningful change within the system.
Meanwhile, the contradictions of the war piling up in Vietnam were about to manifest in more unexpected ways. Out of the miasma of war and disintegrating institutions arose every militarist’s nightmare, that of warriors who turned against the war they had been sent to fight. Men conscripted for a last-ditch staunch of the Communist red tide rolling across South Vietnam became, instead, the voice of the anti-war movement—in uniform.
Despite being among the year’s most enduring legacies—as a brake on war planners who entertain thoughts of renewing the draft, and for the inspiration they provide for future generations of would-be warriors—the emergence of the GI and veteran antiwar movements that rose from the ruins of 1968 will only have cameo appearances in most fiftieth anniversary events planned for the war in Vietnam. The even greater loss, however, would be to forget the lesson that institutional forces sometimes provide the wherewithal of their own undoing.
General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam had met the January Tet Offensive with a request to President Johnson that the troop level there be increased by 206,000 over the 485,000 already in country. Johnson downsized the order to 100,000, but meeting even that lower number required reconsideration of the criteria for draft eligibility.
Theretofore, the draft system had privileged with exemptions college students in math and science as well as secondary school teachers in those fields. It was a priority that favored middle-class white men because of their backgrounds, but that was incidental to the modernist conceit that drove it: brain power would outmatch leg power in late-twentieth century warfare. Now, with the army of “legs” overrunning the technowarriors, that smugness was humbled and the “selective service,” as the draft system was formally known, dipped more deeply into the pool of age-eligible men. And they got . . . me.
It would be fair enough to say that military leaders were sorry that they got what they did in the Westmoreland cohort of draftees. Like me—24 years-old with a B.A. in math and two years of middle-school teaching experience—the cohort was, shall we say, not especially amenable to military ways. It wasn’t that we were so political. Having come through college in the early- to mid-1960s, we had been sensitized to poverty in America by Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America, but the institutional biases of the day and our own demographics had insulated us from the liberation movements just beginning to stir. Our college years were mostly ahead of the campus activism that began with the teach-ins following the landing of the first U.S. ground troops in March 1965. But our chafing at the authoritarian personalities in charge of us in basic training opened our eyes and ears to the antiwar messages we got from the few in our ranks with more political experience—some of whom, I learned later, may have been embeds from leftwing civilian groups. The first antiwar literature I ever heard of was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The informant? A fellow draftee at Fort Lewis.
I and several others from my basic training company volunteered for Chaplain Assistant school, then at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn New York. Free to leave the post after training hours and on weekends, many of us immersed ourselves in the antiwar and counter cultures that were rife in the city. Antiwar activists sometimes greeted us outside the main gate under the Verrazano Bridge, handing us literature and offering church sanctuary for those who sought it. We mixed with the hippy crowd in the East Village and watched with awe the antiwar demonstrations on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. With orders for Vietnam in the late fall of 1968, I left New York City armed with a bag of books that I would have never known existed had the draft not plucked me from Fort Dodge, Iowa, among them Harrison Salisbury’s Behind the Lines—Hanoi and Ronald Steel’s Pax Americana.
The timing of the Westmoreland cohort’s preparedness for Vietnam could not have been worse for the military—or more efficacious for the peace movement. The brutal combat of the Tet Offensive had yielded the U.S. nothing and left military morale shattered. Antiwar coffee houses outside military bases were uniting civilian peace activists with in-service dissidents. A network of radical underground GI newspapers was forming. The fledgling Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was congealing into a real organization. The band of too-old and too-educated men lassoed by the post-Tet draft now headed for Vietnam could only be described as unruly, readier to fight military authority than the Viet Cong, and more likely to lend a hand to fellow GIs feeling burdened by cruel and self-serving leaders than to follow those leaders’ orders.
Most draftees went to the Army, and those of the post-Tet mobilization landed in Vietnam in late 1968, with devastating consequences for military discipline. Data collected by David Cortright for his 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt shows Army applications for conscientious objection tripling, desertion rates doubling, and AWOL rates increasing by 30% between 1967 and 1969. Refusals to fight were not new by 1968—Donald Duncan, decorated for combat, had “quit” the Army in 1965 and come out publicly against the war—and post-Tet combat fatigue may itself have contributed to the spread of refusenik attitudes. But the rates of misbehavior in the Marines stayed level after Tet despite the heavy toll taken on its units early in the year, and those rates did not spike for the Navy or Air Force either. The Army was the outlier, suggesting that the changing composition of its personnel wrought by the Westmoreland call-up was the difference-maker.
Within months after the post-Tet surge, the nascent GI resistance exploded into a full-blown movement that graduated into a veterans’ movement against the war, legitimating civilian efforts that had already reached the American mainstream. Hundreds of veterans staged a Washington, D.C., camp-in April 1971 to protest the war, and marched on the Capitol to return medals they had been awarded for service. Navy veteran and VVAW leader John Kerry, who would later become Senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State, spoke before a Congressional committee demanding an end to the war.
The history of GI and veteran dissent during and after the war in Vietnam has faded from public memory. Teaching courses on the place of the war in popular and political culture, I would occasionally ask students if they had heard of VVAW or knew that GIs had sometimes refused to fight in Vietnam—very few had. I would follow by asking if they had heard of Vietnam veterans with PTSD—most hands would go up. The lesson in that exercise is that the memory that many men were empowered and politicized by their experience in the war has been displaced by images of victim-veterans, their courageous dissent and protest stigmatized as symptomatic of emotional disorder.
In March 2018, the exhibit “Waging Peace: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed America’s War in Vietnam” will go up in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to commemorate those who stood up for peace. In May, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame will host the conference “Voices of Conscience,” dedicated to the study of the military personnel who spoke, wrote, and organized to help end the war.
These events are welcome efforts to restore to the historical record the importance of in-service resistance to the war and the critical role veterans played in the antiwar movement. Additionally, the attention given their historical importance may inspire military-eligible men and women of today to imagine oppositional stances they might take vis-à-vis the call to serve, should it come to them.
There is finally, in the story of the Westmoreland cohort recounted here, a lesson for antiwar organizers: the dynamics of militarist institutions sometimes move in contradictory ways counter to the pursuit of their own ends. It behooves movement strategists to be alert for opportunities generated by the system itself that can be turned against the war machine.
Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor Emeritus at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is a distinguished lecturer of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). He is the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. His bibliographic essay “The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000-2014” can be found in Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. Jerry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The foregoing is informed by the insights of postmodern social theory. For that see Steven Best and Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (1991).
Wilfred Burchett’s Grasshoppers & Elephants: Why Viet Nam Fell (1977) is the classic introduction to the kind of asymmetrical war tactics the U.S. was ill-prepared to fight.
“Technowar” is from James William Gibson’s The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (1986).
The best history of VVAW is Andrew E. Hunt’s The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (1999). For the history of the coffeehouse movement see David L. Parsons, Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era (2017). James Lewes, Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War (2003).
Besides David Cortright for in-service resistance to the war, see Richard Moser, The New Winter Solders: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam Era (1996); and Gerald R. Gioglio, Days of Decision: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War (1989). The most accessible account of the GI antiwar movement is Sir! No Sir!, dir. David Zeiger (2005).
John Kerry and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, The New Soldier (1971).
The use of psychiatric discourse to stigmatize political dissent is developed in Peter Conrad and Joseph W. Schneider, Deviance and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness (1992). I applied their insights for PTSD: Diagnosis and Identity in Post-empire America (2013) to show that the diagnostic category PTSD worked in that way to displace the political interpretations of Vietnam veteran dissent.