War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1971) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1971)

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On 1 January, 1971, the United States Congress outlawed the presence of US troops in Laos or Cambodia. On 19 January, United States forces began a series of air strikes against North Vietnamese Army supply camps in Laos and Cambodia.

On 30 January, the South Vietnamese Army initiated a ground offensive - Operation Lam Son 719. The first seven days of this action was dubbed 'Operation Dewey Canyon II'. 17,000 South Vietnamese soldiers assaulted a force of 22,000 North Vietnamese soldiers inside Laos. The United States military provided heavy artillery, air strikes and helicopter lifts in support of this operation. The North Vietnamese Army had time to bring in reinforcements as the invading force stalled after reaching its first objective. The battle ended on 6 April, when 40,000 North Vietnamese troops drove the surviving 8000 South Vietnamese back across the border. The North Vietnamese Army suffered an estimated 20,000 casualties, while the South Vietnamese Army reported 7682 casualties; about half of the original invasion force. The United States had 215 killed, more than 100 helicopters lost and more than 600 helicopters damaged. Life magazine photographer Larry Burrows, who had been working in Vietnam for ten years, was among the American dead.

By this time, American participation in the war in Vietnam had lost any remnant of popular support. A Gallup poll in January 1971 showed that 60% of Americans with a college education favoured withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, 75% of those with a high-school education favoured withdrawal, and 80% of those with only a grade-school education favoured withdrawal.

As support for the war effort continued to decrease within the United States, so did the morale among the American troops in Vietnam. A Defense Department task force report released in January 1971 stated the drug abuse by American military personnel in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Far East was becoming a 'military problem'.

Protest - the 'Winter Soldier Investigation'

From 31 January through 2 February, 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War sponsored the 'Winter Soldier Investigation'. The name of this action came from a criticism of people that Thomas Paine, in 1776, called 'sunshine patriots', who left service in the Revolutionary War at the end of summer. Paine had praised those he called 'winter soldiers', who fought year-round.

The 'Winter Soldier Investigation' was the first national action sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The investigation took the form of a war crimes hearing. Veterans testified about war crimes they had committed or witnessed, against enemy troops and against Vietnamese civilians. This was an attempt to show that the My Lai Massacre was not a case of a single, out-of-control unit, but was standard operating procedure.

Testimony covered the mistreatment of prisoners, stories of a convoy running down old women for no reason, bounties being placed on American soldiers who were considered inadequate in the field, levelling villages for no valid reason, throwing suspected NLF/PALF members from aircraft after binding them with copper wire and gagging them, torture of prisoners, tear gassing people for fun, running civilian vehicles off the road, rapes, the slaughter of animals, the mutilation of bodies, the crucifixion of suspected NLF/PALF members and the falsification of body counts.

Over the three days, about 100 veterans and 16 civilians gave graphic, disturbing testimony detailing their war experiences. The Republican Senator from Oregon, Mark Hatfield, entered the testimony into the Congressional Record and requested official hearings into the conduct of US forces in the war.

Public Opinion

During March 1971, public opinion polls showed that President Nixon's approval rating among Americans had dropped to 50%. Approval of his Vietnam strategy has fallen to 34%. Half of all Americans polled believed the war in Vietnam to be 'morally wrong'.

On 1 March, 1971, the revolutionary faction within the anti-war movement again made its voice heard. A bomb damaged Capitol in Washington DC. This bomb had apparently been planted as a way of protesting the invasion of Laos.


In April 1971, the North Vietnamese Army attacked several military bases in South Vietnam. In view of the fact that the American and South Vietnamese armies had been claiming that their incursions into Laos had been successful, these attacks resulted in a lowering of morale among American and South Vietnamese soldiers.

Later that month, President Nixon announced that another 100,000 US troops would be withdrawn from South Vietnam by 1 December. President Nixon promised to end US involvement in the war in Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, President Nixon stated that 'some' US troops would remain in Vietnam indefinitely if the North Vietnamese government refused to release American Prisoners of War.

Protest - Operation Dewey Canyon III

  • 18 April, 1971

    Vietnam veterans began arriving in Washington DC, marking the beginning of what many Americans considered to be the most powerful, moving protest held against this war, or any war in recent history. They named this protest 'Operation Dewey Canyon III', on the grounds that just as Operation Dewey Canyon and Operation Dewey Canyon II were incursions into a foreign country (Laos), this was a 'limited incursion into the foreign country of Congress'.

    This event is believed to be the first time in United States history that returning servicemen had so strongly voiced opposition to a war that was still raging.

  • 19 April, 1971

    A group of mothers whose sons had died in Vietnam lead about 1100 veterans, some of whom were in wheelchairs or on crutches, across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. Reverend Jackson Day, who had resigned his military chaplaincy a few days earlier, held a short ceremony for the war dead. The ceremony was held just outside the cemetery, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the grave of John F Kennedy.

    A delegation of mothers and veterans found that they were barred from entering the Cemetery after the ceremony. They laid two memorial wreaths at the entrance and joined the other mothers and veterans marching towards the Capitol.

    While the marchers were making their way to the Capitol Building, they were joined by Congressman Paul McClosky. McClosky, Representative Bella Abzug and others addressed the veterans when they had assembled at the steps of the Capitol. Some of the veterans went into the building to directly lobby members of Congress against the war.

    After the rally, the veterans marched to the National Mall, where they were to camp for the duration of the planned week-long protest. An injunction against veterans camping on the Mall had been obtained by the United States Justice Department , but this injunction was lifted by the Washington District Court of Appeals.

  • 20 April, 1971

    About 200 veterans attended hearings on proposals to end the war, which were being held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When the hearings were not in session, they spent the day lobbying members of Congress.

    Another group of veterans, also numbering about 200, marched back to Arlington National Cemetery, parading across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge in single file. They were of the opinion that being denied access was far too serious an affront to go unanswered. The Superintendent again tried to stop them from entering the cemetery, but ended up allowing them in.

    That evening, Senators Claiborne Pell and Philip Hart held a fund-raising party for the veterans. During the party it was announced that Chief Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court had reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. The veterans were given until 4.30 the following afternoon to break camp and leave the National Mall.

  • 21 April, 1971

    On this day, a group of about 50 veterans marched to the Pentagon. They attempted to turn themselves in as war criminals, based on the actions they had taken, or failed to report or try to stop, while in Vietnam. They were turned away.

    At 4.30pm, an alarm clock rang over the microphone at the speaker's platform in the Mall. It was the time that the Supreme Court had designated for the veterans to leave. There were no police officers to be seen. The Supreme Court was meeting in special session. The area around the mall was filled with citizens curious to see what would happen next.

    At 5.30pm, Ramsey Clark announced that the Supreme Court had come up with a second option for the veterans. They could stay on the Mall as long as they didn't sleep. If they slept in the Mall, they would be arrested. The veterans put the question to a vote. Do they sleep or not? The voting was close, but the decision, to which all agreed to abide, was to sleep.

    The Washington Park Police announced that they had no intention of inspecting the campsite to make sure that nobody was sleeping. At midnight, Senator Edward Kennedy visited the veterans on the Mall, where he talked and sang with them for an hour. The veterans then slept through the night, unmolested.

  • 22 April, 1971

    A large contingent of the veterans marched to the steps of the Supreme Court, to publicly ask why that Court had not ruled on the constitutionality of the war in Vietnam, which was being waged despite the fact that Congress had never declared the United States to be at war. The Washington police department arrested110 veterans for disturbing the peace.

    The District Court judge who had originally issued it dissolved the injunction against camping in the National Mall. He criticized the Justice Department for requesting the court order and then not enforcing it.

  • 23 April, 1971

    The final day of Operation Dewey Canyon III attracted the attention of the media, and the imagination of the country. As Congressman Jonathan Bingham held hearings with former intelligence and public information officers regarding the distortion of news and information concerning the war and Senators George McGovern and Philip Hart held hearings on atrocities committed by US soldiers in Vietnam, some of those soldiers dramatically returned their medals and campaign ribbons.

    About 800 veterans marched up to a barricade that had been erected around the Capitol to keep them away. The irony of the United States government fencing off the Capitol from it veterans was not lost on the media or the American public. One by one, they approached the barricade, said a few words, and threw back their Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Silver Stars and campaign ribbons.

    I pray that time will forgive me and my brothers for what we did. Spec. 4, army, retired. I'm taking nine purple hearts, Distinguished Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star and a lot of other shit. This is for my brothers.
    - Paul F Withers threw the medals away and limped off.
    Robert, New York, and I symbolically return all Vietnam medals and other service medals given me by the power structure that has genocidal policies against non-white peoples of the world!
    This is for the brothers and sisters at Kent.
    22nd Calvary strike Danang. I hope they realize this is their last goddamn chance.
  • My name is John and here's a bunch of bulls**t'!

At the end of the week of protests, the veterans planted a tree in the Mall, as a symbolic plea for the preservation of all life and the environment. No act of violence had been committed during the entire week.

It was later revealed that President Nixon had wanted to attack the protesters, but had been talked out of that idea by advisor Pat Buchanan, who told Nixon that 'this would be a mistake', and that the last thing he (Nixon) needed was for Vietnam veterans to be attacked by the Washington police.

Protest - 'Stop the Government'

The day after the veterans had returned their medals, 24 April, 1971, more than 500,000 demonstrators arrived in Washington DC. They intended to shut down the federal government by stopping the flow of traffic into the city on May Day.

Police agents had infiltrated the demonstrators and obtained their 'tactical manual' for the action.

A retired police officer who was on duty that day recalls:

They looked at all of the major access routes coming into the District from Maryland and Virginia, and they made assignments to demonstrators where they could go to block the streets. They were going to come out in waves, so that when the first wave got arrested, the second wave would fill the streets and then a third wave and so on. They had done a pretty good job.
A lot of them came down because they felt very strongly about what they were doing, and a lot of them came for adventure. And adventure meant confrontation.

As a result of the careful planning and disciplined response by the Washington DC Police Force, the city stayed open. Between 3 May and 5 May, about 12,000 protesters were arrested, including ex-Marine Daniel Ellsberg. The Washington DC Police set a United States record for the largest number of people arrested in one city over the course of a single day. Just six years previously, 12,000 would have been considered an unexpectedly large total turnout for an anti-war rally.

The Pentagon Papers Go Public

On 13 June, 1971, the New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on the top secret Pentagon Papers. The Justice Department obtained a court injunction against further publication on the grounds that the publication of the study was endangering national security. On 18 June, the Washington Post began publishing the Pentagon Papers. On 30 June, by a vote of six to three, the United States Supreme Court ruled that constitutional guarantees of a free press overrode other considerations, and allowed the publication of the Pentagon Papers to go on.

The source of the Pentagon Papers leak, Daniel Ellsberg, had surrendered himself to the police on 28 June, to face charges of espionage, theft and conspiracy, with codefendant Anthony J Russo. Almost two years later, on 11 May, 1973, a federal court judge would dismiss all of the charges against Ellsberg and Russo, due to improper government conduct1.


In June of 1971, at a secret meeting in Paris, the North Vietnamese government presented a nine-point peace proposal to Henry Kissinger. The North Vietnamese plan called for the withdrawal of all United States military personnel in Southeast Asia, withdrawal of all United States support of the Thieu government in South Vietnam, the forming of a single Vietnamese government of 'national concord' and a cease-fire following agreement on political and withdrawal issues.

On 22 June, 1971, the United States Senate passed a non-binding resolution urging the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam by the end of the year.

Comments by United States Senators in June 1971 include:

The only possible excuse for the continuing discredited policy of Vietnamization, the war, now and in the months ahead seems to be the President's intention to play his last great card for peace at a time closer to November 19722.
- Senator Edward Kennedy
I cannot, I cannot believe and I do not believe that most of our countrymen believe, that a plan for peace necessitates bombing four countries, invading two, in order to get out of one.
- Senator Birch Bayh
There are many who today are disenchanted with the conflict. There were very few at the outset, either Republicans or Democrats, who opposed the ever deepening involvement; indeed, who did not support or acquiesce in it.
- Senator Mike Mansfield

In October of 1971, South Vietnamese President Nguyen was re-elected. The United States had announced its acceptance of the non-contested election.

That same month, former United States President Lyndon B Johnson released his White House memoirs. In these memoirs, he stated that the Kennedy Administration's role in the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was 'a serious blunder' and was a major factor in his subsequent commitment of ground combat forces in Vietnam.


On 2 August, 1971, the United States government admitted that there were, at that time, 30,000 CIA-sponsored irregulars operating in Laos.

From 26 December through 30 December, The United States greatly intensified the bombing of airfields, anti-aircraft sites and supply depots in North Vietnam, saying that North Vietnam had violated the agreements surrounding the 1968 suspension of bombing.

On 31 December, 1971, there were 156,800 American soldiers in Vietnam.


On 9 October, 1971, Members of the US First Air Cavalry Division refused an assignment to go out on patrol by expressing 'a desire not to go'. This was one of several refusals by members of the American military to participate further in the war.

The spraying of any herbicides in South Vietnam was discontinued in 1971. Herbicides containing Dioxin, an ingredient in Agent Orange, had been banned in the United States three years earlier. From 10 August, 1961, through 31 October, 1971, 19,395,369 gallons of herbicide had been used in South Vietnam. This is an average of 5193 gallons per day, over the course of 3735 days. On 17 April, 1995, researchers found that during the spraying of Agent Orange, Dioxin levels in human tissue were as much as 900 times greater in the people of southern Vietnam than in the people of northern Vietnam, where Agent Orange had not been used.

Other Entries in the Series

1Specifically, the United States government had hired people to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, in an effort to obtain information that would discredit him.2President Nixon would be running for re-election then.

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