Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Winter Soldier Investigation
The Winter Soldier Investigation was intended to publicize war crimes and atrocities by Americans and allies in Vietnam, while showing their direct relationship to American administration and war policies. This 3-day meeting of American Vietnam War veterans, civilians and media took place in Detroit, Michigan, from January 31-February 2, 1971, and was organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
109 Vietnam veterans and 16 civilians gave testimony about war crimes they had either committed or witnessed during the years of 1963-1970. Journalists and film crews recorded the event, and a transcript was later read into the Congressional Record. The most complete online transcript is available here.
Prompted by revelations from numerous investigations into war crimes, such as the Russell Tribunal, National Veterans Inquiry and Citizens Commissions of Inquiry, leaders of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War saw the need for a large scale public hearing. With the murder trials for the My Lai Massacre making front page news, and the recent disclosure by members of the CIA's Phoenix Program of its record of terror, torture and murder, the VVAW was determined to expose a broad pattern of war crimes in Vietnam. The Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) was organized to show that criminal incidents like My Lai were not isolated and rare occurrences, but were instead the frequent and predictable result of official American war policy.
The groundwork for what would become the Winter Soldier Investigation was laid by Jeremy Rifkin, Tod Ensign, Michael Uhl and Bob Johnson of the Citizens Commission of Inquiry (CCI). In search of first hand information on war crimes, they contacted the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and gained the support of VVAW co-founder Jan Crumb. During the summer of 1970, the CCI were approached by Al Hubbard who had become a full-time organizer with VVAW. Hubbard suggested that CCI combine their efforts with Jane Fonda, Rev. Dick Fernandez of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), Mark Lane and Donald Duncan (who had previously testified at the Russell Tribunal in Denmark). An initial steering committee formed of Duncan, Ensign, Fonda, Lane, Hubbard, Rifkin, and Fernandez continued to organize the WSI through September, 1970.
Among the growing collective of organizers, differences of opinion and direction arose concerning the planned public event. VVAW leaders felt it should be an all-veteran event, to maintain its credibility. Less than three months into planning for the Winter Soldier Investigation, most of the Vietnam veteran organizers and Jeremy Rifkin had become adamant that WSI disassociate itself from Mark Lane. Lane had recently published a book, Conversations with Americans, which was denounced by a Vietnam expert in the Sunday Times Book Review as a poor piece of research. A new six-member steering committee for WSI was composed of three national office leaders (Al Hubbard, Craig Scott Moore, and Mike Oliver) and three members of the growing list of chapters (Art Flesch, Tim Butz, and William F. Crandell), reflecting the increasing importance of the membership.
The organizers of the national hearings separated into two groups, each developing their own events. The CCI advanced its plans for a December event in Washington, DC, while the WSI's new organizers continued with the original plan to hold its hearings in Detroit. The Washington, DC, event would be called The National Veterans Inquiry. The Detroit event would be called the Winter Soldier Investigation. Seven of the 142 total participants would provide testimony at both events.
The support of antiwar celebrities was considered essential. Jane Fonda and her agent, Steve Jaffe, created a series of benefit concerts to raise funds, including "Acting in Concert for Peace," in which Fonda, Dick Gregory, Donald Sutherland, and Barbara Dane performed, and two musical concerts given by Graham Nash, Stephen Stills and David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), and by folk song legend Phil Ochs.
The WSI also relied on considerable community support. Five Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic clergymen arranged housing for witnesses because, as Dr. John B. Forsyth, director of missions for the Detroit Metropolitan Council of Churches put it, "it is important that the public realize that American atrocities in Vietnam are an every day occurrence." Attorneys Dean Robb and Ernie Goodman raised money from local area lawyers. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Emil Mazey and Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin also endorsed the program and sought contributions for it.
The purpose of the Winter Soldier Investigation was to show that American policies in Vietnam lead to war crimes. In the words of one participant veteran, Donald Dzagulones, "We gathered not to sensationalize our service but to decry the travesty that was Lt. William Calley's trial for the My Lai Massacre. The U.S. had established the principle of culpability with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis. Following those principles, we held that if Calley were responsible, so were his superiors up the chain of command — even to the president. The causes of My Lai and the brutality of the Vietnam War were rooted in the policies of our government as executed by our military commanders."
- "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; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
These words were written to inspire a depressed band of American patriots whose number had diminished due to a series of defeats - the "sunshine patriots" and "summertime soldiers" having deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough. Thomas Paine had begun a series of pamphlets which helped inspire the American Revolution. There were those, known as Tory conservatives, who branded Paine and his fellow patriots as traitorous radicals. The principles of freedom and liberty were radical ideas and independence the treason for which these patriots fought and died. They were the original Winter Soldiers.
Future Senator John Kerry, then a decorated Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve (Inactive), while later speaking before a Senate Committee, further explained "We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out."
The collecting of testimony from veterans had begun under the auspice of the Citizens Commission of Inquirey the previous year, and it took almost two months of on-site planning in Detroit to organize the conference. Detroit was proposed by Fonda because of its central location in the American heartland, and the "blue-collar" social status of most of the residents. The steering committee set up a collective in a house on the industrial east side of Detroit with the help of Catholic antiwar activists; and five clergymen of different denominations, including the director of missions for the Detroit Metropolitan Council of Churches, offered housing for the witnesses.
The program was packed with testimony, with 109 Vietnam veterans to appear on panels arranged by unit so they could corroborate each other's reports. Grouping these veterans by unit would also help to establish that events and practices to which they testified were unit-wide policy, and not just random and rare occurrences. Several civilian experts who had been to Vietnam were also to speak during this event. Arrangements had been made to include the testimony of several expatriated Vietnamese students residing in Canada, but they were denied visas to the United States by the Canadian government.
Organizers also investigated the legal implications of veterans publicly admitting to criminal acts which they had witnessed or participated in. With legal advice from the Center for Constitutional Rights the organizers were assured that the armed forces could not charge or try veterans for alleged crimes committed while they were on active duty. The veterans giving testimony were also instructed not to reveal the specific names of others involved in war crimes. The goal of these hearings was not to indict individual soldiers, but instead to expose the frequency of criminal behavior and its relationship to U.S. war policy.
Verification of participants' credibility
As confirmed by the subsequent investigative work of Burkett, Lewy and others, there were many impostors and liars who joined the ranks of the anti-war movement, and, in some cases, falsely claimed to have witnessed war crimes and atrocities in order to get attention and sympathy. In one documented case, a particularly convincing fraud was able to obtain medals and honors. The organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation were acutely aware of this, and took several steps to guarantee the validity of the participants.
Each veteran's authenticity were checked before the hearings by the investigation event organizers. To help prevent the Detroit hearing from being tainted by irregularities, all of the veterans testifying fully identified the units in which they had served and provided geographical descriptions of where the alleged atrocities had taken place.
Those who wanted to testify were carefully screened by Oliver, Hubbard, Scott Moore, and other officers of VVAW, as well as by Fonda and her associates, to make sure that they were who they said they were, that they had served where they said they did, and that only the strongest testimony went before the microphones.
After the severe criticism of the accuracy of Mark Lane's book a month before the event, the organizers of the Winter Soldier Investigation made the credibility of the participants a top priority. All veterans participating in Winter Soldier were required to bring their discharge papers (DD-214's) and IDs.
In addition, Oliver and Moore had fashioned a special "atrocity room" in a nearby house, with hundreds of papers taped to the walls -- lists of troop movements and unit assignments which they correlated with the individual claims of war crimes that were being brought before them every day.
As noted in VVAW records, each veteran's authenticity and testimony were checked after the hearings by Nixon's "plumbers." Charles Colson was assigned the task. In a CONFIDENTIAL "Plan to Counteract Viet Nam Veterans Against the War", Colson wrote, "The men that participated in the pseudo-atrocity hearings in Detroit will be checked to ascertain if they are genuine combat veterans." At one point, the Nixon team suggested in a memo about VVAW, "Several of their regional coordinators are former Kennedy supporters." With the exception of an attack on non-participant Al Hubbard, revealing that he had lied about his rank (Staff Sergeant E-5 instead of Captain), nothing worse was ever produced by these investigations.
Even though meticulous documentation was provided, some media organizations such as the Detroit News attempted to discredit the hearings by questioning the authenticity of the veterans who testified. Discharge papers were closely examined; military records were checked against the Pentagon records; with all their digging, not one fraudulent veteran was discovered. The Detroit Free Press reported daily of participants that had been confirmed by the Pentagon as veterans.
However, NBC News did later discover that VVAW executive and Winter Soldier co-organizer Al Hubbard had lied about being an officer. William Overend had met him and he had been introduced as being a former Air Force captain. Overend later learned Hubbard was only an E-5 Staff Sergeant. Hubbard did not testify at Winter Soldier.
Fritz Efaw, a Chapter Representative of VVAW, explains: "The claims that the WSI hearings contained falsified testimony from men who were not veterans is an old one, and it's definitely false. The testimony was startling even at the time it took place: startling to the general public, startling to the military and the Nixon administration, and startling to those who participated because each of them knew a piece of the story, but the hearings brought a great many of them together for the first time and provided a venue in which they could be heard for the first time. It's hardly surprising that those on the other side would set out almost immediately to discredit them."
Winter Soldier convenes
The three days of testimony was presented by unit:
- Sunday, January 31st, there were speakers from the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Division, and 1st Air Cavalry Division
- Monday, February 1st, from the 101st Airborne Brigade and 5th Special Forces
- Tuesday, February 2nd, from the 25th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division, and Lieutenant Calley's Americal Division
In addition to the testimony panels, the veterans also held open discussions on related subjects such as "What We Are Doing to Vietnam," "What We Are Doing to Ourselves," violations of international law, Prisoners of War, racism in the military, and also press censorship. Dr. Bert Pfeiffer of the University of Montana presented the first public testimony about the potential toxicity and health effects of the chemical Agent Orange. A special panel of psychiatrists was convened, many of whom had served in Vietnam, to discuss the impact of the war on American society. Midway through the hearings, the organizers insisted that no one make statements on behalf of the Vietnam veterans except for vets. It was presumed by reporters that this was to separate the participation of veterans from that of people like Mark Lane.
Opening statement excerpt
In an opening statement at the beginning of the three day hearing, William Crandall stated:
- "...We went to preserve the peace and our testimony will show that we have set all of Indochina aflame. We went to defend the Vietnamese people and our testimony will show that we are committing genocide against them. We went to fight for freedom and our testimony will show that we have turned Vietnam into a series of concentration camps.
- "We went to guarantee the right of self-determination to the people of South Vietnam and our testimony will show that we are forcing a corrupt and dictatorial government upon them. We went to work toward the brotherhood of man and our testimony will show that our strategy and tactics are permeated with racism. We went to protect America and our testimony will show why our country is being torn apart by what we are doing in Vietnam...
- "It has often been remarked but seldom remembered that war itself is a crime. Yet a war crime is more and other than war. It is an atrocity beyond the usual barbaric bounds of war. It is legal definition growing out of custom and tradition supported by every civilized nation in the world including our own. It is an act beyond the pale of acceptable actions even in war. Deliberate killing or torturing of prisoners of war is a war crime. Deliberate destruction without military purpose of civilian communities is a war crime. The use of certain arms and armaments and of gas is a war crime. The forcible relocation of population for any purpose is a war crime. All of these crimes have been committed by the U.S. Government over the past ten years in Indochina. An estimated one million South Vietnamese civilians have been killed because of these war crimes. A good portion of the reported 700,000 National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese soldiers killed have died as a result of these war crimes and no one knows how many North Vietnamese civilians, Cambodian civilians, and Laotian civilians have died as a result of these war crimes.
- "But we intend to tell more. We intend to tell who it was that gave us those orders; that created that policy; that set that standard of war bordering on full and final genocide. We intend to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us. We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division which inevitably resulted in My Lai were the policies of other Army and Marine Divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lt. William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide ... You who hear or read our testimony will be able to conclude for yourselves who is responsible. We are here to bear witness not against America, but against those policy makers who are perverting America."
Excerpted testimony from veterans
- Kogut: (MODERATOR asks, Russ, I believe you were a helicopter pilot and participated in dropping Special Forces teams in Cambodia. I think at this time we might show your slides and you can explain that operation.) "In July of '68 I worked with the Special Forces unit, B-50, out of Ban Me Thuot. Their main support were these air force helicopters here, the UH-I, and you'll notice there are no markings on the aircraft. We were just being used as backup because they were running more missions than they had aircraft for. And we supported them like this, on and off, for the whole year I was there and it continued after I was there.
- Our company took over a good deal more of this mission, as I was told by a friend of mine who came back. We worked out of a base camp at Duc Lap down on the border. We put recon teams in consisting of two or three Americans and two or three hired, well, I can't swear that they were hired, but they were Cambodes or Montagnards, sympathetic with the U.S. --either for money or other reasons and we put these teams in. We went anywhere from one to three miles inside of Cambodia and, in the briefing that we received, they told us that their mission over there was to gather information on a known NVA unit that operated out of that area.
- The NVA had a base camp there of approximately 15,000 of them by the estimates gathered from these reports, from these spies that we took in. These missions were secret. The President had knowledge of these. I am informed that a copy of what goes on, goes to him. I can't verify that so I shouldn't say it, I guess. But, these missions continued up until the time of our going into Cambodia on the legitimate side and now they're no big thing.
- Other testimony I have would be corroboration of these "mad minutes." These things took place in our compound. They were quite common. Also, evacuation of villages. On occasion in Da Lat, a village southwest of Da Lat, we evacuated all the inhabitants and the ARVNs went through afterward and burned the whole village. The livestock that they didn't kill, they stole and brought back for themselves. It was on a similar type operation at Tuy An on the coast. A whole peninsula on the coast was said to be uninhabited and we went out there on these little search and destroy things.
- On one occasion they found a woman. We took her prisoner and she had a whole basement full of rice. They destroyed the house and I believe they destroyed all the houses in the village. On one of these operations, as we were leaving the pickup zone, which is where we operated out of, somebody gave the okay for all the crew members to load rocks aboard the helicopter. Apparently, the province chief, who is like God in these areas, said that it was okay for the gunners and crew chiefs to play bombardier by dropping rocks in the bay. He said anywhere over in this one part of the bay was okay to drop rocks. We took off to go pick up the troops.
- On the way we passed over this place, and all the crew members were throwing these rocks out. One sampan I know of was hit and sunk. There were two people in it. They swam to shore and another old man was hit by an ARVN captain. He threw the rock out and hit this old man right in the chest and at that speed there's little doubt of what happened to him. The ARVNs burned the villages whenever they found rice because these missions were strictly one-day things and they didn't have time to haul rice out or investigate. The province chief decided where everybody was going to live, so if they didn't live where he wanted, they took the risk of having their houses burned. Free fire zones are all over the place, wherever somebody decides to have one."
- Bangert: "I can cover a couple of these at the same time. The first day I got to Vietnam I landed in Da Nang Air Base. From Da Nang Air Base I took a plane to Dong Ha. I was picked up by a truckload of grunt Marines with two company grade officers, 1st Lts.; we were about 5 miles down the road, where there were some Vietnamese children at the gateway of the village and they gave the old finger gesture at us. It was understandable that they picked this up from the GIs there. They stopped the trucks--they didn't stop the truck, they slowed down a little bit, and it was just like response, the guys got up, including the lieutenants, and just blew all the kids away. There were about five or six kids blown away and then the truck just continued down the hill. That was my first day in Vietnam. As far as the crucified bodies, they weren't actually crucified with nails, but they would find VCs or something (I never got the story on them) but, anyway, they were human beings, obviously dead, and they would take them and string them out on fences, on barbed wire fences, stripped, and sometimes they would take flesh wounds, take a knife and cut the body all over the place to make it bleed, and look gory as a reminder to the people in the village.
- Bronaugh: (MODERATOR asks, Mr. Bronaugh, I believe you mentioned something earlier of the massacre of women and children in late March, early April of 1968. Could you go into that a little bit please?) Yes. Well, I was with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines, attached to them with Battalion FSEC. (MODERATOR asks, Which is the Fire Control Center?) Right. It coordinates everything for the Battalion Artillery and troop movement and everything. I had some spare time this particular day so I left the compound and went to a bridge where people usually go and swim and they had a detachment on this bridge, in total about two platoons of people. A 2nd Lt. in charge of the bridge and a gunnery Sergeant that was staff NCO of the bridge. There were people from mortars platoon, weapons platoon, there was a tank, there were a couple of mules with 106 recoilless rifles, two snipers, and assorted machine gun crews. This particular day I was going to go swimming and I was at this bridge and they had sent a patrol out from our battalion CP. They had gone north of the CP for about a half a mile or a mile. There was a few huts that comprised a small village north of the compound.
- The bridge got a radio call that they had supposedly received a sniper round from this village. So the Lt. on the bridge told them to sweep the village. They swept the village and they called back that there was nothing found. There was nothing found, I mean, there were just people in the village and so the Lt. told them to burn the village. From my position, which was about 150 to 200 yards away, and there was a tree line in the way, smoke started coming up over the tree line and about this time, I guess about three minutes after the smoke started showing, there was a lot of screaming and just chaos coming from the direction of the village and a lot of people started running out of the tree line. From where I was standing, I saw maybe two or three male villagers and the rest were women and children--some of the children walking and some of them young enough to be carried, I would say under a year, maybe. The last thing I heard as a command was the gunnery sergeant told them to open fire to keep them back. Their village was on fire and they were in panic; they didn't stop, so they just cut down the women and children with mortars, machine guns, tank, snipers were... (MODERATOR asks, There was a tank there also?) Yes. Well, the tank, the 90 millimeter gun wasn't used because, I mean, it was too close a range, but they used the .50 and the .30 off the tank and all the troops that were at the bridge with M16s. The officer, a Lt., a few got close enough to where he used his .45. They used a few frag hand grenades. (MODERATOR asks, The fifty caliber. That was used specifically against the people?) Yes...Yes. (MODERATOR states, Right. Just for general information, the .50 caliber machine gun is specifically forbidden to be used against people. It's an anti-vehicular weapon.) Yes, it was used in automatic and single fire, against human beings."
- Camil: (Ed.: Camil is misspelled Camile in some transcripts) (MODERATOR asks, Mr. Camile, you have testimony here of napalm being dropped on villagers. Could you go into this and kind of let us know what napalm is and how it was used and any of the results?) "I really don't know that much about what it is or what it's made of. I just know that when it gets on you it burns and when they drop it from the planes, they usually drop two big canisters of napalm at a time. It just burns everything up, including the people. Many times we've called in air before we'd go into a village, or if we had a village where we'd lost people because of booby traps, we'd call in napalm and it just burns down the village and the people. (MODERATOR asks, Wasn't it usually normal, or so-called operating procedure, you don't fire until fired on, and on these villages, did you usually receive a lot of fire from them of the type that would say, we can't take the village, you'll have to call in napalm?) No, most of the time it was for safety. We'd napalm it first before we'd even go in just to make sure we wouldn't lose any men without any fire whatsoever. It was just for our protection, supposedly."
- Nienke: (MODERATOR asks, Mr. Nienke, it says here that you used CS grenades clearing bunkers and hootches. Could you tell us if these were enemy bunkers or hootches or if they were civilian bunkers or hootches? Just exactly what was the incident?) "I think every person who was in Vietnam who was in the infantry used CS, which is a gas, chemicals, Willie Peter--that's White Phosphorus -- and we used these sometimes to clear bunkers and other times to destroy a hootch. We used to think that was kicks; there would be people in a hootch or something like this and we'd throw in a gas grenade and they'd cough and then we'd leave. And other times we used to use -- we had mortar squads in the infantry used to avoid going into a village or something if we thought it might be VC infested or something like this, we'd send in Willie Peter mortars, 60 millimeters, and this would burn up the hootches -- that explode--throwing white phosphorus on different hootches in the village. Start the hootches burning and also kill people. It's probably one of the worst sights I've ever seen is a person that's been burned by Willie Peter, because it doesn't stop. It just burns all completely through your body. The only way you can end this burning is to cut off the air."
- Olimpieri: (MODERATOR asks, Mr. Olimpieri, you were in the same unit. You were Mr. Nienke's squad leader. Who was in charge of calling in on the mortars or ordering of the throwing of the CS grenades?) "Well, it was usually the officers, but I can remember times where we'd be sitting up on a hill, Nick and myself, and they used to have these things called "Pop-ups." You hit them on the bottom and it shoots like a green star cluster up in the air. It's used for location when somebody wants to find out where you are and we used to shoot them down into the village that was below and watch the people run around and we used to get big kicks out of it. (MODERATOR asks, Were there usually any officers present around this or was it usually known that this was done, wasn't it?) Yeah, it was pretty well accepted. I mean, everybody did it. (MODERATOR asks, But nothing was said about it. The Vietnamese were considered...They were gooks, right?) Right, nothing was said about it at all."
- Bishop: (MODERATOR asks, Mr. Bishop, we were told that you were in Vietnam from '68 to '69. I believe this was before President Nixon said we had any troops in Laos or Cambodia at all. It says here that you entered Cambodia in pursuit of enemy between '68 and '69. Is this a true fact?) "That's correct. We were on Operation Taylor Common. We were up in the mountains. We were operating just above the Laotian border where Laos and Cambodia meet. We were making heavy contact up there. We had quite a few losses and most of the operations we were holding were usually squad type or platoon type because the area was so thick and we couldn't send big units in there. We were very close to the border and very many times we were fired upon and we would chase the enemy back and you wouldn't know really how many grid squares you would go. We would come back to the unit and even though we knew we were close to Cambodia, we'd come back and the skipper would kind of get us all together and say like, "That was really a far out thing we did today and just for your own information we were in another country." This was general knowledge at the time that we were going back and forth into Cambodia. (MODERATOR states, So you could say in effect that Mr. Nixon might possibly have been guilty of untruths in a matter that it was your company commander or platoon commander who told you that you had been in another country.) That's correct. The platoon commander didn't really tell us to go in there but once he found out that we were in there, because we report grid squares and our operations as we're moving, it was kind of a neat thing to do because we were in Cambodia and I'll admit that about the Nixon thing, really. (MODERATOR asks, Was there no distinction between the borders?) No, there's no distinction at all. It's on your map. You can't tell, like your border could be a tree line away and you just don't know. You can't tell. (MODERATOR asks, So you could have gone into Cambodia more than once then?) Oh, that's correct. We could have held patrols there and if we weren't informed about exactly where we were, then we wouldn't have known.
Dewey Canyon Operation revealed
As riveting as the atrocities testimony was, some of the insights given by veterans into the clandestine workings of American foreign policy -- illuminating, for the first time, what would come to be known in future investigations as the secret or "shadow government" of the United States -- had even greater national impact. Perhaps the most startling news to come out of Winter Soldier was the revelation of the U.S. invasion of Laos in February, 1969 -- code-named Operation Dewey Canyon I.
Five veterans described their role in the invasion, claiming that an entire regiment of the Third Marines had penetrated several miles into that neutral nation, conducting combat maneuvers along Highway 922 and beyond, and "suffering dozens of casualties in fierce fighting." They further charged that the U.S. military had refused to medevac out (evacuate by air) the wounded and dead, to prevent press discovery. Their exposé made front-page headlines in Detroit and Chicago, and a follow-up investigation by the Detroit Free Press uncovered other veterans throughout the country who testified to having taken part in the operation. The testimony was explosive because the Pentagon had issued a blanket denial only days before, declaring: "We have never had ground troops in Laos." Indeed, during the event a Marine Corps spokesman said "We can say of a certainty that no platoons or any large number of marines ever crossed the border."
The revelation of Operation Dewey Canyon was followed for days and months by other news stories in which American military personnel testified to systematic fighting in Laos. In late 1972, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Boston Globe ran credible stories asserting that the United States had regularly transported combat troops into Laos over a sixteen-month period that extended to the very end of 1971. The witnesses were helicopter pilots from the 101st Airborne who had participated in the top-secret program code-named Prairie Fire coordinated by Command and Control North in Da Nang. Although the missions, consisting usually of mercenaries commanded by Army Special Forces, were primarily intended to gather intelligence, these troops had been involved in combat and several had been killed. Such missions were in violation of the Cooper-Church amendment, passed in 1970, which prohibited the use of American ground troops in Cambodia and Laos. But even before Cooper-Church was passed, it would have been a violation of international law for the United States to launch combat troops against a neutral nation. And even as these missions were occurring, the Pentagon was issuing statements denying that American combat forces were operating in Laos, and asserting that all Special Forces had already been withdrawn from Vietnam.
Promises of secrecy revealed
One of the points brought out at Winter Soldier, and verified in subsequent news stories, was that servicemen participating in these illegal missions into neutral countries were often required to sign papers in which they promised never to tell the true location and nature of their activities. When they went out on the missions, they wore uniforms stripped of all American insignia and personal identification tags, and if caught in Laos they were under no circumstances to reveal their true identity; but even if they did, the United States would not acknowledge them as its soldiers. On certain missions the Americans even dressed in North Vietnamese Army uniforms and carried the Russian weapons commonly used by the NVA.
Winter Soldier results
Senator Hatfield urges Congress, State Department and Defense Department to act
- "Mr. President, the moral sensitivity of the Nation has been aroused by the conviction of Lt. William Calley. More clearly than before, this incident has focused the fundamental moral questions that our Nation must confront regarding our conduct in Indochina.
- The Department of Defense said in its recent statement relating to the Calley conviction:
- "The Department of the Army has had a moral and legal obligation to adopt a continuing policy of investigating fully all substantive allegations or violations of the laws of war involving American personnel. Every allegation of misconduct on the battlefield -- regardless of the rank or position of the person purportedly responsible -- must be thoroughly explored."
- There has recently been brought to my attention testimony relating to the policy and conduct of American forces in Indochina which has grave and very serious implications. The testimony is given by honorably discharged veterans who had served in Vietnam, and was conducted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Three days of testimony were conducted in Detroit, Mich. on January 31, February 1, and 2 of this year. This group, which represents 11,000 veterans, plans to send several thousand to Washington the week of April 19 to petition Congress for full congressional hearings.
- I, of course, have no way of ascertaining the veracity of all the testimony given, and I am not in agreement with certain of the statements and judgments made by those who testified. However, I believe that the allegations made by these Americans, who served their country in Vietnam, are so serious and so grave that they demand the full study by the appropriate committees of Congress as well as by the executive branch.
- The testimony and allegations raised by the experience of these veterans includes charges regarding: the torture and murder of suspects and prisoners of war captured by Americans and South Vietnamese forces; the wanton killing of innocent, unarmed civilians; the brutalization and rape of Vietnamese women in the villages; military policies which enabled indiscriminate bombing and the random firing of artillery into villages which resulted in the burning to death of women, children and old people; the widespread defoliation of lands of forests; the use of various types of gases; the mutilation of enemy bodies, and others.
- A recurrent theme running throughout the testimony is that of institutionalized racist attitudes of the military in their training of the men who are sent to Vietnam--training which has indoctrinated them to think of all Vietnamese as "gooks" and subhuman.
- Further, the thrust of the allegations made in the 3-day testimony is that such actions were the consequence of reasonable and known policy adopted by our military commanders and that the knowledge of incidents resulting from these policies was widely shared.
- Several of the allegations made in this testimony would place the United States in violation of the Geneva Convention and other international agreements relating to the conduct of war which have been ratified by our Government.
- Therefore, the necessity for investigating fully these alleged actions, and all evidence that bears on our actions in Indochina and the international agreements we have ratified cannot be overstated.
- Therefore, first I ask unanimous consent that the testimony presented by over 100 honorably discharged veterans in Detroit be placed in the Congressional Record. I realize that the testimony is very lengthy, but its full force and content must be made available so that it can be read and judged on its own merits.
- Second, I will transmit this testimony to the Department of Defense and the Department of State and urge, in accord with its stated policy, that the evidence and allegations it contains be fully investigated.
- Third, I urge the appropriate committees of the Congress to conduct hearings on the policies governing the use of military force in Indochina and their relation to international agreements our country has ratified.
- Fourth, I recommend consideration be given to forming a special commission that would investigate in full these matters and would provide a forum to assess the moral consequences of our involvement in Indochina to us as a Nation and a people.
- We as a Nation must find the proper way to honestly confront the moral consequences of our actions, and to corporately turn ourselves from the thinking and the policy that has degraded our moral posture and to recognize that out of contrition and self-examination can come a genuine rebirth of the ideas we hold as a people.
- The testimony that follows and the steps I have advocated are presented with this hope. I ask unanimous consent to have the testimony printed in the Extensions of Remarks."
Changing perceptions of veterans
As noted by author Gerald Nicosia in his history of the Vietnam veterans movement Home to War,
- "Winter Soldier heralded a significant change of opinion in the American public toward the Vietnam veterans -- not only in terms of a new willingness to hear their side of things, but also in the amount of respect and credibility they were accorded. Over a dozen members of Congress endorsed the hearings. South Dakota Senator George S. McGovern, who would challenge Richard Nixon in the 1972 Presidential race, and Congressman John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan called for full Congressional investigations into charges leveled by the veterans at Winter Soldier; and Berkeley's radical black Congressman Ronald Dellums offered the veterans office space in Washington, where they could repeat their charges within a stone's throw of the House Armed Forces Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
- "Perhaps most striking about Winter Soldier was the great humility of all involved. These men, who deserved to be honored for the courage it took to bare their pain and to assume responsibility for actions their country had asked them to perform -- even as they had already been honored (at least minimally, with medals and citations) for risking their lives in the performance of those deeds -- now came before the world in an attitude of profound apology. On the last night of Winter Soldier, several carloads of veterans drove across the border to Windsor, Canada, to meet with a delegation of Vietnamese students in exile, who had been denied visas by the Canadian government to come to Detroit for the hearings. These American veterans signed their own symbolic "people's peace treaty" with the Vietnamese there. As Jan Barry recalls, the gesture was intended as a means of embracing the people they had harmed, of asking forgiveness for those they had killed.
- "Despite the leftist orientation of many of its sponsors, Winter Soldier did not come off as an attack on the United States. What the veterans insisted over and over was that America knew better than to do the things it was doing in Vietnam. They pointed out that search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones, the relocation of people into strategic hamlets (which were enclosed by barbed-wire, and hardly more congenial than a concentration camp), defoliation of agricultural land, and B-52 pattern-bombing raids against undefended villages and populated areas (which refused to distinguish between combatants and civilians) were all in violation of codes and treaties which the United States had previously signed or accepted: the Rules of Land Warfare, the Geneva Conventions and Accords, and the Nuremberg Charter.
- "In effect, the veterans were asking America to listen to its own much-touted morality, and to begin to practice what it had spent two centuries preaching. At the same time, though, the veterans were careful to point out that the war crimes the United States was committing in Vietnam did not stem from the misconduct of individual soldiers -- which the government had tried to establish by scapegoating Calley and a handful of his fellow officers -- but resulted rather "from conscious military policies... designed by the military brass, National Security Council, and major universities and corporate institutions, and passed down through the chain of command for conversion into Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs) in the field."
While no one involved with the Winter Soldier Investigation, and subsequent Senate hearings, ever accused "all" servicemen of misconduct - it was obvious the problem had grown beyond "isolated incident" status. The problem was perceived by the participants as epidemic, and was seen as ignored and even condoned by leaders at all levels in the military and government. Winter Soldier was the culmination of efforts to finally bring national attention to this situation, and to expedite the end of America's participation in the Vietnam conflict.
On the record - memories on media
Mainstream media all but ignored the Winter Soldier Investigation. The East Coast papers refused to cover the hearings, other than a New York Times story a week later. The local field reporter for the New York Times explained that he found nothing newsworthy to report because "this stuff happens in all wars." There were a small number of articles sympathetic to the veterans in the underground press. Pacifica Radio, with major channels on both coasts, devoted to a pacifist, left-wing perspective on current events, gave them excellent coverage. The CBS television crew that showed up were themselves deeply impressed, but only three minutes made it to the nightly news on the first night. The veterans still showed inexperience when handling the press that did show up, but overall the Winter Soldier event was very well organized for such a large-scale event.
The Detroit Free Press printed several stories about the event, including comments from the military. This included confirmation by the Pentagon that participants investigated by reporters were Vietnam veterans as well as a denial of large scale activity in Laos.
The words of the participants have been permanently recorded in the Congressional Record. Portions of the testimony, as well as some photos of the event, appear in a book produced by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and John Kerry entitled The New Soldier.
In addition, film footage of the event, as well as some pre-event and post-event footage, and commentary can be found in Winter Soldier: A film / Winterfilm Collective in association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Winterfilm, Inc., 1972.
- Film version: 1972, B&W, 16mm, 93min.
- Videotape: 1992, B&W with some color, 110 or 130 minutes
- The Winterfilm Collective consisted of: Fred Aranow, Nancy Baker, Joe Bangert, Rhetta Barron, Robert Fiore, David Gillis, David Grubin, Jeff Holstein, Barbara Jarvis, Al Kaupas, Barbara Koppel, Mark Lenix, Michael Lesser, Nancy Miller, Lee Osborne, Lucy Massie Phenix, Roger Phenix, Benay Rubenstein, Michael Weil.
Despite significant fund raising efforts by supporters of the VVAW, the cost of the Winter Soldier event financially bankrupted the organization. Organizers of the event hoped to recoup some of their expenditures through the above mentioned book, film and recording deals. At the event, Jane Fonda was saying that copies would be available for $300.
Winter Soldier controversy
The U.S. participation in the Vietnam conflict was the source of much deeply divided sentiment among Americans. The Winter Soldier Investigation produced a conglomerate of testimony resulting in the implication and indictment of American leadership in criminal conduct, and thereby further drove a wedge between proponents and opponents of the war. Many people viewed the Winter Soldier proceedings with a critical eye, and questions have been raised about the testimony given at the Winter Soldier Investigation. Details in the testimonies have been questioned, as have the identities of participants, since the first day of the three day investigation. It has been claimed that participants were frauds; that they were told to not cooperate with later investigators; that their testimonies were inaccurate or just plain fabricated. For more than thirty years since the WSI, individuals and organizations have sought to discredit or at least minimize the painful revelations brought forth at that event. To date, no records of fraudulent participants or fraudulent testimony have been produced.
In August 2004, Steve Pitkin stated in a sworn affidavit that "John Kerry and other leaders of that event pressured me to testify about American war crimes, despite my repeated statements that I could not honestly do so. One event leader strongly implied that I would not be provided transportation back to my home in Baltimore, Maryland, if I failed to comply. Kerry and other leaders of the event instructed me to publicly state that I had witnessed incidents of rape, brutality, atrocities and racism, knowing that such statements would necessarily be untrue." Pitkin did give testimony, but not about war crimes or atrocities. Pitkin is shown in the Winter Soldier film, as well as the Going Upriver film. Pitkin has subsequently admitted his recollections were flawed, and has re-issued an affidavit now reflecting a different date of discharge from the Army, different people traveling with him to the Winter Soldier event, and different circumstances under which he joined the VVAW. Pitkin was not among the summary of scheduled participants which was given to the press at the start of the event. Pitkin testified during the third panel of the third day; the section reserved for any remaining veterans that wanted to speak, but were not scheduled. Veterans speaking during this panel were instructed to be brief, as there were several volunteers yet very little time remaining.
Kerry's former brother-in-law, David Thorne, attended the Winter Soldier investigation. When interviewed about Pitkin's recent statements, Thorne flatly denied Pitkin's charges. "Kerry never forced anyone to testify to war crimes in any way. Kerry went to Winter Soldier to listen to what they had to say and to investigate for himself," Thorne said. Scott Camil, another participant at WSI, filed a separate affidavit directly refuting several allegations made by Pitkin.
On September 23, 2004, another veteran recalls: I testified at the Winter Soldier investigation in 1971. I told the truth and to my knowledge not a single statement has ever proven to be false. I have heard a lot of false claims that the people at winter soldier were not veterans. If so many people were frauds at the Winter Soldier Investigation, why hasn't someone released the names of the vets who falsely testified? Wouldn't this be front page news? Maybe one or two frauds slipped through but I doubt it. The truth of the matter is no one was allowed to testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation unless they had DD214 military separation papers. For years I tried to tell everyone who was willing to listen, about the official and de facto policies of our government that were against the Geneva Convention. They were in fact war crimes. I testified before Congress, before the U.N. Human rights Commission, at the Winter Soldier Investigation, at public hearings, at the Philadelphia Naval Base Criminal Investigation Department, and at the Pentagon. We spoke out against the POLICIES of our government, that were in violation of US law as well as International law. We never spoke out against our fellow soldiers. After all they were our friends, family members and neighbors. I went to the Naval Criminal Investigation Division and told them if they were interested in pursuing those responsible for the policies that resulted in war crimes, I would give them a sworn statement including pictures of war crimes that I personally took. They said they would get back to me but they never did. No one has ever challenged my statements, nor has anyone ever proven that I have made any untruthful statements. From my experiences as an infantry veteran, I was deeply concerned about my fellow soldiers in Vietnam being killed, or coming home severely injured. I wanted the war to come to an end, so that the destruction and madness in Vietnam would also come to an end. I lost many friends in Vietnam. Some were fellow soldiers and others were friends that I grew up with and knew from an early age. Earlier this year (2/2004), I returned to Vietnam and visited the old base camps and battlefields from my year in Vietnam 35 years ago. It was reassuring and very healing, to experience the peace, that is the reality of today's Vietnam. Almost no one in Vietnam talks about the "American War." To them it is ancient history. It is certainly sad to see so many of the old wounds being reopened and the old debates argued once again. In 1971, the members of VVAW were looking for a way to help put an end to the war, and bring peace to this country, as well as Vietnam. The members of VVAW that I knew were good people, with good hearts, that were trying to do the right thing. I have no regrets about working for peace. I still know many VVAW members today. All of them are very proud of their efforts in working for peace. It's time to put the Vietnam debate behind us. It's time to debate the current issues of today. And, let the chips fall where they may.
- Going Upriver - Documentary detailing John Kerry's participation in the Vietnam war and subsequent antiwar movement.
- Winter Soldier Investigation Testimony Most complete Congressional Record of Testimony online
- World On Fire Columnist Rick Freedman on Winter Soldier
- VVAW Archives Winter Soldier Viewpoints
- Baltimore Sun Article Vietnam Vets Stand by Kerry Today
- Wintersoldier.com - Partisan Examination
- Pitkin's latest 2004 statement Second affidavit by Steve Pitkin
- FBI VVAW file during Winter Soldier (18 megabyte PDF file)
- "Who Is Al Hubbard?" William Overend, National Review, 1971
- Kerry, John & Vietnam Veterans Against the War (1971). The New Soldier. CA: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 002073610X
- Nicosia, Gerald (2002). Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement. CA: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0609809067
- Burkett, B. G. & Whitley, Glenna (1998). Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Dallas: Verity Press Inc. ISBN 096670360X.
- Lewy, Guenter (1978). America in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195023919. ISBN 0195027329 pbk.
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