Friday, June 8, 2012

Orange County Vietnam Veterans Against the War

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.

Orange County has long had a well-deserved reputation as a bastian of right-wing conservatism.  In the 1960s and early 1970s, the John Birch Society had a strong influence in shaping the consensus of the county.  In a paper entitled "Turmoil and Change: An Interim Report on the Politics of Orange County, California, 1945-1979, Charles L. Beaman and Michael Jones write: "More militant and doctrinaire conservatives filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of moderates.  They were more vocally patriotic and anti-Communist, and generally affiliated themselves with the John Birch Society.  Their activities at times elicited national press coverage, and helped to create the County's reputation for being a politically "kooky" bastian of ultra-conservatism."

In the early 1970s however, with the Vietnam War in full force, there emerged a group of returning Vietnam War veterans who sought to challenge the values of their region, and to shine a light on the real-world consequences of America's policy in Southeast Asia.  Speaking of the Orange County Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), Anna Acker, author of Coming Home to Orange County: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (a 2005 CSUF Master's Thesis), writes, "Their voices and memories challenge the myth of Orange County's predominant conservative image.  Moreover, their stories demonstrate the cracking of the Cold War consensus, and illustrate that the war in Vietnam was based on anti-communist ideology that ultimately proved to be bankrupt."

In addition to war protests, these OC veterans sought to bring healing to those who suffered from America's war.  They "provided a healing community for veterans, contributed to the research of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (originally called Post-Vietnam disorder), advocated for the rights of minorities, promoted women's rights and condemned sexism."

By 1967, approximately 500,000 Americans were stationed in Vietnam, and the average age of the soldier was nineteen.  Just like today, many of the troops (about 80 percent) came from economically disadvantaged areas, young men who saw military service as a way to advance their lot in life, and perhaps go to college.  In his book Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, Christian Appy quotes a soldier: "Where were the sons of all the big shots who supported the war?  Not in my platoon.  Our guys' people were workers…If war was so important, why didn't our leaders put everyone's son in there, why only us?"

Others who joined the war were motivated by a sense of patriotism inherited from their fathers, who had fought in WWII.  Veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourh of July writes, "We had our plastic Mattie Mattel Sub-Machine guns and we played guns in the woods.  We tried to emulate our fathers who fought in WWII.  We tried to act like the generation before us who had won the victory…We tried to believe we were John Wayne and I think then when we went to Vietnam we had that myth, that John Wayne myth in our minds and it was to be sadly shattered by the reality of our experience there."

Calixto Cabrera, a Vietnam Veteran who settled in Orange County after his service, was one of those whose reality was shattered by his experiences.  "As far as things that bothered me, there was the attacks on some villages and accidentally killing little old ladies and little old men.  That is the kind of stuff that I carried around for a long period of time."

Mike Beanan was similarly traumatized by the attacks on civilians he was ordered to comply with in Vietnam.  "We're here to collect people and get some information from them.  We're not here to butcher people," he recalled, "I looked at my bandana and I realized it was all covered with blood, and I puked and I wanted to cry and…I just couldn't do any of that…and at that time I decided--that this was a bunch of shit."

Soldiers in Vietnam were not the only ones who became increasingly disgusted with the American policy in Vietnam, with its increased escalation and casualties.  Massive protests erupted across college campuses and cities in America.  These protests came to a head in 1970, when the National Guard was called in to quell protests at Kent State University in Ohio.  There, four unarmed student protestors were shot and killed by employees of their own government.  The reaction to this violent attempt to suppress free speech and protest spread across the whole nation, and even reached Orange County.

Acker writes "Orange County student activists united in rage and animosity against the tragedy of Kent State.  The eruptions at universities throughout the country were unprecedented in American history as three hundred and fifty schools nationwide went on strike.  Orange County's California State University, Fullerton, "bore striking similarity to events on university campuses across the nation where student radicals and law enforcement clashed."  Navy veteran Dan Kelly (who would join the Orange County VVAW) recalled how the movement began, and the students at CSUF rallied in desperation to stop the war."

Returning veterans like Dan Kelly, deeply traumatized by their involvement in what they perceived to be an unjust war, were not met with the welcome reception that their WWII fathers received.  Acker writes, "Kelly enrolled at Fullerton Junior College…It was hardly a month after moving into the college dorms when he was eating in the cafeteria where four students surrounded him and began screaming that he was a 'baby killer.'  The students' harsh insults were more than he could bear.  'I was hysterical for eight or ten hours.' Kelly remembered."

Orange County Vietnam veterans like Calixto Cabrera, Dan Kelly, Bill Unger, and Bill Hager turned their rage and trauma into positive social action, helping to found the Orange County chapter of the VVAW, which organized protests, newsletters, "rap groups," and services for veterans trying to find their way back into society.  Cabrera participated in a "medal throwing" ceremony in Washington, in which veterans threw their medals of (dis)honor back at the White House.  He recalls, "It was great politics.  Once again focusing the eye of the nation that the veterans are so disenchanted that even these medals that the government holds so high and honorable that they give you for valor, were nothing more than pieces of tin we threw at the White House…We are the guys that went over there and did the job and came back and said what we did was wrong."

The actions of the VVAW, both nationally and locally, played a significant role in shifting public opinion.  These were not "privileged college hippies" but real American veterans who had changed their minds about a war that would ultimately prove morally bankrupt and unwinnable.

The OC VVAW also directed their protests locally, to the "Western White House" (aka Casa Pacifica) of Orange County's native son, president Richard M. Nixon.  Acker writes: "On April 2, 1973, three hundred antiwar protestors marched down Avenida Del Presidente to a tightly secured perimeter of the Western White House in San Clemente, California.  Along the outer limits of the property--surrounded by a riot squad of police and their guard dogs--a barricade of concerned FBI agents prepared for any unwarranted activity by the demonstrators.  The demonstration, sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was one of hundreds planned by the organization that the Nixon administration had closely monitored since its formation in 1967."

Vietnam Veteran Butch Findley, who joined the OC VVAW in 1973, felt that the county's strong conservative history made the formation of a dissent group all the more important.  "Nixon's reelection committee was right there in Newport Beach," he recalled, "And that is why it was so important that Orange County have a strong organization."  

Bill Hager, a Vietnam veteran who returned to San Clemente to attend Saddleback College, ended his career in the military when he was asked to teach riot control classes for the college campuses.  As he met with other OC veterans like Unger, Cabrera, and Kelly, he began to become increasingly involved with the anti-war movement.  In 1972, Hager led hundreds of VVAWers on a 3,000 mile trek across America called "The Last Patrol."  Their destination was the Republican National Convention in Miami, where they intended to speak out against the war.  Writer Hunter S. Thompson called these veterans "golems, come back to haunt us."  When Hager and the Last Patrol arrived in Miami, they were met by around a thousand Florida National Guardsmen.  The veterans wanted to be allowed into the convention.  Three were allowed in, including Ron Kovic, who was spat upon and thrown from his wheelchair.  

The OC VVAW also participated in the Long Beach Veteran's Day Parade, alongside local groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the John Birch Society.  At first, parade officials said the VVAW could not participate.  They took the issue to court and were granted a permit.  Ultimately, they were forced to march behind the street sweepers at the end of the parade.  Acker writes, "Their appearance behind the street sweepers personified America's hidden shame."

In addition to protests, the OC VVAW sought to challenge military recruitment efforts on college campuses: "When military recruiters visited the college campuses, VVAW set up tables next to them to persuade potential enlistees to seek other career options and distributed fliers on the Irvine campus, which advocated for direct student action to terminate the ROTC program."

After interviewing dozens of Orange County Vietnam Veterans Against the War, local historian Anna Acker wrote: "In the Orange County chapter's short but influential existence, these antiwar veterans rapped, demonstrated, studied, and sought to influence the political process.  In a community known for its conservative political leanings, the VVAW 'hit the Nixonettes' on the college campuses to enlighten students on the immorality of the war."

"In the middle of that conservative bastion, you had little environmental movements, little women's movements, the antiwar movement, worker's rights movements, and student activism," said Cabrera, "It is good for people to find that things have gone on there, that it is not one color, one blend or one slant on anything."

CSUF War Protest 1970


  1. KEVIN SERNA ENG 101- 10:00am - 11:15amNovember 6, 2012 at 2:27 AM

    The Vietnam War was always seen in my eyes as a time when hippies and veterans protested while under the influence of drugs. I hadn’t really thought of all the turmoils of war and what exactly these solders felt. These kids were nineteen years old, according to the average stated. I am nineteen years old, and I am sure that I would never want to be put in a position in which I was forced to take away another human beings life. Not only would I struggle with killing an enemy solider but I sure would struggle with having to kill an innocent civilian. I have seen movies and heard in high school classes, cases were soldiers would “butcher” the innocent, in order to eliminate potential spies. They also would burn villages to the ground to decrease these chances. I could not live with my self knowing that I had murdered the innocent and caused fatalities that were certainly not necessary. This is why so many soldiers struggled with post-traumatic stress. It makes so much sense to why people would want to protest and put an end to this mindless violence. It is very unfair that working and lower class boys were turned to be soldiers. The sons of wealthy men were always saved. A draft is exactly that, a draft. There shouldn’t be discrimination with who goes in.
    It’s good that veterans focused their rage on those responsible for placing them in war in the first place. Strikes and events like throwing medals at the white house showed where they stood. It is also cruel and unfair that veterans had to deal with harsh judgments and abuse. They fought for the freedom of a nation and had to deal with terrible words that left veterans upset and confused. Many veterans protested in rallies and parades, as well as demonstrations. The realities faced by soldiers returning from war were not fair. As in WWII returning solders were seen as heroes and leaders of the nation. While Vietnam veterans were seen as “baby killers” To force men into a country place a gun in their hands and order them to kill is the opposite of what our country was founded upon. It in fact takes away freedoms and instead creates murderers out of our youth. It creates disabled and war torn minds left to cope with a society that already hates them. It forces men to live terrible lives with no refuge.

  2. hey i was atthat demo in front of nixscum's pad in san clemente on 4/2/73...i was there working w/green power to supply food to the protesters...we were camped in the state park adjacent to the pad...we had a rally the night before..holly near performed...ron kovic spoke...people from la, orange county and san diego were were jane fonda and tom hayden...vvaw, the peace action council and remants of the san diego convention coalition were represented ...we had a peaceful picket the next day wihich was surveiled by feds, the lapd red squad and other such sleazy ilk

  3. We did march in a san clemente parade. Only after we changed the request to partctpate from vvaw to orange coast college vets association (i think?). As i think i recall, we had aclu represent us against city of ssanclemente in an oc superior court case which, of course, wound upwithour Group being banned. We did guerilla theater up and down the parade route. We also invited congomanschmidt to occ and had a lot of funwith some pre arranged submitted questions. After the last patrol, hager and others came back talking violence, so i ran away to uc berkeley.
    Denver Mills, vietnam 69-70 navadvgroup/qui nhon