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Antiwar resistance within the military during the Vietnam War

by David Cortright

One of the least known but most important chapters in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement was the rebellion of troops within the military. In June 1971 the prestigious military publication Armed Forces Journal published an article entitled, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” which stated: “The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.”[1] A year later the eminent military sociologist Morris Janowitz seconded that analysis, declaring: “The military establishment, and especially its ground forces, are experiencing a profound crisis in legitimacy due to the impact of Vietnam, internal racial tension, corruption, extensive drug abuse, loss of command and operational effectiveness, and widespread antimilitary sentiment.”[2] In virtually every corner of the military, the burden of fighting an unpopular and unwinnable war led to dissent, social disruption and institutional decay.

Opposition to the war within the military can be classified into two broad categories—dissent and resistance. The dissenters were part of what became known as the GI movement, soldiers publishing ‘underground’ newspapers, signing antiwar petitions, attending protest rallies and engaging in various forms of public speech to demand an end to the war. The resisters were those who disobeyed orders, defied military authority, refused orders, went absent without leave, committed acts of sabotage, and in some cases attacked their own officers and sergeants.[3]

The GI Movement

Antiwar groups emerged within the enlisted ranks and among junior officers throughout the military during the years 1968-1972. They appeared first in the Army and Marine Corps and spread to the Navy and Air Force. GI antiwar newspapers were published by service members on nearly every major U.S. military base and on many ships. The total number of these antiwar periodicals was more than 400.[4] The GI press was an important expression of the ‘underground’ culture of protest and resistance that spread through the ranks during the war.[5]

Antiwar protests and acts of resistance occurred at or near military bases through the military in those years. These included demonstrations, picketing, vigils and the circulation of antiwar petitions. The most famous petition appeared as a full page ad in the New York Times the week before the historic Moratorium Mobilization in Washington DC of November 15, 1969. The ad covered the back page of the Sunday Week in Review section of the Times. Its demand to ‘end the war,’ and ‘bring us home now’ was signed by 1365 active duty service members. Hundreds of active duty soldiers participated in the Mobilization march in Washington that weekend.

Troops stationed in Vietnam often sympathized with the antiwar movement back home. During the fall 1969 Moratorium mobilizations, combat troops on patrol near Da Nang wore black armbands in solidarity with the protests.[6] In 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War circulated a petition to Congress among troops in Vietnam demanding an end to U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. The petition was signed by hundreds of active-duty soldiers before being confiscated by commanders.[7]

As the GI movement spread, civilian supporters and recent veterans helped the movement by creating GI coffeehouses outside major military bases in the United States, Europe and Asia. More than two coffeehouses were in operation in 1971.[8]  The coffeehouses featured free coffee, live music, counterculture posters and newspapers, antiwar literature and art work. They also served as centers of political education and antiwar organizing.

All across the military active duty service members were engaging in acts of dissent and resistance. A 1970 social science survey of soldiers at several military bases in the U.S. found that one quarter of the interviewees admitted to engaging in acts of dissent, defined as participating in a protest, reading a GI antiwar newspaper or going to an antiwar coffeehouse.[9]

These figures are roughly equivalent to the proportion of activists among students at the time.[10]

The resistance

Equally prevalent in the military during the Vietnam War were acts of disobedience and defiance of authority. One of the most common and significant forms of GI resistance was absence without leave. Absentee and desertion rates during the Vietnam War soared to record levels. The desertion rate in the Army increased 400 per cent between 1966 and 1971.[11] In 1971 the AWOL rate in the Army (those absent from duty for less than 30 days) was 17 per cent, affecting one of every six soldiers. The official desertion rate (those absent for more than thirty days) was 7 per cent.  This meant that more than 70,000 Army soldiers deserted that year, the equivalent of several divisions. Desertion rates also rose in the Marine Corps, reaching 6.5 per cent in 1972. Vietnam-era desertion rates were three times those of the Korean War.[12] The massive wave of AWOL and desertion during the war deprived the military of about one million person-years of service.[13] As Moser writes, this widespread unauthorized absence of troops “forcibly curtailed military capabilities and contributed to the aura of chaos that hung over the armed forces by the early 1970s.”[14]

The most consistently rebellious and antiwar troops in Vietnam and throughout the military were African Americans. Influenced by the civil rights movement and growing black militancy at home, African American troops tended to group together (the ‘bloods’ they often called themselves) and posed a significant challenge to the military’s mostly white power structure.[15] Many black GIs opposed the war but they also resisted the pervasive racism that existed in the military in those years.

Many major racial uprisings occurred in the military during the Vietnam War. One of the largest and most explosive was the prison rebellion at Long Binh Jail at Bien Hoa northeast of Saigon in August 1968.[16] The uprising in the overcrowded prison left dozens of prisoners injured, and one soldier died. Much of the prison was burned to the ground.[17] The largest in the Marine Corps occurred at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in the summer of 1969 when African American and Puerto Rican combat veterans rebelled against unequal treatment and racial abuse.[18] Travis Air Force base in California witnessed the largest mass rebellion in the history of the Air Force in May 1971. More than 600 airmen were drawn into the brawl, an officers’ club was burned to the ground, and dozens of troops were injured.[19] For several days this vital center of military transport for the Vietnam War was in a virtual state of siege as commanders sought to end the violence and restore order. The most serious racial uprising in the Navy occurred in October 1972 aboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, as a violent clash between African American sailors and members of the ship’s Marines left 46 injured.[20]

The “Quasi-Mutiny”

The waves of resistance coursing through the military in those years came together and were magnified in the crucible of Vietnam. Incidents of organized dissent were relatively rare, but acts of direct resistance were pervasive and tore at the very fabric of military capability.  By 1970 the Army and Marine Corps in Vietnam were experiencing what I have described as the “quasi-mutiny”: widespread defiance, intentional incompetence and various other forms of noncooperation that effectively crippled the military’s operational capacity.[21] Moser called this the “grunts’ ceasefire”: acts of resistance by a significant minority of troops that undermined the military’s ability to wage war.[22]

The most significant form of resistance to the war was combat refusal.[23] Several were prominently reported in the press. On August 26, 1969 the headline on the front page of the New York Daily News blared “Sir, My Men Refuse to Go!” with the subtitle “Weary Viet GIs Defy Order.”[24] The article told the story of sixty soldiers in an Army company near Da Nang who refused direct orders from their commander. Another incident of combat refusal was captured by CBS News in April 1970 when a company of the 7th Cavalry balked at the order of their gung-ho Captain to march down a jungle path the troops considered too risky.[25] Other known incidents of mutiny occurred during the Cambodia invasion in May 1970 and in March 1971 when U.S. troops were ordered to support the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos.[26]

There were many additional unreported instances of combat refusal.  According to former Army combat commander Shelby Stanton, 35 incidents of combat refusal occurred in the 1st Cavalry Division during 1970.[27]  Some of the incidents involved entire units. This was an extraordinarily high number of combat refusals, an average of three per month in just one division. If we extrapolate the experience of the 1st Cavalry to the other six Army divisions in Vietnam at the time, it is likely that hundreds of mutinous events occurred in the latter years of the ground war. When commanders sent their units into the field, they could not be certain that the troops would follow orders. In the face of such resistance and noncooperation in the ranks, U.S. combat effectiveness melted away.

The most horrific indication of the breakdown of the armed forces was the prevalence of fragging, an attack with a fragmentation grenade.  The Army began keeping records on assaults with explosive devices in 1969. By July 1972, with the last troops on their way out of Vietnam, the total number of fragging incidents had reached 551, with 86 fatalities and over 700 injuries.[28] The targets of these fragging attacks were mostly officers and noncommissioned officers.[29] The frequency of fragging in Vietnam War indicated an army at war with itself. It provides grim evidence of the anger and social decay that were tearing the military apart.

Opposing the Air War

As the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces accelerated in 1971, the Nixon administration compensated for diminished firepower on the ground with intensified bombing attacks from the air.[30] As sailors and airmen were ordered to participate in this onslaught, morale dropped and antiwar protest and resistance increased.  The number of GI antiwar papers in the Navy and Air Force increased sharply after 1970.[31] Organized antiwar protest began to emerge aboard several aircraft carriers. In 1971 junior officers and enlisted sailors aboard the U.S.S. Constellation based in San Diego organized an informal referendum against the ship’s scheduled deployment to Vietnam. Thousands of military service members in the area participated in the ballot and ‘voted’ for the Connie to stay home. A similar movement emerged in November 1971 in the San Francisco Bay Area to protest the sailing of the U.S.S Coral Sea from Alameda Naval Station. Approximately 1,200 sailors, one quarter of the crew, signed a petition protesting the deployment.[32]

Some antiwar sailors took matters into their own hands.  By 1971 acts of sabotage by crew members against their own ships became a serious problem in the Navy. Figures supplied to the House Internal Security Committee investigation of subversion within the military listed 488 acts of “damage or attempted damage” in the Navy during fiscal year 1971, including 191 incidents of sabotage, 135 arson attacks, and 162 episodes of “wrongful destruction.”[33]  The House Armed Services Subcommittee investigating disciplinary problems in the Navy disclosed “an alarming frequency of successful acts of sabotage and apparent sabotage on a wide variety of ships and stations.”[34]

Two major incidents occurred in July 1972 that had significant impact on the Navy’s ability to carry out its mission. A fire aboard the carrier U.S.S. Forrestal based in Norfolk burned the admiral’s quarters and extensively damaged the ship’s radar communication system, resulting in more than $7 million in damage. It was the largest single act of sabotage in naval history.[35] Later that month sabotage struck the carrier U.S.S. Ranger based in California. A few days before the ship’s scheduled departure for Vietnam, a paint scraper and two 12-inch bolts were dropped into one of the ship’s engine reduction gears. This caused major damage and a three and a half month delay in the ship’s sailing.[36]

Antiwar dissent and resistance also emerged in the Air Force. The number of GI papers at air bases jumped from 10 at the beginning of 1971 to 30 a year later.[37] Antiwar coffeehouses opened near several bases, and demonstrations and protest actions occurred at or near air bases in April and May 1972.  The staff of the House Internal Security Committee investigation observed a “trend towards organizing among U.S. Air Force personnel, in line with continued U.S. air activities in Indochina.”[38] Antiwar opposition in the Air Force intensified during the December 1972 bombing of Hanoi. Some B-52 bomber pilots began to question their mission, and two joined Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman of New York in filing a law suit to challenge the constitutionality of bombing Cambodia.[39]


As outlined above, dissent and resistance were widespread in the military in the later years of the war. It is arguable that by 1970 U.S. ground troops in Vietnam had ceased to function as an effective fighting force. The disintegration of military morale was a factor in the Nixon administration’s decision to accelerate troop withdrawals.[40] Senior officers from Chief of Staff William Westmoreland on down were arguing for a faster pullout.[41] Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird reportedly returned from an inspection tour of Vietnam in early 1971 “shocked and distressed” by morale problems and in favor of more rapid force reductions.[42]

Revisionist historians argue that the military was winning the war in Vietnam and that it was a ‘stab in the back’ from politicians and the media that caused U.S. defeat. This ignores the fact that many within the military opposed the war and were increasingly unwilling to fight. The spread of antiwar dissent and resistance and the defiance of troops in Vietnam played a decisive role in limiting the U.S. ability to continue the war. The widespread resistance in American society and within the military itself placed limits on U.S. military capability and forced an end to the war.

[1] Robert Heinl, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal, June 1971.

[2] Morris Janowitz, “Volunteer Armed Forces and Military Purpose,” Foreign Affairs, April 1972, 428.

[3] See the discussion of this distinction in David Cortright and Max Watts, Left Face: Soldier Unions and Resistance Movements in Modern Armies (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991), 19-22.

[4] In my book Soldiers in Revolt I documented 250 GI papers and estimated the total number at more than 300. Further research by James Lewes found more than one hundred additional GI papers. All known GI papers are now archived in the GI Press Project, an online digital archive housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. See David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance during the Vietnam War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1975, 2005); and James Lewes, Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers during the Vietnam War (Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2003).

[5] Barbara L. Tischler, “Breaking Ranks: GI Antiwar Newspapers and the Culture of Protest,” Vietnam Generation, Special Issue: GI Resistance: Soldiers and Veterans Against the War, 2, No. 1 (1990), 20-50.

[6] “Some G.I.’s in Vietnam Join Protest,” New York Times, October 16, 1969, 22.

[7] Overseas Weekly (Pacific edition), October 30, 1971, and November 6, 1971.

[8] Richard Moser, The New Winter Soldiers: G.I. and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 99.

[9] Howard C. Olson and R. William Rae, Determination of the Potential for Dissidence event in the U.S. Army, Technical Paper RAC-TP-410 (McLean, Va: Research Analysis Corporation, March 1971); R. William Rae, Stephen B. Forman and Howard C. Olson, Future Impact of Dissident Elements Within the Army, Technical Paper RAC-TP-441 (McLean, Va: Research Analysis Corporation, January 1972).

[10] Richard Moser, The New Winter Soldiers, 132.

[11] Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation (New York: Random House, 1978), 122.

[12] All figures for desertion rates drawn from statistics provided to the author by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Magazine and Book Branch, 1973, as published in Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, 11-15.

[13] Baskir and Strauss, Chance and Circumstance, 122.

[14] Moser, The New Winter Soldiers, 80.

[15] See the classic work by Wallace Terry, Bloods, Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History (New York: Random House, 1984).

[16] Moser, The New Winter Soldiers, 51-52.

[17] Cecil Barr Currey, Long Binh Jail: An Oral History of Vietnam’s Most Notorious U.S. Military Prison(Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2001).

[18] Flora Lewis, “The Rumble at Camp Lejeune,” Atlantic, January 1970, 35-41.

[19] Senior Airman Nicole Leidholm, “Race Riots Shape Travis’ History, Travis Air Force Base, news story, updated 11/8/2013, at

[20] See the account of John Darrell Sherwood, Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam War Era (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

[21] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, 28-49.

[22] Moser, The New Winter Soldiers, 132.

[23] Christian Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 242.

[24] The headline image is captured at

[25] The CBS incident was reported in Newsweek magazine, April 20, 1970, 51, and May 25, 1970, 45.

[26] See Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, 36-38.

[27] Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973 (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1985), 349.

[28] Congressional Quarterly, “Problems in the Ranks: Vietnam Disenchantment, Drug Addiction, Racism Contribute to Declining Morale,” in The Power of the Pentagon (Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1972), 22.

[29] Hearings Before the Defense Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, 1st Session, Part 9, 585.

[30] Michael Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars 1772-1991 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995).

[31] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, Appendix B, 322-23.

[32] Ibid., 111-112.

[33] “Investigation of Attempts to Subvert the United States Armed Services,” Hearings Before the Committee on Internal Security, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, 1st and 2nd Sessions, 1972, II, 7051.

[34] Report by the Special Subcommittee on Disciplinary Problems in the U.S. Navy of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 92nd Congress, 2nd Session, 17670 and 17684.

[35] “Navy Says Sailor Confessed He Set Blaze on Carrier,” New York Times, November 28, 1972, p. 18; and “Seaman is Guilty in Carrier Blaze,” New York Times, December 8, 1972, p. 18.

[36] “Sailor is Freed by Navy Board in Trial on Sabotage of Carrier,” New York Times, June 13, 1973, p. 5; Village Voice, February 1, 1973, p. 16.

[37] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, 131.

[38] “Staff Analysis of Recent Trends in GI Movement Organizing Activities, December, 1971-April, 1972,” in House Internal Security Files.

[39] “Air Force Takes 3 Officers Off Cambodia Runs,” New York Times, June 6, 1973, p. 10; “U.S. Judge Here Says Bombing of Cambodia is ‘Unauthorized,’” New York Times, July 26, 1973, p. 4.

[40] Stewart Alsop, Newsweek, December 7, 1970, p. 104.

[41] Time, January 25, 1971, p. 34; “Army in Anguish,” Washington Post, September 15, 1971, p. 8.

[42] San Francisco Examiner, January 17, 1971.