‘Waging Peace’ in Vietnam: Piecing Together the GI Movement for Peace

Poster boards line the Kalmanovitz atrium with photos of soldiers and activists. PHOTO BY BEAU TATTERSALL / SF FOGHORN

“It was an incredible, difficult task for soldiers in a war … to build a peace movement strong enough to end the war,” said Ron Carver, the curator of the exhibit, “Waging Peace: The Movement of GIs and Veterans Against the Vietnam War.” This tribute to peace was on display in Kalmanovitz Hall for the month of April.

A culmination of a year and a half of work, the exhibit opened in March 2018 at the War Remnants Museum. To create it, Carver utilized his personal connections with veteran activists, as well as national archives and existing literature. 

The exhibit in Kalmanovitz Hall is a duplicate exhibit, which was originally brought to Notre Dame for a conference of scholars and veteran activists. It was a group of carpenters at Notre Dame who built crates that are now used to carry the exhibit around the country. USF is the 12th school to host the exhibit. 

During the Vietnam War, Carver helped pro-peace soldiers find ways to oppose the war by publishing peace newspapers and establishing peace centers, or GI coffeehouses, outside of military installations.

In October 2016, Carver visited Vietnam to document the story of Chuck Searcy, the president of the Vietnam chapter of Veterans for Peace, who works to clear the countryside of undetonated bombs and landmines in Vietnam. On his trip, Carver met a museum director in Ho Chi Minh City, who knew of his history organizing pro-peace soldiers and asked him to be a guest curator and create an exhibit on the GI Peace Movement.

Barbara Doherty, a co-author of the companion book to the exhibit, “Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers Who Opposed the War,” said in an interview with The Foghorn that “There were pieces of this story told in various ways in other materials.” However, she continued, “they hadn’t been brought together in this way before so that the whole story could be told.” The exhibit is filled with snapshots of the movement, including pictures of GI newspapers, of which more than 300 were published during the war. Pictures of activists, as well as photos depicting the war crimes and tragedies of the war, were also included.

Carver said that the point of taking the exhibits to different schools was to encourage faculty to teach and write about the GI peace movement as part of the social justice movements of the 1960s. 

“We want them to include the GI Peace movement, because we think it’s historically important. There’s no other way to explain why the US had to withdraw their troops from Vietnam if you don’t first talk about the fact that there were tens of thousands of soldiers who were opposed to the war,” Carver said in an interview with The Foghorn. To explore the implications of the GI peace movement, USF included events and programs throughout the month of April to accompany the exhibit. This included talks and visits from veteran activists, such as Paul Cox, a visit from the Consul General of Vietnam, and the book launch of the memoir “Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today” by Craig McNamara, who is the son of Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense largely responsible for escalating US involvement in the Vietnam War. 

“I really have been inspired by listening to the speakers, because, first of all, they show how people can follow their conscience, even though there’s great pressure against that,” said Jonathan Greenberg, a co-founder for the Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice at USF. He spoke about the consequences that veterans who opposed the war faced, mentioning how in San Francisco, the Presidio was used to hold prisoners who refused to go to war. “These people were making these decisions and acting according to their conscience and getting involved in a mass movement—most of these people were 18, 19, 20 years old,” Greenberg said. “It’s about conscience and it’s about courage, and it’s also about the power that young people have to really make social change.”

Greenberg also expressed hope that students are educated about the horrors of war by engaging with the exhibit. Carver expressed a similar sentiment, connecting the exhibit to more recent history. Since the exhibit was created, the only change that has been made to it is the addition of one panel featuring activists standing against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carver also cited a recent letter from anti-war Vietnam veterans, to Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The letter encouraged soldiers to follow their conscience and encouraged other countries to grant asylum to soldiers who refused to participate in the invasion.

Being the same age as most of the soldiers when they became involved in the anti-war movement, college students today may be unaware of the extent of the activism among soldiers and veterans. “I don’t mean to say every soldier who served in Vietnam was against the war,” Carver explained. However, he continued, “Part of the purpose of this exhibit is to show how large the numbers were.”

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