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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

GI Movement: Antiwar Soldiers at Fort Lewis, 1965-1973

Aquatic "invasion" of Fort Lewis, July 13, 1969, copyright (c) Steve Ludwig

by Jessie Kindig

 Though there have been obstinate, antiwar soldiers and mutinies within the American military since the American Revolution, the GI movement during the Vietnam War was the largest, most extensive, and most successful, for it developed in conversation with the civil rights movement and the waves of radicalism sweeping American society. By 1971, Colonel Robert Heinl was forced to write in the Armed Forces Journal that the “morale, discipline and battleworthiness 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] The GI movement eventually reached all branches of the Armed Forces as well as veterans, and was active both in Vietnam and among active-duty servicepeople at home.

The GI movement was born of the contradictions inherent in the military’s project in Vietnam. Fighting a drawn-out guerilla war in which Vietnamese civilians were indistinguishable from the enemy was for the average soldier a frustrating, unclear, and violent project. Over and above this, however, were the main contradictions within the military institution, where soldiers, drawn largely from the working class and the poor, are the ones asked to fight, to die, and to suspend their normal lives for a foreign policy that does not benefit them or seems far removed from the fact of everyday base life. The majority of dissident soldiers were volunteers, not the more middle-class draftees. [2] For African American soldiers, watching civil rights and black power activists fight and die at home for the American democracy they were supposed to defend abroad, the tension was even greater. Black soldiers and largely working-class volunteer soldiers made up the bulk of the active GI movement because of these reasons.

All four branches of the Armed Services operated in Washington State during the Vietnam War, the largest of which was Fort Lewis Army Base in Tacoma, joined at its northern border by McChord Air Force Base. As of 1966, Fort Lewis served as an embarkation and training center for troops deploying to and from Southeast Asia. Combined with Navy bases clustered around Puget Sound and Air Force bases in the eastern part of the state, around 100,000 military personnel were stationed in Washington at any given time during the peak years of the Vietnam War.[3] With its long history of progressive social movements and large military presence, the Northwest became a strong center for GI antiwar activity, and its GI coffeehouse and underground newspapers became nationally known.

The regional GI movement was strongest at the large Fort Lewis Army Base in the port city of Tacoma, Washington. At Ft. Lewis, the development of the GI movement was facilitated by the formation of an off-base coffeehouse for GIs, the Shelter Half, and the distribution and publication of underground newspapers and newsletters. The movement also found organizational expression in three groups during the height of the movement from 1968-1973: the GI-Civilian Alliance for Peace, a joint project of radical students at the University of Washington and civilian socialists and GIs, which was active between 1968–1969 and published Counterpoint; a local chapter of the national American Servicemen’s Union, founded in 1969 by a group of activist GIs who put out the paper Fed Up; and the GI Alliance, formed in 1970 by GIs, veterans, and their dependents affiliated with Fed Up who began their own paper, the Fort Lewis-McChord Free Press. [Read digitized copies of these three newspapers]

Student-Soldier Organizing

The GI-Civilian Alliance for Peace (GI-CAP) was one of the first student-soldier antiwar collaborations to emerge during the Vietnam War. GI-CAP was formed out of an October 1968 antiwar conference, initiated by the Student Mobilization Committee and the Young Socialist Alliance at the University of Washington, who went to leaflet Fort Lewis in the hope of meeting antiwar soldiers. In February of next year, 200 GIs led an antiwar demonstration in downtown Seattle and inspired GI-civilian organizing in the rest of the country. Soldiers in GI-CAP wanted something to hand out to their buddies on base, and the group began printing the underground paper Counterpoint. Students in GI-CAP recruited other students to drive down to base to leaflet, and together, the students and GIs brainstormed ways to get their message out to more soldiers. One tactic involved leaving tape recordings of meeting announcements in auditoriums, hitting ‘play,’ and leaving before officers could find out who was announcing an antiwar event over the loudspeakers. Another was a guerilla theater-style “aquatic invasion” of Fort Lewis in July of 1969: students in GI-CAP and SDS rowed across American Lake to the Fort’s beach, where they met their GI allies and handed out leaflets about GIs’ right to dissent. In fall of 1969, GI-CAP amicably split into an all-GI formation, and students went back into the Student Mobilization Committee on campus.[4]

Shelter Half Coffeehouse

The basis for civilian-soldier collaboration laid by GI-CAP was followed by the success of the Shelter Half Coffeehouse. The first GI coffeehouse, the “UFO,” was established in 1967 near Fort Jackson, South Carolina by a former army reservist, and envisioned as a space where soldiers could gather and talk freely, without military repression. The coffeehouses soon became organizing centers for the GI movement because they provided space for meetings and for the printing of underground papers.

Tacoma’s Shelter Half coffeehouse was the fifth such coffeehouse in the nation, begun in October 1968. A shelter half is a 3-by-5-foot piece of sticky canvas, issued to every soldier in the field: one shelter half is useless, but when two are joined together, it creates a comfortable two-person tent. Tacoma’s coffeehouse was conceived to serve the same purpose, of getting people together to construct something useful.[5] The civilian and veteran staff of the coffeehouse worked with active-duty soldiers to produce the next two newspapers to come from Fort Lewis, and in addition, provided movie showings, cheap dinners, and a place where soldiers who were not yet part of the active GI movement could become involved.

The coffeehouses, just like the newspapers, were key to the development and growth of the GI movement. Because of their success, they came under heavy repression from military authorities. In December of 1969, the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board attempted to designate the Shelter Half “off-limits” to all active-duty personnel, the first attempt by the military to declare a private establishment off-limits for political considerations. GI activists, along with student activists at the University of Washington and the broader Northwest antiwar movement put on a “Trial of the Army” at the University in protest, convicting thy army of genocide against the Vietnamese. The amount of protest quickly won the case, and the Shelter Half stayed open until 1974.[6]

Fed Up and the American Servicemen’s Union

The most successful newspaper associated with Fort Lewis was Fed Up, begun in 1969 by GIs based around the Shelter Half, which had a circulation of 5,000 copies per issue and claimed national recognition. Fed Up was affiliated with the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU), a national group formed in 1967 by socialist Andy Stapp, who entered military service in order to organize. The ASU aimed to create a union for low-ranking servicemen and called for rank-and-file democracy in the army, the right to refuse orders, a fair wage and collective bargaining, an end to racism in the army, and the right of free political association.[7]

On October 13, 1969, a group of GIs based around the Shelter Half used its facilities to produce the first issue of a new paper, Fed Up, followed a week later by a meeting on base to form a local chapter of the ASU. When military police broke up the meeting, the soldiers continued talking in the brig, and the ASU was born. The army eventually dropped all charges, and the newly formed ASU, strengthened by its victory, grew to upwards of 75 members.[8] The ASU and Fed Up organized not just around the war, but around radical issues that antiwar soldiers and the antiwar movement were drawn to: the ASU worked with the United Farm Workers to boycott non-union grapes and lettuce on base, and Fed Up featured articles on racism, imperialism, and capitalism.

GI Alliance

1970-1972 was the height of the GI movement. The movement spread from the army to other branches of the military, as policy in Vietnam moved away from combat troops and toward air and naval battles. In the Northwest, 1971 saw the publication of The Puget Sound Sound Off at the Bremerton Naval Yard on the peninsula and Sacstrated at the Fairchild Air Force Base to the east, near Spokane.

The GI Alliance (GIA), founded in 1970 by soldiers and their families around the Shelter Half, attempted to resolve this issue by broadening the GI movement to issues of GI family members, housing and community inequality faced by GI families, and labor rights. GIA, along with the broader left, saw the war in Vietnam as tied to the political needs of American capitalism, and sought to transform the GI movement into one that could connect a struggle for the rights of soldiers with the rights of working-class people. Their newspaper, the Lewis-McChord Free Press, often featured articles on labor struggles, women’s rights, and US foreign policy. The GIA attempted to make their arguments concrete by organizing specific campaigns around landlords and businesses around the base who charged soldiers unfairly high prices.

Yet GIA could not make up for the momentum lost by the changing nature of the war and its wind-down. The vibrancy of the GI movement was matched only by its diffuseness, for active-duty soldiers rotated off and on bases and in and out of service. With the signing of the Paris peace agreements in 1973, the GI movement began to wind down on all fronts, as soldiers no longer faced active combat abroad. Between 1971 and 1973, the number of active organizations within the armed forces as a whole dropped from nearly one hundred to around thirty. [9]

Though it didn’t succeed in keeping the GI movement going—the veterans of Vietnam Veterans Against the War would play that role—GIA and the other activist-soldiers at Fort Lewis had been successful in playing a large role in forcing the end of the war, and in proving that antiwar struggles can be built and organized within the confines of the military itself.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jessie Kindig

[1] Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal issue, June 7, 1971, reprinted as evidence in House Committee Hearings on Subversion within the Armed Forces, vol. II, 7132–7140.

[2] Surveys quoted in David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: The American Military Today (New York: Anchor Books, 1975; repr. 2005), 222–223; and Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[3] Ken Swarner, The Evergreen Post: A History of Fort Lewis (Tacoma, WA: Ranger Publishing Company, 1993), 54–55; Sam J. Lee, “Fed Up at Fort Lewis: A Regional History of the GI Protest Movement Against the War in Vietnam,” (master’s thesis, Washington State University, 1997), 4–9.

[4] “The Great Invasion,” Counterpoint (Seattle, WA), vol. 2, no. 14 (7 August 1969): 4–5; Counterpoint, vol. 2, no. 15, September 20, 1969.

[5] House Committee Hearings, vol. I, 6531; and Edd Jeffords, “Coffeehouse Achieves Goal of Getting People Together,” Tacoma News Tribune October 13, 1968.

[6] “Trial of the Army,” Fed Up vol. 1, no. 4, February 26, 1970: 1.

[7] Andy Stapp, Up Against the Brass (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), 88–89 and 100.

[8] “Pearson Launches Ft. Lewis A.S.U.” Fed Up vol. 1, no. 2, November 12, 1969: 1.

[9] “Strategy and Tactics for GI Organizing,” GI Alliance/Free Press, unpublished discussion draft, date unknown, collected in Beula Robb, “Winning the Hearts and Minds of Fort Lewis and McChord GIs During the Vietnam Era,” Community History Project, University of Washington-Tacoma (Winter 1994), held at UW-Tacoma Library; and Matthew Rinaldi, “The Olive-Drab Rebels: Military Organizing During the Vietnam Era,” Radical America vol. 8, no. 8 (May–June 1974), 45.