By Zac Johnson ‘22

The Duke Divinity School is one of many stops along an international tour for the Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War exhibit. So far it’s made stops from D.C. to Ho Chi Minh City, with plans to visit Seattle and San Francisco this Spring. The exhibit has been on the 00 level floor of the Westbrook Building since January 15th and it will remain there for the span of a month. Despite some questionable weather earlier in the week, my arrival at the exhibit was blessed with an entrance washed in sunlight. To the left of a tall stone staircase with rustic looking chandeliers dangling above, the exhibit flows down one hallway and into another. 

Pieces of blackboard hold together several bits of information, newspaper articles, pictures, and artifacts. The first board contains the most narrative text, explaining the history of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, apparently “the largest peace movement in American history.” The board points out the significance of veterans in anti-war demonstrations, counteracting pro-war propaganda, and picking away at the authority of the Armed Forces until the U.S. was forced to withdraw from Vietnam in the early 70s. The boards that follow document specific examples of these efforts by veterans and other anti-war activists. 

One board features Donald Duncan, a highly decorated Green Beret. Duncan refused promotion and quit the Army because of his disgust for the military’s tactics. The practice at this point was to use South Vietnamese troops to torture and murder liberation soldiers captured during the conflict. Duncan’s face appears on the cover of Ramparts magazine in 1966 with the quote, “The whole thing was a lie!…. I quit!” Here’s another quote just to prove how wrong things felt to him….

“The people remember that when they were fighting the French for their national independence it was the Americans who helped the French. It’s the American anti-Communist bombs that kill their children. It’s American anti-Communism that has supported one dictator after another in Saigon.”

Many other boards highlight veteran-founded newspapers that sought to dispel myths about the Vietnam war and counteract pro-war propaganda. They write about GI led marches, crimes of the military, and the anti-war movement around the country. Central to the organizing of this movement were GI Coffeehouses, established outside dozens of major military installations by soldiers and their civilian supporters. The coffeehouses served as “centers of antiwar organizing where soldiers could bond together, enjoy cultural programs and produce their newspapers.” 

The exhibit doesn’t forget to mention some of the internal problems in the military that drove soldiers to the anti-war movement. Black, Latin, and Native Americans faced serious discrimination from other soldiers, the structure of the military, and higher-ups. They often opposed the war and the discriminatory practices of the military, and they were jailed because of it. Soldiers with varying abilities were denied medication, forced into stockades, or murdered, such as the case with Richard Bunch who was shot in the back by a guard for walking away from a work detail. 

As the exhibit rounds the corner, it seems that the war effort is beginning dying down. Thousands of soldiers began to refuse orders, desert, and sign petitions showcasing their opposition to the war. AWOL and desertion rates grow, moral drops, and the reality of the United States’ war crimes becomes abundantly more clear. 

The exhibit carries the torch into today and finalizes by explaining the modern-day anti-war movement, specifically with wars in the Middle East and South Asia. One paper reads, “Iraq and Afghanistan were the first wars of the social media era, and many troops used their internet access to send antiwar messages to family, friends, and hometown newspapers.” The final few sections of the exhibit highlight some of the problems with and within American military use in today’s world such as sexual abuse, racism, and torture of prisoners. The exhibit ends with a board of acknowledgements, thanking contributors, libraries, and organizations that made this exhibit possible. I leave the exhibit and return to the sunlit atrium feeling acutely aware of the impact American military intervention has on both Americans and those we protect or invade.