Operation Dewey Canyon III

Operation Dewey Canyon III was an antiwar protest put together by VVAW that took place in Washington D.C. in April of 1971.  The organization spent two and a half months organizing the protest, and according to Andrew E. Hunt, author of The Turning, it was their belief that if this protest was successful, it could speed up the end of the war.  

On Sunday, April 18, 1971, over 900 veterans converged upon the shoreline of the Potomac River.  Veterans who represented 15 states made up a group that by Monday morning had swelled to 1,200 people.  There were no plans to be unruly, as Hunt says “even the most radical members agreed that activities must remain orderly and legal.”  The first thing they did was march from the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery so some mothers could lay wreaths for their lost sons in a ceremony.  The superintendent of the cemetery blocked access to groups that could use the cemetery for political reasons, which infuriated all the veterans.  The following day, roughly 200 veterans repeated the march, this time more aggressive than the larger group from the day before.  This time the superintendent let them in to lay the wreaths, and the veterans left the cemetery quietly.  The superintendent said "I had no idea they wanted to do this yesterday.  I didn't know they were angered or upset until one man threw his toy cannon against the gate."  Another event that the veterans took part in was to stage combat scenes that resembled search-and-destroy missions.  These demonstrations did not attract much media attention, but that would all soon change.

            On Wednesday April 21, 75 veterans marched over to the Pentagon with their discharge papers on their chest and surrendered as war criminals.  An Air Force general told them that they could not speak to General William Westmoreland as they had requested, and also that the Pentagon does not accept American prisoners of war, and the group soon returned to their camp. Gradually, senators and members of Congress emerged at the camp to show their support of the veterans, even telling the group that the veterans could sleep in their offices overnight should they have to vacate the premises.  A man from California believed that the veterans should stay and sleep at the National Mall and risk arrest.  If they stayed awake, they could not be arrested.  Kerry criticized the government by saying they were “more worried by the legality of where we sleep than by the legality of where we drop bombs.”  The veterans put it up to a vote, and the decision was made to stay and sleep at the Mall.  The veterans and police met and the veterans told them that if the police wanted them to move, they would do so peacefully.  The police said they never were going to arrest the veterans in the first place.  While the Supreme Court ruled that they could not sleep on the Mall, White House Counsel John Dean told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and White House assistant for domestic affairs John Ehrlichman that they should not arrest them for political reasons.  Nixon agreed and prevented any arrests of the group.  Eventually, a large chunk of the veterans went somewhere else to sleep, leaving only 600 sleeping on the steps by Thursday morning at 2 am.  This successful occupation of the Mall in Washington D.C. garnered significantly more media attention than any of their previous events, with the headline of the Washington Post the next day reading “VETS OVERRULE SUPREME COURT.”

            Thursday witnessed the next step in the protests of Operation Dewey Canyon III, as 170 veterans assembled on the steps of the Supreme Court, and insisted that the justices “rule on the constitutionality of the Vietnam War.”  A few of the veterans attempted to enter the Supreme Court building, but the doors had been locked.  An hour later, police arrived to escort the veterans away from the area.  They were charged with obstructing and impeding justice, and faced up to a $5,000 fine a year in jail.  The charges were eventually reduced by a judge to disorderly conduct and the veterans were released on a $10 bond.  Later in the day, Kerry gave his speech in front of the Senate.  Kerry’s speech prompted another rally the following day in Washington D.C., as 700 VVAW members ascended on the Capital.  Marine John Musgrave said the original idea was to put all their war medals into a body bag and send it to congress but Nixon’s administration put a fence up on the Capital “to keep out the young men and women who were fighting that war.  And all that did was piss us off.”  Instead, some of veterans gave fiery speeches and threw their medals over the fence: