Millions of Americans protested the war in Vietnam. Far fewer people took the brunt of government retaliation against war critics—including select conspiracy trials of people the feds said were particularly dangerous characters. The targeted enemies of the state included baby doctor author Benjamin Spock; the Catholic peace agitator-priests, the Berrigan brothers; a bevy of well-known radicals called the Chicago 7; and a handful of Vietnam veterans and supporters nobody ever heard of, called the Gainesville 8.
Amazingly, the latter group may well have played a big role in bringing down the Nixon administration and with it the last props of the war in Southeast Asia.
Such an outcome seemed unimaginable at the time, given the high-stakes chess endgame in which a few surrounded pawns appeared overwhelmed by the forces marshaled against them by a political master of the universe. In a stunning turnabout, the pawns won. The vets, charged with conspiracy to violently attack the 1972 Republican Party convention, were acquitted by a federal jury in Gainesville, Florida. Due to illegal actions designed to quash war protests, including the White House-authorized break-in of Democratic Party offices in the Watergate building in Washington, many of their tormentors in high places went to jail. Caught in a cover up of these criminal acts, Nixon resigned from office, after winning a second term in a landslide. A landslide greased by political dirty tricks.
For instance, one of the men arrested for breaking into the Democrats’ offices was James McCord, head of security for Nixon’s reelection committee. McCord testified to a Congressional committee and at his trial that he had received reports that Democratic staffers were plotting with violent radical groups, specifically VVAW. McCord cited the indictment of the Gainesville 8 as proof. “VVAW was thus the government’s alibi” for sending a midnight crew of CIA operatives to plant telephone bugs in the Democrats’ campaign offices, according to Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement. Republican campaign literature claimed that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern glorified VVAW, whose members were described as “conspiring to blow up the Republican convention,” according to The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. These were the charges a jury rejected a year later, after hearing how the plans for violence were promoted by government informers.
That’s the background to a new memoir, Combat by Trial: An Odyssey with 20th Century Winter Soldiers, by Nancy Miller Saunders. Like the veterans she writes about, Saunders was one of the little people Nixon and his political fixers liked to torment and then shove off the table like toppled pawns.
“Even those of us who lived through the 1960s and early 1970s find it difficult to remember just how bad things were in this country with the war and movements for change tearing it to shreds,” writes Saunders, now retired from the University of Arkansas Press. At 591 pages, including endnotes, this is the heftiest self-published book, printed by iUniverse, I’ve ever encountered. It is an outstanding example, conveyed in a diary format, of telling the story of a social movement at the grassroots level.
“These veterans were a unique group. Never in United States history had US combat veterans, most of them volunteers, massed together in opposition to the war in which they had fought as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) were doing … I was on my way to help film their second major action. I had worked on the film of their first and been so deeply impressed by their disciplined determination to end the war, which had torn apart their lives as it was tearing the nation apart, that I jumped at the opportunity to film this action,” she writes. “I never dreamed that I was about to meet and fall in love with a veteran who would be targeted as a scapegoat” for Nixon’s dictatorial assaults on the Bill of Rights.
Saunders argues America is in a similar era of an imperial president waging a disastrous war and that lessons can be learned from how VVAW stood up to Nixon. “VVAW set a fine example for us to follow,” she writes.
Raised in an Ivy League academic family, with a Stanford degree in communications, Saunders recalls being very upset when her photo was taken by an intimidating plainclothes cop during a VVAW demonstration she was helping to document as part of an independent film crew. “I was shocked to realize that I was now a documented radical. I was doing what I had been brought up to believe I should do: stand up for what I knew was right. And for that I was being treated as if I were a criminal.”
Over the next couple of years, Saunders would have a ring-side seat as government agencies tried to destroy the growing antiwar veterans’ movement that she and other radicalized filmmakers documented in independent films (Different Sons and Winter Soldier). When she hooked up with a VVAW Southern regional organizer, Don Donner, she often found herself in the middle of the confrontation. This included facing the threat of arrest for camping on the Mall in Washington during VVAW’s Operation Dewey Canyon III, in a direct challenge of Nixon’s war policy; getting arrested with a group of vets gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to protest Nixon’s Christmas 1971 bombing of major cities in North Vietnam, and spending a night in jail; frantically trying to help the legal defense of the Gainesville 8 group of VVAW members and supporters, whose homes and personal lives were invaded by FBI informers and other police agents; and nearly going crazy with fear of a particularly loathsome informer who stalked her and, she contends, threatened to kill her. Adding to that frightening experience, Donner slept with a gun under his pillow, but was often away doing peace movement organizing in a hostile Deep South, leaving her to take up sleeping with a loaded pistol.
As this story unfolded, Saunders was taking notes, filming demonstrations and otherwise closely observing the interactions of angry veterans, arrogant officials, slippery government spies and sympathetic but often clueless supporters. “I was enrolled in a hard-knocks course on realities of human nature and going through one of those winnowing crises in which we discover how few people will stick by us through difficult times,” she wrote of those days. VVAW was coming apart at the seams in raging disputes over moderate versus radical politics, moderate versus radical civil disobedience tactics, enlisted men versus officers as lead organizers, as well as Southerners vs. Yankees, exacerbated by mistrust of one another as potential FBI informers. Yet, she notes, the vets set aside their differences to mount an on-going challenge to Nixon’s war policy and his harassment of war critics.
Yet angry veterans can be tough to live with, she found. Saunders broke up with Donner but persisted in lending her support to their cause. The indicted veterans—Scott Camil, John Kniffin, Alton Foss, Don Perdue, Peter Mahoney, Bill Patterson and Stan Michelsen—plus a supporter, John Briggs, often strongly disagreed over how to conduct their legal defense and their lives. Hot-headed as many of the vets were, they were very articulate in defense of their right to protest the war they survived, she noted.
“As our evidence will show VVAW, being among the most vocal and effective critics of the Nixon administration’s continuing escalation of the Indo-China war, was targeted for heavy infiltration throughout the country. Our evidence will show, this infiltration was not for the purpose of gathering information, but rather an elaborate attempt to provoke us into some acts of violence or crime, in order to discredit our non-violent activities,” Patterson, a former Army helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, said during the Gainesville 8 trial. The jury, which unanimously voted for acquittal on all counts, was clearly more impressed by the vets than by the prosecutors’ case.
Saunders notes she borrowed the title for her book from Patterson’s unfinished autobiography and relied on liberal use of his girl friend’s courtroom notes, Donner’s memoirs, interviews with other vets, newspaper coverage, FBI files and other books that reported elements of these events. “We were determined that one of us would publish this story. After he [Patterson] died of cancer, I believe from exposure to Agent Orange, the job became mine and I took his title,” she wrote.
For more information:
(“History You Never Knew: How I Caused Nixon's Resignation” by Peter Mahoney, a member of the Gainesville 8)
Jan Barry was a cofounder of VVAW in 1967 and wrote a magazine expose about the Watergate and VVAW connections in 1973.