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How the courageous efforts of the Wisconsin Historical Society have served future generations of the Vietnam War scholars

With the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive looming, documents from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Students for a Democratic Society have recently been made available digitally for the first time. Thanks to the courage and efforts of the Wisconsin Historical Society in partnership with ProQuest, these resources offer new avenues of research into the tumultuous 1960s for students and scholars around the world.

The peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement

Between January and February 1968, the North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a series of coordinated surprise attacks against over 100 targets in South Vietnam.  This event and its resulting bloodshed marked a turning point in the Vietnam War. The American public’s confidence in the government’s handling of the conflict was eroding and people increasingly voiced doubts about U.S. involvement.

“Especially after the Tet Offensive in early 1968, the antiwar movement ‘formed deeper roots among people of color, religious communities,’ and students on non-elite campuses,” wrote John Marciano, professor emeritus of education and longtime activist, in his article “Lessons from the Vietnam War.”

One of the most radical student organizations in the ‘60s – and throughout American history – was the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Founded in 1960, SDS’s birth as an organization in many ways dates to June 1962, when Tom Hayden presented his draft of a statement of the values of the organization at SDS’s national convention in Port Huron, Michigan. The Port Huron statement has been labeled as the “the most ambitious, the most specific, and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American Left.” (Michael Kazin, Dissent Magazine, Spring 2012) SDS held the first of several mass anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in Washington D.C. in April 1965. It was attended by fifteen thousand people, according to The Reader’s Companion to American History, which added that the organization co-sponsored another demonstration the following November – this time, with an attendance of thirty thousand.

The same source noted that by 1968, the SDS achieved a level of power and prominence unprecedented for a student organization.” The organization experienced dramatic membership growth in 1968-69 – a tumultuous period which not only saw the Tet Offensive, but the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as massive riots in Washington D.C., Chicago, Baltimore and other major cities throughout the country and the world.

The Winter Soldier Investigation

On the three-year anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) conducted a series of hearings in Detroit on the experience of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. One hundred fifty honorably discharged and highly decorated veterans testified during what the VVAW called the “Winter Soldier Investigation” into war crimes committed in Southeast Asia.

Testifying in April 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, VVAW leader John Kerry explained the meaning of the investigation. He said:

It is impossible to describe to you what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did, they relived the absolute horror of what their country, in a sense, made them do. … We called this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation. The term Winter Soldier is a play of Thomas Paine’s in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and Summertime Soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough. … We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel that we have to be Winter Soldiers now. We could come back to this country, we could be quiet … but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds and not redcoats, but the crimes we are committing which threaten, that we have to speak out. [From ProQuest History Vault, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Folder ID: 201748-004-0030]

The efforts of the VVAW to speak out were part of a broader anti-Vietnam War movement that had picked up steam after the Tet Offensive. Originally founded in 1967, VVAW’s involvement in anti-war protests escalated rapidly after Tet as it launched major protests in the form of Operation Rapid American Withdrawal, the Winter Soldier Investigation and then Operation Dewey Canyon III.

A unique partnership opens access to hard-to-find documents

Working in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), ProQuest has now digitized 14 manuscript collections representing 12 different anti-Vietnam War organizations. In 1970, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) came to possess the entire SDS archive. Over the years, WHS acquired additional collections of important 1960s student and anti-Vietnam War organizations. WHS State Archivist and Administrator Matt Blessing noted: “For over 170 years, the Wisconsin Historical Society has served future generations of scholars by ‘collecting in the moment.’  WHS archivists and administrators demonstrated professional courage by documenting the New Left during this era. It’s unlikely that many of these collections would have survived intact, had it not been for pro-active archivists with great historical instincts.”

In 1977, ProQuest (then known as UMI) worked with WHS to microfilm the records of SDS. In 2014, after ProQuest had worked with WHS on the digitization of civil rights records, ProQuest and WHS began to consider the digitization of the SDS records. In discussions between WHS and ProQuest, ProQuest History Vault product manager Daniel Lewis worked with Matt Blessing, then Collection Development Coordinator Helmut Knies and WHS Archivist Kyle Krause to identify other anti-Vietnam War collections that could be digitized alongside the records of SDS.

The result is the History Vault module entitled “Students for a Democratic Society, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement.” This module consists of 14 collections, 12 of which had never been microfilmed or scanned before and existed only in paper format, meaning that for decades, scholars were required to travel and work with this delicate content only on-site at the WHS.

“Given the uniqueness of the holdings of the WHS, we are understandably reluctant to allow them outside of our care,” Kyle Krause, archivist with the WHS, told us. “However, after seeing firsthand the security and care exercised in handling similar collections, we felt confident entering into this agreement.”

In order to digitize the collections in this module, ProQuest scanned just under 275,000 pages of material at its state of the art scanning facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. During the scanning process, WHS staff members toured facility and witnessed firsthand the careful work performed by ProQuest’s scanning staff as they scanned the original records from the Society’s holdings. ProQuest’s staff members showcased the different equipment, technologies, and software used in a wide variety of digitization projects. This process included everything from ironing documents to scanning them on different machines to post-processing the documents.

“ProQuest staff were clearly excited about the opportunity to work with these collections and they made sure the papers, photographs, and microfilm were returned in the same condition as they were received,” Krause added.

“I have been with the WHS for the past 18 years,” Krause also told us. “As the manuscripts accessioner I know firsthand the amazing breadth of the collections of the WHS, particularly in the area of social action. It is gratifying to see some of these collections highlighted and reaching new audiences through these new electronic resources.”

WHS State Archivist and Administrator Matt Blessing believes the value of this content is underscored by parallels between the era we live in, and struggles of the 1960s. “We live in a highly polarized time,” he explained. “Although the circumstances of 2017 have obviously been different than 1967, we can learn important lessons from the extreme divisiveness of another era.”

“The 1960s and 1970s continue to fascinate students of American history,” he added. “Now available electronically, I am confident that these manuscripts will appeal to broad and diverse audiences, ranging from advanced scholars to beginning researchers.”

For further research on the SDS, VVAW, and the 1960s antiwar movement

History Vault

Students for a Democratic Society, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the anti-Vietnam War Movement

Key collections in this module offer new opportunities for research on the 1960s through the lens of two influential anti-war organizations. In its heyday, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emphasized participatory democracy, community building, and creating a political movement of impoverished people. As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, SDS became involved in the anti-war movement, before splintering and disbanding by 1970. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was founded on June 1, 1967 by six veterans who had met at the Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam in April 1967. In its first two years, VVAW focused on political work and public education. Beginning in 1969, as opposition to the Vietnam War increased, VVAW organized major national protests like Operation Rapid American Withdrawal (RAW), the Winter Soldier Investigation in January-February 1971, and Operation Dewey Canyon III in April 1971. VVAW’s peaceful actions garnered positive press attention, contributing to a substantial increase in membership, to around 20,000 members.

The 10 other anti-Vietnam War organizations documented in this module are: AMEX-Canada; Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars; Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee; Indochina Peace Campaign; National Peace Action Coalition; New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; Paris American Committee to Stop War; Student Peace Union; Teachers Committee for Peace in Vietnam; and Vietnam Moratorium Committee. For more information on this module, see our slideshare presentation.

American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate

This module, which focuses on records from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon White Houses, contains two major sets of records pertaining to the anti-Vietnam War Movement. These are Johnson Administration's Response to Anti-Vietnam War Activities and records of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. For more information on these collections, as well as discussion of the anti-Vietnam War related records in the Black Freedom Struggle in the Twentieth Century module of History Vault and material in ProQuest Historical Newspapers and ProQuest Congressional, see the blog post entitled “Anti-Vietnam War Movement and Washington D.C. Politics.”

FBI Confidential Files and Radical Politics in the U.S., 1945-1972

These documents provide insight into FBI policies and priorities, the scope of investigations of subversives, the purposes of investigations of liberal and conservative activists, and the bureau’s relationships with other intelligence agencies. A key collection in this module consists of the records of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB). The SACB files constitute one of the most valuable resources for the study of left-wing radicalism during the 1950s and 1960s.

Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy

This module covers U.S. involvement in the region from the early days of the Kennedy administration, through the escalation of the war during the Johnson administration, to the final resolution of the war at the Paris Peace Talks and the evacuation of U.S. troops in 1973. Along the way, documents in this module trace the actions and decisions at the highest levels of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, as well as events on the ground in Vietnam, from the perspective of State Department officials, Associated Press reporters, and members of the U.S. Armed forces, including the Marines and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam. The strong collections also highlight all of the most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. between 1960 and 1975. An important feature of this module is the records of the Associated Press's Saigon Bureau.

Alexander Street

The Sixties: Primary Documents and Personal Narratives, 1960 to 1974

Vividly conveys the zeitgeist of the long 1960s with documentation of topics such as the draft, the Equal Rights Amendment, Earth Day, the Free Speech Movement, the Stonewall riots, Woodstock, the Summer of Love, and the Space Race.

Ebook Central
Hall, S. (2011). Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.
Archer, J. (2015). The incredible '60s: The Stormy Years that Changed America.
Isserman, M., & Kazin, M. (2000). America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.

Academic Video Online
Shearer, S. (Producer). (2005). Radical America, Left & Right [Video file]. A&E Television Networks.

Works cited:

Eric Foner and, J. A. (1991). Students For A Democratic Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Marciano, J. (2016). Lessons from the Vietnam War. Monthly Review, 68(7), 43-51.

Kazin, Michael. "The Port Huron Statement at Fifty." Dissent, vol. 59, no. 2, Spring, 2012, pp. 83-89.

17 Jan 2018

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