Teresa Cerda (left) and Cliff Mansker met as teenagers. She was a high schooler who opposed the Vietnam War, he a Marine at Camp Pendleton. They forged an unlikely friendship. (Courtesy Teresa Cerda and Cliff Mansker)
This story was originally published on Oct. 17, 2017.
The Vietnam War era was a period of struggle on many fronts. As the war dragged on with mounting casualties, the nation was torn apart over what many came to see as an unjust campaign. At home, there were bitterly fought battles in the fight for civil rights.
Injustice at home and abroad became the rallying cry for a movement that formed within the ranks of active-duty GIs to protest the war and racism in the military.
Key to the organizing were the coffeehouses, gathering places near military bases that anti-war activists established to help the GIs resist.
There, GIs could talk openly about their feelings, drink coffee, listen to music and read underground newspapers lampooning military commanders who they said were lying about the war and fostering a racist culture, rife with abuses.
That movement of anti-war activists and military personnel grew to include active rebellion from GIs across the country, some refusing to sail ships, others refusing to go into combat or going on strike at their bases. Some service members threw their medals from Vietnam on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Seeing members of the military openly protest helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War. Yet this activism from within the ranks has almost been erased from the historical narrative.
A Teen, A Marine and ‘The Green Machine’: Resisting the Vietnam War and Racism at Home
One of the GI coffeehouses was operating in the shadow of Camp Pendleton. It was called The Green Machine, and it's where two people with very different backgrounds and personal histories became best friends and organizers in a fight for justice.
Cliff Mansker was a 17-year-old Marine Corps recruit, filled with pride in the military when he was shipped out to Camp Pendleton in 1967. His dreams of honor were shattered by the reality of a racist military culture.
Mansker says he was beaten and subjected to racial epithets by his commanding officers. His growing anger at the racism within the military made him and other black GIs start to question the whole point of the war in Vietnam, where so many black and brown GIs were dying on the front lines.
The GI anti-war movement was closely tied to the Black Power movement. Eventually, black GIs published their own underground newspaper. A front page from 1970 (see page 10) features Cliff Mansker, after he was locked up in the base jail and court-martialed for disobeying orders -- wearing a Black Unity band and challenging his superiors.
Teresa Cerda was an earnest 16-year-old high school student, the daughter of a farmworker. She started working with the anti-war group Movement for a Democratic Military because she wanted to stand up for her working-class community in Oceanside, where she saw so many of her black and Latino classmates drafted and then killed in the war in Vietnam.
You’ll find all of KQED’s stories about the many ways the Vietnam War affected people in the Bay Area and throughout California at www.kqed.org/vietnamwar