Wednesday, September 2, 2015
The tumultuous ‘60s ended with a bang – the implosion of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society. As the Vietnam War revved up in far off Southeast Asia, SDS became the core of what morphed into a vast movement against the war.
Many memoirs have been written on the decade, but a fairly recent one may be the best.* Author John Maher bore witness to the evolution and subsequent decline of the Vietnam antiwar movement. And along the way he had known the major players on both sides of the split that rendered SDS asunder in ’69.
Born in ’38, John Maher fell between me and my younger brother in age. During our younger years it appears John and I had been doing some of the same things, although in reality we were ships passing in the night. Later it was very different between John and my brother Jeff Sharlet, a leader of GI protest against the war; not only did they move in sync along near similar trajectories, but they became good friends as well.
John Maher and I both went to college in the Boston area during the late ‘50s – he to Harvard, I to Brandeis. There our headings began to diverge since he was already tacking left as I sailed a middle course – a standard liberal.
John Maher during his university years
Paradoxically, despite our different political vectors, John was associated with the junior Harvard professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, destined to become an establishment foreign policy specialist with whom I coincidentally worked in the ‘70s; simultaneously at Brandeis I was studying with the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, soon to become guru to the New Left.
Though we never crossed paths, Maher and I shared some common experiences. We had both hung out at Club 47, the folk café just off Harvard Square where each of us got to know the fetching young Joan Baez as her brilliant career was taking off.
Joan Baez, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, 1962
Upon graduating from Harvard, Maher and a few friends traveled to the Soviet Union as tourists. A few years later I spent a year at Moscow University researching my PhD dissertation. Not long after, in the mid-‘60s, both of us happened to land in Washington as consultants – he with the War on Poverty, I on the Soviet-American arms control negotiations.
As the war in Vietnam began to heat up, our paths sharply divided. I became an academic preoccupied with Soviet politics & law as John moved into the maelstrom of emerging antiwar activism.
He soon acquired an impressive New Left resume, coming into contact with Noam Chomsky of MIT; Marty Peretz, publisher of the New Republic; I. F. Stone, premier critic of Washington from the left, as well as serving as a principal organizer of ‘Vietnam Summer’ – a series of antiwar protests across the peace movement.
However, it was while working with the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG), the most effective anti-draft outfit in the country, that John first met Jeff, editor of Vietnam GI (VGI). The foremost underground GI antiwar paper, VGI was published out of Chicago, but Jeff periodically traveled east to raise funds for the paper among wealthy left liberals in Boston and New York. Abby Rockefeller, into whose extended family John Maher had married, was a generous contributor.
BDRG activist distributing Vietnam GI, Boston Army Center, 1968
BDRG had linked up with VGI, printing several thousand additional copies of each issue for passing around at military installations throughout New England. The anti-draft activists took every opportunity to hand out VGI to GIs as well as civilians in the induction process. Speaking of his personal role in the BDRG-VGI connection, John wrote:
I helped raise money for the paper and distributed
it around the Boston area. When the work was
done, Jeff and I loved to sit around and drink beer
and talk politics. We became close friends.**
Later in ’68, an illness Jeff first experienced in Vietnam back in ’64, caught up with him and he flew to our parents’ place in Florida for medical help. The diagnosis was dire; though Jeff still had hope, he was to have only a few months more to live.
Jeff’s last photo – with his parents and sister-in-law Nancy,
Coral Gables, FL, March 1969
♫Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.†
Meanwhile, SDS was veering toward destruction. Sharp factional conflict had been growing within the organization during the past few years and by late spring ’69 had gotten much worse. On one side was the national SDS leadership group styling itself as the ‘Revolutionary Youth Movement’ (RYM). Opposed to RYM was a strong, well-disciplined faction that identified with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL). Essentially an internal power struggle, it was fought out under the guise of conflicting political theologies.
The two groups’ implacable differences came to a dramatic climax at what was to become the last SDS national convention, a gathering of nearly 2,000 delegates in Chicago, mid-June ’69. In just a few days of wild proceedings, the organization split irrevocably, with RYM, calling itself Weatherman, soon after turning to violence and going underground.
John Maher was in the convention hall and initially hoped SDS might weather the storm and survive intact, but it was not to be. At the opening session there was a moment of unity, albeit extremely brief, as all the factions united in grief for Jeff who had died two days earlier. As John remembered the scene:
The chair asked us to rise for a
minute of silence in memory of
my friend Jeff Sharlet, editor of
*John Maher, Learning from the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer (2011)
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
When my younger brother Jeff died the summer of ‘69 at the ungodly young age of 27, I vowed to write a memoir of his short but interesting life. He had been a Vietnam GI well before the war became front page news. He came home and helped create the GI antiwar movement. What occurred in the interim was a compelling story.
Though there were seven years between us and I was away for much of his growing up, I thought I knew Jeff pretty well. What I didn’t know about him I figured I could fill in from the small archive of letters and documents he left behind.
Jeff age 10, summer camp, Adirondack Mts, 1952
It seems I was under an illusion – it turned out I really didn’t know my kid brother that well. He had grown up, experienced things I had no idea of, and generally, unbeknownst to me, had carved out an important niche in the history of his time – the ‘60s. But much of that I learned only decades later.
However, before tackling a memoir my first order of brotherly duty was to try to get Jeff his ’15 minutes’ of fame – an obit in the New York Times. Returning from the funeral, I shut myself in my study for several days going through his papers to piece together an outline of the final decade of his life.
I had hoped an extended resume would serve as notes for an obituary. I knew getting him a Times obit was a long shot, but I intended giving it a helluva try. I didn’t know anyone at the paper except, by reputation, a senior writer and editor. I was then a young academic – a specialist on the Soviet Union – and Harrison Salisbury of the Times was a well-known author who’d been on the Moscow beat.
There was little chance he had heard of me – I hadn’t yet published that much – but invoking our common interest, I sent him my notes on Jeff, hoping he might use his good offices to recommend an obit, even a short one. Alas, I heard nothing from the Times until more than a week later when a short note from Mr Salisbury arrived.
He had found Jeff’s brief life interesting and worthy of special notice and had passed the material on to the Times’ obituary editor, but unfortunately it was too late. The paper then had a rule – no obits older than three days, and in my grief I had taken nearly a week to assemble Jeff’s timeline.
It’s not that Jeff’s death was unnoted – there were several obits in his hometown papers in upstate New York and many death notices in the underground antiwar press throughout the country, but he would not make it into the Times, so I filed away the notes for another day.
Many years later I finally began researching a memoir on my brother, a project of discovery both exhilarating and humbling. Learning about Jeff took me back to that sad week following his death, June ‘69. I dug out the notes I had originally written for the Times nearly a half century ago.
Rereading them, I was surprised at how much about Jeff I had been able to glean from his papers, but I was also taken aback at the important pieces of his life I’d been then unaware of. In ‘searching’ for Jeff over the past several years, my research assistant Karen Grote Ferb – herself a close friend of Jeff’s long ago – and I drew on the memories of his countless contemporaries in both war and antiwar, and have since filled in most of the gaps.
That left me wondering about how much a memoir begun in the summer of ’69 would have missed of Jeff’s journey. Before the age of the Internet, I could not have located the majority of our interlocutors. Cast your mind back to that era of typewriters, snail mail, expensive long distance phone calls, and city phone books as sources.
By the time of his death, Jeff’s GI buddies had returned stateside and scattered to the four corners of the country while many of his college SDS co-activists had graduated and gone hither and yon in pursuit of careers. And at that time in the late ‘60s, Jeff’s comrades in the GI antiwar movement – mostly people on the left – were still in the thick of battle, often living semi-underground, and occasionally operating under pseudonyms to escape FBI surveillance.
For the New York Times back in ’69, I had introduced Jeff as “a typical child of the middle class” and briefly summarized his Vietnam experience:
He learned Vietnamese at the Army Language School
in Monterey, California and later worked as an interpreter
and translator in Saigon and in Phu Bai, an outpost north
of Hue. [President] Diem was overthrown at the time Jeff was
working in Saigon, and he had left the country just a few months
before the Gulf of Tonkin incident [in ‘64].
Indeed, Jeff was trained as a Vietnamese linguist, and he had finished his Vietnam tour not long before Tonkin – a major turning point in the slow burning war – but as Karen and I subsequently found out, dramatic things happened between those two moments of his life.
I had missed the fact that Jeff had spent his first eight months overseas at a secret facility in the Philippines translating North Vietnamese military intercepts – until late one evening when he and several fellow linguists were ordered to ship out to Vietnam on short notice.
The 'Elephant Cage', giant antenna array at the secret facility where Jeff worked in the Philippines, 1963
President Kennedy had given a covert ‘green light’ to a group of South Vietnamese generals plotting the overthrow of the inept and ineffective Diem, President of South Vietnam, and his brother Nhu, the much despised commander of private armies and secret police.
Jeff and the team were hurriedly flown to Saigon to take part in a US undercover operation in support of the coup. Billeted near the Saigon airport, they performed their highly classified, politically sensitive duties in a remote, off limits corner of a US base near the village of Phu Lam.
In fact, I was wrong in the resume; Jeff was not in Saigon when the coup went off. Their assignment completed, he and his detachment had gone back to the Philippines two weeks earlier. However, less than two months later as another coup against the new president was in the offing, Jeff and the linguists were rushed back to Saigon.
Since the second coup went off quickly and bloodlessly, Jeff was reassigned to Phu Bai, a small US listening post just below the North Vietnamese border. There he and others maintained radio contact with South Vietnamese commandos being infiltrated into the north. Both of Jeff’s clandestine missions – in Phu Lam and at Phu Bai – remained highly classified, and he had never spoken or written about them.
I was also in the dark in ’69 when I wrote Harrison Salisbury at the Times that Jeff came back from Vietnam, finished college, and won a coveted Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, which he took to the University of Chicago for graduate school. I hadn’t known that upon withdrawing from grad school to launch his soon-to-be famous GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, Jeff had financed it with his fellowship funds – for a prospective academic, a step unheard of then or now.
Elsewhere in the resume under the heading, Other radical activities, I simply listed that Jeff “Attended a conference of Japanese peace groups against the Vietnam War in Kyoto, Japan, August, 1968,” an event that turned out to have a rather dramatic back story.
Dave Dellinger, chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the MOBE), thus, the titular head of the US antiwar movement, had asked Jeff to join a delegation of leading American antiwar activists headed for Budapest to meet with representatives of the National Liberation Front, the underground political arm of the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam.
Jeff reluctantly had to decline; he had worked under the aegis of the National Security Agency in Vietnam and was still subject to restrictions on travel behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, Dellinger sent him to Japan under the guise of serving as a speaker at an international peace conference, but actually for a very different and delicate purpose.
The Japanese peace movement, Beheiren, encouraged US military personnel to desert the Vietnam War and was secretly hiding some 20 deserters. However, the young GIs had become restless and ill-disciplined and hard for the peace activists to cope with.
Beheiren requested the American movement to send someone knowledgeable about GI protest to counsel them on what to do. Jeff, as an ex-GI and authoritative leader of the GI movement, was the ideal candidate.
Suffice it to say, in my initial attempt to reconstruct Jeff’s life there were other gaps and missing parts that Karen and I eventually closed and filled in, including perhaps the two greatest omissions.
I had failed to convey any sense of Jeff as a person. As my younger sibling by many years, I assumed that an older brother’s perceptions would not have been of interest to the historical record I was trying for at the Times.
In the ultimate illusion, as I was to repeatedly discover with each new interview of Jeff’s contemporaries, I really didn’t know the brother who had gone off to war and returned to achieve his destiny as an antiwar leader. When I asked a half a dozen of his closest friends for a single word to describe Jeff, each without hesitation independently replied with ‘charisma’.
I was astonished. That was an aspect of Jeff that hadn’t been apparent to me or our parents when we occasionally got together in his last years. A very nice guy, well-spoken, and mature, but I had never thought of my kid brother as a charismatic leader. I was of course pleased to learn this of him.
Jeff back at Indiana University, 1965
Jeff had other personal qualities that I had also missed. In Karen’s words, “his sense of humor and joie de vivre on the one hand and his dark side on the other; his drive, his passion, his vision, his charisma, his foibles.”
Finally, the biggest surprise of all has been that Jeff had come back from Vietnam a troubled soul with a secret about his involvement that he could never bring himself to speak of, and eventually carried to the grave.
No, he didn’t kill anyone – neither enemy combatant nor innocent civilian; he was in an intelligence agency, not a combat unit – but once in an anguished voice he had said to Karen, “If you knew what I did in Vietnam, you’d hate me.” That was as much as he would say despite her repeated denials and assurances.
Karen and I queried his numerous friends, asking if Jeff had ever spoken of his troubling secret, but to no avail. Admittedly memories grow dim after so many years, but that was the kind of thing someone wasn’t likely to have forgotten. The best we’ve been able to come up has been an unverifiable ‘maybe’ and a couple of hypotheticals.
One person thought she remembered Jeff relating a painful memory of an interrogation, but we found no one else who had ever heard even a hint about it. In a hypothetical guess, a fellow ex-GI linguist who had served with an airborne unit involved in unintended collateral damage (civilian deaths), believed Jeff may have done the same thing with the Marines on long range patrols, but we’ve been unable to unearth any firm evidence.
A more recent speculation has been that Jeff may have been dispatched from Phu Bai to nearby Hue a few times to sit in on harsh South Vietnamese Army interrogations of Viet Cong prisoners to pick up any information of interest to his unit. Witnessing such brutal interrogations would not have been something easily forgotten, but as I shall say in the memoir, it seems we’ll never know.
Jeff never got his 15 minutes in the Times, but his niche in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement is now secure with both a book and an award-winning documentary dedicated to him, a page in a mainstream American history text about his editorship of Vietnam GI, and a literary prize established in his name among other recognitions and honors.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Max Watts – James Bond of the left
Max Watts in the Negev, Israel '52
A high government official described Max, on the eve of his expulsion from France, as part Lenin, part James Bond. Max Watts was his political pseudonym – his real name was Tomi Schwaetzer.
Born in Vienna during the interwar period, Max and family fled Austria one step ahead of the Holocaust. They took refuge in Paris, but as war closed in, Max and his father went to London while his mother and sister made it to Lisbon and a ship bound for America.
But Max’s father, failing to find work, committed suicide in England, so as a boy of 10 he was stranded for several years as the war raged on the Continent and in the Pacific. As a youngster on his own, he became politically involved on the left, his lifetime commitment.
Eventually making it to New York to join his mother, Max earned a BA at New York University where he joined the Young Communist League, moving later to the American Communist Party. Eventually Max would eschew parties and the dogmatics of ideology and adopt a kind of ecumenical spirit toward the diverse factions of the left writ large.
Against war, he left the US to avoid the Korean War draft and lived for a time in Israel. From Israel Max went to Paris where he studied for a PhD in Geophysics and participated on the left, namely for the Algerians in their war of liberation against the French. In the early ‘60s his work as a geophysicist took him to revolutionary Cuba where he met the Castro brothers.
Returning to France as American involvement in Vietnam heated up, Max became a founding member of ‘Resistance inside the Army’ or RITA, a group that helped and hid American deserters sought by the French police and the US Army. Among other notables, he worked with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave on behalf of the beleaguered GIs.
His work with his partner June van Ingen was so effective that the government determined his presence in France was not in the country’s best interests. Max was to be deported, but his homeland, Austria, refused to take him, so the French police banished him to the island of Corsica.
However, resourceful Max met Danish activists making a port call who sailed him back to mainland France. Slipping into Paris, now a fugitive himself, he nonetheless continued his antiwar work, including helping to publish Act, RITA’s newsletter.
Eventually caught again, Max was deported to West Germany, settling in Heidelberg, headquarters of US forces in Europe. There he continued his opposition to the Vietnam War. Now working as a journalist in several languages, Max collaborated with a GI whistleblower to score a media coup against US military surveillance of anyone in Germany thought to oppose the war.
In the early ‘80s Max was on the move again, this time to Australia, where he spent the rest of his life working as a local activist and international left freelance journalist. He took up many progressive causes. A skilled sailor, he once maneuvered his sailboat to block a US nuclear missile cruiser from entering Sydney Harbor.
It was in Australia that I ‘met’ Max by phone and email. Back in Europe of the ‘60s he had known of brother Jeff Sharlet and his underground paper Vietnam GI, and admired him from afar. Although the two of them never met, they moved on parallel tracks in the global struggle against the American war in Vietnam.
Max, an extravagant personality, was prodigiously effective on four continents – his death in 2010 was echoed throughout the world in left circles.
Michaela ‘Miki’ Lang – Long lost, but found
Miki Lang, Sausalito CA '10
By an extraordinary stroke of luck we finally found Miki after a long search. During their senior year at Indiana University (IU), Jeff and Miki had been an item. I was hoping to talk with her about that time. We had photos of the two of them together, but Miki was nowhere to be found on the Internet.
However, my research assistant Karen Grote Ferb, was determinedly persistent and eventually found Miki’s long cold trail by an unusual route. Although we assumed she had probably married and taken her husband’s name, Karen tried a wild card approach of searching under Miki’s surname.
Her search for ‘Lang’ brought up a German web site about paintball, an unusual sport. Featured was an American, Oliver ‘Ollie’ Lang, rated the best player in international competition. To round out the homage to Oliver, there was an interview with his mother, none other than Miki Lang of Sausalito, CA.
Miki had finished up at IU with an MA in ’70 and a few years later joined the Peace Corps. Thus began her long career abroad, later working for C.A.R.E. and the US Agency for International Development. Miki began her service in Sierra Leone, but then worked in Chad, Mali, and Cameroon, as well as India.
After 16 years in Africa and South Asia, she finally returned to the States in ’88.
She remembered Jeff well as one of the first voices at IU to bring back from Vietnam dire warnings about US involvement in the war. Miki had been especially struck by “the intensity with which he talked about Vietnam and how relentlessly he pursued the subject.” Looking back over time, she recognized that opposing the war was Jeff’s singular purpose in life. So true.
Jim Wallihan, California radical
Jim Wallihan addressing Governor Brown, Sacramento CA '64
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM), Jim arrived in Bloomington in the fall of ’65. He had come to Indiana University (IU) for grad school from the University of California (UC). When the mass arrests of student protesters occurred at Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus, Jim, having eluded the sweep, became spokesman for FSM before the governor in Sacramento.
Unbeknownst to Jim, the Davis CA police had sent ahead to the Bloomington authorities an unsolicited warning that a California radical was on his way. Outlandishly a couple of years later, while on trial for a raucous anti-Dow Chemical demo at IU, the local District Attorney asked Jim, “Isn’t it true that you organized the California riots?”
Jim had been a so-called faculty brat at UC-Davis, not far from San Francisco. When his father, a noted agricultural biologist, was invited to spend a year in the Philippines, Jim took a leave of absence and joined his parents. Later he did a summer stint as a smoke jumper fighting fires in the Alaskan wilderness.
Arriving at IU, Jim naturally sought out the small coterie of New Left students who were stirring the pot on that conservative campus. He met Jeff, who had returned from the Vietnam War the previous year. Jeff hung out with the activist group, but had not joined their efforts to launch a chapter of Students for Democratic Society (SDS) at IU.
Jeff was skeptical of the efficacy of student protest against the war. At that point in the antiwar movement, SDS was not well focused or effectively organized. Jim persuaded him to join the new SDS group and lend his authority as an ex-Vietnam GI opposed to the war. Jim and Jeff soon reorganized the chapter and became part of the leadership of campus SDS. Later, under Jeff’s aegis as SDS president, the frequency, focus, and effectiveness of antiwar actions greatly increased.
Jeff moved on to grad school at University of Chicago, but his heart wasn’t in the academic game. After just a semester he withdrew and used his fellowship funds to launch a GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI. Jim joined him several months later, lending a hand on the paper as its circulation grew rapidly.
Together they travelled the country visiting military bases looking for returning combat GIs with stories about what was really going on in Vietnam. During the summer of ’68 Jeff and Jim took off for the West Coast. Chicago was hosting the Democratic Presidential Convention, sure to be a magnet for unrest, and the Chicago police, with help from the Army, was gearing up to block the massive, planned antiwar protest.
Work was underway on the August issue of VGI, and Jeff and Jim felt the better part of valor would be to temporarily move the editorial process out of town. Around that time the two of them sat for a long interview with a major underground paper – their topic: How civilian antiwar protest could benefit from working with the numerous disaffected GIs. The GI antiwar movement was gathering steam.
Jeff died before the war he fought in and against, came to an end, but Jim retained his memories of their joint struggle, which when we met early in the new century he shared with me.
Showdown in Kyoto
Japanese riot police at the ready
Late summer ’68 – Jeff was supposed to go to Prague. A group of US antiwar leaders was to parley with a delegation from the National Liberation Front (NLF), the shadowy political arm of the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. The NLF was particularly interested in emerging GI protest against the war and hoped to meet Jeff.
Jeff was interested, but didn’t want to go. He had worked in intelligence in Vietnam, and was under interdiction not to travel behind the Iron Curtain for five years after finishing his tour in ’64. Penalties for violating the restriction were stiff, and Jeff had more important work editing Vietnam GI than doing time in federal prison.
Just about the same time, Jeff’s deputy editor, Dave Komatsu, was invited to Japan as a representative of the GI antiwar movement. As a Japanese-American Dave felt he was chosen for his language ability, and he wasn’t enthusiastic about going. However, Dave came up with a solution – he would replace Jeff in Europe, and Jeff would head for Japan – to the city of Kyoto.
The Japanese peace organization, the host group, was harboring nearly 20 US deserters from the Vietnam War, but they were proving hard to keep safely hidden from the Japanese authorities and US military police. The peace activists needed counsel from someone of authority on the rising GI antiwar protest.
Jeff was their man, but to cover his real purpose in Japan, they folded him into an international peace gathering in Kyoto. There Jeff did his thing – spoke publicly at the conference by day, and in the evenings privately counseled on the deserter problem.
At the end of the conference, an antiwar march on Kyoto town hall was planned. Jeff had seen such confrontations with the Japanese police on television and wanted no part of it. He said he had business elsewhere, but his hosts wouldn’t hear of it. As an honored guest as well as an ex-Vietnam GI, they insisted Jeff join them – and in the front rank no less.
He could see the massed police in riot gear dead ahead and was filled with trepidation. Arms locked, the protesters set off. A melee ensued, but happily Jeff got through it unhurt. Another day on the Vietnam antiwar front.
Bernard ‘Bernie’ Morris – Mentor to the New Left
Bernie & Betty Morris, summer on Cape Cod, '60s
Bernie was no stranger to bucking the system. As a young man he went to Yale for a graduate degree, but was thought too far to the left and pushed out. America was then on the cusp of WWII so Bernie went to Washington and landed a job in the Justice Department.
At Justice, his office mate and friend was a young woman named Judith Coplon. ‘Judy’ was later convicted as a Soviet spy which subsequently created problems for Bernie when he moved to the State Department. When the anti-communist Red Scare got underway in the late ‘40s, simple ‘guilt by association’ could be a source of trouble.
Bernie survived that, but then at the end of the ‘50s as the USSR and Communist China began to fall out, he offered a novel explanation. As an intelligence analyst, he was among the first to spot the coming split between the two Communist giants. However at State, the prevailing consensus was of a unified Communist Bloc, and Bernie was told to cease advocating a contrary interpretation.
A few years later in the early ‘60s Secretary of State Dean Rusk became a key point man for President Kennedy’s growing involvement in the civil war in Vietnam. At that point, Bernie had had enough of government and left for academe.
He accepted a position as Professor of International Relations at Indiana University (IU), offering courses on Soviet Foreign Policy, International Communism, and the like. Within his courses Bernie basically taught critical thinking on the great issues of the day. No longer subject to Washington rules, he became an outspoken public intellectual.
As Bernie gained a student following, he added a course on Marxism, the first time the subject was offered at IU. Neither an advocate nor a critic, he taught Marxism as a course in political theory.
Many students were drawn to the course and reached their own conclusions. Campus New Left activists were especially attracted to the course, including Robin Hunter, Paulann Groninger, and my brother Jeff Sharlet among others.
As a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) got up and running at the university, Professor Bernie Morris became the group’s unofficial adviser. Though not an activist himself, he did attend SDS’s Friday afternoon rallies and some of their major antiwar demos.
President Nixon’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia transformed antiwar protest at IU and other schools from essentially a minority voice into a huge expression of dissent. More than 8,000 IU students turned out to register their protest and hear speakers condemn Nixon’s policy.
For Bernie, that afternoon was perhaps his finest hour as mentor to the critically minded. Of all the speakers, he received the greatest ovation. Professor Morris scorned Nixon’s plan for terminating the war by widening it as
and morally indefensible.
Ralph Levitt, A life on the left
The Bloomington 3, Ralph Levitt (l), Indiana University '63
When I first met Ralph, he was intent on pursuing an academic career. We were both newly minted graduate students in Russian and East European Studies at Indiana University (IU).
Brother Jeff was also on campus as a freshman. He too crossed paths with Ralph, but ‘politically’, as Ralph took a very different path, eventually spending his life on the left.
The first intimations of protest against the emerging Vietnam War were starting to stir on campus when Ralph joined a nascent Trotskyist group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). YSA’s political writ was broad. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of fall ’62, the group organized a protest march against the American naval blockade of Cuba.
That action, which took great courage, was not well received either on campus or in town as the rally around the flag spirit swept the country. Several months later, the YSA chapter brought a speaker to campus. His remarks were in no way inflammatory, yet the county prosecutor chose to indict Ralph and fellow leaders for inciting the overthrow of the government of the United States, an absurd contention. Clearly it was payback for the earlier provocative pro-Cuba march.
The charges were without merit, but defending against them took up the next three years of the lives of the ‘Bloomington 3’ (B-3), Ralph and his co-defendants. They tirelessly traveled the country, speaking wherever a sympathetic audience could be found – trying to raise public consciousness about their case and raise funds to fight it.
By ’65 the indictment hanging over the B-3 had been withdrawn, but by then Ralph Levitt never looked back to academe. He moved up and became a major activist in the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP), the YSA’s parent organization. As a party heavy he went wherever needed – to a political demo or a labor action. His home base was the San Francisco Bay Area.
Intent on showing solidarity with the proletariat, Ralph became a motorman in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). His organizational talents recognized, he eventually moved up in the ranks.
Upon retirement, Ralph moved back to his home town of Indianapolis where his elderly parents still lived. Highly intelligent and well informed, he continued his involvement in SWP, serving as the party candidate in both statewide and federal elections in Indiana.
With few illusions about winning office, Ralph nevertheless skillfully used the campaign platforms to reach a broader audience with the party line.
A lifetime on the left.
Susie ‘Creamcheese’, Antiwar groupie
The real Suzy Creamcheese '67
I spoke to Susie Creamcheese just once; that was over 40 years ago. I had no idea who she was, and she didn’t identify herself. In a highly agitated voice, she said I must come immediately, my brother was dying.
My brother Jeff was indeed very ill, but my father assured me his condition was stable. I had planned to fly to Florida two days hence to talk with his doctors, but to my profound shock he died the next day. The caller was right, and I arrived too late.
I only learned the identity of the young woman who called me decades later. She was nicknamed Susie Creamcheese. Having driven from Chicago to Miami to visit my brother during his last days, Susie was so stunned by his condition she called me to sound the alarm.
Susie’s real name was Susan Rosenberg. From an affluent Chicago family, she neither had to earn a living, nor was she going to college. Susie Creamcheese was said to have been on ‘the wild side of hippyism’, styling herself in the manner of Janis Joplin, one of the zaniest musical icons of the day.
She had hung out with Jeff and the circle of people around his underground paper Vietnam GI – as a kind of antiwar groupie. Susie got her moniker from a Frank Zappa song about a young music groupie he called Suzy Creamcheese who followed the band on the road. Her real name was Susan Zeiger.
By great coincidence, the original Suzy Creamcheese is the sister of film maker David Zeiger, who in 2005 premiered his award-winning documentary on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement, Sir! No Sir!, dedicated to Jeff Sharlet.
Lincoln Bergman, Revolutionary poet
Lincoln Bergman in recent times, California redwoods
My brother Jeff died young – he was only 27. In the final years of the ‘60s, he had become an admired leading figure of the growing GI protest against the war in Vietnam. He knew the war well; he had served in Nam ’63-’64.
Decades on, Jeff is still remembered for his leadership of the antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, an almost instant success in the world of underground journalism of that day. His untimely death was widely noted in the Movement press, in both civilian and GI publications alike.
Among the many obits and death notes, one particularly stood out, a eulogy framed as a long narrative poem by Lincoln Bergman, a revolutionary poet. His poem was published in The Movement in July ’69 not long after Jeff’s death.
A man of the left, Linc Bergman’s political activism went beyond the issue of the day, the Vietnam War. During the ‘60s he had taught English as a second language in Communist China. And as the war in Southeast Asia was winding down in the early ‘70s, Bergman had spent a year in revolutionary Cuba broadcasting for Radio Havana.
In his poetic tribute to Jeff, Seeds of Revolution, he began, “Brothers and Sisters, Part of us is dead. … He did time in Vietnam … And when he came home, He gave [the GIs] something to believe in.”
Not long ago he said:
‘We felt a newspaper Was the best way to begin
To talk to the enlisted men
The guys on the bottom. …’
He was a quiet, vital guy
Who thought before he spoke.
Looked straight in peoples’ eyes
And those who listened learned. …
Talking to the men in uniform
Feeling the pulse of the people
Working long hours to help
The paper serve their needs.
Concluding his paean to Jeff, the poet wrote:
He told us to plant the seeds
People had to change
Change through their experience
He spoke the truth. …
A good man.
So many things
Embodied in those three words
Death leaves so much unsaid.
Courage from his courage
Example of his deeds.
For Jeff is dead…
Like Johnny Appleseed.
In a note to the poem in a volume of his collected poetry, which appeared several years ago, the poet added a fitting valediction to Jeff. Within the antiwar movement,
Jeff Sharlet was an authentic leader,
modest and sincere, calm, a good
listener, with iron determination
and large vision.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Taking a break on the Mediterranean coast, Paulann Sheets, 1966
Paulann Sheets, nee Hosler, and I first met in an arty town in the Hudson valley north of New York. She was staying at the Morning Glory B+B on Upper Tinker run by an attractive Chinese woman with freckles named Pansy.
Paulann Sheets, nee Hosler, and I first met in an arty town in the Hudson valley north of New York. She was staying at the Morning Glory B+B on Upper Tinker run by an attractive Chinese woman with freckles named Pansy.
Once an all-American girl, then a student revolutionary, now a counselor of the law with leftward bent, Paulann knew my brother Jeff Sharlet at Indiana University (IU) some 40 years back. She was of good memory.
Paulann’s life has been an interesting journey. Entering IU as a freshman in ’59, a politically conservative young woman – a Goldwater Republican – within a short time she was an ardent Marxist.
A Nixon supporter in the 1960 presidential campaign, by ’62 Paulann had become a committed Trotskyist. The FBI field office took note, enlisting 11 confidential informants at IU to keep track of her activities. Initially a rah-rah sorority girl, she became a key player in the two most salient events on the left in the history of the university at that time.
Paulann joined the tiny campus chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), junior affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. IU YSA in turn founded a local branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) in support of Castro’s Cuban Revolution.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up in ‘62, YSA and FPCC supported Cuba. When President Kennedy (JFK) blockaded the island to stop Russian missile-carrying freighters, Paulann and comrades announced a protest march against US policy.
Gathering on the steps of the campus auditorium to begin their march, the small band of brothers was stunned to see a sea of angry, shouting students lining their route. Facing the dozen demonstrators were well over a thousand counter-protestors.
The situation was dangerous so the guys decided to defer the protest, but Paulann and Polly Smith, the only women in the group, disagreed and declared their intention to march. With little choice, the young men joined them, and they set off brandishing their colorful signs – Paulann’s, ‘a fierce JFK head on a huge eagle with its talons sunk into the small island of Cuba’.
Within minutes, ugly catcalls began, punches were thrown, and the provocative signs ripped up by enraged young ‘patriots’. Miraculously, the protestors made it to the library and escaped the raging mob.
Several months later the group invited a YSA national officer to speak on campus. Although his remarks were fairly moderate – ‘a sedate, academic affair’ in Paulann’s words – the politically motivated county prosecutor saw it differently.
Partly as payback for their ‘un-American’ pro-Cuban march, he indicted the YSA leaders under Indiana’s anti-communism statute for attempting to overthrow the Government of the United States.
Paulann organized the defense of the ‘Bloomington 3’ (B-3), whose lives would be disrupted for the next two years. She led the ‘Committee to Aid the Bloomington Students’, or CABS, which involved her taking a leave of absence, traveling extensively to publicize the case and raise defense funds. Thanks to her leadership, a prominent radical lawyer joined the case and soon brought to an end the trumped up charges.
Back from the Vietnam War, Jeff returned to IU as the B-3 case was winding down. Paulann well remembered him for his charisma as chair of the campus SDS group. I noted that several others had also referred to Jeff’s charisma. Paulann’s comment—‘How could anyone have missed it’.
Spooks at the rifle range
Specialist-3 John Buquoi (haloed),rifle range, outside Saigon, 1963
Looks like a picture of regular GIs, doesn’t it? The time late ’63, the place South Vietnam, specifically an Army rifle range. The guy haloed in the middle is John Buquoi, a great friend of brother Jeff.
John and Jeff were soldiers, although in name only, part of the Army Security Agency (ASA)—an autonomous intelligence outfit. ASA’s priorities did not include good marksmanship. The agency prioritized a very different set of skills—training young men, usually college boys, as linguists, cryptographers, and intelligence analysts—a far cry from combat, the heart of the warrior profession.
I too had served in ASA, but in the ‘50s. The setup however was the same John and Jeff experienced—eight weeks of minimal military training before we were sent off for up to a year to acquire specialized skills.
Since John and Jeff looked like regular GIs—ASA was the military arm of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington—their superiors occasionally paid lip service to the soldierly calling with a little close-order drill or a tune-up trip to the rifle range.
John Buquoi followed Jeff at the Army Language School where they met. Completing his Vietnamese language course, he was dispatched to Saigon. Jeff met him on arrival and gave John a kind of social introduction to Vietnam, a tour of Saigon’s great bars and cafés.
Taxiing into town, they set off on a whirlwind pub crawl starting at the Papillon and ending many hours later at the Happy Bar. Along the way, they dined at the Peacock where 60 piasters (50 US cents back then) bought them a steak (probably water buffalo), fries, salad, and a Vietnamese beer to wash it down.
On another night out, they were approaching one of Jeff’s favorite places—French style, Vietnamese run—and were stunned by an explosion at the café just ahead on the street.
Two Viet Cong (VC) ‘cowboys’ had sped by on a motor scooter and rolled a grenade into the place. Injuries were fortunately very minor. The guys peeked in and walked on. VC street bombings were not infrequent in the South Vietnamese capital.
Later both John and Jeff were assigned to Phu Bai in the far north of the country. Occasionally they borrowed a jeep and drove down Highway 1 for a weekend in Danang on the coast, staying at a hotel.
Another time driving over the high mountain pass enroute, they turned on to a side road. Down below poking into the South China Sea was a small verdant peninsula. The two young GIs mused, wouldn’t it be a great place to set up a gambling casino after the war.
That was early ’64, and of course neither could foresee the war would go on for many years.
John later told me that some of their buddies became Vietophiles while others were Vietophobes, but Jeff was neither. He was a realist, skeptical about the US mission in Vietnam, and critical of the emerging war.
Fred Gardner, antiwar impresario
Fred Gardner in recent times
Fred Gardner never got the credit he deserved for the rise of the GI movement against the Vietnam War. Trained as an Army reservist, he remembered the sleazy GI town near the base with its grungy bars and dives. With that and his growing opposition to the war in mind, Fred came up with the idea of setting up coffee houses for GIs near major base camps as alternative hangouts.
They’d be pleasant places where a GI could get away from the military milieu – to drink coffee, listen to some music, and, especially, peruse the small but growing number of underground antiwar papers, notable among them brother Jeff’s Vietnam GI.
Start-up capital was needed, so Fred turned to the New Left antiwar movement for help. He got a cold shoulder—the New Left at the time was hostile to GIs, saying they were ‘no better than cops’. Like Jeff, Fred knew differently—there were many GIs with doubts about the war.
With $10,000 of money he raised, he and two friends opened the first GI coffee house near Fort Jackson, SC. In a play on the WWII USO canteens offering troops sandwiches and a little entertainment, they called their place the ‘UFO’. It soon attracted hundreds of off-duty GIs.
More such venues followed, the next one outside Fort Leonard Wood, MO; then another near the gates of Fort Hood, TX – the lively Oleo Strut. The Army took notice and, in collusion with local authorities, orchestrated a harassment campaign against the new GI gathering places.
Nonetheless, Fred’s idea took off and new GI coffee houses began springing up at bases all over the country. With few exceptions, harassment was the norm, and in some instances anonymous violence— in Idaho the Covered Wagon was firebombed one night, while a grenade was tossed into the coffee house near Fort Dix, NJ.
Fred has had an extensive career as a writer and editor. Starting with the Harvard Crimson, he wrote for the critical magazine of the day, Ramparts; served as an editor at Scientific American; and frequently contributed to other publications.
In 1971, he published a widely read, still definitive book, The Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case, an account of a major event in antiwar history. Fred dedicated his book to Jeff:
Jeff Sharlet, founder of
dead at 27
Once upon a time in Indianapolis
(Life is what happens while you’re making other plans, as the saying goes. That is precisely what happened to Karen Grote Ferb on July 23, 1966. Here’s the story she related to me.)
Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Indianapolis, IN
In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) made a Midwestern swing for the off-year congressional elections that included Indianapolis (Indy) IN in the heartland.
My old friend Jeff Sharlet was spending the summer there working on the railroad, and I often went up from Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington to spend weekends with him; one of those weekends LBJ spoke at Indy’s downtown Monument Circle.
The IU New Left planned to welcome the president with a peaceful antiwar protest. I went up to Indy to join them the night before. Jeff, disappointed that he had to work that sultry Saturday, dropped me off at the rally point early.
I joined a handful of protesters, parade permit in hand and antiwar signs at the ready. That’s as close as we got to protesting. In short order, cops arrived and told us to move. Showing our permit, we refused. Then they returned with Chief Jones, a good-sized man wearing a tan trench coat, a brown fedora, and an annoyed expression.
Unbeknownst to the IU activists, the feds and local law enforcement had worked together to preempt the protest. License numbers of their cars had been relayed ahead, and the Indy police arrested them on arrival.
Each time the paddy wagon filled up, the group was transported to a sheriff’s bus out of sight of the crowd, the press, and especially the president’s podium. LBJ finished speaking and left for a businessmen’s luncheon where he ironically declared, “We will abide civil protest” as the would-be protesters were carted off to jail.
Chief Jones thought the roundup of the protesters with their “lousy signs” was a good idea, but the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) immediately protested:
It is incredible that responsible public officials would utilize the power of their position in such a flagrant suppression of the efforts of the citizens to exercise their fundamental right of freedom of expression.
By dark we’d all been released. A small crowd of supporters awaited us outside the jail. Jeff was there, quietly outraged. He intuitively understood how frightened I’d been and how anxious I was about the pending court case.
That Sunday’s New York Times gave the story brief coverage in the back pages, saying the president had vigorously defended his Vietnam War policy before a crowd of several thousand at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis.
As for the thwarted protesters, the report included a statement by a sheriff’s deputy that we might be kept overnight and charged with breaking up a public meeting. Only one arrestee was named, IU Professor James Dinsmoor, charged with interfering with the police.
When I came to trial, the initial charge of Disorderly Conduct had morphed into Resisting Arrest. The arresting officer falsely testified I had struck him with my sign. I was nonplussed and felt little satisfaction with my eventual verdict of not guilty.
Dan Kaplan, SDS chair (carrying books), leading a demo, Indiana University, 1967
A teenage stalwart, Dan has done it all – civil rights activism, SDS leader, Trotskyist journeyman, antiwar organizer, college professor, and longtime union activist.
At a New Left reunion in 2013, Dan, conceding that their side hadn’t been winning the battle for fundamental social change, said he still remained committed to engaging in the struggle ‘to create a better world’.
Dan knew Jeff at their alma mater, Indiana University (IU), succeeding him as president of the campus SDS chapter. Dan remembered him well.
They first met at an SDS meeting. Both were following the discussion with interest when someone remarked that since Jeff was an ex-Vietnam GI, he should be asked his opinion on the matter.
Dan, a freshman, recalled being amazed that the activist next to him had been in the war. Turning to Jeff, he asked, ‘Are you really a Vietnam veteran?’‘Yes, I am’, Jeff said, ‘but this is where I really belong.’
Later that year, Jeff as SDS leader gave a speech at a rally Dan has always remembered, a demo outside the residence of the university president. Jeff opened, saying ‘This is the second time in my life that I’ve belonged to an organization run by Elvis Stahr’.
He explained that he had served in Vietnam under Stahr as Secretary of the Army, and was now again under his aegis as President of IU. Rhetorically, Jeff asked why a man of the ‘war machine’ was qualified to be president of an institution of higher learning, then answered that in various ways the American university system served the military-industrial complex, hence senior personnel of the two organizations had become interchangeable.
Jeff went on to grad school at University of Chicago with a prestigious national fellowship. Dan’s memory of their last encounter had an elegiac tone.
Jeff told Dan he had decided to drop out of Chicago, instead using his fellowship funds to launch a much needed GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI. Dan expressed surprise that Jeff was throwing away a coveted fellowship at a distinguished university. Jeff replied– and presciently, given his short but interesting life:
He told me that this was what he wanted to do at this time in his
life. And that he thought this would be the most important thing he had ever done.
Anti-hero of GI protest
Grave marker, Pvt James Richard 'Rusty' Bunch, 1949-1968
High above San Francisco Bay sat a nondescript white stone building, the Army stockade at the Presidio of San Francisco. The majority of the prisoners there were maladjusted soldiers serving short-term sentences, mostly for AWOL (absent without leave).
In the fall of ’68, conditions at the stockade were seriously wanting – it was badly over-crowded with insufficient sanitation facilities and sometimes short rations. Many of the GI prisoners were a disorderly bunch–some had gone AWOL during their first days and weeks in the Army, others multiple times.
A number of them came from unstable homes, were poorly educated, and generally unable to adapt to military life. Mental illness was not uncommon among the prisoners, some of whom repeatedly attempted suicide.
Among this odd lot, one young prisoner stood out as truly bizarre. From his arrival at the stockade barracks, it was apparent to all that Private James Richard ‘Rusty’ Bunch was a very strange bird. He often conducted two-way conversations with himself; fantasized about space ships; believed he had been reincarnated; and claimed he could walk through walls.
He was clearly suicidal, asking a bunk mate the best way to do it–slashing wrists, drinking a toxic fluid, or trying to escape while under guard. The guards had standing orders to shoot fleeing prisoners. Rusty chose to run, and died of a shotgun blast.
The next day 27 prisoners protested his death and prison conditions generally with a sit-down. Refusing an order to disperse, they were arrested. The 27 were charged not with ‘Willful disobedience to orders’ entailing a light sentence, but the extreme charge of ‘Mutiny’ calling for death or life imprisonment.
None of the offenders had expressed any interest in the war–Vietnam was not their issue, stockade conditions were – but the Army prosecutor construed their actions as antiwar and anti-military. The alleged ringleaders were court-martialed first and got 14 and 15 year sentences.
The heavy sentences for a peaceful protest immediately ignited press and public reaction in the San Francisco Bay area. Jeff’s Vietnam GI got on the story as outrage spread quickly throughout the broad antiwar community.
The Presidio case soon took on national dimensions, reaching the halls of Congress. The Pentagon hastily reduced the sentences, but it was too late; and GI protest, heretofore buried in the back pages, became national news.
No matter that not one of the Presidio 27 was protesting the war; in the public mind the late Pvt Rusty Bunch went from a tragic figure to an unintended martyr to the GI cause, or, as a GI antiwar activist later put it.
The Presidio 27 was the best thing that ever happened to the GI movement – it put us on the front page.
Dave Komatsu, keeper of memories
Header for Dave Komatsu's obituary for Jeff, Vietnam GI, 1969
Perhaps no one knew Jeff in his last years as well as Dave Komatsu of Chicago. Jeff harbored a big vision of how to stop the war; Dave helped him realize it. The two first met through a mutual friend in New York, summer, ’67. The rest is antiwar history.
Dave, an exceptionally bright and insightful individual, skeptical of all certainties, had long been a left activist. He led a breakaway faction of the American Socialist Party that became the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).
Dave and Kit, his wife, set up a newspaper for YPSL, American Socialist, a briskly written, well-edited tabloid Jeff happened to read and admire.
Returning from the Vietnam War, Jeff planned to organize GIs to oppose the war from within the military, a formidable undertaking. Dave suggested an interim step, a newsletter or bulletin reflecting GI opinion.
Thus was born Jeff’s antiwar underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), which soon became a platform for raising GI political consciousness and encouraging self-organizing against the war. An instant success from the initial issue, VGI ultimately inspired dozens of antiwar papers created by serving GIs.
Jeff’s aim was to mobilize GIs to bring the war to a halt, but unfortunately his time was cut short. An illness he first experienced in the Vietnam bush resurfaced and took his life.
Dave had known my brother much better than I. For me Jeff was a much younger sibling, while Dave remembered him as a man he greatly admired. He compared Jeff’s tightly wound power and self-containment to Steve McQueen's racing car driver in the film Le Mans.
Dave had known my brother much better than I. For me Jeff was a much younger sibling, while Dave remembered him as a man he greatly admired. He compared Jeff’s tightly wound power and self-containment to Steve McQueen's racing car driver in the film Le Mans.
Many obits on Jeff appeared in the underground press, but Dave’s, in a posthumous edition of Vietnam GI, was the most eloquent, the most poetic, as reflected in the opening and closing lines:
Many good men never came back from Nam. Some came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a pretty together cat – and he came back angry. Jeff started VGI and, for almost two years poured his life into it, in an endless succession of 18-hour days, trying to organize men to fight for their rights.
[At the end] he said he had many new ideas
for our fight, but was just too exhausted to talk about them.
Tran Van Don, coup-maker
Major General Tran Van Don, South Vietnam, 1963
The Vietnam War was not going well in ’63; the Viet Cong controlled much of the rural countryside. South Vietnam’s President Diem was a generally benign but inept leader. There was much dissatisfaction among the populace as well as the elites.
Minority Catholics, Diem and his brother Nhu, the secret police chief, ordered a violent assault on the Buddhist clergy. For the army generals, mostly Buddhists, who long felt that both the war and the country itself were being badly mismanaged, that was the last straw.
General Don was delegated to find out what the US would think of a coup. He contacted an old friend, a CIA officer at the embassy. The US was secretly supportive – Washington was fed up with Diem’s ineffective leadership.
Born in France of Vietnamese parents, educated in Paris before WWII, Tran Van Don had been a senior officer in the South Vietnamese Army since the establishment of the republic in the mid-‘50s. He held the trust of both the general staff and the presidential palace.
Late summer/early fall ‘63, Don and Lucien Conein (US liaison to the plotters) maintained surreptitious contact. Although Jeff never met Conein, he and fellow Vietnamese linguists were part of his operation. From a secret location outside the capital, they clandestinely monitored the generals’ communications as backup to Conein’s meetings with General Don.
The day before the planned coup, Don tried again to persuade Diem to change his policies asking, ‘Can you make some changes to your domestic policy by reopening the pagodas, freeing the monks and nuns, and bringing about a more flexible government?’His plea was to no avail, the president replied, ‘No, there is nothing to do … the situation is fine.’ The next day the generals carried out the coup. Diem and Nhu were executed. General Don was distressed; they were supposed to have been sent into exile.