Wednesday, January 7, 2015
The Army Language School (ALS) sat on a vast bluff on the central coast of California overlooking Monterey Bay. Subsequently renamed the Defense Language Institute (DFI), the school still sits high on that bluff above the now revitalized Cannery Row. When the writer John Steinbeck roamed the area during the Great Depression, the canneries along the waterfront below thrived on the catch of the sardine fishing fleet.
Much later in the mid-‘50s when I was assigned to ALS for language study, the sardine fisheries had collapsed, and the canneries had gone into decline; it was a ramshackle scene notable only due to Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row (1945). After I graduated, the street of defunct canning factories was officially renamed in honor of the novel and its famous author who a few years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The language school was first established in ’41 for training GIs in Japanese. After the war, ALS moved to its present location, the Presidio of Monterey, an old Spanish fort. The school’s curriculum grew rapidly apace with the challenges of the postwar international situation. When I studied at Monterey, over 25 languages were being offered by native speakers from various countries. By the end of the ‘50s, more than 20,000 military personnel had passed through ALS.
Not surprisingly, given international tensions, the school emphasized the intensive training of service personnel in the languages of the United States’ Cold War adversaries and their client states as well as instruction in the languages of our allies in the global struggle. Russian was by far the largest language program then, followed by Chinese and Korean. Collectively, the various languages of the USSR’s Baltic and East European satellites also enrolled a large group of military students.
Given international tensions, the school emphasized the intensive training of service personnel in the languages of US Cold War adversaries as well as in the languages of our allies in the global struggle.
Smaller numbers of soldier-students studied Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Burmese, Indonesian, and Thai as well as several West European and Scandinavian languages. During the year I spent at ALS studying Czech, one of my college friends was learning Persian across the post.
When I revisited the school several years ago the curriculum had changed radically since the end of the Cold War and onset of the war on terrorism. The barracks and classroom buildings where the East Europeanists had lived and studied still stood, but had been repurposed. With the liberation of the former Soviet Union’s satellites and the inclusion of most of the now-independent countries in NATO, the study of their languages was no longer essential.
Instead, my old billet and neighboring barracks had been converted to additional classrooms for the hundreds of men and women soldiers training for America’s contemporary challenges – studying among others two of the heretofore secondary languages of the ASA/DLI curriculum -- Arabic and Farsi (Persian) – as well as new additions such as Pashto, a language of Afghanistan, and Urdu, spoken in Pakistan.
In the ‘60s, my brother Jeff Sharlet followed me to Monterey as a GI student of Vietnamese. In ’62 a low intensity ‘hot’ war was underway in South Vietnam, and the Pentagon was steadily but quietly building up its cadres of translators and interpreters. As the war heated up, Jeff and most of his ALS cohort ended up in Vietnam.
Vietnamese had first been taught in the US during WWII. A special program for a small number of GIs was created at University of California – Berkeley and University of Wisconsin – Madison. Later during the Cold War ‘50s, Vietnamese was added to the roster of languages taught at ALS. Vietnamese native speakers joined the school’s faculty in ’54, the year of France’s defeat in the first Indochina War when the US began to assume its fateful responsibility for the newly created state of South Vietnam.
In the course of the second Indochina War – the American war –
20,000 military personnel passed through the gates of the Defense
Language Institute and its regional branches to study Vietnamese.
In the course of the second Indochina War – the American war – 20,000 military personnel passed through the gates of the Defense Language Institute and its regional branches to study Vietnamese. The great majority were sent for a short course (8-weeks) designed for officers and non-commissioned officers headed to Southeast Asia as military advisors to units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
A much smaller contingent, including Jeff and his buddies, spent 11.5 months in the classrooms of the Monterey Presidio being trained as translators and interpreters. Most of the long-term students were part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), an autonomous communications intelligence outfit, or they were assigned to the Military Intelligence (MI) branch of the Army.
Unlike my generation of Cold War GIs who, because of the Iron Curtain could at best only observe the countries of the Soviet Bloc from afar, Jeff and his fellow linguists lived and worked in a Vietnamese language environment. As a result they were able to hone their language skills with some of them becoming quite fluent in Vietnamese.
Of my fellow linguists of the European communist states who continued using their languages after leaving the military, a number became academics, specialists on the countries whose languages we had learned and worked in for a couple of years of our military tour. Jeff and his group also parlayed their language skills as well as the Vietnam experience after the service, but in more varied ways.
At least two became academics, one becoming a distinguished scholar of Vietnamese politics. Another stayed on in Vietnam, and yet another returned as a civilian employee of a US company that constructed infrastructure for the military. Another GI linguist, for whom the romance of Vietnamese culture was strong, became a student of Oriental languages back in the States as well as a poet of the Vietnam experience.
Doffing the uniform, a couple of others became players in the Vietnam War writ large. One young ex-Vietnam GI became station chief for the National Security Agency (NSA) in Saigon, later rising to the number two position in the agency back in Washington.
Then there was brother Jeff who founded the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper directed to serving GIs and in the process became an early leader of the emerging GI opposition to the war. *
Among Jeff’s generation of Vietnam GIs, one young ex-Army Security
Agency linguist took the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist monk.
However, among Jeff’s generation of Vietnam GIs, one young ex-Army Security Agency linguist took the unusual step of becoming a Buddhist monk. Steve Shlafer had completed a couple of years of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) when he dropped out and enlisted in ASA. Like Jeff, Steve was sent to ALS for intensive language training in Vietnamese and upon graduation deployed to South Vietnam for classified work.
Steve Shlafer (r) at an ASA base outside Saigon, 1963
During the requisite 12-month tour in-country, Steve Shlafer became not only an outstanding linguist, but also deeply interested in Vietnamese Buddhist culture. After completing his military obligation, he returned to Vietnam, enrolling at Saigon’s Van Hanh University in – a Buddhist-run school – where he studied Buddhist theology as well as Chinese and Vietnamese literature. Finishing his studies in ‘67, Steve was hired by an American subcontractor to a Washington agency to research and write an in-depth study of a particular Buddhist sect.
In early December of ‘67, he submitted an extensive report on the Hoa Hao religious tradition. Hoahaoism is a relatively modern version of Buddhism with a populist and social welfare orientation. The movement, which today claims two million adherents across Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, focuses mainly on peasant farmers, emphasizes Buddhist lay worship at home and in the fields rather than primarily in temples, and favors aid to the poor over pagoda-building and expensive rituals.
Three years later, Steve Shlafer’s nearly 300-page study was cited in a State Department training manual for Foreign Service officers assigned to Vietnam.
Cover page of Foreign Service Institute manual on Vietnam (1970)
A few days after handing in his manuscript, Steve Shlafer completed final preparations for becoming a Theravada (also known as Southern Buddhism, the most prominent form in Southeast Asia) Buddhist monk, an extraordinary commitment for a foreigner in general and an American ex-GI in particular. After performing the ritual of walking three times around the pagoda, he entered and took his vows. With shaved head he donned the traditional saffron gown with yellow sash and was assigned a cell in the pagoda. Almost immediately the new monk became the center of media attention back in the States.
Steve Shlafer making the ritual walks around the pagoda, 1967
To further characterize Steve Shlafer’s dramatic act in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Associated Press (AP) highlighted that he was Jewish. Of course, for the American public it would have been hardly less remarkable if a Vietnamese speaking ex-GI of the Christian persuasion had been inducted into the Buddhist religion.
Steve Shlafer (l) taking his monastic vows, 1967
At a mini-press conference in his pagoda cell, Thich Thien Hien, aka Steve Shlafer, told the newsmen that his parents back home were aware of his plans, and he had just written them that he had taken the step. He fended off questions about his parents’ reaction, saying – perhaps with a smile, “They probably think it’s another one of my wild schemes.”**
Simultaneously, the New York Times interviewed his mother in New Jersey who expressed skepticism of her son’s whole venture. Saying that she had tried to “kid him out of it,” his mother speculated that Steve would give up the idea of being a monk in a few months and return to college in the States.***
Not long after the solemn ceremony – in late January ’68 when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive throughout South Vietnam – Steve in his religious regalia reportedly took temporary cover with his old unit out near the airport. Given the fact that Saigon was a battle zone, it was probably a wise decision notwithstanding his new status and appearance as a monk – especially as a rather conspicuous American Caucasian Buddhist.
In the end Mrs Shlafer was right since Steve eventually did give up monkhood. However, that wasn’t and still isn’t unusual in Buddhist practice where men have been known to enter the pagoda for a period of time and then return to their previous lives. In any event, Steve Shlafer married and spent a dozen years in Sweden from 1974 to 1986 where he completed medical school at the University of Goteborg.
Returning to the States, he did his medical residency and became a physician. Many decades on since wartime Saigon, Dr Stephen Shlafer has long been a respected pediatrician in the Pacific Northwest.
*For an account of the GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, see http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/
**AP story run in the New York Times, 4 December 1967
**New York Times, 4 December 1967
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Jeff Sharlet, my brother, died in June ’69 from complications of something that may have begun earlier during his tour in Vietnam. He was only 27, but left behind a notable legacy.* Jeff had founded Vietnam GI (VGI) in early ’68 as the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to GIs. VGI quickly found its audience in Vietnam and in stateside training camps and gave impetus to the emerging GI protest against the war.
As it turned out, June ’69 was a turning point in the war itself as well as in the antiwar movement writ large. Recently elected President Nixon announced the first withdrawal of troops and the beginning of the reduction in US force levels in Vietnam during the week before Jeff’s death.
Then, shortly after news of his premature death, what became the last national conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) opened in Chicago with a minute of silence in memory of Jeff. Over the next few days of contentious debate, the largest youth organization in America and the backbone of the civilian antiwar movement met its demise, splitting asunder into two mutually hostile irreconcilable factions, one of which was the infamous Weatherman.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Jeff’s passing, Dave Komatsu, his deputy editor, did his best to carry on, but money was tight, and his heart was no longer in it. As the US war effort began to decline, Dave and his wife Kit, both long term left activists, moved on and founded the underground paper Wildcat directed primarily toward factory workers, the classic proletariat of Karl Marx.
Nevertheless, out of loyalty to Jeff’s memory, Dave and staff managed to publish three more posthumous issues. Most notable was the August issue of VGI, the cynosure of which was Dave’s long, eloquent obituary for Jeff under the heading Jeff Sharlet Dies. The tribute opened with writerly élan and inevitably closed on a sad end note:
Many good men never came back from Nam. Some
came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a
pretty together cat….
At the end he said that he had many new ideas for
our fight, but was just too exhausted to talk about
During fall ’69, Dave tried to hand off editorial responsibility to other staff members, but in the vacuum left by Jeff’s death, staffers had started drifting away to various political projects and other GI papers. Also, absent Jeff who had been the paper’s principal fundraiser, the cash box was empty, and the reluctant decision was made to suspend publication of Vietnam GI.
That was not to be the end of the story however. The tale of VGI’s decline, its subsequent short-lived revival in ‘70, and its final demise can be seen in the following excerpts from VGI’s office correspondence for the last year of the paper’s existence.**
The initial excerpts bear brief explanation – due to unusual circumstances at the time, they are from consecutive letters two months apart. The first is from RESIST, a national organization in Cambridge MA led by radical academics such as Noam Chomsky of MIT and Richard Flacks of the University of Chicago; the prominent left public intellectuals Paul Goodman, the writer, and Marcus Raskin of the Institute of Policy Studies, a critical think-tank; and, among others, a Harvard College chaplain. The group’s mission was to provide financial assistance to all parts of the broad Vietnam antiwar movement.
Komatsu had written to the Cambridge organization in the early fall to request funding for a follow-on October issue of VGI. RESIST replied much later:
RESIST November 17, 1969
With the number and amounts requested by
other groups this month, we were unable to provide
the entire $650 your letter specified. However, a
check for $400 is enclosed here. …
I apologize for the weeks delay in getting
this off to you.
Because of government interference, Komatsu – unaware that VGI had been re-funded – replied belatedly two months later:
VIETNAM GI January 19, 1970
Your letter (with the $400 check) of November 17,
1969 just arrived two days ago. …
We had no idea that RESIST had voted us that money
in November. … As we are now finding out, the Post Office – or
the FBI – completely disrupted our mail. We are just now
starting to get some November and December mail. …
Publication of Vietnam GI was suspended until
February-March …. Next month two new Vietnam
vets (both with base newspaper experience) are moving
here [to Chicago] to take over this operation.
During the next couple of weeks, Dave and fellow staffers began answering long delayed mail from late ’69 held up by the postal inspectors or more likely the FBI:
VIETNAM GI January 28, 1970
After Jeff died we staggered along for three issues,
then decided to suspend publication temporarily. We had
Before he died … Jeff recruited the core of what
would be a whole new staff. The first of these cats gets
out [of the Army] next month.
VIETNAM GI January 29, 1970
The new editor … is Maury Knutson and he was one
of the cats who started Little Giant (first underground paper
in Vietnam) and later RAP!, the GI paper at Fort Benning [GE].
The much heralded Maury Knutson did indeed arrive in Chicago to take over where Jeff left off. In Vietnam, in addition to working on the first GI paper in the war zone, Maury had been part of Jeff’s extensive network of below the radar GI distributors of VGI in-country.
However, he got caught in the act and as punishment was ordered to ‘walk point’ (i.e., to lead), the most dangerous place on a combat patrol. The idea was to get him killed or wounded. Maury survived unscathed, but the experience left him in some disarray.
After finishing his 12-month tour, Maury was sent back to his home unit at Fort Benning to complete his military obligation. While there he continued his antiwar work, launching the underground paper RAP!, especially addressed to issues of concern to Black GIs.
Maury also played a minor role in a feature film on the war – ironically a pro-war movie – while waiting for his release at Benning. Gung-ho actor John Wayne was making his film, The Green Berets, on post, and the Pentagon ‘loaned’ him a number of troops to play extras. Maury ended up playing a diminutive Viet Cong officer (he was 5’5”) in a scene opposite The Duke, the iconic rightwing Hollywood star.
Maury Knutson (r) pictured in VGI, April ‘68
In Chicago during the spring of ’70 the much anticipated revival of Vietnam GI under Maury’s aegis did not go smoothly. The re-launch was beset with difficulties. Liberal antiwar money was drying up as US involvement in the war continued to wind down. In addition, many hands were needed to get the paper out, but the local VGI staff, who had experience in production and distribution, had redirected their energies to Wildcat, Dave Komatsu’s new paper.
The final straw for Maury though was the arrival on the VGI staff of a group out of the auto factories in Detroit who identified with Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), a tiny Trotskyist party originating in France. The newcomers, according to Maury, were “old-time sectarian leftists who wouldn’t give an inch”; hence, there was no coherent viewpoint in VGI.***
Nonetheless, Maury hung in there and brought to press his first and, as it turned out, only issue. The VGI May ’70 issue with its blurred focus reflected Maury’s concerns. Aside from several pieces obviously drawn from his own experiences at Benning as well as his tenure as editor of RAP! and an interview with a combat Marine buried in the back pages, the rest of the May issue drifts away from VGI’s formerly exclusive emphasis on GI issues.
The front page leader is appropriately on President Nixon’s surprise invasion of Cambodia in late April, but it spins off into a broad political critique of the president, who is also blamed – instead of the governor of Ohio – for sending state National Guard troops onto the Kent State campus.
The second lead at least has a GI angle – Operation Graphic Hand dispatched military personnel to New York City to man 17 post offices during the largest wildcat strike in US history – but soon the piece wanders off into a discussion of federal labor relations and collective bargaining issues specific to postal workers.
However, even more discursively for a front line GI paper, the rest of the issue is devoted to pieces on the Woodstock pop festival and on working conditions for women. Editorially frustrated and preoccupied with personal problems, Maury Knutson resigned in despair and departed Chicago.
Although Maury left town, he didn’t leave VGI in the lurch. He turned over the editorship to his sidekick from Ft Benning, David Patterson, who had worked with him on RAP! Patterson, who chose to operate under the nom de plume Joe Harris, was in turn assisted by two ex-Vietnam veterans – Craig Walden, a Marine; and John Alden, a sailor.
In fund-raising circles from afar, the revival of Vietnam GI – albeit a rocky process internally – was greeted with enthusiasm:
RESIST April 1, 1970
We are all very cheered that Vietnam GI is again
Another left fund-raising outfit – this one dedicated exclusively to funding GI antiwar initiatives – quickly came to the rescue of the newly revived
VGI with a check for $400 to cover the cost of mailing the paper hither and yon.
Like RESIST, the United States Servicemen’s Fund (USSF) sported a distinguished board of directors designed to attract money from wealthy individuals opposed to the war on its masthead. Based in New York, USSF listed Fred Gardner, creator of the GI antiwar coffee house network, as president, but he later told me that his leadership of the endeavor was nominal. He had merely lent his name with the understanding that Robert Zevin, listed as Secretary/Treasurer, would run the show.
Zevin, a PhD economist then teaching at Columbia University, was a masterful fundraiser and manager of money. The two officers of USSF were joined on the board by Donald Duncan, the famous Green Beret, a soldier’s soldier who resigned from the Army early on in protest of the war; and Dr Howard Levy, the officer who served time in federal prison for refusing to train Special Forces medics bound for Vietnam.
A former naval officer, Susan Schnall, who had had the temerity to fly a small private plane over West Coast Navy facilities, including an aircraft carrier in port, and ‘bomb’ them with antiwar leaflets, was recruited for the USSF board. Reverend Richard Fernandez, the executive director of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), an influential antiwar group, was also brought on board. The list was rounded out with an array of nationally known public intellectuals, including Dr Benjamin Spock, the distinguished antiwar baby doctor.
Unaware of the shifting political complexion of Vietnam GI since Jeff’s time, Bob Zevin of USSF sent Joe Harris a warm welcome for the revived paper:
United States Servicemen’s Fund April 6, 1970
I agree … that Vietnam GI used to fill a need which is
still not being met by any other base or national GI paper.
The unique asset of Vietnam GI was always that it told
the truth in the language of its readers. … GI editors [now]
seem almost universally susceptible to the temptation to
preach at their readers and to edit the news to fit a political
It was precisely because Vietnam GI told the truth that
it was such an invaluable organizing tool.
Taking charge of VGI, Joe Harris attended to its running correspondence with other antiwar editors, with groups seeking multiple copies for local distribution, and most importantly, with the steady flow of ‘letters to the editor’ from individual GIs.
In one such letter, a Vietnam GI offered to distribute copies of VGI within his unit. In ’68 and ’69 Jeff had had a phantom network of some 200 GI volunteers surreptitiously circulating the paper – considered subversive material by the military authorities – to Vietnam GIs. However, with guys completing their tours and rotating stateside and because of the long hiatus between the September ’69 issue and the May ’70 revival, the sub rosa distribution setup in Vietnam probably no longer existed, so Joe Harris embraced the opportunity to rebuild as he wrote in reply:
As to your wanting to distribute papers we can help
you. Our papers are sent in a plain envelope and wrapped
inside in white paper with a phony [return] address on the
outside [to avoid detection by military authorities].
The June ’70 VGI was Joe Harris’s first issue as editor and reflected his tighter editorial control over content. Compared to the May issue, nearly all the articles were GI-relevant. By then, with GI protest rising in the ranks, several pieces were on GI antiwar activity.
The lead was a story on the Big Red One, the 1st Division. Other articles covered a large antiwar demonstration at Ft Dix NJ on Armed Forces Day, an account of a wounded Marine’s sad fate in a poorly run Veterans Administration hospital, and a first-person piece by an ex-Vietnam GI who became an antiwar activist on return to the States.
The most dramatic item was a longish letter to the editor from a GI based at Chu Lai describing a Viet Cong assault on the post. In the course of an hour nearly 200 rockets and mortar rounds pummeled the area to lethal effect – 11 dead, 10 wounded. It a grim reminder to readers that, while the US may have been gradually pulling out, Vietnam still remained a dangerous place for American troops.
However, the June issue still contained a few instances of windy political rhetoric – a political analysis of CIA machinations in Cambodia’s capital and a broadside editorial on American ‘imperialism’ in the Third World that concluded with a message reminiscent of the British Empire in the 19th century:
Throughout the world, US troops are protecting American
business and political investment. The government and
big business come in with the money and gain a new colony,
and the troops are brought in to ensure that the colonists
don’t get restless [emphasis in original].
The first indications of impending problems for the editorial collective appear in the June ’70 correspondence file. Joe Harris writes to USSF that VGI has lost the use of its typesetting machine, which means that all typesetting will have to be done commercially at increased cost. In another letter concerning the delay of the July VGI, he explains that in the midst of final production he learned that his sister had fallen seriously ill and had to fly back east immediately.
As a result of the rushed catch-up on the July issue, it was only half the length of previous issues at just four pages. Nevertheless, in the tradition of VGI on Jeff’s watch, the leader was a front-page combat interview, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Laos.”
The long piece, which takes up nearly half the issue, describes in dramatic terms Marine Force Recon infiltrating small teams of commandos into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam as early as 1965. Although the interviewee was unnamed, it was Craig Walden who had returned from the war grievously wounded and in the summer of ’70 was an associate editor of the paper.****
Cpl. Craig Walden in Vietnam
In July a bombshell letter arrived at the VGI office. In retrospect it foreshadowed the end of Jeff’s project. It was a long missive from USSF sent to all the GI groups being supported by the fund. The threat to VGI’s future was self-evident:
United States Servicemen’s Fund July 1970
The United States Servicemen’s Fund received a
letter from the Manhattan District Director of the Internal
Revenue Service [IRS] stating that ‘this office will
recommend to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue that
the exemption from federal income taxes granted to you
… be revoked since inception’.
The stated reasons are that the USSF is a political
action organization whose primary purposes are ‘ending
the war in Vietnam and abolishing the draft’.
The IRS maintains that the Fund has supported ‘that
segment of the military establishment who are opposed to
the Vietnam War and the use of conscription to wage
In spite of the foreboding news, both RESIST and USSF managed to
send small checks to Vietnam GI during July to help fund production costs for the August issue. But then in early August ’70 the situation darkened considerably.
News of the IRS recommendation had gotten around, and with the likely loss of the fund’s tax-free status, donations had begun to dry up.
As a consequence, USSF was forced to send out another ‘Dear Friends’ letter:
United States Servicemen’s Fund August 4, 1970
We cannot send out your monthly checks for August
right away. There just isn’t any money. It seems the [donation]
drought is beginning even sooner than we thought.
The end was not far off. Funds from donors slowed to a trickle as USSF predictably lost it tax-exempt status, and without a funding source Vietnam GI met its final demise as a voice of GI protest. David Patterson, aka Joe Harris, got out one last abbreviated issue for August before resigning and flew home to be with his dying sister.
As Maury Knutson mused many years later, perhaps “Vietnam GI [had] died with Jeff’s passing [in ‘69]” which meant the revival efforts of 1970 were essentially denouement.*****
*See his Wiki for a brief account of Jeff’s life and posthumous recognition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Sharlet_(activist)
** Many thanks to Craig Walden of Chicago, who for nearly 40 years, saved the invaluable Vietnam GI office files until I finally located him as part of the memoir project on my brother Jeff.
*** Maury Knutson, via email October, 2010
**** For accounts of Craig Walden’s commando and combat experiences in Vietnam, see http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2011/08/bad-intelligence-sorry-bout-that.html and http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2012/01/if-its-tuesday-this-must-be-laos.html
***** Maury Knutson, via email October, 2010
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
The ‘60s were fast-moving for those involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement of the day. Most of the young activists on the campuses considered themselves New Left (NL). The Old Left, epitomized by the American Communist Party (ACP), was merely a shadow of itself after years of hounding by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI, and by Congressional committees and federal prosecutors.
The NL had arisen from the ashes but not without significant changes in shape and style from its predecessor. Gone were the Old Left notions of ideological fidelity; a hierarchical structure capped by centralized leadership; policy discipline; and secrecy. The NL tolerated diverse ideas; eschewed rigid structure and top-down leadership; disdained preoccupation with organizational discipline; and, most differently, the NL banished closed-door meetings in favor of functioning as an open organization.
Predictably, it was only the rare activist who had presence of mind or the time – full time students comprised the vast majority of the NL – to take notes or keep a journal on those exciting times in their lives. But, unbeknownst to them, the FBI had assessed the NL as a security threat to the government and dedicated itself to covertly recording the political doings of the activists as proxies for the sprawling, amorphous NL writ large.
Working through agents of the FBI field offices in large cities near universities but more often through local informants, little that targets of surveillance did in their daily routines was not of interest to the Bureau. Whether in a formulaic-style memo written by an agent summarizing an informant’s report or a direct account – say of a NL meeting – in an informant’s own words, a large volume of documents known as the target’s file was assiduously compiled in the FBI field office and dutifully copied to FBI HQ, Washington.
In their earlier penetration of the Old Left, the Bureau had relied on undercover agents who joined the ACP or its Trotskyist rival, the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). However, the typical NL activist was a college student and much younger than the average FBI agent; hence, the use of campus informants who, given the open nature of most NL gatherings, had no difficulty mingling freely with the activists they were observing.
Decades later when the tumult of the antiwar movement was but a memory, many individuals began invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to access information the FBI had gathered on them. By then the confidential reports had been declassified. The vast trove of FOIA files constituted a de facto history of the New Left – or did it? Even in the heavily redacted format (to protect informants’ names), reading several individual FOIA files side by side offers an unusual up-close view inside the antiwar movement and the activities of many of its young supporters.
No one reading these long ago accounts is likely to suggest that the FBI and its clandestine minions had set out to contribute to the historical canon on the period. However, given the Bureau’s mission to stymie and disrupt the NL through disinformation and other patently illegal tactics, the emphasis in the numerous reports that flowed relentlessly into the ‘files’ tended to be unvarnished writing and factual accuracy to the greatest extent possible.
Accuracy was generally achieved such that many former activists, upon reading their FOIA files 20 to 40 years later, have been reminded of moments in their early political lives they had forgotten and have often been astonished to find near verbatim accounts of their remarks at meetings.
Two major Indiana University (IU) activists from the ‘60s – friends of my late brother Jeff Sharlet – shared their FOIA files and gave me permission to discuss them in this blog. One of the former activists is Dwight Worker, who recently published an autobiographical memoir, The Wild Years (2013), and with whom I spoke and corresponded extensively. Dwight’s complete FOIA file runs 1300 pages and weighs in at around 7 pounds.
Cover sheet, Dwight Worker’s FOIA file
In effect, I have two versions of Dwight Worker’s IU years (1964-68) as a New Left activist – his own and the FBI’s. Often Dwight’s personal account and the covert government rendering concur on particular events, but sometimes the eager beaver informants (there were 6 of them) missed or were unable to observe, not to mention comprehend, the full extent of his actions. In some instances the FBI version and Dwight’s’ narrative are at variance.
By comparing the two accounts of Dwight Worker’s activist years, we will be able to better judge the reliability of FBI files as apertures into the micro-history of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. To be sure though, the extensively redacted government documents need to be used cautiously and carefully as guides to the past.
Once the FBI field office in Indianapolis – 50 miles to the north of the IU campus in Bloomington – drew a bead on Dwight during fall ’65, a memo on his personal background was among the first documents placed in the confidential file opened on him. The special agent who wrote the memo indicated that the information had been obtained from the IU Admissions office, one of several administrative branches of the university that cooperated with the government in its surveillance of students. The profile gave a bare bones description:
DWIGHT JAMES WORKER was born 5/17/46 in East Chicago, Indiana. His parent was referenced as Fred Worker, 2518 Hart Road, Highland, Indiana. He graduated from Highland High School, 1964, ranking 14th out of 249 students. ...He is registered with Draft Board 178, Hammond, Indiana....He has attended Indiana University at Bloomington, Indiana, from 6/19/64 to the present date....He is employed 10 hours [a week] at the Big Wheel Restaurant and resides at 505 East 8th Street, Bloomington, Indiana.
Dwight’s version of his background is understandably more extensive than the Admissions file. He was one of seven children of Fred Worker and his spouse, a housewife. His father dropped out of school in the seventh grade during the Depression, served in WWII with General Patton, was very patriotic, and ran his home like ‘a boot camp’. According to Dwight, the family was working poor, living from paycheck to paycheck.
Two significant aspects of Dwight’s early years were missed by the FBI – to wit, that one of his older brothers served in Vietnam in ’64 and that in his first year at IU he took his first political step by joining SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and working on their campaign to register Black voters.
Dwight Worker at Indiana University
During his Sophomore year in the fall of ’65, an SDS chapter, Students for a Democratic Society, took shape at IU, and Dwight became actively involved. Accordingly, the FBI designated him a target for surveillance. SDS’s open organizational meeting on October 3, 1965 became the subject of a 5-page report. The document’s cover sheet indicated that a new file had been opened on Dwight Worker. Other than as a rank and filer, he didn’t play a particularly active role at that meeting at which officers were elected and various proposals voted on:
The Indiana University chapter of SDS held a public meeting at Indiana University to elect officers for the current academic year on October 3, 1965. Approximately 45 people were in attendance.The International Days of Protest, October 15 and 16, 1965, were discussed. It was decided that since SDS did not have enough members and is a minority on the Indiana University campus, a demonstration would not be effective on these dates. It was felt it would be far more effective if SDS turned out all of its member to protest against Richard Nixon when he speaks at Indiana University on October 17, 1965.
What the FBI was unaware of was that Dwight Worker didn’t simply drift into the fledgling IU New Left; he was quite purposeful in his decision to get involved. As mentioned, he had already become politically active in the Civil Rights Movement on campus during his first year, but it was a family tragedy that drove him into the ranks of the antiwar movement.
His brother Wayne, while serving with the Navy in Vietnam, suffered a very serious head injury in late ’64. In a coma for seven months, Wayne regained consciousness in a Chicago Veterans Administration (VA) hospital to find himself paralyzed, unable to speak clearly, and with severe memory loss.
Dwight spent time with his brother at the VA hospital. His father was devastated by his son’s condition, and Dwight returned
to school in the fall angry. Angry at the war
drums going on in the US, angry at what I
had seen at Hines VA hospital, angry at the
terrible waste, angry at the big lie.
[The Wild Years (WY), 52]
Not long after that SDS organizational meeting, former Vice President Nixon arrived on campus to speak in support of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, by then well underway since President Johnson’s (LBJ) major escalation during the spring of ’65.
Dwight joined the SDS protest demonstration outside the university auditorium where Nixon was speaking. An undercover informant reported seeing him at the demo. Otherwise the report had little to say about the protest. Nonetheless, three days later an FBI agent called upon Dwight’s high school guidance counselor who handed over his school records without hesitation.
In his recent memoir, Dwight had much more to say about the Nixon action, his first demonstration as an antiwar activist:
We were a pretty harmless bunch, perhaps
20 of us in total … surrounded by 10 campus
cops and over a thousand jeering, shouting
counter-demonstrating students. COMMUNISTS!
‘COWARDS! TRAITORS! Send them to Vietnam
instead’ they were shouting. …
I held up my sign that said ‘Negotiate, Don’t
Bomb’. … They were throwing things at us. …
I looked at a nearby policeman and told him
about it…. He answered, ‘I would be throwing
things at you too’. (WY, 54)
As he became more active in SDS, Dwight became a singular focus of the FBI’s attention. In late ’65 and early ’66, he attended an SDS National Council at the University of Illinois on behalf of the IU chapter, as well as taking part as a speaker at a campus SDS forum and an all-day SDS conference at the university. FBI informants duly filed accounts of these occasions:
Informant attended the SDS forum at Indiana
University on November 5, 1965. He stated that
the first speaker was DWIGHT WORKER, an
active member of SDS, who spoke on a trip to
Europe he had made recently. WORKER con-
cluded that international student opinion is
heavily against US policy in Vietnam … [a policy]
he described as ‘Imperialism’. WORKER seemed
insistently against US foreign policy in Vietnam.
Another informant reported that Dwight Worker was among 50-60 people attending an all-day SDS conference on February 19, 1966 at which a ‘reorganization proposal’ by Jeff Sharlet and Jim Wallihan was passed, and plans were made for a major demonstration in the spring when General Lewis Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System, was scheduled to speak at IU.*
Either out of modesty or memory lapse, Dwight was silent in our communications as well as in his memoir on his participation in various SDS gatherings, so it would be reasonable to assume that the FBI got it right that he was quite active in the IU chapter.
For further confirmation, Dwight makes cameo appearances in two other FBI documents amidst the Bureau’s heavy black-ink redacting – in February ’66 at the Activities Fair for Spring semester registration, he is observed manning the SDS table, while in a brief August memo he is listed among the new leadership as SDS Treasurer.
Elsewhere in Dwight’s FOIA as a result of the frequent black cross-outs, the file is simply cryptic. One report reads, ‘On February 24, 1966 this source advised’ followed by six blacked-out paragraphs. Another document states mysteriously:
On July 23, 1966, DWIGHT WORKER was observed
in the vicinity of the Indiana University Auditorium
and Showalter Fountain by [redacted] in company
with an unknown girl. WORKER and the girl got
into a 1959 Ford, green, bearing 1966 Indiana
license plate [redacted].
Presumably the report alludes to the campus rendezvous point for people heading to Indianapolis that day to demonstrate at LBJ’s scheduled speech there. A group of IU students, among whom was Karen Grote, collaborator on this blog, did indeed make it to the capital for the protest, but at the instigation of the Secret Service 28 of them were preemptively arrested before the President spoke.**
During IU’s Spring semester ’67, Jeff Sharlet became president of the campus SDS. A student informant reported to the FBI that Dwight Worker among 46 others attended the first meeting at which Jeff presided on February 23, 1967. He described the session in some detail:
Jeff Sharlet was chairman of this meeting…. Sharlet
stated that he had attended the regional SDS
conference at Northern Illinois University. … He said
that next month there will be another regional
meeting. He volunteered Bloomington, Indiana as
the site for the next meeting.
SDS HQ in Chicago accepted the invitation, and the next regional meeting was held at IU on March 17-19, 1967. The campus chapter announced that the conference would not be open to the public, only members, and credentials would be checked. Given the FBI file’s comprehensive account of the event, including the lengthy agenda, it’s obvious that the informant was a member of SDS.
According to his or her oral report to an FBI agent, the conference theme was ‘Student Power’ in the universities with draft resistance a secondary topic:
At the Sunday afternoon session … Jeff Sharlet
gave a talk on the subject of student power. All
of the discussion was focused on the point of
student leadership in the university by SDS
Dwight Worker who was in attendance that Sunday as well as at other sessions saw himself as a kind of protégé to Jeff Sharlet, the SDS leader. Jeff was an older ex-Vietnam GI and as Dwight saw him quite mature. He added:
Jeff was absolutely unique at IU. He had this
charisma, an understated charisma. He was
always calm, the one who put things in bigger
perspective. Jeff was masterful in handling
meetings with agent provocateurs and dis-
ruptive individuals in general.
He liked my energy and enthusiasm for antiwar
stuff – Up against the wall mother-fucker – but
thought I had just too much unrestrained
energy at times. Jeff would tell me to calm down,
relax, it’s going to be OK. ****
In Dwight’s case, there was little about him that the Bureau did not regard as worthy of the file. They even kept track of what might be considered his ‘extracurricular’ or at least non-antiwar activities. Apparently FBI Indianapolis had a mail subscription to the IU campus paper, Indiana Daily Student (IDS). Several clippings turned up in Dwight’s FOIA. One was unrelated to opposition to the war, while the other was a purely human interest story.
In the former article, IDS wrote that Dwight Worker had conducted the initial organizational session of the Sexual Freedom League at which a slate of officers was elected. In the latter clipping, which included a head shot of Dwight, he is credited with saving a toddler from drowning at a local lake.
By the fall of ’67, the FBI had fashioned an imposing political profile for Dwight Worker that they shared per request with a US Army Military Intelligence (MI) unit at a base just north of Indianapolis. Dwight was characterized as a major political activist at IU. No doubt he came to MI’s attention because of his involvement in draft resistance at the university.
FBI profile on Dwight Worker, 1967
Reporting on a meeting of the IU anti-draft organization on October 5, 1967, a confidential source wrote that:
At this meeting DWIGHT WORKER proposed
minor harassments of the draft boards. He
stated that he thinks the Selective Service
System is very discriminatory, and he will
refuse to go to Vietnam under any
Just several weeks later, the New Left at Indiana University staged its most dramatic action, and the FBI gave the event and Dwight Worker’s considerable role in it maximum coverage in his file.
Dow Chemical corporate recruiters were scheduled to meet with interested IU students at the Business School. Campus activists heard that the manufacturer of napalm was in town, and the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV), an umbrella group for the university New Left, hastily organized several dozen students to sit-in at the B-school, effectively blocking the recruitment effort.
Dow had recently visited the University of Wisconsin where a pitched battle hospitalizing a number of people had ensued between protestors and the Madison police. The IU Administration took note and prepared for all eventualities. The sit-in got underway with Dwight Worker conspicuously in the forefront of the group, and police in riot gear quickly moved in. The room was cleared of protestors but for four students who chose to resist, among them Dwight.
Dwight Worker (see arrow) at the Dow sit-in, 1967
The FBI’s extensive account relied on newspaper coverage of the clash as well as on their well-placed informant. Given the violence which occurred between the police and the four resisters, the latter’s report was relatively bland:
About 3:15 PM on October 30, 1967, a group of
students in the Business School attempted to
enter the interview rooms occupied by Dow
representatives. [IU] Safety Division police
were unable to close the door. The students
made a concerted rush, and several of them
assaulted police officers. Police reinforcements
rushed to the scene and arrested 35 students….
Actually, another memo in the FBI FOIA file provided a clear hint of the forthcoming battle with the Dow. At a meeting earlier in October, the discussion turned to police harassment of protestors generally. Dwight was present and offered the group karate lessons, promising ‘he could teach them some simple karate techniques and … how to combat the police’.
Apropos, a clipping in the file from the Bloomington press gave a more vivid account of the Dow story, focusing its coverage on Dwight Worker. Their angle was the irony that Dwight, whom they had lauded earlier in the year for saving the toddler, was back in the news as the title of the piece indicated:
Heroism Forgotten in Aftermath
Worker Faces Charges After Riots
Dwight Worker made the news
again for conspicuous conduct.
Pictured in Bloomington and
statewide papers as a young
man being dragged semi-
conscious by a policeman
… he was identified as one of
36 demonstrators arrested in
the IU Business School after a
wild clubbing, slugging fight
between policemen and sit-ins
protesting Dow Chemical’s
on-campus job interviews.
Worker, a 21-year old
Psychology Senior faces charges
of disorderly conduct, assault and
battery and resisting arrest. …
A police night stick had
clipped Worker on the back of
the head and he spent two days
in the IU Health Center with a
Dwight Worker being dragged to police bus following Dow protest, 1967
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Dwight as he was pursuing his activism at IU, the Indianapolis FBI had been anonymously mailing newspaper clippings on his activities to his parents. Often handwritten marginalia was added, ‘Do you know this is what your son is doing’.
After the Dow melee, Dwight drove home to visit his family after a long interval. As soon as he entered the house, his father confronted him in a rage, calling him “a GODDAMN COMMUNIST” and took a swing at his son.
‘We know, we know what you been doing
in Bloomington. Get out of here and don’t
ever come back!’ …
I hugged my crying mother and left. That
was the last time I saw or spoke with them
for years. (WY, 78-79)
Following Dwight’s involvement in the mayhem at the B-school, the local FBI had amassed a thick file on him and decided to recommend him to the Secret Service as a serious national security threat. The recommendation was to include him in the ‘Security Index’, individuals who, in the event of a national emergency – and depending on the priority assigned – were to be either immediately detained or put under close surveillance.
FBI HQ, Washington, was sufficiently persuaded so that J Edgar Hoover sent the Director of the Secret Service a summary of Dwight Worker’s file under a cover sheet with a box checked off stating:
Because of background is potentially dangerous;
or has been identified as member or participant
in a communist movement; or has been under
active investigation as member of other group
or organization inimical to the US.
By early January ’68 the Secret Service had accepted the FBI’s recommendation, and Dwight Worker was described in a document as “a Priority I subject of the Security Index.” However, a semi-annual update on the ‘subject’, which the Indianapolis field office owed to the Indianapolis branch of the Secret Service, was overdue because Dwight had left Bloomington abruptly for parts unknown.
What the FBI for all their professional diligence did not know was the full extent of Dwight’s rather dramatic running conflict with his draft board over his refusal to go to Vietnam. The conflict had come to a head in the first weeks of 1968; to avoid arrest, Dwight had gone on the lam.
In a last letter to the Selective Service System, Dwight:
told them I had changed my name from
Dwight to Adam, my address from 446 ½
East 2nd Street, Bloomington, Indiana, to
Mountains, Streams, and Forests, and my
race from white to Indian.
I signed it, ‘Fuck You Paleface’. (WY, 91)
Dwight ended up in New Mexico where to avoid detection he “lived entirely off the grid. No phones, electricity, water, gas, rent, or traceable bills of any sort.” (WY, 77). Despite these elaborate precautions, he was astonished to learn from his FOIA file a quarter of a century later that the FBI had known his whereabouts within six weeks.
In conclusion we’ve traced Dwight Worker’s journey from a typical Indiana University Freshman in 1964 to a major campus New Left activist and ultimately a fugitive national security risk by 1968. But what about the FBI as a covert historian in recording Dwight’s story?
In Dwight’s case, the Bureau with all its resources missed the drama of their subject’s culminating confrontation with the draft, which was the catalyst for his abrupt disappearance when for a time he went off the FBI’s radar. In addition, even with half a dozen conscientious informants feeding them a steady stream of information, the FBI was clueless on Dwight’s motivations, his crucial relationships with fellow activists, and the influence of certain individuals on him.
At best we can conclude that the tens of thousands of pages now revealed in FOIA files mainly provide occasional glimpses of the New Left pursuing its goals in myriad campus venues as well as the skeletal framework of a decade of tumultuous dissent.
Dwight Worker at his farm outside Bloomington, Indiana
As for Dwight Worker, he eventually worked for years for IBM as a software engineer and was recruited by Indiana University to teach in the Business School where he won a number of teaching awards. These days in retirement, he describes himself as an international bicyclist, an organic farmer, and a writer – the memoir of late being his second book.
*** For a brief account of the election of an SDS activist as Student Body President of IU, Spring ’67, and Jeff Sharlet’s part in the campaign, see http://jeffsharletandvietnamgi.blogspot.com/2011/08/elvis-and-new-left-at-indiana.html
**** Author’s interview with Dwight Worker, February 11, 2009
***** The Bloomington Tribune, November 13, 1967