Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Antiwar Activism or Pro Football – Never the Twain Will Meet

[Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog will continue to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]

As editor of Vietnam GI (VGI), his underground antiwar paper, Jeff Sharlet traveled the country constantly and even occasionally went abroad seeking stories to run in the paper. In the States, he most often sought out GIs just back from Vietnam, but he also met with antiwar activists. Aside from his charisma, Jeff had the additional cachet of being an ex-Vietnam GI – Been there, done that.

One of the most unusual people Jeff encountered was Dave Meggyesy, a pro football player. Meggyesy was then a star linebacker for the Cardinals, the National Football League (NFL) team in St Louis. He was one of the very few players in the NFL who was also an activist. Even more unusual, he was the rare political radical in the ranks of pro ball.

Dave Meggyesy had been a poor farm boy from Ohio whose stellar performance as a high school player earned him a football scholarship to Syracuse University, a football power in upstate New York. The previous season, Syracuse had won the national championship.

One of the most unusual people Jeff encountered was Dave Meggyesy…the rare political radical in the ranks of pro ball

Meggyesy fulfilled the coaches’ expectations, being named All-American honorable mention in his Sophomore season, although from the outset he was also something of a maverick on the Syracuse squad.

Dave Meggyesy tackling a runner, Syracuse-Notre Dame game, 1961

Football players were expected to take so-called remedial courses, the easiest possible to ensure their academic eligibility to play under NCAA rules. However, Dave bucked the coaches and insisted on taking regular, more demanding courses of his choice. Then, as he proved himself in the games, he was offered cash under the table for his ‘services’ to the team – a standard illegal practice in big time college football – but as an athletic purist he was taken aback and initially refused.

Further worrying the authoritarian head coach was his non-conformity – Dave lived off-campus with his girlfriend instead of in the team dorm. To make matters worse, the two of them hung out with irreverent arts students the coach regarded as ‘beatniks’.  They also read ‘subversive’ literature by Aldous Huxley, Ernest Becker, and Jack Kerouac, America’s ultimate rebel.

After a standout gridiron career at Syracuse, the St Louis Cardinals drafted him for the ’63 NFL season. A tackle in college, the pros converted him to linebacker, a key position on the defensive team requiring speed, agility, and intelligence. Dave had a very good rookie season in St Louis and was considered a player of promise, but he nonetheless continued his free-spirited ways to the distress of the coaching staff.

During the off-season, Dave enrolled in grad school at Washington University, a very distinguished institution in St Louis. Intending to eventually become a doctor, he took pre-med courses, but later switched to Sociology where he came under the influence of a noted politically active mentor. Professor Irving Louis Horowitz put him on to the writings of recently deceased C Wright Mills, arguably the most radical, intellectually combative scholar of the day.

Dave Meggyesy, St Louis Cardinals

Once the football season got underway each fall, Meggyesy was all business, constantly perfecting his game and making significant contributions to the Cardinals. Off-season however, he began taking an interest in politics. Although he was Caucasian, in ’64 he was asked by the St Louis chapter of the NAACP to lend his name for fund-raising.

He momentarily hesitated, worrying what the team owner might think of him stepping out of his purely jock role, but then gave his consent and retrospectively considered the decision to get involved his first political commitment.

During the following year, 1965, as President Johnson dramatically escalated the war in Vietnam, Dave became politically active. As antiwar opposition heated up on the nation’s campuses, he attended Washington University’s ‘teach-in’ against the war where he made contact with the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter. Although he didn’t formally become a member, he attended SDS meetings and found himself in agreement on the war issue.

His new SDS friends at the university introduced Dave to the radical press – the hard-hitting magazine Ramparts, published in the intensely political San Francisco Bay Area; and the left paper, The Guardian, out of New York. That fall the march on Washington conflicted with his daytime job as linebacker, but his wife made the trip to the capital.

Football was the singular focus and all-consuming passion during the season for most of Meggyesy’s teammates. Dave, however, was privately conflicted about his profession. He disliked the coaches’ treating adult men as juveniles, the many petty rules such as bed check, and the fact that players were often compelled to play injured – shot up with painkillers by the team doc.

Dave was privately conflicted about his profession, disliked being treated like a juvenile, petty rules, and players compelled to play injured shot up with painkillers

Dave Meggyesy, linebacker

Most of all he was shocked by the racism in the St Louis organization – for road games Black players were segregated in accommodations and eating arrangements. On the personal side during annual training camp, Meggyesy – to some degree a straight arrow – wasn’t particularly keen on post-scrimmage rituals of boozing, brawling, and philandering. Although he got along with his teammates, who respected him for his ability, he never ‘fit in’ with the culture of the outfit.

In effect, Dave Meggyesy was not in sync with his peers. His innate intellectual curiosity alone set him apart, but it was his progressive radical activism that began to open up a growing divide between him and the politically conservative owner and coaches.

Dave’s intellectual curiosity alone set him apart, but his activism opened a divide between him and the conservative owner and coaches

He had given an antiwar talk at nearby Southern Illinois University, which elicited an outraged letter from a Cardinal fan to the owner. Then, in April of ’67 Dave took off for New York to be part of the huge march against the war and later that fall helped organize and finance buses to Washington for St Louis activists participating in the great demonstration at the Pentagon.

During spring ’68, brother Jeff was on the road again for VGI, visiting GI antiwar coffee houses where he’d meet with combat veterans and men training for Vietnam. On this tour, his itinerary took him down to the Mad Anthony Wayne GI coffee house outside the giant infantry training base at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

A meeting was arranged between Jeff and Dave Meggyesy in St Louis. Unfortunately, with the passage of time when I contacted Dave in recent years, he couldn’t recall their conversation, but presumably they rapped about the war and the emerging GI protest movement.

That spring Dave and his wife were in the thick of the antiwar movement, often hosting large SDS meetings at their house. By then, his political resume was nearly as impressive as his football feats, and he had attracted FBI surveillance.

Cardinals’ management had grown quite uncomfortable with his dissidence, which was attracting many letters from angry ‘patriotic’ fans. The bottom line for management was of course the gate and profits.

Just before the ‘68 summer training camp, Meggyesy received an oblique but clear indication that management was going to ask him to make a choice – politics or football, never the twain will meet. He was only saved from the ultimatum when the team’s racism finally broke in the news, and the owners felt they couldn’t handle a political scandal as well.

Undeterred by the threat looming over him, at training camp in northern Michigan Meggyesy circulated a petition among his teammates in support of Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, the peace candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Eugene McCarthy button

He collected a surprising number of signatures from teammates and after practice drove down to the Chicago convention to lobby the Missouri delegation on behalf of McCarthy. To no avail however – Missouri was firmly in the camp of the mainstream candidate, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey.

In ’69, which would turn out to be Dave’s final season in pro ball, he publicly irritated fans, management, and teammates when he consistently refused to salute the flag during the National Anthem before games. During one game, a belligerent fan heckled the maverick linebacker unremittingly, shouting that he was a ‘commie’.

During the season, the St Louis organization finally lost patience when Dave gave an extensive interview to a major Philadelphia daily criticizing the Cardinals’ management, the culture of football in general, and, of course, the war. The coaches no longer spoke to him, and he was benched, sitting out most of the games.

In the highly divisive and charged atmosphere over the war in the country in the late ‘60s, activist politics and pro football – his conscience and his profession – proved a toxic mix for Dave Meggyesy. By that point, he was thoroughly disenchanted with everything about football, and being punitively benched for lesser players was the final straw for him. At the height of his career, he quit the game at the end of his seventh season, packed up his wife and kids, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.

There, with the help of a Berkeley professor, Dave wrote his controversial autobiography, Out of Their League (1971). One reviewer called it “the first critical look at the dehumanizing aspects of pro football,”* and the book soon became a best seller. 

Subsequently, in addition to a personally rewarding stint coaching high school football, Dave devoted the rest of his working life to following his conscience. He went on to teach courses on the sociology of sports at Stanford University, founded ‘Athletes United for Peace’, co-founded the Esalen Sports Center, and eventually headed the western region of the NFL Players  Association, the labor union of pro ball, finally retiring in 2007.
*San Jose Mercury News, date unknown

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Rear Echelon Blues – Then Came War

[Dear Reader:  The time is at last at hand to turn full-time to writing the memoir. To facilitate the writing, the blog will continue to post, but now monthly on the 1st Wednesday of each month beginning August 6th.  We will keep you informed about our progress to publication.]
Duty in the Philippines (PI) seemed like a playground to my brother Jeff Sharlet, stationed there in early ’63. It was a bit like being back on a college campus, but instead of going to classes the GIs worked shifts on classified material. They were Vietnamese linguists (lingys) in a communications intelligence outfit, the Army Security Agency (ASA), an adjunct of the NSA, the National Security Agency. Off-duty, their time was theirs, and Jeff made the most of it as if on prolonged spring break.

However, by June he was growing weary of the routine in the PI. You might call it the rear echelon blues. The action was elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Also the drenching rains of the monsoon season, which began in May,   had a depressing effect. And the work translating intercepted North Vietnamese military communications, initially interesting to Jeff, had become predictable and tedious.

Equally tiresome was the usual GI social scene of starting out at the Airmen’s Club at Clark Air Force Base (AFB) with its cheap drinks, then moving on to the low-life bars of Angeles City – the nearby GI town -- and the occasional trips to the more upscale watering holes of Manila, the capital. Jeff was becoming jaded with endless pub crawling.

The PI scene had become all too familiar to him until the abrupt call to war suddenly changed everything, as we’ll see in the following excerpts from his letters home.

2 Jun 63 – back from leave at the 9th ASA, Clark AFB, the Philippines

          I recently returned from Hong Kong. It’s a great place, sort of an orientalized San Francisco or an anglicized Chinese city.

Hong Kong harbor

Thanks for the book on Southeast Asia. I haven’t read it yet, but I have little hope for the future of this region. The present situation is the fault of the British, French, Dutch, and American colonialists.

4 Jun 63

Last night I went to town, the night before I went to town, the night before that I went to town. Tonight I will go to town, tomorrow night I’ll go to town, the next night I’ll go to town, as a matter of fact I go to town frequently.

          I also sing with the Clark Glee Club to improve Philippine-American relations.

♫ Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind

19 Jun 63

          Well, I’ve completed about a third of my tour of duty. My only useful activity is singing in the Clark Glee Club. We sang on Manila TV on a Jack Paar-type show last week. Our group is very popular with the American and Filipino communities.

          We sing some songs in Tagalog.* We sang at the joint US military aid group in Manila for all the generals and admirals who advise this country on its defenses. They gave us a filet mignon and lobster dinner.

          Last week we sang at an officer’s club on an American naval base where we got roast beef. I was talking to a Navy captain’s wife in the bar, and she told me single Navy officers find this a very boring assignment, as do peons like me.

          Nice Asian girls, except in westernized Japan and Hong Kong, do not go out with Caucasians. It is not socially acceptable. Therefore, all GIs from lieutenants to privates are relegated to bar girls.

Right now I’m off the hostess kick and spending less time in the local GI town. I’m going more often to Manila where the people are a little more worldly.

♫ Hit the road, Jack
And don’t you come back’
No more, no more††

          I never realized how great the little conveniences of the States were. For instance – toilet seats, sidewalks, paved streets, air-conditioned buses, trash collectors, clean food, clean people, and the absence of bugs and dust.

          Here when you travel on an intercity bus, if someone has to go to the bathroom, he yells, the driver stops, people get off, women squat on one side, men on the other.

          At least with the rain, everything’s no longer brown; the sugar cane and rice shoots are green now. All in all, I try to make the best of a hurting situation.

Monsoon downpour

30 Jun 63

          My ‘whole goal in life’ is not to go into town drinking every night. I have some good friends here in the unit who are extremely intelligent, mostly guys from the Army Language School (ALS).

We travel together, have great intellectual discussions over beers, and do other things. I’m making the best of it. I do a lot of reading and keep busy all the time.

I think about important problems in the States and the world. For example, three cops beating a Negro woman in Birmingham, a fanatic assassinates a Negro leader in Jackson, Mississippi, and another fanatic in Atlanta slashing a sit-in student. Filipinos ask about these incidents, and there is little one can say.

23 Jul 63

          I have read most of the books you sent, but I’m still reading the last few. I just finished ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and I’m now reading ‘The Marxists’ by C Wright Mills.

          Southeast Asia is an amazingly complicated problem. In my own mind, I haven’t yet come up with a way of offsetting Chinese Communist influence and keeping these states non-communist.

For instance, Burma has pro-Chinese Communists and more nationalist Communists; it’s not a cohesive entity in any sense, politically, ethnically, or geographically. This situation is repeated in every Southeast Asian state.

19 Aug 63 on leave in Tokyo

This is a very beautiful country, which is much like the US economically and physically, but very different culturally. It has been an interesting and educational experience.

 Japan in bloom

Then a week later, a sudden brief, cryptic message home.

27 Aug 63 from the Clark AFB flight line 

I’m leaving for Vietnam for some ‘field work’.

If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles†††

Back story: Jeff and a small team of Vietnamese lingys were abruptly dispatched from the PI as the internal political crisis in South Vietnam intensified during summer ‘63. Relations between the Catholic political elite around President Diem and the Buddhist clergy had worsened.

A Buddhist monk publicly burned himself to death in protest against the regime. The shock waves were felt throughout the country and beyond as the horrific news photo went around the world.

When a second Buddhist self-immolation occurred soon after, the South Vietnamese military elite cautiously inquired of the American Embassy what the US attitude might be toward a coup.

The war against the Viet Cong was not going well, and by then President Kennedy (JFK) had lost patience with Diem’s resistance to the reforms needed for winning ‘hearts & minds’ in the villages.

In late August, JFK cabled his new ambassador to ‘green light’ the South Vietnamese generals. The conspirators immediately began secretly planning an anti-Diem coup.  

Anxious to keep abreast of the clandestine developments in Saigon, the White House relied on reporting from its military and intelligence sources in the Embassy as well as the special team of ASA specialists flown in from Clark.

Jeff and his fellow lingys had been quickly assembled with full field gear and sent off posthaste to Vietnam. They were installed in a remote corner of a base outside Saigon where they worked around the clock covertly tapping all the coup-planners’ voice communications.

As to the ‘big picture’ of why they were eavesdropping on allies, the plans afoot were well above the ASA team’s pay grade and ‘Need to Know’. However, daily arrangements for the transfer of their translated intercepts to a nearby air base to be flown out to NSA-Washington, gave the team a pretty good idea of how serious the matter was.

Each day’s intelligence product was packed in ammo cans rigged with thermite grenades, then transported by jeep under armed guard. ASA’s security guards were under orders to pull the grenade pins and run like hell if there was any danger the material might be compromised and the clandestine US operation exposed to the South Vietnamese government.

15 Oct 63 ASA monitoring base at Phu Lam

          Jeff wrote me from Saigon that he and the special ASA group were pulling out and returning to the Philippines.

During the rush deployment from the PI, Jeff had forgotten to leave a forwarding address at the Clark mailroom, and while he was in Vietnam on that first tour he never wrote home.

Of course he couldn’t write about the secret operation – not even fellow ASA troops in the area with high security clearances were entitled to know – but off-duty Jeff did do other things that could be put in a letter. He was especially taken with Saigon, then called the Paris of the Orient.

 Saigon flower stall, 1963

Meanwhile, our Mother wrote him at Clark AFB, but her letter came back marked ‘UNKNOWN’. Understandably upset, she called their local Congressman who advised a letter to the Army’s Adjutant General.

She wrote the general at the Pentagon that very day, “Dear Sir: I will appreciate your advising me by return mail exactly where my son is.” Unaware of the distress he had caused our parents, Jeff casually resumed corresponding from the PI.

29 Oct 63 – back at 9th ASA, Clark AFB

          I’m now back in the PI after 49 days in Vietnam. Don’t believe what Madame Nhu** is saying in the States. The fact remains that South Vietnam is a complete dictatorship and the Buddhists are persecuted.

          The rainy season has ended, but heat and humidity linger. Hopefully we’ll have cooler weather soon. This climate breeds lethargy.

♫ We’re having a heat wave,
A tropical heat wave††††
My driver’s license was supposed to be renewed by September 30th, and I didn’t do it. I was in Vietnam at the time, in the jungle. I’ll write to Motor Vehicles and tell them I was fighting a war and to please excuse this oversight.

On 1 Nov ‘63 the South Vietnamese generals carried out their successful coup during which the president and his brother, the notorious secret police chief Nhu, were assassinated. General Minh, leader of the junta, became the new head of state, beginning a long period of political instability in Saigon.

General Minh, new head of state, 1963

Meanwhile, on the lighter side of history, our Mother’s insistent inquiry as to Jeff’s whereabouts had worked its way down the chain of command from Washington to Saigon and back to the 9th ASA at Clark – much to his embarrassment:

5 Nov 63

          I know you must have been worried when your letter was returned to you, especially after reading about the coup in Saigon (by the way it’s the best thing that's happened in Vietnam in a decade; now the people are very happy).

          I neglected to write to tell you I had returned to the PI, but I wish you hadn’t contacted your Congressman. It caused a lot of trouble for the field station commander, my company commander (CO), and me.

I’m writing this letter because I have received a direct order from my CO to write one tonight. He even wants to see me put it in the mail.

          Please be more discreet in the future. The Army and I (although at opposite ends of the philosophical totem pole), do not relish embarrassments and inconveniences like this.

22 Nov 63

          In the middle of the night we heard of the President’s assassination. No words can describe the gloom that hangs over this place. It’s as if a little bit of everyone suddenly died. It was more than a shock – much more than a shock.

20 Dec 63

          I think the States are going to hell under the strain of the ‘Cold War’. As for me, I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to agitate in my society to better it, or retire from the struggle completely to hide in some environment like the academic community.

          Vietnam is a little quieter these days. Happy Holidays.

          The turbulent year ’63 came to a subdued end, but then just several weeks later in early ‘64 another coup took place in Saigon, and Jeff was soon on his way back to Vietnam – back to war – a story for another time.    

*Tagalog, along with English, one of the two official languages of the Philippines.

**Diem’s sister-in-law, then on a speaking tour in the US promoting the regime.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sojourn on the South China Sea

Jeff Sharlet hoped to be shipped to Europe, but landed on the shores of the South China Sea. He had enlisted in the Army Security Agency (ASA), a semi-secret communications intelligence outfit, the military arm of the National Security Agency in Washington. ASA sent Jeff to the Army Language School (ALS) in sunny California.

By late ’62 he’d completed the 47-week Vietnamese course, received Top Secret and Cryptographic clearances, and was soon dispatched to the 9th ASA Field Station at Clark Air Force Base (AFB) in the Philippine Islands (PI).

Life in the islands – a quiet backwater of the global Cold War – was relatively pleasant for ASA personnel. Across the South China Sea a low intensity civil conflict was underway in Vietnam, and the Pentagon was gradually stockpiling Vietnamese linguists (lingys for short). ASA was temporarily parking most of them in the Philippines out of harm’s way.

With so many interpreter/translators on hand, the workload at the 9th ASA was not heavy, and the troops enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. But for the war looming in Vietnam, one might call it an extended spring break in the South Pacific.

For the young college-boy lingys, it was something of an adventure. While they bided their time waiting for the call to war, daily life in the tropics resembled scenes from From Here to Eternity without the romance – a sprawling military base, a nearby GI town, palm trees swaying in the breeze. 

Excerpts from Jeff’s letters home trace his carefree time as a GI in the PI during the early months of ’63.

13 Jan 63 – from Honolulu enroute to the Far East

Hawaii is beautiful and warm. I’m on a Super-Constellation. It will take 30 hours to get to the Philippines. The South Pacific looks enchanting.

29 Jan 63 – at 9th ASA Field Station, Clark AFB, PI

This base is like a little piece of America. It has everything. We live in a fairly new billet in three-man rooms. Outside walls, and inside walls as well, are louvered for ventilation. We have houseboys at $2.50 a month to make beds and shine shoes as well as clean rooms, the billet, and its grounds.

Jeff (r) & Fred Baumann outside barracks, Clark AFB, 1963

The pool is across the street, tennis courts are nearby, and the enlisted men’s open mess, called the Coconut Grove, is next door.

The pool across the street

You hear music everywhere on base. It’s from Armed Forces Radio (AFR), which we get on our transistors, and you can also hear it through speakers in the clubs and the rec areas.

It’s a strange combination of Country Western and Rock ‘n Roll, everything from ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Oklahoma Hills’ to Little Richard’s ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ and lots of Ray Charles.

♫ I’m an old road-hog/I drove a big truck
Shot the pinball machine, but it brought me bad luck

The work is interesting, informative, and not too hard. I work the mid-shift from Midnight to 7:00 AM. The place where we work, called Operations (Ops for short), is a windowless, concrete building in a heavily-guarded, barbed wire enclosure in the middle of an enormous field.

When I wake up in the afternoon, I do errands, read in bed, or go to the pool. I generally go to Happy Hour at the Airmen’s Club from 4:30 to 5:30  afternoons. All drinks are only 10 cents, normally 20 cents, while weeds run 95 cents a carton. I either stay there for a while or go into town with a buddy.

The town called Angeles City is right outside the base. It’s like something out of Susie Wong’s world, just like those Far Eastern army towns you read about in war novels. All the joints have American names.

A GI joint, Angeles City, PI, 1963

It’s one huge collection of bars, whores, beds, Jeepney taxi drivers, horse and buggy conveyances, and the most poverty stricken people I’ve ever seen. The girls are mostly young.

Thus far when I think of this country, the R&R song ‘Babycakes’ (Ooooh, baby, oooh), the dance ‘Mashed Potatoes’, strong San Miguel beer, as well as comments in the bars like ‘Hey Joe, you buy me a ladies beer’ – come to mind as representative of the PI.

Hey Mama, don’t you treat me wrong
Come and love your daddy all night long††

15 Feb 63

The Filipinos and the bar girls don’t need any information. The first night I went to town, all the girls asked me if I was ‘9th ASA’. I’m trying to organize the girls into an entertainment union so they can get a guaranteed wage for hustling drinks.

Jeff (2d on l) & buddies, Angeles City, 1963
Manila, the capital, is 65 miles away. I just got back from there. It’s just like any large city in the States, a total imitation of the US with gangs, the PTA, an American Legion, and a Chamber of Commerce. English is the common language, and just about everyone speaks it. The University of the Philippines even has sororities.

I like it here, but I don’t know why.

24 Mar 63

I have a chance to get a hop to New Delhi next month, but I’m going to pass it up for a while. They have space available on planes to India once a week and to Saigon, Bangkok, Taiwan, and Japan every day. They also have a ship, which goes to Hong Kong 4 times a year, expressly for guys going on leave.

I might go out for football because they go on game trips to Japan, Korea, and Okinawa. This station has a good team. They almost beat the Far Eastern champions last year.

11 Apr 63

Some friends and I took a train to a place called Dagupan, a few hours from here. Just beyond the city is a beautiful white sandy beach on the South China Sea where we rented a hut for a couple of days, took in some sun and surf, and drank a lot of beer.

Where the deep blue pearly waters

Wash upon white silver sands
We watched the sun set in the evening
In a far and distant land†††

I cut it too close getting back from town last night and almost missed the shuttle to Ops for mid-shift. If a guy’s had one too many in Angeles, the flood lighting around the Ops building for night security definitely has a sobering effect.

28 Apr 63

The PI is quite different from any other environment I have ever seen. This country is a cross between the 20th and 19th century. Even in Manila, a large (pop. 2 million), Westernized, and extremely dirty city, one will see horse-drawn carts on the streets with old WWII jeeps used as taxis and private vehicles.

Manila Bay

About 85% if the people are extremely poor, ill-fed, ill-clothed, and unhealthy. Begging for money or cigarettes is very common here.

A strong national police force secures the peace. In the expensive commercial sections of Manila, there’s a cop on duty every hundred yards. There are guards on all the trains. Most cops carry submachine guns or shotguns.

It’s starting to get very hot now with the rainy season approaching soon.

17 May 63

Some of us took a bus to Baguio, a mountain resort about 120 miles north of Clark AFB. It’s about 5000 feet up in the clouds and nice relief from the heat of the plains.

♫  I’m gonna climb that mountain
Walk up there among the clouds††††
On the way up – before the steep ascents – we passed many poor farmers and their water buffalo. The trip was one of the most beautiful as well as the most dangerous bus rides I’ll probably ever take.

Perilous Baguio road, 1963
In the Philippines, Jeff availed himself of the Army’s recruiting slogan ‘Fun, Travel, and Adventure’ or FTA,* but the bloom was beginning to fade. The weather in the South Pacific – rising temps and drenching monsoons – was a damper, but he was also finding the repetitive classified work less challenging, while the allure of an endless party life had begun to pall.

As will be apparent in the next post, it was war just over the horizon that would dramatically change Jeff’s experience in the military.
*With the later rise of GI anti-Vietnam War protest in which Jeff was a principal player, the Army’s slogan FTA became ‘Fuck the Army’.

Links to music videos:



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Red Squad Chicago – The Wild Wild Midwest!

Summer ’68, Chicago: My brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, was putting out an underground antiwar paper, Vietnam GI (VGI). He had launched it in January to reach active-duty troops uneasy with, uncertain about, or in some cases opposed outright to the war in Vietnam.

VGI soon found a responsive readership – letters to the editor poured in from young men training stateside awaiting deployment as well as GIs, Marines, and airmen based in South Vietnam and sailors and airmen on station off-shore. Circulation grew exponentially. By mid-summer, the paper had become a worldwide phenomenon – read wherever American troops were based, cautiously, of course, out of sight of the disapproving brass and lifer sergeants.
Jeff and colleagues decided to supplement VGI’s ‘Asian Edition’ with a ‘Stateside Edition’ addressing the particular concerns of the guys in the pipeline. It would be a big undertaking – money was always tight – and the new edition would double the printing and far-flung distribution costs. The two editions would come out simultaneously, the inaugural stateside issue scheduled for August ’68. Jeff and his team wanted the launch to go smoothly.

Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago was probably the next most lively center of protest in the country – both antiwar opposition as well as Black civil rights activism. In the windy city, both movements were up against a formidable political machine led by blunt, hard-nosed, long time Mayor Richard J Daley.

In April ‘68 his cops had waded in and roughly dispersed an antiwar demo. A week later when major rioting broke out in the ghetto following Martin Luther King’s assassination, the mayor called for and received federal troops to help police restore order.

Federal troops in Chicago, May 1968

The Democratic Presidential Convention was scheduled for Chicago that August, and it was expected to be contentious because of divisions over the war. Vice President Humphrey, representing the war policy, and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, standing for peace and withdrawal, were the leading contenders for the nomination.

McCarthy was a long shot, but the huge, diverse national antiwar movement mobilized to go to Chicago to support his antiwar position. They intended to take to the streets in massive acts of civil disobedience and sleep in the parks. The prospect gravely worried the Daley organization. When a Yippie, in the spirit of street theater, spoke of dumping LSD in the city’s water supply, the mayor took the wild rhetoric seriously, redoubling defenses for convention week.

Anyone reading the Chicago press knew that a confrontation was coming – the antiwar legions versus the Chicago police backed up by state and federal law enforcement authorities as well as the military. To finish and get the new double edition of Vietnam GI out in timely fashion, Jeff decided to play it safe and avoid getting caught up in the impending convention turmoil.

Mayor Daley, spooked by scuttlebutt of hundreds of thousands hippies and radicals descending on Chicago, boosted the Red Squad’s roster to 500 men.

He and fellow editor Jim Wallihan gathered the preparatory materials for the August issues and headed for the Bay Area, a more protest-friendly part of the country. In San Francisco, they stayed with a friend, an ex-Vietnam GI combat photographer, Joe Carey†, where they assembled the two editions.

Jeff had moved the VGI editorial operation temporarily out of town because he was aware the Chicago Red Squad, which surveilled all New Left activity, had the VGI collective in its extensive dissident files. Under pretext of protecting the Democratic convention from possible disruption, Jeff reasonably assumed the Red Squad might use the opportunity to preemptively raid local protest outfits.

Given the Red Squad’s modus operandi in the ‘60s, Jeff made a good decision. Originally formed as a special unit of the Chicago police in 1886 to hunt down the men who set off a bomb that killed and injured many policemen during the Haymarket Riot, the unit evolved, targeting the ‘agitators’ du jour – anarchists and leftists in the teens, labor activists in the ‘20s, Communists from the ‘30s on, and civil rights militants and anti-Vietnam War opponents in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The country was then in the grip of Cold War anti-communism. To the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) way of thinking, both Black and white ‘radicals’ were considered ‘fellow travelers’, if not potentially dangerous ‘commie’ subversives.
At the time, the official name for the CPD’s special unit was the ‘Subversive Section of the Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Inspectional Services’, but it came to be known by friend and foe alike as the Red Squad. In the early ‘60s it was a small outfit of several dozen agents seconded from other divisions of the CPD. But as the decade heated up with rioting in Black ghettos across the nation and the escalation of the Vietnam War – both triggers of unrest beginning in ’65 – the squad grew rapidly.

The late James Cunningham, former Red Squad Agent

Its liaisons with other enforcers– the FBI and US Army Military Intelligence (MI) – grew apace. Under its counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO††, mainly aimed at the left, the feds provided the Red Squad with specialized training and significant funding. MI, based in nearby Evanston, transferred military equipment and know-how for specific operations the squad was planning.

Outside the public eye, the three outfits shared intelligence and coordinated major actions, especially against the Black Panthers and the main antiwar groups, civilian and GI. In the case of Vietnam GI, in May ’68 J Edgar Hoover had signaled the FBI’s Chicago Field Office to put VGI’s staff under surveillance for the paper’s seditious content.

Soon FBI agents dropped by the apartment on Halsted that Jeff shared with Jim Wallihan and Bill O’Brien, hoping to be admitted for an interview. They were refused entry. In August when Jeff and Jim were staying at Joe Carey’s in San Francisco (supposedly not known to anyone), MI agents paid Joe a visit inquiring about their whereabouts. Jeff happened to be out, but Jim was in the back bedroom. However, Joe told his visitors he had ‘no idea’ where they were.

Back in Chicago the Red Squad tended to conduct its oversight more covertly. Techniques included watching a target’s residence, tailing the person, and photographing him and anyone with whom he met. The camera was a favored tool. Often covert agents would discreetly snap a picture of a person of interest; sometimes, if he was participating in a demo, the agents would pretend to be press photographers. In other instances, if the Red Squad wanted to scare or intimidate someone, an overt agent would photograph him or her conspicuously.                   

With the blessings of Boss Daley, the Red Squad became bolder and 
more arbitrary, akin to cowboys in a wide-open frontier town.

Overt agents would make their presence known as if to say, we know who you are, we know what you’re up to, and we’ve got our eye on you. Jeff’s friends and supporters of VGI received such attention on occasion. In early ’66, Earl Silbar was at Roosevelt University organizing students against the draft when his son was born. It was too late in the day to make it into the newspapers’ new births columns, yet the next morning in the student lounge a Red Squad regular came up and congratulated him on the happy event.  

Similarly another friend, Joan Lichterman, a staffer on Roosevelt’s student paper, was at a meeting of area student journalists at the University of Chicago. A visiting Berkeley student was briefing the group on the Free Speech Movement then underway at Cal-Berkeley in ’64. Several Red Squad overt agents arrived and wordlessly began snapping pictures of each of them  individually.

Progressively in the late ‘60s, with the blessings of Boss Daley, top police commanders, and major Chicago papers, the Red Squad became bolder and more arbitrary, akin to cowboys just off the trail in a wide-open frontier town. Illegal actions routinely involved undercover invasion of privacy, violation of free speech rights, and eavesdropping.

Rougher tactics included physically intimidating individual targets, assaulting peaceful demonstrations, raiding residences of both Black and white radicals, and ‘black-bag’ jobs – burglarizing offices of targeted organizations. Sometimes covert agents inside a group provocatively encouraged its members to commit acts of violence, even to shoot at cops.

Covert agents were usually young cops who could blend in with the ‘60s scene, dressing hippie-style, smoking pot, and digging the same music as their assigned subjects. Another of Jeff’s friends, Lynn Wilson, was the object of covert surveillance. She was at a political meeting. Most of the New Left gatherings were open in the spirit of participant democracy, making it easy for Red Squad agents to join the gathering undetected.

No doubt one or more covert agents were present that evening. When the discussion abruptly turned to bombing buildings, Lynn promptly got up and left – she hadn’t signed up for that. Outside, Lynn was almost immediately intercepted by uniformed officers. Obviously a covert agent inside had signaled her departure.

She was in her car, a VW Bug, the radical’s car in cop-land – patriots drove Chevys – heading home when a police cruiser cut her off. The two cops jumped out and aimed shotguns at her through the windshield, no doubt thinking she was a would-be bomber. Lynn managed to avoid being detained only after showing her state ID from the Illinois mental hospital where she worked. The guardians of the law backed off – to them that meant they were all on the same side, and they apologized profusely.

In another instance of a covert op, Jeff Segal, then a student reporter, later a national officer of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who knew Jeff earlier when he had headed SDS at Indiana University, tells a story of the Red Squad at work. The student newspaper staff at Roosevelt University believed the office phone was tapped. How did they know for sure – easy? A staffer went out to a pay phone and called Roosevelt’s student newspaper press office to get coverage of a fictitious demo to be held the next day. At the time of the phony demo, a couple of staffers went to the ‘announced’ site and watched the Red Squad arrive. 

At its outset, the Red Squad’s mission statement was relatively specific and focused, but it was revised and its operational criteria changed in the early ‘70s when it became considerably broader in scope, much more ambitious, and somewhat fuzzy in interpretation. Initially the mission was to identify and possibly prosecute individuals, groups, and organizations advocating the disruption of the democratic system through violence and criminal action.

Then the mission was augmented to specify the use of both overt and covert intelligence-gathering techniques against any person or group presenting a threat to national, state, or municipal security. As if this revised statement wasn’t ambiguous enough, the Red Squad was no longer just on the lookout for actual threats, but for any ‘potential for disruption’ as well. In an emendation, the targets for surveillance were not only members of groups representing disruptive potential, but also their financial supporters.

At street level where the Red Squad agents operated, official rhetoric all boiled down to what the cop on the ground considered subversion and sedition. As a retired agent put it more colorfully, the agents’ objectives were terrorist and seditious activities as well as those who aided and abetted perhaps with a nominal donation. Shades of the late ‘30s during the Spanish Civil War when even a small contribution to a fund for orphans on both sides later landed the contributor on a Congressional list of left-wing subversives.

Keer, a Red Squad covert agent, dressed hippie-style in ragged jeans and
banged-up sneakers, wore his hair long, and sported a Zapata moustache.

Armed with such a broad writ, the Red Squad not only went after radical groups from the Old Left and the New Left, especially SDS, but also the Chicago branches of nationwide liberal organizations such as the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, the World Council of Churches, and even the Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) and Reverend Jesse Jackson’s local anti-poverty group PUSH. Area universities and local churches were automatically suspect and fell under Red Squad purview.

Similarly, prominent individuals who supported urban reform, such as the CEO of Sears Roebuck headquartered in Chicago; the head of 1st National Bank of Chicago, and even Father Hesburgh, widely respected President of Notre Dame University, also fell under the baleful eye of Red Squad agents. In effect, anyone challenging or even questioning the status quo in Chicago warranted watching.

A typical rank and file Red Squad covert agent provided a candid account of his exploits during the ‘60s. At the outset, Pete Keer (a pseudonym), worked the streets and parks of Chicago surveilling radical demos. To pass unnoticed among the subjects he surveilled, Keer dressed hippie-style in ragged jeans and banged-up old sneakers, wore his hair long, and sported a Zapata mustache. So effective was his disguise that it occasionally fooled uniformed cops sent to break up rallies. He got clubbed a few times before he could flash his badge.

Working with a partner, Keer’s routine was to unobtrusively photograph the assembled protestors and then tail any unfamiliar face leaving the scene and jot down his license plate. Back at the Red Squad office with the plate number, the team could then check public records for the individual’s name and address, and a file would be opened on him in the squad’s voluminous directory of putative subversives. Occasionally, when the agents got bored on a repetitive surveillance stakeout, they’d duck out and simply fabricate information for the target’s file.

Another standard op was wiretapping phones of subjects of interest. Describing morning briefings when the duty sergeant would explain to the field agents – with a broad wink – that a wiretap without a court order was illegal, Keer chuckled. Simple taps involved an agent climbing a telephone pole; others required installing a tap inside a building. To gain access to the basement without attracting undue attention, Keer would don a fireman’s uniform to carry out a bogus ‘safety inspection’ of the premises.

Keer’s most notable assignment was in summer ’68 during the time of the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago. A power in the national Democratic Party, Mayor Daley was proud to host the convention, but was spooked by scuttlebutt of hundreds of thousands of hippies and radicals descending on the city to support Eugene McCarthy’s peace candidacy. The Chicago machine mobilized for the challenge, including dramatically boosting the Red Squad’s roster to 500 men – temporarily coopting cops from other divisions of the force.

By then Keer was specializing in the Chicago branch of the Yippies, the Youth International Party, and got a choice assignment tailing the national Yippie leader, Abbie Hoffman. A fellow agent got in even closer, serving as bodyguard to the unwitting Jerry Rubin, a Yippie co-founder. Although Keer and partner drove an unmarked car, they followed Hoffman everywhere for a week, were inevitably spotted, and became familiar to Abbie, who’d give them the finger, and on one occasion managed to lose the tail.

Jerry Rubin on the cover of his book, 1971

Talking with a writer about his Red Squad career a decade later, Pete Keer had no regrets. Though he never uncovered any earth-shaking plots, he felt his duties were necessary and honorable.

Red Squad agents, all plainclothes policemen, were supplemented by a corps of civilian spies. Estimates of their numbers ranged from 200+ to over 500. Many of them worked at snooping steadily while part-timers were a sizeable minority. Some were on the payroll, others pro bono. All were motivated by a strong sense of patriotic duty.

A young woman, Sheli Lulkin, was an exemplar of the civilian apparatus, but quite atypical. Intelligent, highly articulate, and an energetic natural leader, she was ideologically-driven, extremely zealous, and an over-achiever when it came to spying. A Chicago school teacher, Sheli began her clandestine career by infiltrating and informing on teachers’ organizations from the local to the national level.

Sheli Lulkin, civilian spy, Chicago Red Squad, 1964

An enterprising informer, Sheli was quite eclectic in the groups she targeted, from the American Nazis on the right to the Communist Party, Progressive Labor, the Socialist Worker’s Party, and SDS on the left. She also zeroed in on groups opposed to the Vietnam War, including the umbrella group Chicago Peace Council, as well as local affiliates of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), Women’s Strike for Peace, and CALCAV (Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam). 

Sheli saw her mission as ferreting out Communinst influence and the ‘terrorist
infrastructure’…all a vast conspiracy to overthrow the American system.

In her zeal Sheli also infiltrated anti-draft activists (CADRE),university reformers, the National University Conference, and street-level outfits agitating for tenants’ and welfare rights. She even got down to the grittiest level of ‘Rising Up Angry’, a tough group of young white migrants from Appalachia committed to working with Black and Latino street people trying to ameliorate neighborhood conditions.

Finally, she penetrated unions as well as local branches of widely respected liberal organizations – for a grand total of over 80 groups, undoubtedly the record for a Chicago civilian spy.

Sheli not only joined a wide array of groups for nefarious purposes, but given her talents, often gained influential or leadership positions in the organizations targeted. She saw her mission as ferreting out Communist influence and the ‘terrorist infrastructure’. Accordingly, in her reports to the Red Squad, she tarred everyone – liberals and radicals alike – with the same brush. As she later testified before Congress after being exposed in Chicago, all her targets were part of a vast Communist conspiracy dedicated to the violent overthrow of the American system.

One last shadowy adjunct to the Red Squad bears mentioning – the Legion of Justice, essentially an outfit of right-wing local thugs several hundred strong. Beginning in ’69, Red Squad agents used the Legion for the dirtiest jobs – all illegal, but carried out with impunity.

Equipped with crow bars, bats, tire irons, and mace, the Legionnaires pulled off burglaries of designated organizations, theft of office equipment and files, physical intimidation of targeted individuals, and outright assaults while invading premises of radical gatherings. On one occasion their outlaw activity included firebombing a car, another time shooting through the windows of an office.

During its heyday the Chicago Red Squad was largely unaccountable. Much of what the agents and their civilian minions did – until brought up short in the mid-‘70s by law suits and court orders – fell under the heading of suppressing lawful dissent – not law enforcement. As a grand jury concluded in 1975, the Red Squad “had assaulted the fundamental freedoms of speech, association, press, and religion as well as the constitutional right to privacy of hundreds of individuals….”*

However, the Red Squad’s most egregious involvement was complicity in the late ’69 police assassination of the Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, asleep in his bed. An undercover police agent serving as Hampton’s bodyguard provided the layout of his apartment and slipped him a Mickey Finn the night of the police hit.

Under the cloak of official terminology of ‘subversion and sedition’, the Red Squad and its adjuncts were actually in the business of protecting the autocratic Daley organization from liberals as well as radicals. Radicals with their ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric – largely utopian talk – were feared for their potential to embarrass the mayor and damage the city’s image with their free-style demos and rallies. Hence, they were considered off the charts – out there in the political wilderness – justifying the Red Squad’s often extralegal cowboy tactics against them.

The more sedate liberals were regarded as potential challengers to Daley’s grip on Chicago. With their advocacy of political reform and criticism of police excesses, they were viewed as natural enemies of machine politics. Thus, liberals were fair game for Red Squad infiltration, spying, and surreptitious efforts to neutralize their organizational effectiveness.

In Richard Daley’s Chicago of 1965-75, as one of his aides succinctly put it,
sanctioning the extralegal behavior of the Pete Keers, the Sheli Lulkins, and the Legionnaires of Justice was ‘Do whatever is necessary’, and,  as the head of the Red Squad later added, do it to ‘any organization that could create problems for the city or the country’.
 * R J Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America (1978), 505.