[A blog about reconstructing the short but interesting life and times of Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969), an ex-GI and leader of the GI antiwar movement during the Vietnam War; founder and editor of Vietnam GI, the first antiwar underground paper written by and for GI’s. A memoir is in progress. Note new posting schedule -- every other Wednesday. Prior to September 2011, postings were every Wednesday]
the annals of the Vietnam War, the year 1965 has long been remembered as the
year of the great escalation. The date of course pales in significance and
consequence to 1941, but for those who opposed the war in Vietnam, springtime
’65 will always have a special place in memory.
involvement in Southeast Asia had begun a decade earlier when the French were
still fighting to retain their Indochina colony, but it was limited to military
hardware and a few hundred technical advisors. President Kennedy (JFK) set in
motion the first escalation in ’61 when he began a 20-fold buildup of US troops
in South Vietnam, by then an independent country. South Vietnam was under
constant pressure from Communist North Vietnam’s proxy military formation, the
Viet Cong (VC), a tough and seasoned guerrilla outfit.
his predecessor, JFK inherited a contingent of under a thousand military advisors,
which he then increased to 16,000 American officers and men advising South
Vietnamese Army units fighting the VC. Several years later however, after the
VC had made great gains, it was the speed, scale, and composition of President
Johnson’s (LBJ) escalation that set 1965 apart as US troop levels soared to
165,000 by year’s end.
the history of the American antiwar movement, 1965 also became a marker date.
Although there was some popular opposition to JFK’s low intensity war, it was
minimal, barely achieving media notice. However, LBJ’s dramatic escalation
beginning late winter/early spring ’65 was quickly met by a counter-escalation
of protest on many college campuses.
LBJ’s dramatic escalation beginning early ’65 was quickly met by
a counter-escalation of protest on many college campuses.
reciprocal escalation of troops and protesters occurred against a backdrop of
continual VC terror attacks on US military personnel billeted in the cities and
towns as the countryside was steadily slipping out of Saigon’s control. A particularly
deadly VC bombing of a US barracks in February ’65 brought forth a punishing response
from LBJ – fighter bombers launched to attack North Vietnam.†
Washington, the retaliatory air strikes were spun as a spontaneous reply to
North Vietnamese aggression in the south, but, as we would later learn when the
Pentagon Papers – the secret history
of the war – were leaked to the media, the raids had been planned months in
advance behind the scenes. The White House had merely been waiting for an appropriate
pretext, a sufficient provocation, which the VC provided.
ensuing attacks on the North were actually dress rehearsals for the secretly planned
full-scale escalation set in motion the following month – a systematic bombing
campaign code-named ‘Rolling Thunder’ – along with the landing in South Vietnam
of the first US combat units. We were at war in Asia.
the universities were quick to react to LBJ’s move. It was springtime in
academe for what would gradually become a nationwide antiwar movement. First
out of the gate was the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of the more
liberal and free-spirited campuses in the country.
Stateside, the universities were quick to react to LBJ’s move.
It was springtime in academe for what would gradually become a nationwide
March 23, ‘65 Michigan faculty and students organized the first ‘teach-in’, an
all-night gathering at which professors reviewed Vietnam’s history and the
conflict between north and south and led discussions on the major issues with the
hundreds of students who turned out. The idea of the teach-in caught on quickly
as some 20 other universities followed suit the next week. ††
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a New Left organization founded in ’62
at Michigan, led the way, rapidly signing up many new campus chapters and
hundreds of new members. With its ranks growing, SDS coordinated a major challenge
to LBJ’s war policy, staging a 25,000-strong march on Washington on April 17th.
The lines of the emerging divide on the homefront between the government and
the New Left were now clearly drawn.
was then a young academic, a first-year Political Science prof at the
University of Missouri (Mizzou) where a teach-in was also held. A relatively
conservative campus, our event was sedate by comparison with Michigan’s. I was
a co-organizer, but my motive was to support the war, not oppose it.
younger brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI then back at Indiana University
(IU), was on the other side of the issue. Later, after the Tet Offensive of
’68, I came around to Jeff’s view.
held the Mizzou teach-in at a 500 seat auditorium. The place was packed with
students and faculty, the overflow sitting in the aisles and standing at the
back. I was joined on the pro-war side by a senior American historian. Our
opponents, junior faculty like me, were both specialists in South Asia.
argued against the war based on their extensive knowledge of Southeast Asia,
the previous fate of the French colonialists, and the idea that Vietnamese
nationalism was the essential driving force in what they considered a civil
a JFK liberal internationalist, I placed the Vietnam conflict in the context of
the global Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. I argued
that North Vietnam’s campaign against the South was being facilitated by
indispensable Soviet military materiel and was a challenge to the US policy of
‘containing’ the USSR within its imperial frontiers.
I did not dismiss Vietnamese nationalism, but insisted that Communist ideology was the major factor; hence, for me the conflict was a Soviet proxy war using North Vietnam and, in the South, its surrogate, the VC.
Teach-in, University of Missouri, 1965 – author at far right pondering
sides to the debate received supportive applause from the audience, but when a
straw vote was taken at the end, the pro-war position had prevailed.
I doubt that Washington took note of Mizzou, historical accounts tell us that
LBJ was upset and offended that the learned community was leading the burgeoning
protest against his policy.
after the antiwar left carried its opposition to the streets of the nation’s capital,
the administration began marshalling its forces against the growing tumult at
some of the nation’s foremost institutions of higher learning.
since February’s retaliatory air attacks, the State Department (USDS) had been
getting telephone calls hourly from citizens asking for an explanation of the
sudden escalation that followed. In addition, by April of ’65 USDS had received
over 20,000 letters of inquiry about the war. As a presidential advisor commented,
the administration clearly wasn’t doing its “propaganda job right.”*
April 25th, Secretary of State Rusk commented briefly in an aside in
a speech on an unrelated subject that he found much of the criticism he had
heard against the war ‘nonsense’ and expressed surprise at the ‘gullibility’ of
the academics leading the charge. The following day USDS began planning to
counter the protests by ‘explaining’ the war policy to academe.
Washington speaking team was dispatched to visit five universities in the
Midwest. Leading the group, officially called the ‘Inter-Departmental Speaking
Team on Vietnam Policy’, but soon dubbed the ‘truth squad’, was Thomas Conlon,
a mid-level Foreign Service officer.
an experienced 40-year old diplomat, was well qualified to lead the group,
having served at the US Embassy in Saigon for two years. He’d even learned
Vietnamese in the process and was an articulate and forceful public speaker as
well. A ‘hawk’ on ‘containing’ Communism, Conlon strongly supported drawing the
line in Southeast Asia.
was variously accompanied by an official of the Agency for International
Development (AID) and one or the other of two assigned senior Army officers –
all with Vietnam experience as well. The rep from AID was Earle Young, a specialist
in rural development who had served both in Laos and South Vietnam.
field experience was extensive. While working in South Vietnam, he had
witnessed Saigon losing ground in the countryside. One of his postings was in
Long An province abutting the capital region, which, on the cusp of LBJ’s
escalation, was increasingly falling under VC control. One village, a mere 12
miles from Saigon, was so completely under VC sway that the government flag could
not be flown there.
Washington civilians were backed up by two colonels who had served as advisors
to the South Vietnamese Army in its counter-insurgency campaign against the VC.
In effect, it was a well-informed truth squad that landed in America’s
heartland, confidently expecting to set the record straight on US involvement
in Vietnam and quiet the spreading campus unrest.
The truth squad landed in America’s heartland confidently
expecting to set the record straight on Vietnam and quiet the spreading campus
first stop on May 4th – during the weeks following the early March
landing at Danang when Marine combat reinforcements were pouring in as a result
of LBJ's ongoing buildup – was at the University of Iowa where the truth squad
received its baptism by fire. The Iowa Socialist League organized a raucous
evening reception before a hooting and jeering crowd of 200 students and
government team argued the US was responding to Communist aggression from North
Vietnam, a claim that flew in the face of the Iowa critics’ belief that we had
intervened in a Vietnamese civil war. That first experience became a rude
awakening for Washington’s experts, who had anticipated being heard by a
typically tranquil and polite academic forum.
shouts and provocative statements, Conlon soldiered on, replying to questions
about why Vietnam was important to US national security with standard Cold War rhetoric;
to wit, if we let North Vietnamese aggression go unanswered, it could lead to
the end of the evening at Iowa, Conlon began to lose his cool, agreeing with a
questioner that it was a “crummy war,” but “the only war” we’ve got.** Predictably,
the place erupted in hoots of derision.
truth squad moved on to Drake University in Des Moines where they found some
respite from the battle zone. The Drake audience was mildly critical but
respectful, and the team was able to get its points across without incident.
Traveling north, the next stop was University of Wisconsin at Madison, and it
was back into the cauldron of antiwar protest.
before the Vietnam War heated up, Wisconsin-Madison was primed to play a role
in opposition. Back in the ‘50s, the campus had a small but critical group of
professors on the left led by Hans Gerth, an émigré German Marxist in Sociology,
and William Appleman Williams, a Marxist historian. They were the cynosures of
a graduate student Marxist study group that published a journal on left
week after Michigan’s teach-in, reacting to LBJ’s Vietnam escalation, Wisconsin
activists mounted their own massive teach-in attended by 5,000 students and
faculty with television coverage by CBS. A month later, Conlon and company were
unknowingly heading into a buzz saw in Madison.
truth squad had been invited to Wisconsin by the campus ‘Committee to Support
the People of South Vietnam’, but on arrival at the evening’s venue with 650
people awaiting, it was also met – ‘confronted’ would be more apt – by the ‘Committee
to End the War in Vietnam’ (CEWV), a 200-strong umbrella group drawing on SDS
and other campus left groups.
there were empty seats in the room, the CEWV activists wearing black armbands
insisted on standing along the walls and greeting the team’s pronouncements
with a cacophony of hisses and heckling.
happened to arrive at Wisconsin as a visiting professor a few weeks later and found the campus still abuzz over the
ever rising American troop levels and expanding bombing runs over North Vietnam.
From my office window on the campus green, I saw occasional rallies and
periodic marches up the hill to the Administration Building.
confrontation, the Wisconsin green a few years later
no doubt the majority population of a large Midwestern university was mostly mainstream
politically, the campus left in Madison was highly visible, well beyond its
but not cowed, Conlon and colleagues went across the state to the university’s
Milwaukee campus for a relatively quiet evening of Q & A on the war, and
then headed south.
Indiana University the military officers held informal afternoon meetings with
small groups of interested students and professors. A former IU grad student
critical of the war told me that the colonels responded to queries about the
fighting in rural areas forthrightly and with candor, earning the respect of
the truth squad’s full-dress appearance in Bloomington that evening turned out
differently. National press coverage on the uproar at Iowa and Wisconsin had
preceded the team, and the large auditorium was full – a mix of supporters of
the war, a sizable minority of opponents – liberals, the New Left, and
even a few Old Left – and the largest group, people curious to hear both sides
of the issue.
Jeff, who had returned to college from Vietnam the previous fall, was no doubt
in the audience and well informed on the conflict. He had returned from ‘Nam
highly critical of the war, but at that point in time was mainly preoccupied
with getting back into the academic groove.
from his IU letters of the previous several months, I knew Jeff was worried
about the possibility of the war flaring up and, as a Vietnamese linguist,
being recalled to duty – a prospect he didn’t relish.
battle-scarred, Conlon led off with a strong, assertive line on Washington
policy in his opening remarks to the IU audience; during the Q & A that
followed, the critical minority dominated the floor, firing off challenging
questions and often greeting the government’s responses with vocal disbelief.
the audience that evening was Bernard Morris, who had only recently left a
career at the State Department to join the IU faculty. Addressing a question to
Conlon, Professor Morris became incensed with the answer, responding “I never
thought I’d see the day when my government would lie to me.”†††
never thought I’d see the day when my government would lie to me.”
their final destination, the University of Illinois on May 11th, the
truth squad got more rough sledding from many in the hall who had followed the
team’s rocky reception elsewhere. They flew back to Washington, Conlon unfazed
by the Midwest reception, but the others no doubt relieved to be off the firing
the end, what was the outcome of the first of what would become numerous
confrontations over the war between the government and its critics, initially a
very small minority which would eventually become legion? To read Thomas
Conlon’s subsequent published account of the truth squad’s spring ’65 tour, one
might come away with the impression that his team had successfully taught the
students ‘the facts of life about Vietnam’.
believed that the truth squad had rescued the universities from those who had
fallen prey to ‘communist propaganda’. Of course he was referring to the
‘extremist’ professors he had encountered–often, as he pointed out, in fields
like psychology, the sciences, and literature, hence not qualified by training
and therefore lacking in expertise on Vietnam.
the other hand, tapping back into activist circles at Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana,
and elsewhere, one hears the cheers of victory, ‘we have met the enemy and he
is ours’. The klaxon had been sounded – rise up in protest against the war.
for the canard about the need for expertise to understand Vietnam – a notion
popular in Washington foreign policy circles – one of the country’s foremost
critics of the war, Noam Chomsky of MIT, shot that one down a year later. As he
wrote, “There is no body of significant theory or … relevant information,
beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy [on the war] immune
reality, the New York Times
correspondent covering the truth squad’s tour, called its running battles with
its foes a draw. Both sides came away with something. The government succeeded
in reinforcing the “views of supporters” of its Vietnam policy while the campus activists,
with their critical positions “strengthened” by the clashes, emerged energized
for the encounters to come.****
in T Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam (1994), 29.
Janson of the New York Times, who
reported on the truth squad in the Midwest, quoted in The Militant (June 14, 1965).
Chomsky, “The Responsibility of
Intellectuals” (1966) in American Power and the New Mandarins
Janson writing in The Nation (May 24,
been on the trail of my brother’s lost past for a long time. Along the way I’ve
encountered many memorable people who were part of his story. Brother Jeff
Sharlet distinguished himself early, but died young. As the Vietnam War faded
from public memory and with it the antiwar movement, Jeff’s accomplishments in
the struggle were forgotten.
was an ex-Vietnam GI who became a founding leader of GI opposition to the war.
His pioneering underground paper, Vietnam
GI, caught on quickly and was read around the world wherever American
troops were stationed, most importantly in Vietnam.
the early ‘70s, Jeff’s contribution was generously recognized in several
articles and books, but the overall significance of GI protest in contributing
to the end of the Vietnam War soon slipped into oblivion. Quite a number of books
and memoirs subsequently published were primarily about the ‘civilian’ antiwar
movement. Most of the authors had been activists who somehow forgot, or chose
to ignore, the GIs who took on the war and ultimately made the difference.
GI leaders languished along with Jeff in historical obscurity for over a
quarter of a century until the dramatic appearance of the first full-length
documentary on resistance in the ranks. Late spring 2005 I got a call telling
me that the film, Sir! No Sir!, the
suppressed story of the GI Movement to end thewar in Vietnam, would be premiered at the Los Angeles Film
Festival. It was the director, David Zeiger, calling to say that Sir! No Sir! was dedicated to brother
that time I had begun ‘searching’ for Jeff – to find and reconstruct the shards
of his life and put his story between the covers of a book. It’s been a lengthy
quest, but I’m now close enough that the time has come to note some of the
memorable encounters I’ve had along the way.
is my word of choice meant to encompass those whom I’ve had the pleasure of
meeting in person along with many others I’ve met through Minerva’s gift to
searchers, the Internet, and even a couple of historical figures of the times
whose lives I ‘encountered’ only posthumously.
was also about the time that I came upon an unusual social networking theory
called ‘six degrees of separation’, the idea that everyone is just six or fewer
steps away by way of introduction from any other person in the world. I first stumbled on this curiosity in
connection with my own life while seeking my brother’s story. Bear with me
while I relate how it worked.
a young man I knew Joan Baez who was to become the famous singer-songwriter. In
the late ‘50s, I was living in Harvard Square across the river from Boston when
she was beginning her career. She often performed at Club 47 on Mt Auburn
Street, a coffee house a few blocks from Harvard run by friends of mine. I hung
out at ‘47’ and got to know Joan casually.
the time I was going to college and driving a cab, a Boston Checker. To take
some liberty with Harry Chapin’s song, Joan soon “took off to find the
footlights”, and me, I was “flying in my taxi.”*
moved on, and, like countless others, I listened to Joan’s music over the
years, my brief encounter with America’s great chanteuse a pleasant but distant
memory. Some 15 years later, after I’d begun my academic career and the Vietnam
War had ended, I found myself invited to be on national public television
(PBS). I went to New York, made my way to the studio, and was shown to the
Green Room to await show time.
I recognized Telford Taylor, the former US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.
We were to be on the show together that evening. I introduced myself, and we
talked a bit. I wasn’t thinking, here I am talking to the man who brought the
Nazi war criminals to justice or even about our upcoming on-air discussion.
a news item several years back sprang to mind. Professor Taylor had accompanied
Joan Baez to Hanoi on a peace mission, and almost immediately on arrival they
found themselves hunkering down in a bomb shelter. The US Air Force had just
launched its so-called Christmas raids, the deadly carpet-bombing campaign
against the North Vietnamese capital, December ’72.
Joan Baez and
Telford Taylor enroute to Hanoi, 1972
was, of course, a tenuous connection to my youthful encounter with Joan, but
several decades farther on a closer link would emerge. In searching for brother
Jeff, I was trying to locate GIs who served with him in Vietnam. I had names,
one of which was Peyton Bryan, but no addresses.
another GI pal of Jeff’s gave me a crucial tip – after the war, Peyton had married
Joan Baez’s older sister. Happily, a book on the Baez sisters had just been
published, and there was Peyton in the Index. He and Pauline were living in Carmel Highlands, a stone’s throw from Joan in
Carmel-by-the-Sea on the California coast.
six degrees theory came into play again while I was researching two especially prominent
public figures relevant to the memoir. The two men were well-known in the
history of the Vietnam War. Both were deceased, and though each was amply
discussed in the war literature, I was able to gain further unusual insight
into their public lives through similar personal interconnections.
was Lucien Conein†, a legendary CIA agent in Vietnam; the other was Bernard
Fall, the great chronicler of France’s defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese.
Both of them were linked indirectly to Jeff’s experience in Vietnam.
had been a daring OSS operative in Occupied France near the end of WWII and
then had been redeployed to French Indochina to help drive the Japanese out.
That was the beginning of his long relationship with Vietnam that lasted to the
1963-64 when Jeff was there, Conein was in Saigon serving as covert US liaison
to the South Vietnamese generals planning the coup against President Diem.
Jeff, a Vietnamese linguist, was also part of our secret involvement in the
coup, so I was on the lookout to learn as much as I could about Conein as the
Sufficient information was available in published histories of the coup, but it was
through two friends of mine who knew Conein personally that I gained the most
insight – in effect, two degrees of separation. One was a former student who
lived next door to Conein in an upscale Washington suburb until his death; the
other was a college roommate who had served in Vietnam with the CIA.
former roommate happened to witness the evening in Saigon a very drunk Conein
raised so much hell in a hotel bar that the following day his superior sent him
into Agency exile, shipping him out to one of the most remote small outposts in
South Vietnam. Conein promptly dubbed the obscure place his ‘Phu Elba’ – he’d been
assigned to Phu Bai, exactly where Jeff had been posted three years earlier.
posting at Phu Bai was also why I became interested in Bernard Fall. One of his
noted books, Street without Joy, had been set on a stretch of highway not
far from Jeff’s base in ‘53 where a French armor unit was wiped out in a
well-laid ambush by Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh. Ironically, years later in ’67
during the American war, Bernard Fall, who was embedded with a Marine patrol,
was killed by a mine explosion in the same locale.
not absolutely essential to my project, I wanted to know more about the
distinguished historian, and, lo, two direct sources turned up. One was a
colleague, godfather to my children, who, while taking courses on Southeast
Asia at Cornell in the ‘50s, had been in a seminar taught by Bernard Fall. The
other source was an ex-Vietnam Marine I came across who had known the historian
well in Vietnam and remained a friend of his family since then.
of my encounters, however, have been with many good people I’ve been in touch
with who have kept Jeff in memory. I’ve found these individuals all over the
United States and as far afield as London, Paris, Munich, Athens, the Austrian
Alps, Sydney, Thailand, and Chile.
time I’ve traveled far and wide to meet and directly interview those who
remembered Jeff best – to Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, New York,
Washington, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Woodstock, and elsewhere.
interlocutors have been a diverse group. All without exception ended up in so-called
‘good guy’ professions – no oil lobbyists or ad execs penning jingles. Aside from the military guys, the
former civilian antiwar activists include academics, authors, artists, musicians,
translators, international humanitarian workers, a few lawyers, a couple of
film makers, several union activists, a rancher, and even a former professional
the Vietnam War part of Jeff’s story, the military personnel were also a varied
group. Most of the GIs were linguists, but there were also communications, transportation,
and medical personnel as well as several infantrymen and a helicopter door
gunner. Two were officers, both West Point graduates.
of the Marines had been a member of Force Recon, a unit that infiltrated North
Vietnam to carry out targeted assassinations, but perhaps the most unusual individual
was Jeff’s fellow GI linguist who, upon completing his Vietnam tour, chose to
remain in-country and for a time became a Buddhist monk.
for Jeff’s prep school classmates, most of the civilians were left activists,
although of various persuasions – Trotskyists of sundry affiliations, including
the Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialists; Progressive
Labor; the Communist Party; Yippies; and a few members of the Workers World
Party as well as the Lyndon LaRouche group.
number of the people I encountered along the way had noteworthy pasts. They
included a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW); some GI
deserters; a former Assistant Attorney General of New York State; ‘soldiers’ of
the SLA, the violent Symbionese Liberation Army; and several one-time prison
inmates who had done time for draft resistance, burglary, or drugs.
of the activists had played leading or significant supporting roles in
momentous events of the ‘60s – notably the case of the Bloomington (IN) Three,
the ‘64 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the Columbia University uprising of
of Jeff’s friends, a Japanese-American, had been interned as an infant during
WWII; another made a rare escape from a Mexican prison; and one man, a charismatic
draft resistance leader, tragically took his own life. Quite a few have been
lifelong supporters of the Cuban Revolution, some of whom had gone there to cut
cane with the Venceremos Brigades beginning in ‘69.
number of the individuals who have been of great help have led unusual or adventurous
lives including Joe,1 combat photographer of the war’s underside;
Gordon, a major who confronted the generals;2 and Jim, the former
Yippie who took on the Pentagon.3
also Tom, the career activist-organizer;4 Bill, who had been the ‘go-to’
guy in radical Chicago;5 and Bernella, the activist-musician.6
And no longer with us, there was Bernie, the maverick professor;7
Max, organizer of GI resistance in Europe;8 and Gary, the antiwar
comet who briefly streaked across the ‘60s’ skies.9
very first encounter on the memoir project from Jeff’s college days was with
Karen Grote Ferb, who had known Jeff way back when they were undergrads at
Indiana University (IU). She told me about Jeff’s ‘political’ life at IU, of
which I’d been largely unaware. Within our family, he had rarely mentioned his
radical activism – our parents would not have understood.
IU, Karen, along with Jeff, was involved on campus with Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS). Early on, SDS’s mission was urban and local, ERAP or
the Economic Research and Development Project. Karen was sorry to see it shunted
aside as the war in Vietnam heated up and national SDS refocused on antiwar
protest, but threw herself into the fray with energy and enthusiasm.
IU New Left activists went up to the state capital, Indianapolis, to join a
demonstration protesting President Johnson’s weekend appearance, the Secret Service
arranged with the city cops to preempt them. Karen was the first one arrested
and in Monday’s paper became the poster girl for the incident.††
her degree in ’66, Karen went on to grad school. First day on campus she asked
a bearded student where to find the left. He replied, “You just found it,” but
her activism there was short-lived. Soon married, her husband, a fellow grad
student, was drafted, and Karen, after a brief stint as a welfare caseworker in
New York, became a trailing military wife.
Tom through the Army’s training network – Forts McClellan (AK), Benning (GA),
and Hamilton (NY) – on the side Karen did her best to seed doubts about the war
among young GIs destined for battle in Vietnam.
Tom was released from the forces, the couple intended to resume their PhD study
at Penn State. No problem for Tom, but by then they’d had their first child,
and Karen was blocked by academic discrimination of the day – no mothers
permitted in the graduate programs.
Karen and her kids
camping, New Hampshire, 1974
and Karen went to work for Abt Associates, an international development outfit based
in Cambridge MA working mostly under federal contract, whose mission was and
still is toimprove the quality of life and economic
well-being of people around the world.
in the evaluation of the Head Start and Magnet school programs that had been
created in the mid-‘60s, among other federal programs, Karen traveled extensively under Abt’s
auspices – New York, Washington, San Francisco, and also Appalachia, south
Florida, the Great Lakes region, and the Southeast as well as the Northwest.
most exotic destination was Alaska. From Anchorage she flew south in a Twin
Otter, the pilots following the fjords along the Kenai Peninsula, described by
Karen as “a place of stark and desolate beauty.” On the ground, she was driven
by heavy truck over rough dirt roads to reach the evaluation sites.
Karen, Tom, and their children became skilled ocean sailors, docking their boat
in the Caribbean, and, by air, adventurous global travelers as well. Karen continues
her lifelong work toward greater social inclusiveness as a civic leader in her
local community, which most recently honored her as a ‘Woman of the Year’.
sailboat, Sazerac, British Virgin Islands, 1990
early in the new century when Karen first contacted me, I’ve been the fortunate
beneficiary of her exceptional skills as researcher and editor in retracing
Jeff’s short but interesting life, both for this blog and the forthcoming
encounters on the trail of my brother’s life continued – most recently with
Charlie Fisher, one of Jeff’s erstwhile comrades from the ‘60s. Actually, with
Charlie it was a re-encounter since I had located him several years ago via the
Internet. Subsequently, he and I met in San Francisco, but the announcement of
his latest book has given me the chance to learn much more about his rich and
born, Charlie received his education from Kindergarten through a Master’s
degree at the University of Chicago, reading the renowned ‘Great Books’
curriculum along the way. Off to Berkeley for a PhD in 1960, Charlie was part
of the civil rights activism, the Free Speech Movement in ’64, and anti-Vietnam
War protest then rife in the Bay Area.
on, he enjoyed a long academic career as a sociologist at Brandeis University
just outside of Boston teaching a broad array of courses across several
disciplines. A polymath, Charlie taught the familiar Sociology curriculum –
Social Movements, Community Organizing, and Sociology of Science – but also further
afield, History of Science, Ethnography, and the Social Psychology of
joined the Brandeis faculty in the midst of the Vietnam War, Charlie plunged
into antiwar activism in the Greater Boston area. Most notably, he became an activist in the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG), the most effective organization of
its kind in the country.
was from Charlie I learned that Jeff had sent the masters for each issue of Vietnam GI to BDRG, which would then print
up another 5,000 copies and extend distribution to military facilities
throughout New England.†††
Charlie relates in the author’s bio for his new book, the first of two major turning
points in his life occurred in ’69 when he canoed from the Canadian Northwest on
the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean. During this epic adventure, Charlie
became hooked on nature.
Charlie Fisher, Buddhist, naturalist, scholar
other seminal moment was in ’77 when he made the decision to take up
meditation. Charlie soon became a committed practitioner and serious scholar of
Buddhism, incorporating the themes of the natural world and the practice of
meditation into several of his courses. He began a lifelong study of the
interconnection between the two.
commitment to Buddhism took him to remote corners of India as well as the
American Southwest and other centers of meditation, while his engagement with
nature involved a tree count in former British Honduras, now Belize; participation
in a plant census; avid bird-watching; and summers spent in the coastal
mountains of Northwest British Columbia.
from Brandeis, Charlie moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in ’97. No longer
responsible for academic duties, he was able to devote full-time to the
research and writing for two planned books on his education writ large. His
first book, a study of the origins of human discontent, Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s
Way through Darwin’s World appeared in 2007.
latest book, the companion study Meditation in the Wild (2013), continues
his intensive inquiry into the historical and philosophical origins of the
relationship between human consciousness and the natural world. The noted author
Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, has called the book:
fusion of interpretation and inspiration distilled over a
lifetime of study of both natural history and the Buddhist
is by no means at the end of his personal and learned quest, but l am pleased
to have this chance to express my gratitude to him as well as to my colleague
Karen Ferb. Thanks also go to the many
others referenced here and, though unmentioned due to space – to a legion of
people one and all, I’m grateful for their memories in my journey to rediscover
Jeff’s past and reconstruct his life in the GI antiwar movement of long ago.
after brother Jeff headed back to the ‘world’ via the Army’s labyrinthine bureaucracy
– late spring ’64 – I was departing Moscow, metropolis of the mighty Soviet
Empire, to return home by way of the Continent. During the ‘50s, I had served
in the military in West Europe, but those carefree days as a Cold War soldier
were well behind me.†
return began from a remote American base about 60 miles below the 17th
parallel, the line then nominally dividing North and South Vietnam. He had been
dispatched to Vietnam in August ’63; I had reached Moscow a month later.
was soldiering, I was studying. We were both preoccupied with Communism – he
with the North Vietnamese militaryacross the
border, I with the Marxian legacy of its patron, the USSR.
of us had gone abroad with some political baggage, but as a result of our
respective experiences – mine with the ‘enemy’, Jeff’s with our Vietnamese
allies – on return, we were traveling much lighter, more enlightened.
Jeff – a Vietnamese linguist – becoming familiar with the country’s culture and
seeing the war up close tended to blur the US image of saving South Vietnam
from what would become its ultimate fate. He found that the average soldier or
simple peasant had far less enthusiasm for Saigon’s war and the US effort to
help them ‘win’ it, than reflected through the prism of Washington policy.
for me, a year of studying with Soviet professors and living among their
students had begun to subtly alter my image of the great East-West divide. Few
of the Soviets I got to know well were as hard core Cold War as portrayed in American
media. Then meeting Communist East Europeans on my journey homeward changed my
perceptions even more.
closest Soviet friend, the late Avgust Alexievich Mishin, the USSR’s leading
specialist on ‘bourgeois constitutional law’, saw me off from Moscow with the
better part of a bottle of scotch.
had lost an arm fighting outside Moscow in the late ’41 counter-offensive that
saved the capital. His empty left sleeve (Soviet prosthetics were primitive),
was a vivid reminder that WWII was still living memory for millions of Soviet
(l) at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Moscow, 1991
journey west, first to Poland, began from the Belorussky railroad station. Nina,
the department secretary at Moscow Law School; Valery, a Russian grad student
friend; and my Soviet academic adviser came to see me off. Nina brought a bouquet,
Valery, a box of chocolates. We exchanged farewells on the platform.
the conductor’s signal, the professor helped me aboard with my luggage. Once in
my private compartment, he quietly asked if I had enough Soviet currency for the
long train ride across the steppe – he knew foreigners weren’t permitted to
leave the USSR with rubles.
had held back a ten-spot, which Anatoly Grigorevich didn’t feel was sufficient.
To my astonishment, he reached into his pocket and discreetly handed me more
rubles. I was deeply touched – not merely by his generosity, but by the trust
and courage it took to pass money to an American in the middle of Cold War Moscow.
If anyone had witnessed him, he would have been in serious trouble.
Warsaw, I momentarily had the crazy illusion I was back in the West – the atmosphere
was ‘lighter’, more open – it was a livelier place, more on a human scale than
Moscow. But in fact, I was in the capital of the USSR’s largest and most
important East European satellite.
Ford Foundation of New York had given me funds to head home via Communist East
Europe. I would be interviewing legal scholars in several countries starting in
at my hotel, I thought perhaps I had stepped through a looking glass into West
Europe. Though of course a state-run concern, the lobby was inviting with
many stylish people coming and going, but the biggest surprise was an inviting,
well-stocked bar with polished mahogany paneling.
barkeep was an attractive young blonde with a décolletage that would have
shocked puritanicalMoscow. Stepping up to the
bar, I ordered a beer not knowing what to expect. With a flourish she pulled a
tap and set before me a cold beer with a nice head. I marveled – I hadn’t been
served a cold beer in a year.
they had beer in Russia – pivo – but it was not readily available. In what
passed for cafés in Moscow, the main beverages on offer were Russian vodka,
Armenian cognac, or Georgian wine. Once in a blue moon I’d see an announcement
at the university that beer would go on sale, two warm bottles per person until
they ran out, so I’d arrive early, and then let Russian winter chill the beer
on my window ledge.
bore letters of introduction from Moscow, and my first interview the next day
was with the top Polish legal theorist, a law prof at Warsaw University. Professor
Ehrlich, a tall, slender man in his late 40s, received me at the Journalist’sClub located in an elegant 19th century
going in for an excellent lunch, we sat in the garden having an aperitif – a
small stemmed crystal glass of Polish vodka. I waited to see how he would drink
it – in Russia vodka was downed by the tumblerful – but to my relief my host
sipped his drink.
the next few hours Professor Ehrlich took all my questions, answering each
fully and with refreshing candor. I was accustomed to Soviet academics
responding cautiously, especially with a foreign scholar asking questions and
academics never uttered criticism of a fellow scholar. Ehrlich quite freely
evaluated his colleagues as well as my Soviet interlocutors. He didn’t have a
high opinion of the legal philosophers to the east.
in town, I wanted to meet other Polish jurists, and it just happened that the
leading jurisprudence professors from Poland’s major law schools were in the
capital for a conference. The Warsaw law faculty was conference host, so I was
invited to an informal gathering the following day – a picnic on the sandy
banks of the Vistula, Poland’s main river.
was a great opportunity since I couldn’t otherwise have met jurists from far
corners of the country during my limited stay there. The conference was
wrapping up, and one of the best-known of the group invited me to visit him at
his law school where he also happened to be rector of the university.
took a train to Lublin and spent a fascinating day and a half with Grzegorz
Leopold Seidler, a prolific scholar of Polish legal thought as well as the
history of political ideas. We became good friends and later had occasion to
Portrait of Rector
Seidler of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin, Poland
Communist patriot, the rector insisted on showing me an important historical site
before I left. His chauffeur drove us to what looked like a small, well-tended
park in a birch forest. We entered, and I soon realized I was in a cemetery, a
very special military burial ground.
was an obelisk in the middle but no tombstones, just raised markers inscribed
in Russian at the center of dozens of grassy mounds, each framed by low stone
was the region where the Soviet Army had first crossed into Poland in pursuit
of the Germans forces. Total Soviet losses on that front had been staggering, far
too many for a fast-moving army to set individual markers. So unit by unit, the
dead were buried in large graves.
markers, for instance, read, here lie with eternal honor men of the 1st
battalion, 8th Guards Army, or troops of the 5th
squadron, 7th Cavalry, and on and on. I felt the emotion of the
place, and as we left Rector Seidler said, “You understand now how much we owe
the Soviet Union.”
took a train south to Prague. I had written my Master’s thesis on
Czechoslovakia and knew a good deal about the country, but wasn’t prepared for
an encounter at the main railway terminal. Until the Communist coup in ‘48,
Czechoslovakia had been the only democracy in interwar Eastern Europe.
line of porters identifiable by their caps was awaiting my train; one took my
bags. As we walked toward the taxis, we talked – he spoke English well and told
me that up to ‘48 he’d been a successful Prague lawyer pleading before the
Constitutional Court. After the coup, the new regime had sent all the ‘bourgeois’
judges and lawyers packing.
then, working as a porter was the best job he could hope for. Learning of his background
and misfortune, I felt somewhat abashed that this distinguished-looking older man
was carrying my luggage.
the senior Czech legal philosophers, I found that I was something of an
anomaly, the rare American not on the left who came to Prague. Other than the
off-limits diplomats at the US Embassy, the only Americans resident in the city
were Communists on the run from McCarthyism and the FBI. Prague, a strikingly
beautiful and livable European city, was their favored place of exile.
One of many
bridges in Prague, Czech Republic
scholars who received me were politically and theoretically divided. Those at
the Law Faculty of Charles University, the Harvard of Czechoslovakia, tended to
be uncritically pro-regime and conservative in their intellectual tastes.
jurists, research scholars at the Czech Academy of Sciences, were less
enthusiastic about the prevailing neo-Stalinist status quo, and far more
venturesome. They read any foreign books on democratic political theory they
could get their hands on, and discussed Western ideas.
the latter group, most memorable were Zdenek Mlynar and his wife Rita along with
their interesting and lively circle of academic friends. They took me to dinner
at Prague’s French restaurant, and afterward we strolled the city center. I was
shown where a monumental statue of Stalin had once stood.
Stalin’s death in ’53, and especially after Khrushchev’s public denunciation of
the tyrant in ’56, the East European satellites were expected to eliminate
Stalinist excesses. Removing offending statuary was the symbolic first step.
’64, the former site of the statue in Prague was marked only by a very large empty
plinth, although beyond that the regime had dragged its feet on more
and his wife, an economist, were interested in Western ideas about government, particularly
the role of interest groups in politics, discreetly suggesting that permitting them
could provide a more pluralistic direction to the hidebound Czech Communist
system. I silently reflected that such a change would be a radical departure
from the centralized Soviet model.
Zdenek Mlynar during
the Prague Spring, 1968
didn’t realize at the time, but what I was hearing was part of the sub rosa
ferment that would lead to the dramatic emergence of the 1968 ‘Prague Spring’,
a major reform program led by the new Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek.
Dubcek, Mlynar rose rapidly in the party hierarchy, becoming a high official
and one of the leader’s principal advisers. He became the key idea man behind
the startling reforms, including the emergence of non-communist interest groups.
Soviet leadership, ever watchful of their satellites, had become increasingly
uneasy with Prague’s political direction. In August ’68, Soviet and Warsaw Pact
forces invaded Czechoslovakia, shutting down the reform movement.
and his chief advisers, including Mlynar, were arrested by Soviet troops and
hustled off to Moscow for political ‘re-education’. When Mlynar was allowed to
return to Czechoslovakia, he had no choice but to fall back on his avocation, entomology,
to earn a living working at a Prague
1970, he had been expelled from the Communist Party, and in ‘77, after
co-organizing ‘Charter 77’, an emerging dissident group, Mlynar was forced into
few pleasant weeks in the company of sophisticated, urbane East Europeans had
had a lulling effect on me. But enroute to my last stop, Yugoslavia, a minor encounter
jolted me back to reality. When I politely questioned a border guard’s order on
the train passing through Hungary, his hand immediately went to his holster,
reminding me what part of the world I was still in.
the Yugoslav frontier, I had entered an independent Communist country – the
USSR and Yugoslavia had broken off relations in ‘48, and, although ties had
later been renewed, the Yugoslavs continued their separate ways.
US even provided foreign aid to encourage the country’s independence from
Moscow’s orbit. I was headed for Belgrade, the capital, for the final leg of my
three-week swing through East Europe.
credentials again opened many doors: a letter from the chair of Jurisprudence
at Moscow University, travel under Ford Foundation auspices, and that I had
been a former student of Jerome Hall, a premier American philosopher of law.
academic legal elite of Belgrade were more open to the West.
number of research institutes had intellectual ties to West European institutions,
while several were closely associated with Strasbourg in northeastern France,
the international center for the study of comparative law, a subject not
welcome in Moscow.
Yugoslav capital was a relatively relaxed city compared to where I’d been living
the past year. There were a number of nice looking restaurants where service
and food were a departure from the Soviet culinary model. Like all large cities,
there were many movie theaters, but it was refreshing to see quite a number of
good foreign films on offer, including several well-regarded American feature
of the jurists with whom I spoke – Tadic, Pasic, and Lukic – reflected the
intellectual diversity of the Yugoslav theory establishment as well as its
generational structure. Tadic, the youngest, had been a Marxist since boyhood
and was philosophically closest to the utopian aspects of the Marxian
who was middle-aged, had completed his legal education in the late ‘40s and, at
the time of the Soviet-Yugoslav split, became a principal critic of the Soviet
system. By the time I met him, he was quite interested in American political
and legal theory. He was fairly well read.
grand old man of the Yugoslav scene was Lukic, who had earned a PhD in the
Sociology of Law in Paris during the interwar period. He was head of the
jurisprudence section at the University of Belgrade Law School.
found Professor Lukic, who resembled the older Mark Twain, in his well-appointed
office behind a massive desk. After I introduced myself, his secretary brought
in demitasses of Turkish coffee, as black and thick as anything I’d ever seen.
Faculty of Law,
University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia
We discussed the new Yugoslav Constitution – he had been a draftsman. Although
a far cry from constitutional charters in the West, the document was light
years ahead of Soviet Bloc constitutions.
I noted a puzzling paradox in a key clause. In its basic law, Yugoslavia
repudiated the use of force in international relations, but with a major caveat
– except for ‘wars of national liberation’. Professor Lukic merely nodded
was a familiar Soviet concept that included the war in Vietnam Jeff had just
left behind. So while Yugoslavia was beyond the pale of the Soviet Bloc, there
was still clearly ambivalence about the country’s independent path.
was time for me to move on, so I booked a sleeper train, a descendant of the
old Orient Express, and awoke the next morning in Paris where I had spent a
leisurely week during my army days in ’58. I stayed a few days with a French
girl, a fellow grad student I’d met in Moscow, before flying home to New York.
came away from my long sojourn in the East with a more nuanced and subtle sense
of the Cold War than the prevailing black & white view in the US. At Moscow
University, a great many of my fellow Soviet students never knew their fathers who
had died in the war. Most of the law profs were veterans, and several were
missing limbs. None of those people were anxious to see international tensions
the time I left Moscow, the well-defined shape of the Cold War had begun to
soften. My travels through Communist East Europe left the notion of a
monolithic Soviet Bloc somewhat tattered. Compared to the ideological
certainties in the USSR, East Europe was relatively alive with diversity in the
realm of ideas.
region may have been subject to Soviet control, but it was not marching in
lockstep with Moscow. On the contrary, the tolerance of a strong Catholic Church,
the repository of nationalism, clearly set Poland apart. In Czechoslovakia,
just below the surface, critical intellectual ferment which subsequently
surfaced in the Prague Spring, was bubbling. Then there was Yugoslavia, the
outlier astraddle the Cold War frontiers between East and West.
Communist East Europe in no way reflected Soviet ideological rigidity. In fact,
I found much admiration for America. Yes,
I of course heard the de rigueur criticism of ‘capitalism’, but I also noted appreciation
for our open society.
was headed for my first college teaching position. There would be much to talk
about. For me, the Cold War had become a diverse and multi-hued phenomenon.
Détente lay ahead.
† For the relaxed atmosphere of my military
tour in West Germany of the ‘50s, see