Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Heartland Radicals

My collaborator on this blog, Karen Grote Ferb, and I were recently reminiscing about the emergence of radical politics at Indiana University in the ‘60s, in particular the central role played by a young couple she knew personally. She sent me this remembrance of her friends and those times.

Bernella and William David Satterfield were among the founders of the Indiana University (IU) chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in spring of ’65. At first glance, they seem unlikely activists. Dave, aka ‘The Hawk’, born in Stoney Lonesome near Columbus IN, was a full scholarship student at Dartmouth, Class of 1962—English major, co-captain of the football team, and more. In the photo below, he is the epitome of clean-cut ‘50s youth.

Bernella’s 1960 freshman photo (above) from University of California-Berkeley predates the Free Speech Movement and the activism there of subsequent years. She looks the archetypal coed of the day wearing the requisite sweater and single strand of pearls. She and her brother Eric, both copiously talented artists—their father Bernard was a musician—attended the Sibelius Academy in Finland for a year. But she dropped out of UC after her freshman year and went to New York where she again ran into Dave whom she’d first met in San Francisco’s North Beach in ’60.

The two would soon have a child, born in ’61 in New Hampshire while Dave was finishing Dartmouth. The common denominator: music. Folk, blues, and bluegrass in particular; they played fiddle and guitar and sang, sang beautifully. The place: Greenwich Village, living with friends on ‘Positively 4th Street’, hanging on Bleecker and McDougal. Friends of Bob Dylan before he became famous in those freewheelin’ days at Kettle of Fish, Café Wha?, the Gaslight, the coffeehouses. Following the footsteps of the Beat Generation: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Now, below, they look more like activists: Bernella’s dark hair has grown long; Dave has a moustache.

Dave and Bernella Satterfield in ‘62

According to Bernella, Dave was “a gifted man and a brilliant singer.” He returned to Indiana, to IU in Bloomington, with Bernella and their daughter Cordelia to attend graduate school while Bernella pursued her music studies at the university. Dave wanted to be an English professor, but that wasn’t to be. Instead music, the tumultuous politics of the ‘60s, and the Vietnam War intervened. They soon became part of a core group of older, more experienced and serious, less conventional students accustomed to talking politics, literature, and philosophy.

Their priorities were not those of the average college student at the time. They were weaned on the Civil Rights Movement, on colonial wars of liberation, and Cold War nuclear fears as well as inner city and rural poverty and exploitation of workers. In Bernella’s own words, “most of us were ‘outsider’ types – we were beatniks, grad students, often older than the typical undergrad and some of us were from other parts of the country or the world ….we were the weirdoes, the bohemian fringe, the vanguard.” When they heard their old friend Bob Dylan’s demand for a better world in his iconic, confrontational Like a Rolling Stone in mid-‘65, they believed in actions that would revolutionize American culture and stop the war.

♫How does it feel? To be on your a rolling stone

Young protestor Cordelia, IU, March ‘65

It’s not surprising that this group of people began efforts to form the SDS chapter at IU. Spurred by President Johnson’s broken promises and escalation of the Vietnam War in February and March of ’65, around 15 of the core founding group held the first demonstration against the war in the state of Indiana. On April 17 members took part in the massive SDS march on the Washington Monument; the demonstrators presented Congress with a petition to the end the war in Vietnam just one month after the US sent the first combat troops there. That same spring they began holding weekly Friday afternoon forums in Dunn Meadow, a large grassy field on campus which the IU trustees had declared a Free Speech Zone following a pro-Cuban student march and violent counter-demonstration during the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62—but that’s another story.

Dunn Meadow, the Free Speech Zone, IU campus

The new chapter published its first newsletter in November of ‘65, opening with “until today your local SDS has been a raggle-taggle federation of radicals” that included Jim Wallihan, Robin Hunter, Lucia and Peter Montague the Grove brothers John and Bob, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet, et al. The group also took seriously SDS’ idealistic Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), taking on a project in a poverty pocket south of Bloomington where underpaid workers had neither running water nor buses to take their children to school.

The Satterfields and little Cordelia lived in a radical collective at 102 North Dunn Street, a stone’s throw from the IU campus. Their upstairs apartment was the scene of many gatherings, including regular visits from FBI agents Bernella thought were there to intimidate; but the group was undeterred in its belief the war was wrong. Some of the sessions were musical, some political, but all were interesting. I vividly remember hearing Bernella and a cousin perform a song in the living room by the father of bluegrass, their harmonius voices soaring a capella:

♫Mother’s not dead, she's only a sleeping
Yes mother is sleeping way back in the hills.*

Jeff Sharlet, one of the coterie that formed the IU SDS chapter, was part of the small, intimate group that held political discussions on leftist theory in the Satterfield living room. They were young, really fired up about politics, culture, and the war, and met frequently, often nightly. Bernella brought to the table quite a radical legacy from both sides of her family—her parents were Socialists, her grandfather a Russian anarchist, and an aunt was in the US Communist Party—as well as excitement over the possibilities, a classic ‘red diaper baby’. She thought Jeff, who by fall of ’65 was heading up the SDS chapter’s Dorm Education Project on the Vietnam War, was a strategic realist and tactical pragmatist, not a Marxist theoretician like Robin Hunter, who often led those “struggle sessions”. The group itself was more interested in the Port Huron Statement (the SDS founding document), Camus, and C. Wright Mills than in Marxist theories.

The Satterfields later split and went their separate ways. Sad to say, Dave, the musician, actor, writer, social theorist, and political leader, died in 2000 at age 59. Bernella, now Nell, still fiddling and singing, is an accomplished musician, journalist, and political activist working on progressive causes in Tennessee; in other words, still herself.

Jeff talked about her a lot, Bernella this or that, Bernella said. He had a lot of respect for her and took what she had to say to heart. He trusted her direction in things. She in turn saw Jeff, the only veteran in the group, as the voice of moral authority that was able to change activist hostility toward GIs to seeing them as victims of the system. When Dave Zeiger’s documentary Sir! No Sir!, co-dedicated to Jeff, was screened in Nashville, Nell spoke highly of Jeff; she had organized the film showing and discussion. As she wrote us recently, “It is thrilling to hear [that] you are spreading the word about Jeff's accomplishments. I am very pleased to have had the chance to share some part of my life with him.”

*Mother’s Only Sleeping by Bill Monroe

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unsung Hero of GI Resistance

It was pure serendipity when Jeff and Tom met in June of ‘67. Jeff was about to graduate from Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington in the middle of the American heartland, while Tom lived uptown in Manhattan in New York. Jeff Sharlet was New Left, president of IU SDS; Tom Barton was Old Left, a longtime activist. Rarely the twain met, but Tom, a so-called faculty brat in town to visit his parents, happened to be walking by just as events leading to Jeff’s arrest were unfolding —more about that further on.

Tom Barton had been something of a local legend during his student days at IU. At that time in the ‘50s, ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, was compulsory for male students on many campuses. In 1960, Tom led student opposition to the ROTC requirement, a protest that was inevitably received unfavorably by the Board of Trustees. Conscription was the order of the day in Cold War America, and the trustee chairman also happened to chair the local draft board. Although an enrolled grad student in good standing, Tom suddenly received a draft call, its retaliatory intent transparent.

He applied for Conscientious Objector (CO) status, entailing two years alternate service, but was rejected. There were procedural irregularities in the board’s decision, and Tom refused induction. The FBI was called in, he was arrested, and his case turned over to the US Attorney for southern Indiana for prosecution for draft evasion. Undaunted, Tom appealed to Selective Service headquarters in Washington. Given the punitive nature of his draft call and the IU trustee’s egregious conflict of interest in the matter, the government dropped charges against Tom and granted him CO status.

He performed his alternate service with the Peace Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, an organization active in the anti-nuclear protests sweeping the country. There he organized local chapters of the Student Peace Union (SPU), a 200-strong group drawn from area colleges and universities and served as Regional Director for the Philadelphia area. In effect, Tom Barton fulfilled his obligation and emerged a seasoned peace activist, experience he would carry into anti-Vietnam War protest later in the ‘60s

When Jeff and Tom first crossed paths, Jeff and fellow SDS leader Jim Wallihan were leading a demo near campus against local merchants, especially a pizza joint that had refused service to high school hippies. The protest, held in front of the doughnut shop across the street from the joint, was peaceful and orderly, perhaps with a few chants in the air. One of the shop owners called the cops, several uniforms and plainclothesmen arrived in four cars. As they pushed the group back off the sidewalk, an IU student began to address the group of demonstrators. A detective grabbed the kid, cuffed him roughly, and shoved him into one of the patrol cars where he began beating him with a flashlight.

Witnessing the arrest, Tom Barton called out, “Get his name.” At that moment another cop collared him saying “That’s all for you buddy” and he too was put in the back of the cruiser, as it happened in the custody of a young cop who turned out to be Tom’s high school classmate. Jeff and others protested the cops’ behavior, and were also arrested. Tom got bailed out and the next day wrote up a broadside describing the entire incident, especially the heavy-handed tactics of the abusive detective. The broadside circulated both in town and on campus and would eventually help Jeff in court, but, more important in the long run, Jeff and Tom would find themselves shoulder to shoulder on the antiwar barricades.

That summer Jeff went to New York, first stopping to meet Jan Barry and join his newly organized Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Afterward, he dropped by to see his new friend Tom Barton. Tom in turn introduced Jeff to his friend, Dave Komatsu, visiting from Chicago. Earlier Tom and Dave had been fellow members of a breakaway group from the American Socialist Party and on the board of the group’s paper. Jeff had mentioned to Tom he hoped to find a way to give active duty GIs opposed to the war a voice in the rising national chorus of protest.

Dave Komatsu was the perfect guy to hook up with. A long-time left activist, Dave knew his way around Chicago where Jeff was headed that fall for grad school at University of Chicago. Jeff was thinking of an underground paper for GIs, and Dave and his wife Kit had had earlier experience writing and producing an off-beat, low budget political paper, American Socialist. During fall term ’67, Jeff and Dave brainstormed the idea. Jeff the ex-GI had the contacts, while Dave had the know-how in putting out a paper, a match made in heaven. Start-up money was the only remaining piece of the project. Jeff solved that by withdrawing from grad school and using his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship funds to launch Vietnam GI (VGI) in early ’68 as the first GI-edited antiwar underground paper for active duty GIs.

VGI front page, June ‘69

Jeff and Dave needed help getting VGI to the troops in Vietnam. They had acquired a mailing list of left-leaning GIs, but Chicago, a hotbed of activism, was a magnet for federal, military, and local surveillance against the New Left and antiwar activists in general. The FBI worked hand in glove with suspicious US postal authorities on the lookout for cheap 3rd class printed matter, especially to Army APO addresses through which all mail to troops abroad passed. Undercover Army Counter-Intelligence agents operating out of Fort Sheridan in northern Illinois monitored all expressions of opposition to the war, while Mayor Daly’s police ‘Red Squad’ specialized in low-level harassment.

Re-enter Tom Barton who volunteered to help distribute VGI internationally, especially to Vietnam. Not that the Feds and the military were quiescent in New York, but the metro area was so huge and diverse that it was harder to keep an eye on. Hence, Jeff unobtrusively shipped big boxes of VGI to Tom, who would pick them up at the 14th Street Post Office near where he lived. He in turn, using various innocent-sounding, fictitious return addresses as well as diverse mail drops to avoid attention, transshipped the copies to GI subscribers in Vietnam. Multiple copies went to a cadre of mail clerks and combat troopers throughout South Vietnam who had written, offering to surreptitiously ‘distribute’ the ‘seditious’ paper in their units.

Tom became VGI’s East Coast Distributor for the New York metro area. This also included organizing fellow activists to hand out VGI at the Port Authority bus terminal through which soldiers and airmen returning to bases in the region passed, and even handing out copies to GIs on duty at an antiwar rally in Washington. However, to avoid unwanted notice from the authorities, his name didn’t appear on the masthead. Nevertheless, Tom Barton was a key member of the team which made VGI a great success early on as a global phenomenon wherever US troops were based.

Time moved on: Jeff died in ’69, a week later SDS imploded, and Nixon began the long de-escalation. Three ex-GIs – John Alden, David Patterson aka Joe Harris, and Craig Walden – took over VGI, carrying it forward til summer ’70 when the funding, always in short supply, dried up.

As VGI was winding down, Tom became a member of the editorial board for Wildcat, a new publication directed at industrial workers. By then VGI had inspired some 300 GI antiwar papers flying under the radar at US bases all over the world. GI protest grew powerful and contributed to war’s end, but in time it was lost to historical memory as America put an unpopular conflict behind it and the Cold War rolled on.

During the ensuing years, Tom Barton, a New York hospital worker and union shop steward, tried from time to time to keep memory of Jeff alive, once writing to Hanoi to suggest that the Vietnamese recognize the role of Jeff and GI protest in bringing the war to an end; another time giving an interview with Jim Wallihan about Jeff to IU’s hometown paper. Finally, during the Iraq War of ’03, Tom saw his opportunity to reprise Vietnam GI. He launched GI Special, a hard hitting, online anti-Iraq War daily. At the time I was seeking people who knew Jeff for a memoir on his short but interesting life. I didn’t know Tom Barton or his part in the GI resistance movement until Karen, the “Indiana Surprise” of the May 25, 2011 post, came up with an early Internet issue of Tom’s newsletter that re-ran Dave Komatsu’s long obit on Jeff from VGI of  summer '69.
Typical ‘bring the troops home’ leader

When I contacted Tom, one of the first things he said was that he saw himself following in Jeff’s footsteps with GI Special as successor to VGI. As formal hostilities ended in Iraq, but conflict between Iraqi resistance groups and US troops raged on for years, Tom’s lone antiwar voice gained readership among troops in the field as well as civilians in the States and abroad in over 90 countries. Tom became a co-founder of the Military Project and its periodical Traveling Soldier and helped ex-GIs organize the Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW) in the spirit of VVAW. For years since, the Military Project has made complete xerox sets of VGI issues available on request at nominal cost to Tom’s newsletter readers.

Tom Barton addressing the Military Project, ‘08

In recent years GI Special morphed into the current Military Resistance, now with much greater coverage of the intensified fighting in Afghanistan. Every day after work, Tom Barton puts out the day’s news on the war from both off-beat and mainstream media (“101st Airborne lost 131, the most killed in a single deployment since Vietnam”); as well as stories from the contemporary GI coffee houses that have sprung up near stateside bases; and, always relentlessly, the latest obits from local papers throughout the country lest the losses become aggregate abstractions, many from small towns rarely heard of—Ashford AL, Centennial CO, Checotah OK, Immokalee FL—with sad headers like:

Attack in Kabul Kills Austin Soldier

Marine Lance Cpl Jason Barfield Killed in Combat 10/24/11 in Helmland, Afghanistan

Sgt Alessandro Plutino, a US Army Ranger, Was Killed Monday

Killed by a Taliban Bomb, the Devoted Teenage Mother Who Joined the Military to Fund the Dream of Becoming a Nurse

Sgt Jeremy King: A soldier’s death isn’t anything like the movies. There was no patriotic music, there was no feeling of purpose. It’s just … death

Marine Lt James Cathey coming home from Iraq, Reno NV
Photo credit Todd Heisler, Rocky Mountain News

In ’04 when film maker David Zeiger approached Tom Barton for advice on a documentary about the Vietnam GI resistance movement, Tom told him the first thing to do was read the entire run of Vietnam GI, which he gave him. A year later when Sir! No Sir!, the first film on Vietnam GI protest, was premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, it was dedicated to ‘Jeff Sharlet, Founding Editor of Vietnam GI ’.

Let’s hear it for Tom Barton, heretofore unsung hero of GI resistance, past and present.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Moscow – Thanksgiving ‘63

November ’63 was a month of assassinations, Diem in Saigon, Kennedy in Dallas. News of the first ran for a few weeks in the world press, soon swamped by the more dramatic story of the second, which continues to this day in collective memory.

Brother Jeff Sharlet was peripherally involved in events leading up to the assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam (SVN), while I bore distant witness to the violent death of President Kennedy (JFK) many thousands of miles away. Until two weeks before Diem’s demise in a military coup, Jeff was based in the Saigon area spying on the South Vietnamese generals planning the coup; JFK had given the generals the ‘green light’, but wanted to make sure he had behind-the-scenes information. My mission in Moscow was much more benign – a PhD student from Indiana University-Bloomington on the US-USSR Cultural Exchange – I was researching my dissertation on Soviet jurisprudence. At the moment JFK was shot on a Texas street, I was hanging pictures in my dorm room at Moscow State University (MGU) in the Lenin Hills outside the USSR capital.

Except that we were brothers in far corners of the world, I didn’t give much thought to the low-intensity guerrilla war in former French Indochina, and I doubt that Moscow was very much on Jeff’s mind as he worked his equipment to monitor the generals’ conversations. News of the larger world was not abundant in either locale. In Saigon, Jeff could read the official military newspaper, Stars and Stripes and listen to Armed Forces Radio, mostly country music, while my main sources of information were the censored Soviet press and Radio Moscow. Nor was correspondence with family and friends timely; letters took 10 days to two weeks to reach their destination. In effect, during the fall of ’63, Jeff and I each lived in a relatively isolated, self-contained world.

Then on October 31st, a Yale professor was arrested in downtown Moscow by the Soviet secret police, aka KGB, charged with espionage. News appeared the next day in a brief notice in the official Soviet paper Izvestiia. The American exchange students were jolted out of their routines as word of the arrest got around. The professor, Frederick Barghoorn, was known by reputation to all, and it was implausible that he had come to Moscow for anything other than scholarly purposes.

While the arrest was buried at the bottom of a column, the coup in Saigon the next day, November 1st, was the big front page news story in the same issue; Communist North Vietnam, backer of the Viet Cong (VC) insurgency in SVN, was a close ally of the USSR. The following day brought the even more dramatic news that Diem had been assassinated. None of us missed the news from Southeast Asia, but we were distracted and worried about Professor Barghoorn’s arrest and its implications for the exchange program. After several days of Vietnam coverage, the front pages of Pravda and Izvestiia again returned to Soviet high politics and economic plan fulfillment. Meanwhile, official silence had descended upon the Yale professor.

US Ambassador Foy Kohler lodged a vigorous protest with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding release of the American academic. In Washington the State Dept avowed that the professor was a private citizen on a scholarly research trip. However, all appeals were to no avail as the prisoner continued to languish in Lubyanka prison not far from Red Square. A week passed, and another brief notice appeared in the press that the scholar would be bound over for trial. At the end of the second week of Barghoorn’s incarceration, at what would be his last press conference on November 14th, JFK, in a rare presidential intervention on an individual case, called Professor Barghoorn’s arrest unjustified, emphatically stated that he was not on an intelligence mission, and called for his swift release.

Another day passed with Barghoorn still locked up, and our group was notified to prepare for immediate departure from the Soviet Union. To everyone’s enormous relief, especially the prisoner’s, Frederick Barghoorn was abruptly released on November 16th, declared persona non grata, and expelled from the Soviet Union. The crisis that had kept us on edge for weeks had been happily resolved, and full attention once again returned to research work. Life returned to normal or as ‘normal’ as it would ever get in Moscow, where even the simplest daily task required careful planning and much time waiting in lines in that scarcity-ridden society. It was like living in a slow motion film. Later we would learn that the FBI had nabbed a Soviet spy, and Barghoorn had been seized as a high value hostage for exchange purposes.

Meanwhile back at his base in the PI, Jeff found himself the unwanted object of attention by the military hierarchy from the Pentagon down to his platoon commander (CO). While in Vietnam, he neglected to write home. Our mother, knowing he had left for the war zone, became worried and called their Congressman, who in turn forwarded her inquiry to the Army’s Adjutant General and on down the command structure. Word went back up the chain of command that Jeff was safe, but obviously, since he was then in the midst of a clandestine operation to overthrow the head of state of a sovereign country, the Army wasn’t sharing details. When Jeff returned from Saigon, his perturbed CO sat him down in the office to write a letter to his parents. Otherwise, Jeff slipped back into his regular duties reading North Vietnamese military intercepts in a windowless building surrounded by heavy security. For both of us in our respective bubbles, Thanksgiving abroad was just over a week ahead.

Jeff’s barracks on Clark Air Force Base, Philippines

Those of us assigned to the law school were hustling to catch up on time lost during the Barghoorn crisis since we all intended taking a couple of days off for the American holiday. Ambassador Kohler and his wife had invited the 25 or so of us to Thanksgiving dinner at their official residence. For a change, a great meal beckoned after months of bland university food. The week before the holiday a visiting US graphic arts exhibition opened in Moscow under auspices of the Cultural Exchange. I heard it was thronged by Soviet visitors anxious to see Western art, so on my trip to the embassy that week I picked up prints of some of the art works to decorate my bare bones Soviet dorm room.

Friday evening, the 22nd of November, with law school classes over for the week, I borrowed a tack hammer and was hanging the graphic prints on my wall. I was feeling pretty good – Soviet colleagues were welcoming, research was going well, and my spoken Russian had greatly improved. It was just after 8:30 Moscow time when my friend Al Lichtenstein burst into the room, gasping, “The President’s been shot.” Radio Moscow had interrupted its evening classical music program to announce the shocking news from Dallas shortly after noon that day. Al was a historian living on the other side of the huge dorm complex, the size of a college campus, and upon hearing the terrible news had raced over to tell me. We quickly turned on my room radio; it was nearing the evening news hour, and Radio Moscow had switched to very dark funereal music. At 9 o’clock the news reader recapped the shooting in a somber voice, then broke off his text a few minutes later to announce that word had just come from the Dallas hospital, "The President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, is dead."

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
                                                           ~Walt Whitman

While Al ran off to spread the word I sat on my narrow bed too shocked to think. Grief overcame me. With his flair, style, and charisma, JFK had been an extraordinarily popular president, especially for my generation just making its way in the world. There was a knock at my door. I pulled myself together; it was a delegation of Soviet law students, my floor mates, who had heard the news and come by to formally and very sincerely – Russians are soulful people – tender their condolences to me as an American amongst them. We stood there, our heads down in the dimly lit hall. One of them very politely asked me how such a thing could happen in America. At that point I assumed that it was a rightwing assassination and described to them the off-the-wall right-wingers in the States, the John Birch Society, the Minutemen, and others. They nodded gravely; that was a political explanation they could readily understand.

While standing outside my room we suddenly heard a commotion in the common area down the hall. Russian curses and indignant shouts filled the air. We rushed down where a large group of Russian students were milling around the bulletin board. A spokesman angrily related the cause. The third floor below in our wing of the dorm was occupied by a large contingent of North Vietnamese students. Right after news of Kennedy’s death broke, the North Vietnamese had drawn up a large poster praising the assassination and condemning the United States and posted it on our bulletin board. Upon reading it, the Russians in a fury ripped it down, tore it to shreds, and were shouting curses at the culprits who had wisely fled the scene – the Russian guys were twice their size. The Russians, all speaking at once, apologized to me, the only American present, for the outrageous behavior.

That weekend was a blur. On Saturday, Izvestiia ran a front page story with a black-bordered photo of JFK along with official statements of condolence. Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-Marine sharpshooter, had been arrested. Suspicion fell on Moscow once it was learned that he identified with the pro-Cuban left in the US and had lived for a time in the USSR with his Soviet wife. On Sunday Oswald was shot dead at point-blank range in the police station; the event was witnessed on live television by millions, adding to the chaos. His assailant was Jack Ruby, a shady nightclub operator.

The state funeral for the President was scheduled for Monday, November 25th. The embassy made arrangements for the American students to be invited to the private quarters of various Foreign Service Officers in the US diplomatic residence where we all watched a very emotional half hour of the long funeral on Soviet television. The Soviets had agreed to permit the first Telstar transmission for the occasion, but after 30 minutes the satellite moved out of range. I vividly remember the riderless black horse behind the caisson on Pennsylvania Avenue. As we sat in the comfort of an American living room far from our spartan dorms, we forgot for the moment that we were a long way from home.

Jacqueline Kennedy receives the flag that covered the president’s casket

The following day I went to the law school to attend class though my heart wasn’t in it. Upon entering the large common office of the Jurisprudence faculty, all present rose. With the chairman Professor Doctor Andrei Ivanovich Denisov (who was also my adviser) in the lead, they all came forward to offer condolences, bowing their heads slightly as they shook hands with me, as is Russian custom in the face of death. I was deeply touched by the feelings of the Russians that terrible week.

As Thanksgiving Day approached, we all assumed that the dinner would be off. On the contrary, the ambassador sent word that it was more important than ever for the Americans in Moscow to assemble on our national holiday. On Thursday I donned Sunday best with a suitably dark tie and, still with heavy heart, made my way with friends into Moscow. It was my first visit to the ambassador’s residence, Spaso House, a magnificent early 20th century structure built by a wealthy Russian. Shortly after the US diplomatically recognized the Soviet regime in 1933, the house was acquired as home to American envoys during their time in the USSR.

Spaso House

We passed through the front gardens to the entrance portico. Inside we were ushered into a beautifully appointed, high-ceilinged dining room with very large windows. We were seated at tables of four or five with fresh floral arrangements on heavy white linen tablecloths. Ambassador and Mrs. Kohler sat at a table near the windows with the most senior American scholar in Moscow as their dinner companion. On a small table nearby sat a silver framed picture of President Kennedy with a black ribbon across a top corner and the late President’s personal inscription to Foy Kohler below. As a senior State Department official in ‘61, he had played a significant role in helping JFK peacefully resolve the tensions in Berlin over the East Germans’ surprise erection of the Berlin Wall.

Before the dinner was served, the ambassador rose and spoke to our small group softly and warmly of his personal memories of JFK, of the loss he shared with us, and of the need for all of us to move on. It was a magical moment, we all felt a lifting of our seemingly limitless grief, and soon conversations blossomed around the room as spirits revived. I wish I could say that Jeff and buddies had also experienced such a healing moment, but that was not to be.  When the terrible news arrived from Dallas, it was already after noon on the following day, Saturday, November 23rd, in the Philippine Islands.

Meanwhile, as soon as the president was struck by bullets, the Pentagon flashed a full alert to all US bases worldwide. On the aircraft carrier Saratoga, when the captain piped the announcement of the President’s assassination to the ship’s complement, a sailor wrote that 4000 men on the ship were stunned into silence. At bases with artillery units the next day, per standing orders following the death of a president, one gun was fired every half hour from reveille to retreat.

Monday, the day of the state funeral, November 25th, had been declared a National Day of Mourning. Per protocol, troops at bases in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East held parades in memory of the fallen leader, while artillery bases fired 21-gun salutes beginning at noon. At US bases in Asia, it was to be simply a stand-down day of personal mourning with neither drills nor ceremonies – but not in Jeff’s unit. In the moronic military tradition of keeping the troops busy, a general ordered a full field inspection, angering both officers and enlisted men alike on that solemn occasion.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oleo Strut – Front Line of GI Protest

Fall 2011, the ‘Austin Lounge Lizards’ and ‘The Possum Posse’ played a benefit concert in the Texas state capital for a contemporary GI coffee house 70 miles down the road in an obscure small town not far from Fort Hood, home to the largest number of GIs in the US. There was much history in the moment. ‘Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center’ sits in a modest building on a side street of Killeen, direct successor to the Oleo Strut GI coffee house of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The wars are different, Vietnam then, Afghanistan today, but the operators of the café and the coffee house share/shared a common opposition to raging wars
which have taken their toll on Ft Hood troops.

As the Vietnam War intensified in ’67, Fred Gardner and a few friends decided it was time to focus on GIs in the antiwar protest equation, up to that time mostly visible as a civilian movement. He approached the SDS leadership with the idea of opening several GI coffee houses outside major military camps. His idea was that the coffee houses would become venues for developing GI organizers for the creation of a GI antiwar movement as well as hip places where off-duty military personnel could relax and read antiwar papers if interested. SDS blew Fred off in what we might be called a failure of analysis – not being able to imagine GIs who were equally opposed to the war and had far more at stake. He was surprised by their unwillingness to act on the idea, then figured it was up to him. Later, seeing Fred’s early success in South Carolina, SDS came around and supported the initiative.

Fred opened the first coffee house near Fort Jackson SC by rounding up private funding with the assistance of Donna Mickleson of Berkeley. He called it the ‘UFO’ in a kind of play on USO or the United Service Organization, the mainstream off-base organization catering to GIs and military personnel. The UFO was a big hit with a lot of young Basic trainees who were not enthusiastic about the Army or the war, so plans were laid to open coffee houses elsewhere. The second one, called Mad Anthony’s Headquarters in the little town outside Fort Leonard Wood MO, was run by Judy Olasov , a University of South Carolina student volunteer from the UFO.

The next location scheduled was near Fort Polk LA, but the local authorities were so hostile that they hustled the organizers out of town almost immediately. Instead, during summer ’68, ‘Oleo Strut’ became the third coffee house outside Fort Hood TX. Named for a helicopter shock absorber, the ‘Strut’ was co-managed by Josh Gould, a civil rights activist, and Janet ‘Jay’ Lockard, a Radcliffe dropout. Among the early staff volunteers were Tom Cleaver, an ex-Vietnam sailor; the late Dave Cline, a thrice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran who had mustered out at Fort Hood; and David Zeiger, decades later the director of Sir! No Sir!, the award-winning documentary on Vietnam GI antiwar protest dedicated to Jeff Sharlet and ex-Vietnam Marine John Kniffen.

Home for the ‘Strut’ was a storefront on the main drag of the small grungy army town of Killeen a couple of miles from Fort Hood, stateside base for the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions. The base was a small city in itself with 39,000 troops either bound for or just returning from Vietnam, and 65,000 military dependents in the environs. Some 2/3rds of the troops had served their 12 months in Nam and were ‘short-timers’, army slang for guys waiting out the remaining months on their service obligation.

♫So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go.
‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh, babe, I hate to go*

Killeen itself was grimsville USA, or as a Washington Post story described it, “a forlorn, single-story town that looks like a set from Bonnie and Clyde.”** The Strut was on Avenue D, a street lined with loan sharks, pawn shops, pin ball joints, a pool room, greasy spoons, and rip-off flashy jewelry and clothing stores, in a word, a typical garrison town. The Strut staff operated as a social collective, earning very modest wages for serving coffee, cider, and soda as well as doughnuts, pie, and ice cream and rapping with GIs who came through the door. The place had light yellow walls with about 20 tables covered with orange cloths. GIs were welcome to play the stereo in the corner with its collection of rock and pop records.

GI protest and movement literature, including Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI), was available for reading or carrying back to the post. House copies of Rolling Stone and Village Voice were on hand as well. On the walls were giant foto blow-ups of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Malcolm X, and Mohammad Ali among others. When possible on weekends, the Strut booked music groups from Austin, the capital, for a nominal door charge of 50 cents a head. Occasionally nationally known musicians would perform, one time the folkie Pete Seeger, on another occasion Barbara Dane the folk, blues, and jazz singer. There was an unwritten rule on drugs, ‘no holding, no scoring’.

The Oleo Strut was a venue for performers such as Barbara Dane, right

Getting the Strut up and running in a gung ho army town and keeping it going was not easy. Harassment was a regular occurrence – by the cops and civil authorities, by local rednecks nicknamed ‘goat ropers’, and by the military. Most common was being flagged down for alleged traffic infractions, being singled out for parking tickets where no other violators were ticketed, and being stopped for ID checks while walking in town. The Killeen Fire Department dropped by frequently for quickie inspections and gigs. David Zeiger remembered being arrested several times – for hitchhiking, for swearing in front of a cop, and once for having a dirty license plate. Civil and military surveillance occurred when the Strut staff organized outdoor events. Local police, Military Police (MPs), Army criminal investigators, and even the FBI would show up, snapping fotos of the activists.

The teenage cowboys, the goat ropers, sons of the town fathers whom the cops tended to view benignly, would attempt to break up off-premise Strut events, or cruise by the storefront trying to pick fights with the GIs. They generally threatened to destroy the establishment; the smashed front window may have been their work. By far though, the most dangerous harassment came from the local klavern of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). One time a carload of Klansmen with an M-16 drew up to the lead car of a caravan carrying Strut people to a Houston demo and tried to shoot out its tires. Other times the KKK would circle the house where the staff collective lived, leaving behind stickers saying “The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are watching you.”

The Oleo Strut drew full houses its first summer of ’68 in spite of the hassles and became the hub of GI antiwar organizing to the deep chagrin of the Hood brass: In-house, around town, and even on base through sympathetic GIs picnics were held; teach-ins staged; GI papers, especially VGI, the Ally, and the Bond, were surreptitiously distributed at Hood; and later, marches were organized and GIs driven up to Austin for political events. The Strut also assisted antiwar GIs with launching their new underground paper, Fatigue Press, an alternative to the official Fort Hood paper, the Armored Sentinel. However, by far the most momentous event for which the coffee house served as a kind of communications and coordination center was the Fort Hood Strike of August ’68.

Since most of the Vietnam veterans at Hood were ‘short’ in terms of army time and had no formal duties to speak of, they were trained for riot-control duty. Black uprisings in the northern urban ghettos had begun in ’65 and spread to major cities across the country. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, spring ’68, Fort Hood riot control troops had been airlifted to Chicago to help cope with the ensuing Black riots. As the Democratic National Convention scheduled for Chicago late August ‘68 approached and the New Left had announced its intention to disrupt the event, plans were afoot at Hood to again dispatch troops to assist the Chicago police.

Just before liftoff, 43 Black soldiers refused to board the planes and deploy against their own people in the ghetto. To avert any suggestion that they were cowards, only Nam vets who had won the Bronze Star for valor and had been wounded in battle participated in the refusal. Fort Hood command reacted predictably – first trying to cajole wayward troops, then sending in the MPs to beat them, and finally bringing severe charges against the 43 soldiers.

The incident and the Strut’s role in the affair brought renewed joint civil-military pressure on the coffee house. Just hours before heading to the airport to fly to Chicago for the great protest against the Democrats, co-manager Josh Gould was stopped by the police for allegedly making an illegal right turn and then charged with possession of marijuana after the cops claimed they found a few grains on the car floor. Bail was set at $50,000. Two weeks later, after finally identifying him as the underground editor of Fatigue Press, Private Bruce ‘Gypsy’ Petersen was arrested on another setup drug charge while “standing in front of the Oleo Strut.”*** Subsequently convicted, sentenced to 8 years in prison, and dishonorably discharged, he was eventually exonerated, although it took 18 months to get him out of Leavenworth.

Coffee counter at the Oleo Strut
Photo courtesy of the Roz Payne Archives

Many years later in a memoir by a former Counter Intelligence (CI) officer at Fort Hood, the full extent of command’s disquiet over Oleo Strut in their midst as a threat to the ‘good order and discipline’ of the Army was revealed. Posted to CI in the spring of ’68, the young officer found that the only files the section maintained were mainly dossiers tracking the activities of the civilian and GI activists at the Strut. His first assignment was to operate as a plain clothes undercover agent visiting the Strut regularly for the purpose of coming up with something which would justify placing it ‘off limits’ to military personnel. A budding antiwar GI, the lieutenant chose to quietly cast himself as a ‘double agent’, nominally representing the military, but privately protecting the Strut. As he put it, “I planned to see as little as possible and above all, to keep completely to myself whatever I did observe that might potentially incriminate someone.”****

GIs rapping at the Strut under the gaze of Muhammad Ali on the wall, ‘68
Photo courtesy of the Roz Payne Archives

Throughout his tenure as VGI editor Jeff Sharlet travelled the country frequently, visiting GI coffee houses and nearby bases, interviewing returning Nam vets, counseling GIs considering starting underground papers, and raising money to support the printing and distribution of VGI. In late November ’68, Jeff spent a week at the Oleo Strut, talking with staff, rapping with GIs, and enjoying the music. It was there he and Tom Cleaver were reunited; as young ex-Vietnam veterans, the two had met and hung out in Chicago, summer ’67. Tom was the Strut’s music coordinator, bringing music groups down from Austin. Jeff also met Dave Cline in late '68; he had just gotten out of the hospital, having recovered from wounds received in Vietnam, and would return to work at the Strut after his discharge from the army.  That was to be Jeff’s last trip since the illness which took his life seven months later had begun taking its toll.

From its inception in July ’68, the Oleo Strut, a front line strong point in the GI resistance movement, continued on until ’72, although along the way it was often staggered by financial problems, riven by internal political differences, and shorthanded on staff as dedicated volunteers came and went during that transient time of their young lives. Nevertheless, the Strut in particular and the coffee houses in general were, as an expert has written, “central to the rise of a broader, global” GI antiwar movement.*****  The contemporary Under the Hood Cafe carries on the work today.  It was created in '09 on the initiative of Tom Cleaver with the assistance of fellow '60's activists Alice Embree, Jim Retherford, and Jeff Segal, among others.

 *Leavin’ on a Jet Plane by John Denver, 1966
**Washington Post, 14 July 1968
***Vietnam GI, Stateside edition, August 1968
****Michael Uhl, Vietnam Awakening (2007)
*****Derek Seidman, The Unquiet Americans: GI Dissent during the Vietnam War (2010)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

M-16, or 'The Little Black Rifle That Wouldn’t Shoot'

In Vietnam GI’s (VGI) first issue of January ’68, Editor Jeff Sharlet ran a front page story under a bold, large cap title calling attention to problems with the M-16 rifle. What was this about?

For those of us who soldiered in the Cold War ‘50s, the trusty M-1 was the standard US infantry rifle of the day. A long, heavy semi-automatic rifle which took an 8-round clip, the M-1 had carried us to victory in Europe and the Pacific in WWII. By the end of the ‘50s however, it had been superseded by the new M-14, also a big rifle, but a fully automatic one, which carried a 20-round box clip, used a heavier more powerful bullet, and maintained a much faster rate of fire at a longer range. It seemed like the Army and Marines had their new battlefield weapon for the long term.

Then came Vietnam. Not the big frontal war on the plains of Europe the Pentagon strategists and weapons designers had planned for, but small unit, close-up warfare in an unforgiving jungle terrain favoring the enemy’s hit & run guerrilla tactics. For American military personnel advising the South Vietnamese Army in the early ‘60s, it soon became apparent that the long (nearly 4 ft) and heavy M-14 was no match in combat for the Soviet-style AK-47 assault rifle carried by the Viet Cong (VC) and troops of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

As US involvement in what became its Vietnam quagmire deepened, the Pentagon in haste accelerated the development, testing, and deployment of a new basic firearm, a prototype of the M-16, called the AR-15 assault rifle. Standard procedure of seeking competitive designs and bids for a new weapon was ignored, and instead Colt, armorer to the cowboy era, which had acquired the rights to the future M-16 as a lightweight weapon with a black plastic stock, got the nod. In Secretary of Defense McNamara’s rush to deploy the rifle once the US escalated in spring ’65, unresolved flaws in the weapon, familiar to the manufacturer, were disregarded as M-16’s were shipped to the combat zone.

M-16 rifle

In one of the early skirmishes with the VC during spring ’65, an airborne unit suffered “many casualties” when a number of M-16’s jammed. Later the same outfit would report that a number of rifles had blown up, killing one GI in the process. Yet in its first major battle in November ’65, the new rifle was given unqualified good marks by the field commander in spite of the fact that the M-16 had only been issued to his troops 10 days in advance with little time for familiarization on the weapon. Did the new rifle really perform well, or was the colonel just practicing good military politics for the M-16’s debut? The occasion was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, which pitted the NVA against the new US 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in heavily forested jungle terrain of South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Leading the way were elements of the 7th Cavalry Regt, on its first outing since Custer, which was nearly wiped out after unwittingly stumbling into an ambush in an the area where three battle-hardened NVA regiments were bivouacked.

Only through the extraordinary valor of the American GIs backed by massive firepower and air support did the unit survive the hellish four days of the battle, albeit with very heavy casualties. However, the NVA losses were greater, leading US HQ Saigon and Washington to begin the Vietnam spin game, depicting the outcome as a great victory. Simultaneously, Ho Chi Minh and his generals studied the results and also declared victory. In reality, the fighting on the ground, often hand to hand, was closer to a draw.

♫The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'…*

The conversion from the M-14 to its successor M-16 continued through ’66 as the number of US forces in Vietnam rapidly increased. Sporadic, scattered reports of the M-16 jamming in combat situations were duly filed, but generally ignored by the command structure. However, by early ’67, the problem, which had become the cause of casualties as GIs and Marines found themselves in deadly firefights with malfunctioning weapons, could no longer be ignored. Grunts were writing home about the jams, sending letters to hometown papers.

By then Colt was well aware, to put it euphemistically, of customer dissatisfaction among ground troops, but treated the matter as a confidential company issue which they hoped to resolve by re-engineering the M-16. The Pentagon, or at least parts of it, was also now aware that the rifle was costing US lives, but in classic CYA decided to classify the reports and restrict circulation to a Need to Know basis, lest the occupants at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue learn the seriousness of the matter.

However, the inevitable constituents’ letters began reaching Congress, and a special House investigative subcommittee was created in May ’67 led by Congressman Ichord of Missouri. Officers and NCO’s had tried to signal superiors through channels, but consistently ran into the standard command response, i.e., the M-16 was a fine rifle; the fault lay with troops not cleaning their weapons properly. Finally, out of concern for his men and in disregard for his career, a Marine junior officer made an end run around the brass, sending a well-documented letter simultaneously to the Washington Post, Senator Robert Kennedy, Congressman Ichord, and his local paper. He revealed that after one engagement, no fewer than 40 of his men reported rifle malfunctions to him, effectively blowing the lid off the Pentagon’s cover-up.

The word was out, the military had sent men into battle with an unproven rifle, and many troops had been found dead next to their stripped down M-16’s. The weapons had fatally jammed, leaving them defenseless against determined adversaries. As one night patrol leader radioed, “out of hand grenades, all weapons jammed.” When a relief column reached the position the next morning, all were dead.

As VGI reported to its GI and Marine readers in the first issue, the sources of the M-16’s problems were well known, both to Colt’s engineers and to the Pentagon’s ordnance brass. The M-16 had originally been issued to the combat infantry as a weapon which required little maintenance, one that could fire longer without cleaning than any other rifle in existence. As a result, minimal and inadequate cleaning materials were provided to the troops. Notwithstanding US technological hubris, the weapon frequently jammed due to incompatible ammo at an exceptionally high rate of fire which left a residue, fouling the firing chamber – even after a thorough cleaning.

As VGI wrote, once “the fat was in the fire” in Washington, the military began ordering necessary design changes, including replacement of the ammo and the use of chrome in the firing chamber, barrel, and bolt, of the new model M-16, making it less susceptible to corrosion and jamming. However during ‘67, US troop levels in Vietnam were approaching half a million. Replacing or refitting hundreds of thousands of M-16s in the midst of hard and constant fighting would be neither quick nor easy.

Meanwhile the Congressional committee and the general public were treated to tragic stories of men’s lives lost in vain due to the M-16’s journey through the military bureaucracy “marked by salesmanship, sham science, cover-ups, chicanery, incompetence, and no small amount of dishonesty by a gun manufacturer and senior American military officers.”** Time quoted a wounded Marine’s letter home recounting the disaster which had befallen his unit in battle during late spring ’67:
We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19. … I
just caught a little shrapnel. I wish I could say the same for all my
buddies. … believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our
own rifle … the M-16. Practically every one of our dead was found
with his rifle torn down next to him where he had been trying to
fix it. ***
Inevitably, once the press got hold of the story, comparisons were made to the enemy’s weapon of choice – the Soviet designed Kalashnikov, aka the AK-47. Heavier with a slower rate of fire than the M-16 (when it fired), the AK-47 was a sturdy, durable rifle with a large banana clip, a weapon which rarely misfired or jammed, ideally suited to Third World battlefield conditions. In contrast, GIs and Marines, stuck with an unreliable weapon, nicknamed their M-16’s the ‘Mattel Toy, or the ‘Little Black Rifle That Wouldn’t Shoot’.

NVA soldier with AK-47, Battle of Hue, ‘68

A Marine platoon Sgt, whose unit had been plagued by jammed M-16s in the heat of firefights during spring ‘68, picked up an AK-47 he found on the battlefield. A senior officer, spotting him in base camp with the rifle slung across his back, challenged him, “Gunny, why the hell are you carrying that?” The Gunnery Sgt replied, “Because it works”**** – Sir.

In late ’67, the Congressional subcommittee had issued its sharply worded report that the M-16’s malfunctions were “serious and excessive,” and the Army and the Marine Corps had been negligent. Too late though for a number of guys whose names would later go up on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.

*Eve of Destruction by P.F. Sloan, 1965
**C.J. Chivers, The Gun (2010)
***Time, June 9, 1967
****Esquire, October 27, 2010

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Surveilling and the Surveilled

I once had a brother; I remember him fondly. He died in 1969 at the age of 27, and I have been ‘searching’ for him since. My brother was much younger, so the trajectories of our lives often found us far apart geographically—never more so than the year 1963-64 when I was studying in Moscow while brother Jeff Sharlet was at a remote military outpost west of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Jeff was a GI in an intelligence outfit; I was a graduate student researching my PhD dissertation. He was a Vietnamese linguist with the US Army Security Agency (ASA) under the aegis of NSA-Washington, the National Security Agency; I was a visiting scholar at Moscow University Law School. Jeff’s regular assignment was the North Vietnamese Army’s communications traffic; my preoccupation was Marxist legal philosophy, the language of my daily life, Russian.

That year the war in Vietnam, at least the American part of it, was still in its infancy, a low intensity guerrilla insurgency fought in the shadows. As such, Vietnam was just a set piece in the global Cold War, the dangerous rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. In early ’61, President Kennedy (JFK) had begun building up US forces in South Vietnam, sending thousands of additional military advisors, including elite Special Forces as well as squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. At the superpower level of the larger Cold War, JFK and Khrushchev, leaders of the two great adversaries, presided over their respective spheres of influence. Each commanded thousands of nukes as well as the means of lethal delivery.

Both the Cold War writ large and its smaller regional offshoot in Southeast Asia, former French Indochina, had their origins in 1945 in the wake of WWII. That year Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnam’s independence from the French Empire, igniting the first Indochina war as the French struck back at their colony. By ’54, the Viet Minh, a guerrilla army of Vietnamese Communists and nationalists, finally defeated France. However, reflecting the bipolar Soviet-American world, independent Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel into the Communist North, a Soviet ally; and non-communist South Vietnam, a US client state. Several years later, North Vietnam secretly launched an insurgency in the South aimed at overthrowing the Saigon regime of President Diem and unifying the country under the red flag with a yellow star.

By contrast, the Cold War was a far more visible and dramatic conflict – beginning with the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the US Berlin Airlift of ’48; the USSR’s explosion of its first A-bomb in ’49, ending the US monopoly; the beginning of the Korean War in ’50; the continuing Berlin crises of the ‘50s, culminating in the erection of the Berlin Wall in ’61; and, of course, the most dangerous moment in the long Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.

I was in Moscow shortly thereafter, fortunate to have been chosen as a member of the small American academic group under the umbrella of the US-USSR Cultural Exchange Agreement of 1958. Jeff was part of a larger contingent of ASA personnel in Vietnam. I was in the Soviet Union for the academic year 1963-64; Jeff, too, was scheduled to leave Vietnam and head back to the States in late spring ‘64. First, though, we had to reach our destinations a world apart. As an internal political crisis intensified in South Vietnam during summer ’63, Jeff and a team of linguists were quickly flown from their base in the Philippines (PI) to Saigon in late August. The South Vietnamese generals were quietly planning a coup against Diem with Washington’s blessings. However, since the US had a political stake in Vietnam within its overriding struggle with the USSR, JFK wanted to be sure he was privy to the generals’ plans. Hence, Jeff and crew were posted to an Army Signal Battalion facility outside the capital – off in a distant corner of the base where they hooked up to giant antennas for clandestinely surveilling the coup plotters’ communications. The equipment was manned around the clock.

Signal base at Phu Lam, giant circular antennas visible right background

I made it to Moscow a month later – by ship, truck, and train. I crossed the North Atlantic by ocean liner, then the North Sea and the Baltic Sea up through the Gulf of Finland by a smaller Soviet passenger ship. Arriving at the port of Leningrad at the mouth of the River Neva, I and fellow students were met by a taciturn fellow driving a beat-up WWII-vintage army truck, the kind shipped to the beleaguered Soviet Army by the hundreds under the US Lend Lease Plan. The truck carried us and our luggage through the rain slicked streets of the city to the train station where we boarded the ‘Red Arrow’, the night express to Moscow.

I settled into the Lenin Hills dorms of Moscow University fairly smoothly. Few students were around. It was harvest time in the Soviet Union and the majority of the law students were thousands of miles away on the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, helping the peasants bring in the wheat crop. Upon completion of their so-called ‘social obligation’ to society, the students returned to the capital by special trains in late September when the Soviet academic year was scheduled to begin. I finally met my Soviet roommate, Volodya, a tall, lantern-jawed Russian of about 25 with a strong handshake and a hearty bass voice. He made me quite welcome. Actually we were suite mates since each of us had a private bed-sitting room and shared a common foyer as well as semi-private facilities. Volodya hailed from Astrakhan on the lower Volga. Before entering law school, he’d worked as a stevedore on a Black Sea freighter. In the fall of ’63 he was beginning his senior year in Criminology, a Soviet law school discipline for training detective/investigators who worked with public prosecutors.

Moscow State University in the Lenin Hills

I was assigned to the Jurisprudence Department of the law school where the chair and nationally known Professor Doctor Denisov (Andrei Ivanovich once one became acquainted) became my Soviet advisor. He urged me to audit his courses in legal philosophy. I readily agreed and began my weekly routine of law classes and long hours of library research on my dissertation.

The law school was in a very old building on Herzen Street near the center of Moscow, a few blocks from the Lenin Library, the USSR’s equivalent of our Library of Congress, which stood within sight of the Kremlin walls. Getting to my destinations was a fairly long commute by bus and metro from the Lenin Hills, so once in downtown Moscow one usually spent the day, sometimes into the early evening. Meanwhile back at the dorm, aside from being friendly and helpful, Volodya had become very interested in my daily comings and goings.

Any time he heard me close my door to leave, he would pop out of his room and casually ask where I was going. During the week, invariably my answer was either ‘to the law school’ or ‘to the library’. Hearing me return later in the day, sometimes in the early evening since the library kept late hours, Volodya would appear again and with a big smile ask, ‘Otkuda’, where’ve you’ve been? I in turn would simply reiterate the day’s itinerary. This went on for weeks. He never tired of asking, and I unfailingly played my part in the friendly exchange. Curious, I checked with other visiting American scholars to see if anyone had noticed any unusual interest in their daily movements. No one. On the contrary, most reported that Soviet suite mates kept their distance, rarely initiating conversation.

Not surprising, since we were after all ‘bourgeois foreigners’ – there was no percentage for a future Soviet legal official getting too chummy with us in closely watched Moscow. I concluded that I had apparently been singled out by the mysterious powers that be – it was considered inappropriate in Soviet public etiquette to mention the secret police known as the KGB – for special attention. The likely reason, I surmised, was that I was the sole American in the dorms that year that had been in the military. I had been an ASA linguist based in Europe in the late ‘50s, and my classified work had involved the Soviet Bloc. Although that was all behind me and I was singularly focused on an academic career, one could never be sure what the Soviets knew about one’s background or, even less, what they thought about it.

Jeff in Vietnam and Volodya in Moscow had completed their respective surveillance duties by November. Jeff and fellow interpreter/translators had fed back to NSA-Washington on a daily basis all the South Vietnamese generals’ relevant conversations about the impending coup. On November 1st, the plotters struck, seizing power and assassinating Diem in the process. Volodya, too, had no doubt been conscientious, presumably passing his observations of my mundane movements up through channels, although on a less urgent schedule, probably weekly. Eventually somewhere across Moscow, a bureaucrat responsible for monitoring foreign students in the capital concluded, after weeks of reading Volodya’s monotonous reports, that I was in the USSR exactly as advertised, to assiduously study Soviet law and relentlessly research my PhD dissertation.

Mission completed, ASA flew Jeff back to the PI. Similarly, about the same time, Volodya from one day to the next ceased his incessant inquiries. His task finished and, nice guy that he was, he invited me to his room a few days later along with a few of his friends for a boozy celebration of the Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the 46th for anyone counting. A flurry of за ваше здоровье’s* as we chugged vodka Russian-style.

Then one evening just a few weeks later, while hanging pictures in my room, I was stunned by the breaking news that JFK had just been assassinated, but that’s a story for another time.

*To your health.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

John Wayne vs. Victor Charlie

In the wake of President Johnson’s major escalation of the Vietnam War in spring ’65, antiwar protest emerged and soon began to provoke a broad backlash. When presidents committed US troops in those days, the standard public response was to rally ‘round the flag in the spirit of ‘my country, right or wrong’. But the antiwar activists were obviously marching to the beat of a different drum. At first the antiwar movement drew mainly from college students as well as high school students in more liberal communities. Thousands of mainstream adults eventually joined the antiwar movement, usually through participation in major marches and demonstrations.

♫You and I travel to the beat of a different drum
Oh, can’t you tell by the way I run…*

But even at its peak later in the war, those active in the antiwar movement remained a small minority of the population. Most of the public accepted Washington’s dispatches on the war uncritically, but a sizeable number, especially in more conservative areas, strongly supported the war as well. These people were often critical of the young demonstrators, not least for their hippie-ish attire and behavior. The hippie movement was still young at the time, but highly visible through televised rallies in myriad places across the country. In many instances the Vietnam War divided families, with younger members in opposition and parents -- especially in veterans’ families -- supportive of the Administration. Even families of the Washington elite were riven by the war, including that of Secretary of Defense McNamara, whose children opposed the war policy he administered.

By the advent of ’64 there was broad social awareness of the Vietnam War. During ’63, gruesome front page photos of Buddhist monks publicly burning themselves alive in South Vietnam appeared, followed late in the year by extensive coverage of the South Vietnamese generals’ coup and the assassination of President Diem. These events were almost impossible to miss. Yet for Hollywood, 1964 was the year of now-classic films on the Cold War writ large. Seven Days in May with ‘General’ Burt Lancaster planning a coup against ‘President’ Frederic March about to sign a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union; and the biting satire of Cold War nuclear politics, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, with Peter Sellers in three unforgettable roles – played to huge audiences

The first year US combat troops were fully engaged against the Viet Cong (VC, aka Victor Charlie) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA), ‘65, brought more Cold War spy thrillers – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File – along with Hollywood’s continuing cinematic celebration of WWII, The Battle of the Bulge. Also playing that year, although in ‘art’ theaters to much smaller audiences, was a prescient French film, The Battle of Algiers, a black & white documentary-style depiction of France’s second defeat by a guerrilla army in a decade. Did anyone in McNamara’s whiz kid entourage at the Pentagon see this film at the arty movie house in Georgetown? I rather doubt it.

As the scale of war grew in faraway Vietnam and civil mobilization against the war increased on the country’s campuses and in its major cities, Hollywood remained silent and continued offering a slew of diverting movies, serious and not, on the theme of war. The system by which actors’ lives and contracts were completely controlled by their studios was on the wane, and the last thing the business-savvy moguls needed was picketing about the controversial Vietnam War outside their theaters. Audiences were treated instead to another taut Cold War spy movie in ‘66, Funeral in Berlin, as well as Steve McQueen’s compelling drama of an American gunboat caught in the Chinese Civil War during the ‘30s, Sand Pebbles.

On the lighter side of the Cold War, the movie industry offered The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, a delightful comic tale of a Soviet submarine running aground off Long Island. In ’67 it was back to the heroics of WWII, The Dirty Dozen, but the first major film to reflect the new sensibility of the rapidly changing youth culture also appeared: The Graduate starred the inimitable Dustin Hoffman in a comedy drama portraying the dark side of the American dream. It was partly set in the San Francisco Bay Area, the confluence of the hippie culture and the rising anti-establishment sentiment of the restless young.

♫ Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again**

A number of prominent actors were critical of the Vietnam War, but John Wayne (known as ‘The Duke’ in Hollywood), perhaps the most popular star of his era, was not among them. Politically conservative, super patriot Wayne was highly supportive of the war and so anticommunist that legend has it that earlier Stalin (who actually liked Wayne’s movies) ordered his assassination—lucky for Wayne, Stalin died in ‘53 before the hit was carried out. In ’65 Wayne had visited the troops in Vietnam and wanted to make a movie presenting the war as a heroic undertaking by dedicated soldiers, a kind of celluloid response to the clamor of antiwar voices. However, none of the studios would touch a project so potentially fraught with controversy, so John Wayne took the matter in hand and produced The Green Berets with his own funds.

Taking time off from his standard fare of Westerns and WWII flicks, Wayne passed up the lead in The Dirty Dozen to star in and co-direct his Green Berets; the script was based on an Alamo-type story of the defense of an embattled Special Forces outpost nicknamed ‘Dodge City’. Wayne secured the cooperation of the White House and the Pentagon; Fort Benning in Georgia was made available along with assorted aircraft and authentic uniforms complete with insignia and name tags. Filming began during the summer of ’67. Not much notice was given on the post that the production was underway on a distant part of the base. Karen Ferb and her soldier husband Tom were at Benning at the time. One afternoon at the base pool they saw three Hueys fly over spewing clouds of purplish smoke. With many people unaware it was make-believe war, there was general panic poolside that day.
Theatrical Release Poster, ©Warner Brothers

Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI) achieved a kind of scoop with a report from an involuntary extra within the production process on the shooting of The Green Berets. GI Maury Knutson was one of many Benning soldiers ‘lent’ to the Wayne production company by order of the camp commander (CO). The report was not Maury’s first appearance in VGI. While serving in Vietnam he’d been a staffer on a command-approved, but extremely irreverent unit paper that consistently mocked the military and the unit NCO’s. While the CO himself was tolerant of the paper, the NCO’s were not, so Maury and Little Giant editor Jim Pidgeon pulled a lot of extra duty as retaliation.

In a later issue of VGI, Maury Knutson, who by then had rotated back to Benning, gave an interview on how a GI could cope with Military Intelligence investigation (MI). He’d already had several run-ins with MI in Nam. Maury had kept a picture of Marshall Tito of Communist Yugoslavia over his bunk, while at Benning he had co-founded a hard-hitting underground GI antiwar paper, Rap! Maury’s advice to any GI summoned by MI was to show them you didn’t take them seriously. For instance, just after you get settled in the MI office and they’re about to ask their questions, “announce you have to go to the john and ask for a pencil or something so you can write some things on the wall.” When VGI asked what a guy says if asked for references for a investigation, Maury described how he handled it, offering the names of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X’s widow, and his favorite bartender.

In Maury Knutson’s interview on his John Wayne Green Berets’ experience, billed by VGI as a ‘Movie Review’, he told how soldiers in his company were detailed daily to serve as extras in the movie. Reveille was at 4 am, they'd have chow, and then be driven to the movie location at the edge of the base where the production company had built sets typical of South Vietnamese villages and a replica of a Special Forces camp in the highlands. The extras were mainly used as VC  troops complete with uniforms, insignia, rank markings, and small fake wooden rifles. Maury, a small guy cast as a VC officer, can be spotted in one scene leading VC troops overrunning the Green Beret outpost, and in another when a bridge is blown and he falls in the water. For the long shooting days lasting sometimes until 8 at night, the extras were paid $1.40 an hour.

♫One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret***

David Janssen of The Fugitive and George Takei, Star Trek’s helmsman ‘Mr Sulu’, were first billed in Green Berets; husky Aldo Ray with his raspy voice, often a stock character in battle films, also starred. Maury’s comment: “Aldo Ray was a big star in the movie. We always had to stand around because he was so drunk they couldn’t start filming.” For many of the GI extras who had been raised on John Wayne war movies, seeing him in the flesh was a disappointment. Still in the aftermath of major cancer surgery, the hero of Sands of Iwo Jima was weak and tired easily. Green Berets was released on July 4th ’68. Combat GIs returning to Benning told Maury they didn’t think much of it: “The movie was a big joke, it wasn’t realistic at all. … God help the recruit who thinks that’s what war is like!” But John Wayne’s contribution to the war effort was a huge commercial success in spite of negative reviews. As Wayne himself said, “Nobody liked my acting but the public.”

Hollywood and John Wayne moved on. The familiar menu of ‘war’ films resumed in ’69 with The Battle of Britain; Topaz, another Cold War espionage film; and the French political thriller Z, based on the Greek anti-communist dictatorship. But that same year Easy Rider, the early independent film that launched Jack Nicholson’s career and became emblematic of the anti-establishment youth counterculture, was released. By 1970 WWII was back in the saddle with Patton, President Nixon’s favorite film; Tora! Tora! Tora!, a dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and Kelly’s Heroes, a military caper film. Leavening that year’s traditional fare of war as glory and gain, however, was Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H., a satirical, black comedy antiwar film set during the Korean War.

Easy riders Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson

As for John Wayne, he went on to make True Grit in ’69, for which he won his only Oscar – for Best Actor—the capstone of a long and mostly successful movie career. Even the Yippie radical Abbie Hoffman paid tribute to ‘The Duke’s’ singularity, saying, “I like Wayne’s wholeness, his style. As for his politics, well ….”

* Different Drum, by Mike Nesmith, 1967
** Sounds of Silence, by Paul Simon, 1965
*** Ballad of the Green Berets, by Staff Sgt Barry Sadler and Robin Moore, 1966

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Meeting in Stockholm

Men have deserted in all wars; the Vietnam War was hardly an exception. A soldier’s reasons for choosing to desert covered a wide spectrum. Personal grievances were often the driver, but opposition to the war was the overriding issue for quite a number of deserters in the case of Vietnam. The first notable political desertions were by the ‘Intrepid 4’, four sailors who jumped ship when their aircraft carrier Intrepid docked in Japan after conducting air operations off the coast of Vietnam. Assisted by Japanese peace activists, the four began a long journey through safe houses in Japan, by ship to the USSR, across the Soviet Union to Moscow, and finally to Sweden where they were granted temporary asylum. Arriving in Stockholm in late ’67, the Intrepid 4 were among the first of what became a gathering of US military deserters beginning in ’68.

Although the antiwar Swedish government would not grant political asylum, it did grant a temporary, renewable humanitarian asylum that permitted the deserters to remain in the country. When word got around the armed forces that Sweden was a sanctuary from US military justice, other deserters began to arrive – Bill Jones and others from US forces in Western Europe, Mark Shapiro and Terry Whitmore from US forces Vietnam via Japan and the USSR, and even several GIs from military posts in the United States along with a few American draft resisters.

In time, the deserter community in Stockholm and a few other Swedish cities grew to over 200. Along the way, an older American expat, Michel Vale, a Trotskyist and professional translator, arrived from West Germany and helped the deserters organize politically. They called their group the American Deserters Committee (ADC) with Bill Jones as its leader and Mark Shapiro and others on the governing committee. A major function of the ADC was to give the American deserters in Sweden a single voice, backed by numbers, for the purpose of lobbying the Swedish government on permanent asylum and immediate material support – housing, jobs and job-training, and language instruction.

The ADC also had a political agenda – to oppose the Vietnam War – but gradually the manifestation of its opposition became an internally divisive issue in the deserter community. One group took a hard line, not only opposing the war, but supporting the National Liberation Front (NLF), the underground shadow government in South Vietnam. Deserters, who were not comfortable with the ADC’s ideological stance, were much more concerned with the practical tasks of settling in Sweden and trying to normalize their lives.

Up to summer ’68, the deserters were a kind of ‘lost battalion’ of the emerging GI protest wing of the broad American antiwar movement. The ADC was concerned that its collective personal decisions to oppose the war through the act of desertion gain some visibility in the States, especially among the activists opposed to the war. Communication was established between Stockholm and the leadership of the US antiwar mobilization movement, the ‘Mobe’ for short. A joint decision was made to include the GI deserters as part of the opposition to the war. The decision was reached in part as the civilian movement in the States became increasingly aware of the rising antiwar protest in the ranks of active-duty GIs as well as ex-GIs. An overall plan was developed to incorporate GI protestors, including bringing US deserters in Europe into the Mobe. SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, took the lead.

Summer ’68 was declared ‘Summer of Support’ for GI protest. In late August, a Mobe delegation met with NLF reps in Communist East Europe. Initially, the meeting was scheduled for Prague, but the Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that overthrew the communist reform regime ruled out that venue. The meeting was relocated to Hungary. Bernardine Dohrn, a national officer of SDS, led the Budapest delegation that included Dave Komatsu, Jeff Sharlet’s associate editor, representing Vietnam GI (VGI). As a first step in bringing the Swedish group into the mainstream movement, several members of the ADC came down from Stockholm to represent the deserters

As the general plan unfolded, a high level SDS group visited Stockholm in September to parley with the ADC group, which was formally certified as a special chapter of the stateside organization. A statement welcoming the ADC into the American movement – signed by Dave Dellinger, titular head of the Mobe; three SDS leaders; representatives of the Black antiwar union; and a leading anti-draft organization – followed and was published in the ADC newsletter, Second Front. Then, in late October, a large delegation representing a cross-section of the US antiwar community under the auspices of Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War (CALCAV), arrived in Stockholm.

The CALCAV delegation of 16 strong had first stopped in Paris to confer with US deserters there. It included three theologians, Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School; Rev. Richard Neuhaus; and Michael Novak as well as John Wilson of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; Grace Paley, a well-known writer; several civil rights lawyers and mainstream journalists; academics from University of Michigan and University of California-Berkeley; and brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-GI, representing the GI antiwar movement.

CALCAV delegates: Jeff (#9) standing left end; Bill Jones & Mark Shapiro, ADC, standing right

Dave Dellinger had asked Jeff to join the delegation coordinated by Martin Kenner, a Columbia University grad and leader of the large scale student strike at the university earlier that spring of ‘68. After graduation he had worked at the United Nations on economic development, later entering the New School for Social Research in lower Manhattan to pursue a PhD in the field. However, when the Columbia strike broke out, Kenner went uptown, assumed a leadership role, subsequently set aside his academic plans, and spent the next decade as a prominent social activist. (Decades later he would return to Columbia where he finally earned his PhD.)

The most important part of CALCAV’s three-day visit to Stockholm was a grand convocation held the first evening with the ADC leadership, a large number of the rank and file, and many Swedish antiwar activists in attendance. The meeting was convened in one of the city’s most notable public buildings, the Civic Center on Citizen’s Plaza in Stockholm’s southern section, where annual May Day parades begin. An impressive three-wing, Neoclassical Functionalist structure of yellow brick erected in the ‘30s with numerous windows to let in natural light, the building included a swimming pool and gym; a library; meeting rooms; a children’s theater; and a large auditorium named for a philanthropically inclined 19th c. snuff merchant, the venue in which CALCAV met with the ADC and the public.

The Civic Center as it looks today and the auditorium where the October 27, 1968, meeting was held

The Civic Center meeting was by design the kick-off event in ADC’s planned publicity campaign to better inform the Swedish public of the deserters’ situation. CALCAV’s principal purpose in lending its support was to legitimize the deserters as an integral part of the American opposition to the war writ large. The immediate issue for the ADC was the need for much greater material support from the Swedish government in order to project their image as a stable community and viable alternative for serving GIs who might be contemplating desertion. As chairman, Bill Jones spoke for the ADC, while four members of the delegation spoke on behalf of CALCAV and, more broadly, the US antiwar movement. Franz Schurmann, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley; Cox of Harvard; Wilson from SNCC; and the coordinator, Martin Kenner, all emphasized the American movement’s political support for the deserters, a strong message intended for the Swedish press and public.

A well-known Swedish novelist, Sara Lidman, had been invited and then rose to announce the formation of the ‘Swedish Friends of ADC’. Her novels depicted themes of alienation and loneliness of life in Sweden’s less populated northern region during the 19th c. As a Swedish activist, she also opposed Apartheid in South Africa and protested the Vietnam War, serving on the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in that connection in ‘67. In her remarks she underscored the fragile position of the deserters in Swedish society with just temporary work and residence permits that had to be renewed every three months. Lidman vigorously argued that with the new Friends of ADC group in the lead, the Swedish public must “agitate” not only for better housing and job rights for the deserters, but also for political asylum as a guarantee against expulsion.

The political legitimacy conferred by the CALCAV delegation on the ADC in the eyes of the Swedish public worked; Sara Lidman’s appeal for support proved effective; and the ADC’s own publicity efforts bore fruit: ADC Support Week was declared, interviews were given to the press, and supportive editorials and stories about the deserters appeared in leading national publications. The new visibility resulted in housing offers for the deserters, a new office for ADC, the use of a 40-acre farm, and the creation of various support and lobbying groups throughout Sweden.

Back in the US in early November ‘68, the Mobe declared National GI Week, the final part of its plan to bring GI protestors into the movement, which for the first time included grass roots support for the deserters in the States. In effect, less than a year after its inception, ADC, the ‘lost battalion’ of the American antiwar movement, had been found and brought within the ranks of the growing GI protest movement against the war.