Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Maverick Mentor

Late summer ’64. My younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, finished his Vietnam tour and returned to Indiana University (IU) to resume his education. Unsettled and restless as a freshman, he had withdrawn to fulfill his military draft obligation. He’d hoped for training in a Slavic language followed by a European posting, but as luck would have it, he ended up in Vietnam speaking Vietnamese. Back at IU, Jeff, older and more mature, felt a sense of disquiet about the war in Vietnam, but getting into the swing of things academically and keeping his head above water financially took precedence.

Meanwhile, President Johnson (LBJ) beat Senator Goldwater decisively, taking a dovish position on Vietnam in the campaign. Yet within months, LBJ decided to send in the Marines and begin bombing North Vietnam – in the spring of ’65 the fighting went abruptly from a low intensity conflict to a deadly serious war. Students on dozens of campuses reacted, IU was no exception. Jeff felt himself no longer alone in his unease about US involvement in that faraway country. He banded together with a very small group of fellow students who shared his concerns and had begun to stage peaceful protests on campus. Thus was the genesis of what became the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter at IU that fall.

♫ War, it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak…induction then destruction, who wants to die?*

Like most professors, Indiana’s faculty was largely liberal – many personally sympathized with the student activists, but usually at arm’s length. There were a few notable exceptions – the historian C. Leonard Lundin helped with financial support as needed; Professor Jim Dinsmoor, a psychologist, marched with the protestors and even ran for public office on an antiwar platform; and Bernard ‘Bernie’ Morris of the Government Department became unofficial adviser to the campus New Left, as well as academic mentor to a number of SDS members.

Bernie had long been a maverick. A New Englander, in the early ‘40s he had enrolled at Yale for a graduate degree. Although a very good student, one of his professors thought him too leftist, so he was bumped from the doctoral program with a terminal MA in Political Science. Bernie went to Washington seeking a job and initially found a position in the Justice Department where his office colleague was one Judith Coplon**, ’Judy’ as he knew her, who was later to be exposed as a Soviet spy codenamed Sima. Having known and worked with Judy Coplon would later create problems for Bernie when he went to the State Department.

At State during WWII, Bernie worked in the Intelligence & Research section under the leadership of Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer, anti-Nazi German refugee intellectuals who became distinguished scholars in American academe after the war. When they left for the universities, Bernie stayed on, rising in the hierarchy at State. The three men remained friends – Bernie was best man at Marcuse’ second marriage and later helped Kirchheimer write his famous book, Political Justice. But in the late ‘40s as the Cold War heated up, the first trials of Soviet spies got underway, and then Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his demagogic anti-communist crusade; Bernie began to encounter problems in the newly heightened security environment.

Although a loyal American, Bernie’s ‘association’ with Coplon, arrested and tried for espionage and conspiracy in 1949-50, was one problem, while his experience at Yale was another. In those times, very little was required for someone, especially in government, to fall under suspicion, and Bernie was a critical thinker on the great issues of the day. Although there were rocky moments, he survived the McCarthy period, but then in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s Bernie fell under criticism at State on a very different issue. The alliance between Communist China and the Soviet Union had begun showing subtle strains – Mao held Khrushchev in contempt as a fellow Marxist.

Bernie was presciently among the first intelligence analysts to detect signs of a schism between the two Communist giants, a parting of ways later dubbed the Sino-Soviet Split. However, the prevailing consensus in official Washington was that the Soviet-Chinese alliance was rock solid, and any indications to the contrary were considered deliberate feints to mislead the West. Regarded as a maverick, Bernie was told to stop pushing against the official line. That attitude and the growing US involvement in Vietnam under President Kennedy in the early ‘60s were the final straws – Bernie no longer wanted to work in government and left for academe.

Bernard Morris joined the IU faculty in ’63, straight from Washington where he had worked in the State Department for a number of years. From the outset he was unusual among the Political Science profs in that he didn’t have a PhD, just an MA from Yale. Bernie’s specialty was International Relations (IR), especially Soviet foreign policy, and IU wisely felt that his extensive experience was his credential. In addition to the obvious IR courses, early on he also introduced the first course on Marxism at IU. Styling himself neither a Marxist nor a member of any left party, Bernie taught the subject professionally as a political theory course. An excellent teacher with classroom charisma, his courses, especially Marxism, drew well among Jeff and his cohort as well as other students interested in a critical take on US policy and the Cold War.

Relocating from the cosmopolitan capital to Bloomington IN, a provincial college town, must have entailed culture shock for Bernie and his wife Betty. They kept their ties to East, vacationing on Cape Cod, later on Martha’s Vineyard, during summer breaks. Otherwise the Morrises settled in to their new existence, acquired a beautiful house at the edge of town, and Bernie soon acquired a student following. As antiwar sentiment heated up on campus during spring and fall of 1965, Bernie was in the midst of it, attending the Friday afternoon rallies on civil rights in the South and the growing Vietnam War on a great expanse of lawn called Dunn Meadow. Brother Jeff; Paulann Hosler Groninger of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA); Robin Hunter, a Marxist grad student from England; and Dan Kaplan, an SDS leader, were among the prize students Bernie taught; hence, he was mentor as well as maverick.

Bernie and Betty at the Cape

In May ‘65, the State Department and Pentagon dispatched a team of officials to the Midwest to ‘explain’ the necessity of the war in Vietnam on several Big Ten campuses. Someone tagged them with the ironic name, the ‘truth squad’, and they arrived at IU after apparently uproarious receptions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison*** and the University of Iowa. The largest venue at IU, the auditorium, was filled for their appearance. It was a mixed audience – pro-war people, a large number who came out of curiosity to hear the arguments, and a sizeable group of both activists and other critically minded students already opposed to or with profound doubts about the war. Jeff and Soviet Studies grad students Erik Hoffmann and Fred Fleron sat with Bernie in the audience. After the leader of the group, a Foreign Service Officer, laid out the Administration’s rationale in a somewhat cavalier manner, a very agitated Bernie Morris made an impassioned statement from the floor: “I never thought I’d see the day when my government would lie to me.”

Two years later in ’67 during Jeff’s senior year, Bernie nominated him for a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship (WWF), a prestigious award carrying a generous stipend designed to enable promising candidates to earn PhD’s and become college teachers-scholars. Jeff however was of mixed mind about his immediate future – he was drawn to the idea of an academic career, but at the same time, in his heart, the unfinished business of opposing the Vietnam War very much preoccupied him. He decided he could do both, but Bernie, in his very strong letter of support for Jeff lauding his considerable intellectual qualities, noted his ambivalence about his near future. Nonetheless, the WWF conferred the coveted fellowship on Jeff who chose to take it the University of Chicago. How the foundation ended up financing Vietnam GI, an underground antiwar newspaper, instead of a doctorate is another story for elsewhere.

After Jeff’s early death in ’69, Bernie wrote me that he hadn’t been surprised Jeff dropped out of the PhD program in favor of the great mission of his short but interesting life – confronting the war machine by giving voice to the voiceless GIs with serious doubts about the war.

Although the de-escalation got underway in June ’69, it took another four years to wind down the American war, including the invasion of Cambodia in spring 1970 which re-ignited a firestorm of opposition throughout the country. At IU, 8,000 students at that fundamentally apolitical, even conservative, Midwestern school turned out in Dunn Meadow to protest. The biggest ovation went to Professor Bernie Morris who said
I join you in condemnation of Nixon’s strategy of terminating the war by widening it. It is strategically unsound, politically self-defeating, and morally indefensible.
Jeff would’ve been proud of his maverick mentor.

          Dunn Meadow in peace and war

* “War”, written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, 1969.

**Judith Coplon Socolov, 1921-2011:

***See beginning on page 17 for the full story on the appearance of the ‘truth squad’ at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Vietnam GI's Mission

When my brother Jeff Sharlet created the first GI-led underground paper for active-duty GIs, Marines, sailors and airmen, he set out on an antiwar ‘mission’. He laid out his objective in an editorial in the first issue of Vietnam GI in January ’68. In his opening sentences, Jeff fired off the first shot: “We are veterans of the Vietnam War. From our experience we know the Administration has lied to us and other Americans.” He goes on to express the core of his mission statement, to wit, “[I]t seems like everyone has been heard from on the war except the main group which has been and still is fighting it – the enlisted men.” In effect, Jeff gave voice to the voiceless GIs.

Front page, first issue of Vietnam GI, January ’68:

Jeff’s antiwar mission statement:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Preemptive Arrest, Karen's Day in Court

During summer ‘66, my brother Jeff Sharlet lived and worked in Indianapolis (Indy), capital of Indiana. He was then studying for his BA degree at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington and needed income from a summer job. He found one as a locomotive fireman in the Indy freight yards. I asked my research assistant, Karen Grote Ferb if she remembered any stories of Jeff from that summer; here’s one of them she told me in her own words:

I set out one summer day to join a peaceful protest against the President of the United States’ Vietnam War policy, but never made it – I was preemptively arrested. This is what happened.

On July 21, 1966, the New York Times carried a front page story mapping a Midwest campaign swing President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) would be making for the off-year congressional elections. It would begin in Indianapolis, the very heart of that patriotic part of the country. The next day the IU chapter of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) circulated a flyer on campus calling for an antiwar demonstration planned for LBJ’s speech in Indy, 50 miles to the north.

The flyer read, “Since Lyndon B. Johnson has chosen to honor the citizens of Indiana with his presence, we feel that IU students who oppose his policy in Vietnam should show Him (sic) that we exist.” A copy of the flyer and related material found its way to the office of IU’s president, Elvis Stahr. It had been sent to him by the university bookstore with a note: “We found [these documents] … on one of our cash register[s] … and are sending them to you” [in case copies haven’t already reached your office]. The note went on: “We would like to add that we are strongly against the policies and opinions expressed in these communications and hope the University can curtail these as much as possible.”

I had planned to join the protest that weekend. I had already been in Indianapolis many times since Jeff started working on the railroad that summer. I knew he’d want to participate and went up that Friday after classes to stay with him at the house where he boarded. However, Jeff was scheduled to work that sultry Saturday so he dropped me off quite early at Monument Circle in the center of the city where LBJ would speak. About 100 activists began arriving from IU about 10:30 AM. By then the preemptive arrests had already begun. State troopers had relayed the license plate numbers of the cars from Bloomington to the Indy cops who were working with the Secret Service. Although the IU group had a permit and were assured they could peacefully demonstrate, the Indy police began arresting them as they arrived.

Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial, Monument Circle, Indianapolis

The few of us there early had staked out a spot a block from the circle—the pro-war John Birch Society was setting up opposite us. We were chatting while awaiting the arrival of the IU group and others when policemen told us we’d have to move back a block out of sight of the President, the press, and the crowd. Someone produced our permit and we remained in place. The cops went away so we figured we were OK. Talk about being lulled into a false sense of security! The police returned led by Chief Jones, a good-sized older man wearing a standard tan gabardine trench coat, a brown Fedora, and an annoyed expression. We asserted our right to be there when the walkie-talkies came out and three more men in trench coats and hats appeared. They were Secret Service.

LBJ addressing the crowd at Monument Circle*

A few moments later, police flooded into the area, and a paddy wagon pulled up. I stood quietly watching the scene, holding a sign upside down, resting it on the street, when a youngish, mild-mannered officer walked up, put me under arrest, and led me to the paddy wagon. I burst into tears, stunned and frightened, the first one arrested. Not long after that any of my group who refused to leave and move out of sight of the circle, were also arrested. As the paddy wagon filled up, each load was taken to a sheriff’s bus on a nearby side street, out of view of the President’s podium, where we were held until LBJ’s departure for a luncheon talk in which he delivered the ironic line “We will abide civil protest.” At that venue, a girl was arrested for littering after obeying an order to put down her sign. Six others were taken into custody for entering Monument Circle after LBJ and entourage (which included Indiana’s senior US senator who opposed the war) had left. Ironically, some of the arrestees were carrying one-word signs with merely the senator’s name, Hartke.

As time wore on, it became insufferably hot in the bus. Adding to the misery was a guy throwing up. He’d been arrested by mistake; he was carrying a pro-war sign. At the city lockup we were put into holding tanks, one for men, the other for the eight women, and given a slice of bread and some watery bean soup. When someone needed to use ‘the facilities’ (the only seat in the place, so we mostly stood, finding the floor a dicey option), we made a human shield for privacy. “We Shall Overcome” seemed like the right thing to sing, so we did.
Oh, deep in our hearts we did believe that we would overcome some day.
The Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) immediately protested the arrests, stating, “We will carry this all the way to the President.” In a letter to Indy Police Chief Jones, copied to the mayor and the governor, the ICLU president wrote:

It is incredible that responsible public officials would utilize the power
of their position in such a flagrant suppression of the efforts of the citizens to exercise their fundamental right of freedom of expression. Let us hope that this kind of harassment arrests will never happen again in Indianapolis.
The chief, on the other hand, said he kind of thought the roundup was a good idea, “Those people had some pretty lousy signs.” By mid-evening we were all finally released . A small crowd of supporters awaited us outside the jail. Jeff was outside waiting for me, quietly outraged. He seemed to intuitively understand how frightened I’d been and how anxious I was about the pending court case. What if I received a jail term? Would my acceptance to graduate school be in jeopardy? Jeff had to work the next day, Sunday, so I just hung out at the house awaiting Monday’s court appearance.

That Sunday’s New York Times gave our story brief coverage in the back pages preceded by how the President had vigorously defended his Vietnam War policy before a crowd of several thousand at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis, continuing:
Between 25 and 30 peace demonstrators were placed in a sheriff’s bus today and taken to the city building after President Johnson had spoken at Monument Circle. A sheriff’s deputy said the demonstrators might be kept overnight on a ‘charge of breaking up a public meeting’. The group had been kept a half-block from Mr. Johnson during his speech. One of the pro-testors….was Professor James Dinsmoor, Indiana University psychologist who was an unsuccessful candidate for a Democratic nomination for Congress this spring. Police Capt. Charles Sherman said Mr. Dinsmoor had been charged with interfering with the police.
At the time of my arrest, the officer charged me with disorderly conduct, but later at the trial when he testified, I learned I had also been charged with resisting arrest; he blatantly told the court that I had hit him with my sign. I was nonplussed and felt little satisfaction in my eventual verdict of not guilty. At the continuance on August 26th (the ICLU had filed a motion, overruled by the court, to quash the police affidavits), two of the 13 co-defendants were found guilty with judgment withheld; the rest of the cases were scheduled to be heard before a jury in early September ‘66.

The day after the arrests, one of the Indianapolis papers carried a larger story including the names of those arrested and a photograph of me front and center. I thought I’d better notify my parents in Michigan rather than have them hear about it second-hand from our Indiana relatives. My father, not known for taking time away from his high-powered position but for the direst emergency, immediately flew to Bloomington, demanding to know what I was up to and what all the fuss about Vietnam was. He listened intently, had nothing to say, but clearly was displeased with me. It took some time, but he finally came to understand.

Karen at the Indianapolis courthouse, July 25, 1966

Back at the university, Jeff asked me to relate my experience to an audience of our activist friends at the local coffeehouse. Sitting on a tall stool under a spotlight, I couldn’t see the audience beyond in the dark. I spoke maybe five minutes.

Karen concluded her story, “I had thought there’d be questions, but there was only stunned silence.”

*LBJ Library photo

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Conein, the 'Lawrence' of Vietnam

One of the most dramatic and consequential events of the Vietnam War was the November ’63 coup that overthrew the Diem regime. Lucien ‘Lulu’ Conein, aka ‘Three-fingered Luigi’, was the key American agent involved in the coup; Jeff Sharlet was cast in a significant peripheral role.

Born in Paris, raised in Kansas City by an aunt, young Conein left to join the French Army, but when France fell to Germany in 1940 he escaped back to the States and enlisted in the US Army. Since he was fluent in French, he was transferred to the nascent Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), under General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. He and other operatives began weapons and explosives training and intense physical conditioning at covert OSS facilities in the US.

Transferred to a remote base in the Scottish highlands, thence to Milton Hall in England, Conein and comrades joined the clandestine multinational Operation Jedburgh (Jeds): Personnel of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the OSS, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), as well as the Dutch and Belgian Armies in exile, were parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, Holland, and Belgium in support of the allied invasion of Europe in ‘44. Their mission was to conduct sabotage and guerrilla warfare, and lead local resistance forces in actions to slow down German units countering the allies. The ‘Jeds’ worked in teams of three commanded by a French or OSS officer with a French, Belgian, or Dutch deputy; and a radio operator they called the ‘pianist’. They had personal weapons, M1 carbines, Colts, sabotage equipment, a field radio, and 500 code phrases written on pieces of silk.

The first Jed team to infiltrate Occupied Europe left an RAF base on a British Halifax bomber at 2300 hours, 5 June ’44, in advance of the D-Day Normandy landings followed by 92 other teams comprised of roughly 280 commandos as the allies advanced. As Eisenhower and Churchill commented in postwar writings, they did their job well. Team Mark with Capt. Conein, who was aptly codenamed ‘Intrepide’, dropped into the Bordeaux region in mid-August, their task to coordinate with the FFI’s Brigade Armagnac. Conein’s team also fought alongside the Corsican Brotherhood, a tough Mafia-style outfit. After Paris was liberated, General De Gaulle, head of the Free French, ordered all OSS-SOE teams out of France. The later historian, Arthur Schlesinger, then an OSS staffer sent out to recall the teams, described the scene at Brigade Armagnac in his memoir:

It all reminded one of a movie. The French officers were perfectly
cast. Colonel Max Celerier was a Claude Rains type. … The younger
officers were handsome fellows in various cinematic styles. The
American Jedburgh attached to the Brigade was out of the movies
too. Accompanied by a blonde mistress in FFI uniform, he regaled
us with cynical and improbable tales of derring, the stories growing
more extravagant the more Armagnac he consumed. His name was
Lucien Conein.

After Germany surrendered, spring ’45, Conein and several other Jeds were transferred to the Asian theater, to French Indochina, as part of an OSS team working in Hanoi. They worked with French Foreign Legion and anti-communist Vietnamese to drive out the remaining Japanese forces. Following Japan’s surrender, Conein, standing near Ho Chi Minh addressing an enormous crowd in Hanoi’s main square, heard him proclaim Vietnam’s independence from France by paraphrasing the US Declaration of Independence, “All men are born equal: The creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness!”

Back in the States in ’47, Conein became a charter member of the newly-created CIA, but retained his Army rank as cover during his subsequent shadowy career. In the early ‘50s the CIA assigned him to West Germany; he ran the Nuremberg Station in the very building where the war crimes trials were held. His job: to infiltrate agents into nearby Communist Czechoslovakia. As a senior Army officer later in the ‘50’s, he commanded a Special Forces unit, the ‘Green Berets’ formed in 1952.

However, Conein’s most eventful duties of the decade took him back to Hanoi in ’54 where he was initially seconded to Colonel Lansdale, the legendary counter-insurgency expert. Conein’s cover was to arrange air transport for northerners fleeing the Viet Minh Communist-nationalist movement, but his actual task was to sabotage the victorious Viet Minh takeover of northern Vietnam by creating a stay-behind setup for possible guerrilla resistance. He and his agents carried out sabotage against the public transportation system and buried weapons and explosives to equip a possible uprising against the Communist regime. For the latter caper, Conein came up with the novel idea of packing military hardware into coffins then buried in cemeteries.

Returning to the south in ’55, Conein worked with Lansdale’s Military Mission in Saigon where he ran into old comrades-in-arms from the Corsican Brotherhood then running the opium trade in Southeast Asia. The Lansdale Mission helped President Diem consolidate power in South Vietnam. The French were pulling out, but not at all happy the Americans were taking over; there followed mysterious attacks on US personnel and their property in Saigon. When Friedrich Reinhardt, the new US Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, arrived, Lansdale tried to persuade him to fortify his residence against the aggrieved French, but without success. Conein’s solution: driving home one evening from dinner, he directed his wife to steer past the ambassador’s house where he tossed a live grenade on the front lawn. The next day Ambassador Reinhardt acceded to Lansdale’s suggestion.

Lucien Conein

Much later, in 1963, Lt. Col. Conein was attached to the Saigon CIA Station; as cover he was US military adviser to the government of South Vietnam. That spring a series of Buddhist self-immolations protested the Catholic Diem regime’s repressive policies. President Kennedy (JFK), by then heavily invested in the Diem government both politically and militarily, was concerned about the effect of the grisly street scenes as well as the regime’s human rights image abroad on political stability and the prosecution of the war against the Viet Cong in the south.

At the annual July 4th American Embassy reception for senior US personnel and South Vietnamese notables, Nguyen Don, a former Vietnamese comrade-in-arms of Conein’s from ’45, now a general, approached him about the Diem regime’s harsh treatment of the Buddhists as well as its extensive corruption. Speaking in French, Don discreetly asked Conein if he could find out what the US attitude would be to a military coup against Diem. Conein dutifully reported the conversation to his superiors in the embassy, and word went back to Washington.

In August, the Administration covertly ‘green-lighted’ the South Vietnamese military’s coup planning via Conein and sent in a new high-profile ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, to oversee the situation. JFK set up a special secret executive committee (Ex-Comm) modeled after the Cuban Missile Crisis Ex-Comm of the previous year. Comprised of key cabinet officers and national security officials, the coup Ex-Comm, which met in the White House with the President in the chair, evaluated incoming information on coup planning from Vietnam.

Arthur Schlesinger in his memoir continued: “I was not to hear that name [Conein] again for nearly twenty years. One day in 1963, someone in the Kennedy White House told me that the CIA’s liaison between Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the South Vietnamese generals plotting to overthrow Diem was called Lucien Conein.” With tension and anxiety mounting in Washington over the coup, a key cable from Ambassador Lodge referenced Colonel Conein, prompting JFK to ask who he was. Secretary of Defense McNamara, anxious about US involvement being dependent on a sole channel of information, replied that Conein was a kind of T.E. Lawrence character.

Meanwhile, soon after JFK gave the ‘green light’, Brother Jeff and a small team of Army Security Agency (ASA) Vietnamese linguists were quickly flown into Saigon from Clark AFB in the Philippines. They were set up in a corner of a US signals base west of the capital near a ville called Phu Lam. Their mission: to electronically monitor all communications among the plotting generals. Every 24 hours the intelligence product of the op was shipped by air back to the National Security Agency (NSA), ASA’s parent organization in DC, for evaluation and transmittal to the White House Ex-Comm. JFK wanted to know what the generals were saying when Conein wasn’t present. Later called to testify before Congress in the ‘70’s, Conein alluded to the ASA’s Phu Lam op as a backup on what the generals were up to when they occasionally got cold feet and broke off contact with him.

Antennas at Army Signals base, Phu Lam ‘63

Forty-eight hours before the coup began, General Don asked Conein to come to the general staff HQ as the US liaison. Leaving a Special Forces team to guard his family in case things went awry, Conein joined the generals. He carried with him a suitcase filled with 3 million piasters (about $42,000), his ivory-handled .357 Magnum, and a radio for contact with the embassy. The coup went off on November 1, 1963, and very soon the plotters prevailed. They consummated the takeover with the execution, unexpected by the US, of President Diem and his unpopular brother Nhu, chief of the secret police.

Jeff and the ASA team were pulled out, but Lucien Conein was in and out of the country for next several years through a series of subsequent military coups until he finally got in trouble. A thoroughly conscientious clandestine operative, Conein was a hell raiser off duty. One day in ‘66, one of my college friends, a CIA man on his Vietnam tour, came into Saigon from a stay in the field and headed for the Duc Hotel, a kind of Agency bachelor officer’s quarters, for a good meal. Taking a table in the dining room, he spotted Conein, with whom he had a nodding relationship, at the bar with friends having a raucous time. Conein and pals later went up to the hotel roof, sending some heavy concrete ornaments crashing dangerously into the street. As a result, Conein was reassigned to Phu Bai, the CIA’s most distant outpost from the capital which he dubbed ‘Phu Elba’. The following year he left the CIA and returned to the States where he lent his experience to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Decades later the Conein family landed in an upscale Washington suburb, coincidentally next door to one of my former students, who came to know the old soldier socially, remembering him as a fascinating raconteur. Lucien Conein died in 1998 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery, his many medals conferred by four grateful nations on display. In a fitting epitaph, Stanley Karnow, the historian of Vietnam who had known Conein for nearly 40 years, wrote that in the wake of the Cold War at the end of the 20th c., “He was out of his time. [Conein] was the swashbuckling soldier of fortune – the guy who ceased to exist except in fiction.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Green Beret Antiwarrior

We first heard about Gary Rader from Tom Cleaver, a Hollywood screenwriter and former Vietnam War sailor. Tom and my brother, Jeff Sharlet, had first met in Chicago late summer ’67. Jeff had recently moved to town from Indiana University where he’d completed his BA, won a Woodrow Wilson national fellowship, and was about to enroll in the University of Chicago’s PhD program in Political Science. The two Vietnam vets happened to turn up at a meeting of the Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE) led by a somewhat strange but charismatic young man named Gary Rader, one of the group’s founders.

At that time Rader was unusual in antiwar circles – he was in the Special Forces, albeit as a reservist. Graduating from Northwestern University (NWU) in nearby Evanston in 1966, he had enlisted in a Green Beret reserve unit based in Illinois. While serving the required 10 weeks active duty at Fort Bragg NC, the young recruit heard war stories from Special Forces troops returning from Vietnam, tales of military blunders, killings of civilians, and widespread corruption in the Saigon regime. Returning to Chicago, Rader co-founded CADRE, a Quaker anti-draft group, which became one of the largest in the country.

Six months after that summer meeting, Jeff launched Vietnam GI, the first GI-led antiwar paper addressed to active duty troops, and Gary Rader was on the masthead as a contributing editor for the first issues in early '68. Obviously, he was someone I wanted to talk with for the memoir about Brother Jeff. So Karen set out to find him.

Who was Gary Rader? Those who knew the young man in the ‘60s described him as tall, blond, ruggedly handsome, and good-natured. Dr. Benjamin Spock also said he was “rugged looking”. From of his NWU profs I learned Rader had been an exceptionally talented undergrad political scientist, had even collaborated with his mentor on an article for a learned journal. The professor added that he was a friendly, likeable fellow, but short on patience with those who didn’t pick up on things as quickly as he did, including even his profs.

Gary Rader was initially apathetic about the Vietnam War, although strongly opposed to the draft as a means of raising troops for fighting it. At another point, he described himself as pro-war, but by fall of ’67 he had moved 180 degrees to the left, writing in the New York Review of Books: “I was finally willing to admit this war was illegal, unjust, immoral, stupid, you name it.” During that same year, as Rader acquired national visibility in the antiwar movement, he wrote a short autobiographical piece which included an unusual statement equating himself with Muhammad Ali, the most prominent draft resister of the day, arguing that he and Ali were the government’s leading targets for repression.

Beginning spring ’67, Rader became a familiar participant in national antiwar demos in New York and Washington, quite conspicuous in his military uniform with bloused boots and the distinctive headgear of the Special Forces. You couldn’t miss him, and the New York Times didn’t miss his presence as a member of the Army’s foremost group of warriors standing amongst thousands of civilian protestors. Ex-Vietnam GIs—and especially active duty troopers—in uniform were still fairly rare at the big demos of those times.

Gary Rader in uniform, NYC demo, 1967

The zenith of Gary Rader’s career as an antiwarrior was the great Pentagon protest of fall ’67. He was a major player as one of the principal speakers. In Norman Mailer’s book, Armies of the Night, which appeared not long after, the author wrote many that day felt the speech by Gary Rader was the finest of the occasion. Speaking with bullhorn in hand to tens of thousands of protestors facing hundreds of soldiers, bayonets fixed, with helicopters whirling overhead, Rader, whose voice at the outset overlapped in a surreal way with the officer trying to keep his troops in line, began:

My name is Gary Rader; I’m twenty-three years …
‘Company B hold your line. Nobody comes, nobody goes’.
I was in the Special Forces Reserve
‘Company B hold your line’
and I quit and I want …
‘nobody comes, nobody goes’
I want to tell you what led me to that …
‘Company hold your line’
what led me up to that decision.
‘nobody comes, nobody goes’
We will be heard ….
And he was heard as the officer fell silent, and Rader carried his teach-in not just to the civilian legions, but to the troops themselves, many of whom had surely just experienced their first critical view of the war.

Rader was arrested and in and out of court and jail several times in the course of his activism. In 1970 he had a role in a movie with Youth International Party (Yippy) leader Abbie Hoffman, and then, as abruptly as he had burst upon the national scene several years earlier, Gary Rader to all extents and purposes disappeared. Karen queried a number of former CADRE activists, but no one had seen or heard of him for years, even decades, until one day several years ago she found an old CADRE hand, now an academic, who told us what happened.

Movie poster: Gary Rader on left with guitar

Rader had relocated to New York where he worked with the long time antiwar group, War Resisters League. But, as we learned, he became unstable, “never got his feet on the ground.” His mother and girlfriend later managed to get him into a psychiatric facility. And it was there in November ’73 that Gary Rader took his own life. Like his old comrade Jeff Sharlet, he died too young. Unlike Jeff who succumbed to illness four years earlier, we don’t know why.