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 Unsettled and restless as a freshman, he had withdrawn to fulfill his military draft obligation.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.


  1. I am so sorry for all you have been through. War is horrible and devastating for all. My stepfather and dad's girlfriend were there, too.

    I wish you peace.

  2. In the midst of the Vietnam war Vice President Hubert Humphrey was dispatched to the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association to use his membership as bona fides to justify support for the war. Bernie, a member of an on-stage panel, forcefully denied the relevance of such a credential to justify a war that Bernie passionately believed indefensible. It would have been easier and nicer to remain silent and express dismay, for example, by rolling one’s eyes. But Bernie was not a quiet, eye rolling type of guy. (N. Furniss, IU Memorial Resolution, 2010)


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