Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Subversion by Newspaper

1968, the third year of the American war in Vietnam. Concurrently, the broader, global Cold War was approaching its quarter-century mark. It’s sometimes forgotten that the Vietnam War was but one of a number of proxy wars between the two great Cold War adversaries of the last half of the 20th century, the US and the USSR. An understandable lapse. The war in Vietnam was live-fire, blood and guts, while the Cold War dragged on for decades of feints, threats, bluffs, and secret operations that rarely came to light.

Brother Jeff Sharlet fought the Vietnam War as a GI, and then fought against it as a leader of GI antiwar protest. I preceded him as a Cold War soldier in Europe in the ‘50s, later becoming a scholar of the Cold War. Jeff’s ‘weapon’ against his war was Vietnam GI (VGI), the underground paper he created in early ’68 to give voice to GI dissent. At the same time, two law profs and I were completing a study for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (USACDA) preparing for SALT, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. SALT-1 eventually yielded the first arms control treaty between United States and the Soviet Union.

We analyzed all aspects of Soviet law for its potential to obstruct on-site arms verification on Soviet territory in the event the two sides agreed on a treaty to slow the nuclear arms race. We found many opportunities for legal obfuscation and concealment, finally leading US treaty negotiators to insist on “national technical means of verification.”

Since ’56, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US Air Force (USAF) had been conducting manned U-2 flights over Soviet territory well above the range of their anti-aircraft defenses.  That came to an abrupt end on May Day, 1960 when the Soviets brought down pilot Francis Gary Powers with a recently developed ground-to-air missile, the SAM-2 – later used with deadly effect against American planes attacking North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

North Vietnamese SAM-2 battery

As a result of the ‘U-2 incident’, the CIA accelerated the ongoing development of a series of unmanned spy satellites capable of photographing objects as small as one to two feet on the ground below. A recon satellite would be launched in an orbit taking it over Soviet missile sites. The vehicle would then fly on over the Pacific where on remote command it would release a capsule with the film canister at a pre-determined location northwest of Hawaii.  At a top secret facility on an air base in the Islands, the USAF maintained planes specially equipped to recover the capsule by snatching it in mid-air as it descended by parachute, a tricky maneuver. The base also included helicopters with specially trained crews for rescuing pilots who crashed in the ocean.

The younger brother of Jan Barry, the ex-Vietnam GI co-founder of VVAW, Vietnam Veterans against the War, was an airman at that base while Jan was working on VGI with Jeff, my brother. Recently, Jan posted on his blog* the unusual story of his brother and VGI:
“Sometime in the spring of 1968, my brother Ted visited me in New
            York City and drolly told a story about how a copy of Vietnam GI had
            set off a big commotion in an Air Force special operations unit. It seems
            that a copy of the paper mysteriously appeared on the commanding
            officer’s desk in a highly secure area of a base in Hawaii. …

            Spying my name among the culprits on the masthead of this antiwar
            rag, Air Force investigators called in the FBI and targeted Ted, a
            paramedic in the air-rescue detachment. ‘Whose side are you on?’
            the commander demanded. The agitated colonel, who had lost a
            brother in the war, proposed that my brother join him in a raid on
            North Vietnam. The FBI agents flipped out a document that they
            said was a psychological profile of Ted’s radical brother, who
            resigned from West Point after serving in Vietnam. They implied that
            Ted was likely in his brother’s orbit.

            Ted, who professed ignorance of the newspaper’s appearance in their
            midst, was saved by a lieutenant who noted that the airman was a
            highly regarded member of his crew who had jumped out of heli-
            copters with rescue gear to save pilots who crash-landed in the
            ocean. ..."

The Air Force and the FBI knew that whoever did it, antiwar dissent now reached deep into even highly trained, highly motivated special operations units.

A single copy of VGI had penetrated a Cold War inner sanctum and rattled its occupants – subversion by newspaper.


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