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.