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.


  1. My name is Chuck Gambell. I am a Vietnam era deserter who lived in Sweden for over 20 years and was an activist in the anti-war movement.
    I stumbled upon this blog and recognize the times and people involved. I was close to many of the people and events describe here.
    The reason I am writing is because I want to come into contact with the publisher of this blog because I think I can contribute to it in some small way. Thank you. Please contact me at your earliest convenience.

  2. My name is Chuck Gambell. I am a Vietnam era deserter who lived in Sweden for over 20 years and was an activist in the anti-war movement.
    I stumbled upon this blog and recognize the times and people involved. I was close to many of the people and events describe here.

    The reason I am writing is because I want to come into contact with the publisher of this blog because I think I can contribute to it in some small way. Thank you. Please contact me at your earliest convenience.

    1. The author will contact you shortly. Thanks for writing.

    2. Aloha from Hawaii, I am Living & Breathing Love, Peace, & Tranquility.....Sweden was nice, France led to Prison, Germans received me at the Border after a trade with them for 2 others headed in the other direction. Frankfort U.S. Army poisoned me with a hundred hit's of pure LSD. Uncharged/Discharged $5,000 back pay & a General Discharge under Honorable Conditions. I signed and moved to Hawaii to grow Pakalolo.......Hence, I never wanted to return to Civilized, Society. I am an Oil-Painter that America had Discriminated against ever since I have been on their Double "D" List. I deserted the forced abuse by everyone and the Carpet Bombing that was a planned Genocide in Cambodia, Laos, Burma, & Philippines with cluster bombs that dispersed "bomblets" that still Kill Innocent people today.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Very informative. I deserted the Pentagon in December of '68, and was active in the parallel ADC organization formed in Montreal, the same month. with all that was happening at the time, I was largely unaware of the situation in Sweden, and found "Searching for Jeff". Just one thing missing: The article doesn't explain the title, or what led to Jeff's untimely death.

    More of this history (ALL history, for that matter) needs to be recorded, for the lessons it holds for today and tomorrow. My perspective on Vietnam era desertions is scheduled to appear, later this year, in an academic journal called "The Sixties: A Journal of Politics, History, and Culture." I found the act of writing it very therapeutic, 40+ years after the fact.

    1. Thanks for commenting. A book length memoir is underway. We’ll be looking forward to reading your forthcoming in Mike Foley’s journal--Jeff's brother Bob subscribes.

      Though you left your email, you posted as anonymous, so I assume you wish to remain so.

      Are you asking about the blog title, 'Searching for Jeff"? If you go back to the beginning of the blog, you'll find the answer. In a nutshell, Bob Sharlet is quite a bit older than Jeff and did not know much about his life during the time Jeff was in the Army, college, and publishing his underground newspaper, 'Vietnam GI'. Now Bob is searching for the details of Jeff's life via people who knew him.

      Jeff died of kidney cancer in 1969, possibly caused by one of the early herbicides that preceded Agent Orange in Vietnam.

  5. For a detailed look at the politics of the ADC and the connection of some of its leaders (including Bill Jones) to the LaRouche group, please see my chapter on it at

    "Hylozoic Hedgehog"


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