What politicized Jeff and Max? As the Nazi movement swept across Austria, Max’s parents fled to neutral Switzerland, staying one step ahead of the coming Holocaust. At the time, Great Britain allowed two members of a refugee family on temporary visas. It was decided that Tomi and his father would go so that Dr Schwaetzer could try to establish the right to practice medicine in England. Failing to do so, the doctor, a patriotic Austrian who'd though it would all blow over, committed suicide.
Jeff also came from a comfortable background. He spent years in prep school, but in his senior year his father suffered a financial reversal that severely curtailed Jeff’s plans for college. He went off to a low-tuition public university, but, very unhappy there, did not stay long. In those years, young men either attended college with a deferment, or the two-year draft beckoned. Jeff gave the military a 3rd year for the privilege of studying a foreign language for 12 months. He’d been promised a Slavic language and a European posting, but by the luck of the draw ended up in the Vietnamese course, inevitably becoming a Vietnam GI very early in the American war.
Their modus operandi was different, but Max and Jeff were working along parallel lines. Max dealt largely with US deserters, but also disgruntled troops in France and West Germany; Jeff’s constituency was mainly active duty GIs in Vietnam as well as stateside troops training for the war. Max operated on a case by case basis with individual deserters who came to him for help as well as dissident troops in the ranks.The spontaneous movement for which Max was spokesman was called RITA, Resistance inside the Army. Jeff reached military personnel of all services en masse through his underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), the first of its kind edited by an ex-GI exclusively addressed to men at arms in the war.
Both men became antiwarriors of stealth by necessity. If the French authorities caught US deserters, they’d return them to their bases in Germany where, inevitably, sanctions awaited, so Max and his RITA colleague June van Ingen had to keep them well hidden. Max, an alien on French soil, became the object of French police surveillance himself and was eventually deported for his RITA activity. He continued the work in Germany where he came under clandestine scrutiny by US Military Intelligence (MI).
In the States, J Edgar Hoover ordered surveillance on Jeff and his VGI staff. The FBI successfully discouraged Chicago area printers from taking on the press run of the paper, forcing Jeff and colleagues to drive long distances to a willing printer. Agents would knock on Jeff’s apartment door, always in standard trench coat and fedora, just to remind him they were watching. MI, operating out of a stateside base, also got in the act since VGI was considered a threat to the ‘good order and discipline’ of the Army. And unless the paper was mailed by the expensive method of First Class, the postal authorities were on the lookout for ‘seditious’ material being sent through the mails.
Max and Jeff’s respective undertakings required different approaches to publicity. For Max, who made his living as a journalist, publicity was the key, the more and the higher the visibility, the better. Thus, he would set up interviews in Paris with the US press in Europe eager to talk with deserters as undercover operations with the GI’s identity screened from the journo by a sheet stretched across the room. Later in Germany, a GI leaked to Max that his phone was being tapped by the Germans on behalf of MI, an embarrassing story for the Army that Max played beautifully to the European and American press, including good billing in the New York Times (NYT).
Conversely for Jeff, the direct glare of publicity on his enterprise was to be avoided in the interest of maximum efficacy. Anything that would give an investigative edge to the FBI, MI of Northern Illinois, the postal inspectors, or the Chicago Police Department’s ‘Red Squad’ was unwelcome. Hence, assembling issues of VGI would often entail moving from one friendly apartment to another to keep the opposition guessing. And when Jeff went on the road, either to do interviews with returning Vietnam combat veterans or for fundraising to pay the bills, he would occasionally call me to say hello, but always from a telephone booth in one city or another which he would routinely say best not to identify.
Nonetheless as VGI’s success with troops at home and abroad became apparent; both Jeff and the paper unavoidably came in for favorable visibility in spite of his low profile – including in the NYT, the magazine Esquire and, via the wire services, in the regional press.
Max, a skilled helmsman, once blocked a US nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser from entering Sydney Harbor, ‘80s. He continued his activism to the end.
Jeff Sharlet will get a memoir of his short but interesting life (d.’69) for which this blog is a percursor, while the long and dramatic life of his comrade in peace, Max Watts (d. ’10), awaits its biographer.
*See her novella Max’s Anti-Vietnam Network posted on her blog Against the Army at http://againstthearmy.blogspot.com/.