Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Jeff in Japan

Summer ’68. Jeff Sharlet gets a call from Dave Dellinger, titular head of the antiwar movement, editor of Liberation, and later one of the Chicago 7, the premier political trial of those times. Since the US escalation of the war in Vietnam in ‘65, Dellinger had begun organizing meetings in Europe between the American peace movement, largely a civilian group, and the National Liberation Front (NLF), the political arm of the Liberation Army of South Vietnam, also known colloquially by the GIs as the Viet Cong (VC). In ’67, the sides met in Bratislava in Communist Czechoslovakia (CSSR). The ’68 meeting was to be in Prague, the delegation to be led by Bernardine Dohrn of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), subsequently the leader of the Weather Underground.

Dave Dellinger, ‘69

The NLF had specifically asked that Jeff be part of the delegation; presumably the success of his antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, had come to their attention. Would Jeff join the group as an ex-Vietnam GI representative of the rising GI resistance movement? Jeff was of mixed feelings about the invitation. Yes, he wanted to support the undertaking, but at the same time he was worried. In Vietnam he had served with the Army Security Agency (ASA), the military arm of the National Security Agency (NSA), a very secret organization. Upon completing his tour of duty, Jeff had received the standard de-briefing. Nothing was to be disclosed about his military duties on pain of imprisonment and heavy fine, and no travel behind the Iron Curtain for five years. In 1968, Jeff had been out of ASA for only four years, and was very reluctant to incur the wrath of official Washington, his antiwar position notwithstanding.

A solution presented itself in short order. The Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam of Japan, known as Beheiren, also contacted Dellinger and asked him to send a GI antiwar activist to help them sort out problems with US deserters they were harboring. Dellinger approached Jeff’s associate editor, David Komatsu, a Japanese-American who spoke the language, about making the trip. Komatsu preferred to join the Prague gathering where he felt the political action would be and came up with an arrangement satisfactory to all. Since both events were in August ’68, he proposed that he and Jeff switch venues. Off the hook, Jeff agreed and headed for Kyoto, while Komatsu made the journey to East Europe. As it turned out, the Prague conference had to be moved to Budapest because of the Soviet invasion of CSSR, but that’s another story.

In Japan, Beheiren had hidden nearly 20 US military deserters from Japanese and US authorities while waiting to move them safely out of the country, but they were having difficulties with their guests. Kept under wraps with peace activist families, many of the Americans were street kids who understood neither the language nor customs of the country and couldn’t stand being holed up. Some of them took to crime, stealing money for drugs and assaulting women. The largely middle-class Japanese activists couldn’t cope and sought counsel from someone from the States experienced in GI protest.

♫ There must be some kind of way outta here
said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion...
I can't get no relief*

To provide cover for the sudden appearance of an American GI activist in their midst, Beheiren arranged for the consultation to occur in the context of an international peace conference held in Kyoto, the former imperial capital.

Kyoto international conference hall

Jeff had visited Tokyo on military leave in ’63, liked the country, and was happy to return. Beheiren incorporated him into the conference agenda as one of nearly two dozen US participants from various organizations, so Jeff’s involvement would not be conspicuous. Jeff spoke the second day on the issue of on how to assist US deserters. Although he felt that disaffected Vietnam GIs ideally could more effectively oppose the war by remaining in the ranks and influencing their buddies and conveyed this view privately to the Beheiren leadership, he took a diplomatic position on the agenda item in his public remarks as recorded by the Japanese police and a State Department observer:
Jeffrey Sharlet, Secretary General of the Vietnam GI Committee,
expounded various difficulties confronting US soldiers before and
after their desertion. … He stressed the need for Beheiren to
consider the future fate of deserters when assisting them in running away.
In effect, Jeff strongly urged Beheiren in private conversations not to encourage US deserters because of the harsh legal consequences they would face in the military justice system and because they could help the cause more by spreading antiwar sentiments within the military. At the same time he attended to his real mission in Kyoto by conferring with and calming hidden deserters in the evenings. They were a mixed group of white and black GIs, mostly poorly educated, and all bored and restless in their underground situation. Jeff tried to persuade them to be patient with their Japanese friends while Beheiren worked on undercover arrangements to move them to another country beyond the reach of the US military police. Beheiren eventually succeeded in moving the group abroad, but that too is another story.

On the third day at the conclusion of the conference, Jeff’s Japanese guide informed him there would be a march on Kyoto City Hall. Some hundreds of Japanese activists gathered at a nearby rally site. Having seen televised accounts of such marches and clashes with the Japanese police, Jeff begged off, saying he had business elsewhere. Since he was the sole ex-Vietnam GI among the conferees, his guide wouldn’t hear of it and they proceeded to the assembly point. Jeff could see the waiting police, massed in military formation with helmet visors down and shields and long batons at the ready, and he instinctively headed for the rear of the column of militant left students. But the guide politely told him no, no, as a guest of honor you must be at the front.

With great apprehension, Jeff found himself in the middle of the front rank, six across with arms locked, as the column of 500 snaked down the main street, skirmishing with police along the route. In the end, 14 policemen and two students were injured, but Jeff survived unscathed and wisely took cover. What he did not know was that putting a non-Asian foreigner in the front rank was standard practice in the Japanese peace movement since the police would not strike a foreigner, least of all an American, to avoid an international incident.

And so ended another day for Jeff on the antiwar front of the Vietnam War.

*All Along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan, 1968

1 comment:

  1. I was there with the other Americans. The speakers at this conference, of which Jeff was one, represented a range of views, so it felt like there was a genuine exchange going on. I was very impressed with Beheiren; they seemed disciplined and organized. They used call-and-response chanting with slogans, but I couldn't understand them. The venue was rather large and impressive.

    I remember the wild street scene with helmeted, shield-wielding police vs. students with scarves around their facesand long sticks. I kept away from the danger in the front ranks.


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