Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Radical Chicago

Spring ’67. Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI graduating with honors at Indiana University (IU) had just won a prestigious Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship for graduate study, fondly known to recipients as a ‘Woody Woo’. He had applied to PhD programs at Yale, Michigan, and University of Chicago, which, I assumed, he chose on the merits of its noted Political Science Department anchored by David Easton, a luminary of the discipline’s new behavioral persuasion, as well as Leo Strauss of the older tradition of political philosophy.

What I didn’t know was that Jeff was ambivalent about his immediate future. As one of his IU mentors told me after Jeff’s early death in ’69, my brother was torn between two divergent paths – pursuing an academic career in the long run, while in the near term continuing his struggle against the Vietnam War. He was well qualified for both paths. He’d served in Vietnam 1963-64 and been a major antiwar leader at IU, while earning respect for his quality of mind, even from those faculty who disagreed with his politics. In effect, it was a question of whether to go with the head or the heart.

 In retrospect, I think Jeff chose Chicago, the “City of the Big Shoulders”*, which of course happened to have a great university. Ann Arbor, college town of the University of Michigan, and Yale’s New Haven were no match for a young man emerging from the classroom, eager to grasp the world and acquire higher learning. As Sandburg sang, “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”*

 In late summer ’67, Jeff headed to Chicago, a cynosure of the antiwar movement as well as powerful currents of grass-roots street activism.  The city was the site not only of the headquarters of SDS, which rapidly grew into the nation’s largest youth movement, but also a number of street-level groups, most initially below the radar of the national media and for a time even the underground press.

CADRE, the pacifist Chicago Area Draft Resisters was the first to organize against the Vietnam War draft. The grass-roots ‘Jobs or Income Now’ (JOIN), an offshoot of SDS in its early anti-poverty phase, sprang up in poor and working class neighborhoods.  JOIN then spun off the Young Patriots, white migrants from Appalachia led by Jack ‘Junebug’ Boykin. The Young Lords, Puerto Rican youth headed by Jose ‘Cha Cha’ Jimenez, joined with the Patriots and Fred Hampton’s Chicago Black Panthers to form the ‘Rainbow Alliance’—the first multi-racial, multi-ethnic alliance—to improve the quality of life for communities that had traditionally been adversarial.

Mike James, a leader of Chicago’s white working-class radicals
 Photo:  Michael James Archives

They helped people get social services they were entitled to; led rent strikes against slumlords; and mounted protests against police brutality, a familiar feature of life in powerless neighborhoods of Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Eventually Mike James, a prime mover of JOIN, co-founded ‘Rising Up Angry’ (RUA), an offshoot of the Young Patriots with the same mission.

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy,
'Cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy**

Radical Chicago supported two underground papers.  The Seed, was especially noted for its artwork, initially under co-founder Don Lewis, then Lester Dore. The Bridge, created by Bernie Farber, the late Bill O’Brien, his sister Anne, and others, was short-lived.  The city also sported two coffee houses as gathering places for activists and others, one on the University of Chicago campus, and ‘Alice’s Revisited’ in a neighborhood where the young camped out, eventually succeeded in the ‘70s by ‘Heartland Café’, co-founded and still run today by Mike James, in the Rogers Park section.

The notorious Mayor Richard J Daley and his political machine had scarce tolerance for these grass-roots organizations -- or the Vietnam antiwar movement. The Chicago Police Department’s ‘Red Squad’ surveilled dissent wherever it raised its head. In opposing the Rainbow Coalition, the mayor could call on J Edgar Hoover, who regarded the Black Panthers as “The greatest single threat to the internal security of the country,”*** as well as the US Attorney for the Northern District.  To monitor antiwar activity, he could also count on the Department of the Army’s Military Intelligence unit (MI) at Fort Sheridan IL.

The Daley machine could field a formidable array of forces against those who challenged the municipal status quo or, according to Daley’s super patriotic standard, subversively used Chicago as a base for spreading sedition nationally and beyond. This was the Chicago to which Jeff moved in August of ’67, his attention split between continuing his antiwar mission and preparing for grad school.  

The idea of organizing soldiers with doubts about the war in Vietnam was very much on his mind since he’d been in New York earlier that summer where he had joined the new Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) and met its co-founder Jan Barry. He also looked up Tom Barton, an IU alum whom he had run into the past spring. Tom put Jeff in touch with another young man, Dave Komatsu of Chicago, also a seasoned Old Left activist who additionally had experience running a shoestring underground newspaper.

In Chicago, Jeff found his way to antiwar circles where he met Tom Cleaver, an ex-Vietnam sailor, at a CADRE meeting on draft resistance presided over by the flamboyant Gary Rader, a Northwestern grad and Special Forces reservist. Classes began, the semester wore on, but Jeff’s heart was not in the academic game. He hung out at the campus coffee house, hooked up with local activists at Alice’s Revisited, and did more brainstorming antiwar options with Komatsu than coursework.  Jeff also spent time with the editorial group for the alternative paper The Bridge soaking up ideas on how a small paper was put together.

His initial idea of organizing ex-Vietnam GIs gave way to the more modest effort of starting an underground paper directed to active-duty GIs, thus giving voice to the voiceless in the antiwar movement. Jeff now realized that the task of planning an antiwar paper was not conducive to PhD work. Heart won out over head; Jeff withdrew from the University of Chicago, moved in with the Komatsu family, and began working full-time to launch a GI paper. Key to the operation was money for a typesetting machine, printing costs, and distribution expenses – a problem Jeff solved by putting the rest of his Woody Woo, a goodly sum in those days of a few grand, into the project.

Launched in January of ’68 in the midst of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, Vietnam GI (VGI) took off quickly, catching the attention of Vietnam GIs as well as stateside troops training to deploy.  The months ahead proved eventful. President Johnson abruptly pulled out of the presidential race in late March; and Martin Luther King (MLK) was assassinated in Memphis in April, igniting riots in ghettos across the country. Federal troops were deployed in Chicago.  In May, VGI ran a sensational photo of GIs posing over an atrocity that brought MI to town looking for the negative so embarrassing to the Army. The assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy followed in June.

University of Chicago campus

Getting the monthly issue to press and mailing it under the vigilant gaze of postal inspectors on the lookout for seditious material took a lot of hands. As a deadline approached, Dave Komatsu would call upon his CADRE friends as well as political comrades to lend a hand with typing, transcribing and other chores; there were big monthly ‘mailing parties’. Money always in short supply, Jeff was frequently on the road raising funds for VGI’s coffers.

An appeal for financial help to SDS had fallen on deaf ears – Rennie Davis was disposed, Tom Hayden opposed – it hadn’t yet dawned on the organization that soldiers also opposed the war. Jeff’s road trips included stops at GI coffee houses outside base camps where he’d rap with returning combat veterans, gathering their stories for the paper. At the coffee house outside Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Jeff met Fred Gardner, founder of the GI coffee house network.

The ’68 Democratic Convention was set for Chicago, and the Mobe, the national umbrella organization of the New Left, planned to bring in large numbers of protestors to demonstrate against the war. The prospect was anathema to Mayor Daley who secured commitments from the Illinois National Guard and from Washington for riot troops.  Foreseeing a major confrontation, Jeff and Jim Wallihan, his close friend from IU who’d come up to Chicago in the spring to help edit VGI, decamped with the materials for the forthcoming August issues, taking no chances that the Red Squad might use the public fracas as cover to crack down on local radicals.  

While street battles raged in Chicago, Jeff and Jim crashed in the Bay Area with Joe Carey, an ex-Vietnam GI combat photographer who had supplied the paper with some revealing photos. They readied the press run for the regular August issue of VGI as well as for a brand new ‘Stateside’ edition with GI protest news attuned to US base camps. The headline of the initial Stateside issue concerned a large group of Black Vietnam combat veterans who refused to deploy for riot duty at the Chicago convention.

Fall ’68. Jeff shared an apartment with Jim Wallihan and Bill O’Brien. Bill, well connected in Chicago labor circles, got Jeff and Jim into the Paper Handlers Union; that meant hard work maneuvering enormous rolls of newsprint in the city’s press rooms. By then, a medical problem Jeff first experienced in Vietnam was beginning to take its toll, and the job proved too demanding. In October, he made one last trip abroad on behalf of The Mobe – to Stockholm to meet with GI deserters. He had already gone to Japan on the same issue in August. Jeff made his final coffee house visit in late November ‘68 when he spent a week at the Oleo Strut outside Fort Hood, TX where he again crossed paths with Tom Cleaver and met ex-Vietnam GI Dave Cline, both of whom were on staff at the Strut.

The late Bill O’Brien of Chicago
Photo by Mary O’Kiersey

That was effectively the end of the line for Jeff as an activist; his final half year would be spent in Miami area hospitals dealing with a serious illness which would prove terminal. Even so, from hishospital bed he maintained telephone contact and a lively correspondence with many of the activists in his national network. Komatsu and colleagues had gotten out the January ’69 Asian and Stateside editions of VGI 

 Back in Chicago on the first anniversary of MLK’s assassination, the Rainbow Coalition of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Young Patriots held their first ever joint press conference to commemorate the occasion and renew their commitment to helping the poor. Finally, in June ‘69 just a week after Jeff’s death, SDS held what would be its last national conference at which the organization dramatically split. Weatherman, the winning faction, espousing violence, went underground six months later.


A year later in 1970, VGI was still alive. Dave Komatsu, who had moved on to another project, handed off to Craig Walden, an ex-Vietnam Marine; John Alden, ex-Vietnam-era Navy; and for a short time Lenora ‘Nori’ Davis, an early feminist and anti-racist activist. David Patterson, aka Joe Harris, succeeded Nori as the third member of the troika. Natives of Chicago, Craig and his wife Judy were active with the Young Patriots, while Nori worked with RUA and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union.

As America’s involvement in Vietnam wound down and an end could be discerned, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) finally succeeded in revoking the tax-exempt status of the East Coast outfit funding the GI coffee houses and underground papers.  With operational funds dried up, Vietnam GI expired with the August ’70 issue after a two and a half year run, relatively good longevity by standards of the GI underground press. By then Jeff’s legacy was secure – Vietnam GI had inspired by example well over a hundred underground papers at Army posts, Air Force bases, Marine camps, and on board ships of the line, which collectively broadened and deepened military protest against the Vietnam War, eventually contributing mightily to the end of the ill-fated US mission in Southeast Asia.

Rainbow Alliance press conference ’69, Panther co-chair presiding, Junebug Boykin sitting to his right and behind him in beret & sunglasses, Craig Walden, VGI co-editor in ’69-’70.  Photo: Michael James Archives

*Carl Sandburg, Chicago (1916).
**Street Fighting Man, Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, 1968
***Quoted in A. Sonnie & J. Tracy, Hillbilly Nationalists (2011)

  Tom Barton:
  Tom Cleaver:
  Gary Rader:
  Fred Gardner:
  Joe Carey:
  Dave Cline:
  Craig Walden: and










  1. Very interesting, but why not also mention Roosevelt University with its radical student paper and a student body with many 'red diaper' babies.

  2. Knew Mike James at UC-Berkeley in the time of the Free Speech Movement. Came out from New York City by way of Chicago, went back to Chicago, and had a long activist career.


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