Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"He Cut Trail For Us"

A few years back I received a request to use a photo of my late younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, in a forthcoming mass market history text. I of course said yes, the more visibility for my brother and his role in the Vietnam GI antiwar movement the better. When asked about my fee, I replied that the memoir in progress about my brother has never been about money, but to secure his niche in the history of antiwar protest. Jeff had already received considerable posthumous recognition. An award-winning documentary film on the GI movement was co-dedicated to him, while sections of several books were written about his Vietnam service and his underground paper (my favorite line being, “Vietnam GI was professional, tough, witty, and radical.”*), so why not a picture of Jeff in Vietnam, presumably with a brief caption that might inspire some of the middle school kids who’d see it.

Maybe 18 months later, curious when the book would appear, I sent a general inquiry to the publishing house, but never got a response. The publisher’s Web site was such a byzantine maze that I figured this is surely a quixotic pursuit and decided just to keep an eye out for the title when it appeared in print, which it eventually did.  Ordering it for the memoir shelf was easier said than done, for it had been published in different variations, for different markets. Making an educated guess, I shelled out a hundred bucks and received a handsome 4-pound volume of nearly 700 pages.

I opened it with pleasant expectation, calculating that hundreds of thousands of middle schoolers would be reading (and toting) this text and gazing upon my brother, a quiet hero of a different era. The American Journey: Modern Times,** with a 15-page table of contents and an enormous number of photos, graphs, and charts is a most impressive textbook unlike the more modest texts of my distant youth. Turning to the exceptionally fine-tuned index, I quickly found the reference to Jeff indicating that he had both a page and a photograph.

I looked through the general section, Challenges at Home and Abroad, with chapters on the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War, to get a sense of the setting . Perusing the Vietnam War and antiwar protest chapter, with the exception of a factual error and a mere map reference to the My Lai massacre without explanation, I noted that the discussion was generally balanced on the origins, conduct, and conclusion of the war as well as the variants of the antiwar movement – civilian, GI, draft resisters, and conscientious objectors.

And then I turned to Jeff’s page. Under the heading ‘The Vietnam Years at Home’ I saw the photo of Jeff in army fatigues in Vietnam with a brief account of him as a Vietnam GI and subsequent opponent of the war, all presented as a simulation of a page from a diary. The mini-narrative opened with mounting casualties in Vietnam, many people began to protest the war followed by the thesis of the piece, “Jeff Sharlet was a Vietnam veteran who opposed the war ….” It would have been fine if the sentence had ended there, but I was taken aback by the rest. It went on to say that because Jeff was ‘disgusted’ by the student war protestors, he decided to start his paper, Vietnam GI (VGI). I was stunned because I knew Jeff had launched the paper hoping to give heretofore voiceless GIs a platform.  He knew from experience that many of them had grave reservations about what we were doing in Vietnam.

The civilian antiwar movement was already strong by early ’68 when the first issue of VGI appeared. In an interview in a mainstream civilian underground paper, Jeff and his colleague Jim Wallihan argued that civilian protestors and GI war opponents needed to work shoulder to shoulder to oppose the war. Although VGI primarily addressed the troops, it had thousands of civilian readers as well; Jeff hoped they would grasp that the GI was not the enemy of the movement, but a potential ally in opposing the administration’s war policy.

Reading on to the end of the ‘diary’ page about Jeff, I saw to my dismay that whoever wrote the brief text was not finished skewing his record. Bizarrely, it stated that GIs ‘whether they supported or opposed the war’ knew they could find a forum in the pages of VGI.

If the unknown writer had merely said that Jeff would publish letters-to-the-editor reacting to articles pro and con, that would have been accurate. In fact, he published several letters from officers highly critical of VGI, usually followed by his sharp rebuttals, but the vast majority of correspondence came from enlisted men strongly opposed to the war.

The idea that Jeff would have given space to promote the war effort in a demonstrably antiwar paper was ludicrous. Such articles filled the pages of Stars and Stripes, the main military paper, and the myriad unit papers such as Tropic Lightning News, the weekly of the 25th Infantry Division.

I thought to myself where did these strange inventions about Jeff come from. The book’s title page listed five American historians, but I guessed at most each might have responsibility for overseeing a section of the text and supervising a stable of researchers, writers, and editors. Otherwise it would have been hard to imagine that the notable ‘authors’, busy turning out their own scholarly monographs during the long gestation of the publisher’s entry in the textbook sweepstakes, had time for the pick ‘n shovel work of a complex, multifaceted creation like American Journey. Turns out I greatly overestimated the authors’ role – apparently it’s well known in the publishing industry that the so-called ‘authors’ do not really write the textbooks.

So I reconciled myself to the reality on the page with the consolation that at least the publishers and their legions got the basic facts right – that Jeff came out of the war a major opponent, founder of a successful underground paper, and, by implication, a major force in the emerging GI protest movement. Without the photo of Jeff and jumbled summary in the textbook, the middle school students across America would have had no idea that GIs themselves, as well as civilians, had opposed the Vietnam War.

I mentioned news of the textbook coverage in my annual email update about the memoir project to the 200+ interlocutors who have helped on the project. I included the relevant page as an attachment. I was going to caveat the attachment with a note about the inaccuracies that had surprised me, but decided that the explanation would be too long and complicated for a brief update message. Instead, I thought I’d wait to respond to anyone who might inquire about the anomalous statements in the book.

I didn’t have to wait long. That very day I received two emails with strong objections to the textbook’s misrepresentations about Jeff and VGI. Both were from veterans of the Vietnam era, one a GI who served in Europe, the other from an ex-Vietnam Marine. Both men had read VGI with great appreciation and admired Jeff from a distance, and both had become GI antiwar activists. Curiously neither guy was on my mailing list – someone had shared the memoir update with the two of them which was fine, but both held me responsible for the offending content of Jeff’s ‘page’ in the middle school text.

Before expressing his shock and dismay, the Marine wrote:

Of course, I did not know [Jeff], but the Vietnam GI newspaper was legendary as the first of about 200 such antiwar papers written by veterans and GIs.  I and all the GI and veteran activists who came after Jeff owe him a debt of gratitude for cutting trail for us. 
The GI was even more upset, charging that I had mangled my "valiant brother's memory and role in history," and described his first encounter with VGI 

I remember VGI, the first antiwar newspaper     by GIs!  Jeff was a revolutionary! I was in the Army at the time & later became involved in the GI antiwar movement.  VGI had a lot to do with that and I remember passing around the paper while I was stationed in Germany. 
I very much appreciated the positive feedback on VGI and of course felt their criticism of the textbook was well justified, but misdirected. I replied to both men, explaining that I had merely granted permission for the use of Jeff’s photograph, that in fact McGraw Hill’s agent gave no assurance that it would actually be used or offered me any opportunity to have input on its possible use. The upside was that I became acquainted with two major GI activists from the Vietnam War era I had previously known of only indirectly.
Paul Cox had been a combat Marine in Vietnam from February ’69 to August ’70, much longer than the standard Marine tour of 13 months. He’d gone off to war with no knowledge of the country’s history or the causes of the conflict, and eventually developed disgust for what he’d been sent to do. Returning to the States filled with guilt and anger, Paul encountered civilian antiwar activists who helped him redirect his feelings toward those in the military and the government who were the war’s authors. 
With sympathetic fellow Marines at Camp Lejeune NC, he co-founded the GI underground paper, Rage, which announced as its raison d’etre “We publish RAGE, a paper by and for GIs and their dependents of Camp Lejeune and the New River Air Station. … It is a weapon against the brass to let them know we can think, learn new ideas, and help others in our struggle against the Marine Corps and the military system.”
The other GI who reacted to the way the textbook twisted Jeff’s story was Hal “Phoenix” Muskat who served in the Army in Europe 1966-69, initially in Paris where he encountered antiwar activists and first read VGI, and later near Frankfurt in West Germany where he refused orders for Vietnam. Finishing his enlistment back in the States, Hal became a prominent GI activist.

Hal Muskat, GI antiwar activist 

While at Fort Dix, Hal served as one of the editors of the GI underground paper, Shakedown, and helped start the GI coffee house in nearby Wrightstown NJ. Reassigned to Fort Knox KY, he co-founded the post underground paper FTA (Fun, Travel and Adventure in Army bureaucratese, but Fuck the Army in GI argot). He’d also been involved with Spartacus at Fort Lee VA. Busted twice for ‘distributing’ antiwar papers (a military offense), Hal served a couple of stockade stints for his activism for which he was recently featured in a documentary on the GI protest movement.
Fortunately, two other people joined our conversation, adding expert explanations for Jeff’s story’s ‘spin’ and providing a longer term view of the entire affair. A distinguished sociologist, James Loewen, wrote that the distortions of Jeff’s intent and purpose did not surprise him. As the author of the best-selling study, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, he was well aware of the miswriting and distortions of history in school texts.
Reading his account of how Vietnam has been handled in school books, it became obvious that both the war and the antiwar movement, controversial in their day and still so in minds of many, would be likely candidates for authorial or editorial ‘spin’ in a mass-market volume. So who are the spinners?  According to Professor Loewen’s book, he learned authoritatively that chapters on recent American history in textbooks “are ‘typically’ written by freelance writers.” He quotes one ghost writer who wrote even more candidly about the process.

It is absolutely standard practice in the textbook publishing industry to assign ALL the writing to freelancers.  Then you rent a name to go on the cover.*** 
David Zeiger, the director of the award-winning documentary,  Sir! No Sir! † (SNS), on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement, co-dedicated to Jeff Sharlet, put Jeff's appearance in American Journey and the consequent misstatements in broader perspective.  There had been a number of documentary films on the civilian antiwar movement, but the crucial role of GIs in protesting the war had been forgotten until David resuscitated it and in a single stroke changed the way the antiwar movement would henceforth be remembered.  Although equally dismayed by the 'spin', David concluded that "even mentioning Jeff and the GI movement is an advance", given that the book is being used in schools all over the country by vast numbers of middle schoolers.
The only remaining question for me was how did my consent to a welcome request to use Jeff’s photo in a mainstream schoolbook come to such a surprising ending. All signs pointed toward the multi-billion dollar textbook marketing business, especially to the markets that play major roles in the national process. Of these, Texas has the second largest school population, is one of the few large states that pay 100% of the cost of textbooks, and mandates a review of guidelines for school texts every ten years – all of which gives it enormous clout in the writing, and ultimately the marketing, of texts for school children at every grade level.
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is an elected body whose chair is appointed by the governor. Given low interest and even lower turnouts for school board seats, political conservatives gained control of the elections, and their minions have exercised great sway over standards for textbooks used in the state. Because of Texas’s purchasing power, the major textbook publishers, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Houghton Mifflin, and McGraw Hill, publisher of American Journey, customarily pay close attention to what the state wants.
Texas guidelines tend to dictate the shape of the big three’s products, especially on sensitive issues. As the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me wrote, “Fear of not winning adoption in Texas is a prime source of publisher angst ….” (215) Given the cost of producing a typical text, usually in the millions, books crafted for access to the Texas market then end up becoming the default choices for most other states. Since the ‘70s, the highly politicized Texas SBOE has been especially concerned about stemming what it considers a ‘liberal bias’ in text writing, especially in science and, somewhat more recently, social studies.
The most contentious science issue has been the fight over evolution by those who prefer creationism or its euphemistic alternative ‘intelligent design’, while the thrust in social studies has been rolling back secularism and multiculturalism. According to a rightwing newsletter, “contested subjects” in social studies that draw the attention of the Texans include the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War.
Wouldn’t one assume that the Texas SBOE calls in academic experts to assist in their deliberations. They in fact do, but if the conservative board members are not pleased with expert advice on an issue, they seek other less qualified but more congenial points of view. The initial impetus to censor textbooks in Texas came from an oilfield worker with a year of college. Until a few years ago, a dentist who regards evolutionary theory as nonsense ruled the roost. Most recently academic opinion was set aside for the input of a special politically connected consultant, an insurance salesman with no higher education.****
Were Texas standards the genesis of the distortions added to Jeff’s story in American Journey? The claims that he was ‘disgusted’ with Vietnam War protestors and welcomed pro-war views in his antiwar paper would certainly pass muster in the Lone Star state. Texas is not only deeply religious country, but well-known for its patriotic fervor. Outside of a minority of students at the University of Texas in liberal Austin, most Texas campuses were relatively quiet compared with universities elsewhere during the ‘60s and ‘70’s.
Did McGraw Hill think it wise to add a few ‘patriotic’ flourishes to Jeff’s narrative. Where does the chain of responsibility from the Texas SBOE lead. Was it a staffer working in the bowels of a giant corporation who took it upon himself to ‘spin’ the sole reference to GI antiwar protest, or was it an anonymous freelancer doing piece-work. What about the distinguished historians gracing the title page as putative ‘authors’ of American Journey. Three of them are from Princeton, Columbia, and UCLA with impressive scholarly publications to their credit. Do they share responsibility for ‘lies my teacher told me’. Or was it understood they were meant to be mainly window-dressing, exchanging a few letters with the publisher, lending their names, and drawing a nice fee.
Whatever the motive or  the cause, the full truth on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement is out there where any middle schooler, curious for more information, can Google ‘Jeff Sharlet Vietnam’ or ‘Vietnam GI’ and instantly find Jeff’s Wiki and Web site as well as this blog.
* F Gardner, Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case (1970), p 210. The author dedicated his book to “Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at twenty-seven”
** Published by Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2009
*** J Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995, 2007), pp 253, 319
**** On the Texas SBOE, see M Blake, “Revisionaries: How a group of Texas conservatives is rewriting your kids’ textbooks,” Washington Monthly (2010), and G Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” New York Review of Books (2012)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Music To Wait For War By

The Pentagon recently decided the Vietnam War started in the first days of 1962. Many disagree with that date; some think it began earlier, some later.  But, coincidentally, January of 1962 was the start of Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam War, the year he entered the Army Language School (ALS) and found himself in a year-long Vietnamese course.

The US mission which kicked off our war in Vietnam in ’62, according to the Pentagon, was ‘Operation Chopper’, the first time American military advisors were actively engaged in a major combat support role in South Vietnam. Over a thousand paratroopers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) were flown in 82 helicopters to a stronghold of the guerrilla insurgents commonly known as the VC, Victor Charlie, just plain Charlie, or the Viet Cong – 10 miles west of Saigon.

But back at ALS as the battle raged in a faraway war in a country few could find on a map, Jeff and his fellow language students were just settling in to their 47-week program. Learning an unfamiliar Asian language by day, the guys were having a good time by night and on weekends. For many of the GI students from Eastern and Midwestern universities, the language school’s home at the Presidio of Monterey on the California coast was a magical place. High on a hill overlooking Monterey Bay with flower-bordered walks and endless sunny days, it was an exotic place ‘to go to school’.

Jeff and his friend Keith Willis from back home in upstate New York would ride their motorcycle up to San Francisco for drinks and cigars at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, or down Highway 1 through Carmel-by-the-Sea to Nepenthe, 800 feet above the Pacific surf in Big Sur with its 40-mile view.  Like the rest of their young countrymen, they’d have been traveling along with a rollicking, yodeling doo-wop version of a traditional African tune that had hit #1 on the pop charts:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…

Hush, my darling, don’t fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.

Nepenthe was no doubt an unbelievable scene for Jeff and Keith. Its breathtaking scenery and rich history in an incredibly laid-back atmosphere made it a destination for people from all over the world.Poets, artists, beats, lovers, dancers, musicians, as well as folks out for a memorable evening, all gathered there to relax and raise a glass to celebrate life in that most unforgettable place.And to dance the night away – among other dances, to ‘do the Twist’, the latest craze:

Yeah daddy is sleepin' and mama ain't around

We're gonna twisty twisty twisty
'Til we turn the house down.†

File:Big Sur June 2008.jpg

Big Sur Coastline

After a year in California paradise, it wasn’t surprising that Jeff’s letters home expressed no love lost for the Philippines.  Arriving at the 9th ASA (Army Security Agency) station at Clark Air Base in January of ’63, Jeff would work a full schedule translating intercepted North Vietnamese messages. Off duty it was short trips into Manila to prowl the bars or hit the racetrack; or head up to Baguio, a mountain retreat high above the heat of the lowlands. He and Keith would make shorter forays into Angeles City, a dusty town near the base offering the usual amusements and enticements to GIs.

There they could grab a bite, catch a movie, and especially go bar-hopping where they’d find music and girls. Keith would teach the B-girls steps of stateside dances like the Twist and the Mashed Potato, while Jeff was always welcome since he was often mistaken for a Spaniard. But Angeles City was a far cry from San Francisco or Big Sur.

Plaza Cafe, Angeles City, Philippines

In January of ’63, US advisors supported South Vietnamese forces in the Battle of Ap Bac, which went badly for the ARVN as well as the Americans. The South Vietnamese took heavy casualties, 83 killed and at least 100 wounded.  Of the 15 helicopters the US crews flew, only one escaped undamaged, while 5 were downed by enemy fire or completely destroyed with 3 Americans killed and 8 wounded. In the wake of defeat, US commanders took it as a bad sign that an anonymously composed Ballad of Ap Bac, sung to the tune of On Top of Old Smoky, echoing a battle report and lampooning the war effort, was making the rounds of the US billets.

On January two
We were called into Tan Hiep
We would never have gone there
If we had only knew
We were supporting the ARVNs
A group without guts
Attacking a village
Of straw covered huts
A ten copter mission
A hundred troop load
Three lifts were now over
A fourth on the road…
…A Huey returns now
To give them some aid
The VC’s are so accurate
They shot off a blade…
An armored battalion
Just stayed in a trance
One captain died trying
To make them advance…
…The paratroopers landed
A magnificent sight
There was hand to hand combat
But no VC’s in sight...
…When the news was reported
The ARVNs had won
The VC are laughing
Over their captured guns....

Colonel James Patterson “Bull” Durham, a pilot as well as singer-songwriter, collected many songs “in-country” written and performed by GIs, including himself.  A number of them were protest songs; others patriotic, and still others were about the general hardships and worries soldiers faced in a strange land in the midst of an undeclared no-win war. Some were parodies, some original, all were heartfelt.  One of Durham’s ditties was about the rescue helicopter affectionately known as the Jolly Green Giant or the Gooney Bird, painted all brown and green, the prettiest bird a downed pilot had ever seen:

♫I sit here alone in this tree
 Scared of 'Charlie' as I can be
Wish to the Lord that I could see Jolly Green.

But it’s still 1963, and the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) in the Philippines played music around the clock.  Needless to say, the in-country tunes were not on the playlists, but just imagine the reaction when the DJ announced an active duty Marine Corps group, ‘The Essex’, with a major million-selling #1 hit, Easier Said Than Done.  The writers said the beat was inspired by the sound of multiple teletype machines pounding out copy in the communications center.

♫….Tell him he’s the one.

Deep in my heart I know it,
But it’s so hard to show it
‘Cause it’s easier – easier said than done.

Folk music was just beginning to gain widespread popularity in the early 60’s.  One of the earliest hits was Peter, Paul and Mary’s 500 Miles, which surely stirred deep feelings of nostalgia among the GIs far from home, friends, and family:
Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four,
Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.
500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles
Lord I'm five hundred miles from my home.
Then there was Fare Thee Well, based on an old English ballad, sung by Joan Baez, which offered a more accurate version of the distance between the Philippines and Jeff’s stateside hometown. Folk music-loving GIs might have remembered it from her debut album in 1960:
And fare thee well my own true love
 And farewell for a while.
I’m going away, but I’ll be back
If I go ten thousand miles.
One thing the Philippines did have going for it that was reminiscent of California was good surf, especially during the monsoon season from October to January. The surf rock music craze was on, and the singers Jan and Dean made it to the #1 slot with Surf City:

Two girls for every boy
I bought a '30 Ford wagon and we call it a woody
(Surf City, here we come)
You know it's not very cherry, it's an oldie but a goody
(Surf City, here we come)
Well, it ain't got a back seat or a rear window
But it still gets me where I wanna go.
Meanwhile, back in the States, protest songs were popping up, but not to be heard on AFRS.  One was Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, inspired by President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address warning of the military-industrial complex:
♫Come you masters of war
 You that build all the guns
 You that build the death planes
 You that build all the bombs
 You that hide behind walls
 You that hide behind desks
 I just want you to know
 I can see through your masks.
Jeff’s first Vietnam assignment came in August ‘63 as the Buddhist self-immolations continued and the Vietnamese generals began planning the coup that would unseat the President of South Vietnam, ending with his assassination, but that’s a tale for another time. 

*Ballad of Ap Bac:
  Links to music videos


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cold War Sideshow -- Vietnam as Proxy War

The Vietnam War looms large in this blog, but, lest we forget, it was a proxy war within the global Cold War which reigned from 1945 to 1991. And Vietnam was not the first proxy war (Korea) or the last (the Soviets in Afghanistan) between the United States and the Soviet Union, the dominant superpowers. Because the US and the USSR were armed to the teeth with deadly civilization-ending nukes, the idea was to keep the East-West conflict ‘cold’, i.e., avoid direct combat between the adversaries.

That left open a race for influence in the newly decolonialized Third World. Most often the struggle manifested itself through foreign aid missions – the Soviet ruble vs. the American dollar – but sometimes armed conflict broke out with the superpower adversaries backing rival fighting groups. Ideally, Moscow and Washington preferred to steer their sides in the local wars at arm’s length – through military advisors and weapons deliveries.

Occasionally, however, one side or the other was about to go under and required rescue, as the Soviets did in Afghanistan in ’79 to save the local pro-communist regime, and  then found themselves stuck there for nearly a decade. Likewise of course, Washington found its proxy, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), foundering against the insurgent People’s Liberation Army or Viet Cong (VC), and decided to make the war its own in ’65. And just as the CIA clandestinely fed weapons to the Afghan insurgents, including  Stinger missiles that destroyed so many Soviet helicopter gunships, a decade earlier the USSR had supplied North Vietnam with SAMs, surface-to-air missiles, that brought down many a US fighter bomber in the course of our long entanglement in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam was initially our arm’s length proxy war as part of America’s broad ‘Containment strategy’ to prevent the USSR from expanding its control beyond the frontiers of its Eurasian communist empire. During his first year in office, 1961, President Kennedy (JFK) had suffered a series of setbacks in the Cold War arena – the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, his poor performance in talks with Khrushchev in Vienna, and the ultimate humiliation of having to stand by as the East German communist regime, with Soviet approval, erected the Berlin Wall to seal off West Berlin.

Seeking a way to reassert his personal authority and US power, JFK settled on the long simmering, low intensity civil war in Vietnam as the place we would show the Soviets our stuff. Vietnam was simply a conflict of convenience for the United States in its ongoing Cold War standoff with Moscow – nothing more. It was a duel of Cold War surrogates – their North Vietnamese Communists against our South Vietnamese nationalists or, as a scholar once put it, their guys against our guys.

After JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) inherited what had already become our Vietnam quagmire. LBJ’s dilemma: our Cold War surrogate was failing, but pulling out would have been politically risky for the President given the strong anti-communist sentiment in the States. Fearing Saigon was on the verge of losing control and that he’d be blamed for losing a country to the communists, LBJ took us in feet first in early ‘65 – sending the first US combat troops into the South while launching a bombing campaign in the North. With troop levels rapidly escalating throughout the year, it soon became an American war.

Three years on in ’68, the Cold War writ large and its Southeast Asian conflict had become inextricably intertwined in policy and public perception. That was a fateful year for both ‘wars’. Early on in January, a crack occurred in Moscow’s East European bloc when a reform Communist, Alexander Dubcek, became leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CP), opening the way to what became known as the ‘Prague Spring’.

That was good news for our side in the Cold War, but was soon overshadowed by the Viet Cong’s surprise Tet Offensive on January 30th. It began with a high profile attack by a VC suicide team against the US Embassy compound during the night. A young American-Vietnamese couple asleep within view of the embassy heard shots, assumed it was another coup attempt at the presidential palace, and went back to sleep. In the morning they learned that the VC had simultaneously attacked over a hundred cities and towns throughout the country.*

The VC assault on the center of American power, although of little military significance, had great symbolic import. While they were quickly defeated nearly everywhere and the national uprising they hoped to provoke did not occur, the VC reaped an unexpected psychological victory. They had emerged from the jungles and boldly struck the heretofore secure urban strongholds of the South Vietnamese regime – the news dramatically flashed across America. General Westmoreland himself was the main US military casualty – having just assured LBJ of a light at the end of the tunnel, his judgment and leadership were now in question, and he was discreetly kicked upstairs to a desk job at the Pentagon.

Just as Tet attacks had been getting underway, killing any remaining illusions about ‘victory’, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet was launching Vietnam GI  (VGI) 9,000 miles away in Chicago – an antiwar paper addressed to the GIs fighting the war. The first issue featured Jeff’s long interview with a combat vet who talked about being put on ‘point’, fragging officers, and the GIs’ distrust of the ARVN, topics not usually found in mainstream media coverage of the war. Walking point was the most dangerous position in a patrol, and if “a guy was against the war” or crossed the First Sergeant, he would find himself assigned there. The trooper also spoke of an unpopular officer, thought to be a danger to his men, who was ‘accidentally’ shot and killed during a night ambush. As for ARVN troops, he added that he never met a GI who had any respect for them.

As the Prague Spring began to loosen up the Czech regime, especially in the arts and media, students in neighboring Communist Poland took note. When a Polish apparatchik banned a 19th c. play by Poland’s most distinguished man of letters because of references deemed critical of Russia, students at Warsaw University publicly protested. They were met by police clubs. When on the following day 2,000 students marched in protest of the police action, they too were clubbed and many arrested.

Winter gave way to spring in America as shocking news ran through the country like an electric current – Martin Luther King (MLK), a nonviolent leader of the Civil Rights movement and critic of the Vietnam War, had been assassinated. Dozens of inner-city Black communities erupted in anger and violence, including Chicago where the Army was called in to restore order. About to go to press with its fourth issue in April, VGI bumped the war in Nam off the front page in favor of a lead entitled “War in the States?” Jeff began the piece:   

This country is in real trouble. I say this because from my apartment on the North Side I have watched the West Side burn for the last couple of days. … I caught both Mayor Daley and General Dunn, commanding  general of the Illinois National Guard, on the radio Saturday. They said … the situation had deteriorated … therefore the President was sending in 5,000 Army troops from the 5th Mechanized at [Fort] Carson and the 1st Armored at [Fort] Hood. All together [with the 7,500 National Guardsmen and the 5,500    cops], that’s more manpower than the Marines had at Khe Sanh!

Army convoy in Chicago, Vietnam GI, April ’68

Shortly after in New York, the issues of the Cold War, Vietnam, and racism dramatically converged at Columbia University. Student concerns over the university’s planned expansion into Black and Latino neighborhoods, growing awareness of the science faculties’ secret Cold War research for the Pentagon, and outrage that current efforts included Vietnam War projects, created a perfect storm of protest as militant students took over the president’s office and seized campus buildings. Several students groups were involved in the occupations, although SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, got the national headlines – at least until the New York City Tactical Police were called in to retake the campus, which they did with nightsticks swinging.

As the Tet Offensive finally petered out in May with the relief of the Khe Sanh Marines and normal academic life resumed at Columbia, an even greater student explosion erupted in Paris at the Sorbonne and the University of Paris, which shook not just a great city, but the government of France itself. French society and youth being highly politicized, it was felt that recent international events had repercussions in Paris -- including the winds of change blowing through Prague, the Warsaw protests, and the student uprisings in the States from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of ’64 through the takeover at Columbia just weeks before.

Student poster, May ’68, “The Struggle Continues”

The massive Paris uprising involved an array of student groups from Trotskyists and Maoists to Anarchists and even a far right group.  Their issues ranged from university reforms to societal changes to sharp anti-imperialist criticism of both Cold War superpowers. Tens of thousands of students and supporters went into the streets, thousands of riot police mobilized, barricades went up, Molotov cocktails thrown, tear gas fired, and mass arrests made.

When young factory workers went out on wildcat strikes in sympathy and the numbers involved throughout France rose into the millions, the word ‘revolution’ was heard and the government so badly shaken that President De Gaulle briefly fled across the border to a French military base in West Germany.  However, assured of support by the Army, he returned, stood his ground, and announced tough measures and new parliamentary elections, which his party won. The police soon regained the upper hand, retaking the universities, truncheons in hand.

Fast forward to August ’68, a tumultuous month in the Cold War as well as for the Vietnam antiwar movement.  The Prague Spring had steadily advanced since January, liberalizing the Soviet-style regime, but not without growing concerns in Moscow that Dubcek and the CP were losing control of the flowering Czech civil society. Grumbling was also heard from the neo-Stalinist East German camp as well as from the Polish comrades to the north that the Czech reforms were threatening to destabilize their party systems.

Finally, during the night of August 21st, the Soviet Union and its East European Warsaw Pact allies set in motion a large scale, surprise invasion of Czechoslovakia, aiming to suppress the subversive reform process. Soviet troops arrested the principal reformers, hauling them off to Moscow to face the angry Soviet leadership. In the dock with Dubcek was his close comrade Zdenek Mlynar, a driving force behind the liberalizing reforms, whom I had interviewed in Prague in ’64 when he was then a young, upcoming philosopher of law.

Soviet tanks entering Prague, August 1968
A few days later, while the Soviets were carrying out what was euphemistically called ‘normalization’ in the Czech capital, the Democratic Presidential Convention opened in Chicago. In anticipation, SDS and the New Left had for months been planning major antiwar demonstrations in the city. At the time, Jeff was on the cusp of putting the next issue of VGI to bed. Hearing the hot rhetoric coming from the protest planners and Chicago City Hall, where the mayor made clear his intention of blocking street protests, Jeff foresaw a major confrontation. To avoid the VGI operation becoming collateral damage at the hands of the Chicago Red Squad under cover of mayhem, he and Jim Wallihan decamped to the San Francisco Bay Area to finish editing the forthcoming issue.

Predictably, the 10,000 antiwar marchers were met head-on by the Chicago police backed up by Army troops and the National Guard. The demonstration began peacefully, but the cops attacked with unbridled force, beating some protestors unconscious, and a series of major clashes ensued. By the end of the week, 600+ demonstrators had been arrested, over a thousand injured, including policemen, with 111 protestors and 49 cops requiring hospital treatment. Much of the Chicago street melee with the demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching,” had been televised live nationwide. A later inquiry dubbed the violence a ‘police riot’.

The year ’68 could well be called the Year of the Baton, the police baton, as heads were cracked in Warsaw, New York, Paris, Chicago, Prague, indeed globally, as cities, countries, and empires struggled to maintain the status quo. The historical calendar, however, records ‘68 as near mid-point in America’s war in Vietnam as well as in the long Cold War, the overarching framework of Vietnam as a proxy war. Just over a half dozen years later, the Vietnam War would pass into history,  while the Cold War, the master narrative of the second half of the last century, continued on its often dangerous course for almost another quarter of a century.

*Duong Van Mai Elliott, The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family (1999), 330.

† Jeff and Jim stayed with Joe Carey who had moved to the Bay Area. See