Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Generals March on Indiana

Back from Vietnam in ’64, my brother Jeff Sharlet returned to Indiana University (IU) to resume his education. Coincidentally, the same man under whom he had served in the long military chain of command was now president of the university. Elvis Stahr had been appointed Secretary of the Army by President Kennedy (JFK) in ’61. Stahr acquitted himself well during difficult times for JFK – the Bay of Pigs fiasco of spring ’61 and the Berlin Crisis, which culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall that summer. Stahr held the Pentagon post until his departure for Indiana a year later.
His would not be an easy tenure at IU.  As the Vietnam War heated up with President Johnson’s (LBJ) major escalation in early ‘65, a small number of students organized, joining a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) march on Washington DC in April of ’65, and sponsoring a local march in Bloomington in August. At the same time Robin Hunter, Bernella and David Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, Peter and Lucia Montague, and others worked on establishing an IU SDS chapter that Jeff soon joined.  As if providing grist for the antiwar mill during the next two years, President Stahr, who was well-connected in Washington, invited a series of major pro war speakers to campus.
It was quite an impressive roster, beginning with former Vice President Nixon, following with Generals Maxwell Taylor and Lewis Hershey, and concluding with Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Stahr invited no counter-balancing antiwar speakers of similar stature; Herbert Aptheker, theoretician of the American Communist Party, and a few other lesser known leaders of the left were all invited by tiny sectarian groups at the university with little following. IU, a sleepy Midwestern campus, was fundamentally a conservative place, and the pro war notables attracted very large audiences, while Aptheker drew only hundreds and was hung in effigy outside the student union.
What drew the Washington luminaries to the middle of the Great Plains? Presumably, Stahr had the contacts and the clout to persuade them to visit the campus as his distinguished guests. He clearly seemed to know some of them professionally since he often personally introduced the speaker in the university’s vast auditorium. For Nixon, accepting an invitation in the fall of ’65 was no doubt an easy decision. Out of office and working as a New York lawyer, he had ambitions to get back in the political game.
Indiana, long a Republican state, would be a good place to show himself to the thousands of conservatives who would come out to hear the former VP. Not many would have been aware that in ’54 then-Vice President Nixon had tried to persuade President Eisenhower (Ike) to save the beleaguered French colonialist forces, which were about to be overrun by Ho Chi Minh’s communist army at Dien Bien Phu—given Nixon’s anti-communist portfolio, it was a logical recommendation, but one which Ike wisely rejected.  However, the roughly 200 student activists marching in protest outside the auditorium that day were well aware of Nixon’s stance on Indochina.
The generals came marching onto campus the following spring of ‘66. General Taylor, a hero of WWII, came in March; he was so closely involved with Vietnam War policy that his arrival was unmistakably a pro war statement. After visiting Vietnam under JFK, Taylor recommended  the introduction of US combat troops and even the idea of ‘liberating’  Communist North Vietnam,  decisions the President declined to take. Subsequently Taylor served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later as Ambassador to South Vietnam. He was an ardent supporter of the war.

President Stahr introducing General Taylor, ‘66
Taylor was followed to the rostrum in early May by a fellow flag officer, General Hershey, an avuncular 73-year-old whose military career went back to the Mexican Border War of 1916. He’d been head of the Selective Service System since ‘41. An Indiana native son, he was certainly a welcome guest at the Hoosier state’s largest university; like most schools, IU liked to bask in the glory of those with local connections who went far.  But for IU student activists as well as draft age male students, a protest was called for.  Hershey had recently told draft boards they could draft college men who were not performing well academically; prior to that, young men were automatically exempt from the draft while in college. 
Further, Hershey ordered an aptitude test to be resumed after a long hiatus that very month; performance on the test would determine who remained exempt and who did not.  For activists as well as poorly performing male students blindsided by the directive, the general represented the point of the spear marshaling young men to war in faraway South Vietnam.  A year later the general would issue another regulation aimed directly at college-deferred men, subjecting them to the draft immediately for demonstrating against a military recruiter. 
The last in the string of pro-war speakers was Rusk, a major hawk, at the end of October ‘67. Like Nixon, he carried personal baggage from the past that no doubt shaped his unremitting advocacy of the US mission in Vietnam. Rusk had been Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in the postwar Truman Administration after the fall of China in ‘49. When the Republicans tarred the Democrats with ‘losing China’ to the ‘Reds’, Rusk made certain that his image as a tough-minded Cold Warrior was clearly visible.
Tapped by JFK for Secretary of State a decade later, Rusk had been prepared to throw himself with the zeal of a true believer into the young president’s crusade against international communism. However, it was understood by all that JFK would conduct his own foreign policy with Rusk as his diplomatic place holder, a status to which he accommodated himself without complaint. In Washington circles he was soon considered a mediocrity, a perception he subsequently did little to change.
After JFK’s assassination, Rusk continued to go with the flow and fly with the hawks on Vietnam. By ’67, other than LBJ himself and Defense Secretary McNamara, Rusk’s appearance before a student audience was guaranteed to serve as a lightning rod for antiwar protest, and IU was no exception. A special ‘reception’ was prepared by an activist group calling itself the “Dean Rusk Welcoming Committee.”
Each of the national advocates of the Vietnam War was met by an escalating level of antiwar protest at IU, albeit very small in scale compared to the size of the student body. At the time of Nixon’s arrival on campus, increased American involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia was barely six months old. The campus protestors’ challenge was not students supporting the war; on the contrary, the war barely registered with the average IU student at the time – the main problem was student apathy.
The newly formed SDS chapter and a campus left group, YPSL or the Young People’s Socialist League, managed to mobilize nearly 200 demonstrators to march in protest of Nixon’s fall ’65 appearance. Predictably Nixon praised LBJ’s recent escalation – the start of a bombing campaign against the Communist North and the dispatch of combat troops to South Vietnam.
When the generals arrived on campus during the spring of ’66, the student activists were better prepared to mount protests, but as it turned out, a significant part of the campus population was also ready to counter-demonstrate on behalf of the war. Under a newly formed campus umbrella organization, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV), a coalition of groups led by Jim Wallihan, Destiny Kinal Handelman, and brother Jeff for SDS; Professor Jim Dinsmoor, who was hoping to run for Congress as a peace candidate; and others, devised a different strategy for General Taylor’s visit in March.
Instead of protesting the general’s appearance on campus, a demonstration was organized in support of Indiana’s junior senator, Vance Hartke, who had come out publically against the war. Signs were made, marchers were urged to wear jackets, ties, skirts; and Taylor was greeted by a neatly dressed, orderly group of young people vocally supporting a Washington opponent of the war.
In May, General Hershey was met by a traditional demonstration that unexpectedly provoked a raucous counter-protest. Again, CEWV put out word and had no difficulty in bringing some 350 protestors to demonstrate in front of the auditorium. The general had recently changed the regs, advising draft boards they could begin considering student performance, i.e., those with poor grades could be drafted.
General Hershey and IU students ‘66
The demo, which moved on to Dunn Meadow, also included antiwar speakers who found themselves confronted by a crowd of 1500 to 2000 hecklers – including many fraternity boys -- waving American flags, throwing eggs and water balloons, and calling into question the demonstrators’ patriotism. Jeff, speaking as an ex-Vietnam GI, was hit by an egg, but, unfazed, he  issued the shouters a forceful challenge to put their money where their mouths were  since they were so gung ho for the war. Years later a fellow activist, Russell Block, remembered “the courage of the Vietnam vet and the cowardice of the frat rats who were all for the war as long as someone else had to fight it.”
Protesting General Hershey ‘66
By early ’67, it was evident that the only visiting speakers who were going to grace the podium of the campus auditorium with glowing introductions by President Stahr would be supporters of the war. In an exchange of public letters with the IU president, Jeff, by then doing his turn as SDS president along with vice president Bob Tennyson, challenged Stahr on the university’s one-sided speakers’ policy, but to no avail. Jeff had graduated and moved on to the University of Chicago by the time Rusk was welcomed to campus that fall. As a member of LBJ’s war cabinet, the antiwar students decided his appearance required a different strategy for opposing Vietnam policy.
CEWV, SDS, and the campus Progressive Reform Party (PRP), a New Left group led by Guy Loftman victorious in the previous spring’s student body elections, decided that heckling Rusk would be the best way to get the community’s attention, far more so than simply marching in front of the venue with signs, so-called speech on a stick. In an interview in the campus paper the day before, a protest leader made clear their intentions, saying that in view of the magnitude of the war issue, “a breach of good manners seems of rather little consequence.” In effect, he argued, “social nastiness to combat the nastiness of war.”*

The next day some 200 activists donned black armbands, briefly marched around the water fountain in front of the auditorium, then entered the building uneventfully, dispersing themselves among the 3,000+ people in attendance. As the Secretary of State spoke, individual black armbanders in various parts of the room would stand up and yell things like ‘liar’, ‘murderer’ and the like. By that point in the war, Rusk was no doubt accustomed to interruptions, and he continued speaking in spite of the cacophony of shouts. At the end he left by a side door under police escort.**

Dean Rusk at IU, a perturbed Elvis Stahr behind him, ‘67
The universal embarrassment about the behavior of the protesters was, however, to a degree counteracted by a protest which had occurred the day before Rusk’s arrival. Corporate recruiters from Dow Chemical, manufacturer of deadly napalm, were due at the Business School (B-school) that day, and it was decided by the New Left leaders that the visit should not pass unchallenged. A few weeks earlier the company had attempted to interview job candidates at the University of Wisconsin, a far more actively antiwar campus, where a full-scale melee ensued – complete with tear gas and dozens of demonstrators and police alike sent to the hospital.  Events in Madison made the national news, and the IU security chief laid plans to avoid anything similar on his watch.
Secretly, campus security scouted the interview venue, coordinated with local and regional law enforcement, and even reserved a university bus to transport arrestees if necessary. Unaware of the university’s preparations, approximately 40 activists showed up at the B-school to meet the Dow recruiters. Campus cops tried to block their access to the room, but the students pushed their way forward and, led by the newly elected head of SDS, Dan Kaplan, began a sit-in. That triggered phase two of the security plan with city police and deputy sheriffs decked out in riot gear arriving on the scene.
The occupiers were ordered to leave peacefully and get on the waiting bus for police processing. Most did so, but four young men refused, and the forces of law and order moved in with swinging riot sticks, putting two of the students, Dwight Worker and George Walker, in the hospital. It was clearly a police over-reaction; as news got around in the papers the next day, the occasion of the Rusk visit, there was outrage at the administration and the cops in some quarters. Thus, for two days in the normally placid heartland, there was uproar over a war thousands of miles away. To some extent the dueling outrages precipitated by the back to back Dow and Rusk visits mitigated each other depending upon one’s politics.
However, the cumulative protests were eventually too much for Elvis Stahr, who publically criticized and demonized the campus New Left. A former senior officer in WWII and member of the government, and, above all, a Rhodes Scholar long accustomed to a string of unruffled successes, Stahr couldn’t take the dissonance of university life in the midst of a divisive war and resigned in bitterness at the end of the academic year.
*Quoted from the Indiana Daily Student in M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002), 55.


























Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Mountains of Laos

From the entrance of the squad tent, Jeff could see the mountains of Laos. Brother Jeff Sharlet was in the narrowest, most northern part of South Vietnam serving at an American base near the small ville of Phu Bai in 1964. From where he stood, the South China Sea was to his left; to his right was the rugged Annamite Range as far away as Laos, maybe 50 miles as the crow flies.
Jeff was an American ‘military advisor’, one of 16,000 sent mostly by President Kennedy to help South Vietnam (SVN) quell a guerrilla insurgency guided from Communist North Vietnam (NVN).  At that point it wasn’t much of a war, what political scientists called a low-intensity conflict with hard fighting between the SVN Army (ARVN) and the insurgents in the far south in the Mekong Delta as well as occasional hit and run skirmishes in the Central Highlands, but relative quiet around Phu Bai not far below the DMZ and the border with NVN. From Hanoi’s strategic perspective, the action was in the more populous southern part of the country in and around Saigon, the capital.
Phu Bai was a very small  outpost relative to regular military bases. Jeff’s outfit was called Detachment J, a subunit of the 3rd Radio Research Unit (RRU), the euphemism for the intelligence-gathering facility tucked away behind barbed wire at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport. The 3rd RRU and Det J were part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), an independent communications intel agency nominally within the Army, but actually under aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington. In effect, Phu Bai was NSA’s listening post in closest proximity to NVN.
It was an ASA installation, but the base also accommodated a much smaller Marine unit doing much the same thing. ASA intercepted NVN military land communications while the Marines’ beat was the small coastal NVN Navy’s ship to shore and ship to ship communications. Both units were made up of Vietnamese linguists like Jeff, Morse code operators, cryptographers, security guards. and the usual logistical personnel.
Marine corporal Dave Reinhardt was in the first Vietnamese class at Army Language School in Monterey CA; he’d been assigned to Phu Bai with the 1st Composite Radio Company, a unit attached to the 3rd RRU, the year before Jeff arrived. Phu Bai was not far from the ‘street without joy’, a stretch of highway named by the French who had been frequently ambushed there during the First Indochina War (1946-54).* Dave described the area as peaceful in 1963, with little evidence of the insurgent Viet Cong (VC) – except for road mines. The terrain was mostly flat with little vegetation. Right across from the base was an old French airstrip, the control tower abandoned, but with a long enough runway in good condition for large US military aircraft to land.
A year later in ’64, the Pentagon (DOD) began taking a greater interest in remote Phu Bai. Up to that point, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been responsible for running ‘black ops’, clandestine operations, against NVN, although most of its efforts had ended in failure. Defense Secretary McNamara decided DOD could do a better job and lobbied the White House. In mid-January President Johnson (LBJ) authorized OPLAN 34A, a comprehensive plan described as “a wide variety of sabotage and psychological operations [psy ops] against North Vietnam.”** The centerpiece would be to continue cross-border commando infiltrations, which DOD took over from the CIA on February 1st.
Coincidentally, that was the day after General Khanh carried out a coup against the military junta that had overthrown President Diem several months earlier. As soon as the US got an inkling the coup was underway, Jeff and a contingent of linguists were sent back to Saigon from their home base in the Philippines, but since the coup was quick, bloodless, and successful there was nothing for them to do. However, DOD needed to rapidly strengthen the small ASA detachment at Phu Bai, which would be tasked as communication liaison with SVN commandos infiltrated into NVN as well as for psy ops, so orders were cut for Jeff and a dozen other ASA personnel to report to Det J.
Arriving at Phu Bai, Jeff found a ramshackle jumble of low buildings, high antennas, communication vans, large squad tents, a truck park, and construction sites in various stages of completion. The whole assemblage was surrounded by barbed wire with a single gate manned by a couple of ASA security guards armed with .45s. The topography was pretty barren except for a small hill of just under 600’ used for additional antennas. Outside the wire was an old, overgrown Vietnamese cemetery, most likely the graveyard for the nearby ville of about 7,000 inhabitants.

Construction at Phu Bai base, 1964
The nondescript buildings housed the communications and intercept equipment as well as the work areas for the lingys, crypts, and ditty boppers, as the ASA guys called their specialties. Most of them were billeted in the large tents set on wooden platforms with space for eight cots with mosquito netting and footlockers. Wooden walkways linked the tents to other parts of the base. Given the heat, humidity, and flying insects of Southeast Asia, at night the side flaps were usually up and mosquito nets down. Jeff and his bunkmates posted a sign out front reading:

·         Air conditioning
·         Wall to wall plan
·         Scenic view
·         Floor show nightly
Amenities were minimal. There was an enlisted men’s club with cheap booze and a jukebox; a small PX, or military store that sold liquor, beer, and toothpaste; a one-chair barber shop in a wooden hut, a tent with some workout equipment; and the mail room. The touchdown of the C-123 Caribou mail plane was a daily event. Less welcome were the nearby ARVN heavy artillery unit firing randomly and thunderously day & night and the constant hum of powerful diesel generators powering the base’s equipment—both of which took some getting used to, as Jeff wrote home.

The classified work required attention, but otherwise formal military duties were at a minimum. Given the steamy climate, the standard uniform would barely qualify as military-informal. Occasionally the men were trucked outside the compound to a rifle range to practice firing their carbines. When someone asked why the truck bed was covered with sandbags, the answer was, ‘road mines’. Otherwise, no ammo was handed out, probably as a safety measure, since few if any ASA troopers had weapons experience.

Jeff worked alongside a congenial group of young college guys like himself—Ralph Adams, John Buquoi, Bill Jernigan, Peyton Bryan among others. Ralph Adams was the best linguist and served as the base commander’s (CO) interpreter for administrative business with local Vietnamese. Later Ralph would make a career with the NSA, rising to executive director before retirement.

Ralph Adams off duty talking to a Vietnamese boy

As the CO’s aide, Ralph had use of a jeep he’d occasionally loan to Jeff and his buddies. Off duty they’d don civvies and roam the countryside – north to nearby Hue on the coast, south over the picturesque Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass to Danang, and occasional afternoons at white sand beaches on the South China Sea.

By late May ’64, Jeff finished his Vietnam tour and headed back to the States, to ‘the world’ as GIs would later say. Not long afterward, a major event in what became the American war in Vietnam occurred. A US destroyer on an electronic surveillance mission in the Gulf of Tonkin cruised close to the NVN coast well within the 12-mile international waters limit, drawing the attention of NVN torpedo boats. A brief sea skirmish occurred.

The destroyer escaped unscathed thanks to warnings from the Phu Bai Marines who intercepted the attackers’ communications, but a furor ensued in Washington. On the basis of bad information and worse advice, LBJ used the incident as a pretext to launch a heretofore secret air strike against NVN. Planes from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation carried out 64 attacks on NVN naval facilities ashore. Far more consequential, LBJ used the patriotic fervor whipped up by ‘Operation Pierce Arrow’ to push through an almost unanimous Congress a loosely worded resolution that he, and later President Nixon, would use to provide political cover for our subsequent long involvement in Vietnam’s civil war.

Security began to tighten at the ASA base after the Tonkin crisis. Everyone pulled night guard duty once or twice a week using parachute flares that cast spooky shadows to illuminate the area. The man assigned to guard the sandbagged radio direction finder outside the perimeter at the air strip was given a couple of grenades and the reassuring company of a guard dog in addition to his weapon and ammo. One of the GIs, noting all the on-base construction and the new runway being added across the road, figured something was afoot.  He was right.

As we learned much later from the leaked Pentagon Papers, LBJ was secretly laying the groundwork for a planned escalation of US involvement. A usable justification arrived just over six months later in February ’65 at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. The VC carried out a devastating attack on US military advisors’ barracks, so the President commenced a systematic bombing campaign, Rolling Thunder, against NVN and sent in the first combat units. As National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy subsequently explained, “Pleikus are like streetcars;” in effect, it was a convenient vehicle for the planned escalation.***

A Marine battalion (bttn) was assigned to defend Danang airbase; another was sent north to provide security for the top secret operations at Phu Bai. Because ASA guys had minimal military training, the unit commander strengthened the bunker network, added more wire to the base perimeter, and stepped up weapons practice to include light machine guns and bazookas.

As the war increased in intensity with hundreds of thousands of American troops in-country, the heretofore distant base at Phu Bai was no longer a backwater immune from armed clashes and casualties. By the late ‘60s, Phu Bai personnel had increased from a few hundred in Jeff’s day to several thousand to become the largest ASA unit world-wide. By then, the Agency no longer had the place to itself.

With VC bttns and North Vietnamese Army regulars maneuvering in the operational area that the US Saigon command called I Corps, the 1st Marine Division took up residence followed by the Army’s elite 101st Airborne (ABN). Phu Bai and its environs became a vast military camp, home to tens of thousands of combat troops and their command headquarters. The once largely empty terrain had become quite congested with barracks and facilities for large fighting formations.

Phu Bai in the late ‘60s: Marine Hq and an Address board for 101st ABN units

In ’69, Phu Bai, an otherwise obscure dot on military maps, acquired sudden visibility in the world press and the halls of Congress (publicity unwanted by the principals involved, as it turned out). In early May, General Zais, CO of the 101st ABN, ordered elements of the division with Marine support to assault and take an enemy-held peak with in the Annamite Range abutting Vietnam’s border with Laos. Their assignment – to attack and destroy, or ‘attrit’ in the parlance of the US mission in Vietnam, the opposition.

As not infrequently happened, US intelligence underestimated the NVA’s strength, so the force sent to do battle was inadequate. Although the elevation was just over 3000’, it was a steep climb through bamboo thickets, waist-high elephant grass, and triple canopy jungle. The opening attack went badly; friendly fire killed two paratroopers and wounded 35, the first of five such incidents in the course of the battle. Subsequent assaults went little better against a battle-hardened NVA regiment firing downhill from well concealed, heavily fortified bunkers, trench lines, and fighting holes.

US air power was not effective in the visually impenetrable terrain, and the 101st began taking significant casualties. In fact, the enemy was so disdainful of air attack that their cooking fires were openly visible. In spite of mounting losses and an incredibly challenging battlefield complicated by weather and mud, command kept sending the survivors back up the hill for 10 days of brutal fighting when the summit was finally reached. After a massive bombardment by 150,000 pounds of napalm, 20,000 artillery shells, and 1,000,000 pounds of bombs, all they found was a small rear guard, the main force off to fight another day. Finding a piece of cardboard, a GI scrawled on it in large letters ‘Hamburger Hill’ and attached it to what remained of a tree. Another paratrooper added the words, “Was it worth it?”

In the midst of the fighting, a US wire reporter interviewed commanders as well as bloodied troops, many of whom were enraged at the high death toll, and wrote a scathing article, calling the engagement a ‘meatgrinder’. The public was shocked, and members of Congress led by Senator Ted Kennedy attacked the operation using words like ‘savagery’, ‘senseless slaughter’, and ‘madness’. General Zais and other senior commanders received sharp criticism. Back in barracks at Phu Bai, the hat was reportedly being passed to raise a $10,000 bounty for taking out the general.

In the long American war of attrition, holding ground was never a tactical objective, so US troops left the mountain, which the NVA predictably reoccupied soon after.  As a kind of epitaph, a Vietnam veteran and military historian has written that the Battle of Hamburger Hill became “an enduring symbol of the overall futility of America’s war in Vietnam.”****

*B Fall, Street Without Joy (1961)

**J Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush (1991), 201

***D Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, (1972, 1973), 646

****J H Willbanks, “Hell on Hamburger Hill,” Vietnam (June, 2009), 24