Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fixin' To Die Rag

It was 1964, the year Beatlemania, that frenzy of screaming, hysterical girls, swept the States.  The Beatles, aka the Fab Four, was a group of working class young men from England who led the so-called ‘British Invasion’, arrived on these shores, and quickly conquered America with their innovative music and distinctive style. By August a film had even been released, A Hard Day’s Night:

♫It's been a hard day's night
And I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night
I should be sleeping like a log

Later in the year Jeff Sharlet came home from Vietnam, not long before the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the South China Sea, destined to become a turning point in the Vietnam War. After North Vietnamese fast boats attacked a US destroyer, President Johnson (LBJ) ordered a retaliatory air strike, the country rallied around the flag, and Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, non-binding political rhetoric that both LBJ and his successor Richard Nixon would subsequently use as the basis for waging full-scale war in Southeast Asia.

Jeff had seen that war first hand and was returning to Indiana University (IU) to study politics. His letters home had indicated serious reservations about the US mission in Vietnam and our deepening involvement there. As a trained Vietnamese linguist and serving in the top secret Army Security Agency (ASA), he’d been in a position to see and hear more of what became America’s quagmire. ASA, whose motto was “We weren’t there,” wryly described itself with the saying “In God we trust, all others we monitor.”
Listen, do you want to know a secret
Do you promise not to tell?
America in ’64 was alive with protest. The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak and scored a great legislative victory with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Anti-nuke groups such as SANE from the ‘50s began taking note of the growing conflict in South Vietnam. At the University of California-Berkeley (Berkeley), major student activism emerged with the ‘Free Speech Movement’ (FSM). At Ann Arbor in the upper Midwest, a fledgling activist group founded earlier, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), began to flourish as the war in Southeast Asia heated up.  Marches and demonstrations everywhere rang with the familiar strains of We Shall Overcome:

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

Berkeley Students used a police car with arrestee inside as a podium
Basically conservative IU was still quiet but for a fair amount of griping about curfews for women.  A campaign against compulsory ROTC, the military's Reserve Officer Training Corps, would prove successful in the spring of '65. Students of the right age or in possession of a fake or borrowed ID were more likely to be singing along with Roger Miller's country hit Chug-a-lug (downing an entire alcoholic drink without stopping) than with Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side:

Jukebox and sawdust floor
Somthin' like i've never seen
Heck I'm just going on 15,
But with the help of my fanaglein' uncle
I get snuk in for my first taste of sin
I said let me have a big old sip
bbbb i done a double back flip
In contrast, Bob Dylan’s poetry set to music was still a little ahead of the curve for IU where fraternity and sorority life and college sports were the main events:
Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side
LBJ escalated the war in early ‘65. Draft calls were up, the Marines had landed, and US fighter-bombers began systematically pounding North Vietnam. Troop strength rose rapidly, soon reaching 50,000. We were seriously at war. Students and faculty at Berkeley, Michigan, University of Wisconsin, as well as at IU and elsewhere felt betrayed. The previous fall in the wake of the Tonkin crisis, LBJ had run for election against Senator Goldwater, a hawk on Vietnam, promising “We … seek no wider war.” Behind the scenes, as later revealed, the President had already ordered the Pentagon to begin contingency planning for escalation in Vietnam. As Tom Paxton explained it:

Lyndon Johnson told the nation,
"Have no fear of escalation.
I am trying everyone to please.
Though it isn't really war,
We're sending fifty thousand more,
To help save Vietnam from Vietnamese."
 Lyndon Johnson and Tom Paxton

At the University of Michigan, a ‘teach-in’ was organized to inform the campus community on the war and to protest it; about 3500 attended the all-night sessions, and women's hours were even suspended.  Lectures and debates, heard via telephone links at Indiana and many other campuses, were the core of the event, which also included films and musical events at the Ann Arbor end.  The fledgling New Left at IU, mostly politically active grad students, coalesced around the Michigan Teach-in relay and joined the SDS-sponsored March on Washington on April 17, 1965.

IU Students March on Washington, 1965
By this time protest music was well-established. Now-famous Joan Baez along with Phil Ochs and the Freedom Singers, were on hand to perform. The ever-voracious draft was prompting more draft card burning, and many young men were fleeing to Canada. Satirist Phil Ochs, a critical opponent of the war policy, penned Draft Dodger Rag as US involvement in the war grew:

Oh, I'm just a typical American boy from a typical American town
I believe in God and Senator Dodd and a-keepin' old Castro down
And when it came my time to serve I knew "better dead than red"
But when I got to my old draft board, buddy, this is what I said:

Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse...

...Besides, I ain't no fool, I'm a-goin' to school
And I'm working in a DE-fense plant
It was around this time that Jim Wallihan arrived at IU, already pretty radicalized by his participation in the FSM at Berkeley. Jim immediately became part of the group looking to establish an SDS chapter at the university. Jeff and Jim became close friends, and Jim persuaded Jeff to lend his authority as an ex-Vietnam GI to SDS. Jeff had felt student protest wouldn’t have sufficient impact on the administration’s war policy, but agreed to give it a try.

The marches, teach-ins, and protests continued to spread. The Vietnam Day Committee at Berkeley mobilized vast student audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area. IU students summering in Bloomington in August ‘65 staged a Hiroshima Day march against the war. A month later a national SDS meeting was held at a state park not far from campus, and that fall the IU SDS chapter was formally launched.
In 40 American cities and foreign capitals large crowds of concerned people participated in the International Days of Protest against American Military Intervention. In Berkeley and across the bay in Oakland, upwards of 15,000 participated in the two-day program. The singers Country Joe McDonald and Tom Paxton;  Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; the radical commentator I.F. Stone, and others spoke, sang, read poetry, and marched – ironically to Ochs' I Ain't Marchin' Any More, among other tunes.
♫Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more,
No I ain't marchin' any more
Vietnam veteran Country Joe, in charge of organizing the music for the program, had just recorded The I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag, which became an anthem of the antiwar movement:
Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam...

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam
Country Joe McDonald
IU students joined a coalition of over 30,000 antiwar protestors in Washington DC on November 27th, ten days after a deadly engagement in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, the first major battle between US troops and North Vietnamese units. Both sides claimed victory, but the US 7th Cavalry had clearly taken a mauling. Some victory. By the end of ‘65, monthly draft calls had risen to 35,000; troop strength in Vietnam topped 200,000; and for the antiwar movement America was on the Eve of Destruction:

You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
By ’66 IU, the 11th largest university in the country, still could muster only a couple hundred protestors at a time. That spring Jeff and other SDS activists mounted demonstrations against two high level Washington visitors to campus. Both spoke in support of the war, reflecting Cold War fears of communism and the specter of American defeat in Asia as exemplified by the Fugs' Kill for Peace:

If you don't want America
To play second fiddle,
Kill, kill, kill for peace...
...If you let them live
They might support the Russians
Summer was usually a placid time on the IU campus, but activists joined a planned protest on the occasion of LBJ's Midwestern swing with a stop in Indianapolis. The result – 28 IU protesters preemptively arrested. Public assembly permit in hand, the activists arrived at the site of the President’s address early that morning only to be met by police ordering them away.  They refused, whereupon Secret Service men arrived, followed shortly by paddy wagons that herded them off and out of sight of the media.† Meanwhile to the north in Madison at Wisconsin the first of two major protests against corporate recruiters from Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm, roiled that highly active campus. Legal and campus disciplinary proceedings against IU and Wisconsin students involved in protest actions dragged on, as did the Vietnam War:
Let me tell you the story of a soldier named Dan.
Went out to fight the good fight in South Vietnam...
…And the war drags on.
Found himself involved in a sea of blood and bones
Millions without faces, without hope and without homes...
At IU in a major address at the end of ‘66, the university president demonized the campus New Left. Jeff, Robin Hunter, and Bob Tennyson took issue with him and pushed back in public exchanges.† In Ann Arbor tensions were rising between activists and the Michigan administration over the university’s involvement in military research, while at Wisconsin the Dow recruiters returned to campus and were met this time by a huge determined opposition. Tear gas hung over the campus green as cops and protestors alike were bloodied in what became the first campus antiwar protest to turn violent. America was increasingly divided, as its campuses began falling prey to violence and discord:
There's battle lines being drawn
          Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
        Young people speakin' their minds
       Gettin' so much resistance from behind
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down
Links to music videos

A Hard Day’s Night:

Do You Want to Know a Secret:
With God on Our Side:
Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation:
Draft Dodger Rag:
I Ain’t Marching Any More:
The I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag:
Eve of Destruction:
Kill for Peace:
The War Drags On:
For What It’s Worth:



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