Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Peace Corpsmen and War Hawks

Though thousands of miles apart in spring ‘64, my kid brother Jeff Sharlet and I were both wrapping up our time abroad – I following a research year in Moscow, Jeff finishing a military tour in Vietnam. He was heading back to finish college, and I – well, I wasn’t quite sure until one surprising day when out of the blue an international cable arrived offering me an academic position teaching students at a salary of $8,000. That sounds like poverty scale now, but nearly half a century ago it seemed munificent. Accustomed to $3,000 graduate fellowships, I swiftly cabled my acceptance.

Jeff and I finished up at about the same time in May ’64. He hopped a flight back to Saigon, his orders permitting a week’s leave in the South Vietnamese capital where he rendezvoused with buddies from the Army Language School in California. All of them Vietnamese linguists, they helped Jeff say a long goodbye to the Paris of the Orient and its night spots.


Saigon ladies in ao dai and French-built Saigon City Hall 1963
 
Mine was a quieter departure. My Soviet colleagues came to the Belorussky Station bearing flowers and candy to see me off. We said our goodbyes, and I went aboard the overnight train to Poland. Compared to austere Moscow, Warsaw with its blonde barmaids and cold beer felt like the ‘West’ – though I was still in the Soviet empire.
 
From Saigon, Jeff flew to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, home station of his unit, the 9th ASA, an Army Security Agency battalion. After a few days of exit processing, he boarded a military transport for the long haul across the Pacific with stops in Guam and Hawaii, finally landing at Travis Air Base north of San Francisco. My trip back was more circuitous. I made my way from Warsaw to Prague, then south to Yugoslavia. From Belgrade, I caught a transcontinental sleeper to Paris, a remnant of the famed Orient Express, and flew to New York.
 
 
 
Travis Air Base, northern California
 
Jeff and I soon returned to our respective academic haunts – he at Indiana University (IU), I at my new post at the University of Missouri (Mizzou). We were both in Political Science, Jeff a student, I a professor. By Spring term ’65, he was flourishing in his courses while I continued learning my craft.
 
By then the low intensity war Jeff left behind was heating up, and he grew concerned he might be recalled. As the first specialist on the USSR at Mizzou, I was preoccupied with teaching my course on Soviet politics & law. When President Johnson (LBJ) escalated the conflict with combat troops and bombing runs against the North a few months later, Jeff and I were on divergent paths. Each of us had our wars; for me it was the global Cold War, for him opposition to the Vietnam War, a very personal fight.
 
Jeff gravitated toward IU’s small band of New Left activists protesting LBJ’s new war policy; I signed on with the Administration to prepare for arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. I had taken to heart President Kennedy’s (JFK) inaugural challenge: to “….ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
 
Our respective commitments dictated our summer plans. Jeff would hang out in Bloomington as the activist group laid the foundations for a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at IU; I took off for the University of Wisconsin in Madison to work on the arms control project. By the time I returned to Mizzou in September ’65, Jeff and fellow activists had SDS up and running at IU. Soon after they were part of a protest demo when Nixon spoke on campus in support of Vietnam policy.
 
Meanwhile the United States Peace Corps Agency (PCA) was training a flood of volunteers for work in underdeveloped countries collectively known as the ‘Third World’. The idea was to assist development in backward nations at the grass roots level, making the foreign aid blandishments of Soviet agents less appealing.
 
 
 
 
Mizzou was the site of the program for Thailand, a Southeast Asian country hosting American bases for the air war against North Vietnam, hence of strategic importance to the US. The volunteers were being trained in ‘Community Development’ or, in the glossary of Washington acronyms, CD. Thai language instruction was part of the curriculum. A young professor of Agriculture, a specialist in bovine diseases, was in charge.
 
Learning how to foster CD would mean placement in small villages in rural Thailand where Peace Corps volunteers would first assess local socio-economic resources, then strive to mobilize villagers to carry out manageable quality of life projects like bridging a small waterway to facilitate movement of crops from farm to market or water purification projects to ward off disease. However, PCA’s real purpose was neither bridges nor wells, but helping instill in locals, long under the spell of fatalism, a sense of community efficacy as a way of taking greater charge of their lives.
 
The Mizzou Peace Corps office invited me to lecture to the trainees. They would need to know the competition they’d be up against in the Thai countryside, and I was the one with a background in Marxism. I agreed and delivered several lectures on Communist political revolution and the Soviet strategy for rapid modernization. Apparently feedback was good because toward the end of ‘65 a PCA official flew in from Washington to talk with me.
 
The Agency was launching a major two-summer experimental program and had selected Mizzou to pioneer it. Previously trained only stateside, volunteers would also receive training in-country to facilitate language instruction and physical and psychological conditioning. I was offered the position of project director and $10,000 above my academic salary. Intrigued by the challenge and drawn by the extra money, I readily said yes.
 
The program involved a great deal of advance planning which took all my spare time outside of teaching. I had an office at the Mizzou PCA headquarters, an administrative assistant, a letterhead, and a hot line direct to Washington. First tasks were to create a curriculum for the new program, then recruit people to teach it, ideally academics with field experience as well as expertise on Southeast Asia, traditional societies, community development, and Thai language instruction.
 
To look after the volunteers’ physical and mental well-being, I also needed a staff physician, preferably one with some knowledge of tropical maladies, along with a psychiatrist and a phys ed instructor. I recruited mostly Mizzou faculty, but when necessary telephoned around the country until I found the right person.
 
While I was busy preparing to help ‘save’ Thailand for the West, up at Indiana Jeff and the SDS-ers were planning protests against the war in Vietnam. In late February ’66, General Maxwell Taylor, the WWII hero, arrived at IU – as the historian of the university put it – as an “apologist”* for Washington on the war. No surprise there, the general was invited by the IU president, Elvis Stahr, JFK’s former Secretary of the Army.† Taylor had served both JFK and LBJ on the ‘Vietnam front’, first as presidential military adviser, then as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, and finally as US Ambassador to South Vietnam.
 
Anxious that there might be a militant confrontation against his ‘friend’ the general, President Stahr took no chances in his introduction, devoting most of it to defending free speech for visiting dignitaries with minimal reference to the distant conflict driving the demonstrators to protest Taylor’s presence. Although the general was deeply implicated in the war policy, the occasion of his speech was a Midwestern Model UN General Assembly, so SDS decided to give their demo a positive spin. One of the Indiana senators, Vance Hartke, had criticized the war; hence Jeff and the activists marched in support of Senator Hartke, war critic.
 
 
General Maxwell Taylor at IU, February ‘66
 
Meanwhile back at Mizzou I was preoccupied filling out myriad forms and questionnaires required by Washington for my trip to Thailand. Especially time-consuming was the special form for Americans traveling abroad on government business. Questions included family demographics, military service, all the addresses I’d ever lived at, and previous employment. Then there were the daily immunizations against many exotic diseases, including cholera and yellow fever, both painful shots with lingering side effects.
 
By early spring the project was shaping up – curriculum approved and staff recruited, I was set to visit ‘the field’ as soon as classes ended for the midterm break. It was to be a brief visit to the training site in Thailand. Working in my Peace Corps office one afternoon, I received an unusual call from Washington, from an official with whom I’d had no previous contact.
 
The caller identified himself as the Agency’s Deputy General Counsel, and explained that he was calling about the travel clearance form I had submitted. I laughed and said that must have been an easy approval since I had held Top Secret and Cryptographic security clearances while serving with ASA-Europe during the ‘50s. On the contrary, he politely responded, that’s the problem.
 
                     You wrote you were in an Army intelligence
                     organization and Peace Corps has a firm rule.
                     No one with an intelligence background can
                     work for us abroad.

Puzzled and with yellow fever vaccine still raging through my system, I replied, “For chrissake! That was nearly a decade ago in the old brown-shoe army. I’m discharged, not even in the Reserves.” He reiterated that it was a firm rule and invoked the Cold War, which of course framed American involvement in Southeast Asia. “Look,” he calmly reasoned, “what would happen if they found out about your Army experience, and broadcast into the field that we’re sending secret agents out there. It’d be all over.”

Suddenly my deep background in Soviet Studies kicked in, and I thought to myself, of course he’s right. It’s a question of perceptions, appearances; the truth has nothing to do with it. We were locked in a struggle with the Soviets for hearts and minds in the Third World. Peace Corps was one of our instruments in the contest. Likewise, the USSR sent thousands of advisers into most of the same countries – agronomists, doctors, teachers as agents of social change promoting their development strategy.

Intellectual ruminations aside, I quickly and angrily got back to reality. I told the messenger that Peace Corps had been aware of my background as far back as the fall when I submitted paperwork to Washington to serve as one of their lecturers. I had even appended my professional resume that included my military service and the Certificate of Merit awarded attesting to my ability in Czech when I left the Army Security Agency.

“You’ve known all this for half a year – why the hell didn’t the man you sent out to recruit me for Thailand inform you of the ‘problem’ at the outset?” The lawyer at the other end smoothly replied, “Sorry about that, he’s a new man. Afraid he didn’t know the rule. I’m really sorry, but got to go.” Click.

As my plans for Thailand went into retreat, Jeff and SDS were mobilizing to confront yet another Vietnam war hawk headed for Indiana. Stahr had invited General Lewis Hershey to speak. A native Hoosier who had attended IU in 1915, Hershey had visited campus a number of times over the years. The general was well-known as the long-time director of the Selective Service System, known to every young male coming of age as ‘the draft'.

Dear Uncle Sam
I just got your telegram
And I can't believe that this is me
Shaking like I am
For it said, "I'm sorry to inform you”††
 
By ’66, the Vietnam conflict had become a major war with US troop totals surging toward 200,000. This meant soaring draft calls for young men across the country.  While college students had been deferred, General Hershey had recently issued a policy change subjecting poorly performing students to the draft. In his plain-spoken, folksy manner, Hershey’s topic was the necessity of the draft.

Kiss me goodbye and write me while I’m gone
Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam†††
 
Heartened by the success of its foray against General Taylor, SDS planned a large demonstration for Hershey’s appearance, complete with speakers including Jeff, the only Vietnam veteran in the chapter. Other IU students organized a counter-demo in support of the war. On the day of Hershey’s speech, about 2,000 students, pro and con Vietnam, turned out at Showalter Fountain in front of the auditorium. 
 
 
General Lewis Hershey
 
Vastly outnumbered, the 300 antiwar marchers remained calm in the face of catcalling, heckling, and even egg-throwing. A historian wrote that in spite of the provocations, the protestors paraded in orderly fashion “thus making their point even more strongly.”** IU SDS had succeeded in elevating the Vietnam War to a campus-wide issue.

While Jeff and fellow activists enjoyed successes against the war hawks at Indiana, my relations with Peace Corps had deteriorated. Washington’s belated invocation of its ‘firm rule’ to abort my mission to Thailand had thrown my professional schedule and personal finances into disarray. I was not pleased.

Long story short: I owed Wisconsin a second summer on the arms control project, but managed to get my obligation deferred until fall ‘66. This in turn necessitated an unpaid leave of absence from Mizzou. I had expected to recover the lost income from Peace Corps, but I now found myself behind the financial 8-ball; the only thing to show for my effort was surefire protection against yellow fever for the next ten years.

Holding Washington responsible for my dilemma, I insisted on partial compensation for the time put in. No way, responded the General Counsel’s office, my contract with the agency didn’t formally begin until June, and federal law did not permit payment until services were rendered. I turned to the university to take up my case. Somehow when I had been appointed project director, the Ag prof who preceded me had morphed into a special assistant to the chancellor for Peace Corps liaison.
 
He was of no help, Mizzou’s hands were tied, they were under contract to PCA and subject to federal law. I pressed my claim with Washington to the point where they warned the university that my pursuit of the matter could endanger pending negotiations on contract renewal. Apparently an additional program was in the offing – Bolivia. Aha, I thought, now I’m getting somewhere – leverage.
 
When I was summoned to the chancellor’s office, I figured I’d finally get some satisfaction. Wrong. When I entered, an unusual scene greeted me. Five chairs were lined up in front of a desk resembling the prow of a ship, four of them occupied by the hierarchy of administrators – in descending order – who stood between me and the CEO sitting in silence behind the desk. He motioned me to the empty seat at the end.
 
I waited to hear what the chancellor had to say, but he never addressed me. Instead he spoke rhetorically to the executive vice president asking him, “Does Professor Sharlet understand the importance of the Peace Corps contract to the university.” Having never met me, the VP couldn’t be sure, turned to the Dean of Faculty and on down the line to the junior Ag prof at my left, now a flack for the front office. He nodded affirmatively.
 
And so the mime conversation went on, with the man in the big chair posing a series of self-evident if-then questions about the adverse effect on Mizzou’s well-being because of my insistence on compensation. That is, until I interrupted and cogently informed the chancellor of the adverse consequences for me of Peace Corps’ bureaucratic blundering. I closed, advising him I intended to continue to pursue the issue until my concerns were met, and left without further ado.
 
Furious now with Mizzou as well as Peace Corps and having exhausted normal remedies for relief, I fired off a special delivery letter to Washington putting them on notice that my next communication would be to a senior US senator and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, a friend of the family.
 
That did it; I had pushed the right button. Within 24 hours the university informed me a check was being cut per my request.
 
Thailand, the ancient Kingdom of Siam, managed to remain apart from the violence and turmoil in Southeast Asia as the ferocity of the war in Vietnam grew exponentially. Though I was no longer available to do battle with Soviet agents of change in the Third World, Jeff would later go on to make a significant contribution to bringing an end to America’s long, divisive war in Vietnam – but that’s another story.
 
 
Links to music videos
 

†††Hello Vietnam:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fs4puvFVRmI

*Thomas D. Clark, Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, Vol 3 (1977), 592.

**Ibid, 593.

 

 

1 comment:

  1. On the Vietnam War: "I've lived under situations where every decent man declared war first and I've lived under situations where you don't declare war. We've been flexible enough to kill people without declaring war." General Hershey quoted in the New York Times, March 17, 1968

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