Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Banish Oblivion - Vietnam GIs Against the War

GI protest against the Vietnam War began gradually in the mid-‘60s like a slow burning fuse, gained momentum, and reached dramatic, even explosive, levels by the early ‘70s. By ‘GI’, I mean troops of all branches who opposed the war in one way or another. GI resistance was never akin to the huge antiwar demos in Washington, New York, and elsewhere – that would have been foolhardy given the draconic military justice system – but it eventually took myriad forms, open as well as covert.

It was called the ‘GI movement’, although it never formally took on the trappings of a real movement. Instead, it was a diverse cumulative force that ultimately contributed enormously to bringing an end to America’s war in Vietnam, the final withdrawal of US combat troops in early ’73. One doesn’t need to read Trotsky on the role of the disgruntled Tsarist soldiers in the Russian Revolution to grasp that Washington could no longer wage war without warriors willing to continue to put their lives on the line.

Even as the war continued during the first half of the ‘70s, ex-GIs and writers had begun chronicling the story of GI resistance – in Vietnam itself, at stateside camps, and on US bases worldwide in Europe and Asia. Although he didn’t live to see the end of the war, ex-Vietnam GI Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969) had played a significant role in raising GI antiwar consciousness through his underground paper, Vietnam GI (VGI).† Several of the early chroniclers of GI opposition gave him his due:

In ’74, Matthew Rinaldi, a civilian antiwar activist, wrote about the founding of VGI:
The paper was created by Jeff Sharlet, a vet who had served in Vietnam during the early years of the war. He came back to the States fairly disillusioned …. In early 196[8] he set out to create some form of communication and agitation within the military.That vehicle was Vietnam GI, which was very effective at this time. … The paper was widely circulated and well received. …[It] represented a significant breakthrough when it first appeared, and helped play a catalytic role throughout the service.

Vietnam GI masthead

A year later in ’75, ex-GI David Cortright brought out the first comprehensive book on the GI movement and noted, “Vietnam GI, the most influential early paper … [was] distributed to tens of thousands of GIs, many in Vietnam.”** But even before those critical works appeared, Colonel Heinl, a Marine historian – and certainly no friend of outfits like VGI – writing in an influential military journal in ’71, conceded that:
The Morale, Discipline and battleworthiness of the USArmed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lowerand worse than at any time in this century and possiblyin the history of the United States.
By every conceivable indicator, our army that nowremains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse,with individual units avoiding or having refused combat,murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers,drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.***
After the US forces pulled out, the South Vietnamese army fought on a few more years until North Vietnam prevailed in ’75 and the war ravaged country was unified under communist rule. The conflict in which American combat units had first taken part in ’65 was finally over, and millions of GIs who had served – other than the 58,000+ who didn’t make it – had long returned home although not to a grateful nation with parades, but to an unwelcoming country weary of the war. We had ‘lost’ the war, and the public just wanted to forget the long national nightmare.

Absent a raison d’etre, GI protest, along with its civilian counterpart, withered and died out. Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW), co-founded by Jan Barry in ’67, reached its zenith in ’71 with the Winter Soldier Investigation (a  media event in which dissident ex-GIs revealed shocking atrocities by US forces),  gradually lost membership, and folded. With the war over, the hundreds of GI underground papers inspired by VGI’s example eventually faded away as their editors mustered out of the forces. And, one by one, the many stateside and overseas GI coffee houses that had survived continuous harassment from hostile authorities finally closed their doors.

The Vietnam War soon slipped down the memory hole and with it any awareness of the important part that disaffected GIs had played in bringing America’s benighted Southeast Asian crusade to an end. After a fashion, the majority of ex-Vietnam servicemen readjusted to civilian life, but several hundreds of thousands fell by the wayside. Problems with drugs and alcohol, so easily available in Saigon, Danang, and elsewhere, plagued more than half the Vietnam-era vets after the war.

Among those troopers who had been married while serving in Vietnam, the divorce rate was 90 percent. Over the years, approximately half a million Vietnam vets have run afoul of the law, and even now 100,000 remain incarcerated. By far the most shocking fallout from the war however, is that 150,000 veterans of Vietnam have committed suicide since 1975, nearly three times the number who died in the war.

Indeed, when Ronald Reagan came to power in ’81, Vietnam GIs finally got their parade followed later by a stunning war memorial on the Mall in Washington, but that was largely it. The country had moved on and had more pressing concerns – in the early ‘80s the Cold War briefly flared again into dangerous crisis and then, just a few years later, began its final, unexpected decline, culminating in the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91. Thereafter, public attention, if at all interested in international affairs, focused on Russia’s rough ‘n tumble transition from communism.

Insofar as the Vietnam War and opposition to it were remembered at all, it was primarily through the memoirs of major civilian antiwar leaders, first among whom to publish were Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin, both former national officers of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest group marching against the war. Hayden and Gitlin mainly celebrated the civilian movement’s part in protesting the war and either ignored or marginalized GI resistance, not to mention the tens of thousands of disaffected troops Colonel Heinl had in mind when he describing US forces in Vietnam in a state of near collapse.

Then in the last years of the old and first years of the new century a small symbolic candle was lit when two very good books on VVAW appeared, although neither garnered a broad readership. The GIs’ part in bringing the war to an end was essentially still languishing in oblivion when along came David Zeiger, a talented and successful documentary film maker. Zeiger took an interest in resuscitating the moribund history of GI opposition to the long ago war in Vietnam.

He had begun filming documentaries in the ‘90s with his first work about Mexican immigrants and Southeast Asian refugees trying to make their way in the New South. His film, Displaced in the New South (1994) made the rounds of ethnic-themed film festivals, was broadcast on PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, as well as Discovery Channel, and screened in Asia and Australia. Zeiger followed with a  number of well-received documentaries, most appearing at mainstream film festivals and broadcast nationally by PBS as well as internationally in Europe and elsewhere.

As a young civilian opposed to the war in the ‘60s, David Zeiger had helped facilitate the Vietnam GI antiwar movement. He had worked as a volunteer at one of the most successful of the national and international string of GI coffee houses, so called since they served as havens for off-duty GIs who questioned the US mission in Southeast Asia. Zeiger was on the staff of the ‘Oleo Strut’ outside the gates of Fort Hood in Killeen TX, one of the largest Army bases funneling troops to Vietnam. ††

Oleo Strut GI Coffee House, Killeen, Texas

The ‘Strut’, as it was called for short, was set up on a shoestring by civilian antiwar activists as a place of temporary refuge from military life for both trainees destined for ‘Nam and returning combat veterans alike. At the Strut they could listen to cool music, rap freely about their doubts, and read the growing underground GI press, including Vietnam GI, the first GI-edited paper addressed to GIs.

Drawing on his firsthand experience among those questioning GIs and his memories of how they had emerged as one of the strongest forces against the war, Zeiger set out to rescue their forgotten story from obscurity and give the antiwar GIs their place in the history of protest against the misbegotten Vietnam adventure. At the outset of his research for the film project, he contacted Tom Barton, a long-time opponent of America’s wars. Back in the ‘60s Barton had worked closely with Jeff Sharlet on VGI.

By the time David Zeiger got in touch, Tom Barton had begun putting out a nightly online newsletter in opposition to George Bush Jr’s Iraq War launched in 2003. Tom’s advice to David for a starting point on GI protest of the ‘60s was to sit down and read through Vietnam GI. Barton gave him a set of the full run of Jeff’s paper and Zeiger took his advice.

A few years later in spring of 2005 I received a phone call from David Zeiger. He told me his new film on the Vietnam GI resistance would soon be premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and – added – it was dedicated to my brother Jeff, “for starting it all,” as David put it. At the time I was in the early stages of researching a memoir on my brother, and, needless to say, the news was exhilarating.

Sir! No Sir! 

DVD cover for Sir! No Sir!

Sir! No Sir! (SNS) (2005) is a rich, fast-paced, compelling, full length film that, as one reviewer put it, moves with “breathless momentum” telling, in the words of the New York Times, the “too often forgotten” story of the GI movement against the Vietnam War. The film incorporates television footage of combat and protest, period music, and, as its cynosure, a number of well-chosen, lively, and revealing interviews with prominent GI, Marine, Navy, and Air Force protestors of the Vietnam era.

SNS opens dramatically with images of a Phantom jet on a  low-flying bomb run, dropping incendiary napalm bombs and leaving behind a trail of grotesque black and orange explosions – as a young woman is heard on the soundtrack singing a wistful rendition of ‘Soldier, We Love You’. The interviews begin with MSgt Donald Duncan, a career Green Beret, softly speaking of his combat patrols in ’65 with prisoners taken and how he bore witness with moral revulsion as South Vietnamese soldiers tortured the captives. A consummate professional soldier, he added sadly, “I was doing it right, but I wasn’t doing right.” Duncan left the Army in ’66 in what he described as a ‘personal protest’.

MSgt Donald Duncan, Special Forces, Vietnam

Still on early GI protest, the camera turns to Dr Howard Levy, a physician detailed to teach Special Forces how to treat endemic tropical skin diseases. In footage from ’65, he refuses orders, is court-martialed, and sentenced to three years in federal prison. Fully aware of the consequences – Levy, like Duncan, saw himself carrying out a personal action against the war.

Soon, as the film shows, GI resistance became collective. A group of three soldiers refused deployment to Vietnam and were sentenced to five years in prison with less than honorable discharges. Two Marines called a meeting to discuss whether Blacks should fight in the war and received six to 10 year sentences for their trouble. At that point in the war, with the number of GI dissidents still small, the military cracked down hard.

However, as the numbers grew, the Pentagon found it increasingly harder to cope. One GI reported that a majority of troops in his stateside unit opposed the war, nine of whom chained themselves in a church, called a press conference, and publicly refused orders for ‘Nam. And those protesting were not only men. A Navy nurse, an officer, hired a private plane and ‘bombed’ aircraft carriers berthed in the San Francisco Bay Area with antiwar leaflets. Again, well aware of the choices she had made, Lt Susan Schnall was court-martialed and dismissed from service.

In an especially moving segment of the film, a hospital corpsman told how he turned against the war. Assigned to a ward at the Fort Lewis WA base hospital for the most severely wounded from Vietnam, he witnessed men so damaged they couldn’t move their limbs, even wiggle, or perform the simple act of turning a page. They’d call him to their bedside and in a low voice ask him to kill them. To a man, he reported, the shattered GIs said their sacrifice was worthless.

Former Lt Louis Font, the first Puerto Rican graduate of West Point, so impressive he was sent on to Harvard’s Kennedy School for a Master’s degree, announced his refusal to serve – the first West Pointer ever to do so. Then Dave Cline, a combat infantryman comes into view. Wounded for the third time in a muzzle to muzzle duel with a North Vietnamese soldier he managed to kill, Cline, looking at his dead adversary, a young man about his age, wondered, did he have a girlfriend, how would his mother feel. Suddenly the war appeared in a different light for Dave Cline, and he never turned back, later becoming a legend in the GI antiwar movement.

Combat infantryman Dave Cline, Vietnam

SNS briskly tells the story of the GI coffee houses – the first one, the ‘UFO’, launched by Fred Gardner near Fort Jackson SC; the ‘Oleo Strut’ outside Fort Hood; and others, all of which were hassled in various ways. In the worst cases, one coffee house staffer was arrested on trumped-up charges, a grenade was tossed into another, and a coffee house at an airbase in Idaho was firebombed. A brief TV clip shows Walter Cronkite of CBS reporting the new phenomenon of the GI underground press and the military authorities’ reaction, regarding the papers as ‘subversive’ material.

Director Zeiger devotes a section of the film to the intersection of the Black Power movement inside the military and GI protest, the most explosive result of which was the violent rebellion at LBJ, the notorious Long Binh Jail, a stockade where the majority of prisoners were Black. As another form of resistance, Terry Whitmore, a Black Marine combat veteran deserted to Stockholm, the center of the GI deserter movement. He had been a model, an unquestioning Marine – one shot even shows him being decorated for valor by visiting President Johnson as Whitmore lay wounded in the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay.†††

Terry Whitmore (3rd from rear) and fellow deserters arriving at Stockholm, 1968

Dave Cline talks about the growing numbers of GI protestors against the war. In Killeen TX on Armed Forces Day 1970, 1000 soldiers based at Fort Hood marched in public protest, calling it ‘Armed Farces Day’. The following year the ranks of antiwar GIs marching had swelled to nearly 4000. Scenes from the Jane Fonda-Donald Sutherland traveling antiwar tour of US bases show them performing their irreverent songs and skits before tens of thousands of wildly applauding GIs, many sporting peace symbols.

Air Force intelligence analysts describe how they withheld information necessary for bombing missions over North Vietnam, and naval officers tell how the crew of the carrier Constellation, being refitted in San Diego, ‘voted’ 6 to 1 against redeployment to Vietnam for off-shore air strikes. Although not mentioned in the film, in addition enlisted men sabotaged the carrier Kitty Hawk, delaying its departure to the South China Sea. On the ground in Vietnam, SNS covers the epidemic of ‘fragging’, disgruntled soldiers unwilling to risk their lives any longer, taking out overly zealous officers and sergeants by rolling live grenades into their hooches.

At this point in his film, Zeiger shrewdly has an actor read Colonel Heinl’s comments on the devastating impact of massive GI protest on the war effort – as well as putting up on the screen the text of the colonel’s remarks on the armed forces in Vietnam in a near state of collapse.

The superbly edited film closes with a clip of Rita Martinson’s tender salute to GIs

Soldier we love you
Yeah, soldier we love you

as the camera swings back to Terry Whitmore pronouncing a terse epitaph on the whole misguided war: “God damn! Did I do that? … Did the government push me into that shit?”

Rita Martinson singing ‘Soldier, We Love You’ before a GI audience

Though David Zeiger had told me he dedicated his documentary to brother Jeff, while watching the New England premier before the credits rolled, I was astonished and deeply moved to see not the standard one-liner dedication whiz by, but, slow-speed, a full-screen image of Jeff in ‘Nam, and below it in large white letters:

Dedicated to
Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969)
Founder of Vietnam GI
The first GI underground paper

Sir! No Sir!  received numerous glowing reviews, won a number of prizes, appeared in 80 theaters across the country as well many abroad, and was twice featured on the Sundance Channel. The story of the Vietnam GI movement against the war, rescued from oblivion by David Zeiger, is now part of the warp and woof of American antiwar history.

* M Rinaldi, “Olive Drab Rebels,” Radical America (1974)

** D Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt:  GI resistance during the Vietnam War, (1975) 324

*** R Heinl, “Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal (1971)


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Blueprint for a Police State in America

During the ‘60s, Indiana University (IU) was alive with protest and not just from the left. Nestled amidst the soybean and corn fields, IU was an infertile place to nurture radical dissent against the war in Vietnam. Conversely, the university and southern Indiana generally were much more congenial habitats for protestors from the conservative right.

Early in the decade, Senator Goldwater – point man for the emerging conservative movement – had begun to attract attention in the Midwest. In 1960 an IU student had co-founded a Youth for Goldwater for Vice President drive looking toward the ’60 Republican National Convention; dozens of Youth for Goldwater clubs sprang up on campuses across the country. Although he did not get tapped for vice president, his speech at the convention got him in front of the nation, and in ’61 a new drive was in place for Goldwater for President.

By ’63, as the Arizona senator was edging toward the ’64 nomination, IU’s ‘Young Americans for Freedom’ chapter (YAF) invited him to the university where he delivered a rousing address to an enthusiastic audience of 3000 while outside liberal delegates to the Little United Nations (LUNA) protested the “Arizona lunatic”.

The IU student left, of which my brother Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969) was a part, and the campus right held sharply divergent positions on the Vietnam War – antiwar vs pro-war respectively.  Both sides pitched their messages to the majority – the politically moderate, if not indifferent, students in Bloomington. Each side had its successes although most of the silent majority largely remained silent on the war.

The average Indiana student was not into politics and did not tune in to the activist gladiators from either side. Football, frat parties, flirtations, and, of course, academic work reigned supreme. Hence, the common ‘opponent’ for both the left and right at IU was student apathy. As a result, neither the groups on the left (SDS, YSA, YPSL, DBC, CEWV)* nor those on the right (YAF, Conservative League, ISI, SFS)** attracted much of a following. At best, they were relatively small competing bands of brothers arguing for and against the Vietnam War.

Given my continuing ‘search’ for brother Jeff, the IU New Left has received extensive coverage in this blog; the time has come to examine their adversaries of yesteryear, the New Right. Three Indiana students from the ‘60s stand out in particular – Tom Charles Huston, Robert Turner, and R Emmett Tyrrell, Jr – each a leader of the IU New Right.

The conservative three had much in common – they shared the notion that the United States should and could achieve victory in Vietnam and were highly critical of the IU New Left. All three were bright, motivated, and ambitious; two of them were Indiana boys, while the other, also a Midwesterner, came from a suburb of Chicago. The two Indiana natives went on to serve as Army officers during the Vietnam War.

Pro-Vietnam War rally at Indiana University

There were also differences among them. While Huston was a true believer and an ideologue, Turner was a libertarian, and Tyrrell maintained a more skeptical perspective like his early role model, H L Mencken, an admirer of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. All three young men had good organizational skills which they deployed on campus, statewide, and beyond in academe writ large. However, each engaged the New Left from a different angle.

For Huston, it was essential to build the organizational infrastructure for a campus, statewide, and, in time, a conservative youth movement which would extend across the university campuses of America. In contrast, Tyrrell was more intent on taking on the campus left in the realm of political ideas via media, initially creating a competing voice to the IU New Left’s alternative newspaper, The Spectator. Eventually he would continue the struggle over ideas at the national level, challenging long-established left-liberal publications such as The Nation and The New Republic.

Of the three Indiana conservative leaders, Turner was the most singularly focused on supporting the war in Vietnam. To that end he offered to debate campus New Left leaders and frequently appeared in the letters section of IU’s main student paper, responding to antiwar positions until he accepted leadership of a statewide pro-war campaign, a goal of which was the ‘liberation’ of North Vietnam from communism.

Just as several alums of the IU New Left went on to have an impact in the world at large – Jeff, who founded the first GI-led antiwar paper, Vietnam GI; Jim Retherford, who played a role in the planning of the ’67 ‘siege’ of the Pentagon and later helped Jerry Rubin write his book Do It!; and the former Paulann Groninger (now Sheets), who became Assistant Attorney General for the State of New York and a force for environmental protection – Indiana University also served as an incubator for nationally prominent conservative spokesmen.

From northern Indiana, Tom Charles Huston became a campus conservative leader at IU, rose to national prominence in the conservative movement, and landed an influential position in the Nixon White House, but soon got into difficulty, finally retreating to a quiet career in real estate law back home in Indiana.
At IU, Robert Turner had made the Vietnam War his special interest as both student and activist, became an Indiana statewide pro-war leader, and volunteered for two tours in Vietnam as an infantry officer. Returning to the States in the ‘70s, he served in Washington as national security adviser to the Senate Republican leadership before going on to law school.
Pursuing a career as law professor, he continued consulting on national security issues at the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department.  Turner also testified before Congress numerous times, most recently in 2007 on FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act governing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) highly secret surveillance work until the recent leak.

Professor Robert Turner, University of Virginia Law School

R Emmett “Bob” Tyrrell, Jr was from a well to do family in neighboring Illinois; as a scholar-athlete whose specialty was the breaststroke, he was recruited by Indiana University’s legendary swim coach to hopefully set world records like IU Olympian Mark Spitz later would. Although Tyrrell got outclassed in the pool, he stayed on at IU for grad school and, as a ‘response’ to the campus New Left, launched a small conservative campus magazine, The Alternative, later renamed The American Spectator. As editor in chief, Tyrrell eventually grew the magazine into a nationally influential journal of opinion on the right, widely read in Washington circles as well as in the nationwide conservative movement.

R Emmett Tyrrell on William Buckley’s Firing Line, 1984

When Bloomington’s conservative three arrived on campus in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, the Cold War was still a very dominant concern in the country. The Vietnam War, which would become so divisive, was not yet on the public’s radar, still several years ahead. In the wake of Khrushchev’s '59 visit to the US, icy relations between the nuclear superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – had thawed a bit. But not long after, in May ’60, came the U-2 incident – the shooting down of an American spy plane over the USSR – followed two years later by the alarming Cuban Missile Crisis.

International communism remained very much on the public’s mind, while on the homefront the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) continued to patrol the country’s internal security perimeter in search of ‘domestic subversion’.

Between them, the three young IU students would assume the mantle of conservative student leadership at the university during the ‘60s and beyond and come to style themselves ‘responsible conservatives’ in contrast to the liberal Republicanism of the Eisenhower years. Just as no member of the IU left, if asked, would have conceded any lineage to the infamous West Coast Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) of the mid ’70s (even though four of their classmates were members of the fringe group before the SLA’s fiery demise), similarly on the right, the future young conservatives would distance themselves from the reactionary John Birch Society (founded in Indianapolis in ‘58) notwithstanding its Indiana roots.

During their IU tenure, Huston, Turner, and Tyrrell were acquainted or at least aware of each other and were of course affiliated with the same cluster of campus conservative clubs, but each was carving out his own niche in emerging American conservatism. Hence, they didn’t work together or actively collaborate during their college years.

In fact, at one point in ’66, when a New Left club was banned from campus and Bob Turner as a libertarian joined the left outcry in defense of the club’s right to express its views – from Turner’s point of view, however extreme its leftwing views – Tom Huston reportedly referred to his fellow student conservative quite incredibly as ‘soft on communism’.

It was only later after their IU days that the three interacted to a degree through the medium of The American Spectator. When Huston was politically on the hot seat in ‘70s Washington, Tyrrell defended him in the pages of the magazine, while both Turner and Huston at various times contributed book reviews to the American Spectator.

Of the three activists, the public career of Tom Charles Huston as a conservative, arguably the most driven individual of the trio, would soar the highest before it came crashing down to earth in infamy. By tracking Huston’s short-lived meteoric trail across the political heavens of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, we can divine the seeds of both his success and the destruction of his ambitions.

At first glance, Tom Huston would appear to be a typical IU freshman, a middle class boy from small town Indiana. At home his father was active in the Republican Party nationally, but when young Huston sought to work in a local election campaign, the Logansport Republicans weren’t interested. Eager to get into the game, he instead volunteered for the Democrats, his first foray in politics. Upon arriving in Bloomington in the fall of ‘59, however, Huston soon changed his colors. Feeling there should be a student conservative presence on campus, Huston organized the Conservative League.

The following year, after Young Americans for Freedom was founded as a national organization, Huston set up a YAF chapter at IU. An ambitious young man and talented organizer, Tom Huston rapidly ascended the hierarchy of the national organization"
                  1960 – Founder-Chair IU YAF chapter
                  1961 – Elected statewide Chair of Indiana YAF
                  1963 – Selected YAF Midwestern regional director
                  1964 – Elected Vice-Chair national YAF
                  1965 – Elected Chair national YAF

Slight in stature, but a dynamo of energy – a classmate later described him as a ‘funny, charming, skinny kid’ – during his seven years as undergrad and law student at Indiana, Huston rarely missed an opportunity to meet the challenge of the highly active IU student New Left.

In the fall of ’62, when IU’s Fair Play for Cuba Committee and its allies supported Castro’s Cuba during the Missile Crisis, YAF chair Huston rallied his members to champion the US naval blockade of the island. When in early ’63 the county prosecutor (DA) was considering indicting several campus radicals for ‘subversion’ of the State of Indiana Constitution, the IU the ‘Young Socialist Alliance’ (YSA) group, a Trotskyist outfit, picketed the courthouse, and in response Huston and his people counter-picketed in support of the DA.

During the academic year 1965-66, the university brought to campus three major pro-Vietnam War speakers – former Vice President Nixon, Army General Maxwell Taylor, and Selective Service Director Lewis Hershey. On each occasion, Jeff and fellow activists were out there demonstrating against the Washington ‘hawks’, fulsomely introduced by the IU president, himself a former Secretary of the Army during the early Vietnam War.

Rather than leave the field to the left, the campus New Right mounted counter-demonstrations on behalf of the distinguished visitors, complete with signs supporting the US mission in Vietnam.† Tom Huston, as well as Bob Turner, even debated the campus New Left, ably represented by their standard bearer, Robin Hunter, a graduate student expert in Marxist theory.

Obsessed with Vietnam, Huston felt strongly that the New Left was aiding and abetting the enemy, Communist North Vietnam, by their protests. One time, according to IU New Left alum Jim Retherford, Huston took advantage of the ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS) policy of open meetings, absent structured agendas, during which anyone could take the floor and speak. Well-known as the leader of YAF, he filibustered an SDS meeting, provocatively calling the group ‘a totalitarian Communist front [organization]’.

Shortly after his elevation to the national chairmanship of YAF, Chairman Huston flew to Manila for a conference of an Asian anti-communist organization. Subsequently the Asian group arranged him to visit South Vietnam where he spoke in support of the troops.

The next year, 1966, the chairman led a national campaign against American Motors to stop the company from selling cars to the USSR. Huston argued that the sale would allow the Soviets to conserve valuable resources that would end up in North Vietnam for use against American forces. AMC backed down.

After a post-law school stint in the Army, in early ‘69 Huston accepted a position in the Nixon White House. He soon made himself indispensable to senior staff and won the President’s confidence. His assignments included confirming suspected (but non-existent) foreign communist influence on the antiwar movement; setting up a White House internal security apparatus to bypass Justice, which Nixon felt too ‘soft’ on student protest; and coordinating the intelligence community’s efforts against Nixon’s opponents. It was the latter task which would land Huston in deep trouble, ensuring his subsequent notoriety in modern American political history.

Thomas Charles Huston, 1975

Huston’s apocalyptic vision of American society under siege by radical legions on the brink of insurrection suited Nixon perfectly. He wrote the President long memos – in one urging him ‘to purge’ dozens of officials and then ruefully commenting, “I’m beginning to sound like Stalin.”*** He took to signing memoranda ‘Cato’ after the incorruptible Roman, but behind his back others tagged him with derisive names like ‘Secret Agent X-5’ and, in its dark WWII connotation, the ‘gauleiter’ of the intelligence agencies, while for J Edgar Hoover Tom Huston was simply that ‘hippie intellectual’ in the White House.

As staff expert on ‘revolutionary youth affairs’, Cato the Younger drew up a secret memo, quickly dubbed the ‘Huston Plan’ – a witch’s brew of extralegality from ‘black bag’ jobs to, reportedly, detention camps in the West for antiwar opponents. The President was delighted and ordered the plan implemented post haste.

Nixon had not however reckoned with Hoover who considered Huston’s plan a trespass on his turf, a violation of his territory, and persuaded the President to rescind it. Within a week of its approval, the Huston Plan was officially a dead letter, although several of its pernicious features lived on to surface another day and play a part in Nixon’s downfall, Watergate.

Huston stayed in Washington another year, resigning the White House in ’71 – his legacy, a “blueprint for a police state in America.”**** He went home to practice law – just a dozen years after he’d hit the ground running at Indiana University, an eager striver with high hopes and great expectations for a life at the top.

*Students for a Democratic Society, Young Socialist Alliance, Young People’s Socialist League,W.E.B. DuBois Club, Committee to End the War in Vietnam

**Young Americans for Freedom, Conservative League, Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now Intercollegiate Studies Institute), Students for a Free Society

*** “Confidential Memorandum for the President from Tom Charles Huston,” 11/13/70, (Declassified 3/15/82), 12

****D Wise, The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power (1973), 154

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Good Wars, 'Bad' War - Three Who Spoke Out

A small historic boy’s school upriver on the Hudson has long sent its graduates to fight America’s big wars. My brother Jeff Sharlet and I both graduated from the Albany Academy (AA or Academy), and each of us in turn had gone off to the country’s 20th century wars, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Academy was founded in 1813 as a private college preparatory school. At the time, Albany, the bustling capital of New York State with over 10,000 residents, was the 10th largest city in the United States, settled in the early 17th century under Holland’s House of Orange-Nassau as the frontier trading posts Forts Orange and Nassau. By the early 19th century, Dutch could still be heard spoken in the streets of Albany, so renamed under the English.

The newly established Academy offered a classical secondary education, including Math, Physics (then called Natural Philosophy), Greek, Latin, Belles Lettres, and Natural History. In the school’s 200-year history, it has boasted among its graduates a number of American notables, including Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame; Joseph Henry, a pioneer of the telegraph and adviser to President Lincoln; and, in the 20th century, William Rose Benet,   winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Albany Academy celebrated its 200th anniversary, May 2013 

From the Academy’s inception well past the mid-20th century, the names of the oldest Dutch landowning families of the 17th and 18th centuries, called ‘patroons’ – among them the Van Rensselaers, the Ten Eycks, the Pruyns – were to be found on the school’s rosters. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Governor Theodore Roosevelt and, over the decades, other New York governors as well, sent their sons and grandsons to the Academy. In my day, Governor Dewey’s youngest son John and I were in the Class of 1953 – just another classmate except that John had a bodyguard.

The academy grew in the first half of the 19th century; its graduates prospered, many becoming men of means and influence in the region. With the outbreak of the War of Secession, a very large number of Academy men volunteered for the New York State regiments being raised for the Union forces. Many would fall on storied battlefields, including quite a few officers, junior and senior.

Many of the regimental officers and men had graduated from the Academy in the years before the Civil War, had gone off to college, and were often practicing law or holding public office in Albany, the capital, and its neighboring towns. Of the several who fought with uncommon courage and died heroically in 1864, General Lewis Benedict, AA ’34, a member of the New York State legislature, had first worked closely with the governor getting the state on a war footing until he led the 73rd NY in the Siege of Yorktown of 1862.

Appointed commander of the 162nd NY on the Louisiana front, Benedict was killed in a charge which successfully stopped the surging Confederates, a victory credited with saving the Union Army in the southwest. General Benedict’s body was brought back to Albany and buried with the highest honors.

On the Virginia front, Colonel John Wilson, who had left the Albany Academy in 1854 due to the death of his father, also fell in ’64, leading the 43rd NY in the Battle of the Wilderness; while Major Charles Elisha Pruyn, AA ’56, mentioned in dispatches for valor at the Battle of Fair Oaks before Richmond, was killed in action in June of that year commanding the 118th NY in the assault on Petersburg.

Major Pruyn, 118th NY – Albany Academy, Class of 1856 

Of all the Academy men and boys who gave their lives defending the Union, perhaps the saddest account was the very brief story of William Cady, a recent graduate of the school, who upon hearing news of the Southern attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 – the first engagement of the Civil War – rushed to volunteer for the Union. Always somewhat frail, William’s parents were opposed at first, but he was so full of patriotic fervor that they relented. The relevant dates tell his story:

April ’61 – Cady enlists in Albany
May ’61 – Assigned Co F, 3rd NY
June 10, ’61 – Wounded in action
June 14, ’61 – Died, age 19

The North soon realized how ill equipped it was to prosecute a major war. Much public discussion ensued on the need for a better prepared citizenry. The Albany Academy responded by adding elementary military training – drill and the manual of arms – to its curriculum in 1861. A decade later the student body was reconstituted as a battalion organized into several companies.

Uniforms were introduced – a day uniform of grey trousers and shirt and black shoes and tie, and a parade uniform of white ducks, West Point style jackets, field caps for the ranks, and high plumed headgear along with sword for the officers. The Battalion would show off its marching proficiency annually by parading through Albany on Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day, and after 1918, on what used to be called Armistice Day. Early on, a drum line marching behind the Cadet Major helped the ranks keep step.

In 1917 when the United States entered WWI, hundreds of later generation Academy boys rallied around the flag and marched off to war in France. All are memorialized on a large bronze panel at the school, including several descendants of James Fenimore Cooper and former President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, one of whom later became a general and won the Medal of Honor in WWII. Stars mark the names of Academy graduates who didn’t return.

The Albany Academy’s contribution to WWII has been best remembered by the late Andy Rooney, AA ’38, the popular nationally known journalist. He had served as a combat correspondent covering the 8th Air Force over Europe. In his war memoir many years later, Andy fondly and eloquently memorialized some of his Academy classmates who didn’t make it back – Charley Wood, the class poet, who died in the Normandy invasion; Bob O’Connor, shot down over France; and his close friend and fellow football co-captain, Obed ‘Obie’ Slingerland, one of the school’s greatest athletes.

Lt Obed ‘Obie’ Slingerland, Guadalcanal, South Pacific 

In his weekly piece on CBS’s 60 Minutes and then in his memoir, Andy Rooney told the story of Obie, a Navy carrier pilot who died in a crash in June ‘45 during the invasion of Okinawa. Sadly, ever so sadly, he recounted:

                   I have awakened in the middle of the night
                   a thousand times and thought about the life
                   I’ve had – am having – that Obie never got
                   to have.* 

By the time I arrived at the doors of the Albany Academy, the Second World War was rapidly receding in memory, being displaced by the growing, tense ‘Cold War’ with the Soviet Union. In those days all males were subject to the Draft, short for the call to arms by the Selective Service System. College boys were deferred, but once out of school, summons to duty soon followed. 

Most of my classmates served in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the six who became doctors upon completion of medical school. Another member of AA ’53, an Air Force pilot, flew the U-2 for the CIA. I too was a Cold War soldier as part of an intelligence outfit based in West Germany, having been trained in one of the Soviet bloc languages as an interpreter/translator.

Then came America’s involvement in a far corner of the world called Southeast Asia – in Vietnam’s civil war. It would not be long before it was evident that this would not be one of the country’s good wars enjoying nearly universal support. Well before it came to an end, Vietnam would be widely considered a bad war, a very bad war.

By ’65, when the US went into Vietnam in a big way with bomb runs and boots on the ground, all but the three of my Academy classmates who became career officers had done their duty and moved on to their respective career paths. However, over 90 cadets from the classes following ours, well into the late ‘60s, got caught up in the Vietnam era military – although a number of them were fortunate to do their tours in other sectors of America’s worldwide network of bases.

Going on to college, most of the Academy boys who were part of the Vietnam War came out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs (ROTC) with commissions, while several graduated from the service academies. At first in the ‘50s, it was a trickle, but then in the ‘60s as the war intensified, a flood of Academy graduates went into the forces.  Of those who had been sophomores when I graduated in ‘53, two went off to the war, one of whom eventually made admiral. In ’56, Gordon Livingston, Cadet Executive Captain, went on to the US Military Academy (USMA), also known as West Point, and later Vietnam.

From the Class of ’58, more were drawn into the services, including Cadet Captain Co B William Cross, who followed the same path to the USMA and Vietnam. Another was his fellow AA cadet officer, Keith Willis, a good friend of my brother, who served with Jeff in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beginning with Jeff’s Class of ’60, the number of Academy boys called to duty during the Vietnam War rose rapidly. Ten that year, including Jeff, who had also held officer rank at the school; 16 the next year; and then, in the subsequent four years through the end of ’65, another 40 put on the uniform.

Jeff Sharlet, No. 25 (circled), Albany Academy Varsity Football 

Of the many AA graduates who found themselves in the ranks during the long Vietnam War, at least three who went to Vietnam came back disillusioned with the US mission in Southeast Asia – Major Gordon Livingston, AA ’56; Capt Bill Cross, AA’58; and Sgt Jeff Sharlet, AA ’60. Patriots all like their forbears and contemporaries who went to war, for all three disillusionment with the cause led to critical stances on the war.

Gordon and Bill had both received appointments to West Point. Gordon, a regimental surgeon, served with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Bien Hoa during 1968-69. Bill, an infantry officer, was military advisor to a unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in the Mekong Delta in 1964-65.

Distressed by what he was witnessing in his gung ho unit – rough interrogation of severely wounded enemy prisoners and cavalier attitudes toward the lives and fortunes of South Vietnamese civilians – Major Livingston took on his commanding officer by writing and printing up an irreverent ‘prayer’ mocking the military ethos of his unit, and distributing it to a gaggle of generals at a change of command ceremony.†

Major Livingston, Bien Hoa, Vietnam, 1968 

Needless to say, his superiors were extremely displeased with their regimental surgeon. He had shocked them by boldly expressing his dissent, at least implicitly, in a front line unit in the midst of the combat zone. What to do with the maverick major? After some months, the Pentagon made the prudent decision not to proceed with prosecution under military law against a top West Point graduate and exemplary soldier-doctor who had been decorated for bravery.

Gordon Livingston was permitted to resign his commission and return to civilian life. He published his unusual Vietnam story, including his ‘Blackhorse Prayer’, in a national magazine and actively pursued his criticism of the conduct of the US mission in Vietnam. Subsequently Gordon has gone on to a distinguished career as a psychiatrist and author of remarkably inspirational bestselling self-help books based on his professional experience.

Gordon’s AA and USMA schoolmate, Bill Cross, even while tactically advising ARVN troops in battle, was becoming disillusioned with the US effort in Vietnam. Like Gordon, who had learned about Vietnamese history and culture before deploying, Bill studied the language for three months before shipping out and was also exceptionally well prepared for his field assignment.

Cadet Capt William Cross, Albany Academy ‘58 

After a year working with ARVN armored troops in a number of engagements with the enemy, Bill, obviously highly regarded by his superiors, was posted to West Point and promoted to captain. In his new assignment as a Professor of Military Psychology and Leadership, his disillusionment continued.

This was especially the case after the public exposure of the My Lai Massacre in ’69 when Bill and faculty colleagues sought to explore the atrocity in detail and draw lessons from it in the leadership course. The idea, however, was scotched by Bill’s military-academic superiors. Since then, of course, we’ve become aware that the egregious misconduct of Lt Calley’s platoon was not a one-off incident in a misbegotten war.

After a decade in uniform and upon completion of his West Point tour as a major, Bill chose to leave the Army, although, like Gordon Livingston, he too had intended to pursue a military career. Bill went on to earn a PhD in Psychology and become a college professor. Counseling veterans on the side, Bill has also become a noted contemporary antiwar activist.

In 1991, Bill Cross founded the Veterans for Peace chapter in Syracuse NY, and, a little over a decade later when the Iraq War broke out, he co-founded ‘West Point Graduates against the War’, subsequently renamed ‘Service Academy Graduates against the War’.

The final member of the AA trio who took issue with the Vietnam War was my brother. By now Jeff Sharlet’s story is fairly well known to readers of this blog, Searching for Jeff, so I’ll just add that he had preceded both of his schoolmates to Vietnam, serving there at bases near little villes called Phu Lam and Phu Bai during the early, low profile phase of the war, 1963-64. As a Vietnamese linguist, Jeff had unusual access to the culture and society of South Vietnam.

Like Gordon Livingston and Bill Cross after him, Jeff too had disillusioning experiences in Vietnam. He came back determined to do something about stopping the conflict. Jeff’s assessment was that only the troops themselves – the grunts in harm’s way, the guys actually fighting the war – could stop it.

To that end, in 1968 he founded the underground antiwar paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), which quickly became widely known and sought after wherever American troops were stationed – in the field in ‘Nam, at stateside camps awaiting deployment, and on US bases in Europe and Asia.

Although VGI ran for only 15 issues over 18 months, judging by the feedback in letters from GIs, Marines, sailors, and airmen – not to mention the reaction of the FBI as well as military commanders into whose hands a copy fell††– the paper had a major impact. 

VGI helped stimulate the emergence of the GI movement against the war by raising and focusing the consciousness of troops on the vital issues of the war affecting their lives.

Decades later in 2010, the Albany Academy honored Jeff posthumously for his antiwar work, conferring upon him its Distinguished Alumnus Award. Although Jeff didn’t live to see the war’s end, he had done his part, and the guys themselves, particularly the enlisted men in the front line and rear units, aboard the ships, and even on the planes did the rest.** 


*Andy Rooney, My War (1995), 101-02.

** For active military dissent against the Vietnam War in all branches of service including aboard planes flying over North Vietnam and among sailors on four aircraft carriers, see