Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Journey into the Past – Return of the New Left

I was the outlier at the party. Back in the tumultuous ‘60s I was not ‘on the left’, nor was I an activist on the hot button issues of the day. Instead, I was just a plain vanilla liberal, a young academic, or, in the parlance of the Soviet Cultural Revolution of the ‘30s, what they called a ‘bourgeois professor’.

That’s not to say that I didn’t know a lot about Marxism – on the contrary, as a specialist on Russia and the USSR I in fact did.  I also knew a great deal about an icon of the left in the ‘60s – Trotsky, the Old Bolshevik – especially his role in the internal Soviet power struggles of the ‘20s. But I was neither a Marxist, nor did I take much interest in Trotsky after his political exile. Likewise the Trotskyist movement that emerged in the West and subsequently came to full flower after his brutal assassination at the hands of a Moscow agent was not really on my radar screen.

Until Khrushchev and his successors came along in the postwar ‘50s, the name of the game for professional students of the harsh Soviet system was Stalin, its ruthless autocrat. After Stalin’s death, what the American left was up to was of only peripheral interest to those studying and teaching Soviet politics. Change was afoot in the USSR – the other side in the Cold War dominating the planet – and as Soviet specialists we had our hands full tracking it.

Fast forward: It’s the summer of ’13, the Cold War has long been over, the mighty USSR is history, and I found myself on a journey into the past – literally back to Indiana University (IU) and the milieu of the New Left inhabited by my younger brother Jeff Sharlet (1942-1969). No stranger to the campus – I had taken a PhD there – I had left in ’62 before Jeff, an ex-Vietnam GI, had returned to IU to resume his academic education and along the way acquire a political education among the campus New Left.

Though Jeff and I sat in common classrooms and frequented popular hangouts like the Gables, Nick’s bar, and the Von Lee theater, town and gown ‘landmarks’ were quite different for each of us. For Jeff the New Left activist, IU’s Dunn Meadow and Showalter Fountain were familiar venues, as was Bloomington’s City Hall – all sites of many anti-Vietnam War protests; so was the official presidential residence where he’d led a demonstration in ’67; and Kirkwood Avenue, lined with small shops and eateries with which I was of course familiar, but where Jeff had been arrested leading a peaceful protest.

The IU New Left, a small group of students in the ‘60s and early ‘70s at a large conservative university, was holding a grand reunion back on campus. Some of them had gathered there a quarter of a century earlier, but that occasion had been more about the music and personal connections. This time, thanks to the Internet, it would be a larger and more diverse turnout with the express purpose of taking a full look back some 50 years at what had occurred, what was achieved, what fell short. Now entering what may be called the ‘age of nostalgia’ in their late 60s and early 70s, the veterans of that heady time in their lives were returning to IU.

They arrived in town from all corners of the country and Canada – from the East and West coasts; down from Alberta, Chicago, Indianapolis; up from Texas and all over the Midwest – and there were some who had stayed put, made their careers locally, or retired back to their old college town – Bloomington, the locale of Indiana University.

As Jeff’s older brother writing a memoir about his short but interesting life – despite being an outlier – I had been invited and warmly welcomed by his old friends, nearly 60 or more who made the journey. Many I knew by name – I had read the history of dissent at IU* – exchanged emails with quite a few, and had even spoken with some by phone. But there I was, walking amongst my brother’s fellow activists of long ago, listening avidly as they strolled down memory lane of their younger years at IU – a period that many said had been seminal in their lives.

They held a group conclave and retrospective panel discussions, but most reconnections among activist friends – the conversation writ large – were informal and took place in social settings and smaller groups. There was Robin Hunter, Marxist mentor to the campus New Left; Nell Levin, aka Bernella Satterfield back then, co-founder in ‘65 of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at IU; and Dan Kaplan, Jeff’s successor as SDS president in ‘67.

Robin Hunter at the Indiana New Left Reunion, Summer 2013

From further back there were Ralph Levitt, Tom Morgan, and the former Paulann Groninger (now Sheets) – brave souls who, along with a small band of brothers and sisters, marched across campus and through town at risk of life and limb in support of revolutionary Cuba during the Missile Crisis of ’62. Tom and Paulann had both known Jeff.

(L to R) The author, Paulann Sheets, Dan Kaplan, Bloomington IN, 2013**

Standing before me was Guy Loftman, with whom Jeff had worked closely in Guy’s successful election campaign as the first New Left President of the IU Student Government. Arriving a little later came Dwight Worker, veteran of the Dow Chemical sit-in of ’67, subsequently a legend in book and film, now a gentleman farmer who fondly remembered Jeff’s influence on him as a young activist.

Dwight Worker at his farm outside Bloomington, 2013

Whiling away a mid-summer evening listening to the great sounds of IU’s greying hippie folk/country musicians led by Roger Salloom, award-winning poet-singer-songwriter, I caught up with Cathy Rountree, a key reunion organizer and long-time nurse practitioner back from the Arizona desert where she had driven miles and miles along dusty, unpaved roads helping Navajo in need. Jim Retherford, who’d known Jeff well, joined me at the ‘jam’ – he had been the inaugural editor of The Spectator, the New Left’s alternative paper founded at IU in ’66.

Roger Salloom (center back), Richard Blaustein in the hat, Nell Levin, Michael August, Steve Coll, Bloomington, August 2013**

Most of the New Left alums had been SDS, but quite a number were former YSA or the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth affiliate of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). There’d been differences in strategy and ideology (or lack thereof in SDS’s case), and even in lifestyles between the two main campus New Left groups, but with their common  battlefield where they’d protested as one against the war in Vietnam long silent, old differences had faded, edges softened.

However, the one thing that struck me most about the group’s fascinating collective journey back to the past, was that nearly all of them at the reunion had retained a strong commitment to social justice in one form or another in the many years since the ‘60s. Whatever their individual takes on the historical scorecard of their earlier dreams of change, for most, their post-university life choices and trajectories continued to reflect core beliefs held in the days of youthful idealism.

Whether ‘red diaper’ babies, IU ‘faculty brats’, or originally from Indiana small town backgrounds, most of those who gathered back at the IU campus in the summer of ’13 had devoted and, in many instances, were still devoting their lives to the so-called ‘good-guy’ causes of society – anti-Apartheid, abortion rights, gay liberation.

Some had gravitated to college and high school teaching, serving as advocates for adding Black Studies and Women’s Studies to curricula. A woman reported teaching a course on Trotskyism at the high school level, while an academic teaches his college courses on politics from a Marxian perspective. Quite a number of the New Left alums became labor activists, labor organizers, and union officials in education, services, and transportation.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
alive as you and me
Says I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died," said he
"I never died," said he.† 

Others gave years of their lives to professional activism on the left –
working on behalf of Cuba, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, and in the press arm of SWP, translating and publishing Soviet dissident samizdat – writings critical of the regime’s repressive ways barred by state censors. Most of these individuals were also veterans of civil rights struggles and industrial labor battles.

More recently, several activists mentioned their commitments to on-going issues – pushing implementation of Obamacare for those without coverage, assisting needy homeowners to avoid foreclosure, demonstrating for the hunger strikers held at Guantanamo, and reviving a popular ‘60s underground publication as a contemporary blog – in effect, pouring new wine in old bottles.

While many of the dreams of systemic change of the ‘60s – not just ending a war, but changing the ‘system’ – fell short, melancholy and despair were not in evidence at the New Left’s reunion at Indiana University. On the contrary, all had kept faith in the possibility of taking action and changing things in myriad ways for the better. Onward said they – an unforgettable occasion.

This is the first of several posts on the New Left Reunion at Indiana University which will appear in coming weeks and months.

Link to music video

*M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002).

**Thanks to Carol Richert Hart, a participant in the IU reunion, for the use of her photo(s).

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Saigon Was No Rear Area"

It was early evening in I Corps (eye core), northernmost of the four tactical zones where US military advisors could be found in South Vietnam (SVN) in 1964. It was the first weeks of spring and already dark enough that Jeff Sharlet, my brother, and a GI buddy with him in the jeep had to turn on the headlights. They were headed back from Hue on the coast of the South China Sea to their base near the small ville of Phu Bai.

The two GIs were on a narrow deserted road flanked with scrub growth when their lights picked up something in the roadbed directly ahead. Jeff hit the brakes; they got out with carbines at the ready and cautiously approached. At that point in the Vietnam War, there wasn’t much Viet Cong (VC) activity in that part of the country – most of the attacks were far to the south in IV Corps, the Mekong Delta, below the capital, Saigon – but occasional incidents were not unknown.

As they got closer, they saw that it was a Vietnamese peasant woman curled up on the road, probably from the nearby tiny hamlet of Huong Thuy just north of Phu Bai, but was it a trap – did she have a concealed weapon or was she dead, a grenade under her body rigged to explode if she was moved? Happily neither – the old woman was just sleeping soundly on the road still warm from the day’s sun, no doubt a more comfortable berth than the bramble to the left and right. False alarm.

That, of course, was the ‘bush’ in Vietnam where groups of American ‘advisors’ to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) – as they were then called – were scattered up and down the countryside, relatively isolated in a sea of Vietnamese, friendlies and unfriendlies. One might reasonably assume that Saigon, the HQ of the US military effort to help SVN cope with a guerrilla war directed from Communist North Vietnam (NVN) – was a relatively safe area. Alas, not so.      

During the previous year, Jeff had been based in the Saigon area from late summer into the fall. The concentration of Americans there – enjoying the pleasures of the city called the ‘Paris of the Orient’ – instead proved a magnet for persistent and well-coordinated terrorist attacks by VC cadres who were indistinguishable from other Saigonians.

A Saigon street scene, 1961

Once in office in early ’61, President Kennedy (JFK) had begun a build-up of the small US military commitment in SVN inherited from outgoing Dwight Eisenhower. In effect, during the next 1000 days in the White House until his assassination in late ’63, JFK had significantly escalated the sleepy, low-key internal war between ‘our guys’ in the South and the Communists in the North of the divided country. At that stage of what became the long war in Vietnam, the NVN carried out their campaign to overthrow the government of SVN through their proxy, the shadowy National Liberation Front (NLF) and its tough fighting arm, the VC.

♫They said you're pretty safe when the troops deploy
But don't turn your back on your house boy
When they ring the gong, watch out for the Viet-Cong

In response to JFK’s moves during 1961-62, the underground VC units of the capital responded at first with numerous incidents of terror against the Vietnamese population of Saigon – the implied message being that the regime of President Diem couldn’t effectively fulfill the basic function of government, i.e., the protection of its citizens. However, as the numbers of US military personnel multiplied three-fold in the next two years, the VC began directing carefully planned attacks against venues in the city where Americans – both military personnel and the growing host of civilian contractors and dependents – gathered for diversions.

By the end of ’63, the toll of dead and wounded Americans in Saigon had registered in Washington, provoking discussions of possible retaliatory bombing attacks against the North. The NLF took note and in early ’64 directed its VC cadres to zero in on Americans in Saigon. The new policy of urban terrorism bore two implicit messages – the US should realize how vulnerable their people were in the capital if they decided to strike NVN, and high profile attacks against Americans should have a demonstration effect on their South Vietnamese ‘clients’, to wit the US cannot protect you.

In ’64-’65 the frequency and intensity of VC targeting of US billets and recreational facilities had increased five-fold from ’61. Years later, the atmosphere of bombs going off on the streets of Saigon was cinematically depicted in Robin Williams’ Good Morning Vietnam (1987). On the ground back in the ‘60s, Jeff and his GI pals, all Vietnamese linguists (lingys) attached to a communications intelligence outfit outside the city in ’63, were caught up in the rising tide of VC violence aimed at Americans as can be seen in the following account by a fellow GI of an eventful evening on the town with Jeff and three other lingys:

We were walking down Tu Do Street [the main drag],
headed for the Impérial, a little French open-air bar – a
corner bar – classic French, tile floor, zinc top bar,
uncomfortable stools, bistro menu, maybe a dozen tiny
tables open to the street on two sides, ancient Vietnamese
waiters in khakis, white shirts and flip-flops, no girls – the
 perfect venue for a Pernod or Pastis on a warm night.
Quelle ambiance!

We were walking toward the bar five abreast, a short
block away, maybe 50-75 yards, when a grenade was
thrown from a motorbike into our intended destination.
It was, for all of us, a strange experience – our first sense
of the explosion was seeing waiters from the bar running
into the street followed, in slow motion, by a flash of light
and a huge horizontal column of a billowing dirty gray
cloud of smoke that appeared to be chasing the waiters –
only then came the sound of the explosion itself which
caused us to momentarily duck our heads before running
toward the explosion – a foolish impulse, but ….*

The bar was in shambles with overturned tables, broken glass, and waiters’ flip-flops scattered about. Happily their favorite waiters were unharmed, and there were no serious injuries. The following night the five guys made Bar Imperial their first stop of the evening and found all the waiters wearing brand new tennis shoes, the better to run with, they told the GIs.

Bar Impérial, Saigon, 1960s

The NLF’s new terror policy had gone into immediate effect in early ’64. On February 9th, the VC hit the sports stadium where two US service teams were playing a softball game before bleachers filled with cheering American military and civilians: 2 dead, 42 wounded. Exactly a week later on Sunday, a VC team in a well-coordinated attack bombed a packed movie theater exclusively used by Americans watching a Hollywood film. The first VC shot and killed the lone US military policeman (MP) on guard out front, followed by his accomplice rushing into the theater to plant a 25-pound bomb with a 15-second fuse: 3 killed, 32 wounded.

Lest the reader think this was an improvised operation, US forces later captured the 13-page VC document on the meticulous planning and post-attack evaluation for the theater bombing. The document noted with satisfaction that local Vietnamese residents had come by the next day to see the wreckage and were heard to say, “Once they [the VC] have succeeded in attacking this objective, they will easily succeed elsewhere.”**

♫Searching for the Viet Cong in vain.
They left a note that they had gone.
They had to get down to Saigon††

Near the end of ’64, on Christmas Eve, the VC pulled off another high profile strike designed to reinforce their ‘message’, to wit, that Americans in Saigon were vulnerable, hence the Vietnamese population should not count on them for protection. By then Jeff had completed his tour and was back in the States, but a couple of lingy buddies happened to be nearby and witnessed the carnage after a few minutes earlier a 200-pound bomb blew out the back of the 6-story Brink Hotel – quarters for US officers –  and obliterated the small buildings behind it. Dashing to the site, the two GIs instinctively rushed into the dense black smoke and, at personal risk, rescued three stunned and dazed Vietnamese employees of US armed forces radio housed in the building.

Aftermath of the Brink bombing, Christmas Eve, 1964

Again, it was later learned how carefully the VC commanders had planned the attack on the Brink. Observing that South Vietnamese officers freely mingled with Americans at the hotel, the VC assault team acquired ARVN uniforms on the black market, studied the officers’ mannerisms, their speaking style, and even how they smoked – and were thus able to infiltrate the building with their deadly cargo.

Meanwhile standing on the street as Vietnamese police and fire fighters responded, the two lingys could see “the floors buckled upward, re-bar and all, from the blast and ground floor walls now skeletal.”*** It was evident that anyone above the explosion would certainly be dead and, indeed, two were, plus 107 wounded.

Afterward, one of the GIs got cleaned up, changed his blackened uniform, and continued out on the town to celebrate Christmas Eve as initially intended. Therein lies the story of how Americans grew accustomed to VC violence as part of the Saigon landscape in the midst of war, but more on this further on.

The new year of 1965 – the fateful date of President Johnson’s major escalation of the US commitment to the Vietnam War – was another deadly period for American citizens in and about the capital of SVN. Responding to the first sustained US bombing attacks on NVN, dubbed ‘Rolling Thunder’, the VC hit the US embassy killing and wounding Americans, but far more Vietnamese who worked at the compound; in all, the attack left 23 dead and 183 wounded.

Wrecked interior of US Embassy, Saigon, March 1965

 However by far the most spectacular attack of the VC Saigon campaign took place in June ’65 – by which time Rolling Thunder had been backed up by the first waves of US combat troops who had already begun to engage the highly mobile and elusive VC battalions in the boonies. The site of the dramatic assault was the My Canh, a glamorous and popular floating restaurant aboard a boat tethered to a dock on the Saigon River mainly frequented by Americans and wealthy Vietnamese.

It was a two-part VC op – first a grenade was tossed into the restaurant during the dinner hour, predictably causing consternation. Then, as dazed and wounded diners rushed to shore over the boat’s gangplank, an electronically controlled Claymore anti-personnel mine (which fires metal balls 110 yards in a wide killing arc), planted in the riverbank, was remotely detonated causing mass casualties: 32 killed, 42 wounded.

Assisting victims at My Canh floating restaurant, June 1965

A US sailor helping rescue people, shocked to see blood everywhere and so many body parts, subsequently commented, “Saigon was no rear area. It was a very dangerous place.” But should we conclude that the large American community in Saigon was cowed and intimidated by the rash of well-aimed, lethal VC terror attacks in the city – no, according to a good friend of Jeff’s who was there for a number of years, first as a GI and then as a civilian contractor. He and everyone he knew had a personal story of a near miss, and certainly on those occasions emotions swirled, but fear was not one of them.

On the contrary, he told me, a backdrop of violence was a part of the fabric of daily life in the city, a feature of the urban scene in a country being torn apart by a raging war. Young American GIs either based in Saigon or there on furlough, accepted the explosions as a condition of life in a wartime capital and did not allow the bombs and grenades to change their routines or divert them from the city’s pleasures.

One could chalk it up to the conviction of invincibility among the young – it won’t happen to me – or perhaps recall similar reactions among many civilians who survived WWII London and Berlin. Both cities were savagely and relentlessly attacked by vast fleets of bombers, but life went on amidst the death and destruction and, in fact, a little defiantly in both wartime capitals. Sure, English and German children alike were sent to the countryside for safety and Berliners and Londoners of course took to the bomb shelters during air raids, but during intervals people shopped, ate meals, made love, and much else of the routines that define 'the human condition' even in times of crisis.

Back in Saigon during the war, a terrorist incident a few years later perhaps best illustrates the response to routine violence as part of the texture of everyday life. A couple of American civilians lived down the block from a Filipino aid mission – housed in a building protectively wrapped in anti-grenade fencing with a small guard post in front. There were a couple of small openings through which the sentry could fire if attacked.

Waiting for a taxi one evening, the Americans saw a speeding motorcycle with a Vietnamese teenager on the back go flying by the Filipino building as the passenger tried unsuccessfully to hurl a grenade through the firing slit of the guard post. It bounced off the fencing harmlessly and exploded in the street as the guard opened fire on the fleeing cycle.

Coincidentally, a week later to the day and hour, the Americans were again at the cab stand and witnessed an identical failed attack. Again the duo escaped unscathed. Word got around among Americans in the neighborhood, and every Tuesday at 7 PM they’d gather on a protected portico to watch the same scene repeat itself – for six straight weeks until on the seventh try, the guard finally managed to take down the teenage cao bồi, cowboys, ending the weekly entertainment.

By ’66 US security had greatly increased in capital, and by then local VC priorities were changing as their units increasingly faced large, well-armed US combat forces on search & destroy missions in the Saigon region. Although VC urban terrorism had taken a significant toll in life and limb, its intended psychological impact on Americans who served or worked in Saigon fell far short of VC expectations.

Saigon remained a dangerous posting throughout the Vietnam War, but of course the danger there paled in comparison to the extraordinary hazards and the appalling loss of life on both sides of the conflict elsewhere in war ravaged Vietnam.

Links to music videos

*Personal communication (8/1/13) from a Vietnam GI buddy and good personal friend of my late brother Jeff Sharlet – to whom I am greatly indebted for his help on the memoir project.

**Quoted in A Study of the Use of Terror by the Viet Cong (prepared by the Military Assistance Command, Nha Trang, South Vietnam, May 1966), 36. Declassified 5/1/78.

***Personal communication of 8/1/13 from Jeff Sharlet’s GI buddy and good friend.