Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Back to the ‘World’ – Return from ‘Nam

For a year my brother, Jeff Sharlet, and I were on different ‘fronts’ of the global Cold War. It was 1963-64, and Jeff was soldiering in Vietnam while I was studying in Moscow. I had learned Russian for my sojourn to the Soviet Union. Jeff had been taught Vietnamese for his Southeast Asian tour.

He was a translator/interpreter in the semi-secret Army Security Agency (ASA) while I was grad student on the official US-USSR Cultural Exchange. We’d both been carefully vetted for our encounters with the Communist orbit – Jeff to assure his political loyalty since his work was highly classified.

Conversely for my program, any connection to the American intelligence community would have been a disqualifier. University authorities took great care to protect the integrity of the academic exchange. Jeff and I both passed muster and shipped out to our respective destinations.

In the Moscow State University dorms in the former Lenin Hills, I shared a suite of rooms with a Soviet law student. Jeff was billeted with five other GIs in a large field tent at a US military outpost in South Vietnam, a small base not far below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the border of Communist North Vietnam. As he wrote home, “we are completely out of contact with the outside world here.”

Jeff’s ‘accommodations’, South Vietnam, 1964

By the ‘60s, the Cold War between the superpowers was approaching mid-point with Washington leading the West, Moscow dominating the East. Fortunately it was not a head-to-head military confrontation; instead, the Cold War was waged in the realm of ideas, propaganda, covert action, and proxy wars in the Third World.

One of those proxy wars, the hottest one, was in Vietnam, a country split into North and South by the Geneva Accords following the French colonists’ defeat in 1954. Backed by the Soviets and Communist China, North Vietnam was supporting a low intensity guerrilla war in the south. The aim was to overthrow the Saigon government and unify Vietnam under the Communist flag.

Jeff was assigned to ASA’s Detachment J, 3rd Radio Research Unit (RRU) at a place called Phu Bai. His work included electronically eavesdropping on North Vietnamese Army communications as well as liaising with South Vietnamese commandos being infiltrated north through the DMZ and over the border.†

My academic tasks in the capital of the Soviet Union fell under the heading of Khrushchev’s slogan of ‘peaceful coexistence’, the idea that capitalist and socialist countries could coexist amicably and avoid fighting each other.

Implicit in the cultural exchange was the hope of mitigating international tensions through people-to-people programs. Hence, while I was researching Marxist legal theory for my PhD dissertation as well as studying Soviet law, my Soviet counterpart was studying at an American university.

In late spring ’64, Jeff and I had both coincidentally finished up our time abroad and were ready to head home to the States. For Jeff, it would be back to the ‘world’, as Vietnam GIs were wont to call the journey. The road back would be a long one for each of us, not just in sheer distance, but in the psychological gulfs we’d be navigating.

Reverse culture shock was just part of it – Jeff would be returning to college, quite a remove from the secrecy-shrouded atmosphere of the place  he was leaving, an area of scrub foliage and low sand dunes characterized by a National Security Agency (NSA) official as  ‘virtually a Viet Cong camp ground’.

The transition would be easier for me although, by definition in those days, an American living in Soviet society got used to being ‘watched’ and had to be careful what was said and to whom. Hence, returning to the States would be a radical change from living in a high vigilance, closed society, but that’s a story for the next post.

Jeff had gone to Asia, if not positive, at least open-minded about the US mission in Vietnam. But in the course of being involved in ill-conceived and fouled up political and military operations while simultaneously getting acquainted with ordinary Vietnamese and their culture, he had become increasingly disillusioned.†† On his return to the ‘world’, he’d have to sort out his thoughts and feelings about the war – what he had experienced ‘over there’.
Jeff’s road home began from one day to the next at the tiny base at Phu Bai. One day he was at work amidst the great heat and humidity in the working ‘uniform of the day’ – shirtless, shorts, and flip flops; the next day he was dressed in Class A’s heading for the airfield with his gear.
He was very glad to be leaving, writing presciently in a last letter just weeks before the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident in August ‘64, “I hope I get out of the Army before anything blows up in Southeast Asia.”

Jeff caught a hop on a C-123, a large cargo plane that made two scheduled trips a day in and out of Phu Bai. The plane headed south toward Saigon, making a single stop on the coast of the South China Sea at Danang.

A C-123 taxiing for takeoff

Arriving at the military side of Saigon’s vast airport/air base, Jeff took a taxi over to nearby Davis Station, home to ASA’s 3rd RRU. He bunked there for his week’s leave in Saigon before moving on. He had many friends among the linguists (lingys) and cryptologists (crypts) there from his previous duty station in ’63 at Phu Lam, not far from the Davis base.

After a merry time drinking with good buddies at favorite bars and restaurants in Saigon, then known as the ‘Paris of the East’, it was time for the next leg of Jeff’s journey. That meant flying from Saigon to his home base, the 9th ASA battalion located at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

In a kind of tradition when a lingy finished his tour and was headed home, his friends would see him off – Jeff’s friends from as far back as ’62 at the Army Language School (ALS) on the California coast did just that – among them John Buquoi, Harvey Kline, Dave Gustin and, if he was in town, Fred Baumann.

The drill was an informal farewell party in the upstairs lounge at the airport – tasty toasted ham and Swiss sandwiches with lots of Dijon mustard and, of course, plenty of ’33 beer, Vietnam’s cheap brew – before Jeff shoved off for the flight line.

‘Mileage’ post at Davis Station, HQ, ASA 3rd RRU

Back at Clark, a sprawling air base, Jeff had an exit physical at an Air Force clinic. His medical report was then sealed along with his basic military file and copies of final orders in a large brown envelope to be hand-carried back to the States.

Separation processing would take place stateside. In military jargon, one was ‘separated’ until a reserve obligation was completed a few years later and final discharge papers issued.
Again, another farewell party before take-off, this one with friends at the 9th ASA, Keith Willis and others. Jeff boarded a civilian 707, a World Airways charter under military contract, for the lift back to the States. The plane made the same stops as on the way over – Guam and Honolulu – finally touching down late at night at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco.

The flight was met by a military bus that took Jeff and the other GIs to a transient barracks on the base. Incoming traffic was apparently heavy because each GI was assigned to a particular bunk in an 8-man room for a specific time slot (about six hours). The following morning Jeff was shaken awake by the next GI assigned to that bunk.

He was directed to a bus for the short ride to Oakland Army Terminal where final out-processing took place. A quick breakfast at the mess hall there and he reported to the ‘Separation Processing’ facility located in a hangar.

At the front of the cavernous space, a podium and several tables were set up. Rows of wooden benches were provided for out-processing troops, a few hundred from bases all over the world. Jeff didn’t know anyone – he may have been the only ASA Vietnam GI in the group.

Separation was typically Army, slow and bureaucratic. At the podium a corporal would call out a name, directing the soldier to one of the tables or ‘processing stations’ – there were nearly a half dozen of them. Jeff would complete his business at one ‘station’ and be sent back to the benches to wait until he was called again – over and over.*

The stages of separation were:

Personnel/Records: Jeff handed over his thick brown envelope. A clerk reviewed the contents and various documents were signed.

Security: A military intelligence clerk briefed Jeff on the ASA secrecy commitment, to wit, if any classified information was divulged he would face federal prosecution, up to 10 years imprisonment, and a $10,000 fine, serious money in those days.

He was also warned against travel behind the Iron Curtain for five years, and there was one additional bizarre caution. If you were to undergo surgery involving general anesthesia, you were to notify ASA in advance so a de-briefer could be on hand in the event of ‘inappropriate disclosures’.

Equipment turn-in: A GI was expected to return all the uniforms issued him except the one he was wearing. A couple of privates unceremoniously dumped Jeff’s duffel bag on the floor and made an inventory of its contents. If any part of the original issue was missing, the cost would be deducted from the soldier’s final paycheck.

Physical Exam/Medical: Essentially blood and urine tests for which the out-processee was sent to an adjoining room.

Payroll: Jeff was given his final ASA paycheck as well as travel funds to cover the flight back to his hometown of record.

Finally at dusk after an all-day laborious process, the GIs were released and bussed to the San Francisco Airport to catch their flights. At the airport, Jeff cut out and headed into the city to revisit the town and see friends.

While in the Bay Area, John Sharlet, our cousin, who was then studying Russian at ALS down the coast in Monterey, came up to San Fran to meet Jeff for dinner. Back east the cousins had gone to prep school together, but hadn’t seen each other for several years.

A few months later in fall ’64, Jeff found himself back in school at Indiana University (IU), a college boy again, to finish his education. He threw himself into the coursework, eager to catch up on his life. Nonetheless he remained unsettled by memories of the war, but couldn’t say a word to anyone. Everything remained secret.

Jeff knew there were many other GIs deeply skeptical about the wisdom of US involvement in Vietnam. Once the war dramatically escalated the following spring of ‘65, the number of disaffected Vietnam GIs would eventually grow and become legion.

Five years later after returning from ‘Nam, Jeff took his secrets to an early grave, although not before founding the underground paper Vietnam GI, which became a rallying point for emerging GI opposition to the war.

*I am indebted to John Buquoi, Jeff’s Vietnam buddy, for his help in reconstructing the ‘separation’ process.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Man in a Red Devil Suit – Lives of the New Left VI

One remarkable profile remains as we reach the end of this series on the Indiana University (IU) New Left reunion, summer 2013.† Jim Retherford has had an extraordinarily noteworthy and diverse career on the left from his early years at IU to present day.

He has been a fearless New Left editor, a political performance artist, part of a guerrilla theater troupe, and along the way got acquainted with some of the legendary figures of the unforgettable ‘60s/early ‘70s. Running through the years of his rich resume, one sees he also has been an award-winning journalist and graphic designer – a veritable man of the left ‘for all seasons’.

Jim Retherford arrived at IU in ’60 with good student journalist credentials, but as a typical politically naïve freshman. Campus events soon politicized him.

He got off to a good start as a college journalist, landing a position on the staff of the campus daily, the Indiana Daily Student (IDS), his first semester and by spring becoming the paper’s Sports Editor.

Then he inadvertently witnessed an early IU New Left action and came away politicized. A tiny group of students, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) protesting the US naval blockade of Cuba during the Missile Crisis of fall ’62, were jeered, harassed, and threatened by a crowd of several thousand hostile students. Jim came away shocked and a lifelong supporter of the Cuban Revolution.       

As an activist, Jim leaned toward dramatic action in matters political. A few years after, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was organized at IU, and Jim joined up. The group, opposed to the Vietnam War, had adopted a policy of open meetings, open mike. On one occasion a conservative student leader took advantage and filibustered a meeting with a pro-war rant.

Other than shouts to end the harangue, the group sat passively, reluctant to violate SDS’s policy of openness. Jim Retherford was not having it, so he and a fellow activist took a large American flag off the pole in the corner, grabbed the speaker, ‘wrapped’ him in the flag, and duck-walked him off stage to much laughter and relief.

The following year, 1966, several students created an alternative ‘underground’ campus paper, The Spectator, and several months later Jim became the first editor. The experience would take him beyond political awareness and radicalize him.


A lively political-cultural alternative to IDS, Spectator drew on Underground Press Service and Liberation News Service (Jim worked with Marshall Bloom, the founder) – both New Left wire services – for stories ignored by the mainstream media. Under Jim’s aegis, the paper became increasingly critical of IU’s administration and trustees as well as the local political establishment.
Spectator gave ample coverage to the spirited IU New Left, of which the university president was highly critical. When brother Jeff Sharlet, then SDS president, rebutted the criticism in a major speech, Jim promptly published the full text. ††

The paper afforded great visibility to the  major demos against the campus visits of Army General Maxwell Taylor; General Lewis Hershey, Director of the Selective Service System; Secretary of State Dean Rusk; as well as to the sit-in blocking Dow Chemical recruiters at the Business School.

In the midst of all the protest, Jim Retherford was summoned by his draft board. He turned up at the induction center wearing Viet Cong-style black pajamas and rubber sandals and handed out antiwar leaflets to the inductees. The feds weren’t amused and responded with an over-the-top threefold indictment against him for trivial technical violations of the Selective Service law, including one for not carrying his draft card.

Meanwhile, by early ‘68 the university authorities, who had become quite irritated with Spectator’s criticism of their policies, moved to silence Jim and the irreverent paper. The Spectator staff was ordered to vacate its campus premises. Impatient, the Dean of Faculty decided to expedite the eviction. With a fire axe in hand, he broke down the door, destroyed equipment, and scattered files.

Undeterred, Jim moved the paper off campus to what he called the ‘liberation zone’ and continued the steady drumbeat of coverage and sharp criticism of IU’s administrators.  Street sales of the paper in Bloomington reached nearly 1,000; there were also mail subscriptions as well as orders from bookstores as far away as Boston and San Francisco.

In late spring ’68, Jim Retherford went on trial in federal court. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. His bond revoked, he languished in jail for nearly three months until his conviction was overturned on appeal thanks to a prominent New York lawyer on the left.

Jim left Bloomington, moved to New York, and onto the national stage of the antiwar struggle. Earlier in ’67 he had already played a role as an organizer of the siege of the Pentagon when thousands of protestors from all over the country encircled the immense building in an attempt to ‘levitate’ it.

Jim Retherford at the Pentagon, Washington DC, 1967

In New York, Jim soon hooked up with poet, singer, and activist Ed Sanders, co-founder of the Fugs, a well-known psychedelic rock band of the day. He got to know Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, whose book he agreed to ghostwrite. DO IT! Scenarios of the Revolution was published in early ‘70 to much fanfare. 

Who can train guerillas by the dozens?
Send them out to kill their untrained cousins?
F**king-a man!
CIA Man!†††

In early ’69, federal conspiracy charges were filed in Chicago against Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden, and others for their parts in the antiwar demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention. With Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in the lead, the defendants turned the trial into raucous political theater with Federal Judge Julius Hoffman cast as villain. As Jerry’s friend and ghostwriter, Jim was invited to Chicago to take in the wild courtroom scene.

Enroute back to New York, he stopped off in Bloomington to visits friends and heard that Clark Kerr, former President of the University of California and bête noir of the ’64 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, would be speaking at IU.

Jim planned a Yippie counter-performance. As Kerr began his remarks, Jim, who’d been hiding in the wings, rushed onstage decked out in a red devil costume and threw a cream pie in the speaker’s face. Hoping to get away, the ‘red devil’ was nonetheless caught, arrested, convicted of disorderly conduct, and sentenced to 90 days in jail. The ‘pieing’ of Clark Kerr made the nation’s papers.

The ‘70s were an eventful time on the East Coast, and Jim Retherford was in the thick of it. In late spring ’70, he went to New Haven CT with the band ‘Elephant’s Memory’, an experimental rock group better known as backup for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band. The band performed at a huge May Day demo on the ‘green’ across from the Yale campus as thousands protested the trial of Bobby Seale and the New Haven Black Panthers.

Hey little chile don’t you put me on trial
You got me burnin’ on a fiery pile††††

That summer, Jim joined Abbie Hoffman’s ‘guerrilla theater’ for a Yippie happening at Madison Square Garden in New York. Mocking a big band just back from a tour of Communist East Europe covertly underwritten by the CIA, Hoffman and his troupe dumped 20 pounds of manure at the Garden’s entrance just as the crowd was arriving for the concert.

The following year a New York federal grand jury subpoenaed Retherford and fellow Yippies, ‘fishing’ for information about a bombing in Washington with which the five had no connection. Calling themselves the ‘Ever-Expanding Number’, the Yippie group duly appeared at the federal building with Jim sporting a King Kong outfit. If they were looking for antiwar guerrillas he figured, why not dress like a real gorilla.

Finally, election night 1972 found Jim Retherford walking the streets of Manhattan in the company of John Lennon and friends. In despair over Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern, the group came up with the idea of breaking the windows of a major bank. The tequila bottles they tossed shattered, but the bank’s windows survived.

Later in the decade, Jim left New York and relocated to Texas, first Houston, then Austin, where he raised his young son. He eventually joined the staff at the University of Texas-Austin.

Fast forward to the present, Jim Retherford retired several years ago as Senior Graphics Designer Emeritus, General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin. However as a long time Austinite, he continues to take part in the city’s progressive politics.

At IU last summer, Jim, the final speaker,  rose to talk about his life at the New Left gathering, but time was short on the kick-off event, and he only had a chance to sketch a few of his adventures. Let’s listen to him in his own voice:

Hi, I’m Jim Retherford, and what a long, strange trip it’s been. I came to Bloomington a farm boy from north central Indiana, 1960. I was skinny then. I kind of left Bloomington in the summer of ’68, although I had a tendency to come back and create some diversions for everybody.

In October ’69 when Clark Kerr began his lecture series at IU on how he had figured out [how to cope with the ’64 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley], I decided to practice a little reverse Marxian repressive power … and he ended up getting a pie in the face.

Jim Retherford in costume, Bloomington IN, 1969

I came here as a journalism student and spent two and a half years in the Journalism Department. I left the department very angry at the chairman for lying to me about stuff. It was during that time that I became politicized…. The Fair Play for Cuba march [October ‘62] started a number of things going.

One, it started in me a long-term quest that continues today – to understand and appreciate the revolution in Cuba and what it accomplished. That was just the beginning.

The other thing that it created – a strain that has continued – was when I was in the city room of the Indiana Daily Student (IDS) right after the Fair Play march when two guys in trench coats, whom I recognized from pictures taken at the march, came into the room and introduced themselves as graduate students. [laughter] …

They asked if me and my friend, who was the IDS chief editorial writer at the time, if we had known anything about those guys [the pro-Cuba marchers]. I was only a sophomore at the time, but I knew this was bullshit. That was the beginning of my distrust of the intelligence apparatus.

In ’66 a group of graduate students – by then I was in the English Department – started talking about forming an alternative newspaper. I attended all their meetings and helped launch the new paper [The Spectator], but I didn’t really get along with the other organizers. There wasn’t good chemistry, so I just helped on the journalistic part of the paper – telling them how to lay it out and stuff, but I didn’t get really active in it.

The grad students all flunked out of school and a Spectator staff came together that following September. There was somebody who the Dean of Students wanted to be the editor, but nobody wanted her so they talked me into doing it. I edited The Spectator for the next two years.

That was a radicalizing experience. From the very beginning I made space in The Spectator for all points of view, but when Robert Turner* [a conservative student leader] took advantage of it, we kind of got rid of that policy because it was redundant to say the same thing over and over again. We’d heard enough of that.

During this period of time, I became more questioning and more radical and it ended up that I was moving up the FBI watch list as I found out later. In ’67 just 11 days before my 26th birthday, which would have freed me from all my draft-duty obligations, I woke up and had two federal indictments for Selective Service violations which were non-existent. I wasn’t even a [draft] delinquent.

Then in January, a third indictment was added. I went to trial in May ’68. I was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. My appeal bond was revoked as they [the feds] tried to block my right of appeal. I ended up in jail for about two and a half months waiting for all that to shake out.

 I moved to New York to be near my lawyer, Leonard Boudin.** I got involved in the Movement in New York, spent seven or eight years there. I worked with Jerry Rubin. I conceptualized and ghostwrote his book [DO IT! (1970)]. I was tied in with the Yippies, did a bunch of stuff with the Artist’s Movement, and worked with the Young Lords organization*** to take over a rock-and-roll festival in New York and divert $20,000 to the People’s Community Clinic in the South Bronx.

I was [also] involved with a bunch of people who did some crazy things, and I ended up doing a lot of defense committee work. Those of you who’ve done that know how depressing and debilitating it is. It kind of sucks the life out of you, you’re doing this instead of the stuff you need to and want to be doing. You’re on the defensive.

I joined a group that seemed like a ‘serve the people’ organization [Fred Newman’s Centers for Change], but it turned out to be a cult or turned into a cult. I had a son by a woman who was in that organization. She almost killed him, her and the cult-leader. When the child was in good enough health, I took him and left New York. I spent basically 17 years kind of hiding in Houston and then in Austin.

In Austin now I am on the Board of Directors of the New Journalism Project. I’m one of the people working on a project called the Rag Blog, which is a digital outgrowth of The Rag’, one of the first underground papers in the country [during the ‘60s].**** We also run a radio station [Rag Radio], and we do a lot of outreach things. That’s basically what I’m doing now and why I’m here.

Jim Retherford in recent years

Long a premier journalist with prizes to his credit, Jim Retherford continues to publish. In 2004 the New York Times ran his op-ed, and, since its inception in ’06, several of his essays have appeared in the ‘Rag Blog’, a weekly online journal of the left edited by Thorne Dreyer in Austin, Texas.

A modest individual, Jim Retherford has compiled an amazing curriculum vitae of a lifetime on the left. This brings to a close Lives of the New Left, a series responsive to the historical question, What became of the Indiana New Left?

The essays in response, framed in the lives of the individuals profiled, are also meant to reflect the generation of ‘60s activists writ large of whom the IU group was an integral part.

† There were additional speakers at the reunion assembly, but only the recordings of the remarks by the 15 individuals profiled in Lives of the New Left I-VI, were sufficiently audible.

†† For an account of Jeff Sharlet’s public exchange with the IU president, see,

Links to music videos:

*Robert F Turner, as an IU undergrad, was President of the IU Conservative League, which brought various conservative speakers to campus and distributed literature. Later, Turner focused on the Vietnam War as national research director and Indiana State Chairman of the Student Committee for Victory in Vietnam. Following graduation he was commissioned an Army officer and served two tours in Vietnam. Professor Turner is currently Associate Director of the Center for National Security Law at University of Virginia Law School. See

**The late civil liberties lawyer and left-wing activist Leonard Boudin was involved in the defense of the ‘Bloomington Three’ (B-3) after their arrest following the IU demonstration protesting President Kennedy’s naval blockade of Cuba during the Missile Crisis of October ’62. Known for his representation of high profile anti-Vietnam War defendants such as Daniel Ellsberg and Dr Benjamin Spock, Boudin also served as defense counsel for less well-known individuals and organizations. On the case of the B-3, see the profile of Paulann Hosler Sheets in

***The Young Lords was a Puerto Rican nationalist organization that evolved from a Chicago street gang as a result of Mayor Daley’s political machine’s ‘urban renewal’ program during the ‘60s. When an entire Puerto Rican neighborhood was evicted in favor of up-market real estate development, the Young Lords confronted the machine in the Division Street Riots of 1966. In ’68 the Young Lords reorganized as a human rights movement and spread to cities across the country. They quickly achieved national prominence for mobilizing thousands of people in similar neighborhood actions in other places. The organization continues to exist to this day in the struggle for Puerto Rican rights and independence.

**** The Rag was a legendary alternative newspaper in Austin TX, a major center of the counterculture of the ‘60s. The paper covered radical politics, the war in Vietnam, civil rights struggles, the student freedom movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, and local protest politics as well as national and world news from the Liberation News Service. Closely associated with the SDS chapter at University of Texas-Austin, the Rag featured articles by national SDS and other New Left leaders. From a reunion of former staffers, the Rag was founded in 2006. An online news magazine, it features much of the same content as its predecessor and is edited by Thorne Dreyer, one of the original Rag editors, who also hosts Rag Radio. This post has benefited from his Rag Radio interview with Jim Retherford in 2010; see