Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Springtime in Academe – ‘Truth Squad’ Meets Its Match

In the annals of the Vietnam War, the year 1965 has long been remembered as the year of the great escalation. The date of course pales in significance and consequence to 1941, but for those who opposed the war in Vietnam, springtime ’65 will always have a special place in memory.

American involvement in Southeast Asia had begun a decade earlier when the French were still fighting to retain their Indochina colony, but it was limited to military hardware and a few hundred technical advisors. President Kennedy (JFK) set in motion the first escalation in ’61 when he began a 20-fold buildup of US troops in South Vietnam, by then an independent country. South Vietnam was under constant pressure from Communist North Vietnam’s proxy military formation, the Viet Cong (VC), a tough and seasoned guerrilla outfit.

From his predecessor, JFK inherited a contingent of under a thousand military advisors, which he then increased to 16,000 American officers and men advising South Vietnamese Army units fighting the VC. Several years later however, after the VC had made great gains, it was the speed, scale, and composition of President Johnson’s (LBJ) escalation that set 1965 apart as US troop levels soared to 165,000 by year’s end.

In the history of the American antiwar movement, 1965 also became a marker date. Although there was some popular opposition to JFK’s low intensity war, it was minimal, barely achieving media notice. However, LBJ’s dramatic escalation beginning late winter/early spring ’65 was quickly met by a counter-escalation of protest on many college campuses.

LBJ’s dramatic escalation beginning early ’65 was quickly met by a counter-escalation of protest on many college campuses.

The reciprocal escalation of troops and protesters occurred against a backdrop of continual VC terror attacks on US military personnel billeted in the cities and towns as the countryside was steadily slipping out of Saigon’s control. A particularly deadly VC bombing of a US barracks in February ’65 brought forth a punishing response from LBJ – fighter bombers launched to attack North Vietnam.†

In Washington, the retaliatory air strikes were spun as a spontaneous reply to North Vietnamese aggression in the south, but, as we would later learn when the Pentagon Papers – the secret history of the war – were leaked to the media, the raids had been planned months in advance behind the scenes. The White House had merely been waiting for an appropriate pretext, a sufficient provocation, which the VC provided.

The ensuing attacks on the North were actually dress rehearsals for the secretly planned full-scale escalation set in motion the following month – a systematic bombing campaign code-named ‘Rolling Thunder’ – along with the landing in South Vietnam of the first US combat units. We were at war in Asia.

Stateside, the universities were quick to react to LBJ’s move. It was springtime in academe for what would gradually become a nationwide antiwar movement. First out of the gate was the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of the more liberal and free-spirited campuses in the country.

Stateside, the universities were quick to react to LBJ’s move. It was springtime in academe for what would gradually become a nationwide antiwar movement.

On March 23, ‘65 Michigan faculty and students organized the first ‘teach-in’, an all-night gathering at which professors reviewed Vietnam’s history and the conflict between north and south and led discussions on the major issues with the hundreds of students who turned out. The idea of the teach-in caught on quickly as some 20 other universities followed suit the next week. ††

Meanwhile, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a New Left organization founded in ’62 at Michigan, led the way, rapidly signing up many new campus chapters and hundreds of new members. With its ranks growing, SDS coordinated a major challenge to LBJ’s war policy, staging a 25,000-strong march on Washington on April 17th. The lines of the emerging divide on the homefront between the government and the New Left were now clearly drawn.

I was then a young academic, a first-year Political Science prof at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) where a teach-in was also held. A relatively conservative campus, our event was sedate by comparison with Michigan’s. I was a co-organizer, but my motive was to support the war, not oppose it.

My younger brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI then back at Indiana University (IU), was on the other side of the issue. Later, after the Tet Offensive of ’68, I came around to Jeff’s view.

We held the Mizzou teach-in at a 500 seat auditorium. The place was packed with students and faculty, the overflow sitting in the aisles and standing at the back. I was joined on the pro-war side by a senior American historian. Our opponents, junior faculty like me, were both specialists in South Asia.

They argued against the war based on their extensive knowledge of Southeast Asia, the previous fate of the French colonialists, and the idea that Vietnamese nationalism was the essential driving force in what they considered a civil war.

As a JFK liberal internationalist, I placed the Vietnam conflict in the context of the global Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. I argued that North Vietnam’s campaign against the South was being facilitated by indispensable Soviet military materiel and was a challenge to the US policy of ‘containing’ the USSR within its imperial frontiers.

I did not dismiss Vietnamese nationalism, but insisted that Communist ideology was the major factor; hence, for me the conflict was a Soviet proxy war using North Vietnam and, in the South, its surrogate, the VC.

Teach-in, University of Missouri, 1965 – author at far right pondering

Both sides to the debate received supportive applause from the audience, but when a straw vote was taken at the end, the pro-war position had prevailed.

While I doubt that Washington took note of Mizzou, historical accounts tell us that LBJ was upset and offended that the learned community was leading the burgeoning protest against his policy.

Shortly after the antiwar left carried its opposition to the streets of the nation’s capital, the administration began marshalling its forces against the growing tumult at some of the nation’s foremost institutions of higher learning.

Meanwhile, since February’s retaliatory air attacks, the State Department (USDS) had been getting telephone calls hourly from citizens asking for an explanation of the sudden escalation that followed. In addition, by April of ’65 USDS had received over 20,000 letters of inquiry about the war. As a presidential advisor commented, the administration clearly wasn’t doing its “propaganda job right.”*

On April 25th, Secretary of State Rusk commented briefly in an aside in a speech on an unrelated subject that he found much of the criticism he had heard against the war ‘nonsense’ and expressed surprise at the ‘gullibility’ of the academics leading the charge. The following day USDS began planning to counter the protests by ‘explaining’ the war policy to academe.

A Washington speaking team was dispatched to visit five universities in the Midwest. Leading the group, officially called the ‘Inter-Departmental Speaking Team on Vietnam Policy’, but soon dubbed the ‘truth squad’, was Thomas Conlon, a mid-level Foreign Service officer.

Conlon, an experienced 40-year old diplomat, was well qualified to lead the group, having served at the US Embassy in Saigon for two years. He’d even learned Vietnamese in the process and was an articulate and forceful public speaker as well. A ‘hawk’ on ‘containing’ Communism, Conlon strongly supported drawing the line in Southeast Asia.

He was variously accompanied by an official of the Agency for International Development (AID) and one or the other of two assigned senior Army officers – all with Vietnam experience as well. The rep from AID was Earle Young, a specialist in rural development who had served both in Laos and South Vietnam.

Earle Young, USAID, 1981

Young’s field experience was extensive. While working in South Vietnam, he had witnessed Saigon losing ground in the countryside. One of his postings was in Long An province abutting the capital region, which, on the cusp of LBJ’s escalation, was increasingly falling under VC control. One village, a mere 12 miles from Saigon, was so completely under VC sway that the government flag could not be flown there.

The Washington civilians were backed up by two colonels who had served as advisors to the South Vietnamese Army in its counter-insurgency campaign against the VC. In effect, it was a well-informed truth squad that landed in America’s heartland, confidently expecting to set the record straight on US involvement in Vietnam and quiet the spreading campus unrest.

The truth squad landed in America’s heartland confidently expecting to set the record straight on Vietnam and quiet the spreading campus unrest.

Their first stop on May 4th – during the weeks following the early March landing at Danang when Marine combat reinforcements were pouring in as a result of LBJ's ongoing buildup – was at the University of Iowa where the truth squad received its baptism by fire. The Iowa Socialist League organized a raucous evening reception before a hooting and jeering crowd of 200 students and faculty.

The government team argued the US was responding to Communist aggression from North Vietnam, a claim that flew in the face of the Iowa critics’ belief that we had intervened in a Vietnamese civil war. That first experience became a rude awakening for Washington’s experts, who had anticipated being heard by a typically tranquil and polite academic forum.

Braving shouts and provocative statements, Conlon soldiered on, replying to questions about why Vietnam was important to US national security with standard Cold War rhetoric; to wit, if we let North Vietnamese aggression go unanswered, it could lead to world war.

Toward the end of the evening at Iowa, Conlon began to lose his cool, agreeing with a questioner that it was a “crummy war,” but “the only war” we’ve got.** Predictably, the place erupted in hoots of derision.

The truth squad moved on to Drake University in Des Moines where they found some respite from the battle zone. The Drake audience was mildly critical but respectful, and the team was able to get its points across without incident. Traveling north, the next stop was University of Wisconsin at Madison, and it was back into the cauldron of antiwar protest.

Well before the Vietnam War heated up, Wisconsin-Madison was primed to play a role in opposition. Back in the ‘50s, the campus had a small but critical group of professors on the left led by Hans Gerth, an émigré German Marxist in Sociology, and William Appleman Williams, a Marxist historian. They were the cynosures of a graduate student Marxist study group that published a journal on left politics.

A week after Michigan’s teach-in, reacting to LBJ’s Vietnam escalation, Wisconsin activists mounted their own massive teach-in attended by 5,000 students and faculty with television coverage by CBS. A month later, Conlon and company were unknowingly heading into a buzz saw in Madison.

The truth squad had been invited to Wisconsin by the campus ‘Committee to Support the People of South Vietnam’, but on arrival at the evening’s venue with 650 people awaiting, it was also met – ‘confronted’ would be more apt – by the ‘Committee to End the War in Vietnam’ (CEWV), a 200-strong umbrella group drawing on SDS and other campus left groups.  

Although there were empty seats in the room, the CEWV activists wearing black armbands insisted on standing along the walls and greeting the team’s pronouncements with a cacophony of hisses and heckling.

I happened to arrive at Wisconsin as a visiting professor a few weeks later   and found the campus still abuzz over the ever rising American troop levels and expanding bombing runs over North Vietnam. From my office window on the campus green, I saw occasional rallies and periodic marches up the hill to the Administration Building.

A police-student confrontation, the Wisconsin green a few years later

Though no doubt the majority population of a large Midwestern university was mostly mainstream politically, the campus left in Madison was highly visible, well beyond its numbers.

Battered but not cowed, Conlon and colleagues went across the state to the university’s Milwaukee campus for a relatively quiet evening of Q & A on the war, and then headed south.

At Indiana University the military officers held informal afternoon meetings with small groups of interested students and professors. A former IU grad student critical of the war told me that the colonels responded to queries about the fighting in rural areas forthrightly and with candor, earning the respect of those present.

However, the truth squad’s full-dress appearance in Bloomington that evening turned out differently. National press coverage on the uproar at Iowa and Wisconsin had preceded the team, and the large auditorium was full – a mix of supporters of the war, a sizable minority of opponents – liberals, the New Left, and even a few Old Left – and the largest group, people curious to hear both sides of the issue. 

Brother Jeff, who had returned to college from Vietnam the previous fall, was no doubt in the audience and well informed on the conflict. He had returned from ‘Nam highly critical of the war, but at that point in time was mainly preoccupied with getting back into the academic groove.

However, from his IU letters of the previous several months, I knew Jeff was worried about the possibility of the war flaring up and, as a Vietnamese linguist, being recalled to duty – a prospect he didn’t relish.

Although battle-scarred, Conlon led off with a strong, assertive line on Washington policy in his opening remarks to the IU audience; during the Q & A that followed, the critical minority dominated the floor, firing off challenging questions and often greeting the government’s responses with vocal disbelief.

In the audience that evening was Bernard Morris, who had only recently left a career at the State Department to join the IU faculty. Addressing a question to Conlon, Professor Morris became incensed with the answer, responding “I never thought I’d see the day when my government would lie to me.”†††

“I never thought I’d see the day when my government would lie to me.”

At their final destination, the University of Illinois on May 11th, the truth squad got more rough sledding from many in the hall who had followed the team’s rocky reception elsewhere. They flew back to Washington, Conlon unfazed by the Midwest reception, but the others no doubt relieved to be off the firing line.

In the end, what was the outcome of the first of what would become numerous confrontations over the war between the government and its critics, initially a very small minority which would eventually become legion? To read Thomas Conlon’s subsequent published account of the truth squad’s spring ’65 tour, one might come away with the impression that his team had successfully taught the students ‘the facts of life about Vietnam’.

He believed that the truth squad had rescued the universities from those who had fallen prey to ‘communist propaganda’. Of course he was referring to the ‘extremist’ professors he had encountered    often, as he pointed out, in fields like psychology, the sciences, and literature, hence not qualified by training and therefore lacking in expertise on Vietnam.

On the other hand, tapping back into activist circles at Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and elsewhere, one hears the cheers of victory, ‘we have met the enemy and he is ours’. The klaxon had been sounded – rise up in protest against the war.

As for the canard about the need for expertise to understand Vietnam – a notion popular in Washington foreign policy circles – one of the country’s foremost critics of the war, Noam Chomsky of MIT, shot that one down a year later. As he wrote, “There is no body of significant theory or … relevant information, beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy [on the war] immune from criticism.”***

In reality, the New York Times correspondent covering the truth squad’s tour, called its running battles with its foes a draw. Both sides came away with something. The government succeeded in reinforcing the “views of supporters” of  its Vietnam policy while the campus activists, with their critical positions “strengthened” by the clashes, emerged energized for the encounters to come.****

*Quoted in T Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam (1994), 29.

**D Janson of the New York Times, who reported on the truth squad in the Midwest, quoted in The Militant (June 14, 1965).

***N Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1966) in American Power and the New Mandarins (1967), 335.

****D Janson writing in The Nation (May 24, 1965).


  1. Brings out memories that are remarkably clear given their long-ago origins.

    You surmise that there was a small minority of antiwar students and faculty in the big IU audience. I think it was a sizable minority or perhaps even a small majority. America's "silent majority," including its apolitical and isolationist Hoosier contingent, didn't go to mass informational meetings about US foreign policy, I suspect. More concrete evidence is the quantity and quality of the antiwar responses from the floor and especially on the huge stage, which was packed to the edges after the floor Q&A.

    The word "intensity" does not do justice to my anger at the State Department’s Conlon for three times poking me in the chest with his forefinger as he advanced, lecturing me about the ignorance of "your radical kind," as I backed off and heatedly and repeatedly said "Take your hands off of me!" Quite possibly the main reason I didn't retaliate and escalate the situation was a glimpse of highly respected Indiana University President Herman Wells beaming with pleasure at other exchanges comparable to mine or, less likely, at constructive exchanges of ideas and information between thoughtful student-citizens and knowledgeable governmental officials.

    Erik P. Hoffmann (aka a State Department liberal)

    1. Thanks so much for your historical you-were-there comment to embellish this post.

      Just to avoid any possible confusion among readers, at the time of the truth squad's tour Herman B Wells had been made Chancellor for Life. The current president was Elvis J Stahr.


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