Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Last Days of VIETNAM GI

Jeff Sharlet, my brother, died in June ’69 from complications of something that may have begun earlier during his tour in Vietnam. He was only 27, but left behind a notable legacy.* Jeff had founded Vietnam GI (VGI) in early ’68 as the first GI-edited underground antiwar paper addressed to GIs. VGI quickly found its audience in Vietnam and in stateside training camps and gave impetus to the emerging GI protest against the war.

As it turned out, June ’69 was a turning point in the war itself as well as in the antiwar movement writ large. Recently elected President Nixon announced the first withdrawal of troops and the beginning of the reduction in US force levels in Vietnam during the week before Jeff’s death.

Then, shortly after news of his premature death, what became the last national conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) opened in Chicago with a minute of silence in memory of Jeff. Over the next few days of contentious debate, the largest youth organization in America and the backbone of the civilian antiwar movement met its demise, splitting asunder into two mutually hostile irreconcilable factions, one of which was the infamous Weatherman.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Jeff’s passing, Dave Komatsu, his deputy editor, did his best to carry on, but money was tight, and his heart was no longer in it. As the US war effort began to decline, Dave and his wife Kit, both long term left activists, moved on and founded the underground paper Wildcat directed primarily toward factory workers, the classic proletariat of Karl Marx.

Nevertheless, out of loyalty to Jeff’s memory, Dave and staff managed to publish three more posthumous issues. Most notable was the August issue of VGI, the cynosure of which was Dave’s long, eloquent obituary for Jeff under the heading Jeff Sharlet Dies. The tribute opened with writerly élan and inevitably closed on a sad end note:

                       Many good men never came back from Nam. Some
                   came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back a
                   pretty together cat….

                       At the end he said that he had many new ideas for
                   our fight, but was just too exhausted to talk about

During fall ’69, Dave tried to hand off editorial responsibility to other staff members, but in the vacuum left by Jeff’s death, staffers had started drifting away to various political projects and other GI papers. Also, absent Jeff who had been the paper’s principal fundraiser, the cash box was empty, and the reluctant decision was made to suspend publication of Vietnam GI.

That was not to be the end of the story however. The tale of VGI’s decline, its subsequent short-lived revival in ‘70, and its final demise can be seen in the following excerpts from VGI’s office correspondence for the last year of the paper’s existence.**

The initial excerpts bear brief explanation – due to unusual circumstances at the time, they are from consecutive letters two months apart. The first is from RESIST, a national organization in Cambridge MA led by radical academics such as Noam Chomsky of MIT and Richard Flacks of the University of Chicago; the prominent left public intellectuals Paul Goodman, the writer, and Marcus Raskin of the Institute of Policy Studies, a critical think-tank; and, among others, a Harvard College chaplain. The group’s mission was to provide financial assistance to all parts of the broad Vietnam antiwar movement.

Komatsu had written to the Cambridge organization in the early fall to request funding for a follow-on October issue of VGI. RESIST replied much later:

                   RESIST                                            November 17, 1969

                   Dear David,

                             With the number and amounts requested by
                   other groups this month, we were unable to provide
                   the entire $650 your letter specified. However, a
                   check for $400 is enclosed here. …

                             I apologize for the weeks delay in getting
                   this off to you.

Because of government interference, Komatsu – unaware that VGI had been re-funded – replied belatedly two months later:

          VIETNAM GI                                                      January 19, 1970

                   Your letter (with the $400 check) of November 17,
          1969 just arrived two days ago. …

                   We had no idea that RESIST had voted us that money
          in November. … As we are now finding out, the Post Office – or
          the FBI – completely disrupted our mail. We are just now
          starting to get some November and December mail. …

                   Publication of Vietnam GI was suspended until
          February-March [1970]…. Next month two new Vietnam
          vets (both with base newspaper experience) are moving
          here [to Chicago] to take over this operation.

During the next couple of weeks, Dave and fellow staffers began answering long delayed mail from late ’69 held up by the postal inspectors or more likely the FBI:

          VIETNAM GI                                                      January 28, 1970

                   After Jeff died we staggered along for three issues,
          then decided to suspend publication temporarily. We had
          no money….

                   Before he died … Jeff recruited the core of what
          would be a whole new staff. The first of these cats gets
          out [of the Army] next month.

          VIETNAM GI                                                      January 29, 1970

                   The new editor is Maury Knutson and he was one
          of the cats who started Little Giant (first underground paper
          in Vietnam) and later RAP!, the GI paper at Fort Benning [GE].

The much heralded Maury Knutson did indeed arrive in Chicago to take over where Jeff left off. In Vietnam, in addition to working on the first GI paper in the war zone, Maury had been part of Jeff’s extensive network of below the radar GI distributors of VGI in-country.

However, he got caught in the act and as punishment was ordered to ‘walk point’ (i.e., to lead), the most dangerous place on a combat patrol. The idea was to get him killed or wounded. Maury survived unscathed, but the experience left him in some disarray.

After finishing his 12-month tour, Maury was sent back to his home unit at Fort Benning to complete his military obligation. While there he continued his antiwar work, launching the underground paper RAP!, especially addressed to issues of concern to Black GIs.

Maury also played a minor role in a feature film on the war – ironically a pro-war movie – while waiting for his release at Benning. Gung-ho actor John Wayne was making his film, The Green Berets, on post, and the Pentagon ‘loaned’ him a number of troops to play extras. Maury ended up playing a diminutive Viet Cong officer (he was 5’5”) in a scene opposite The Duke, the iconic rightwing Hollywood star.

Maury Knutson (r) pictured in VGI, April ‘68

In Chicago during the spring of ’70 the much anticipated revival of Vietnam GI under Maury’s aegis did not go smoothly. The re-launch was beset with difficulties. Liberal antiwar money was drying up as US involvement in the war continued to wind down. In addition, many hands were needed to get the paper out, but the local VGI staff, who had experience in production and distribution, had redirected their energies to Wildcat, Dave Komatsu’s new paper.

The final straw for Maury though was the arrival on the VGI staff of a group out of the auto factories in Detroit who identified with Lutte Ouvrière  (Workers’ Struggle), a tiny Trotskyist party originating in France. The newcomers, according to Maury, were “old-time sectarian leftists who wouldn’t give an inch”; hence, there was no coherent viewpoint in VGI.***

Nonetheless, Maury hung in there and brought to press his first and, as it turned out, only issue. The VGI May ’70 issue with its blurred focus reflected Maury’s concerns. Aside from several pieces obviously drawn from his own experiences at Benning as well as his tenure as editor of RAP! and an interview with a combat Marine buried in the back pages, the rest of the May issue drifts away from VGI’s formerly exclusive emphasis on GI issues.

The front page leader is appropriately on President Nixon’s surprise invasion of Cambodia in late April, but it spins off into a broad political critique of the president, who is also blamed – instead of the governor of Ohio – for sending state National Guard troops onto the Kent State campus.

The second lead at least has a GI angle – Operation Graphic Hand dispatched military personnel to New York City to man 17 post offices during the largest wildcat strike in US history – but soon the piece wanders off into a discussion of federal labor relations and collective bargaining issues specific to postal workers.

However, even more discursively for a front line GI paper, the rest of the issue is devoted to pieces on the Woodstock pop festival and on working conditions for women. Editorially frustrated and preoccupied with personal problems, Maury Knutson resigned in despair and departed Chicago.

Although Maury left town, he didn’t leave VGI in the lurch. He turned over the editorship to his sidekick from Ft Benning, David Patterson, who had worked with him on RAP! Patterson, who chose to operate under the nom de plume Joe Harris, was in turn assisted by two ex-Vietnam veterans – Craig Walden, a Marine; and John Alden, a sailor.

In fund-raising circles from afar, the revival of Vietnam GI – albeit a rocky process internally – was greeted with enthusiasm:

RESIST                                                                            April 1, 1970

Dear Joe,

          We are all very cheered that Vietnam GI is again
a reality.

Another left fund-raising outfit – this one dedicated exclusively to funding GI antiwar initiatives – quickly came to the rescue of the newly revived
VGI with a check for $400 to cover the cost of mailing the paper hither and yon.

Like RESIST, the United States Servicemen’s Fund (USSF) sported a distinguished board of directors designed to attract money from wealthy individuals opposed to the war on its masthead. Based in New York, USSF listed Fred Gardner, creator of the GI antiwar coffee house network, as president, but he later told me that his leadership of the endeavor was nominal. He had merely lent his name with the understanding that Robert Zevin, listed as Secretary/Treasurer, would run the show.

Zevin, a PhD economist then teaching at Columbia University, was a masterful fundraiser and manager of money. The two officers of USSF were joined on the board by Donald Duncan, the famous Green Beret, a soldier’s soldier who resigned from the Army early on in protest of the war; and Dr Howard Levy, the officer who served time in federal prison for refusing to train Special Forces medics bound for Vietnam.

A former naval officer, Susan Schnall, who had had the temerity to fly a small private plane over West Coast Navy facilities, including an aircraft carrier in port, and ‘bomb’ them with antiwar leaflets, was recruited for the USSF board. Reverend Richard Fernandez, the executive director of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), an influential antiwar group, was also brought on board. The list was rounded out with an array of nationally known public intellectuals, including Dr Benjamin Spock, the distinguished antiwar baby doctor.

Unaware of the shifting political complexion of Vietnam GI since Jeff’s time, Bob Zevin of USSF sent Joe Harris a warm welcome for the revived paper:

          United States Servicemen’s Fund                      April 6, 1970

                   I agree … that Vietnam GI used to fill a need which is
          still not being met by any other base or national GI paper.

                   The unique asset of Vietnam GI was always that it told
          the truth in the language of its readers. … GI editors [now]
          seem almost universally susceptible to the temptation to
          preach at their readers and to edit the news to fit a political

                   It was precisely because Vietnam GI told the truth that
          it was such an invaluable organizing tool.

          Taking charge of VGI, Joe Harris attended to its running correspondence with other antiwar editors, with groups seeking multiple copies for local distribution, and most importantly, with the steady flow of ‘letters to the editor’ from individual GIs.

In one such letter, a Vietnam GI offered to distribute copies of VGI within his unit. In ’68 and ’69 Jeff had had a phantom network of some 200 GI volunteers surreptitiously circulating the paper – considered subversive material by the military authorities – to Vietnam GIs. However, with guys completing their tours and rotating stateside and because of the long hiatus between the September ’69 issue and the May ’70 revival, the sub rosa distribution setup in Vietnam probably no longer existed, so Joe Harris embraced the opportunity to rebuild as he wrote in reply:

                   As to your wanting to distribute papers we can help
                 you. Our papers are sent in a plain envelope and wrapped
                 inside in white paper with a phony [return] address on the
                 outside [to avoid detection by military authorities].

The June ’70 VGI was Joe Harris’s first issue as editor and reflected his tighter editorial control over content. Compared to the May issue, nearly all the articles were GI-relevant. By then, with GI protest rising in the ranks, several pieces were on GI antiwar activity.

The lead was a story on the Big Red One, the 1st Division. Other articles covered a large antiwar demonstration at Ft Dix NJ on Armed Forces Day, an account of a wounded Marine’s sad fate in a poorly run Veterans Administration hospital, and a first-person piece by an ex-Vietnam GI who became an antiwar activist on return to the States.

The most dramatic item was a longish letter to the editor from a GI based at Chu Lai describing a Viet Cong assault on the post.  In the course of an hour nearly 200 rockets and mortar rounds pummeled the area to lethal effect – 11 dead, 10 wounded. It a grim reminder to readers that, while the US may have been gradually pulling out, Vietnam still remained a dangerous place for American troops.

However, the June issue still contained a few instances of windy political rhetoric – a political analysis of CIA machinations in Cambodia’s capital and a broadside editorial on American ‘imperialism’ in the Third World that concluded with a message reminiscent of the British Empire in the 19th century:

                   Throughout the world, US troops are protecting American
                   business and political investment. The government and
                   big business come in with the money and gain a new colony,
                   and the troops are brought in to ensure that the colonists
                   don’t get restless [emphasis in original].

The first indications of impending problems for the editorial collective appear in the June ’70 correspondence file. Joe Harris writes to USSF that VGI has lost the use of its typesetting machine, which means that all typesetting will have to be done commercially at increased cost. In another letter concerning the delay of the July VGI, he explains that in the midst of final production he learned that his sister had fallen seriously ill and had to fly back east immediately.

As a result of the rushed catch-up on the July issue, it was only half the length of previous issues at just four pages. Nevertheless, in the tradition of VGI on Jeff’s watch, the leader was a front-page combat interview, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Laos.”

The long piece, which takes up nearly half the issue, describes in dramatic terms Marine Force Recon infiltrating small teams of commandos into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam as early as 1965. Although the interviewee was unnamed, it was Craig Walden who had returned from the war grievously wounded and in the summer of ’70 was an associate editor of the paper.****

Cpl. Craig Walden in Vietnam

In July a bombshell letter arrived at the VGI office. In retrospect it foreshadowed the end of Jeff’s project. It was a long missive from USSF sent to all the GI groups being supported by the fund. The threat to VGI’s future was self-evident:

          United States Servicemen’s Fund                      July 1970

          Dear Friends,

                   The United States Servicemen’s Fund received a
          letter from the Manhattan District Director of the Internal
          Revenue Service [IRS] stating that ‘this office will
          recommend to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue that
          the exemption from federal income taxes granted to you
          … be revoked since inception’.

                   The stated reasons are that the USSF is a political
          action organization whose primary purposes are ‘ending
          the war in Vietnam and abolishing the draft’.

                   The IRS maintains that the Fund has supported ‘that
          segment of the military establishment who are opposed to
          the Vietnam War and the use of conscription to wage
          that war’.

In spite of the foreboding news, both RESIST and USSF managed to
send small checks to Vietnam GI during July to help fund production costs for the August issue. But then in early August ’70 the situation darkened considerably.
News of the IRS recommendation had gotten around, and with the likely loss of the fund’s tax-free status, donations had begun to dry up.

As a consequence, USSF was forced to send out another ‘Dear Friends’ letter:

          United States Servicemen’s Fund                       August 4, 1970

                   We cannot send out your monthly checks for August
          right away. There just isn’t any money. It seems the [donation]
          drought is beginning even sooner than we thought.

The end was not far off. Funds from donors slowed to a trickle as USSF predictably lost it tax-exempt status, and without a funding source Vietnam GI met its final demise as a voice of GI protest. David Patterson, aka Joe Harris, got out one last abbreviated issue for August before resigning and flew home to be with his dying sister.

As Maury Knutson mused many years later, perhaps “Vietnam GI [had] died with Jeff’s passing [in ‘69]” which meant the revival efforts of 1970 were essentially denouement.*****
*See his Wiki for a brief account of Jeff’s life and posthumous recognition:

** Many thanks to Craig Walden of Chicago, who for nearly 40 years, saved the invaluable Vietnam GI office files until I finally located him as part of the memoir project on my brother Jeff.

*** Maury Knutson, via email October, 2010

***** Maury Knutson, via email October, 2010