Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Bernella Satterfield, fiddler on the left
Bernella & David Satterfield, San Francisco Bay Area, 1962
Bernella and David Satterfield hailed from very different places, but music was their bond. A ‘red diaper’ kid, Bernella came from a family of socialists and anarchists – even an aunt in the Communist Party. Bernella went off to UC-Berkeley.
David, an all-American boy, grew up in tiny Stoney Lonesome, deep in southern Indiana. He headed to Dartmouth in staid New England where he captained football and studied literature. The two connected in Greenwich Village as folk music, their mutual love, was coming of age at now iconic music venues. They hung out with young Bob Dylan and other folkies of the day.
Arriving at deeply conservative, politically quiet Indiana University (IU) in the early ‘60s, the Satterfields helped found a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter. They continued making music, David the guitarist, Bernella on the fiddle – folk, blues, bluegrass, country.
The war in Vietnam was escalating, and their living room just off campus became the hangout for Marxist rap sessions as well as planning for emerging antiwar protest at IU. Bernella later wrote of their fellow SDS co-founders:
Most of us were 'outsider' types – we were
beatniks, grad students, often older than
the typical IU undergrad, and some of us
were from different parts of the country or
the world. We were the weirdos, the
bohemian fringe, the vanguard.
My brother Jeff Sharlet, an ex-Vietnam GI, was part of the group. Bernella described him as less a Marxist, more a strategic realist and tactical pragmatist – he well understood Bloomington was not St Petersburg on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
Later however, when Weatherman seized control of national SDS and turned to violence, Bernella, saying she “didn’t sign up for this,” took off for the coast where she resumed music full time. For the next two decades she toured the country and beyond with various bands, making music and writing songs.
Moving later to Tennessee, Bernella, now Nell Levin, again took up political activism, becoming a prominent statewide activist. Ever the musician though, her new Shelby Bottom String Band recently issued its first CD, East Nashville Rag.
Ed Smith III, soldier-poet-minister-salesman
Ed Smith reciting his poetry, 2003
Born to missionary parents in war-torn China by the light of a lantern under Japanese bombing, Ed Smith was raised in America. Twenty years later, he returned to the Orient, a Vietnamese linguist (lingy in army-speak) in a semi-secret outfit. Ed was the first of Jeff’s friends I encountered for this memoir.
Ed and Jeff met at military language school and then shipped out to the Philippines (PI) where they awaited the call to war just across the South China Sea. Both had dropped out of university – Ed had gone to Harvard – so for them life in the tropics was akin to an extended college break with weekend sojourns to the capital a train ride away, a high mountain retreat above the heat of the plains, or beautiful white sandy beaches beneath swaying coconut trees.
In late summer ’63 on very short notice, Jeff, Ed, and several fellow lingys received orders to pack their gear and report to the flight line for assignment to Saigon. A coup was brewing with the White House’s covert blessing. Still, Washington wanted to make sure it knew the generals’ moves.
The lingys were brought in to tap the conspirators’ phones in a top secret operation. Two months later, after the coup took place, the lingys were reassigned, Jeff up to Phu Bai near the DMZ. Later, back in civilian life, Ed and Jeff kept in touch for a while before losing contact.
Forty years on, unaware that Jeff was long gone (d. ’69), Ed searched the Internet for his old pal. Instead, he found me. I was glad to hear from him – I knew few of my brother’s friends, least of all the GIs he served with.
Returning stateside, Ed had studied Oriental languages; become a published poet; and then, following in his father’s footsteps, took up the ministry for some years. When I met him, he had moved on to the corporate world – as an agent for a large insurance company.
When we talked, I sensed Ed was restless – he was trying to regain his poetic voice as he waxed nostalgic for his adventurous youth. A few months later when I dropped him a line with further queries about Vietnam, there was no reply. Nor did he answer his phone. Finally I rang Ed’s office, but learned only that he was no longer with the company, had left no forwarding address.
Years later, my research assistant, Karen Ferb, finally resolved the mystery. Less than three months after Ed had first contacted me, he had taken ill with the flu and died suddenly of a rare complication the day after Christmas, 2003.
Fred Halstead, presidential candidate
Halstead for President, '68 election, official portrait & campaign button
An immense man at 6’6”, 350 lbs, one couldn’t miss Fred Halstead on the campaign trail. As presidential candidate for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the ’68 election – a quixotic pursuit for a Trotskyist – he traveled the country and even took his campaign abroad.
Fred had cut his teeth politically in the southern Civil Rights movement during the ‘50s. A garment-cutter by trade, he became a lifelong member of SWP. As able writer and effective public speaker, Fred was one of SWP’s most skilled political operatives. His greatest impact was in the Vietnam antiwar movement.
The parties of the left routinely ran candidates for public office. Harboring no illusions of winning public office, the left regarded elections as a chance to reach a wider audience with their political message.
In ’68, Halstead ran for the presidency on the SWP line. Since the Vietnam War was an issue between the two major candidates, he used his campaign to project the party’s opposition to the war.
Halstead’s campaign took him to Japan to speak at an international peace conference. There he met Jeff who, as a GI antiwar leader, had also been brought in as a speaker. Acknowledging that the two of them didn’t share the same ideological outlook, Halstead was nevertheless impressed with Jeff and his role in the GI antiwar movement. Writing about GI opposition to the war, he said of Jeff:
An important development was the growth
of antiwar GI newspapers. The first of
these were published by civilians and
aimed at GIs. The most influential in the
early period was Vietnam GI, published
in Chicago by Vietnam veteran Jeff
Sharlet, who managed to accumulate a
mailing list of thousands of GIs in
Joe Carey, combat photographer
Sp4 Joe Carey, near Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1967
On patrol with the Wolfhounds, an infantry outfit out of Cu Chi, Joe Carey was handed a shocking film – a grinning GI holding two Viet Cong (VC) heads near their decapitated bodies, he and his buddies posing like great white hunters. As a combat photographer, he had witnessed and photographed many rough scenes, but nothing like this.
Joe’s job was to get publicity shots of the Wolfhounds in action for the 25th Division magazine back at base as well as for distribution to other military and civilian publications. Knowing that his edgier shots would never pass muster for publication, Joe filed them away in his personal portfolio on the war.
Some combat GIs carried small cameras in their backpacks and one of them had photographed the grisly scene – the beheaded enemy bodies. Seeing Joe arrive with cameras slung around his neck, the GI wordlessly slipped him the roll of film.
Joe and Jeff had been acquainted at Indiana University. After graduating, Jeff had moved to Chicago where he launched Vietnam GI (VGI), his antiwar paper. Finishing his Nam tour, Joe also found himself in Chicago, heard what Jeff was doing, and passed along the headless photo.
It was the first atrocity photo to surface; Jeff ran it in VGI, and it was picked up and reprinted elsewhere in the country and abroad, causing the Pentagon considerable embarrassment.
Joe had brought his own revealing photos home as well – the ones too hot for publication in the 25th Division’s Tropic Lightning News. He shared them with Jeff, who printed several in subsequent issues of VGI.
In spring ’68 the French Left contacted the American antiwar movement requesting an antiwar ex-GI be sent over to speak at a rally; Jeff was tapped. But too busy getting his paper out, he sent Joe Carey to Paris along with blow-ups of his photos showing what the war really looked like. Narrating the shots for his French audience, Joe was a big hit and much in demand by other Parisian anti-Vietnam War groups.
Long after Jeff was gone, Joe became a noted American chef. As Chef Joseph, he ran an acclaimed culinary school and wrote two cookbooks. He is now a novelist. As for the postwar fate of that shocking headless photo Jeff ran in VGI? – it hangs today in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.
Lynn Wilson, keeper of a ‘safe house’
Lynn Wilson on a walk near Seattle, 2010
Chicago in the late ‘60s was a city of tumult where the Red Squad roamed – undercover cops tailing and harassing activists of all persuasions. UC-Berkeley may have been the cynosure of campus antiwar activism, but Chicago was the big stage, an epicenter of protest in all its colors and hues.
Jeff set up shop in Chicago and began publishing Vietnam GI. The choice of locale was fortuitous since he needed not only editorial help, but myriad other hands to get the paper out. When the print run of many thousands of copies of the monthly issue was ready to stuff and mail, local lefties came forward with willing hands.
Not everyone made the mailing parties though. Lynn Wilson and her ex- helped Jeff in another way. They lived in a comfortable apartment not far from his place. VGI didn’t have an office as such – it would have been too easy a target for the Red Squad and their minions. Instead, the paper’s editorial operations moved like a floating crap game around Chicago’s Near North Side where Jeff shared a pad with two of his editors.
Fund raising to support VGI and putting the paper out kept Jeff under relentless pressure. To give him an occasional breather, Lynn and her ex- offered their place as a kind of ‘safe house’. When she first mentioned the phrase, I was thinking hideout, but Lynn meant a retreat, a place of temporary respite from the fever zone of antiwar activism. Jeff had an open invitation.
He would walk to Lynn’s place “after dark, having followed a circuitous route” to ensure he wasn’t followed. He was off-duty, no one knew where he was. Lynn set a nice table, and Jeff often arrived for dinner. Other times, he’d come later, and the three of them would just hang out, play music, and drink wine.
Jeff talked about Vietnam – not his secret work of course, just the social scene – Saigon’s fine restaurants, his fondness for the Vietnamese, and how he liked their food. Lynn remembered he loved to laugh, his wonderful smile.
A year later, Jeff lay dying of an illness that first hit him in the bush in Vietnam. To spend a weekend with him, Lynn, her ex-, and Jeff’s roommate Bill O’Brien, drove her VW Bug day and night straight through to Miami. Just as before, the good friends hung out, drank wine, and listened to music. Jeff was still optimistic, but he didn’t make it.
Gordon Livingston, ‘an embarrassment to command’
Major Gordon Livingston, Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, 1968
In the ‘50s, Gordon Livingston and my kid brother were schoolmates at a private military school. Jeff was just a freshman in one of the line companies when Gordon Livingston, a senior, was an officer of the cadet battalion.
Gordon and Jeff later ended up in Vietnam, and both returned to the States disillusioned about the war. Each of them took on the military – Jeff as an ex-GI, Gordon as a senior officer in a combat unit. Jeff now has a posthumous niche in the history of the antiwar movement, but Gordon – today a noted psychiatrist and author – is undeservedly a nearly forgotten footnote in the literature.
Gordon was no ordinary soldier; he had gone off to West Point and was destined for a brilliant military career. Qualifying as an Airborne Ranger, he commanded an 82nd Airborne unit, was certified as a pilot, and, not least, Gordon was Regimental Surgeon in a crack outfit in Vietnam. As a soldier-physician, he even earned a combat medal for valor.
However, as an officer endowed with high moral conscience, he became increasingly disturbed with what he was witnessing in the 11th Armored Cavalry (‘Blackhorse’), and grew progressively disenchanted with the US mission in Vietnam. Knowing that he was running afoul of command, he carried out an audacious protest before the entire in-country military establishment.
The occasion was Easter Sunday ’69, the change of command ceremony for Colonel George S Patton III on completing his successful tour as CO of the 11th ACR. The audience included the commander of all US forces in Vietnam and 20 generals.
In what an angry fellow officer referred to as a blasphemous rendering of the Bible, Major Livingston wrote a highly irreverent ‘Blackhorse Prayer’, surreptitiously mimeographed it, and handed out copies to the assembled officers.
In swift reaction, a court-martial was contemplated, but the idea was shelved as much too awkward – after all, the miscreant was a West Pointer as well as a physician. Instead, the Regimental Surgeon was deemed ‘an embarrassment to command’, shipped home, and allowed to resign his commission.
Gordon Livingston went on to a brilliant career of a different kind – in medicine and letters – but his ‘prayer’, a wicked satire on a terrible war should not be forgotten:
God, our heavenly Father, hear our prayer.
We acknowledge our shortcomings and
ask thy help in being better soldiers for
thee. Grant us, O Lord, those things we
need to do our work more effectively.
Give us this day a gun that will fire 10,000
rounds a second, a napalm that will burn
for a week. Help us to bring death and
destruction wherever we go, for we do it in
thy name and therefore it is meet and just.
We thank thee for this war, mindful that,
while it is not best of all wars, it is better
than no war at all. ...In all things, O God,
assist us, for we do our noble work in the
knowledge that only with thy help can we
avoid the catastrophe of peace, which
threatens us ever. All of which we ask in
the name of thy son, George Patton. Amen.
Elvis Stahr, the man whose luck ran out
Dean Rusk being heckled, Elvis Stahr glowering, Indiana University, 1967
Buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors, from childhood on Elvis Stahr had been a winner in life. A prodigy, he went to university at age 16, attained the highest average in the school’s history, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, was decorated for valor in WWII, served as Secretary of the Army, and methodically climbed the ladder of academic leadership – until he slipped.
With his impressive winning streak, Elvis probably thought why not reach for the pinnacle of academe – in due time, perhaps an Ivy League presidency. His relentless ascent took him to top positions at several universities until he made it to the presidency of a major research institution, Indiana University (IU) – and that’s where his luck finally ran out.
Elvis Stahr arrived at IU just as the war in Vietnam was heating up and the first shouts of student protest could be heard on that politically dormant campus. In his opening address, he said all the right things and initially handled dissent calmly and with forbearance.
But with each new campus protest, President Stahr, a classic liberal, grew more uncomfortable with radical activism. Complicating the situation, his Washington connections enabled him to attract major national figures to IU – all of them pro-war.
It was a march of the titans – Richard Nixon; General Maxwell Taylor; General Hershey of the draft (who, in terms of student reaction, was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back); and Secretary of State Rusk, the ultimate bête noire of the antiwar protestors.
By the time Nixon, Taylor, and Hershey had come and been met with noisy but peaceful, albeit small demonstrations, Elvis had lost patience with the student minority who were roiling the campus waters, disturbing his presidency. In the fall of ’66 in a talk to incoming freshmen, the president criticized an upcoming New Left demonstration, invoking the bogey of a threat to ‘basic freedoms’ at IU.
Several months later in his annual address to the faculty, Elvis let loose a harsh broadside against the campus New Left. Using intemperate language normally not heard at a university, least of all from its president, Stahr bluntly questioned the motives of the New Left at IU, peppering his remarks with such inflammatory terms as ‘dogma’, ‘deceit’, ‘propaganda’, ‘conspiracy’, and ‘puppets’.
Jeff had just assumed the leadership of the IU SDS, and he and fellow activists were not about to let Stahr’s remarks go unanswered. Initially, Jeff addressed a polite open letter to the president, asking him to either substantiate his allegations or retract them.
Although Jeff quoted back to him the offensive remarks, Stahr declined to retract. Speaking as SDS president, Jeff responded with a counter-address, ‘The Role of the New Left on Campus’, a reasoned defense of the rise of student protest at universities across the nation. Published verbatim in IU’s alternative paper and issued as a small booklet, Jeff’s well-crafted rebuttal of Stahr’s “enemies of freedom” diatribe gained wide attention on and off campus.
Elvis Stahr staggered on at for another year at IU before throwing in the towel. After a relatively short tenure, he claimed he was ‘retiring’, citing “presidential fatigue”, but from his bitter exit interview, it was clear he had fled the university in some disarray. Stahr’s race to the top had come to an end in a setback at IU, his long winning streak broken.
Nonetheless, quick on his feet, Elvis Stahr landed at the Audubon Society where he enjoyed a successful tenure, but it wasn’t the same. He’d been shunted off the main line of academe to a quiet siding more suited to his comfort zone.