Wednesday, August 5, 2015

“A Typical Child of the Middle Class”

When my younger brother Jeff died the summer of ‘69 at the ungodly young age of 27, I vowed to write a memoir of his short but interesting life. He had been a Vietnam GI well before the war became front page news. He came home and helped create the GI antiwar movement. What occurred in the interim was a compelling story. 

Though there were seven years between us and I was away for much of his growing up, I thought I knew Jeff pretty well. What I didn’t know about him I figured I could fill in from the small archive of letters and documents he left behind.


Jeff age 10, summer camp, Adirondack Mts, 1952

It seems I was under an illusion – it turned out I really didn’t know my kid brother that well. He had grown up, experienced things I had no idea of, and generally, unbeknownst to me, had carved out an important niche in the history of his time – the ‘60s. But much of that I learned only decades later.

However, before tackling a memoir my first order of brotherly duty was to try to get Jeff his ’15 minutes’ of fame – an obit in the New York Times. Returning from the funeral, I shut myself in my study for several days going through his papers to piece together an outline of the final decade of his life.

I had hoped an extended resume would serve as notes for an obituary. I knew getting him a Times obit was a long shot, but I intended giving it a helluva try. I didn’t know anyone at the paper except, by reputation, a senior writer and editor. I was then a young academic – a specialist on the Soviet Union – and Harrison Salisbury of the Times was a well-known author who’d been on the Moscow beat.

There was little chance he had heard of me – I hadn’t yet published that much – but invoking our common interest, I sent him my notes on Jeff, hoping he might use his good offices to recommend an obit, even a short one. Alas, I heard nothing from the Times until more than a week later when a short note from Mr Salisbury arrived.

He had found Jeff’s brief life interesting and worthy of special notice and had passed the material on to the Times’ obituary editor, but unfortunately it was too late. The paper then had a rule – no obits older than three days, and in my grief I had taken nearly a week to assemble Jeff’s timeline.

It’s not that Jeff’s death was unnoted – there were several obits in his hometown papers in upstate New York and many death notices in the underground antiwar press throughout the country, but he would not make it into the Times, so I filed away the notes for another day.

Many years later I finally began researching a memoir on my brother, a project of discovery both exhilarating and humbling. Learning about Jeff took me back to that sad week following his death, June ‘69. I dug out the notes I had originally written for the Times nearly a half century ago.

Rereading them, I was surprised at how much about Jeff I had been able to glean from his papers, but I was also taken aback at the important pieces of his life I’d been then unaware of. In ‘searching’ for Jeff over the past several years, my research assistant Karen Grote Ferb – herself a close friend of Jeff’s long ago – and I drew on the memories of his countless contemporaries in both war and antiwar, and have since filled in most of the gaps.

That left me wondering about how much a memoir begun in the summer of ’69 would have missed of Jeff’s journey. Before the age of the Internet, I could not have located the majority of our interlocutors. Cast your mind back to that era of typewriters, snail mail, expensive long distance phone calls, and city phone books as sources.

By the time of his death, Jeff’s GI buddies had returned stateside and scattered to the four corners of the country while many of his college SDS co-activists had graduated and gone hither and yon in pursuit of careers. And at that time in the late ‘60s, Jeff’s comrades in the GI antiwar movement – mostly people on the left – were still in the thick of battle, often living semi-underground, and occasionally operating under pseudonyms to escape FBI surveillance.

For the New York Times back in ’69, I had introduced Jeff as “a typical child of the middle class” and briefly summarized his Vietnam experience:


          He learned Vietnamese at the Army Language School
          in Monterey, California and later worked as an interpreter
          and translator in Saigon and in Phu Bai, an outpost north
          of Hue. [President] Diem was overthrown at the time Jeff was             
          working in Saigon, and he had left the country just a few months
          before the Gulf of Tonkin incident [in ‘64].


Indeed, Jeff was trained as a Vietnamese linguist, and he had finished his Vietnam tour not long before Tonkin – a major turning point in the slow burning war – but as Karen and I subsequently found out, dramatic things happened between those two moments of his life.

I had missed the fact that Jeff had spent his first eight months overseas at a secret facility in the Philippines translating North Vietnamese military intercepts – until late one evening when he and several fellow linguists were ordered to ship out to Vietnam on short notice.

  
The 'Elephant Cage', giant antenna array at the secret facility where Jeff worked  in the Philippines, 1963

President Kennedy had given a covert ‘green light’ to a group of South Vietnamese generals plotting the overthrow of the inept and ineffective Diem, President of South Vietnam, and his brother Nhu, the much despised commander of private armies and secret police.

Jeff and the team were hurriedly flown to Saigon to take part in a US undercover operation in support of the coup. Billeted near the Saigon airport, they performed their highly classified, politically sensitive duties in a remote, off limits corner of a US base near the village of Phu Lam.
         
In fact, I was wrong in the resume; Jeff was not in Saigon when the coup went off. Their assignment completed, he and his detachment had gone back to the Philippines two weeks earlier. However, less than two months later as another coup against the new president was in the offing, Jeff and the linguists were rushed back to Saigon.
         
Since the second coup went off quickly and bloodlessly, Jeff was reassigned to Phu Bai, a small US listening post just below the North Vietnamese border. There he and others maintained radio contact with South Vietnamese commandos being infiltrated into the north. Both of Jeff’s clandestine missions – in Phu Lam and at Phu Bai – remained highly classified, and he had never spoken or written about them.
         
I was also in the dark in ’69 when I wrote Harrison Salisbury at the Times that Jeff came back from Vietnam, finished college, and won a coveted Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship, which he took to the University of Chicago for graduate school. I hadn’t known that upon withdrawing from grad school to launch his soon-to-be famous GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, Jeff had financed it with his fellowship funds – for a prospective academic, a step unheard of then or now.
         
Elsewhere in the resume under the heading, Other radical activities, I  simply listed that Jeff “Attended a conference of Japanese peace groups against the Vietnam War in Kyoto, Japan, August, 1968,” an event that turned out to have a rather dramatic back story.
         
Dave Dellinger, chairman of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the MOBE), thus, the titular head of the US antiwar movement, had asked Jeff to join a delegation of leading American antiwar activists headed for Budapest to meet with representatives of the National Liberation Front, the underground political arm of the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam.
         
Jeff reluctantly had to decline; he had worked under the aegis of the National Security Agency in Vietnam and was still subject to restrictions on travel behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, Dellinger sent him to Japan under the guise of serving as a speaker at an international peace conference, but actually for a very different and delicate purpose.
         
The Japanese peace movement, Beheiren, encouraged US military personnel to desert the Vietnam War and was secretly hiding some 20 deserters. However, the young GIs had become restless and ill-disciplined and hard for the peace activists to cope with.

Beheiren requested the American movement to send someone knowledgeable about GI protest to counsel them on what to do. Jeff, as an ex-GI and authoritative leader of the GI movement, was the ideal candidate.
         
Suffice it to say, in my initial attempt to reconstruct Jeff’s life there were other gaps and missing parts that Karen and I eventually closed and filled in,  including perhaps the two greatest omissions.
         
I had failed to convey any sense of Jeff as a person. As my younger sibling by many years, I assumed that an older brother’s perceptions would not have been of interest to the historical record I was trying for at the Times.
         
In the ultimate illusion, as I was to repeatedly discover with each new interview of Jeff’s contemporaries, I really didn’t know the brother who had gone off to war and returned to achieve his destiny as an antiwar leader. When I asked a half a dozen of his closest friends for a single word to describe Jeff, each without hesitation independently replied with ‘charisma’.
         
I was astonished. That was an aspect of Jeff that hadn’t been apparent to me or our parents when we occasionally got together in his last years. A very nice guy, well-spoken, and mature, but I had never thought of my kid brother as a charismatic leader. I was of course pleased to learn this of him.



Jeff back at Indiana University, 1965

Jeff had other personal qualities that I had also missed. In Karen’s words, “his sense of humor and joie de vivre on the one hand and his dark side on the other; his drive, his passion, his vision, his charisma, his foibles.”
         
Finally, the biggest surprise of all has been that Jeff had come back from Vietnam a troubled soul with a secret about his involvement that he could never bring himself to speak of, and eventually carried to the grave.

No, he didn’t kill anyone – neither enemy combatant nor innocent civilian; he was in an intelligence agency, not a combat unit – but once in an anguished voice he had said to Karen, “If you knew what I did in Vietnam, you’d hate me.” That was as much as he would say despite her repeated denials and assurances.

Karen and I queried his numerous friends, asking if Jeff had ever spoken of his troubling secret, but to no avail. Admittedly memories grow dim after so many years, but that was the kind of thing someone wasn’t likely to have forgotten. The best we’ve been able to come up has been an unverifiable ‘maybe’ and a couple of hypotheticals.
         
One person thought she remembered Jeff relating a painful memory of an interrogation, but we found no one else who had ever heard even a hint about it.  In a hypothetical guess, a fellow ex-GI linguist who had served with an airborne unit involved in unintended collateral damage (civilian deaths), believed Jeff may have done the same thing with the Marines on long range patrols, but we’ve been unable to unearth any firm evidence.
         
A more recent speculation has been that Jeff may have been dispatched from Phu Bai to nearby Hue a few times to sit in on harsh South Vietnamese Army interrogations of Viet Cong prisoners to pick up any information of interest to his unit. Witnessing such brutal interrogations would not have been something easily forgotten, but as I shall say in the memoir, it seems we’ll never know.
         
Jeff never got his 15 minutes in the Times, but his niche in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement is now secure with both a book and an award-winning documentary dedicated to him, a page in a mainstream American history text about his editorship of Vietnam GI, and a literary prize established in his name among other recognitions and honors.



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