Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Max Watts – James Bond of the left
Max Watts in the Negev, Israel '52
A high government official described Max, on the eve of his expulsion from France, as part Lenin, part James Bond. Max Watts was his political pseudonym – his real name was Tomi Schwaetzer.
Born in Vienna during the interwar period, Max and family fled Austria one step ahead of the Holocaust. They took refuge in Paris, but as war closed in, Max and his father went to London while his mother and sister made it to Lisbon and a ship bound for America.
But Max’s father, failing to find work, committed suicide in England, so as a boy of 10 he was stranded for several years as the war raged on the Continent and in the Pacific. As a youngster on his own, he became politically involved on the left, his lifetime commitment.
Eventually making it to New York to join his mother, Max earned a BA at New York University where he joined the Young Communist League, moving later to the American Communist Party. Eventually Max would eschew parties and the dogmatics of ideology and adopt a kind of ecumenical spirit toward the diverse factions of the left writ large.
Against war, he left the US to avoid the Korean War draft and lived for a time in Israel. From Israel Max went to Paris where he studied for a PhD in Geophysics and participated on the left, namely for the Algerians in their war of liberation against the French. In the early ‘60s his work as a geophysicist took him to revolutionary Cuba where he met the Castro brothers.
Returning to France as American involvement in Vietnam heated up, Max became a founding member of ‘Resistance inside the Army’ or RITA, a group that helped and hid American deserters sought by the French police and the US Army. Among other notables, he worked with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave on behalf of the beleaguered GIs.
His work with his partner June van Ingen was so effective that the government determined his presence in France was not in the country’s best interests. Max was to be deported, but his homeland, Austria, refused to take him, so the French police banished him to the island of Corsica.
However, resourceful Max met Danish activists making a port call who sailed him back to mainland France. Slipping into Paris, now a fugitive himself, he nonetheless continued his antiwar work, including helping to publish Act, RITA’s newsletter.
Eventually caught again, Max was deported to West Germany, settling in Heidelberg, headquarters of US forces in Europe. There he continued his opposition to the Vietnam War. Now working as a journalist in several languages, Max collaborated with a GI whistleblower to score a media coup against US military surveillance of anyone in Germany thought to oppose the war.
In the early ‘80s Max was on the move again, this time to Australia, where he spent the rest of his life working as a local activist and international left freelance journalist. He took up many progressive causes. A skilled sailor, he once maneuvered his sailboat to block a US nuclear missile cruiser from entering Sydney Harbor.
It was in Australia that I ‘met’ Max by phone and email. Back in Europe of the ‘60s he had known of brother Jeff Sharlet and his underground paper Vietnam GI, and admired him from afar. Although the two of them never met, they moved on parallel tracks in the global struggle against the American war in Vietnam.
Max, an extravagant personality, was prodigiously effective on four continents – his death in 2010 was echoed throughout the world in left circles.
Michaela ‘Miki’ Lang – Long lost, but found
Miki Lang, Sausalito CA '10
By an extraordinary stroke of luck we finally found Miki after a long search. During their senior year at Indiana University (IU), Jeff and Miki had been an item. I was hoping to talk with her about that time. We had photos of the two of them together, but Miki was nowhere to be found on the Internet.
However, my research assistant Karen Grote Ferb, was determinedly persistent and eventually found Miki’s long cold trail by an unusual route. Although we assumed she had probably married and taken her husband’s name, Karen tried a wild card approach of searching under Miki’s surname.
Her search for ‘Lang’ brought up a German web site about paintball, an unusual sport. Featured was an American, Oliver ‘Ollie’ Lang, rated the best player in international competition. To round out the homage to Oliver, there was an interview with his mother, none other than Miki Lang of Sausalito, CA.
Miki had finished up at IU with an MA in ’70 and a few years later joined the Peace Corps. Thus began her long career abroad, later working for C.A.R.E. and the US Agency for International Development. Miki began her service in Sierra Leone, but then worked in Chad, Mali, and Cameroon, as well as India.
After 16 years in Africa and South Asia, she finally returned to the States in ’88.
She remembered Jeff well as one of the first voices at IU to bring back from Vietnam dire warnings about US involvement in the war. Miki had been especially struck by “the intensity with which he talked about Vietnam and how relentlessly he pursued the subject.” Looking back over time, she recognized that opposing the war was Jeff’s singular purpose in life. So true.
Jim Wallihan, California radical
Jim Wallihan addressing Governor Brown, Sacramento CA '64
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM), Jim arrived in Bloomington in the fall of ’65. He had come to Indiana University (IU) for grad school from the University of California (UC). When the mass arrests of student protesters occurred at Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus, Jim, having eluded the sweep, became spokesman for FSM before the governor in Sacramento.
Unbeknownst to Jim, the Davis CA police had sent ahead to the Bloomington authorities an unsolicited warning that a California radical was on his way. Outlandishly a couple of years later, while on trial for a raucous anti-Dow Chemical demo at IU, the local District Attorney asked Jim, “Isn’t it true that you organized the California riots?”
Jim had been a so-called faculty brat at UC-Davis, not far from San Francisco. When his father, a noted agricultural biologist, was invited to spend a year in the Philippines, Jim took a leave of absence and joined his parents. Later he did a summer stint as a smoke jumper fighting fires in the Alaskan wilderness.
Arriving at IU, Jim naturally sought out the small coterie of New Left students who were stirring the pot on that conservative campus. He met Jeff, who had returned from the Vietnam War the previous year. Jeff hung out with the activist group, but had not joined their efforts to launch a chapter of Students for Democratic Society (SDS) at IU.
Jeff was skeptical of the efficacy of student protest against the war. At that point in the antiwar movement, SDS was not well focused or effectively organized. Jim persuaded him to join the new SDS group and lend his authority as an ex-Vietnam GI opposed to the war. Jim and Jeff soon reorganized the chapter and became part of the leadership of campus SDS. Later, under Jeff’s aegis as SDS president, the frequency, focus, and effectiveness of antiwar actions greatly increased.
Jeff moved on to grad school at University of Chicago, but his heart wasn’t in the academic game. After just a semester he withdrew and used his fellowship funds to launch a GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI. Jim joined him several months later, lending a hand on the paper as its circulation grew rapidly.
Together they travelled the country visiting military bases looking for returning combat GIs with stories about what was really going on in Vietnam. During the summer of ’68 Jeff and Jim took off for the West Coast. Chicago was hosting the Democratic Presidential Convention, sure to be a magnet for unrest, and the Chicago police, with help from the Army, was gearing up to block the massive, planned antiwar protest.
Work was underway on the August issue of VGI, and Jeff and Jim felt the better part of valor would be to temporarily move the editorial process out of town. Around that time the two of them sat for a long interview with a major underground paper – their topic: How civilian antiwar protest could benefit from working with the numerous disaffected GIs. The GI antiwar movement was gathering steam.
Jeff died before the war he fought in and against, came to an end, but Jim retained his memories of their joint struggle, which when we met early in the new century he shared with me.
Showdown in Kyoto
Japanese riot police at the ready
Late summer ’68 – Jeff was supposed to go to Prague. A group of US antiwar leaders was to parley with a delegation from the National Liberation Front (NLF), the shadowy political arm of the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. The NLF was particularly interested in emerging GI protest against the war and hoped to meet Jeff.
Jeff was interested, but didn’t want to go. He had worked in intelligence in Vietnam, and was under interdiction not to travel behind the Iron Curtain for five years after finishing his tour in ’64. Penalties for violating the restriction were stiff, and Jeff had more important work editing Vietnam GI than doing time in federal prison.
Just about the same time, Jeff’s deputy editor, Dave Komatsu, was invited to Japan as a representative of the GI antiwar movement. As a Japanese-American Dave felt he was chosen for his language ability, and he wasn’t enthusiastic about going. However, Dave came up with a solution – he would replace Jeff in Europe, and Jeff would head for Japan – to the city of Kyoto.
The Japanese peace organization, the host group, was harboring nearly 20 US deserters from the Vietnam War, but they were proving hard to keep safely hidden from the Japanese authorities and US military police. The peace activists needed counsel from someone of authority on the rising GI antiwar protest.
Jeff was their man, but to cover his real purpose in Japan, they folded him into an international peace gathering in Kyoto. There Jeff did his thing – spoke publicly at the conference by day, and in the evenings privately counseled on the deserter problem.
At the end of the conference, an antiwar march on Kyoto town hall was planned. Jeff had seen such confrontations with the Japanese police on television and wanted no part of it. He said he had business elsewhere, but his hosts wouldn’t hear of it. As an honored guest as well as an ex-Vietnam GI, they insisted Jeff join them – and in the front rank no less.
He could see the massed police in riot gear dead ahead and was filled with trepidation. Arms locked, the protesters set off. A melee ensued, but happily Jeff got through it unhurt. Another day on the Vietnam antiwar front.
Bernard ‘Bernie’ Morris – Mentor to the New Left
Bernie & Betty Morris, summer on Cape Cod, '60s
Bernie was no stranger to bucking the system. As a young man he went to Yale for a graduate degree, but was thought too far to the left and pushed out. America was then on the cusp of WWII so Bernie went to Washington and landed a job in the Justice Department.
At Justice, his office mate and friend was a young woman named Judith Coplon. ‘Judy’ was later convicted as a Soviet spy which subsequently created problems for Bernie when he moved to the State Department. When the anti-communist Red Scare got underway in the late ‘40s, simple ‘guilt by association’ could be a source of trouble.
Bernie survived that, but then at the end of the ‘50s as the USSR and Communist China began to fall out, he offered a novel explanation. As an intelligence analyst, he was among the first to spot the coming split between the two Communist giants. However at State, the prevailing consensus was of a unified Communist Bloc, and Bernie was told to cease advocating a contrary interpretation.
A few years later in the early ‘60s Secretary of State Dean Rusk became a key point man for President Kennedy’s growing involvement in the civil war in Vietnam. At that point, Bernie had had enough of government and left for academe.
He accepted a position as Professor of International Relations at Indiana University (IU), offering courses on Soviet Foreign Policy, International Communism, and the like. Within his courses Bernie basically taught critical thinking on the great issues of the day. No longer subject to Washington rules, he became an outspoken public intellectual.
As Bernie gained a student following, he added a course on Marxism, the first time the subject was offered at IU. Neither an advocate nor a critic, he taught Marxism as a course in political theory.
Many students were drawn to the course and reached their own conclusions. Campus New Left activists were especially attracted to the course, including Robin Hunter, Paulann Groninger, and my brother Jeff Sharlet among others.
As a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) got up and running at the university, Professor Bernie Morris became the group’s unofficial adviser. Though not an activist himself, he did attend SDS’s Friday afternoon rallies and some of their major antiwar demos.
President Nixon’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia transformed antiwar protest at IU and other schools from essentially a minority voice into a huge expression of dissent. More than 8,000 IU students turned out to register their protest and hear speakers condemn Nixon’s policy.
For Bernie, that afternoon was perhaps his finest hour as mentor to the critically minded. Of all the speakers, he received the greatest ovation. Professor Morris scorned Nixon’s plan for terminating the war by widening it as
and morally indefensible.
Ralph Levitt, A life on the left
The Bloomington 3, Ralph Levitt (l), Indiana University '63
When I first met Ralph, he was intent on pursuing an academic career. We were both newly minted graduate students in Russian and East European Studies at Indiana University (IU).
Brother Jeff was also on campus as a freshman. He too crossed paths with Ralph, but ‘politically’, as Ralph took a very different path, eventually spending his life on the left.
The first intimations of protest against the emerging Vietnam War were starting to stir on campus when Ralph joined a nascent Trotskyist group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). YSA’s political writ was broad. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of fall ’62, the group organized a protest march against the American naval blockade of Cuba.
That action, which took great courage, was not well received either on campus or in town as the rally around the flag spirit swept the country. Several months later, the YSA chapter brought a speaker to campus. His remarks were in no way inflammatory, yet the county prosecutor chose to indict Ralph and fellow leaders for inciting the overthrow of the government of the United States, an absurd contention. Clearly it was payback for the earlier provocative pro-Cuba march.
The charges were without merit, but defending against them took up the next three years of the lives of the ‘Bloomington 3’ (B-3), Ralph and his co-defendants. They tirelessly traveled the country, speaking wherever a sympathetic audience could be found – trying to raise public consciousness about their case and raise funds to fight it.
By ’65 the indictment hanging over the B-3 had been withdrawn, but by then Ralph Levitt never looked back to academe. He moved up and became a major activist in the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP), the YSA’s parent organization. As a party heavy he went wherever needed – to a political demo or a labor action. His home base was the San Francisco Bay Area.
Intent on showing solidarity with the proletariat, Ralph became a motorman in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). His organizational talents recognized, he eventually moved up in the ranks.
Upon retirement, Ralph moved back to his home town of Indianapolis where his elderly parents still lived. Highly intelligent and well informed, he continued his involvement in SWP, serving as the party candidate in both statewide and federal elections in Indiana.
With few illusions about winning office, Ralph nevertheless skillfully used the campaign platforms to reach a broader audience with the party line.
A lifetime on the left.
Susie ‘Creamcheese’, Antiwar groupie
The real Suzy Creamcheese '67
I spoke to Susie Creamcheese just once; that was over 40 years ago. I had no idea who she was, and she didn’t identify herself. In a highly agitated voice, she said I must come immediately, my brother was dying.
My brother Jeff was indeed very ill, but my father assured me his condition was stable. I had planned to fly to Florida two days hence to talk with his doctors, but to my profound shock he died the next day. The caller was right, and I arrived too late.
I only learned the identity of the young woman who called me decades later. She was nicknamed Susie Creamcheese. Having driven from Chicago to Miami to visit my brother during his last days, Susie was so stunned by his condition she called me to sound the alarm.
Susie’s real name was Susan Rosenberg. From an affluent Chicago family, she neither had to earn a living, nor was she going to college. Susie Creamcheese was said to have been on ‘the wild side of hippyism’, styling herself in the manner of Janis Joplin, one of the zaniest musical icons of the day.
She had hung out with Jeff and the circle of people around his underground paper Vietnam GI – as a kind of antiwar groupie. Susie got her moniker from a Frank Zappa song about a young music groupie he called Suzy Creamcheese who followed the band on the road. Her real name was Susan Zeiger.
By great coincidence, the original Suzy Creamcheese is the sister of film maker David Zeiger, who in 2005 premiered his award-winning documentary on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement, Sir! No Sir!, dedicated to Jeff Sharlet.
Lincoln Bergman, Revolutionary poet
Lincoln Bergman in recent times, California redwoods
My brother Jeff died young – he was only 27. In the final years of the ‘60s, he had become an admired leading figure of the growing GI protest against the war in Vietnam. He knew the war well; he had served in Nam ’63-’64.
Decades on, Jeff is still remembered for his leadership of the antiwar paper, Vietnam GI, an almost instant success in the world of underground journalism of that day. His untimely death was widely noted in the Movement press, in both civilian and GI publications alike.
Among the many obits and death notes, one particularly stood out, a eulogy framed as a long narrative poem by Lincoln Bergman, a revolutionary poet. His poem was published in The Movement in July ’69 not long after Jeff’s death.
A man of the left, Linc Bergman’s political activism went beyond the issue of the day, the Vietnam War. During the ‘60s he had taught English as a second language in Communist China. And as the war in Southeast Asia was winding down in the early ‘70s, Bergman had spent a year in revolutionary Cuba broadcasting for Radio Havana.
In his poetic tribute to Jeff, Seeds of Revolution, he began, “Brothers and Sisters, Part of us is dead. … He did time in Vietnam … And when he came home, He gave [the GIs] something to believe in.”
Not long ago he said:
‘We felt a newspaper Was the best way to begin
To talk to the enlisted men
The guys on the bottom. …’
He was a quiet, vital guy
Who thought before he spoke.
Looked straight in peoples’ eyes
And those who listened learned. …
Talking to the men in uniform
Feeling the pulse of the people
Working long hours to help
The paper serve their needs.
Concluding his paean to Jeff, the poet wrote:
He told us to plant the seeds
People had to change
Change through their experience
He spoke the truth. …
A good man.
So many things
Embodied in those three words
Death leaves so much unsaid.
Courage from his courage
Example of his deeds.
For Jeff is dead…
Like Johnny Appleseed.
In a note to the poem in a volume of his collected poetry, which appeared several years ago, the poet added a fitting valediction to Jeff. Within the antiwar movement,
Jeff Sharlet was an authentic leader,
modest and sincere, calm, a good
listener, with iron determination
and large vision.