Wednesday, September 2, 2015
The tumultuous ‘60s ended with a bang – the implosion of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society. As the Vietnam War revved up in far off Southeast Asia, SDS became the core of what morphed into a vast movement against the war.
Many memoirs have been written on the decade, but a fairly recent one may be the best.* Author John Maher bore witness to the evolution and subsequent decline of the Vietnam antiwar movement. And along the way he had known the major players on both sides of the split that rendered SDS asunder in ’69.
Born in ’38, John Maher fell between me and my younger brother in age. During our younger years it appears John and I had been doing some of the same things, although in reality we were ships passing in the night. Later it was very different between John and my brother Jeff Sharlet, a leader of GI protest against the war; not only did they move in sync along near similar trajectories, but they became good friends as well.
John Maher and I both went to college in the Boston area during the late ‘50s – he to Harvard, I to Brandeis. There our headings began to diverge since he was already tacking left as I sailed a middle course – a standard liberal.
John Maher during his university years
Paradoxically, despite our different political vectors, John was associated with the junior Harvard professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, destined to become an establishment foreign policy specialist with whom I coincidentally worked in the ‘70s; simultaneously at Brandeis I was studying with the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, soon to become guru to the New Left.
Though we never crossed paths, Maher and I shared some common experiences. We had both hung out at Club 47, the folk café just off Harvard Square where each of us got to know the fetching young Joan Baez as her brilliant career was taking off.
Joan Baez, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, 1962
Upon graduating from Harvard, Maher and a few friends traveled to the Soviet Union as tourists. A few years later I spent a year at Moscow University researching my PhD dissertation. Not long after, in the mid-‘60s, both of us happened to land in Washington as consultants – he with the War on Poverty, I on the Soviet-American arms control negotiations.
As the war in Vietnam began to heat up, our paths sharply divided. I became an academic preoccupied with Soviet politics & law as John moved into the maelstrom of emerging antiwar activism.
He soon acquired an impressive New Left resume, coming into contact with Noam Chomsky of MIT; Marty Peretz, publisher of the New Republic; I. F. Stone, premier critic of Washington from the left, as well as serving as a principal organizer of ‘Vietnam Summer’ – a series of antiwar protests across the peace movement.
However, it was while working with the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG), the most effective anti-draft outfit in the country, that John first met Jeff, editor of Vietnam GI (VGI). The foremost underground GI antiwar paper, VGI was published out of Chicago, but Jeff periodically traveled east to raise funds for the paper among wealthy left liberals in Boston and New York. Abby Rockefeller, into whose extended family John Maher had married, was a generous contributor.
BDRG activist distributing Vietnam GI, Boston Army Center, 1968
BDRG had linked up with VGI, printing several thousand additional copies of each issue for passing around at military installations throughout New England. The anti-draft activists took every opportunity to hand out VGI to GIs as well as civilians in the induction process. Speaking of his personal role in the BDRG-VGI connection, John wrote:
I helped raise money for the paper and distributed
it around the Boston area. When the work was
done, Jeff and I loved to sit around and drink beer
and talk politics. We became close friends.**
Later in ’68, an illness Jeff first experienced in Vietnam back in ’64, caught up with him and he flew to our parents’ place in Florida for medical help. The diagnosis was dire; though Jeff still had hope, he was to have only a few months more to live.
Jeff’s last photo – with his parents and sister-in-law Nancy,
Coral Gables, FL, March 1969
♫Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.†
Meanwhile, SDS was veering toward destruction. Sharp factional conflict had been growing within the organization during the past few years and by late spring ’69 had gotten much worse. On one side was the national SDS leadership group styling itself as the ‘Revolutionary Youth Movement’ (RYM). Opposed to RYM was a strong, well-disciplined faction that identified with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL). Essentially an internal power struggle, it was fought out under the guise of conflicting political theologies.
The two groups’ implacable differences came to a dramatic climax at what was to become the last SDS national convention, a gathering of nearly 2,000 delegates in Chicago, mid-June ’69. In just a few days of wild proceedings, the organization split irrevocably, with RYM, calling itself Weatherman, soon after turning to violence and going underground.
John Maher was in the convention hall and initially hoped SDS might weather the storm and survive intact, but it was not to be. At the opening session there was a moment of unity, albeit extremely brief, as all the factions united in grief for Jeff who had died two days earlier. As John remembered the scene:
The chair asked us to rise for a
minute of silence in memory of
my friend Jeff Sharlet, editor of
*John Maher, Learning from the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer (2011)