Jeff Sharlet was my younger brother. I’m writing a memoir about his short but interesting life. He was the founding editor of Vietnam GI (VGI) and a leader of the GI protest movement against the Vietnam War. VGI was the first GI-edited antiwar paper addressed to Vietnam GIs, a term meant to include soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Growing GI opposition ultimately contributed mightily to America’s withdrawal from the war.
David Cortright, a major chronicler of Vietnam GI antiwar protest, wrote:
Vietnam GI, surfaced at the end of 1967,
distributed to tens of thousands of GIs,
many in Vietnam, closed down after the
death of founder Jeff Sharlet in June, 1969.
Jeff was eulogized
throughout the country in the underground antiwar movement, published a long remembrance of Jeff in his magazine Liberation; an underground GI paper in Heidelberg, Germany was dedicated to him; and the dedication of Fred Gardner’s definitive account of the Presidio 27 mutiny read “Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at 27."
In recent years, the most dramatic tribute to Jeff and VGI has been the award-winning documentary, Sir! No Sir!, the first film on the Vietnam GI antiwar movement. Screened nationally and run on Sundance Channel, the film was dedicated to Jeff for, as the director David Zeiger put it to me, “starting it all.”
To read more about Jeff Sharlet and Vietnam GI, see
The present Yola site had previously long been used as a
means of searching for unaccounted for friends of Jeff. However, at
this point in the process we have found and interviewed many dozens
of people who knew him, so it is time to re-purpose our Yola site. We
have appropriately retitled it, Finding Jeff – Quest’s End.
The revised site also succeeds the blog Searching for Jeff,
which we recently closed after five years, 125 posts, and tens of
thousands of readers in over 100 countries. The time is needed to
devote full attention to finishing the memoir.
Apropos, I will now be using this site to periodically add
segments and excerpts from the voluminous interview files – material
being incorporated into the memoir – for those readers interested in
following the progress of the book.
Each of the subsequent sections of Finding Jeff – Quest’s
End represents a
phase of the final decade of Jeff’s life from prep
school to the end of his days. Readers will find a prologue to each
section that briefly tracks Jeff at that time followed by a few posts
from Searching for Jeff illuminating the period.
As I place new material on Finding Jeff – Quest’s End, we will
indicate on this page in which section of the site it is to be found, so
please look back often.
Thank you for your interest, Bob Sharlet
on the occasion of the acceptance of the
Albany Academy Distinguished Alumni Award
on behalf of Jeff Sharlet, AA’60, May 21, 2010
Many thanks to the Class of ’60’s Fiftieth Reunion Committee for nominating Jeff as well as to the alumni who confer this honor on him posthumously.
Jeff Sharlet, my younger brother, was the accidental hero of his own life. He certainly didn’t set out to go to Vietnam, or to become a leader of GI protest.
At the beginning of his senior year he had pretty much the same aspirations as the rest of the class – go off to college, ideally a good school in the East, learn a few things, have some fun.
And he’d probably have done so but for a financial crisis in the family that changed the course of his life.
After graduation Jeff went off into the world and in a fairly short time changed from a carefree kid to a committed young man. The Distinguished Alumni Award citation you’ve just heard covered Jeff’s subsequent accomplishments in life, so I’ll just briefly dwell on him as the light-hearted guy his classmates will remember.
Jeff joined the Army, and very soon things started going awry. They promised him a year’s study of a Slavic language which would have entailed assignment to Europe.
He looked forward to a great time on the Continent. But as soon as he arrived at the Army Language School, they bumped him into Vietnamese.
Jeff went to the Company headquarters’ office and asked the NCO in charge:
“Sarge, what would happen if someone flunked out of Vietnamese?”
A good ol’ boy from Texas, sarge replied,
“Sonny, nobody flunks out of Vietnamese.”
So Jeff made the best of it with the help of Keith Willis, AA’58, who arrived in the Vietnamese program. The two guys bought a motorcycle, a used British Indian model.
They’d ride down the coast to Jeff’s favorite hangout at Big Sur where the Russian headwaiter always greeted him, “Trotsky from the Bronx.”Other times they’d roar up Highway 101 to the Bay Area, Jeff driving, Keith hanging on for dear life. They’d head for the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill where Jeff casually dismounted, handing the bike off to the doorman to park – a fellow in livery more accustomed to the likes of a Jag or a Mercedes. Not a bad life.
There was much drinking in nearby Angeles City, beach parties, lazy days at the racetrack in Manila, and side trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong. Tough duty.
But aside from work at a secret base on the western outskirts of Saigon, there was ample time for the city’s night life. In fact, I was told that Jeff became the outfit’s self-appointed guide to the Saigon club scene for new guys joining the unit.
Later, he was sent up to a place called Phu Bai just below the North Vietnamese border. Working side by side with a Marine unit, he translated North Vietnamese Army messages and liaised with commandos being slipped across the border.
Still, there were lighter moments as well. Borrowing a jeep, Jeff and a buddy would cruise down Highway 1, Bernard Fall’s ‘Street without Joy’, scouting the South China Sea coastline for an ideal location for the gambling casino they dreamed of opening after the war. Imagine your old pal Jeff decked out in black tie, keeping a watchful eye on his croupiers and Blackjack dealers.
A final tale from the lighter side of those dark times:
In Vietnam, Jeff forgot one essential thing, he forgot to write his mother. Her letters to the Philippines started bouncing back marked, “Address Unknown.”
Predictably, she went bananas and called her Congressman, “Where’s my son?” He contacted the Pentagon, and down through the chain of command to Southeast Asia, they soon located Jeff.
He was ordered to write home immediately. Among other things, he wrote:
Look, my lieutenant’s also required to write you -- saying how happy I am in Vietnam. Please don’t reply but if you do, for god’s sake don’t ask him to go easy on me or grant me any favors. Mom, this is the Army, not the Albany Academy.
Thank you for remembering my brother on this grand occasion.
I first conceived the idea of a memoir on my brother within weeks of his premature death. That was long ago. Life and circumstances intervened, and the writing project got deferred until my retirement from academe.
A Typical Child of the Middle Class
When my younger brother Jeff died the summer of ’69 at the ungodly age of 27, I vowed I would 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 what became the GI antiwar movement. What occurred in the interim was a compelling story of a typical child of the middle class in the turbulent ‘60s.
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.
It seems I was under an illusion – as it turned out I really didn’t know my kid brother that well. He had grown up and experienced things I had no idea of, and, generally unbeknownst to me, Jeff had carved out an important niche in the history of his times. But much of that I only learned decades later.
My son Jeff was named after my late brother. He has become a well-known writer – a literary journalist specializing in non-fiction. Jeff-2, as I refer to him, has been a great help in thinking through the memoir project on the uncle he never knew.
We have often exchanged ideas on Jeff-1 and VGI, some of which I recount below.
VGI as an Art Form
- Artist as disrupter,
- His inchoate art was neither
reformist nor redemptive. It was the equivalent of slashing a canvas or cutting
off one’s ear.
- Art for politics’ sake
- Would he have become a writer,
or another Henry Roth – essentially a one-book man, then the chicken farm.
- He was a child of the middle
class – not a red diaper baby, no politically activist parents. Quite the opposite,
so from where did he find his mission – from the disappointments of the late
‘50s and displacement from the world he had known for 18 years, or was it from
Vietnam or both?
- Eschewing an organization, a
political party, a mass movement, he went it alone, never losing sight of his
singular mission to deploy VGI against
the war machine.
- In Marcusean terms, he was an
outsider beyond the ken of the administered post-industrial society; and, of
course, as Marcuse argues, only the outsider can bring about qualitative change.
- Above all, Jeff had remarkable clarity of vision.
When I began research for the memoir, I was a real rookie at what would be required. I had spent most of my years as an academic specialist on the Soviet Union. Given Cold War sensitivities, interviewing Soviet scholars was a decidedly limited affair – questions only about their academic specialty and no reference to their names in subsequent endnotes. Most of the time it was library research.
Searching for Jeff, however, required interviews, dozens of interviews. Because decades had passed, I had to also do my best to prime memories, sometimes revisiting the same interlocutor several times as his or her recall improved.
Late in the game – in fact, after the collapse of the USSR – the Internet came online. I learned the rudiments, but if at the beginning of the quest for Jeff I hadn’t encountered Karen Grote Ferb, I would have been out of luck.
Karen located most of the upwards of 150 people I subsequently interviewed. Still, no matter how persistent she was and thorough we were, there inevitably remained gaps and missed opportunities as I outlined in a public talk.
Jeff, I Hardly Knew You
I had thought I knew Jeff, but 150+ interviews later I realized I hardly knew him as an adult. Then there were the missed opportunities – Dave Dellinger, the patriarch of the antiwar movement, lived not far from me over the border in New England, but before I could interview him about Jeff, he died.
Jeff had met Gary Rader early on in Chicago; Gary had streaked like a comet across the antiwar sky, but before we located him, he had committed suicide. Ed Smith, Jeff’s close Vietnam buddy, found me and we talked and corresponded. Several months later as I learned more and developed further questions for him, Ed had died suddenly of a freak illness.
There were also those whom we never found given their common names – Bob Johnson, Jeff’s housemate at IU; John Grove, a fellow SDS activist; Bob Brown, one of his sub-editors on VGI; and Susie Rosenberg, who lent a hand on VGI and was one of the last of the friends to see Jeff before he died.
Finally, there were those whom Karen found who were either unwilling to talk or simply stonily unresponsive to repeated requests – Jim Zaleski, who was on the masthead as a VGI advisory editor; Rennie Davis, a senior SDS national leader and friend of Jeff’s; and Abby Rockefeller, who had financially supported VGI.
Last, I missed the story of John Paul Stevens and Jeff at a beach wedding on Lake Michigan. That was before JPS went to the Supreme Court, a story Bill O’Brien wouldn’t tell until JPS retired from the court. Unfortunately, Bill predeceased the justice’s retirement.
Early on in the research, I read Calvin Trillin’s memoir of a friend, Remembering Denny. I was fascinated that at the memorial service for Denny, two groups of his friends from different periods of his life showed up, each remembering a Denny completely unfamiliar to the other. One group was his California high school friends and Yale classmates, the other his academic colleagues in Washington.
The idea struck me as a possible model for a memoir on Jeff. By then, I had interviewed enough of his prep school classmates and his post-Vietnam Indiana fellow New Left activists. Each group recalled to me a Jeff who would have been quite unfamiliar to the other group. The same would prove true for still other groups from other phases of Jeff’s final decade, as I mused to a friend.
There were multiple Jeffs mourned by
different constituencies of
his life journey, none of whom knew each other or what had
transpired before they knew Jeff or after. He had been a golden boy
at the Albany Academy, but after his father went all but bankrupt, a
somewhat bitter young man in Vietnam.
Then back at IU, he was a highly
focused, charismatic SDS leader,
and finally in his last Chicago years, an angry, driven ex-Vietnam GI
determined to stop the war.
Jeff had an eventful short life, but there were certain moments of seminal importance for the following phase of his final decade.
Brief History of a Short but Interesting Life
Fall ’61 Jeff enlists
Aug ’63 Jeff goes to Nam
Fall ’65 Becomes a major player in IU SDS
Mar ’67 Takes on Elvis Stahr, IU prez/former Sec/Army
Jan ’68 Launches Vietnam GI
Jeff-2 laments not being able to get more of Jeff’s ‘dialogue’. ‘We know so little; it’s just like the bones of a poem, not the illusion of a full narrative’.
A Skein of Little Stories
I too would love to turn a corner in this trek and discover someone who could put a bubble over Jeff’s head with his exact words, maybe even inflection, but after nearly 200 interviews it’s not going to happen.
We’re going to have to go with the only story line I found on my brother, a skein of little stories, anecdotes, reports, sightings, perceptions, and tantalizing clues to the kid who grew up when I wasn’t looking.
As Jeff-2 observed, there was a major difference between my military experience in Europe in the ‘50s and Jeff’s in Vietnam in the ‘60s.
Like the Rat Pack
Dad had this wonderful Cold War – Jeff must have thought it was like the rat pack.
I always wondered how and where Jeff had become politicized. It certainly wasn’t at home and surely not at the Albany Academy. I had guessed the seeds were sown in Vietnam, but nurtured in the New Left at IU, later coming into bloom in Chicago. Dave Komatsu saw the process differently.
The Military Was a Real World
In some ways, the military was a real world for Jeff. Clearly, he came of age in the military. He didn’t come of age in college. He came of age in the military. And it shaped him in all these ways.
It allowed him to create a different persona. To be a tough guy. To be silent, charismatic. Somebody who suddenly speaks and the whole room falls silent. You listen to him. That kind of guy.
Most everyone I spoke with said Jeff was not ideological, hence he could not be easily classified politically. He tended to be more on the pragmatic side of things.
Jeff Was for Revolution
Jeff basically was for revolution. He didn’t have a lot of illusions about the socialist states. He didn’t think much of them. It was pretty obvious they weren’t democratic, no matter what they might call themselves.
He was neither a Maoist nor an Anarchist. You couldn’t pigeonhole Jeff that way. Because he hadn’t worked things out. He was for socialism which means he wasn’t an anarchist.
But he didn’t think there was going to be a great utopia. He certainly didn’t think it was happening right away, but he didn’t want the left running it. (laughs) Didn’t trust the left at all!
Q: Who did he want running it?
A: (laughs) Somebody yet to come! He wasn’t worried about that because it wasn’t going to happen right away. Not to worry!
Jeff was not a big guy. He was a well put-together 5’7.5 jock who probably weighed in around 150. He was not physically aggressive and certainly not a brawler. But after he launched VGI – in order to relate to ordinary GIs – he styled himself differently according to DK.
He Got Creamed
Only time I ever saw Jeff get into a fight – he really had great faith in his ability to do his Steve McQueen number and be sympathetic and tough and practical and wise, and talk people down – he got completely creamed.
He fought this hillbilly guy who had severe emotional problems. The guy never lost a fight. He was so quick; it was like operating on a different dimension than you were. He’d regularly fight 3 or 4 guys. He was a hillbilly street dude.
[The guy got into a fracas with his ex-girlfriend, and she called Jeff and Dave for help.]
‘Well, we gotta go over there and help her out’, Jeff said. I said, ‘NO Jeff that’ll just mean we’ll get the shit kicked out of us. She won’t be helped at all’. Jeff said, ‘I think I can take care of it’.
Jeff had a lot faith in his toughs. He went over and started to talk. And the guy said, ‘Look, get the fuck out of here’. Jeff said, ‘Look man, this is gonna be bad, it doesn’t have to be this way’.
Next thing Jeff knew he was waking up on the floor. The hillbilly just put him out, then and there. Never even finished the rap. Jeff had a good rap, but he never even got to finish it.
He had this idea of himself as a tough guy, but he figured if he could talk it through, he’d never have to back it up. (laughing) He was a Jewish tough guy! He’d talk his way to the championship.
Jeff enlisted in ’61 and spent a couple of years in the PI and VN. The war became transformative in his life.
Swallowed Up by the War
He was swallowed up by the war, and it became the defining thing. He didn’t have a civilian life in that sense. DK
Jeff’s military experience, especially in VN, had left an indelible imprint on him.
He Never Left the War
Jeff was a very serious guy. Jeff was very serious about the military. He never left the war. He never left the military. He struggled with it. That wasn’t true for movement people, obviously. It’s not their fault. You come from where you come from. DK
In Chicago, Jeff was going through a kind of identity transfer. He was mad as hell about the war, and he was always harboring thoughts about the way the family crashed back in the fall of ’59. The two factors fed into the way he chose to see himself.
Jeff Was Reinventing Himself
Jeff talked about working class people. Not in an abstract political sense. Just in a human sense. Because he was really trying to remake himself. That’s why we don’t know how it would have ended because it wasn’t static.
And it’s funny, you’d meet Jeff and you absolutely wouldn’t think he came from a business family. That’s one thing the silence was good for. A lot of times he’d talk – he was very angry actually – and he’d speak just a sentence or two on a subject, and you’d think, gee, I’m talking to a working class guy whose father was a steel worker or something. Not that gentle old furniture salesman!
It’s a complex thing to me, a lot of it I didn’t understand then, but Jeff was reinventing himself. I think he felt that you and your family had been victimized by capitalism just like the working class people are. Just dumped. Sure, it isn’t important except those people who’ve been dumped, their whole lives get destroyed.
Jeff did view it that way. I don’t know where he would have gone
with it. That’s one of the reasons he wanted to write. Because writing is a way
to keep reinventing yourself.
Unlike the civilian antiwar movement which was organized, although diverse and even fragmented in its constituent parts, GI protest writ large never really crystallized into a visible structure. Yes, there was VVAW but it did not encompass the broad spectrum of GI protest.
A Group of Angry Men
GI protest was not so much an organized movement as primarily a very large group of angry men.
Jeff largely became politicized in VN as he increasingly turned against the US mission. At Phu Bai, John Buquoi remembered he didn’t hesitate to make his views known and was known for his calm, reasoned manner of debate.
Outspoken in His Views
There were plenty of occasions when Jeff calmed heated debate with his steady, rational, low-key approach. Recall, too, that Jeff was outspoken in his views against the war, and – especially at Phu Bai – these views were not always well received by people holding contrary beliefs.
Yet, I never saw anyone corner or threaten him – his cool, calm approach to any debate or potential confrontation always kept things from getting heated. It was just his ‘style’ of debate, discussion, persuasion that always kept things calm, or, if heated, heated amicably and to a point below boiling.
In 1985, long after Jeff was gone, two people very close to him on the VGI project – Tom Barton and Jim Wallihan – got together to give an interview to the Bloomington Herald-Telephone about Jeff on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the end of the VN war.
Vietnam-era Comrades Remember an Unsung Hero
I just thought it was a shame that everyone had forgotten Jeff Sharlet. Sharlet was haunted and driven by his Vietnam experience, his friends say. Jim Wallihan was a leader in the IU chapter of SDS. ‘Jeff wanted to get involved, but he felt a little alienated from what was going in SDS. A lot of those people didn’t have any experience in the world. K-through-12 and IU, and that was it’.
‘The students were mostly theorizing’, remembered Tom Barton, ‘about Maoism and Ho Chi Minh being a nice guy, and Jeff didn’t buy any of that stuff’. Sharlet was particularly disturbed at the hostile attitude that many students and younger people displayed toward the GIs.
Vietnam GI was popular and controversial. ‘The Army tried to intercept it, so we had to be creative. One time we mailed it out as the Presbyterian Pen Pal Club of Chicago. Barton saw how important VGI had become when he tried to distribute it to troops assembled outside an antiwar rally in Washington, DC. The officer in charge looked at me and said, Get out of here or I’ll have you arrested’.
‘I was about to turn around when a voice from the ranks said, Leave him alone. Then there was another voice. All of a sudden, four guys came out of the ranks, and one guy takes the papers from me and starts passing them out. The officer said, Don’t touch them and the GI said, To hell with you’.
Wallihan said the term ‘patriot’ would
not be misplaced in describing Jeff Sharlet. ‘A real American hero’, Barton
responded to a question, ‘Absolutely, and one nobody knows much about. His name
isn’t even on the Vietnam Memorial, because he died after he left the war, not during
When I began the memoir project, I had an image of Jeff as essentially a white hat when, in fact, the picture as it emerged was darker and much more complicated.
A Very Different Person
You’re of course right, Dave, that I’ll never find the Jeff I was looking for. Most of my impressions had come from his 3-year stint at IU and the 40 or so people whom I interviewed there.
The majority knew him as a very different person than the Jeff
you came to know so well in Chicago.