Jeff Sharlet returned from Vietnam to Indiana University (IU) in fall '64, graduating with honors summer '67. During his three years on campus, he 'grew' politically and was a major New Left activist and SDS leader.
            In the course of his activism, he encountered many students who worked with him and got to know him. In the course of the search, I was able to interview 45 of his comrades, including a few of his opponents and two of his professors.
           To my pleasant surprise, most people remembered him decades later, some even vividly. Due to circumstances, Jeff and I didn't have much contact during his college years. I can't say I knew that part of his bio.
           He was obviously much admired by a wide range of people. For instance, several individuals independently spoke of Jeff as having 'charisma', an aspect of him I never observed within our family relationship.
           In this section I have gathered the many observations and descriptions of Jeff by his fellow IU friends.

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1.  One of the first voices to bring back dire warnings

She remembered Jeff as one of the first voices at IU to bring back from Vietnam dire warnings about US involvement in the war. She had been especially struck by ‘the intensity with which he talked about VN and how relentlessly he pursued the subject’.

Looking back over time, she recognized that opposing the war was Jeff’s singular purpose in life. (Miki Lang)

2.  So mature, so adult

He first met Jeff at an SDS meeting. Described him admiringly as ‘so mature, so adult, never got stoned, ten years older, emotionally, calm’. (Dwight Worker)


3.  Silenced the crowd

           At a demo, Jeff was calmly talking to hostile frat guys, one of whom challenged him, “How would you know, have you ever been to VN?” Jeff calmly replied, “Yes, I have,” which silenced the crowd. (DW)


4.  Always came up with a rational solution

In SDS meetings when people would go off to extremes, Jeff always came up with a rational solution, gently, and with a smile. (DW)

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5.  There was a magical aura about him

While he himself was ‘wild’ at the demos, Jeff was always humorous and self-deprecating. “You’d have thought he studied Zen Buddhism.” There was a “magical aura” about him. (DW)


6.  Charm was his maturity

He didn’t know any of the women Jeff went out with, but wasn’t surprised they were attracted, including his own former girlfriend Jane Dillencourt. He felt Jeff’s charm for women was his maturity, and that emotionally and psychologically he seemed like a man in his mid-30s compared to the boys.

He thought the girls also liked the fact that Jeff was “whimsical”. (DW)


7.  Goddamn smart, but didn’t flaunt it

Jeff ‘drew people’, he had ‘internal serenity’, he was confident, and ‘goddamn smart, but didn’t flaunt it’. He always came up with ‘reasonable solutions’ to problems. (DW)
 

8.  An understated charisma

I never saw him angry. He was ‘absolutely unique with an understated charisma. (DW)

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9.  It just wasn’t Jeff’s way

        As to the uncertain story of Jeff getting into punch-outs
over the GI issue at parties, I can’t believe he would have ever come to blows. It just wasn’t Jeff’s way. ‘He’d point out the class issue;  Jeff was a proto-Marxist’. ‘He’d defend the GIs as 17 to 18-year-old kids, uneducated, who didn’t know what they were doing’. (DW)

           10.   Army fatigue jacket   

       He remembered Jeff wearing his Army fatigue jacket 

      11.  This is where I really belong

          They first met at an SDS meeting. Both he and Jeff were following the discussion with interest when someone remarked that since Jeff was a VN veteran, he should be asked his opinion on the matter. 
I was then a freshman and recalled being amazed that the activist next to me had been in the war. Turning to Jeff, I asked, “Are you really a Vietnam veteran?” “Yes, I am,” Jeff replied, “but this is where I belong.” (Dan Kaplan)
 

12.   Second time in my life

        Later that year, Jeff as SDS leader spoke at a rally I always

remembered, a demo outside the residence of the university president. Jeff opened saying, “This is the second time in my life that I’ve belonged to an organization run by Elvis Stahr.

He explained that he had served in Vietnam under Stahr as Secretary of the Army and now again under his aegis as President of IU. Rhetorically, Jeff asked why a man of the ‘war machine’ was qualified to be president of an institution of higher learning, and the answer was that in various ways the American university system served the military-industrial complex; hence, senior personnel of the two organizations had become interchangeable. (DK)       

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      13. The most important thing he had ever done

       Late fall ’67, Jeff was visiting IU and had coffee with Dan. It was their last encounter, and it had an elegiac tone for Dan. Jeff told him he’d decided to drop out of Univ of Chicago, instead using his Woodrow Wilson to launch a much-needed GI antiwar paper, Vietnam GI.

       Dan expressed surprise that Jeff was throwing away a coveted fellowship at a distinguished university. Jeff replied – and, as it turned out, presciently, given his short but interesting life:

                He told me that this was what he wanted to do
                at this time in his life. And that he thought this
                would be the most important thing he had ever
                done. (Dan Kaplan)

        14. He cared, he learned, and he kept faith

         It was and is my sense that Jeff Sharlet was an honorable man who felt passionately that the war was a mistake. He devoted considerable time to trying to educate others, based in part upon his first-hand experience in-country.

        He died too young, but his efforts made a difference, and both he and those who loved him should take pride in his life. He cared, he learned, and he kept faith with his conscience and principles. No one could ask that he do more. (Robert Turner)

        15. He remembers Jeff as vivacious and charismatic

        He remembers Jeff as vivacious, charismatic, and very politicized about the Vietnam War. When Jeff spoke, people listened because he spoke with the authority of a GI who’d been there and seen it all. (Roger Salloom)  

16. An unusual open-mindedness and receptiveness to alternate views

        Now, about that projected trip to Cuba in December ’60, I’m impressed that Jeff seems to have understood exactly the point we were trying to make: “Go there, and see for yourself. Don’t just believe what the government and the media are telling you.”

        For me, what you said about Jeff’s desire to go on that Christmas trip, just before the travel ban was imposed, indicates an unusual open-mindedness and receptiveness to alternative viewpoints.

       But I think he was still cautious about controversial or “not officially approved” political ideas – because, if my recollection is right, he didn’t identify himself to me and Ellen and didn’t discuss Cuba with us. He may, however, have discussed Cuba with others in or around the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. (George Shriver)

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        17. Jeff was “cynical” about the Left – Will it amount to anything?

        By fall of ’66, Rick had dropped out of IU and was living in Chicago on the left. Jeff knew him from IU and from summer ’66 in Indy and stayed with Rick when he visited the city that fall for his interview at University of Chicago. Jeff described the interview to Rick with an ironic telling.

        Rick described Jeff as “cynical” about the Left – Will it amount to anything?

        During Jeff’s Chicago visit, Rick remembers him saying, “Maybe I’ll take some time off.” Jeff also said, “Maybe you have to sell out” to achieve anything.

(Rick Congress)

        18. We’re all working to oppose the war in various ways     

By summer ’67, Rick was back at IU working locally on the ‘Vietnam Summer’ project. Jeff was neither dismissive of the project nor did he praise it to the skies. Basically, he took the line, we’re all working to oppose the war in various ways. (RC)

19. Jeff and Rick lived at Karlis Zobs’ house, summer ‘66

Jeff and Rick boarded at Karlis Zobs’ house in Indy, summer ’66. Karlis, 29, a Latvian immigrant, was a fairly large guy, broad-shouldered with dark brown hair and a big mustache, and active in the local left.  He had taken a BA in Sociology and studied Russian at Butler.

        The house was old and dingy, two stories with big rooms and a large kitchen in a working-class neighborhood just becoming Black. Jeff had a bedroom upstairs facing the street. (RC & Karen Ferb)

        20. A gathering place for people of the left   

        Jeff and Rick would get together after Jeff returned from work in the freight yards. They’d hit the bars, one of them was the Varsity Lounge on N Pennsylvania & 16th, both a gay and left wing place. They also went to a bar owned by a Black man named Duncan in a Black neighborhood and sometimes dropped in at the ‘11th Hour Coffee House’ run by some of Rick’s high school friends. (RC)

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       21. The Left in America – should one even bother to form a  group...

       During their bar crawls, Jeff and Rick discussed Cuba, Che, the Latin American left, Regis Debray’s book on revolution within the revolution in Cuba, and a Foucault theory then in play.

        He and Jeff also discussed the Left in America – should one even bother to form a group … (RC)

        22. Jeff didn’t have much to do at work      

        Jeff didn’t have much to do at work, but it paid well. He’d tell Rick that he’d spend his days sitting in the cab of a locomotive studying the RR rule book. One time he thought he’d be fired. As the engineer was moving the engine, Jeff’s job was to keep an eye out lest they inadvertently bumped a freight car.

        Jeff failed to call ‘Hold’ and the engine bumped a truck, but he didn’t get fired. (RC) 

      23. Something’s wrong with my dick

       I asked Rick if Jeff ever made ref to his health. Rick said yes, Jeff was very straightforward and explicit, “Something’s wrong with my dick, it’s something I had before, something I’ll have to look into.”

       However, Rick said that he didn’t make much of the problem. (RC)

24. George Shriver remembers …     

        George Shriver remembers that sympathizers of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee included Bill Lindner, Barry Schutz, Jeff Sharlet, and Rick Congress. (Alan Wald, “The ‘Indiana’ Subversion Case 50 Years Later”)

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        25. Girl showed up naked

There was a girl who used to show up naked at Jeff’s place and beg him to make love to her. I remember an occasion when I was at the house and saw it happen. Jeff was very calm about it, threw her coat over her, and told her softly to go home. She did, crying as she left. (Karen Ferb)

26. You’d hate me if you knew

As the summer of ’66 drew to a close, he seemed to try more and more to tell me certain things, but he couldn’t seem to get past the openings. He would begin, then seem uncharacteristically anxious, and stop.

One of his efforts was to try to tell me what he did in Vietnam, not just about Vietnam. He ended by saying he couldn’t, that I wouldn’t understand, and I’d hate him if he told me. (KF)

27. He was in one of his troubled moods

I don’t recall if Jeff asked me bluntly if I really wanted to know what he did in Vietnam. It was summer ’66, probably July, Indianapolis, in Karlis Zobs’ house. No one else was in the house at the time. Jeff had just come back from work and went right to the shower as he always did. The shower was in the basement, dark and gloomy as old house basements tend to be. There was a wooden chair nearby where I sat.

He was in one of his troubled moods. I asked him what was wrong. That’s when he said, “You’d hate me if you knew what I did in Vietnam.” I assured him I would not, told him whatever he had done, he had done in a time of war when the usual rules don’t apply, and I certainly understood that. He maintained that I would, and I did not press him. (KF)

28. An oscillating fan blowing on them

On a particularly hot and steamy day in Indianapolis, we were having sex in his room with the fan on. For the first time, he was having some difficulty and was kind of upset, but began to laugh because he had flashed back to the hot, steamy Philippines when he was having sex with a prostitute with an oscillating fan blowing on them.

         In the middle of everything, in walks a friend of the woman, sits down in a chair next to the bed, and begins not only to file her nails, but also has a chat with the otherwise-occupied friend, leaving some unfinished business. (KF) 
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        29. We’ve got to get out of this place

It was mid-to-late spring ’66, a warm, sunny spring day, one of the first days nice enough to be outside in shirtsleeves, bright sun. Trees not fully leafed out. Jeff and I sat on the back stoop of the house just off the kitchen. He was wearing the usual blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up and wheat jeans. We sat on the bottom step of the stoop just a few inches off the ground facing the back yard of Jeff’s house.

Suddenly he said to me, elbows on his knees, head in his hands, “We’ve got to get out of this place. Would your father give us some money?” He didn’t elaborate. He was very upset, but I can’t tell you why. It frightened me a bit. (KF)

30. Highly thought of by his professors

He was highly thought of by his professors as a person and as a potential teacher-scholar. Professors who did not agree with Jeff’s political views nevertheless strongly supported him for graduate school.

They felt he had a fine mind and would make a valuable member of the teaching profession. (Bernie Morris)

31. I was not convinced the timing was right for him

I also supported his applications for graduate schools and fellowships, but, as you know, I was not convinced the timing was right for him. Jeff was caught between his desire to acquire his professional credentials – and you were a great influence on him in this respect – and by his conviction that he ought to involve himself in the problems of our society and most immediately in opposing US policy toward Vietnam.

Resolving his dilemma by cutting out of school to start Vietnam GI was dictated by his conscience. I agree with the Berkeley Barb that it was one of the best spent Woodrow Wilson fellowships. (BM)

32. He had this charisma

Jeff was absolutely unique at IU. He had this charisma, an understated charisma. He was always calm, the one who put things in bigger perspective.

Jeff was masterful in handling meetings with agent provocateurs and disruptive individuals in general. (Dwight Worker)

33. Jeff Sharlet gave a talk on student power

        [From Dwight Worker’s FOIA]: At the Sunday afternoon session, Jeff Sharlet gave a talk on the subject of student power. All of the discussion was focused on the point of student leadership in the university by SDS members.

        34. Jeff would tell me to calm down, relax

        He liked my energy and enthusiasm for antiwar stuff – Up against the wall mother-fucker – but thought I had too much unrestrained energy at times. Jeff would tell me to calm down, relax, it’s going to be OK. (Dwight Worker)

        35. He’s a natural for this fellowship

        I nominated Sharlet for the Woodrow Wilson precisely because I thought he had the quality of mind and interest that made him a natural for this fellowship. He is, first of all, more mature than most seniors in his attitude toward his work and in his outside commitments.

He is one of the few seniors I have run into who is deeply engaged in trying to understand the world around him by personal involvement and systematic study with the hope, eventually, of making some contribution.

In his work for me he showed that he was able to deal with the difficult theoretical concepts; that he had a fine analytical mind; and that he was independent in developing his judgment. Finally, I think he will make an excellent graduate student and teacher. (Bernie Morris)

36. A most eligible candidate

Mr Sharlet is a most eligible candidate for the Danforth. He wants to teach, and I think he has the qualities that go into making a fine teacher. He is obviously intelligent, possessing a logical mind, speaks well, has a warm personality, and will be concerned with his students. He will, I think, also combine research with teaching and make his scholarly contribution.

Sharlet is intensely interested in the social and ethical aspects of American society and policy. He is concerned with the role of the individual in both advanced industrial society and underdeveloped areas and hopes in the long run, I believe, to make some contribution to democratic theory. (Bernie Morris)

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         37. His feet were definitely on the ground

         The thing that sticks in my memory is his whimsical attitude, infectious smile, and the impression he gave that his feet were definitely on the ground, something SDS was always very much in need of. (Robin Hunter)

          38. Jeff was skeptical of the efficacy of student protest

          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 Wallihan 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 IU SDS. Later, under Jeff’s aegis as SDS president, the frequency, focus, and effectiveness of antiwar actions greatly increased. (RS)

          39. Reasonably outgoing, but sometimes reserved

          Temperamentally, Jeff was reasonably outgoing although sometimes reserved, but his zeal for reform overcame a lot of his reserve. He was occasionally downbeat and even somber at times, but more often cheerful, agreeable, and optimistic.

          However, about the war, he could be furious, raging against the LBJ administration. (Karen, Miki, Karin)

          40. Tremendous ambition to make it academically

          Jeff was serious, work-oriented, and purposeful. He was very serious about doing well in his studies. He wrote: “I have this tremendous ambition to make it academically, to be the best.” (K,M,K & Jeff’s letter)

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        41. Even-tempered, but occasionally angry over politics

       Jeff was fairly even-tempered, even laid-back, and rarely raised his voice in anger. However, ‘he was extremely angry over the politics of his time and did his best to change it’. (K, M, K)   

42. Irreverent and ironic about things public and ‘important’

Jeff was irreverent and ironic about things public and ‘important’. He had a cynical, sardonic streak, an acute awareness of the absurd about some things conventionally considered ‘very serious matters’. (K, M)

43. Strong, balanced intellectual style

Jeff had a strong, balanced intellectual style. He was interested in theory, but no Ivory Tower intellectual. His mind was in the everyday world, on ideas in action, he was a pragmatist. Sometimes though he could get a bit too impassioned for some around him who didn’t share his world-view. (K, M, K)

44. Charismatic

Politically, Jeff was a charismatic radical, action-oriented, and basically a realist brushed by idealism. His goal was to bring an end to the war – a goal to which he was driven by personal grievance as well as principle. As a friend said, “Vietnam was personal.”

As a realist, he was oriented toward what was achievable. He leaned toward action, always asking himself what can I do, what can I organize. When a half dozen of his friends were asked, independently, to describe Jeff in a single word, each replied, “charisma”. (K, M, K)

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      45.  Back in the World, Regrets Surface

      On a couple of occasions, Jeff tried to tell Karen what he did in Vietnam, but couldn’t go through with it, feeling she would hate him for it. As Karen observed, he probably couldn’t forgive himself, and therefore could not trust others to do so.

        Jeff may have experienced the same bifurcation of feelings that the poet Ehrhart did. Ehrhart was a Marine rifleman in Nam. Interviewed for ‘VN-A TV History’, he was asked to explain the Rules of Engagement. He blithely did so – if a Viet was wearing Black PJs and running, fair game. He related how he shot and killed a runner in a rice paddy.

       When he went up to the body, turned it over with his foot, he saw it was an old peasant woman who probably ran out of fright. He said, ‘Sorry ‘bout that’, and walked on.

        Then suddenly, the poet choked up, realizing he was no longer out on a rice berm, but sitting back in the real world with the usual ethical moorings – he was overcome with emotion over what he had done.

         Perhaps Jeff too developed a thick skin in Nam away from the moorings of civil society, and the regret, shame over what he had done or witnessed, only hit him back in college.

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NEW CONTENT
#46  In a letter of March ’66, it was apparent that SDS work was taking its toll on his academic momentum. He had arranged a reading course with Professor Kim on Southeast Asian political development.

I Have Lost My Impetus This Semester

        I have already taken an Incomplete in Kim’s course. I have lost my impetus this semester, so I’m cutting down my coursework.

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