Indiana University - SDS
The scene of many antiwar demonstrations
Jeff completed his military obligation late spring
to the States. Resuming his education at Indiana University (IU), he
initially buried himself in the books. Gradually however, he gravitated
toward the small group of student radicals on campus, especially as
America’s involvement in the Vietnam War heated up during his
second semester in ‘65.
The campus radicals, styling themselves as the New Left, began protesting the war, and the group soon morphed into the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). IU SDS was very active, demonstrating against pro-war campus speakers Richard Nixon, General Maxwell Taylor, and head of the Draft Lewis Hershey.
Jeff became part of the chapter’s leadership cadre, and
in his final semester assumed presidency of the chapter. Most notably he engaged in an exchange of public letters and dueling speeches with
the university’s president on the role
of the New Left on campus and
in society at large.
Graduating with a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship in hand,
Jeff headed to grad school at University of Chicago. However, he
remained very preoccupied with continuing the struggle against the
Vietnam War – in particular mobilizing Vietnam GIs for that purpose
The Generals March on Indiana
#1 Well before the antiwar cause came center stage at Indiana University (IU) in the mid-‘60s, the salient issue for the campus liberal-minded minority was civil rights. Black students arriving in Bloomington in the late ‘50s found an inhospitable atmosphere. While IU was located squarely in the Midwest – where the Bible Belt intersects the Corn Belt as one observer put it – it was southern Indiana where racism was rife.
A few decades back a Klansman had led the state – the governor was a member of the notorious Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as were quite a number of legislators. Later the capital city elected a Klansman as mayor, and even in the ‘50s and beyond there was a Klan chapter in Monroe County, home to the state’s great university. One resident remembered white-clad Klansmen riding into town – to courthouse square on horseback.
So IU was not only a deeply conservative place, but also set in a racist town, as a former African-American student recounted in her memoir.
We weren’t welcome in the student hangouts near campus. They either directly refused to serve us or pretended not to see us. [The most popular bar] Nick’s English Hut, not far from the campus’s main entrance at Indiana and Kirkwood, refused service to two students I knew…. The owner of Nick’s was quoted, “We’ll close the place before we serve Negroes.”
Many white students didn’t share the bar owner’s prejudice, but only a small number took action to change the situation. Tom Barton, an IU grad student, later to become brother Jeff’s East Coast distributor for Vietnam GI, was a major student activist in the late ‘50s. He was in the forefront of the eventually successful efforts to desegregate Bloomington against the strong opposition of the county Klansmen. He recalled a notable moment.
“Tell Them They Won”
During the summer of ’60 before Tom finally left town, he was in Nick’s when the bartender, Jack Barnes, called him over. He handed him a heavy object haphazardly wrapped in paper. Unwrapping it, Tom found the Great Seal of the Monroe County KKK. The bartender said a message went with it: “Tell them they won.”
#2 Brother Jeff and I returned from abroad in the late spring of ’64, he from the war in Vietnam, then still in its infancy, and I from the Soviet Union. I had just completed a year’s study of Marxist legal theory at Moscow Law School. While I was studying Communism, Jeff was fighting it in Southeast Asia. Our experiences shaped our respective trajectories in very different ways.
A year later, Jeff was back at IU finishing his undergraduate education, while I was teaching at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), my first academic posting. The spring of ’65 was notable as the time of Washington’s escalation of the war. In response, student protest against the Vietnam War escalated dramatically from the small anti-nuclear protests during the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The University of Michigan led the way, staging the first antiwar ‘teach-in’ in late March. At IU, as well as at many other schools, New Left activists, including Jeff, listened in by phone hook-up. Jeff had returned to the States very opposed to the war.
Thanks to the success of the Michigan precedent, teach-ins occurred on many other campuses, including the University of Missouri. However, the Mizzou format was different. Instead of an antiwar critique, it was organized as a balanced debate between pro- and antiwar speakers. I and an American historian argued the pro-war position. Two colleagues, specialists on South Asia opposed us.
A JFK Liberal Internationalist
For nearly five hours, the four of us debated US policy in Vietnam before an audience of over 500 students and professors crammed into an auditorium in the Business School. The South Asianists viewed the Vietnam conflict within historical and regional contexts, advocating a negotiated settlement before the US got in too deep. As a JFK liberal internationalist, I looked at the issue in the framework of the bi-polar Soviet-American Cold War.
At the time, Washington had constructed a global policy to ‘contain’ the Soviet empire and its Chinese Communist sphere – in effect, to prevent them from expanding into the Third World. Therefore, I viewed Communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, its guerrilla forces, as Moscow proxies for extending Soviet and Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
My opponents in contrast argued that the US had intervened in what was essentially a civil war between north and south Vietnam. At the conclusion, the audience was invited to pose questions or make short statements. The most prescient intervention of that long afternoon was from Professor William Allen, a Socialist and noted young scholar of Germany. He vigorously condemned American policy and insisted on complete withdrawal from Vietnam.
In retrospect, he was of course right.
#3 Finding the dozens of people with whom Jeff interacted nearly four decades earlier was a major task of reconstructing his life and times. Ideally those found would have memories intact and the willingness to revisit them.
One of Jeff’s girlfriends at IU was initially unwilling to revisit the past. Several years later she came around. She had been embarrassed to describe the one image she remembered.
A Moment of Quiet During the Tumultuous ‘60s
Audrey: I recall only impressions and atmospheres, even just wisps of the two. And I was profoundly reluctant to describe my most vivid memory of Jeff – which is a picture of the two of us smoking cigarettes in his bed. I don’t even remember what we talked about, which I suppose makes it seem we had a physical relationship only. Who knows? Perhaps that was the truth.
My Reply:That’s a lovely image you shared, a fragment or shard of memory which suggests close friendship, contentment, perhaps a moment of quiet during the tumultuous ‘60s outside the window.
Your image stirred my own memories as I tried to remember similar moments – a beautiful Swedish girl on a ship crossing the North Sea as we parted after gamboling about in her curtained berth before we went our separate ways.
She debarked at Stockholm, I sailed on to Leningrad. I recall not a single word said, it seems like a silent film, just wisps of blonde hair brushing her face.
#4 Like all large state universities with huge campuses and student populations in the tens of thousands, IU had campus police officers who were called safety officers. During the antiwar period, they were often called upon to maintain order at large demonstrations. After a while, New Left activists at IU got to know the principal officers, William Spannuth and Robert Dillon.
Alumnus of the FBI Academy
Spannuth, Wm., IU ’33, appointed Director of Safety fall ’55. Was starting center Varsity football for three years. Wife also an IU grad. Joined Indiana State Police in ’35. Worked his way up in the ranks: detective, admin asst to the superintendent, captain of detectives, clemency secty to the governor, ’51-’53. His State Police detective duties involved liaising with the FBI and local police.
Dillon, Robt., holder of the Indiana State Police coveted Gold Star Award. Joined IU Safety Division fall ’61 upon retiring from State Police after 20 yrs. Had risen through the ranks to detective-lieutenant for southern Indiana. Alumnus of IU and FBI Academy and studied police science at IU, Northwestern, Purdue, and Harvard. Was honored for work in the New Castle Labor Riots. Married with a 12-yr old. Under Director Spannuth, rose to asst director of the division and apparently served as spokesman.
#5 Jeff returned from Vietnam to IU finish his education. He had begun there in the fall of ’60, but very unhappy, had dropped out by January, ending up later in the year in the Army. In ’64, he came back from Vietnam angry and bitter – angry over the US mission there of which he had been a vital part, and bitter that the military had taken up nearly three years of his life.
Back at IU, he buckled down and earned excellent grades, but money was tight and he seemed to have problems readjusting to civilian life despite his claims to the contrary, especially among the younger people at the university, notably less experienced in the world than he. Neither I nor our parents were aware of his mood, but in letters to his cousin John, still then in the Army, Jeff expressed his discontents candidly.
Somehow I Don’t Fit in Here
02 Dec 64
I lead a rather ascetic life. I live in a $40/month room off campus and cook for myself on a single burner hotplate. I dig academe. It’s a nice buffer between me and the cold, harsh, cruel world outside. I attain good grades in order to get money in order to stay in this environment. I study because of a genuine thirst, I think.
My resocialization into civilian life is complete. Actually, I don’t think I was ever de-socialized by the Army. The Army has been relegated to my most rearward memory cells – a dim, nebulous remembrance of a time long ago.
I stay here during all vacations. If you are passing through, look me up. I get lonely out here on the Midwestern plains.
Feb 2, 1965
I still hate this place. I don’t know how long I’ll last. I guess I’ll be able to make it through and get my union card (a BA). I don’t know why – I don’t want to do anything with it. I don’t think I want to go into the academic world or get a PhD. Too much bullshit.
I have no quarrels with this place academically – the Government Dept is tremendous. But I hate the environment. Somehow I don’t fit in here although I don’t think I would fit in any place. I have no ambitions. I want to write. I want to go to Europe. I’m sick.
I don’t know what I want. I live a completely isolated life here. I ignore everyone and everyone ignores me. I don’t know man, I’m all fucked up. I survive on hate. It’s a great emotion. I learned it in the Army.
The next day: I’m not cracking up yet. I wrote this letter during my depressed state of my manic-depressive pendulum.
#6 In spring ’65 as the US escalated the war in Vietnam and an antiwar movement in the colleges sprang up in reaction, Washington began to worry that opposition would spread. A small group of diplomats and military officers – all with experience in Vietnam – was dispatched to the big Midwestern state universities to set the record straight and spike the rising dissent. The group was dubbed the ‘truth squad’, and it ran into angry students at nearly every campus, no more so than at University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Aw C’mon. Let’s Be Honest
The truth squad had been invited to Wisconsin by the campus ‘Committee to Support the People of South Vietnam’, but on arrival at the evening’s venue with 650 people awaiting, it was also met – ‘confronted’ would be more apt – by the ‘Committee to End the War in Vietnam’ (CEWV), a 200-strong umbrella group drawing on SDS and other campus left groups.
Although there were empty seats in the room, the CEWV activists wearing black armbands insisted on standing along the walls and greeting the team's pronouncements with a cacophony of hisses and heckling. The team's attempt to present the official view of the war was a fiasco. A typical exchange went like this:
Student: Why do prisoners we take confess to infiltration only after a month of interrogation?
Conlon: Sometimes it takes a long time before a prisoner wants to talk.
Another student, shouting: Torture!
Conlon: The Americans do not torture.
Third student: But we run the show.
Conlon: We do not run it.
Shouts from throughout the room: Aw c’mon. Let’s be honest.
#7 At IU, Jeff had many friends, most from the ranks of the New Left activists. He was confident, mature, and well-liked, and some even thought of him as having a good deal of charisma. Yet something was then bothering him from his Vietnam experience, something he chose not to talk about.
Woundedness and Lostness
Two of his young women friends picked up something else going on behind Jeff’s public persona. Early on, one referred to him subtly conveying a sense of woundedness while later, the other referred to a sort of lostness.
#8 As a freshman at IU in the fall of ’60, Jeff had slacked off academically before he dropped out. But he returned to the university in fall ’64 considerably more mature and a dedicated student of Political Science, eventually winning a coveted Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship.
A Quick Analytical Mind
He had a quick analytical mind as well as a sentient side. Jeff was able to bridge the gulf in Political Science between behavioral observation and normative judgment, basically the chasm between the Social Sciences and the Humanities.
#9 The first shoots of what became IU SDS appeared in early ’65. Rick Congress, a co-founder, remembered Jeff.
Tough Guy Macho Persona
A group of us, including Robin Hunter and others, organized the first anti-Vietnam War rally in Dunn Meadow in the spring of ’65. I think Jeff was around then.
When I first met him, I thought he had a very tough guy macho persona, not that he really acted that way, but he looked that way. But he was easy to get along with, and we had a good time hanging out and arguing about politics.
#10 Dwight Worker was a younger activist who observed Jeff in action closely and admired him.
A Brilliant, Magical Man
I attended many SDS meetings and national demonstrations with Jeff. What truly impressed me was his maturity and intelligence. Jeff was the sensible voice of reason when it seemed like many others were losing our sanity over the escalating war.
Jeff was always a politico and never a ‘social’/hippie. I think this came from his early experience in Vietnam. He was simply head and shoulders more mature than most other men his age.
Jeff had the ability to see through some of the extreme ideas we would propose. He seemed to have a very good sense of what was possible. In that sense, Jeff could relate very well to the ‘bumpkin-proletariat’ around us. I think his being a military veteran kept him very grounded as to what the rest of America was thinking.
Jeff Sharlet was an absolutely brilliant, magical man, cut down too early.
#11 A woman who had known Jeff during prep school days remarked that Jeff ‘didn’t really love himself as much as others admired him’. But from the perspective of Karen, who knew him well at IU, that was precisely his strength.
Seriousness of Intent
One of the primary reasons people did admire Jeff so much was that he did not give the appearance of loving himself/conceit/better than others. Your assessment that he was not self-effacing or lacking in self-esteem is correct. There was never a hint of the braggart or clown about him, nothing that would detract from his seriousness of intent with regard to the movement.
His private person, as you know, had a darker, troubled aspect to it not seen in his public persona. It isn’t surprising that his personality as a youngster carried over into adulthood. He probably developed the dark side as a result of your family’s difficulties, but even that was not enough to obliterate the personality that had long since been established.
#12 No one was better positioned at IU to observe the evolution of Jeff’s attitude on the war than his best friend, Jim Wallihan, whom he first met fall of ‘65.
He Was Very Skeptical
When I first met Jeff that fall, it was clear that he had really ‘checked out’ much of the left in Bloomington. I think he was very skeptical, if not entirely ‘turned off’ by some of what he saw. Our conversations were about that, and we shared a lot of perspectives on it.
My take from this distance is that even then Jeff was evolving what later crystalized in the form of VGI. That he was looking to do something that would more directly engage his own experience with that of front-line folks (who more than GIs?) in the antiwar effort.
The absence of that connection was the basis of his skepticism and was driving him, and figuring out how to pull it together was the resolution. So I don’t think Jeff was just initially dubious, but continued to want to move to an even more relevant engagement despite becoming active in the SDS chapter.
#13 After Jeff’s death, activists at IU renamed the New University Conference (NUC) chapter in memory of Jeff. Mike Skirvin, who as a freshman had lived in the same house with Jeff for a time, put forward the renaming proposal and sent his assessment of Jeff.
He Loved Politics
My basic reason for the renaming proposal was grounded in a feeling that too many movement people limit their effectiveness by thinking they are too politically sophisticated to have any real, outward emotional involvement with their politics.
I don’t recall Jeff like this at all. He loved politics and showed it.
#14 Dick Boris was in the PhD program at IU, studying with Jeff’s mentor, Prof Bernie Morris. He was a ‘red diaper’ baby and active in the campus New Left. He remembered Jeff, especially his attitude toward the local rednecks, the limestone cutters.
Never Demeaned the Cutters
A sweet man with edgy politics, but never came off as an edgy personality. Didn’t buy into the counter-culture and never demeaned the cutters. A good speaker, not manipulative or strident.
#15 Roger Salloom, who loomed large on the music scene at IU, remembered Jeff.
He Was Ahead of His Time
He was vivacious, very politicized about the Vietnam War. People liked Jeff because of that. People listened because he spoke with the authority of having been to Vietnam and because he had charisma.
Jeff was in the political world. He was ahead of his time.
The Only Progress Made by the VC
In early December ’63, he contradicted the American and South Vietnamese optimists in Saigon who had been heralding the decline in enemy activity. ‘The only progress made in Long An province has been made by the Vietcong’.
#17 Bernie Morris was Jeff’s professor and mentor at IU. He supported the campus New Left.
I Was Marcuse’s Best Man
I interviewed one of Jeff’s professors who taught Marxism. I asked whether he used Marcuse in the course Jeff took with him since I had detected some Marxian phraseology in Jeff’s writings.
As an aside, I added that I had had the privilege of taking two courses with Marcuse at Brandeis. He responded (laughing), ‘I can one-up you; I was Marcuse’s Best Man when he married his second wife’.
#18 Jeff became an outstanding Political Science student at IU, graduating with honors in ’67. His Honors Thesis was entitled “Toward Political Mobilization of Urban Lower-Class Negroes.”
The basic problem of lower-class Negroes is their condition of powerlessness – psychologically, politically, and economically. To change this condition, they must struggle in a political and economic system that is white-controlled. Moreover, to change this condition within a reasonable period (say, forty years) would require a considerable economic effort and sacrifice over time by the white majority.
Yet, it is becoming more apparent that whites are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to accommodate the needs and demands of lower-class Negroes. Generally speaking, whites seem to be minimally interested and maximally hostile to this Negro group. On the other hand, even if whites were willing to make a real effort, presently, lower-class Negroes are, for the most part, psychologically incapable of taking advantage of any such accommodation.
Thus, the first priority of this Negro group is changing their condition of psychological powerlessness. Furthermore, the impetus for effecting this must come from within the Negro community.
A Passport to Leave the Country
Jeff too felt he had gotten out just in time. In fact, he said the first thing he was going to do was get a passport to leave the country if they tried to recall him. He was never tested, so I never knew if that was bravado or if he was serious.