On the GI Antiwar Beat
#1 Once Jeff launched his paper Vietnam GI (VGI) in early ’68,
he began making trips out of Chicago to military bases around the
country, spreading news of the paper and seeking material for future
issues. He was especially looking for returning Vietnam GIs who had
seen combat and had stories to tell.
He often traveled with Jim Wallihan, his close friend
from Indiana University, who had come up to Chicago to help Jeff with VGI. For instance, when they were in the Washington DC area, they went out to nearby Fort Meade and Fort Belvedere. Another time they hit bases in the Midwest, including Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois and the big infantry training base, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Jim explains the modus operandi of those visits.
On the Road With Jim
The base trips were multi-purpose, the focus was on the newspaper and networking. This meant hooking up with GIs who were into something, had been, or were prospectively into something, and were interested in VGI. And if the guy had an experience [in Vietnam], maybe doing an interview.
We were looking at things like, would this be a good base to drop some papers on so the GI we’d hooked up with could distribute VGI, are there any stories there we could use in the next issue, is there anything we can learn about the unit, and are a lot of people being shipped out to Nam?
There was one other visit Jeff and I made. After we checked out Fort Leonard Wood, we headed down to St Louis. There was a guy named Dave Meggyesy, an all-star linebacker, who played pro football for the St Louis Cardinals, and he was anti-war.
Here’s a guy who sounded like he had his head on right, and he was going around doing some anti-war speaking. We wanted to maybe work him into the paper because you know a guy like that, a professional football player, has a certain amount of cachet.
#2 Vietnam GI (VGI), Jeff’s paper, gave impetus to an emerging but inchoate GI opposition to the war. The Pentagon’s initial reaction to protests was harsh – an Army doctor sent to prison for three years for refusing to train Special Forces for Vietnam and two Black Marines given long sentences for merely questioning deployment to Vietnam – but the threat of military justice as the hoped for deterrent did not deter.
Individual acts of resistance continued to occur. Then in early ‘68 came VGI which shaped and focused GI protest and served as a forerunner to the rise of underground papers at base camps stateside and abroad. By ’69, the military reluctantly came to terms with protest in the ranks by formulating a policy within First Amendment rights under the Constitution. The ensuing guidelines for commanding officers dealt with the phenomenon of dissent in a more nuanced and less draconic manner, especially the burgeoning GI antiwar press.
Department of Defense Directive
Guidelines for Handling Dissident and Protest Activities
Among Members of the Armed Forces
2. While the mere possession of unauthorized printed material may not be prohibited, printed material which is prohibited from distribution shall be impounded if the Commander determines that an attempt will be made to distribute.
3. The fact that a publication is critical of Government policies or officials is not, in itself, a ground upon which distribution may be prohibited.
#3 The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was quite active in the GI antiwar movement. They fielded a candidate in the 1968 presidential race, not with the idea they could win, but mainly to project their program to a wider audience. Opposition to the war was a central feature of their platform.
A massive 6’6”, 350-pound ex-garment worker, Fred Halstead was a longtime member of the SWP leadership cadre. In ’68, he was the party’s presidential candidate. Opposition to the war was a central feature of SWP’s platform. Halstead considered GI antiwar papers as key vehicles for developing GI resistance and wrote that the “most influential [paper] in the early period was Vietnam GI, published in Chicago by Vietnam veteran Jeff Sharlet.”
In connection with his summer campaign swing visiting US military bases in the Far East, he and Jeff met in Kyoto, Japan. Both had been invited to speak at a Japanese peace conference. In his later memoir on the antiwar movement, Out Now!, Fred Halstead wrote of meeting Jeff, pointing out that while Jeff did not share his political views, both men had advised the Japanese antiwar people not to continue encouraging GI desertions, but instead to urge dissident GIs to remain in the ranks as internal activists against the war. Fred Halstead died in 1988.
#4 As the Vietnam War grew in intensity, the Johnson administration tasked the FBI to keep an eye on the rising antiwar opposition, which was generally considered subversive by official Washington. By the third issue of Jeff’s Vietnam GI, the FBI took note.
It Is of a Seditious Nature
An FBI memorandum from J Edgar Hoover to the FBI field office in Chicago ordered an immediate investigation of people working for Vietnam GI, published in Chicago. The directive of May 3, 1968 states: ‘A review of the attached edition of Vietnam GI indicates that it is of a seditious nature’.
#5 One of the most notable personalities of the antiwar period was Maria McDonald Jolas, the grande dame of the American expat community in Paris. She was of an old Kentucky family that traced its roots back to Jefferson. Maria had first gone to Berlin and Paris to study music in the early 20th century and returned home, but by the 1920s had made the City of Light her home. She married a European-American, Eugène Jolas, a literary figure of the interwar period, whom she had met in the US.
The two of them met and befriended the
impoverished James Joyce in the ‘20s
A Grand Old Dame
Maria Jolas – Grande dame yes, and my memory is of a ‘grand old dame’ as Brits would say. Always very jolly! Thick wavy white hair, lively blue eyes, a ruddy pink complexion (as of someone outdoors a lot, tho I doubt she was, and Paris air doesn’t usually favor healthy ruddy complexions). She was big and heavyset and filled the space of the fauteuil she usually was seated on.
She paid little attention to me. But she was entertaining, telling stories, laughing a lot and bursting into song. As regards my kid’s perception, she wasn’t vaguely antagonistic like Sonia Orwell, who also smiled and laughed a lot and told stories (minus the songs). I would listen a while and then go back to my own world.
Anyway, I can tell you Maria and June always had fun together and usually a few whiskies, too.
#6 Dave said that VGI was really atypical for a left project. Most left committees aren’t formed with any goal. Say, it’s a Save South Africa committee – it doesn’t really matter what happens in South Africa, the purpose of the committee is to simply recruit people to the left, and as for the rest of it, who cares.
Stop the War
Jeff was absolutely focused – he wanted to help guys in the military revolt. And he wanted to stop the war. And end the whole thing. And he wasn’t interested in the usual left project.
For example, a Trotskyist group had a GI paper and formed the American Servicemen’s Union; a major part of the paper’s content was old left rhetoric, its leader a self-proclaimed Communist. That’s a typical left thing. Jeff wasn’t interested in that kind of thing.
Jeff’s goals are simply inconceivable in today’s mindset. He actually just wanted to get the army to revolt and then end the war. That’s all he wanted to do.
#7 While Andy Stapp of The Bond was a hound for national media attention, Jeff kept a low profile and ducked it.
He Would Not Cooperate
Jeff would never sit for media interviews. Esquire was never going to do a piece on Jeff. Ever. Because he would not cooperate. Because his position was, he really thought we could destroy the military in Vietnam.
When Washington figured that people were really doing this, that it was actually happening, who knows what could happen. They could get angry with people like us. In which case Jeff didn’t want to be the person who was …
He was perfectly content that other people were the big leaders of things. That was fine with him.
#8 According to DK, Jeff consciously developed a persona to facilitate his work with returning combat GIs, mostly working class guys.
Like Steve McQueen
Jeff genuinely knew who he was, but he was very self-aware of creating himself. He was like Steve McQueen. He had a certain – to say it’s an act makes it too shallow. But he had a working class persona worked out. It wasn’t phony, it was a how he wanted to be kinda thing.
He crafted a certain persona that was very street. I always think of Steve McQueen because it was exactly the same kind of thing. Clint Eastwood did it too. Steve McQueen actually told Dustin Hoffman or some other young actor, ‘Quit talking so much. Let them do the talking. Let everyone around you do the talking. You don’t talk. Everyone has to look to you because you’re the person that hasn’t said anything, hasn’t given your opinion’.
I don’t think Jeff was imitating Steve McQueen, but he was just like that. I saw Jeff in a lot of discussions with university radicals with lots of theories and facts, and they actually KNEW a lot, but they’d just go on and on. Jeff would just nod, wouldn’t say anything.
Jeff could be in a room with all this political stuff raging, he wouldn’t say a thing. Lots of times. He wouldn’t say anything, unless sometimes in discussions there was a tipping point. ‘How do you resolve it?’ And somebody will say ONE thing and it will crystallize everything. See, that’s what Jeff could do.
Sometimes he’d just say, ‘This is bullshit. What we’re talking about is bullshit. This isn’t real. Never going to happen. Can’t do it this way. So we’d better think about what we’re really going to do instead of having this talk’. I’ve actually been to two or three meetings where Jeff said that, to a whole room full of people.
#9 The word ‘charisma’ came up again and again, especially in my interviews with IU people about Jeff. DK too shared the idea.
He Had the Goods
Jeff was very charismatic. He had a LOT of, you know, he had the goods. To make it really simple, he was the only guy in the room who’s been to Nam, and everybody else is trying to organize students (laughs) at Harvard or Chicago, and he was talking to guys in Nam. And talking to guys on the bases here who’d BEEN to Nam. So, ok, you don’t like what he has to say, fine.
#10 When Jeff started VGI, he initially drew upon Veterans for Peace, then affiliated with the Communist Party for his first mailing list and generally for help, but it didn’t work out.
This Isn’t Going to Work
Jeff was in the left, but he wasn’t OF the left, culturally. He really thought a different way. So the Vets for Peace thing, after a while he said, ‘This isn’t going to work. CP runs it, it’s all these old guys, they’re nice enough, BUT, they’re like a dead letter. Never going to happen’.
#11 Jeff saw the student radicals basically organizing middle class people to do middle class things. That’s was fine, but not his thing. He zeroed in on the working class Vietnam GIs.
He Used Silence a Lot
Jeff shaped himself. A lot of middle class white guys tried to talk to redneck GIs and didn’t get that far. But on politics, Jeff could do it because he could sound inarticulate. He could sound like he was letting you do the talking. He used silence a lot.
His whole shtick was really different. It was one of those things that made him charismatic. It was that he withheld his opinion, like Clint Eastwood. This whole meeting is going on, this whole discussion, and nobody knows what Jeff’s going to say.
Because he’s not dogging you every five minutes, telling you to do this or that. He’s just not doing that at all. He’s just looking at you. Watching you do whatever you do. Clearly, he’s not impressed with it (laughs). He’s not applauding or anything.
#12 Jeff objected to the antiwar movement’s initial hostility toward the VN GI, or at best its indifference to his fate. As he reinvented himself to present more of a ‘street’ persona, he strongly identified with the VN GIs, many of them drafted, while others were unable to avail themselves of college deferments.
He’s One of Them
Jeff was pissed about it. So when he’s talking about objectifying GIs and all this stuff, this isn’t some humanitarian impulse on his part, this is something he feels part of. He’s one of them, the guys in Nam, the working class.
He’s one of THEM. He’s not one of the middle class people in the universities. He definitely felt that. That’s why he couldn’t work with them once he left college. Once he decided he really wanted to do this, he had to find somebody different. DK
#13 Jeff and Dave had been critical of certain big names in the movement whom they dubbed ‘ego trippers’. Those were smart, even in some cases gifted people, but their priority was self-aggrandizement. Jesse Jackson was but one example of the phenomenon.
Destroy the Military
Jeff was the opposite. He was totally committed to his mission. He wasn’t into protesting the war. If you’d said that to him, he woulda laughed. He was NOT into that. He literally wanted to end the war and destroy the military. Fuck it up.
He wanted to completely fuck it up. He wanted to free all the guys who were imprisoned in the military. He wanted the revolution to start in the military. He didn’t think America was going to be socialist in five years or any of that kind of stuff – he had no illusions.
He thought that those guys in the military are so screwed over, so used, so lied to, they’re like the bottom of society. Really the bottom. And they just need help freeing themselves. Tearing it all down. Fucking it all up.
Q: But they’re not going to make some socialist utopia?
Q: What they gonna do?
A: He didn’t know that, but it’s not like there’s a big program: Step 1, we’ll fuck it up; Step 2 ….
#14 Jeff-2 asked Dave K if he and Jeff had political disputes.
I’m Really a Person of the Left
We had very few. We did have them, but Jeff wasn’t ideologically left the way most people are. That’s why I say he was in the left, but he wasn’t of the left.
I’m really a person of the left. All the little feuds, the animosities, the slights of 20 years ago. I know all this. Ingrown knowledge, feuds, but also a little community.
Jeff was totally uninterested in that. It’s one of the things that gave him a different kind of authority. He wasn’t a super leftist. In some ways, he wasn’t a leftist at all. He just wanted to kinda destroy the US military and get them defeated and end the war.
And he admired the VN communists, not because he thought they were nice people – he didn’t – though he thought there were good people among them just like there are in every army.
He liked them because they were pros. They were professionals. We used to talk about that. That they really knew what they were doing. What they were doing was probably the best thing for VN. Certainly the US occupation wasn’t the best thing for VN, so they were a much better alternative.
Even though Jeff didn’t believe in some utopia, the left was going to have somewhere to go. He totally was not into that. He didn’t care about it. He wouldn’t even argue about it with you. His thing was, well you thought that? That’s your problem.
#15 Running VGI was a very demanding job. It would have been physically challenging for someone in good health, which Jeff wasn’t. He was plagued by something – he didn’t know what – that he’d brought back from VN.
Being Sick Shadowed Everything
Jeff’s being sick shadowed everything. Because he was exhausted all the time. He’d have to speak someplace, he’d have to fundraise, go to a rally. He was exhausted. And Jeff was completely resistant to seeing doctors.
I remember he fought the whole idea. Kit had to almost force him to see a doctor about what eventually became his final illness. I remember they would have fights about it.
It was evident to Kit that this wasn’t normal fatigue. She was really good on diagnostic stuff. She really argued with Jeff. Raging fights about it. She just nagged his ass. I remember him saying, well I don’t have any money. She’d say, go to the VA. They owe you, you do it.
That shadowed all his plans, the way he talked about things.
#16 Because of Jeff’s stature in emerging GI antiwar protest, people on the left were frequently trying to coopt him into their activities.
He Had a Lot of Credibility
Jeff was charismatic, partly because he didn’t talk a lot of bullshit. When he spoke to a group, he never padded his remarks, zero, if his talk ran only seven minutes, it’d be seven minutes.
He had a lot of credibility in the antiwar movement. He wasn’t a good leader, but he had a LOT of credibility. A lot of people would sign on to something if he said we should do it. Which he rarely did.
So the whole thing of him getting manipulated and used was a real fact that we struggled with all the time.
#17 Jeff avoided publicity. He felt if you were taking on the US government, there was no point in getting in their face and drawing undue attention.
A Pretty Cautious Dude
Jeff didn’t like phonies. One of the reasons he had a good rep was that you weren’t going to hear a lot of claims from Jeff that weren’t substantiated. Probably weren’t going to hear a lot of claims at all.
He was just going to kind of lay out the trail and you could figure it out if you wanted to. The whole thing of holding lots of press conferences so they could photograph you, he thought that was stupid.
Because either you thought nothing was going to happen – in which case why are you doing it – or you’re a complete idiot. Because if you’re really talking about destroying the effectiveness of the US military, people are going to kill for this. It’s one or the other.
Jeff was a pretty cautious dude.
The War Was Swallowing up Everything
The war was swallowing up everything. We
had an exaggerated view of the war. Now, today, it’s just a war. America’s had
a lot of wars, right. DK
#18 Dave K was hard left; Jeff was definitely not, yet they worked together very effectively.
He Was Pretty Disinterested
Jeff knew that my own political views differed from his, but he was pretty disinterested, particularly since we were so busy trying to turn the world of government bureaucracies upside down.
#19 Francis Rocks was one of the ex-Vietnam guys Jeff lined up for his VGI editorial advisory committee.
Alienated by the Peace Movement
VVAW was founded in June ’67 and has 31 chapters across the country as of June ‘68. However, according to its national field secretary, a former Signal Corps sergeant, named Francis Rocks, its nationwide membership totals only about 200.
Rocks says he and other members have been alienated by the peace movement because of some of its tactics. ‘I got my head bashed in and was arrested during Stop the Draft Week in New York last December’, recalls Rocks, a high school dropout who works on and off as a truck driver.
‘I believe in peaceful picketing’, he says, ‘but a lot of what went on during that week was wrong – all that running through the streets. I don’t believe in charging the Pentagon either. Things like that just alienate people, especially veterans’.
#20 The Chicago PD Red Squad was very active in monitoring and disrupting the left. Jeff was well aware and considered it wise to keep a generally low profile, avoiding publicity and sometimes moving VGI editing from place to place and even away from Chicago. Eventually the courts cracked down on illegal Red Squad activity.
Best Way to Destroy the Left
Prosecutor: What was taken from the offices at 1608 West Madison?
Red Squad cop: Mimeograph, typewriters, stamps, money, membership files.
Prosecutor: Why did you take the office equipment?
Cop: Well, the best way to destroy the left would be to destroy their press or their publications. [B & R Schulz, The Price of Dissent, ’01, p. 410]
#21 CADRE people would occasionally help the VGI crew at mailing parties.
Police Infiltrated CADRE
CADRE was an affiliate of the Chicago Peace Council, so whenever they had meetings, officers of the council would attend. Red Squad police infiltrated CADRE.
#22 Tom Barton played a couple of key roles in the creation and success of VGI. He brought Jeff and Dave Komatsu, the dual engine for the paper, together, and he served as East Coast distributor.
A Third-Generation Union Activist
A third-generation union activist, Tom Barton’s grandfather was a member of the IWW, and an uncle helped form a UAW local in Wisconsin.
With the Chicago Branch of YPSL in ’63, Barton gained increasing prominence as an editor of Young Socialist Review and through his involvement in national committees.
While Shachtman and Michael Harrington argued that the Socialist Party should realign to work with the Democratic Party and push them to the left, Barton became one of the leaders in the left wing faction of YPSL (along with Bob Brown, Marge Green, Walt Lively, Joe Weiner, and David Komatsu) opposing the realignment and favoring building a mass labor party.
During the latter half of the ‘60s, Barton continued in the revolutionary vein and as an active participant in the antiwar movement. At one time, as East Coast distributor of the antiwar Vietnam GI, he assisted in sending issues to Vietnam.
Working in the health industry and as a shop steward with Local
768, Health Care Workers, AFSCME District Council 37, New York City, Barton has
remained politically active. A member of the International Socialist
Organization, he has taken part in anti-globalization protests in 2000 and has
been active in opposition to the war and militarism, publishing GI Special (later Military Resistance) and Traveling
Soldier. He assisted ex-Iraq GIs in organizing Iraq Veterans Against the
#23 Barbara Garson wrote the play ‘MacBird!’ and was a major West Coast activist.
GI Coffee House Near Fort Lewis, WA
Barbara Garson, an FSM activist, and her husband Marvin were among the founders of the San Francisco Express Times, a radical counter-cultural newspaper.
She also worked in the GI coffee house near Fort Lewis, Washington, helped in the publication of a base paper, and provided, along with her co-workers, psychic support for acts of resistance.
Giving somebody confidence was what we were about. When a person felt he was an organizer, then he had a purpose in the army.