The New Left
#1 With President Johnson’s escalation of the war in early ’65, student opposition sprang up at many universities. SDS, the organizational form of the New Left, already had chapters on most of these campuses, and they in turn led the protests. In March, the chapter at Michigan organized the first campus Teach-In against the war, and several weeks later the SDS National Office coordinated the first huge demonstration against the war in Washington.
The Johnson administration became concerned and decided the pro-war argument needed to be made to stem the academic revolt. A small group of State Department and Pentagon officials with Vietnam experience were sent out to test the waters at Midwestern universities. Indiana University was on the itinerary, but before the so-called Truth Squad reached Bloomington they came a cropper elsewhere as The Militant, the Trotskyist SWP paper, reported.
Gov’t ‘Truth’ Squad Hits
Stiff Midwest Opposition
The State Department’s touring ‘truth team’
defending the US war in Vietnam got badly battered on the first three campuses
it went to last week.
…The position of the Johnson administration presented by the ‘truth team’ certainly didn’t make any converts at the University of Iowa, Drake University, or the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
[As the New York Times reported], at the University of Wisconsin, the ‘truth team’ ran into an ambush. In the formal meeting addressed by the ‘truth team’ … the State Department was again embroiled in a hot skirmish that ‘more than matched’ the confrontation at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
The ‘truth team’ will now go to the Universities of Indiana and Illinois….
#2 In the early ‘60s, Indiana University presciently designated a section of the campus as a ‘free speech’ zone “where any group can discuss literally anything.” The idea was to draw excitable students away from the class and study areas, but it was also a beneficial move for protestors from both the left and the right. With President Johnson’s dramatic escalation of the war in Vietnam in early ’65, the zone was put to good use.
Jeers, Firecracker Explosions, and Applause
By March 1965 the Dunn Meadow neutral ground rang with a mixture of jeers, firecracker explosions, and applause. Before an audience of 3,000 persons, the Ad Hoc Committee to End the War in Vietnam outlined its stand to bring about a cease fire and stop the bombings, to begin immediate negotiations, and to withdraw American forces.
Three professors and a student spoke for an hour and a half amidst the noise and efforts of the pro-US policy supporters to capture the podium.
#3 At Indiana University (IU), Jeff played key roles in the SDS chapter. In late ’66 he was chairing the dorm-education program on the war. As an ex-Vietnam GI it was no doubt he who inserted an item on the ‘Fort Hood Three’ in the November newsletter. Three GIs attached to the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood TX issued a joint statement announcing their refusal to deploy to Vietnam. They were arrested by Military Police and court-martialed.
Excerpt from an Early GI Protest
We have been in the Army long enough to know that we are not the only GIs who feel as we do. Large numbers of men in the service either do not understand this war or are against it.
#4 In ’62, IU chose a new president, Elvis J Stahr. A man with an impressive academic resume, he had resigned JFK’s Pentagon where he had been Secretary of the Army to move to Indiana. After praising his academic distinctions, Time magazine gave Stahr a qualified send-off from Washington. Six years later, after many confrontations with the IU New Left, for which he was temperamentally unsuited, President Stahr left academe in bitterness.
They Know All the Answers Already
Time ‘62: Kentucky-born President Stahr, 46, [is a] lawyer and Rhodes Scholar. Less successful were Stahr’s 18 months at the Pentagon, where his academic personality failed to mesh with hardware-oriented Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Stahr once admitted that he did not know a battle group from a battalion, and blame for foul-ups in last year’s call-up of Army reservists landed on his desk.
He should be happier at Indiana where his talents are more suitable.
Stahr’s exit interview ’68: The New Left does not want to study and get ready; they want things done their way, now, both on campus and in the great society outside. Not only is this a significant minority, but it is an extremely vocal and extremely active one.
It has members who are exceedingly bright and exceedingly arrogant. I think the arrogance of this, the student activist today, is a startling phenomenon. The only thing I loathe more than their arrogance is their utter lack of humor.
They’re just cold-eyed, they really think that they …. I don’t know why they go to college. They really think they know all the answers already.
#5 Well before the break-up of SDS with one faction turning to violence, the seeds of disunion were evident as early as winter ’66. The organization was becoming increasingly bifurcated, but with the campus chapters continuing peaceful antiwar protest while the national leadership began thinking more and more in terms of militant confrontation.
As the ‘Days of Rage’ ‘biographer’ of SDS quotes a leader expressing the new turn:
From Protest to Resistance
The meaninglessness of non-violent, ‘democratic’ methods was becoming clear to us in the spring of 1967. The Civil Rights Movement was dead. Some leftists –the Trotskyites, Maoists, radical socialists … some of the radicals in SDS, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Tom Hayden – knew it early.
But it took the rest of us awhile to give up the sweet life of the democratic Left for revolt.
#6 Even before SDS split in ’69, political violence was spreading on the campuses by the winter of 1968-69. As the study, ‘Days of Rage’ tells it:
A Rash of Bombings
For the first time underground papers began publishing instructions on the making of Molotov cocktails. Homemade bombing manuals began circulating at SDS meetings and rock concerts.
A rash of bombings occurred in Detroit that winter; small devices exploded five times outside the city halls in Oakland and San Francisco.
#7 When I began this memoir, I thought I knew Jeff well enough. After all, he was my kid brother, and did I not have several boxes of his letters and papers as well. Of course, that was an illusion, as I repeatedly discovered with each new interview of Jeff’s contemporaries.
Turned out I really didn’t know the brother who had gone off to war and returned to achieve his destiny as a major antiwar leader.
When I asked a half dozen of Jeff’s closest friends for a single word to describe him, each independently without hesitation replied, ‘charisma’. I was astonished. That was an aspect of Jeff that hadn’t been apparent to me or our parents when we had all occasionally gotten together during his last years.
A very nice guy, well-spoken, and mature, yes, but I had never thought of my kid brother as a charismatic leader. I was of course pleased to learn this of him.
#8 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 it’.
Part of the Small Coterie
Yes, your brother was part of the small coterie who formed an SDS chapter in Bloomington in the mid- ‘60s.
#10 Nell Levin recounts the early days of SDS at IU.
Young and Really Fired Up
I knew Jeff when he was hanging out with us dissidents around SDS and the anti-Vietnam War movement in Bloomington. We had a small, intimate group that used to meet to plan activities and discuss leftist theory. We met quite frequently, often nightly, and carried out a free-wheelin’ discussion for hours and hours.
Most of those meetings were in the living room of the crumbling old house I shared with David Satterfield, the father of my daughter Cordelia, and Robin Hunter plus some other folks at 102 North Dunn.
You might have heard of Robin. He was a British poli sci grad student, a Trotskyite, and a brilliant fellow. He really knew his Marx and Engels.
We were young and really fired up about politics, culture, and the war. The hippies and the counter-culture were just beginning to surface, but we were primarily involved with politics and not too much else at the time.
#11 The student daily at IU was a middle of the road paper that leaned toward being pro-administration or was at least deferential to the powers that be. Hence, its lead editorial on 10/15/65, just as SDS was getting underway on campus, was a pleasant surprise.
Don’t Pre-Judge All SDS Activities
It’s time for Bloomington Mayor John H Hooker to become more realistic. He is objecting to members of the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) volunteering to participate in Bloomington’s anti-poverty program.
Mayor Hooker said in a Herald-Telephone story, ‘This administration is not in favor of having any individual or group serving in a leadership capacity in any governmental activity or program who has taken a position contrary to the President’s and the nation’s policy in regard to the war in Viet Nam’.
#12 In the fall of ’65, former VP Nixon was touring the country speaking in support of LBJ’s war policy. He addressed a huge audience at IU on 10/17/65. SDS, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) demonstrated against Nixon as reported in the Indiana Daily Student.
Knock Off the Demonstrations
The highly partisan crowd gave Mr Nixon his biggest round of applause when he ended his Q&A session by saying that if the so-called peace demonstrators ‘really are for peace, they ought to act in the interest of peace and knock off the demonstrations’.
Mr Nixon’s speech was picketed by about 150 students at Showalter Fountain. About 50 members of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), Young Republicans, and Young Democrats marched in favor of Mr Nixon’s foreign policy stand and US involvement in Vietnam.
Those demonstrating against Mr Nixon and the US stand in Vietnam carried signs saying, ‘How many must die?’ ‘War is intolerable’, and ‘Killing is anti-democracy’. Other signs said, ‘IU students say win in Viet’ and ‘Young Republicans support LBJ in Viet’.
#13 In ’66, the Progressive Reform Party was created on the IU campus with the purpose of contesting student elections. Judging by its initial position paper, the new party clearly reflected New Left concerns. A year later, the PRP candidate, a member of SDS, won the presidency of the student body.
Little More than Company Unions
‘All agents of student self-government have become little more than company unions’, the paper continues; and it adds that the ‘ultimate responsibility for such an unjust imbalance of power rests upon the entire Student Body’.
The PRP says its policy will be to ‘seek open confrontation with the administration on rules which do not further educational opportunity; and will seek clarification of ambiguous policies’.
#14 General Maxwell Taylor came to speak at IU in late February ’66. He had recently served as US Ambassador to South Vietnam and was wired into the administration’s war policy. As IDS reported, Jeff and fellow SDS activists planned a demonstration.
Support Senator Hartke
Two demonstrations, one supporting and the other opposing US policy in South Vietnam, will greet General Maxwell Taylor tonight. A ‘Support Senator Hartke’ view will be sponsored by several students, a professor, and a minister, and a ‘Victory in Vietnam’ campaign will be led by YAF and the new Students for an Orderly Society.
The Hartke demonstration will affirm the ‘extricate – don’t escalate’ position of Indiana Senator Vance Hartke and several other senators who have reservations about Vietnam policy. Its spokesmen stressed the fact that it will be a pro-Hartke, not an anti-Taylor, demonstration.
YAF will emphasize a ‘Victory over Communism’ format with a call for increased military action and more strategic use of Allied air power.
The Hartke demonstrators have reserved Showalter Fountain and will remain until the Convocation begins. This demonstration is being sponsored by Prof James Dinsmoor of the Department of Psychology; James Juhnke, grad; the Rev Gil Sirotti, Wesley Foundation; Lynn Everroad, sophomore; James Wallihan, grad; Jeff Sharlet, junior; and Steve Cagan, grad.
One of the supporters, Mr Sharlet, commented:
As Hartke comes under increased pressure, we want to make our support visible. His mail has been running 87 percent in favor of a cease-fire and negotiations. Congress, we feel, has neglected for too long its responsibility to advise as well as consent on questions of foreign policy.
Mr Sharlet said that although the demonstration will key on Senator Hartke, other senators who have questioned the policy will be supported, among them Robert F Kennedy (D-NY), J W Fulbright (D-Ark), Wayne Morse (D-Ore), and Albert Gore (D-Tenn).
The first all-night ‘teach-in’ took place at the University of Michigan, with 3,000 people participating in intensive discussions on the war’s real causes.
[After the escalation, the State Department received 20,000 letters during the next six weeks and phone calls almost hourly asking what was going on. The Administration launched so-called ‘truth teams’ to Midwestern campuses.]
Johnson was angry and confused by the lack of respect shown for his leadership, and the teams of diplomats dispatched by the State Dept to debate with campus activists were strikingly ineffective.
In Controlled Rage
Conlon’s reception at Iowa and Wisconsin must have been wild because it was not tame at IU. Prof Bernie Morris, formerly with the US Department of State, laced into them in controlled rage.
At the end, critical students flooded the stage to go one-on-one with the speakers, and Fred Fleron had to intercede lest Erik Hoffmann, a non-violent guy, punch out Conlon, who was quite feisty and aggressive in rebuttal.
There Were about 200 or 300 on the Lawn
I remember going to a meeting outside the president’s house. This was President Elvis Stahr. There were about 200 or 300 on the lawn around the driveway – it was a Saturday morning – and they were demanding something or the other.
And Stahr wasn’t upset about it, but Mrs Stahr was. I think that’s the main reason the Stahrs left. She was just frightened to death, although I don’t think she should have been. They were there just making a lot of noise.
They Were Protected from the Draft
In the late ‘60s, there was a change. Students weren’t quite so interested in academic work. And they had these other ideas about Vietnam, class arrangements in the US, etc.
I don’t think they were very serious, they certainly weren’t very well informed about these matters. But there was an element of radicalism. Part of this, I thought then, still think, had to do with the fact that they were protected from the draft.
Part of it was a kind of guilty conscience. You know, Princeton in all that Vietnam War lost one graduate.