Travels with Jeff
#1 Late fall ’68, Jeff’s travels as editor of Vietnam GI (VGI) took him to Stockholm. He was there representing the GI antiwar movement in a delegation sponsored by the Clergy and Laity Concerned about the War or CALCAV. Co-founded by the late Father Daniel Berrigan, Reverend Richard Neuhaus, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, CALCAV arrived in the Swedish capital to meet with the large US military community of deserters given sanctuary by the Swedes.
Martin ‘Marty’ Kenner was the coordinator of the visiting group. A prominent left activist, his political resume was impressive – including being among the leaders of the Columbia University student uprising of spring ’68 and meeting with the National Liberation Front in Budapest during the summer as well as rendezvousing with the German SDS leadership in Yugoslavia.
On arrival, Michael Vale, a ‘Movement type –manic’, was the first person Marty met – an American expat and seasoned man of the left. Vale served as a kind of political guru to the ADC, or American Deserters Committee, which spoke for most of the GIs in Stockholm.
In contrast, Marty found Jeff ‘so much more mature and so much more sophisticated than the usual Movement type’. Marty, Jeff, and John Wilson of SNCC, the Black civil rights group, were the youngest members of the delegation and hung out together during the three-day visit. He added that Jeff also got along especially well with Professor Harvey Cox, the Harvard Divinity School theologian. They had met earlier when Jeff was fundraising for VGI in Cambridge.
The visiting delegation found the deserter community riven by political differences, one faction advocating a Maoist line while the other eschewed ideology. As Marty stressed, the CALCAV group steered a middle course in their conferences with the deserters.
No Sympathy with the Maoists
He said he had no sympathy with the Maoists,that the delegation was a ‘mainstream’ group, and its main purpose in Stockholm was to ‘legitimize’ the deserters in the antiwar movement back home.
#2 In a great coincidence, one of my former students had studied at the University of Stockholm during the academic year 1967-68 and ran into some of the GI deserters, including Mark Shapiro and the Black Marine Terry Whitmore.
Four Whites and a Black Guy
I was out to dinner with one of my former students from the
late ‘60s,a trustee of the college. We were comparing notes on the ‘60s, and it turns out he was on a study abroad year at the University of Stockholm, AY 1967-68. He remembered when the 5 deserters from Japan who crossed the USSR arrived in Sweden. They received a fair amount of media attention.
Turns out he somehow met the 5 (possibly at the university where deserters sometimes made presentations). He remembered four white guys and a Black.
#3 The FBI had an informant within the CALCAV delegation that met with GI deserters in Paris and Stockholm. A declassified document on FBI letterhead recounts full details of the trip from ‘a source who has furnished reliable information in the past’.
The source was clearly an insider who was either personally present at the delegation’s meetings with deserters in both cities as well as various non-deserter groups, and/or he had the benefit of CALCAV’s specific daily itineraries.
Only names, including the name of the FBI informant, are redacted.
Subversive of the Best Interests of the US
On October 27, 1968 the group was met at
airport by the American Deserters Committee and was taken directly to an auditorium for a meeting in which a number of people made speeches. People who spoke were both deserters and members of the traveling group.
On October 28, 1968, the group met with the American Deserters Committee. The source stated that there is a total estimate of 169 American deserters in Stockholm at the present time.
The source further stated that [redacted, probably Bill Jones] advocates using deserters to entice other deserters and is believed by the source to be subversive against the best interests of the United States.
The source states that [redacted: Jones] appears to have a lot of personal ambition and appears to be a Maoist and an extreme Marxist-Leninist.
#4 In Japan, Jeff was a guest of Beheiren, the main peace group founded by Makoto Oda, a novelist, whom he met on the occasion.
Don’t Fight for Uncle Sham
He launched a new wave of dissent two years ago in ’65 in Sasebo Harbor, where he circled the US carrier Enterprise in a small launch, calling out ‘Don’t fight for Uncle Sham’ on a megaphone.
If Oda’s style has a familiar American quality, it may be due to the fact that he once studied at Harvard on a Fulbright scholarship.
#5 Like most of his generation, Jeff was into music. He may have been a young man rushing toward the end of his story, but most of his favorites were upbeat. One record that he particularly liked in his last months was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys, especially the rousing melody about brothers missing each other like ships passing in the night.
You and I travel to the beat
of a different drum
Oh can't you tell by the way I run
Jeff went to Stockholm with the CALCAV delegation, he met Michael Vale, a kind
of adviser/guru to the GI deserters. Michael was an American living in Europe,
a professional translator of many languages, and a committed lefty.
A year after Jeff died, Michael wrote me out of the blue that he had helped set up a GI coffee house in Heidelberg, Germany – HQ of US forces, Europe – and that it was dedicated to Jeff. The coffee house was called the ‘Next Step’, and it produced a GI antiwar paper of the same name. Decades later I contacted Michael for the memoir, and he promptly replied:
Impossible to Forget Him
Not only do I remember Jeff, but
for me it would be impossible to forget him. The Next Step was dedicated to him,
and we ran an obit with a picture in the paper. There were no coffee houses in
the area around the Next Step. It was an on-base initiative with civilian
activists providing the means and expertise.
Though many in those years had bouts of fear and trembling that I and the Next Step were inspired by the CIA, KGB, or what all, a truer – and secret – inspiration for me and the others was Jeff.
#7 A German scholar, P B Glatz has written about the US deserter community in Stockholm. He discussed the political attitudes that the CALCAV delegation found on arrival in late ’68, noting especially the views of Rev Neuhaus.
Rigid Political Posturings
The statements of American exiles ranged from antiwar declarations to social and political critiques of racism, materialism, social injustice, and imperialism. Radical political rhetoric led media reports to maintain that the American exiles had ‘turned their backs on America’ for good or that they were practicing anti-American activities.
The representation of the more radical views and activities hindered understanding or sympathy for the exiles from the American public. Another member of the CALCAV delegation therefore tried to qualify the political rhetoric of some of the deserters and saw the mission of a ministry for the exiles in ‘helping them to liberate themselves from the rigid political posturings in which they are trapped’.
#8 Rev Neuhaus was a key figure on the CALCAV delegation with Jeff. He was a co-founder of the organization and a major antiwar activist. Ironically, his brother was in the Special Forces in VN. The young clergyman, 32 in ’68, was probably the most critical of some of the hard left rhetoric of some of the US deserters.
Conservative Theology of the Lutheran Church
Born a Canadian, Richard John Neuhaus came to the US in 1950 at age 14 and later became a naturalized citizen. He received his Master of Divinity degree from Concordia Seminary in St Louis in ’60 and was ordained in the Lutheran Church that same year.
In ’61, Neuhaus became the pastor of St John the Evangelist Church in the Black slums of the Bed-Stuy district of Brooklyn, a position he held throughout the war years and beyond. Also deeply involved in the civil rights movement, he was one of the relatively few activists to come out of the conservative theology of the Lutheran Church.
#9 On his final journey, Jeff stopped in Buffalo to see his cousins, John and Ed Sharlet. They both provided accounts of the visit and Jeff’s uncanny ability to talk his way through situations.
Jeff Was Cool
On a whim one night, Jeff wanted to see Niagara Falls, so a few of us piled into a car and drove the 20 miles there. It was late, the official park was closed, nobody was around, but Jeff wanted to get close to the American falls.
So we climbed this high fence and went over to the precipice. When we came back to the fence, a park ranger was there to meet us. The upshot of this episode was that Jeff persuaded the ranger that what we did was harmless. It really impressed me.
Jeff visited us in Buffalo and was along on a visit to Niagara Falls in the evening. We climbed over a low chain to walk closely to the very frozen falls, and were accosted by a policeman who wanted to arrest us for endangering ourselves. Ed said: ‘Jeff was cool and able to talk the cop out of arresting us’.
#10 During late fall around December ’68, Jeff slowly made his way south to Miami to get some doctoring, stopping at various places along the way to see family and friends. He was sick, and working on VGI for an intense year had left him burnt out.
A Contact High
One night Jeff and I were driving around
Troy, looking at familiar places and landmarks. He remarked that it was a great
feeling – he called it a ‘contact high’ – to temporarily forget about his cause
and take in new and old impressions of his personal history.
A member of the American group, Elinor Langer, wrote a memoir of the trip describing the kind of left dreaminess, self-indulgence, and general lack of realism that Jeff found disquieting in the civilian movement.
Some Splendid Fairy Tale of Revolution
In Budapest, the Vietnamese cast an incredible magic. It was like being caught up in some splendid fairy tale of revolution peopled with live heroes and heroines. Each of them was wonderful, physically beautiful, warm, sensitive, smart.
They had made enormous efforts to attend the meeting, some of them walking from liberated areas of the South to Hanoi where they took a train across Asia to Moscow to fly to us in Budapest.
They wanted to work hard: to hear our impressions of the movement, politics, and the war, and to tell us what was happening in their country. They told us of times their tactics succeeded and the times they had failed. They seemed so real, so many-sided.
We felt scruffy, a band of wanderers these elegant and loving warriors from a splendid and integrated culture were somehow forced to take seriously. I remember one of the Americans leaping down the graceful steps of the old embassy building, saying ‘My god, I’ll eat peanut butter the rest of my life if that’s what it’ll take to help these people be free’.
For weeks or months after we got home
(usually weeks), we were on an NLF high. At times these trips to Europe, Cuba,
cut through our chauvinism and self-absorption. But they also fed our
romanticism and our easy identification with other countries’ heroes.
Grossly Immoral and An Evil Blight
CALCAV, a National Interfaith Peace Organization, has been active in supporting men who cannot participate in the war in VN for reasons of conscience. Two months ago, CALCAV issued a statement, titled ‘A Call for Amnesty & Reconciliation’ signed by 10 religious leaders.
The statement demanded that the US adopt a policy of executive amnesty for draft resisters and military deserters. This same concern led to the sponsorship of the present trip to Paris and Stockholm.
We are happy and grateful to be in Sweden today. We come for two reasons. First, we are here to visit our fellow countrymen who have come to this hospitable land because they chose to obey their conscience rather than fight in a war they and we consider both grossly immoral and an evil blight on our national life.
We have come to cheer them, to bring personal and pastoral greetings from the US, and to assure them, that both we and countless other Americans applaud and appreciate the stand they have taken. We are proud of them.
Doing Political Work with GIs Is a New Phenomenon
For the American antiwar movement, doing political work with GIs is a new phenomenon. In fact, it is only since the fall of ’67 that political groups have been formed specially to work with GIs.
This development has been influenced by the fact that the US is losing the war, US casualty rates are increasing, and in recent months large sectors of the American population have accepted at least a minimal antiwar perspective.
In other words, the contradictions of
the war are becoming more and more blatant, especially for those GIs directly
affected by it.
Our Work Is Before Us
A revolutionary GI was kicked out of the Army recently for organizing a GI union at one base; two GI union organizers at another base were court-martialed and given 4 years in jail for their efforts; over 100 GI resisters have refused orders to Vietnam; somewhere between 2500 and 5000 GIs have deserted; and groups of GIs have tried to hold public antiwar meetings on bases.
A large number of troops from an infantry brigade rioted for several hours at one base just two days before they were to go to Vietnam; over 30 GIs marched in the April 27th antiwar demonstration in San Francisco.
On September 21st, there will be an antiwar demonstration in San Francisco entirely composed of GIs and veterans. These examples are just indications of the kind of substantive political potential that exists. Our work is before us.
Programs Operating in the GI Organizing Movement
First, there is a perspective of individual resistance in the military. Tactically, this perspective ranges from a GI’s refusal to wear his uniform to his refusal to go to Vietnam when so ordered. Thus far, most individual resisters have been GIs from bourgeois backgrounds.
The second perspective is Youth Against War and Fascism. Its program is an attempt to organize a GI union. Their tactical orientation is that GIs should organize a union and raise certain demands such as the right to refuse orders to fight in an imperialist war.
The other national organization is the Vietnam GI Committee, of which I am the chairman. Our tactical orientation is mass action based on a working-class perspective. We attempt to show GIs that they have one potential weapon – mass solidarity.
The potential for mass political action, whether it be unions, rallies, or even troop revolts, does exist. Thus, the functional consequence of American radical civilians working with GIs is one of political education, that is, building class consciousness.