Outtake: the first GI organizer I ever met.

stevemorseThose of you who follow me on social media know that The Book is finally headed for bookshelves this fall, as I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters and Objectors in America’s Wars. And the list of important people who didn’t make it into the final draft is impossibly long–which could also be said for most of my drafts.

That list includes Scott Olsen, which is why I featured him at New Year’s, and Edward Snowden, whose own book certainly obviates any need for his inclusion. But I’m still searingly sorry to have lost Steve Morse, who I met when I worked at CCCO — and who first taught me about the GI movement, through his own story.

Thinking about them all, I’ve contemplated starting a podcast or trying to publish these stories separately; these blog posts are just a start. But I owe Steve so much.

To present his story here, I had to go back to my actual first submitted draft, in which my tone and intent feel quite different from what the book became. I still stand by each word. Let’s start with young Morse waking up to learn that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of all conscientious objectors to war:

Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, Morse had long been told of the generations of Quakers on his mother’s side and a grandfather on his father’s who was a Jesse Macy-style internationalist. “He was a big booster of World War I,” Morse said. Thinking like Macy that his conflict could be actually end all wars, the senior Morse “went up and down the East coast promoting it….Kind of unrealistic,” Morse said quietly.

Morse’s father had been CPS-eligible f during World War II, “but he felt it was important to fight Hitler… He ended up in Hawaii monitoring the phones of Japanese-ancestry people, and not feeling good about it. After the war, he became a more active Quaker — was on peace committees, ban the bomb campaigns, and so on.”

Morse thus arrived at Swarthmore as immune from the war as was possible — which turned out not to be much. Excited by SDS’ political manifesto, rather than feeling the draft board’s guarantee as a relief Morse agonized, wondering whether the student deferment and that CO deferment were both too privileged. He thought about it as he boarded a bus for Washington.

“I remember seeing the World War II and Korea vets at the head of the demonstration,” Morse added. “It was very powerful.” The April 17 march drew a then-unprecedented 25,000 to the Capitol, and lit the match for many more to come. Staughton Lynd, who wrote about the event a few months later for the pacifist magazine Liberation, articulated a vision half-poet and half-prankster, in which the usual means of influence had been rendered irrelevant.

It seemed that the great mass of people would simply flow on through and over the marble buildings … nothing could have stopped the crowd from taking possession of Its Government. Perhaps next time we should keep going …. One can now envision a series of nonviolent protests which would. question the legitimacy of the Administration’s authority where it has gone beyond constitutional and moral limits, and might, if its insane foreign policy continues, culminate in the decision of hundreds of thousands of people to recognize the authority of alternative institutions of their own making.[i

Lynd’s vision, which took Gandhi’s principles to a hyper-American, Beat extreme, articulated a future that SDS and much of the “new Left” was busy trying to enact. It also got Lynd in trouble at Yale for being a flagship “commie,” the F.B.I. having reopened his Army file. The day aftet the march, J. Edgar Hoover issued an announcement that “Communists [had] participated in the student march on Washington in April and were striving to start other demonstrations against United States foreign policy.”[ii]

As 1965 ended at Swarthmore College, Steve Morse was as conscious of the class gap between students and soldiers as anyone. He’d spent a “pretty influential” summer working for SDS’ Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP).[iii] And he was about to leave the college that was his best shelter from the war.

“At ERAP we were trying to build an interracial movement of the poor,” Morse said. “It mostly didn’t work, but the failures were interesting.” When he returned to school in the fall, Swarthmore suddenly felt a staid backwater compared to the fervor that was popping in the rest of the country. He also “didn’t quite know what I wanted to do.”

He could major in mathematics, but the poetry of higher math interested him less than the practical calculations used by engineers “The kind of math that I was interested in seemed oriented to war.” Morse found himself listening “pretty intently” to Bob Dylan’s song Tombstone Blues, its signature line“the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone.”[iv] He left Swarthmore and headed to San Francisco, of course, his new 1-O draft card in hand.

While he did some antiwar work, he said, mostly he had arrived just in time for the Summer of Love. “I was twenty years old,” Morse said. “For a while I was living nowhere and just hanging around the Haight, showing up at meetings of the tenants union…. sort of a hippie,” he half-smiled.[i]

The Bay Area was by then abuzz with antiwar organizing, including some directed at those in uniform. That summer in Berkeley SDS’ Bill Callison founded The Bond, the first alt-weekly in the country directed at people in uniform.

There was a moment in the early stages of the anti-war movement when some anguished demonstrators blamed everybody they perceived as ‘in the military’ for the atrocities that were happening in Vietnam. The movement corrected this error, and found a large anti-war constituency among the enlisted, who were mostly draftees….In June, 1966, the first of many anti-war G.I. newspapers, called The Bond, was published by civilians, edited by yours truly. [ii]

Callison was careful to eschew any labels. “The Bond is published by socialists, but is not associated with any socialist or communist organization, either officially or unofficially.” Its posture was, however, mighty similar to that of SDS: “We believe that the best way to end war, poverty, and racial injustice is for the people of the United States to take the productive machinery of society out of the hands of its present owners and to own and manage it for themselves.” And the paper’s first issue sounded a little academic, like the more political of Berkeley’s underground papers:

Dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, racism in America, and the functioning of American society generally has increased tremendously in the last two years, especially among the victims of the system— black people and poor people – and young people who are hip to what’s happening. People are beginning to evaluate the whole society and to understand their position in it, and they are demanding some basic changes.

The men in the Armed Forces, who are mostly young victims of the system, are naturally no exception to this process of ferment. In fact, for servicemen the urgency of getting information and of organizing to protect themselves is very great, since they face the possibility of being sent to Vietnam to be killed or maimed before they have a chance to figure out the issues.

So far the peace movement which is centered mainly around college campuses, has ignored and often alienated the people who will actually have to fight the war in Vietnam. At the same time the military authorities have attempted to isolate and suppress dissent among enlisted men. Therefore the full strength of servicemen standing up together to defend their rights has not even begun to be felt.

Among the sincere young socialists handing out the Bond in Oakland was Steve Morse, the Quaker SDS member who’d by then passed out of his Summer of Love phase.  Morse had by then fallen in with the Progressive Labor Party (long split from the CP for the latter’s flirtation with electoral politics and “class enemies”). Sincere in wanting to end the war, Morse’s group felt that appealing to soldiers was part of their strategy to cultivate working-class revolutionaries.

At first, Morse wrote years later, outreach to these armed proletarians wasn’t easy. “When I tried to distribute [the Bond] to GI’s, the MP’s would escort me out in a matter of minutes.” Eventually, he added, “I had better luck at the Service Clubs. I met a guy who was trying to organize in the Navy. We became friends and from him, and reading in the Bond about activists within the military, I absorbed the notion of resisting from within.”[iii]

From the beginning, the papers’ news pages told of courts-martial, starting with the Fort Hood Three and Howard Levy. They wrote about the GI coffeehouses where soldiers could hang out, drink coffee, rap about politics and the war, started by SDS’ Fred Gardner. In June 1968, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis started a fund called “Support Our Soldiers.” to support the papers, coffeehouses, and servicemen’s groups like GI’s United, the Navy’s Movement for a Democratic Military, or the American Serviceman’s Union (ASU). ASU’s Andy Stapp, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, had joined the Army intentionally to organize from within, and encouraged others to do the same — especially among members of Young Americans Against War and Fascism, as did the Progressive Labor Party (e.g. Oakland’s Steve Morse). When tossed out for organizing, Stapp had moved to New York, became more firmly associated with Workers World and taken up The Bond from its Berkeley founders. This gave the paper a harder-left feel than the base papers or Sharlet and Tom Barton’s Vietnam GI.

 Skip ahead to 1970, when the movement had matured:

The national Armed Forces Day, traditionally celebrated across America, was at some U.S. bases the first annual Armed Farces Day. At Fort Bragg, 700 GI’s marched through the base, addressed by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland at the rally’s end. Phil Ochs, in his now-trademark gold suit, asked over his guitar “Who’s the criminal here?” at Grand Forks Air Force Base. And at Fort Lewis, 20 miles from Seattle, Steve Morse, no longer a Quaker CO, appeared before a special court-martial for distributing seditious material. Instead of a term in the brig, Morse was soon headed to Cambodia as a member of K-Troop, 11th Cavalry Division.

Morse had already been in uniform for six months, most of it in the stockade. When his term of alternative service ended the prior year, he’d finally enlisted in the Army as the PL was urging. “I messed up up part of the aptitude test,” Morse remembered, to keep from becoming some “isolated Army clerk.”

My enlistment involved tricky questions: how to be effective in stopping the war and building an anti-imperialist movement, and how to keep the faith with the non-privileged of my generation and with myself. What if I were sent to Vietnam? If I went and were put into combat, would I refuse? Under what circumstances?Would I even have the chance to refuse if things got hot and heavy? Could I avoid putting my fellow soldiers in jeopardy, yet also contribute as little as possible to the war effort (or hinder it)? […] I felt then that we who were white, male, and over 20, who had some experience in protest, who knew something about the war, who could talk to people and had the commitment to resist ought to consider joining. It was an unsatisfactory option, but how problematic was every choice we had at the time!

[i]

Morse approached this project in a spirit resembling Abbie Hoffman’s. “I was AWOL a week before I showed up for AIT at Fort Ord,” he remembers, and arriving at the overseas replacement Barrack at Fort Lewis his arms were more full of agitprop than infantry gear. “Seeing the stockade as no worse than Vietnam infantry, I wasn’t subtle about passing out leaflets or circulating petitions,” he writes. “I did this for ten days before they caught up with me.”

As an overseas embarkation point, the Ft. Lewis stockade contained a few prisoners who had refused orders to Vietnam and Korea. I plugged into an existing network of resisters. We smuggled in books, organized, and looked out for each other. For April 15, we gathered 100 signatures on a petition protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, and carried out a fast. We had “revolutionary training” — gymnastics and political discussion every evening for a week — until the guards broke it up and threw Freddy, who led the gymnastics, in solitary confinement.

While the stockade was harsh including “beatings and food deprivation in solitary confinement,” said Morse, it was also boot camp for organizing: “the only institutional situation I have ever been in that had such a community of resisters.”

If all that sounds a little overheated now, it didn’t to many at the time, when Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war meant escalated bombings and passing the ground war on to the decimated South Vietnamese Army while infiltrating leftists and churches at home. If in 1968 students taking over universities had felt they were changing the rules of the game, by 1970 those same people were asking one another in sober conferences “Would you personally be willing to die for the revolution?” recalled Dave Zeiger, who ran Fort Hood’s Oleo Strut coffeehouse with Dave Cline.[ii]

Different coffeehouses, Zeiger added, had “different political tendencies”; the Oleo Strut favored “early Maoist thinking, “ especially since one of the co-founders had “been in Panthers when he was drafted, started a black GI group.” Fort Lewis had its own underground paper, Fed Up, and its own coffeehouse, the Shelter Half at 5437 South Tacoma Way. Arriving there after a year in the Fort Riley stockade, Morse thus found in his fellow prisoners a ready market for The Bond and his lefty antiwar talk. By then, of course, the Army was well aware of organizers like Morse, and his trial was part of the cat-and-mouse game both sides knew well:

The military leadership was faced with the widespread breakdown of its authority, a deteriorating fighting force in Vietnam, and political dissidence throughout its ranks. Its response was twofold: more repression, and the development of a strategic approach to the problem. The repression was most intense on individual GIs.

Pvt. Gypsey Peterson, who had helped create the FATIGUE PRESS at Fort Hood, was sentenced to eight years at hard labor for possession of an amount of grass so small it “disappeared” during analysis. Two black marines, William Harvey and George Daniels, were sentenced to six and ten years at hard labor for rapping against the war in their barracks. Privates Dam Amick and Ken Stolte were sentenced to four years for distributing a leaflet on Ford Ord. Pvt. Theoda Lester was sentenced to three years for refusing to cut his Afro. And Pvt. Wade Carson was sentenced to six months for “intention” to distribute FED-UP on Fort Lewis….

A number of factors helped to weaken this repressive power. Media coverage, public protest, and the growth of GI resistance all played a part. The key factor was that political GIs continued to be dangerous in the stockades, and after numerous stockade rebellions the military often chose to discharge dissidents and get rid of them all together.[iii]

Morse’s special court-martial was part of a two-prong strategy: a six-month sentence followed by orders to Cambodia which he was expected to refuse. During the two-day proceeding, he writes, “I proved that there was no realistic mechanism for getting approved by the command structure to distribute literature, that the regulation was selectively enforced [and] got Major Cox to admit that he had no legal basis for placing me in pre-trial confinement,” he writes. After two months Cox commuted the rest of Morse’s sentence and issued orders for Vietnam, assuming the strange Quaker-lefty soldier would refuse, setting him up for a five-year sentence.

Instead, Morse accepted, “figuring I could oppose the war over there, too.” After three weeks in Vietnam, Morse was sent to the field with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Cambodia — which wasn’t bad, he said, as organizing opportunities go:

I was thrown in with two guys who were quite hostile to me, and combat conditions kept us from socializing much with others. Three days after getting to the field, I received 25 copies of Challenge, PLP’s newspaper, with the words REVOLUTIONARY COMMUNIST on the masthead and above that the title GI’s Destroy Stockades, referring to a long article about my court-martial. I wasn’t a happy camper: I was scared. But the stress of being a protester in combat distracted me from worrying about actually being killed.

As time went on, Morse added, he found that much of K-Troop was already anti-war already. “The Army kind of saved me by sending me back,” he said. At twenty-four, he said, he was older than most others, which “made it a little easier…. People didn’t think I was a flake for my views, [and] I had the space to talk about politics and stuff.” The troop’s platoon sergeant, a “sad guy” known to the men as Platoon Daddy, regularly told him not to talk “like that.” So did did their lieutenants, one of whom made the mistake of adding: There are three things you shouldnt talk about to the men: politics, religion and sex. “I laughed at him.”

Between being older and college-educated, Morse was also in demand by both lieutenants for chat about the war. One, who was a history major, openly said I want to talk politics with you. “He was a hawk,” Morse said. “I felt not engaging them was the smart thing to do. They weren’t really open to listenng. And besides, I wanted to be more enigmatic than that to people in power.” So Morse stayed with his unit, still a “buck private” because of all his dissent-demerits. When they walked on point, he was torn about what to do with his gun. “I didn’t want to put anyone in danger,” he said. “Mostly, I shot at the ground.”

While Morse was busy figuring out how to be an actual soldier, Veterans Against the War was beginning to rediscover what it could mean when hundreds of soldiers speak with one voice — as in Princeton in 1780, as in the World War I “bonus march.”

*****

While Morse was busy figuring out how to be an actual soldier, Veterans Against the War was beginning to rediscover what it could mean when hundreds of soldiers speak with one voice — as in Princeton in 1780, as in the World War I “bonus march.”

Steve’s activism afterward could be another book; the ms. never contained scenes of math teacher Morse showing up at a CCCO open house in the 1990s and getting recruited for the Board, and co-founding a team of vets who volunteered on the GI Rights Hotline. Or when, as CCCO staff, he received a call from the girl who recruited him, with the words “I’m writing a book about you!”

It still is, Steve. And I hope you can hear your voice whispering out of each printed page.

 

 

[i] Steve Morse, “Odyssey of Conscience,” Objector, op.cit.

[ii] Personal interview, February 2006.

[iii] Matthew Rinaldi, “The Olive-Drab Rebels.”

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Posting to Berkeley listserv of Antiwar.com, late 2004.

[iii] Steve Morse (with Chris Lombardi), “Odyssey of Conscience: From Civilian CO to Cambodia.” The Objector (50th Anniversary Issue), Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, November 1998.

[i] Staughton Lynd, “Coalition Politics or Nonviolent Revolution?”, Liberation, June-July 1965. Via Gaddis Smith, “Yale and the Vietnam War.” Paper presented at the University Seminar on the History of Columbia University, 1999. Accessed at http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/cuhistory/yale.htm in January 2009.

[ii] RED ROLE IN PROTEST CHARGED BY HOOVER, New York Times, June 2, 1965, p. 52 in Food/FamilyFurnishings section.

[iii] Dat book on ERAP etc….

[iv] Personal interview, Oakland, CA., January 2006.

 

[i] Personal interview, Oakland, October 2007.

[ii] Lew Thomas, “Report on the American Antiwar Movement,” Socialist Workers Party memo,International Socialist Review, January 1968. Via NYU Tamiment Libraries ,Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). Acccessed at http://marxists.anu.edu.au/history//etol/document/swp-us/awar.htm in January 2009.

[iii] Ibid., p. 194.

[iv] Staughton Lynd, “Coalition Politics or Nonviolent Revolution?”, Liberation, June-July 1965. Via Gaddis Smith, “Yale and the Vietnam War.” Paper presented at the University Seminar on the History of Columbia University, 1999. Accessed at http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/cuhistory/yale.htm in January 2009.

[v] RED ROLE IN PROTEST CHARGED BY HOOVER, New York Times, June 2, 1965, p. 52 in Food/FamilyFurnishings section.

[vi] Dat book on ERAP etc….

[vii] Personal interview, Oakland, CA., January 2006.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Posting to Berkeley listserv of Antiwar.com, late 2004.

[x] Steve Morse (with Chris Lombardi), “Odyssey of Conscience: From Civilian CO to Cambodia.” The Objector (50th Anniversary Issue), Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, November 1998.

[xi] Steve Morse, “Odyssey of Conscience,” Objector, op.cit.

[xii] Personal interview, February 2006.

[xiii] Matthew Rinaldi, “The Olive-Drab Rebels.”

[i] Personal interview, Oakland, October 2007.

[ii] Lew Thomas, “Report on the American Antiwar Movement,” Socialist Workers Party memo,International Socialist Review, January 1968. Via NYU Tamiment Libraries ,Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). Acccessed at http://marxists.anu.edu.au/history//etol/document/swp-us/awar.htm in January 2009.

[iii] Ibid., p. 194.

[iv] Staughton Lynd, “Coalition Politics or Nonviolent Revolution?”, Liberation, June-July 1965. Via Gaddis Smith, “Yale and the Vietnam War.” Paper presented at the University Seminar on the History of Columbia University, 1999. Accessed at http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/cuhistory/yale.htm in January 2009.

[v] RED ROLE IN PROTEST CHARGED BY HOOVER, New York Times, June 2, 1965, p. 52 in Food/FamilyFurnishings section.

[vi] Dat book on ERAP etc….

[vii] Personal interview, Oakland, CA., January 2006.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Posting to Berkeley listserv of Antiwar.com, late 2004.

[x] Steve Morse (with Chris Lombardi), “Odyssey of Conscience: From Civilian CO to Cambodia.” The Objector (50th Anniversary Issue), Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, November 1998.

[xi] Steve Morse, “Odyssey of Conscience,” Objector, op.cit.

[xii] Personal interview, February 2006.

[xiii] Matthew Rinaldi, “The Olive-Drab Rebels.”

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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