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.”

Happy 45th Anniversary, Daniel Ellsberg — or why he belongs in my book

Ellsberg-Daniel-TruthinMedia.com_I spent a lot of time incorporating the story of the founder of  the Freedom of the Press Foundation into my understanding of the movement to end the Vietnam War, including a brief phone interview of the guy himself about his Marine Corps roots. My editor has now just persuaded me that that his story shouldn’t foreground in my way-too-cramped Vietnam chapter. But today, almost exactly 45 years after a Marine Corps vet finally rocked the world, here’s what I wrote about him. Now you know why I tried,  and why my fantastic ex-colleague Judith Ehrlich followed her landmark CO movie with one about Ellsberg.

Daniel Ellsberg’s Story Mirrors Almost Exactly  That of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

1963 was  four years after a young State Department operative and ex-Marine named Daniel Ellsberg had visited South Vietnam, tasked with examining “problems with non-nuclear, limited warfare.” Young Ellsberg was already starting to work with the Rand Corporation, helping Washington contemplate the region’s role in the chessboard of global military strategy….

In 1964, as a civilian adviser to the Pentagon, Ellsberg was the one who first received the cable from Tonkin in which naval captain John J. Herrick “said he was under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats and had opened fire on them. He was in international waters, over sixty miles off the coast of Vietnam.”i The resultant political firestorm led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the first step to all-out war.

By all accounts April 17, 1965, was a perfect spring day, described by Daniel Ellsberg in his memoir Secrets as “blue skies over the cherry blossoms and anti-war banners.” Then still working at the Pentagon, Ellsberg retains sharpened memory of that day because it was also the first weekend he spent with his wife-to-be Patricia Marx, who was covering the protests for her Boston radio program. Quietly dubious about the war he was helping prosecute, Ellsberg carried Marx’ tape deck as they marched, silently agreeing with Joan Baez and the Nation’s I.F. Stone. “I would have been glad if all of this had enough influence to get the bombing stopped and put a lid on our involvement,” he writes. But when it was over, he had to call the Pentagon just to check in.

Ellsberg doesn’t mention that Howard Zinn spoke that day, or that the march portion was led by veterans of the Good War. 

As the year ended, a group of intellectuals and military experts was meeting secretly in Bermuda, convened by former national security advisor McGeorge Bundy and asked to develop some alternatives to more massive bombing. Among the group was Dan Ellsberg, who found quiet common cause with and another veteran as opposed to the war as he: Charles G. Bolte, now executive director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Bolte was newly hired, though he’d known since AVC the endowment’s director Joseph E. Johnson from working together at the United Nations. Ellsberg knew all about Bolte’s status as a wounded veteran, that his role at the Bermuda retreat was largely administrative, and that Bolte needed to be more cautious than he. Still, Ellsberg told me, the older man “was definitely against the war.”

Both Ellsberg and Bolte thought the panel should recommend withdrawal. But the majority simply developed a strategy of enging civilians, “without surrender or a wider war.”i They urged McBundy to reach “hearts and minds.”

Ellsberg went back to the Pentagon and kept hammering on his contribution to Rand’s multi-author history of U.S. policy in Indochina. That 7,000-page document, United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, would later come to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.”

In 1968, the civilian movement partnering the military one had disparate responses to that year’s disorientation. Daniel Ellsberg had returned from 18 months in Vietnam determined to end the war, and was working with Council on Foreign Relations president Charles G. Bolte (of the e World War II-era American Veterans Committee) to try to release the records of the war’s planning.

He was still trying when millions came together a year later for the Vietnam Moratorium:  William Sloane Coffin described the Moratorium as an alternative to the dance of violence playing itself out in Chicago and elsewhere: ““We yearned for a revolution of imagination and compassion. We were convinced nonviolence was more revolutionary than violence.”i Soldiers were far from absent that day: VVAW placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, signed by 1365 current GIs.

In New York on October 15, “a student nurse from Mount Sinai tried to present a handbill to a soldier who was wearing a green beret. He declined it, with a grin, but gave her a peace sign in return. The nurse stopped dead in her tracks. ‘He did it,” she said incredulously. “A Green Beret gave me the peace salute.’”ii

Read aloud at the October 15 march was a letter drafted by Daniel Ellsberg, who was shaken after hearing, at an August anti-draft conference, testimony from William Sloane Coffin protege Randy Kehler. After Koehler asserted how happy he would be to join his fellow draft resisters in prison, Ellsberg “left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing.”iii Still on the Rand payroll, Ellsberg had gone back to Washington and began to try to persuade his peers in the establishment, at Rand and the Carnegie, to issue a public statement in favor of ending the war.

Ellsberg had wanted a letter that would urge an end to “the bloody, hopeless, uncompelled, hence surely immoral prolongation of US involvement in this war.” He reached out to Charles G. Bolte at the Endowment. But when Bolte took Ellsberg’s letter to his boss, the latter’s only response was: “We can’t invite Ellsberg to any more of our meetings. He’s lost his objectivity.”iv Nonetheless, Bolte was a signatory to the letter Ellsberg wrote, published in September in the New York Times before it was read aloud at the Moratorium.

By March 12, 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg sat in a borrowed apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was at peace with becoming a prankster.

Across from him was Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, paging through the binders containing the 7,000 pages of US-Vietnam Relations. Sheehan knew that these were highly classified documents, and had consulted his paper’s lawyers before flying into Boston. He and his wife had even registered at the Treadway Inn in Cambridge under assumed names..i

Ellsberg had by then spent close to a year in confidential briefings with antiwar Democrats from Senator Fulbright on down, showing them these pages and finding none willing to blow the whistle, before finally contacting Sheehan.. He reiterated now: “You know you can’t make copies.” Sheehan agreed, and went back to New York to do just that.

Ellsberg then went home and worried, while Sheehan read and verified the documents, writing and consulting again with counsel. On June 13, the Times would publish the first of nine excerpts of the Papers. While the Times never revealed their source, Ellsberg turned himself in on June 30, and was charged under the Espionage Act. In the stream of mail that followed — most of it calling him a “traitor” — Ellsberg was struck and warmed by the supportive letters from fellow Marines, who “had all along hated the job that the Corps had been given.”

The series, the rest of which was famously delayed until the Supreme Court ruled they could be published, showed at the very least that the Pentagon’s confident narrative of the war had been distorted. The message, wailed President Nixon’s chief of staff, was “You can’t trust the government, an idea that damaged America’s “implicit infallibility of presidents.”ii That ‘infallibility’ was already being questioned by the GI resistance movement, which had long ago given up on the authority of their commander-in-chief.

Persuade those twelve people on the jury that Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo were right in what they did.”

On January 27, 1973, the long-awaited Paris Peace Accords were announced, within them an agreement on exchanges of prisoners of war. A few months later, the trial of the man who’d exposed that war as a fraud ended unexpectedly, with due to “government misbehavior.”

Ellsberg’s defenders had come up with a strategy that they thought might work – thanks to Arthur Kinoy, Bill Kunstler’s law partner and CCR co-founder. Legal niceties, Kinoy told the defense team, were not the point when talking to a jury, especially one that included at least one decorated Marine. “You need to do just one thing,” Howard Zinn remembers Kinoy telling him and the others. “Persuade those twelve people on the jury that Dan Ellsberg and Tony Russo were right in what they did.i But the jury never even rendered a verdict – the trial was stopped, and all charges dismissed, after it emerged that the Nixon Administration had wiretapped the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in 1971.

On May, 11, 1973, a mistrial was declared; Ellsberg was free to return home, while much of the legal team was expected in Florida for one more trial, that of the Gainesville case. In the latter, the testimony of star witness Arthur Lemmer “left the chief prosecution witness looking like a violence-obsessed, confused, and irrational psychopath”ii . And just as with Ellsberg, as with the Panther 21 trial two years before, all charges were dropped.

iZinn, Moving Train, op. cit., p. 160.

iiNicosia, Home to War, op.cit., p. 208.

iDavid Rudenstine, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 52.

iiWatergate Tapes, June 14. Via Sheehan.

iWilliam Sloane Coffin, Once to Every Man: A Memoir ( Atheneum, 1977), p. 299.

iiElizabeth Kolbert et al, “Moratorium.” The New Yorker, October 25, 1969, p. 54.

iiiTestimony, PP trial.

ivEllsberg, Secrets, op. cit. p. 283.

iGeorge Herring, “Tet and Prague.” In Carole Fink, Philipp Gassert, Detlef Junker (eds.), 1968, the World Transformed ( Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 36.

iDaniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Penguin, 2003), p.7.

 

Michael Wong’s Gethsemane

Just a scrap, as I relentlessly pare at this book for the New Press. Above, you see the relentless Jeff Paterson, founder of Courage to Resist, being interviewed alongside my predecessor at CCCO — Mike Wong, who interrupted his otherwise-successful career as a social worker to help fight the poverty draft.

Below, my version of the moment Michael Wong began to realize he was a conscientious objector — just as millions of others were learning some very bad news. The name “Haeberle” below in the name of that of the photographer who turned Seymour Hersh’s story into an internationally known expose. Mike’s story has already been included in far-better books than mine, including one edited by Maxine Hong Kingston.  Still, it’s dramatic enough that it might make for a movie scene:

 

At Fort Sam, where the Army had trained medic corpsmen since World War II, a young trainee named Michael Wong was stunned on the chow line when he noticed “a small commotion.” In front of Wong, the medic-trainees all were clustered around the newspaper rack, and commenced whispering about what they saw: Haeberle’s full-color photographs, reprinted in Pacific Stars and Stripes.
I was stunned, confused. “Who’s killing women and children? The Viet Cong?”
“No, we are.” When we got to the front we saw this newspaper rack with pictures of My Lai on the front pages. I can’t describe what that did to us.

I’m being encouraged to share these parings here (and not just at Facebook), so stay tuned for more; but I wanted to give due here to one of those who turned that moment into a movement.

Ron Kovic’s Convention speech

Kovic at Florida Memory

Which no one ever heard, because the networks had stopped filming in 1972. (They’d already wrecked the candidacy of WWII veteran Edmund Muskie. ) We’ll never know if that speech might have rocked the world of Richard Nixon.

Now, thanks to Studs Terkel’s chat with Hunter S. Thompson, you can hear it starting at minute 36.

The rest of the discussion is worth listening to, especially the conversation about “objective journalism.”

Many thanks to the vets who corrected my initial mistaken impression that this was the Democratic Convention. This was just as Kovic was starting out as an activist, long before we all knew his birthday.

 

 

45 years ago, people learned what had happened in My Lai

mylainewsweekAnd all  earlier drafts of my book included a sort of big-picture retelling of those events, focusing on signature dissenters like Hugh Thompson and Ron Ridenhour. Now that I’ll be referring to those events ONLY in a leaner, character-based narrative, I wanted this blog to have this version, of which I am pretty proud.

I do wonder now who’s followed up with the quieter dissenters – the guys who said no. Any miilitary reporters want to tell me?

But these are human beings, unarmed civilians, sir”

At the end of 1969, reports flooded the U.S. newspapers about an incident not dissimilar to what had apparently happened at Liberty Bridge, bearing color photos by Army photographer Robert Haeberle, taken on March 16, 1968 in the hamlet of My Lai.

Nowadays, the name “My Lai” evokes Auschwitz, calling to mind images with which the mind has trouble coping, and Nurnberg, the small city where Nazi war ctiminals were put on trial. But the story of My Lai is often also a story of a string of dissenters.

Warrant officer Hugh Thompson didn’t plan to be one, flying over the province in support of Task Force Barker, 1st Infantry of the Americal Division. Formed in 1942 to defend the South Pacific island New Caledonia, Americal was remembered at Guadalcanal, Papua New Guinea and Quang-Tri.

The week of March 15, Task Force Barker’s mission was relatively straightforward: to wipe out the Vietcong 48th Infantry. “The operation was to commence at 0725 hours on 16 March 1968 with a short artillery preparation, following which C/1-20 Inf was to combat assault into an LZ immediately west of My Lai (4) and then sweep east through the subhamlet.”i

Despite the copies of the Geneva Conventions soldiers were instructed to carry, the Division was also operating under orders that which exempted “hot spots” like My Lai from the Conventions’ protection. Directive 525-3 from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), “Combat Operations: Minimising Noncombatant Battle Casualties,” carefully noted that “Specified strike zones should be configured to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases.ii

As he flew over the area, Thompson knew that Charlie Company had just lost 34 men in a single grenade attack. He also knew that orders since Tet named women and children as possible Vietcong. But Thompson and his crew were still astonished at what they saw from their helicopter on the 16th: “Everywhere we’d look, we’d see bodies. These were infants, two-, three-, four-, five-year-olds, women, very old men, no draft-age people whatsoever.”iii As one platoon turned their guns full force on a farmer, U.S. Army photographer Haeberle was horrified: “”They just kept shooting at her. You could see the bones flying in the air chip by chip.” Haeberle carefully photographed those corpse-filled huts in full color, even before Thompson arrived.

Thompson also left the task of investigating what had happened to his superiors: the command, he reasoned, “didn’t need me there to court-martial these renegades.”iv One of Calley’s sergeants, Michael Bernhardt, said that they were expecting an investigation, but “Some colonel came down to the firebase where we were stationed and asked about it, but we heard no further.” v The action’s official post-operation Army communique made no mention of civilian casualties, numbering the Viet Cong body count at 128 and noting that Charlie Company had recovered two M-I rifles, a carbine, a short-wave radio and enemy documents. vi

As for Charlie Company, “[Capt. Ernest ]Medina …called me over to the command post and asked me not to write my Congressman,” said Bernhardt,vii said one of a handful of Charlie Company soldiers who had not taken part in the massacre. The “lawful disobedience” practiced by this group was as varied as the war itself.

Sgt. Bunning told his squad leader that “I wasn’t going to shoot any of these women and kids.” Stephen Carter refused to shoot a woman holding a baby coming out of her hut. Paul Meadlo, who did participate when pressured by Calley, was described as “sobbing and shouting and saying he wanted nothing to do with this.” viii A year later, Meadlo told reporters who asked how: “From the first day we go in the service, the very first day, we all learned to take orders and not to refuse any kind of order from a noncommissioned officer.” Their roles that day appears to have been influenced by multiple factors including their age, whether their MOS had them were carrying light, trigger-easy M16s, their proximity to the actual giving of the illegal orders, and their personal perspective on the issue of war crimes.ix

But even the refusers never told the outside world to what had happened. It took a year before that year-long embargo was broken.

Spc. Thomas Glen, from the 11th Light Infantry, had tried in late 1968, writing the staff of Gen. Creighton Abrams that such behavior “cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of Military Assistance Command Vietnam and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated.”x Abrams never responded, but his assistant Major Colin Powell reprimanded Glen for speaking so vaguely, and added that “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs, [but] this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.” Just as Powell was writing, Corporal Ron Ridenhour was preparing to prove him wrong.

Ridenhour had learned the news from an old friend who had joined Charlie Company a few months earlier: “ Hey man did you hear what we did at Pinkville?…. Men, women and kids, everybody, we killed them all….We didn’t leave anybody alive, at least we didn’t intend to.” xi

Seized by “an instantaneous recognition and collateral determination that this was something too horrible, almost, to comprehend and that I wasn’t gonna be a part of it,” Ridenhour tracked down members of Charlie Company one by one. “They couldn’t stop talking,” Ridenhour said later. “They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way.”

In March 1969, Ridenhour wrote a letter as specific as Glen’s was vague, naming every soldier he’d interviewed and detailed their accounts, including that Capt. Medina had warned soldiers never to speak about My Lai. “I remain irrevocably persuaded,” he told the Joint Chiefs, the President and every TV network, ‘that … we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter. “xii

At the closed set of hearings that resulted, Hugh Thompson and others identified the man directing the massacre as Calley. Calley insisted that he was implementing the mission set forth by his commander Captain Medina, but he was still the only one indicted for the murder of “one hundred and nine Oriental human beings.”

A freelance Pentagon reporter named Seymour Hersh soon saw the indictment. “My first thought was not wow this will end the war, but What a story!” When he went to Fort Benning to find Calley, Ron Ridenhour “gave me a company roster, and I began to find the kids.”

The resulting interviews and photos ran nationwide — the week of the moon landing in July 1969. So it took some time for all of us to get this glimpse of what we know now was standard operating procedure during that war.

It certainly didn’t get mentioned during all the laudatory moon-shot retrospectives. But attention still, I think, must be paid.

(Photo: Stephen Carter and My Lai, Newsweek)

is

ii Via Gareth Porter, “ My Lai Probe Hid Policy that Led to Massacre.” Interpress Service, March 15, 2008.

iii From remarks at “My Lai 25 Years After: Facing the Darkness, Healing the Wounds,” Tulane University, 1994. Accessed via University of Missouri (Kansas City) digital resource, “Famous American Trials: The My Lai Courts-Martial,1970.” http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm, December 2008.

iv Fall 2003 Lecture, Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis MD.

v Seymour Hersh, Hamlet Attack Called “Point-Blank Murder”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20. 1969.

vi Seymour Hersh, “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 1969, p. A1.

vii Hersh, November 20. op. cit.

viii Peers final report….

ix Rives Duncan, “What Went Right at My Lai: An Analysis of Habitus and Character in Lawful Disobedience.” Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1992. I owe Major Duncan full credit for use of the term “lawful disobedience,” here and elsewhere.

x Via Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, “Colin Powell and My Lai.”Consortium News, October 1996.

xi “My Lai 25 Years After,” op.cit.

xii Ibid.

On Memorial Day, remember these priests, poets, politicos and pranksters!

That’s how I’ve tended to characterize the huge, diverse and boisterous movement working to stop the U.S, war against Vietnam, 1963-1975. I should have written an essay here about them last month, for the anniversary of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but I could barely fit them in a chapter for the book.

A surprising number of the above, though, were recent veterans of World War II, who then popped into mind during the anniversary of V-E Day; so I wrote something that will run tomorrow in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Given space constraints, I’m informed there won’t be a photo: so here’s a photo preview of those included in the piece, which wasn’t even all of those in the movement. An honor roll of some for whom Memorial Day was an open wound, in their hearts every day:

 

 

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

 

  • Former Army intelligence officer William Sloane Coffin, founder of the hugely influential Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV).

 

 

 

 

  • howardHoward Zinn, whose long career as an historian, organizer and inspiration to us all was preceded by the young (already anti-fascist) bombardier seen at right.

 

  • Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Philip Berrigan, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, shown here in prhaps the moment symbolizing his work during Vietnam — one of the first stops in a lifetime of anti-militarist  civil disobedience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • William_Kunstler_Former Army cryptographer William Kunstler, who followed his Pacific service by co-founding the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented war resisters from Berrigan, above, through the years to Gulf War objector Colleen Gallagher in 1991. In  1968, his face and voice became inescapable during the trial of the Chicago Seven, as at right.

 

 

 

 

  • Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portrait (2)And this skinny little private was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner of war — and turned that exoeriene into one of the strongest anti-war novels ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll post the link tomorrow, which includes more on all of these. There are so many more who I couldn’t squeeze l into 750 words: not Lew Ayres and the other World War II COs, not Rev. Paul Moore, who found his pacifism after the abbatoir of Guadalcanal. But I still think this is a fine Memorial Day tribute to those lost in all our wars.

News mix: a house of cards

AintMarchincoverbyAlexAs ever, my not-quite-daily roundup of items that caught my attention, and still might yours.

  • In Winona, MN, a veteran artist enacts war’s suffering by lying on a bed of nails.
  • 160 retired Israeli defense officials speak out against PM Netanyahu’s address today to the US Congress. The group reminds me a little of the Vietnam-era ‘Brass Lambs‘: ” ” Commanders for Israel’s Security, an organization of 200 retired and reserve senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad secret service, the Shin Bet domestic security agency and the national police force […], was created last year to push Netanyahu forward on a regional peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict with the Palestinians.”
  • In The Nation, George Black revisits Quang Tri province 50 years after the USAF tried to bomb it, and Vietnam, back to the Stone Age.
  • Transgender vets raise a concrete issue for SecDef Carter: “If Carter is serious about revisiting the ban on transgender troops, he also needs to turn his attention to another issue: how the Defense Department responds to transgender veterans who need to update official military records to reflect their new [true] gender.”

 

As for this post’s title; Last night, in our slow binge of House of Cards season 3, an unexpected death reminded me simultaneously of the veteran suicide crisis and of Evan Thomas, who in 1918 refused special treatment to protest the treatment of COs in prison. I’m guessing that plot point was suggested by Pussy Riot.