Jeff Sharlet (activist)

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Jeff Sharlet, linguist, U.S. Army Security Agency, 1963-1964

Jeff Sharlet (1942–1969), a Vietnam veteran, was a leader of the GI resistance movement during the Vietnam War and the founding editor of Vietnam GI. David Cortright, a major chronicler of the Vietnam GI protest movement wrote, "Vietnam GI, the most influential early paper, surfaced at the end of 1967, distributed to tens of thousands of GIs, many in Vietnam, closed down after the death of founder Jeff Sharlet in June, 1969."1

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Sharlet was born and raised in Glens Falls, New York, a small town in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and later in the state capital of Albany. In 1960 he graduated from The Albany Academy, a private military academy.

Military training and assignment: Philippines[edit]

Restless during his first year of college, Sharlet withdrew and decided to fulfill his military obligation. In return for a three-year enlistment in the United States Army Security Agency (ASA), a communications intelligence outfit, he was promised a year's training in a Slavic language followed by a European posting.

But at the Army Language School he was bumped into the Vietnamese language course. He and fellow students spent six hours a day in class over 11½ months. In early 1963 Sharlet was sent to Clark Air Base in the Philippines where he was assigned to the 9th ASA2 at Stotsenberg Field Station as a Vietnamese translator/interpreter. With a Top Secret/Cryptographic security clearance he and fellow linguists monitored Vietnam People's Army radio communications.

Vietnam duty[edit]

In late August 1963 Sharlet and a small team of linguists were flown to Saigon on short notice and transferred to the Army Security Agency's 3rd Radio Research Unit, Davis Station, named after the first American GI killed in combat during the Vietnam War,3 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside the capital. The transfer occurred at the time of the secret US-backed coup planning by South Vietnamese generals against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.4

From Davis Station, Sharlet and seven others were dispatched to Phu Lam, a US Signals base, where they worked on a remote corner of the base apart from Army signals personnel. Each day's product was sent by heavily armed jeep down to Tan Son Nhut from where it was airlifted to Washington, D.C. for analysis at the National Security Agency.

Very shortly before the November 1 coup which overthrew Diem, Sharlet and the special team were pulled out and ordered back to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. By then, as he later related to family, he was beginning to experience doubts about the U.S. mission in Vietnam.

A few months later, Sharlet was shipped back to Vietnam, this time on the eve of the 1964 South Vietnamese coup by General Nguyen Khanh against the junta on January 30. Following the quick success of the coup, Sharlet was re-assigned north to Phu Bai,5 an Army Security Agency base just below the 1954 boundary between North and South Vietnam, the DMZ.

There he was attached to Detachment J, a branch of the 3rd Radio Research Unit providing communications support for commando operations in North Vietnam.6 Sharlet was also seconded to a nearby Marine intelligence unit7 for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. By the time he finished his Vietnam tour late May 1964, Sharlet had seen enough political corruption and military incompetence of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam8 (ARVN), often compounded by exaggerated, upbeat reports by U.S. military advisors, to become thoroughly disillusioned with U.S. involvement in what he considered a Vietnamese civil war.

SDS days at Indiana University[edit]

Sharlet returned to college fall of 1964, re-entering Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington where he majored in Political Science. In early 1965, the Vietnam War escalated with the launching of U.S. bombing raids against the North and the landing of Marine combat units in the South.9 By April, student protest against the war had begun to spread on U.S. campuses. At IU, early organizers of a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)in 1965 included Bob and John Grove, Robin Hunter, Peter Montague, Karl North, Rick Ross, Bernella and David Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, and Sharlet.10

In the fall of 1965 Sharlet joined SDS, and during his following two years at IU participated in, helped organize, or co-led SDS demonstrations against campus visits by several prominent pro-Vietnam War speakers, including former Vice President Richard Nixon, General Maxwell Taylor, General Lewis Blaine Hershey, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson when he spoke in nearby Indianapolis.11

On campus, he supported the protest against the arrest of two members of the leftist youth W.E.B. Du Bois Club,12 Bruce Klein and Allen Gurevitz. During his tenure as SDS co-chairman Spring term 1967, with the help of Bob Tennyson, Sharlet took public issue13 with IU President Elvis Jacob Stahr, Jr., a former Secretary of the Army, over his criticism of the New Left and later played a significant role in getting SDS activist Guy Loftman elected IU student body president.14

Sharlet won a Woodrow Wilson Graduate Fellowship15 which he chose to use at University of Chicago in its Political Science PhD program beginning fall 1967.

Chicago and 'Vietnam GI'[edit]

During his IU years Sharlet had pondered the question of how to give voice to opposition to the war which he knew existed among many Vietnam GIs. In the summer of 1967 he went to New York City where he met fellow ex-Vietnam GI Jan Barry Crumb16 and joined his fledgling organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Returning to Chicago Sharlet began graduate work, but by the end of the Fall term decided to withdraw to resume his anti-war work full-time. Using his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship funds, Sharlet launched the first GI-run anti-war paper addressed to GIs, calling it Vietnam GI (VGI). The first issue was dated January, 1968. His associate editor was David Komatsu, and the editorial board of ex-Vietnam GIs included Jan Barry, [Joseph Carey], William Harris, Peter Martinsen, Dink McCarter, James Pidgeon, Gary Rader, Francis Rocks, David Tuck, and James Zaleski. A civilian conscientious objector, Thomas Barton,17 served as VGI's East Coast distributor and was responsible for unobtrusively shipping bundles of the paper to Vietnam.

Vietnam GI (March 1968)

Vietnam GI quickly became a success among GIs stateside and in Vietnam18 where soldiers like Terry DeMott, a helicopter door gunner in the Americal Division stationed near Chu Lai, and a number of sympathetic unit mail clerks helped circulate the paper surreptitiously. It was free to GIs, and requests for individual subscriptions as well as multiple copies for distribution in stateside barracks and Vietnam combat units soared, with the print run reaching 30,000 copies by fall 1968.20 Letters-to-the editor indicated that single copies passed through many hands. In August a separate "Stateside" edition of VGI was launched.

Between issues, Sharlet worked wealthy liberal circles on both coasts for contributions to support production costs. Barbara Garson, author of MacBird, a widely performed anti-war play of the late 1960s, was an especially helpful West Coast contact. While traveling, Sharlet kept in touch with civilian activists running GI coffee houses outside major bases,21 including Judy Olasov at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri; Larry Langowski at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Donna Mickleson,22 national coordinator of the coffee house movement based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as draft resistance groups which distributed Vietnam GI at induction centers, including CADRE (Chicago Area Draft Resisters) and the Boston Draft Resistance Group in New England, which not only helped by having the paper printed in Boston but also by shipping copies into Vietnam and distributing it throughout New England.23

In late 1968 Sharlet visited the Oleo Strut, the highly activist GI coffee house, and nearby Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. Run by Josh Gould and Janet "Jay" Lockard, it was associated with the strike of the "Fort Hood 43,"24 Black troops who refused riot duty at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sharlet also represented the burgeoning GI anti-war movement at conferences in Japan25 and in Sweden26 where he worked with the theologians Harvey Cox, Michael Novak, and the late Richard John Neuhaus

Illness and death[edit]

The success of Vietnam GI and the growing GI protest against the war led to national media coverage for Sharlet and the paper in Esquire,27 New York Times,28 and on NBC Nightly Television News as well as the AP and NEA newswire services.29 In early 1969 a problem first experienced in Vietnam resurfaced, and he underwent surgery for kidney cancer. As David Komatsu wrote in Vietnam GI, "From there it was steadily downhill all the way. At the end, he said he had many new ideas for our fight, but was just too exhausted to talk about them."30 Sharlet died on June 16, 1969, age 27.31

Posthumous recognition[edit]

Sharlet's work as a founder of the GI protest movement was eulogized in the underground press throughout the country, including The Movement,32 Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace,33 Guardian,34 and The Old Mole of Cambridge, Massachusetts35. David Dellinger with Barbara Webster published a long remembrance of Sharlet for the magazine Liberation36. A new GI underground paper, Next Step, published in Heidelberg, then West Germany, was dedicated to him, while Fred Gardner, in the definitive account of the 1968 Presidio Mutiny 27, The Unlawful Concert (1970), dedicated his book to "Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, dead at 27."37

During past decades a number of scholars of the Vietnam anti-war movement have written about Sharlet and Vietnam GI in books and journals, including in recent years Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (1999)38; David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War (reissued 2005)39; Bob Ostertag, People's Movements/People's Press (2006)40; and a new middle school text, The American Journey: Modern Times (2009)41.

Most recently, in 2012, the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award, the first literary prize for military veterans, was inaugurated at the University of Iowa.

The most dramatic tribute has been the award-winning documentary, Sir! No Sir! (2005), on the Vietnam GI anti-war movement screened in theaters across the country and recently shown on Sundance Channel, co-dedicated to Sharlet, as the director David Zeiger42 put it, "for starting it all."

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

1 David Cortright, a major chronicler of the Vietnam GI protest movement wrote, "Vietnam GI, the most influential early paper, surfaced at the end of 1967, distributed to tens of thousands of GIs, many in Vietnam, closed down after the death of founder Jeff Sharlet in June, 1969." Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War (1975), p. 324. After Sharlet's death, three ex-GI's, John Alden, Joe Harris and Craig Walden carried on editing the paper until essential funding from the U.S. Servicemen's Fund (USSF) dried up after the final issue in August 1970. For the front pages of each issue of Vietnam GI, written by and for enlisted men who were committed to ending the war, see http://www.sirnosir.com/archives_and_resources/galleries/cover_pages/vietnam_gi.html. (see also Sir! No Sir!)

2 See 9th United States Army Security Agency, http://www.9thasastotsenberg.com/, select "About 9th USASAFS."

3 ASA Specialist Four James T. Davis (see Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr.) was killed in a Viet Cong ambush outside Saigon on December 22, 1961. See http://www.comcenterspec.homestead.com/DavisStation.html.

4 On the South Vietnamese military's coup planning and the Kennedy Administration's involvement resulting in the overthrow and death of President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963, see Grant, Facing the Phoenix, pp. 198–215, based on extensive interviews with Lucien Conein, the CIA operative who served as liaison between the White House and the coup plotters; Prados, The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President: A Book and CD Set, especially the audio on JFK's meetings with his secret committee on the coup planning on disks 2 & 3; and Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans, pp. 520–59, based on declassified State Department cables and CIA reports between Saigon and Washington, D.C., on the progress and final execution of the coup plans.

5 The Phu Bai military base was 9 miles SE of Huế, capital of one of South Vietnam's northernmost provinces. See the map at http://www.cswayne.com/huemap.html which shows the village of Phu Bai just south of the ASA base.

6 See The Pentagon Papers: As Published by the New York Times, p. 238.

7 On the Marine 1st Composite Radio Company, see USMC, 1st Radio Battalion, Vietnam Veterans. On the composition and mission of the Marine unit, see Radio Battalion.

8 See Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army, especially ch. 5. n the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac (January, 1963) which became emblematic of the South Vietnamese Army's failures; see Halberstam's firsthand account in The Making of a Quagmire, pp. 146–62; and Sheehan's detailed discussion in "A Bright Shining Lie", pp. 212–65.

9 On the launching of the bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, on March 2, 1965, and the landing of the first Marine combat battalions at Da Nang on March 8, 1965, see respectively Lewy, America in Vietnam, pp. 375–78 and 42-49.

10 On the formation of the Indiana University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society in 1965, see Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University, pp. 36, 43-44, 46, and 51.

11 On LBJ's appearance in Indianapolis on July 23, 1966 and the preemptive arrests of many of the IU SDS protestors, see Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland, pp. 44–45.

12 The first W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs, Marxist discussion groups named after a prominent African-American civil rights leader, were organized in the San Francisco Bay Area during 1963. The following year the national organization, W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs of America, was formed. See Freeman, At Berkeley in the Sixties, p. 27. By 1966 the national organization was under investigation by U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. In September, Klein and Gurevitz were arrested on the IU campus for defying the university's ban on the Du Bois Club participating in the fall activities fair at the student union.

13 See Jeff Sharlet, "The Role of the New Left on the Campus: State of the Students, State of the University", The Spectator, March 13, 1967, pp. 3–6, for Sharlet's reply to IU President Elvis Stahr's remarks in an address to the university faculty.

14 Sharlet, at the time SDS co-chairman, was a draftsman of the winning candidate's campaign platform. Guy Loftman, an SDS activist was declared victor in the election. See Indiana Daily Student, April 14, 1967, p. 1.

15 Woodrow Wilson Fellowships were awarded for graduate study through a national competition to seniors showing the greatest promise of becoming college teachers and covered graduate school tuition, room, and board. See http://www.woodrow.org/fellowships.php. Recently the Woodrow Wilson Foundation honored Sharlet with a profile in its publication Fellowship (Fall 2008), pp. 7–8.

16 Jan Barry Crumb, who later shortened his name to Jan Barry, was founder and first president of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. See Nicosia, Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement, pp. 15–17.

17 See Barton's interview, "Jeff Sharlet and Vietnam GI", an "extra" feature on the DVD Sir! No Sir!: The Suppressed Story of the GI Movement to End the War in Vietnam, Displaced Films, New Video Group, 2006. Barton today sees himself carrying on Sharlet's work in his current role as editor of the daily online Iraq GI antiwar newsletter, GI Special, now known as Military Resistance archived at http://www.militaryproject.org/, which he conceives of as a continuation of Vietnam GI in the present context. He also assisted ex-Iraq GIs in organizing Iraq Veterans Against the War.

18 In The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era, p. 104, Moser wrote that Vietnam GI "became one of the most successful soldier newspapers of the period." While the press run for the first issue was relatively modest, Cortright in Soldiers in Revolt, p. 55 reported it was soon "exceeding fifteen thousand." Reviewing the paper's history, Ostertag in People's Movements/People's Press, p. 126, concluded that "Vietnam GI set a standard of excellence unmatched in the underground GI press."

19 On Knutson, see Jim Pidgeon, "Mỹ Sơn the Newspaper", Vietnam GI, April 1968, p. 7.

20 See Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, p. 106.

21 On the organization of GI coffee houses, see Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt, pp. 53–54. For the military's reaction, see Ben A. Franklin, "Antiwar G.I.'s and Army Head for Clash Over Vietnam", New York Times, April 28, 1969, p. 22.

22 Mickleson was co-founder with Fred Gardner of the GI coffee house movement. See Moser, The New Winter Soldiers, p. 98.

23 See Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War, pp. 321 & 420, n.62.

24 "Fort Hood Strike", Vietnam GI, Stateside edition, September 1968, p. 1.

25 The conference took place in Kyoto in August, 1968. On Sharlet's participation, see Halstead, Out Now!: A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War, pp. 427–28.

26 The meeting took place in Stockholm in October, 1968 as reported in the Swedish press, "Sexton Faktasokare Fran USA (Sixteen Factfinders from the USA)", Dagens Nyheter, October 28, 1968, p. 1.

27 Robert Christgau, "Military Personnel Will Not Participate in Any Activity Having to Do with Creating a Union", Esquire, August 1968, pp. 112 & 116.

28 Donald Janson, "Antiwar Coffee Houses Delight G.I.'s but Not Army", New York Times, August 12, 1968, pp. 1 and 41.

29 The NEA's national feature by Tom Tiede, "GI's Aim Resentment at Brass", ran in the Schenectady (NY) Union-Star, September 24, 1968, p. 19., while the AP's national feature by Fred Hoffman, "GI Protest Newspapers Add Fury to Army's Ire", ran in the Albany (NY) Times-Union, May 25, 1969, p. A-7. Vietnam GI was highlighted in a feature on the UFO GI coffee house at Fort Jackson, South Carolina on NBC Nightly Television News with Huntley-Brinkley on August 9, 1968.

30 "Jeff Sharlet Dies", (obituary), Vietnam GI, August 1969, p. 3.

31 "Mr. Sharlet, Founder of GI Magazine", Miami (FL) Herald, June 18, 1969, p. 3-B.

32 Lincoln Bergman, "Jeff Sharlet, Editor of Vietnam GI", The Movement, August 1969, p. 17.

33 "Jeff Sharlet Dies", Veterans Stars & Stripes for Peace, Summer 1969, p. 1.

34 Jim Retherford, "Jeff Sharlet Dies of Cancer", Guardian, July 5, 1969, p. 3.

35 "We regret to announce the death of Jeff Sharlet, Founder and Editor of Vietnam GI", The Old Mole, June 20-July 3, 1969, p. 2.

36 David Dellinger & Barbara Webster, "The first edition of Vietnam GI came out in January, 1968. … Today Jeff died of cancer", Liberation, July 1969, p. 2. The July issue was dedicated to Sharlet.

37 Published by Viking Press, see page v.

38 Hunt, Andrew E. (2001-05-01, copyright 1999). The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3635-7. Retrieved 2011-06-29. Lay summary.  see pp. 23, 26, 30-32, and 34.

39 Originally published by Anchor/Doubleday, reissued by Haymarket Books, see pp. 55 and 324.

40 Published by Beacon Press, see pp. 125–32.

41 Published by McGraw-Hill, see page 476.

42 In the late 1960s David Zeiger had been a civilian volunteer at the Oleo Strut, the GI coffee house near Fort Hood, Texas. For his filmography as a writer/director, see David Zeiger-Moviefone.

References[edit]

  • Bibby, Michael. Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. Rutgers University Press, 1996. [ISBN 0813522978].
  • Brigham, Robert K. ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army. University Press of Kansas, 2006. [ISBN 0-7006-1433-8].
  • Cortright, David. Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Anchor/Doubleday, 1975; reissued Haymarket Books, 2005. [ISBN 0385110839].
  • Dommen, Arthur J. The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans. Indiana University Press, 2001. [ISBN 0-253-33854-9].
  • Duncombe, Stephen. Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternate Culture. Verso, 1997. [ISBN 1859848273].
  • Foley, Michael S. Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War. University of North Carolina Press, 2003. [ISBN 0-8078-2767-3].
  • Franklin, H. Bruce. Vietnam and Other Fantasies. University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. [ISBN 1-55849-279-8].
  • Freeman, Jo, At Berkeley in the Sixties. Indiana University Press, 2004. [ISBN 0-253-34283-X].
  • Gardner, Fred. The Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case. Viking, 1970. ISBN 978-0-67074-108-3.
  • Geier, Joel. "Vietnam: The Soldier's Revolt", International Socialist Review, no. 9, August–September, 2000 at http://www.isreview.org/issues/09/soldiers_revolt.shtml].
  • Glessing, Robert J. The Underground Press in America. Indiana University Press, 1970. [ISBN 0253190088].
  • Grant, Zalen. Facing the Phoenix. Norton, 1991. [ISBN 0393029255].
  • Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire. Random House, 1965. [ISBN 0-345357-77-9].
  • Halstead, Fred. Out Now! A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War. Monad Press, 1978. [ISBN 0-913460-47-8].
  • Hunt, Andrew E. (2001-05-01, copyright 1999). The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3635-7. Retrieved 2011-06-29. Lay summary. 
  • Lewes, James. Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers During the Vietnam War. Praeger, 2003. [ISBN 0-275-97861-3].
  • Lewy, Guenter. America in Vietnam. Oxford University Press, 1978. [ISBN 0-19-502391-9].
  • Moser, Robert R. The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era. Rutgers University Press, 1996. [ISBN 0-8135-2241-2].
  • Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans Movement. Crown, 2001.[ISBN 0-8129-9103-6].
  • Ostertag, Bob. People's Movements/People's Press. Beacon Press, 2006. [ISBN 0-8070-6164-6].
  • Pentagon Papers: As Published by the New York Times. Bantam Books, 1971. [ISBN 0552649171].
  • Prados, John. The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President – A Book and CD Set. New Press/Norton, 2003. [ISBN 1565848527].
  • Rinaldi, Matthew. "The Olive-Drab Rebels: Military Organizing During the Vietnam War", Radical America, vol. 8, no. 3, 1974, pp. 17–52 at http://dl.lib.brown.edu/pdfs/1124977588835950.pdf.
  • Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Random House, 1988. [ISBN 0-394-48447-9].
  • Wynkoop, Mary Ann. Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University. Indiana University Press, 2002. [ISBN 0-253-34118-3].
  • Zeiger, David, writer/director. Sir! No Sir! The Suppressed Story of the GI Movement to End the War in Vietnam. DVD, 84 mins. + extras. Displaced Films, New Video Group, 2006.

External links and sources[edit]