Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Fall 2008
VIETNAM GI GAVE SOLDIERS A VOICE
Jeff Sharlet WF '67, linguist, U.S. Army Security Agency, 1963-1964.
"Dedicated to Jeff Sharlet, founder of Vietnam GI, the first GI underground paper," reads a screen at the end of Sir! No Sir!, an award-winning documentary film on the anti-war movement among active-duty soldiers during the Vietnam War.
The movement owed a considerable debt to Jeff Sharlet WF '67 as the creator of Vietnam GI (VGI). The film documents the importance of the more than 300 such newspapers for which VGI paved the way, produced and distributed on both domestic and overseas bases by military personnel and veterans.
Jeff Sharlet did not live to see the end of the Vietnam conflict, dying of cancer in 1969 at the age of 27. His older brother, Robert Sharlet, professor of political science at Union College, is now preparing a book about Jeff. Bob's son, Jeff's namesake and a journalist himself, is co-author.
AN ALTERNATE ROUTE
When a family financial crisis interrupted Jeff's undergraduate studies, he enlisted in an Army intelligence unit. Expecting to study Russian and be posted in Europe, he was instead bumped to the Vietnamese course.
The year was 1962.
"Unbeknownst to anybody but the Pentagon, they were building up reserves of Vietnamese linguists," says Bob. "Most of us didn't know where Vietnam was in 1962. [Jeff] said to one of the regular Army sergeants, 'Sarge, what would happen if you flunked out of Vietnamese?' And the sarge said, 'Son, no one flunks out of Vietnamese.'"
SOLDIER, STUDENT, ACTIVIST
Jeff Sharlet as president of SDS at IU leading a rally in front of the campus house of the university president, Elvis Stahr, JFK's former Secretary of the Army.
In late August 1963 Jeff was assigned to a radiointelligence unit in Vietnam, where he served for most of the rest of his tour. After returning stateside in 1964, he re-enrolled at Indiana University where he became increasingly political and co-founded a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “[We] grew up in a fairly apolitical family,” says Bob. “[It’s] clear, from talking to GIs who served with him and knew him well, that the experience in Vietnam politicized him. He could see even at that point that things were not going well. There was a good deal of corruption [and he] became quite disenchanted. I also could see from his letters that he was becoming more politically conscious.”
The only Vietnam veteran in the IU SDS chapter, Jeff was sensitive to New Left criticism of GIs. He began to envision a way to give GIs a voice. Intending to pursue a Ph.D. in political science, he applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. One of Jeff’s advisors would later tell Bob, “I knew Jeff was of two minds. On the one hand, he was an outstanding student and very intent on following through and getting a Ph.D. On the other hand, he was deeply, deeply committed to finding a way to give voice to the Vietnam GIs who opposed the war.” Jeff won the Fellowship, which he took to the University of Chicago in 1967. There, he began developing Vietnam GI.
The first issue appeared in January 1968. In addition to news of the GI anti-war movement, VGI regularly included interviews of newly returned GIs, letters from GIs still overseas, and editorials from Jeff and other ex-GIs. Jeff also reached well beyond the paper to elicit perspectives from GIs. “Jeff would tour the country and the GI coffeehouses looking for stories from returning GIs, and also carrying around the paper,” Bob notes. Among the coffeehouses he visited was the noted Oleo Strut near Fort Hood, which would become known as a center of the GI anti-war movement.
“Two other papers came out immediately after Jeff’s,” Bob says. “This I think is Jeff’s legacy. VGI and its immense success inspired GIs in stateside camps, and some in Japan and Germany, to develop their own underground papers, using the base mimeograph machine illegally. Early on the Army was court-martialing these individuals and giving them very stiff sentences. They couldn’t touch Jeff because he was out—he was a civilian. Later they realized they couldn’t court-martial everybody and developed a policy that entitled [GIs] to have one copy of the paper. But if you were distributing the paper, that was against base rules and you could be censured for that.” From its modest beginnings, VGI soon reached a circulation of 30,000 copies, and Jeff began printing two editions.
THE JUGGERNAUT: VGI AND THE GI ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT
VGI also became a force to be reckoned with by the government, as Bob’s study of Jeff’s life has revealed. “Occasionally [Jeff] would call me out of the blue and I’d say, ‘Jeff, where are you?’ ‘I’m on a pay phone. I’m on the road.’ I said, ‘Oh, where is that?’ Jeff said, ‘Best not to say,’ and I thought he’s a little paranoid.
“Well, I’ve learned that J. Edgar Hoover directed the Chicago office to put Jeff, his staff and the whole Vietnam GI operation, under surveillance as of May 1, 1968. Then one of his friends, who worked on the paper with him and who lived with him in Chicago, told me that the F.B.I. occasionally came to the door and asked to interview them.
Subsequently I found out that most of the underground papers were subject to postal surveillance, especially the papers that were directed to the GIs. They were considered subversive to good order in the military, and hence the U.S. postal authorities collaborated with the F.B.I., the Department of Army Intelligence, and eventually the C.I.A., which got involved illegally on the domestic front through their CHAOS program. Also, in Chicago, there was the Red Squad of the Chicago Police Department. There were a lot of groups involved in trying to slow down this juggernaut, this growing GI anti-war movement.”
Jeff’s efforts in late 1967 and 1968, though intensive and far-reaching, would prove all too brief. Just over a year after the first issue of Vietnam GI, Jeff was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and his health declined quickly. Two more issues appeared after his death in June 1969, and then Vietnam GI ceased publication. Today, he is increasingly acknowledged as a pioneer not only in the GI anti-war movement, but also in some contemporary efforts: In interviews with Bob Sharlet, Tom Barton, a longtime activist and VGI’s east coast distributor, who publishes a daily online anti-Iraq War GI newsletter called GI Special, has said, “ ‘I see myself as following in Jeff’s footsteps. If Jeff were here, he’d be doing this. And I see my online newsletter as the successor to Vietnam GI.’ ”
“My brother [was] a child of the middle class who became involved in this enormous thing,” says Bob Sharlet. “For him, the military was an option—but the average Vietnam GI was not a person who had a lot of choices in life. [Civilian namecalling] intensified Jeff’s desire to give these choiceless guys who ended up in combat units an opportunity to express themselves on the war.”