Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 2

Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 2

by Ken Wachsberger (Editor)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611860313
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2012
Series: Voices from the Underground Series
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Ken Wachsberger is a long-time writer, editor, and author, as well as an early member, a book contract adviser, and a former national officer in the National Writers Union.

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Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 2

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2012 Michigan State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-031-3

Chapter One

Soldiers Against the Vietnam War: Aboveground and The Ally


Tell us about the plan to burn down barracks buildings at Fort Carson." The army intelligence officer wasn't keeping notes during the interrogation, so I figured the gray room had a microphone hidden somewhere, recording my answers. My cover was blown, and here I sat in my dress uniform, summoned to explain my role in the publication of Aboveground, an antiwar paper directed at soldiers stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado.

Aboveground was the brainchild of my buddies Tom Roberts and Curt Stocker. Intelligence officers had already questioned Roberts and Stocker, and now it was my turn. A couple of my articles, written under the name "A Fort Carson GI," rested on the table. The intelligence officer sat directly across from me, and the articles were spotlighted by a single bulb that hung from the ceiling. "I need to know about the plan to set fire to the barracks," he repeated.

"I don't know anything about setting fire to barracks," I said.

"I understand how you feel about the war, but these barracks buildings are tinder boxes—do you realize that men could die?"

"I know the buildings are very unsafe, sir."

"But you won't cooperate."

"As far as I know, there is no plan to set fire to anything at Fort Carson, sir." I wondered how much he knew. A few weeks earlier, somebody actually suggested that we do just that—torch a few barracks. The suggestion came from a GI during a meeting at the Home Front, the GI coffeehouse in nearby Colorado Springs. The Home Front, one of many coffeehouses operated by the United States Servicemen's Fund (USSF) and located near army posts across the country, served as a base for all kinds of antiwar activities, including the publication of Aboveground. We'd gather each month at the Home Front to talk about articles for the coming issue of the paper. Sometimes the meetings would develop into lengthy discussions about the war and what we should do to end it. The suggestion to torch a barracks came at one of these meetings.

The GI who proposed the idea seemed especially weird to me. No one at the coffeehouse knew him, and he didn't seem to know much about Fort Carson or Colorado Springs. More important, his suggestion was truly reckless. The Fort Carson barracks were World War II structures, and their estimated burn time was about ten minutes, max. Burning a barracks meant more than arson. It meant murder. It meant killing GIs, guys like us. We ignored the suggestion and went on with the meeting. And here, a couple of months later, an army intelligence officer alluded to the same bad idea.

What I didn't know was this: At the precise moment I was being questioned, an anonymous clerk in Fort Carson's headquarters company was passing an envelope to Roberts and Stocker. The envelope contained the identifications of military intelligence agents who worked undercover. The guy at the meeting—the guy who tried to get us to set fire to barracks buildings—was an agent. Our little band of dissidents was so potentially threatening that military intelligence actually risked the incineration of U.S. soldiers in order to discredit us! This incident provided some insight into the nature of political power in the United States.

"Well, if you don't know anything about the plan to burn down barracks, tell me about the money. Where does Aboveground's money come from?"

"You mean the money to finance the paper?" I asked.

"Yes. How much support comes from the Communists?"

My fear was turning to anger. I was just out of college. I had majored in communication and I was on my way to a radio news job when the draft got me. Back in school, I decided on a career in broadcast news the day I saw the tape of Edward R. Murrow's famous "See It Now" program about the dangers of Joe McCarthy. The interrogator's question revealed the same kind of contempt that McCarthy and his supporters shared for their opponents, or so it seemed to me.

"I don't know what you mean about Communists, sir." I said.

"We know there are Communists in Aboveground's organization," he said. "Why don't you help the country by identifying them? You'd also be helping your buddies Roberts and Stocker. We don't think they know what they're getting themselves into."

I smiled at the thought of "Aboveground's organization" and was tempted to say, "What organization?" Roberts and Stocker operated Aboveground on the principle of democratic participation. If you contributed to the content or distribution of the paper, you had a say about how things were done. Staff volunteers discussed and voted on the content of most of the nine issues of Aboveground. Although Roberts and Stocker maintained editorial leadership, they often published opinions with which they strongly disagreed, and these opinions often came from the civilian antiwar activists at the Home Front. The newspaper's volunteer staff had a core group of five or six, plus several others who came and went according to military reassignments and the transient nature of the Colorado counterculture in 1969 and 1970. To talk about "organization" was to miss altogether the amorphous nature of "the Movement" and the broad spectrum of political viewpoints that swirled around Aboveground and became represented in its pages.

Four political factions were involved in the paper's operation, and all of them were based at the Home Front. First, there were the civil libertarians. Like me, these were dissident GIs who agreed that the Vietnam War was essentially illegal and immoral. We doubted that the war was even constitutional, and we were certain that it violated our country's values. Our experience in the army led us to distrust the military hierarchy. This political viewpoint was strongly influenced by men like Roberts and Stocker, soldiers who had already pulled tours of duty in Vietnam and who were now reassigned to stateside posts.

Ironically, the army had trained Roberts and Stocker to do journalistic work! They had both been assigned to the Tenth Psychological Operations Battalion in South Vietnam. Based on their war experience, they concluded that the corruption and brutality of the South Vietnamese government precluded victory, because the vast majority of the South Vietnamese didn't support the Saigon regime. Simply, GIs were fighting and dying for a government that wasn't worth the sacrifice of one American life. Roberts and Stocker—and other soldiers who had already been to 'Nam—were potentially dangerous, and the army made a mistake by reassigning them to stateside posts where they could talk about the war to recently drafted troops. Stories of corruption and atrocities spread throughout the army as the returning GIs tried to warn the rest of us about the war's realities. Aboveground and the other two hundred or so GI underground papers helped spread the word to soldiers who were headed to Vietnam. So the civil libertarians wrote articles for the paper that stressed the history and nature of American involvement and how the war violated the Constitution and traditional American values.

The second political faction was called the "radicals," a very imprecise term that covered a variety of viewpoints and that seemed to change daily. The antiwar movement was composed of numerous political groups that sometimes cooperated and often competed for political leadership. The term "radical" was used at the Home Front to identify a wide assortment of these groups, all of which shared a generally Marxist orientation. The "radical" faction included members of the Weatherman group of Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Socialists, and the New York-based American Servicemen's Union (ASU).

The term was by no means negative. On the contrary, much of the Home Front's continuing debate focused on the meaning of "radical," and on the best "radical" strategy—including violence—to help end the war. One radical plan involved the organization of U.S. troops as the vanguard army of an armed revolution in the United States. The idea was to turn the guns around. This plan made more sense to some of the civilian volunteers than to those of us in the army. In 1969, most GIs simply wanted to be liberated from the army, not involved in armed revolution. It was also very difficult to organize GIs in an effective way. Once the military command identified a GI organizer, that person would be imprisoned, roughed up, or reassigned to some other post. What many of us hoped for was simply an increasing unwillingness by soldiers to comply with the war effort. And gradually, that's what happened throughout the ranks.

The biggest difference between the radicals and the civil libertarians was the radicals' emphasis on what they viewed as class distinctions in the military social structure. For example, the ASU viewed the military caste system as analogous to the system of exploitation in civilian life. The officers were the bosses, while the enlisted men were the workers. This particular position didn't make much sense to me, because many of the officers were themselves from lower-middle-class and working-class families. More important, many of the officers had already turned against the war and were actually participating in the antiwar movement. Officers were potential allies in the movement to end the war. As a draftee, I was less interested in union-like organizing than I was in simply ending the war and getting out of the army.

The ASU attempted to establish a local chapter at the Home Front, but this attempt failed to generate interest among more than a few soldiers. Nevertheless, the radicals' emphasis on class analysis profoundly influenced Aboveground because the analysis introduced considerations of social structure and the distribution of power. The faction compelled the rest of us to start linking the destruction of Vietnam to patterns of repression at home and in other parts of the world.

The third political faction that influenced Aboveground was a group of United States Servicemen's Fund (USSF) organizers who were also activists in the emerging women's liberation movement. This group, which included persons sent to Colorado Springs by the USSF to establish and operate the Home Front, began to influence the newspaper when Roberts and Stocker agreed to base Aboveground at the coffeehouse. These women were the first feminists I had met, although the term "feminist" was hardly in widespread use at this time. This faction attempted to link U.S. policy in Vietnam to women's oppression. They took on the difficult task of attempting to educate men (young GIs) about feminist issues.

Because the editorial decision making of Aboveground was based upon group consensus, these three factions exercised varying degrees of influence upon the newspaper's political orientation and content. The fourth group, less well defined than the others, shared a countercultural orientation with interests in Eastern spiritualism, the development of a communal society, and the use of hallucinogens as religious sacraments. This countercultural influence was a product of the social environment existing in the mountains of Colorado and was sometimes viewed by the other factions as anarchistic and politically unproductive.

What we had at the Home Front was a microcosm of the antiwar movement. So when my interrogator asked me to identify the "Communists," I was understandably amused.

"We have at least one of everything at the Home Front, sir," I said, "so there's probably a Communist there somewhere. I think Stocker is a Republican."

"So you don't care about the possibility of Communists taking over the newspaper and using Roberts and Stocker to spread anti-American sentiment at Fort Carson?"

"It's not anti-American sentiment that's getting spread," I said. "It's antiwar sentiment. And the troops don't need Communists to tell them that the war is wrong. The troops already know that it's wrong, and very soon you—the command, that is—will have to come to grips with the fact that a lot of us know that you've already lost the war. We know that guys are dying for no reason, sir."

"Uh huh," he said. "If you won't identify the Communists, at least tell me where the money comes from. We know that USSF is supplying cash for the newspaper. What are the other sources?"

From August 1969 to May 1970, Roberts and Stocker produced nine issues of Aboveground. Most of the issues were between four and eight pages, and the press runs ranged between 3,500 and 10,000 copies, distributed at Fort Carson and in Colorado Springs. The USSF support began in November 1969 (starting with issue number 4; see figure 1), and other sources of support included limited donations and subscriptions. Roberts and Stocker paid for the first two or three issues out of their own pockets. What made the October 1969 issue (number 3; see figure 2) unique was its partial funding by a Vietnam War widow who donated a portion of her husband's $10,000 military life insurance payment (GI "blood money") to the paper's operation. I decided to elaborate on this unusual one-time source of revenue.

"War widows, sir."


"The paper is supported by donations from war widows throughout Colorado and a few other places. Their husbands get wasted in Vietnam, and they turn over the blood money to Aboveground."

"You mean these women give up a portion of the money that's supposed to be used to bury their husbands?"

"They go easy on the funeral expenses and donate what's left to Aboveground and to the Home Front," I lied.

"That's the most disgusting thing ..."

"They feel very strongly about the war."

"They're disgusting. All of you are disgusting. And you're ... confused. You're confused about what the war is all about."

"What is the war all about, sir?"

"It's about democracy. The Vietnamese don't know the difference between communism and democracy. We're in Vietnam to help give them the opportunity to decide for themselves, without being forced. If they decide to go Communist, well, that's okay. That's up to them. We just want to give them the chance to make up their mind. We're not trying to force anything on them. That's what the other side is trying to do, to force something on them. And you people are using the insurance money of the war dead to ..."

"All of the war widows tell us that their husbands would approve of it."

"How much money has been ... how much has been donated in this way?"

"Thousands," I lied. My interrogator left the room for about twenty minutes, and I had the feeling I was being observed by lenses embedded in the walls. Paranoia washed over me, and I imagined electrical currents running through the bars on the window. It was total vulnerability, the kind of vulnerability that the Home Front civilians never quite understood. To be in the army was to be totally vulnerable, observable at all times. And they could do things to you that they couldn't do to regular human beings outside the Green Machine. Once you stepped forward and took the oath, your "ass was grass" (just like the boot camp saying pointed out) and the army was "the lawnmower." The United States Constitution didn't mean much here. The interrogator returned and sat again, facing me at the small table with the light bulb hanging overhead.

"I suppose people at the Home Front have sex. I mean, who do they have sex with? Do they have sex with each other?"

"I don't know, sir. I don't have sex with Home Front people."

"Who do Roberts and Stocker have sex with? Do they have girlfriends at the Home Front?"

"They have girlfriends, of course. They date. I don't know about their sex lives. It's none of my business."

"Do they have sex with any of the war widows?"

"I have no idea."

"Do any of the GIs at the coffeehouse have sex with each other?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"How about the women's libbers? Are any of them lesbians?"

"I don't know, sir."

"I'm only asking these questions so I can help Roberts and Stocker. They're in over their heads. You can help them by cooperating. If you're their friend, you'll cooperate."

"I don't know anything about sex."

"Who uses drugs at the Home Front?"

"Nobody. There're no drugs at the Home Front."

"There are drugs all over Colorado Springs. You mean the Home Front is the one place in town where there are no drugs?"

"We police the area. The Home Front staff keeps out drug users. We know that the police could use drugs as a way of closing down the coffeehouse. The military could put the place off limits. Nobody uses drugs at the Home Front."


"The only way that drugs will get into the Home Front will be if the police plant some there, sir."

"I understand that Aboveground has a new printer. Who's the new printer?"


Excerpted from Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 2 Copyright © 2012 by Michigan State University. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Susan Brownmiller....................xi
Preface by Ken Wachsberger....................xiii
Soldiers Against the Vietnam War: Aboveground and The Ally Harry W. Haines, with appendices by Harry W. Haines and James Lewes....................1
Fast Times in the Motor City: The First Ten Years of the Fifth Estate, 1965–1975 Bob Hippler, with an appendix by Patrick Halley....................47
Fag Rag: The Most Loathsome Publication in the English Language Charley Shively....................97
The Kudzu: Birth and Death in Underground Mississippi David Doggett....................121
The Wong Truth Conspiracy: A History of Madison Alternative Journalism Tim Wong....................153
New Age: Worker Organizing from the Bottom Up Paul Krehbiel....................189
Ain't No Party Like the One We Got: The Young Lords Party and Palante Pablo "Yorúba" Guzmán....................233
Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend: The Story of Hundred Flowers Ed Felien....................255
The Furies: Goddesses of Vengeance Ginny Z. Berson, with appendices by Ginny Z. Berson and Charlotte Bunch....................269
At This End of the Oregon Trail: The Eugene AUGUR, 1969–1974 Peter Jensen....................289
Karl and Groucho's Marxist Dance: The Columbus Free Press and Its Predecessors in the Columbus Underground Steve Abbott....................303
"Raising the Consciousness of the People": The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, 1967–1980 JoNina M. Abron....................335
Both Sides Now Remembered: Or, The Once and Future Journal Elihu Edelson....................369
It Aint Me Babe: From Feminist Radicals to Radical Feminists Bonnie Eisenberg, with help from Laura X, Trina Robbins, Starr Goode, and Alta, with appendices by Laura X and Trina Robbins....................385
About the Authors....................417

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