Dangerous grounds, p.1

Dangerous Grounds, page 1


Dangerous Grounds

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Dangerous Grounds

  Dangerous Grounds

  Dangerous Grounds

  Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era

  David L. Parsons

  The University of North Carolina Press

  Chapel Hill

  This book was published with the assistance of the Authors

  Fund of the University of North Carolina Press.

  © 2017 The University of North Carolina Press

  All rights reserved

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  The University of North Carolina Press has been a member of the Green Press Initiative since 2003.

  Cover illustration: Soldiers and civilians at the nation’s first GI coffeehouse, the UFO in Columbia, S.C., 1968. Courtesy of Lucy Rutledge.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Parsons, David L.

  Title: Dangerous grounds : antiwar coffeehouses and military dissent in the Vietnam era / David L. Parsons.

  Description: Chapel Hill : The University of North Carolina Press, [2017] | Includes bibliographical references and index.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2016025852| ISBN 9781469632018 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781469632025 (ebook)

  Subjects: LCSH: Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Protest movements—United States. | Coffeehouses—History—20th century. | United States—History, Military—20th century. | Soldiers—United States—History—20th century.

  Classification: LCCDS559.62.U6 P37 2017 | DDC 959.704/31—dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016025852

  For Claudia



  GI Coffeehouse Locations, 1968–1974


  1 Setting Up Shop: Coffeehouses Land in America’s Army Towns

  2 Getting Together: Political Activism at GI Coffeehouses

  3 Repression, Harassment, Intimidation: Crushing the Coffeehouses

  4 Moving On: A Changing War, a Changing Army, and a Changing Movement

  Epilogue: Support Our Troops





  While researching the history of GI coffeehouses, I benefited tremendously from the intellectual and historical perspectives shared generously by several scholars. I’m particularly grateful to Professor Joshua Brown, whose work first awakened me to the possibilities of social and cultural history. My subsequent years working with Professor Brown at the New Media Lab and American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center continued to broaden my ideas about history, and our conversations always provided me with advice and inspiration that added rigor and passion to my work. Professors Clarence Taylor, Stephen Brier, Gerald Markowitz, and Joshua Freeman also shared critical insights throughout my years at the Graduate Center, without which this book would not have been possible.

  I would also like to thank several figures from the coffeehouse movement who were kind enough to share their experiences with me. Barbara Garson, Josh Gould, Howard Levy, and Stephanie Coontz were all generous with their time and patient with my many questions. David Zeiger, a filmmaker and dedicated historian of the GI movement, shared his impressive collection of underground newspapers and related ephemera, located on the website for his film Sir! No Sir!, a collection that became one of the foundational sources for my investigation. Most of all, I would like to thank Fred Gardner, the creator of the GI coffeehouse concept, for sharing his time and garage full of primary sources with me. His friendly participation and unique perspective was enormously helpful for this project.

  Several colleagues, friends, and family members provided endless enthusiasm and support for my project over the years. In particular, my frequent conversations with Claudia Moreno Parsons and Justin Rogers-Cooper regularly challenged my assumptions and brought fresh viewpoints. And I want to thank my parents, Jim and Linda Parsons, for their unconditional support and belief in me throughout my years of education.

  Finally, I’m eternally indebted to my wife, Claudia, whose motivation, inspiration, and love helped me immeasurably in writing this history.

  GI Coffeehouse Locations, 1968–1974

  Chicago Area Military Project (Chicago, Illinois)

  Covered Wagon (Mountain Home, Idaho)

  Echo Mike (Los Angeles, California)

  Fellowship of the Ring Coffeehouse (Fairbanks, Alaska)

  First Amendment Coffeehouse (Frankfurt, Germany)

  Fort Dix Coffeehouse (Wrightstown, New Jersey)

  Fort Jackson GI Center (Columbia, South Carolina)

  Fort Knox Coffeehouse (Muldraugh, Kentucky)

  FTA Project (Louisville, Kentucky)

  Green Machine (San Diego, California)

  Haymarket Square Coffeehouse (Fayetteville, North Carolina)

  Hobbit Coffeehouse (Iwakuni, Japan)

  Homefront (Colorado Springs, Colorado)

  Left Flank (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

  Liberated Barracks GI Project (Kailua, Hawaii)

  Oleo Strut (Killeen, Texas)

  Pentagon GI Coffeehouse (Oakland, California)

  People’s Place (Chicago, Illinois)

  Potemkin Bookshop (Newport, Rhode Island)

  Shelter Half (Tacoma, Washington)

  UFO (Columbia, South Carolina)

  Dangerous Grounds


  Although more than forty years have passed since its official end, the Vietnam War continues to occupy a prominent place in the collective American psyche. The word “Vietnam” exists as a kind of shorthand, regularly invoked to stand in for a whole range of lessons, moral platitudes, and political opinions. Despite its dominant place in public discourse, though, the meaning of the Vietnam War remains fundamentally unsettled, its legacy unclear, its lessons and politics as divisive as ever. Decades of public revisionism and Hollywood mythmaking have helped create a series of enduring misconceptions about the era’s history.

  One particularly misunderstood subject is the movement against the war. Major histories of the antiwar movement, along with popular movies and television programs, have focused most of their attention on the rise and fall of the New Left on college campuses. The typical stars of this story are the idealistic young radicals of organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, one of the leading campus antiwar groups of the era. In the war’s early years, Students for a Democratic Society and similar organizations staged some of the nation’s first major peace demonstrations on college campuses around the country. The student movement’s historic significance is undeniable, but its disproportionate place in public memory obscures the wider history of antiwar activism in the Vietnam era. In reality, of course, antiwar sentiment was not limited to Students for a Democratic Society and other campus groups. Especially in the war’s later years, as a majority of Americans came to oppose the war, the antiwar movement grew to include a diverse range of activists and organizations quite distinct from the student movement. For a number of reasons, however, the campus radical persists as the dominant cultural image of Vietnam-era antiwar activism.1

  A related and equally persistent mythology about the antiwar movement concerns its relationship to American soldiers. Aided by the distortions of conservative politicians from Ronald Reagan to George H. W. Bush to Sarah Palin, along with their supporters and enablers in the news media, the image of angry protesters disrespecting American soldiers has become firmly lodged in American culture. Popular movies like First Blood (the first in the Rambo series), Hamburger Hill, Forrest Gump, and many others feature patriotic GIs pitted against vindictive and ungrateful antiwar activists. These words and images, repeated endlessly, have produced one of the war
s most enduring cultural legends: that antiwar protesters regularly spit on and antagonized uniformed soldiers upon their return from service in Vietnam. The image has become a critical element in a revisionist narrative of the war, invoked in public discourse as proof that the antiwar movement’s divisive behavior demoralized our soldiers and helped lose the war. The “spitting story” and related myths trade on false stereotypes of both activists and soldiers, and their continued cultural currency clouds our understanding of the interaction between antiwar politics and the U.S. military.2

  This book challenges these misconceptions by presenting a more detailed picture of the relationship between the civilian antiwar movement and American soldiers during the Vietnam years. The book’s central focus is a network of GI coffeehouses that opened outside a number of American military bases around the country between 1968 and 1974. The GI coffeehouse network was funded and operated by a wide range of organizations and individuals—both inside and outside the American military—who opened more than twenty different antiwar coffeehouse projects throughout the Vietnam War era. Beyond creating comfortable, counterculture-themed hangouts for GIs, the coffeehouses served as resource centers and organizational bases for the growing movement of active-duty soldiers organizing against the war.

  The GI movement, as it came to be known, evolved out of a series of isolated acts of resistance in the early years of the war. In 1966, three U.S. Army soldiers—Private First Class James Johnson, Private David Samas, and Private Dennis Mora—were branded the “Fort Hood Three” when they refused to deploy to Vietnam, releasing a joint statement that explained, “We will not be a part of this unjust, immoral, and illegal war.”3 They faced three years of hard labor for their actions. That same year, decorated Green Beret Donald Duncan resigned from the army and became an outspoken public critic of the war, his photo appearing on the February 1966 cover of leading New Left magazine Ramparts along with the headline “The Whole Thing Was a Lie!” In 1967, Dr. Howard Levy, a military dermatologist, was court-martialed for his refusal to provide medical training to Special Forces troops bound for Vietnam. Many of the GIs who supported Levy referred to themselves as part of a movement called “RITA” (Resistance inside the Army), scrawling the letters on the walls of barracks, inside their lockers, and on bathroom mirrors. Outside the army, many activists in the antiwar movement revered figures like Levy and Duncan and welcomed the rising GI movement as further evidence of the war’s poisonous impact on American life.

  Fred Gardner, a San Francisco–based activist and journalist, wrote a number of stories about the nascent GI movement. He became convinced that civilian antiwar activists should find a way to support the men and women resisting the war from inside the armed forces. Gardner recognized that the potential for a mass movement was particularly ripe in the U.S. Army, where nearly 95 percent of all Vietnam-era draftees were sent. To Gardner, this massive pool of young men was a natural breeding ground for antipathy toward the war and military service in general. Indeed, the army had been the first military branch to begin feeling the effects of war fatigue within the ranks, experiencing a dramatic rise in rates of AWOLs, desertions, general insubordination, and drug abuse as early as 1967.4 The army was also the site of the earliest direct political actions by soldiers in opposition to the war. The Fort Hood Three, the Howard Levy case, and many other high-profile acts of resistance all emerged from the army. If the civilian antiwar movement was looking to connect with a population of demoralized, alienated soldiers, Gardner reasoned, the army was clearly the most likely place to find it. But how could antiwar civilians connect with young GIs stationed at army posts around the country?

  A counterculture-themed coffeehouse, thought Gardner, could provide young GIs with access to antiwar literature, a supportive and informed activist staff, and a relaxing space away from military authorities. Such coffeehouses would be serious political projects but would come across mainly as comfortable, hip environments that featured live music, poetry readings, rock posters, and other accoutrements of 1960s youth counterculture. Gardner envisioned a national network of such coffeehouses, buzzing with antiwar conversations and energy, working to support and build a powerful movement of antiwar GIs. In January 1968, he opened the first GI coffeehouse, the UFO in Columbia, South Carolina, outside the army’s Fort Jackson.

  After the UFO’s early success, the GI coffeehouse idea caught on within the civilian antiwar movement. Later that year a series of national antiwar organizations launched a “Summer of Support” to raise money and gain attention for a whole network of coffeehouses based on Gardner’s UFO. Within a few years, a large number of different GI coffeehouse projects opened and operated in military towns around the United States (and a few in Japan, Germany, and other global U.S. military outposts). Most of these projects were short-lived, but a small network of flagship coffeehouses, located outside some of the army’s most active domestic installations, remained open for several years and contributed to some of the GI movement’s most significant actions.

  GI coffeehouses, and the GI movement they supported, existed within the context of the wider social, cultural, and political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. The era’s complicated racial politics are a particularly critical element of this story. Coffeehouses were part of a wave of increased attention and action, driven by the civil rights and black liberation movements, aimed at the army’s serious racial issues. Black GIs faced discrimination in nearly every aspect of their army experience, from unequal promotion opportunities, to unfair housing practices, to the army justice system’s disproportionate sentencing and harsh jail treatment.5 Even the war itself was fought unequally. Between 1965 and 1969, blacks made up 14.9 percent of all combat deaths in Vietnam, well above their representation in the wider population.6 These and other issues helped fuel widespread and diverse acts of resistance on the part of black GIs. Evasion and desertion rates among black soldiers rose dramatically after 1968, as did other acts of protest and disobedience. Reflecting the wider black movement’s rising militancy, a significant number of black GIs were deeply resentful of the Vietnam War and the American military. In the later years of the war, black soldiers had gained such a reputation for insubordination and resistance that, in many units, they were considered unreliable on the front lines of combat.7

  Organizers at GI coffeehouses found that race was often the driving element of GI activism on post. In one of the coffeehouse network’s first political actions, civilian peace activists provided legal and media support for a group of black soldiers at Fort Hood who refused to deploy to Chicago to serve as riot control at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. Along with many others, the “Fort Hood 43” case displays the intersection of antiwar and racial politics that characterized much of the coffeehouse network’s history. As coffeehouses became more deeply involved in the politics of the GI movement, navigating the era’s sharp racial divisions was a significant part of their development.

  Widespread changes in the social, political, and economic status of women in American society also made a significant impact on the direction of coffeehouse activism.8 Coffeehouse organizers often employed the language of women’s liberation to articulate their antiwar positions. GI coffeehouses were often characterized as “liberated sexual territory” where soldiers could escape the narrowly proscribed gender roles they were expected to fill on post. GI coffeehouses and GI underground newspapers promoted a specifically antimilitary version of women’s liberation, reflecting a prominent feeling among antiwar activists that sexism, along with racism and imperialism, was a key element in the military’s weapons of oppression. When a GI coffeehouse near Fort Dix, New Jersey, organized an antiwar parade in 1971, for example, participants issued a list of demands meant to summarize the GI movement’s central complaints. “End reinforcement of unnatural and oppressive sexual roles” was third on the list.9

  Most coffeehouse projects made a conscious effort to reach out to local military women. At the time, women in th
e military could be divided into two major groups: active-duty women (those actually enlisted in the military) and military dependents (wives of enlisted men). Each group had a particular set of problems and needs, and in developing strategies that addressed those needs, coffeehouse organizers became one of the first major voices calling public attention to the unique position of women in relation to the army. GI organizers based in Fayetteville, for example, initiated the Fort Bragg Women’s Project at the Haymarket Square Coffeehouse in 1971. The project sought to organize local army wives into a political collective, reasoning that women could play a powerful role in a movement to transform military culture: “We felt strongly that our main emphasis in Fayetteville should be GI wives. It is our opinion that the GI movement is the only mass working class movement at this time; their [GIs’] awareness comes from their close relationship with imperialism. Wives are similarly touched except that they don’t literally go to Nam themselves. Because of the Army’s blatant sexism regarding ‘dependents’ and its overt objectification of women, we do feel that most women in an Army town are a potential force against the Army.”10 Through coffeehouse women’s groups, the relentless satire of military machismo featured in GI newspapers, and various efforts at off-post consciousness-raising, a strong current of 1970s feminism runs throughout the coffeehouse network’s history.11

  Labor politics was also a significant force within the GI movement and shaped the direction of political activity at GI coffeehouses. The GI movement’s working-class character was in part a product of the war’s disproportionate impact on the country’s working class and poor, who served at far higher rates than men from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The GIs who protested the war often brought a strident labor radicalism to their political activism. While many GI activists had discovered antiwar politics while serving in the army, many others had been activists prior to their service and joined the armed forces with the express intent of organizing resistance from within. One such soldier was Andy Stapp, who enlisted in 1967 and proceeded to organize a soldier’s union called the American Servicemen’s Union. His efforts earned him a swift discharge in 1968, but Stapp and the American Servicemen’s Union continued to organize soldiers throughout the Vietnam era, and Stapp himself was a regular fixture in GI coffeehouses and at GI movement events. Though it never gained official recognition and dissolved after the war’s end, Stapp’s union in the 1970s claimed tens of thousands of members, with chapters at nearly every military base around the world.12 Stapp’s radicalism, like that of many activists in the GI movement, drew on principles from labor and other left organizations.

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