P. B. Glatz: Vietnam's Prodigal Heroes

Vietnam's Prodigal Heroes. American Deserters, International Protest, European Exile, and Amnesty

Glatz, Paul Benedikt
War and Society in Modern American History
Lanham, MD 2021: Lexington Books
Anzahl Seiten
363 S.
$ 125.00; € 119,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
James Lewes, The GI Press Project

In February 1950, in a speech to the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling West Virginia, Joseph McCarthy purported that he had a list of 57 of the more than 207 communists and fellow travellers that had infiltrated the American Government. A few months later, as McCarthyism poisoned American politics, and both public and private institutions, including the military, demanded citizens take loyalty oaths, Stephen Wechsler, a member of the Communist Party since 1949, was drafted. In 1952, stationed in West Germany he was instructed to report to a military judge to account for membership in six organizations that he had denied at induction. Fearing he would be arrested and jailed for perjury, he deserted his unit, swam across the Danube, defected and changed his name to Victor Grossman.1

While Grossman had acted alone, he was not the first, nor last, active duty serviceman to leave his unit. Soldiers have always absented themselves without leave and self-retired2, and at the height of the Vietnam War American servicemen did so at the unprecedented rate of 73.5 per 1,000 (p. xiv). Whilst a minority of these were able to seek asylum without help3, most were not. Instead, they depended on an informal network of organizations and activists who hid and transported them to safety in countries where they would not be extradited and returned to military service. Once safely settled, these men organized press conferences, published newspapers and formed organizations in an effort to counter the traditional cliché describing them as cowards and dead beats.4 These networks, organizations and publications are the focus of Paul Benedikt Glatz’s richly sourced book Vietnam’s Prodigal Heroes.

Paul Benedikt Glatz begins with a discussion of where desertion fit as a strategy of resistance available to servicemen opposed to the Vietnam War. He frames desertion as „one of the critical responses to conscription and service in the war, next to draft evasion and draft refusal“ (p. xv). Drawing on the work of Christian Appy, he characterizes conscription and draft evasion as parallel responses, albeit class based, to the reality of the draft. If you were middle class, there were multiple ways to secure a deferment, and avoid the draft. If you were working class, there was only one available strategy - enlistment. Consequently „these draft motivated volunteers enlisted […] because they hoped [for] more choice as to the nature of their service“4 and avoid deployment to Vietnam.

Once enlisted, these young men were offered nothing “but some shitty choices”5 and mostly in Vietnam. Faced with this reality, a minority broke with the Army and sought refuge in the handful of countries that were either not “part of NATOs integrated military structure” (p. 3) (France and Sweden) or had no extradition treaty covering deserters (Canada). While some deserters simply took off from their bases in Western Germany, and drove to France (p. 89), most required the help of individuals and organizations to hide and smuggle them across borders (pp. 35–46). To go it alone was not a viable option, and those who did were mostly caught by local police or border guards and returned to the US military.

In his reconstruction of this underground network of organizations in Asia, Europe and the Americas focused on transporting American GIs to Sweden and France, the author weaves together a number of threads. First, he illustrates how the communities that emerged in both France and Sweden were inherently unstable. This instability was caused in part by the actions of the deserters themselves, and in part by the actions of the state, that restricted them financially with inadequate benefits and training, and politically by refusing to grant them settled status and political asylum.

Second, he unpacks how these networks, in both Europe and the United States were peopled with activists in organizations that had emerged in the previous decade. These included groups and organizations formed in the struggles for civil rights in the United States; the Campaigns for Nuclear Disarmament in Europe; the free speech and student movements and the anti-colonialist organizations in France that formed to support Algerian independence. Because of institutional affiliations and interconnections between peace organizations, such as the War Resisters League and the War Resisters International, and student organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society in the United States and the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund in West Germany, antiwar activists in Europe were aware of growing dissent among American Servicemen. Consequently, when American GIs such as Gregory Graham began responding to pamphlets, with “INADAMNL/UGO2PROVOS” stamped on the cover, the institutional and organizational structure to assist him to do just that, was already in place (pp. 27–36).

Third, though the author is primarily interested in the actions of these deserters and those who aided them, he is aware that the freedom of these young men and the ability of civilians to assist them did not take place in isolation of state actors and institutions. The responses of both, to the deserters as well as those who assisted them, were framed by the respective countries historical relationship with the United States and the geopolitical realities of the Cold War. In West Germany, for example it was illegal for civilians to distribute materials calling for soldiers to desert or to provide sanctuary to any who did.

The US Government’s intervention in, and shaping of, the treatment of deserters by both the French and Swedish governments is most clearly shown by the French Government’s last minute cancelation, of the 1973 International Conference of Exiles for Amnesty in Paris because it supposedly „posed a threat to […] public order“. The reality however, was the event was canceled because the US government had threatened to withdraw from a meeting with the North Vietnamese, that coincided with the conference, because they „regarded the French hosting of the amnesty event a breach of neutrality.“ (p. 244)

Paul Benedikt Glatz's treatment of these and other issues is nuanced by sensitivity to the importance of sources. While I wish his index had been a little more detailed this was more than balanced by his extensive documentation in his footnotes. On a personal note, my own focus as a scholar of the Vietnam War has been on the newspapers produced by antiwar soldiers.6 While the discussion of these is a minor part of the story Paul Benedikt Glatz tells, he is alert to their relationship with and influence on those who deserted as well as those who assisted them. A fine work of scholarship that I heartily recommend.

1 See Victor Grossman, 2013 „Crossing the Danube“. [Interview published by Vice, May 13, 2013, URL: https://www.vice.com/en/article/jmvw57/crossing-the-danube-000599-v20n5 (03.09.2021).
2 Self-retired is a term, first used by deserters in Paris in 1971 and most often preceded by temporarily.
3 „American MP Deserts“, in: Liberation News Service, n. 148, March 15, 1969, p. 15, URL: https://content.wisconsinhistory.org/digital/collection/p15932coll8/id/66073/rec/1 (03.09.2021).
4 Christian Appy, Working Class War, Chapel Hill 1993, p. 28.
5 Michael Herr, Dispatches, London 2015, p. 15.
6 The GI Press Project, URL: https://content.wisconsinhistory.org/digital/collection/p15932coll8 (03.09.2021).

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