We Are Our Words, The People’s Press: The American Revolution & The Vietnam War GI Movement
Man is not likely to salvage civilization unless he can evolve a system of good and evil which is independent of heaven and hell. –George Orwell
If you don’t like the news…go make some of your own. –Wes “scoop” Nisker
Ninety percent of any revolution is nonviolent, making ideas the nucleus of any true social movement and revision. There is much distress about the Obama administration’s persistent attempts to disarm Americans, despite that the right to protect oneself against a crooked government stands as the Second Amendment of the United States of America, while he simultaneously enriches further a new super class, thereby emmiserating the great mass of citizens. Furthermore, yielders of power understand perfectly well the importance of ideas to any form of ubiquitous popular reform; hence, recent federal pamphlets administered to many state police agencies accusing a majority of Americans of being terrorists. That’s right, if you support the Second Amendment—in fact, if you support the constitution at all—if you support Ron Paul, even the founders of this nation, you are in danger of being labeled a terrorist and being prosecuted. For those adept thinkers among us, FEMA camps await. Clearly, the US government and military have prepared for civil unrest.
What follows is an overview of just a couple popular counter-culture movements in this country’s history. Firstly, I present a caricature of the American Revolution, and the pamphlets which functioned as the crux of that essential moment in human history. Many estimates put the percentage of colonists active in—or supportive of—the Revolution at around four percent. A tiny amount when one puts the ripple effects of that revolution in perspective. Secondly, I present a little known topic among most Americans: The Anti-War GI movement during Vietnam. We will learn of the importance of the GI Press to that movement and the ending of the war.
The American Revolution (on paper)
As historian Bernard Bailyn notes, of all the shortcomings the foremost thinkers of the American Revolution may have had, reticence was not one of them. In a decade and a half—from 1750 to 1776—the leading colonists of the day compiled a rich literature of theory, argument, opinion, and polemic. The thirty-eight colonial newspapers were, by 1775, filled with columns of arguments and counter-arguments, official documents, extracts of speeches, and sermons.
Pamphlets, the medium by which much of most important writings of the revolution appeared, were of crucial importance to the revolutionary generation. The alternative news website of today, perhaps, can be viewed as their modern day equivalent. Pamphlets were a space in which the writer could experiment with ideas and presentations, for he or she enjoyed more freedom than within the pages of a colonial newspaper. George Orwell, a modern pamphleteer, wrote:
The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and “high brow” than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern. It can be in prose or in verse, it can consist largely of maps or statistics or quotations, it can take the form of a story, a fable, a letter, an essay, a dialogue, or a piece of “reportage.” All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.
The middle sized pamphlet was most ideal for the needs of the Revolutionary writers. It allowed for the full development of an argument (investigating premises, exploring logic, considering conclusions, etc.), and therefore was where “the best thought of the day expressed itself”; where “the solid framework of constitutional thought” came to fruition; and where “the basic elements of American political thought of Revolutionary period appeared first.” Despite an author’s freedom to explore a multitude of topics in this form, these pamphlets were always pointed, focusing on immediate challenges and the most pressing issues. Envisaged as resolving obstacles and predicaments by the most relevant and effective means available, the pamphlets, in so many ways, made up the revolution’s cognitive orientation: namely, which problems were viewed as most pressing, and which solutions were considered most sagacious. The baggage of such a hardening in approach—as certain solutions were brought to the forefront and normalized—is the ostracization of less ‘mainstream’ opinions. In other words, Revolutionary movements form salubriousness or hygiene of their own, as less tidy or traditional resolutions go unacknowledged.
Such a predicament is difficult to avoid, though one such way of sifting through a chorus of voices is to organize on the basis of our disparate notions. The American character is a diverse set of values, morals and ethics. All of our voices must be considered relevant and accommodating, until proven otherwise. Those with similar ideas and yearnings ought to hash out their differences (more similar than their differences with those from wholly other schools of thought) among themselves, presenting thereafter other committees and forums with a united agenda.
The first Soviet—or council—was established in Russia in the province of Ivanovna-Voznesensk during the 1905 Textile Strike. It was incipiently a strike committee, but developed into an elected body of the town’s workers. Over the next months, Soviets of Workers Deputies were established in and around 50 different towns. These Soviets were crucial to fomenting the popular ferment of the early 20th century in Russia.
In St. Petersburg, approximately 500 hundred workers elected a single deputy, whereas in Moscow and Odessa 500 and 100 workers, respectively, elected a representative. The Soviets—in light of the failings of the Duma—were envisioned as the legitimate workers’ government; they challenged the authority of Nicholas II and sought to enforce promises made in the October Manifesto, such as freedom of the press, assembly and association.
In December, 1905, however, the Soviets were suppressed and leaders such as Leon Trotsky were arrested and imprisoned. Soviets were re-established during the overthrow of Nicholas II. Soldiers and industrial workers played a crucial role in the soviets established in 1917. The First Congress of Soviets that was held in June, 1917, had 1,090 delegates representing more than 400 Soviets, of which 285 were Socialist Revolutionaries, 248 Mensheviks and 105 Bolsheviks—Civil War awaited them in the offing, a fate we must avoid.
At the time of the November revolution, there were upwards of 1,000 soviets in Russia, the lion’s share of which controlled by the Bolsheviks in the major towns and cities. The Second Congress of Soviets was convened on 8th November; employing a variety of methods, the Bolsheviks gained control in on 14th June 1918, thereafter expelling Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Such a breakdown in unity must be avoided by way of broad axioms from which a modern-day American Reform Movement can spring: compassion, altruism and unity?
Back to the American Revolution: In the crisis decades of the 1760’s and 1770’s pamphlets appeared year after year and month after month. More than 400 of them, all of which weighed in on the Anglo-American controversy, were published between 1750 and 1776. 1,500, furthermore, had appeared by 1783. The pamphlets featured explanations of current events, and were at once of a declarative nature; expressive of the beliefs, attitudes, and motivations as well as of professed goals of those who led and supported the Revolution. The definitive literature of the event itself can be found within the pages of the Revolutionary pamphlets.
The American pamphleteers were prescient individuals, who expressed themselves in a gathered, cohesive and cogent manner. Though they imparted scorn, anger, and indignation, they rarely spread blind hate, panic and fear. They sought to convince their opponents of their viewpoints, instead of attacking and belittling them.
This of the upmost importance, for, in a society where violence has been targeted at individuals–instead of, say, towards pray for reward– argument is war. The metaphors we use for argument, as well as the milder forms of debate, point in a similar direction: He attacked my argument for all it’s weak points; a shortcoming that could have been avoided, had the weak argument been stronger. Your claims are indefensible. Her criticisms were right on target. I’ve never won an argument with him.
The American Revolution, the kernel of the American character and a turning point in human history, was not an overthrow of existing social orders or a traditional bloody revolution (though blood there indeed was), but instead the preservation of political liberties threatened by the corruption of the constitution, and the indemnity, in principle, of the existing conditions of liberty.
Instead of the disruption of society—with all the fear, despair and hatred traditionally attributed therewith—the American Revolution was the realization, understanding and emergence of the liberty believed to be America’s destiny in the scheme of world history. There can be no stark historical categorization of this instance in history, for the intangibility of the convictions of that time, arisen from emotions and sentiments, escape definition. Bailyn suggests a poem called “Mind,” by Richard Wilbur, as the ultimate depiction of the spirit of those Revolutionary times:
Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.
It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.
And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.
The Revolutionary process, whereby a pool of ideas was deliberated by a diverse group of talented philosophers (I assume it is human nature to philosophize, pegging each and every one of us as a philosopher in his or her own right), enlarged the dimensions of our cognitive cave, transforming, and perhaps, even modernizing it. We are all a testament to the more spacious world shaped during the American Revolution, and now it is time we carry forth the legacy of our forefathers on a hitherto unprecedented scale: a global revolution in thought, for learning is contagious, and the Truth can be made endemic during these precarious times.
The Vietnam GI Press
The GI Press appeared between 1967 and 1970 as a part of an expanding GI peace movement which opposed US imperialism and, more pointedly, the war in Vietnam. These papers were in every way countercultural and were interested in the plethora of political struggles of the day. The papers also discussed local events such as record releases or rock concerts as if they were inherently political movements. Whereas Sunday morning talk shows revered politicians and generals as philosophers and great thinkers, the GI Press recorded remarks from Bob Dylan and others as political theory. There are, by and large, two forms of resistance which take form in the pages of the underground newspapers. The first, antimilitary, signifies oppositions to all form of military activity and those involved. Antimilitarist, then, signifies a stance opposing the synthesis of military action with the goals and needs of corporate imperialism. The latter cohort found Vietnam intolerable and rejected misinformation that heralded it as vital to their nation. The latter, corporate imperialism, stands as the dominant motif of 21st century warfare.
The GI Press’ goal was to promote ideas, not profits. It sought to challenge the dominate institutions in military culture and society at large, instead of justifying them: It spoke to a community of soldiers, not a base of partners and consumers. GI Press writers were participants in the events about which they wrote. Because of the large network of GI newspapers and the longevity of some of the publications, the GI Press was meaningful in nurturing along apprehensive soldiers unsure if they were alone in their thoughts or not: “The GI newspapers were my only access to free thought,” Professor of History and veteran Peter Buckingham said regarding his time in the service.
The movement, to those who worked on the papers, was synonymous with publishing the papers; the two were one in the same, and all were encouraged to participate. The newspaper staffs were not “sticklers for accuracy.” LN’S Ray Mungo wrote at the time, “…All we say: tell the truth, brothers, and the let the facts fall where they may.” Tom Forcade of the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS)—a network of countercultural newspapers and magazines formed in 1967—spoke before a Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, bombasting “the walking antiques…trying to stomp out our…working model of tomorrow’s paleocybernetic culture, soul, life, manifesting love, force, anarchy, euphoria…flowing new-consciousnesses media on paper, from our lives to the streets…So fuck off and fuck censorship,” wrapping up by throwing a pie at the panel.
The response to these independent newspapers was characteristic of the non-democratic nature of the US government. These papers were envisaged as part of the communist conspiracy to corrupt America’s youth. The Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Joe Polle, maintained that:
“The purpose of these newspapers…[is] to slander and libel everyone who opposes these traitors in their attempts to destroy the American government….These smut sheets are today’s Molotov cocktails thrown at respectability and decency in our nation. The plan of this underground press syndicate is to take advantage of that part of the First Amendment which protects newspapers and gives them freedom of the press… they will attract the irresponsible readers whom they want to enlist in their attempts to destroy the country.”
The editor of The Logistic envisaged his newspaper as filling an intellectual void in the military:
“What is lacking in the intellectual void of military service—what might be termed as an intellectual counterpart to military logistics…Our “mental” logistics will be characterized by facts and ideas. Instead of moving troops, we will move minds. Instead of supplying troops, we will supply the facts-about the army, about the country, about the world. Instead of quartering troops, we vow to make our paper a forum for your ideas and viewpoints. Then and only then will this post have a paper which brings the true issues into light. We aren’t interested in telling you what to think, but we do wish to inform you about what others are thinking so that you can make your own decisions and form your own opinions.”
Instead of simply succumbing to daily racism, oppression, harassment and suppression, soldiers could be constructive with their time—namely by contributing their views to the Underground Press or by getting involved with a coffeehouse that stood “for GI’s dedicated to peace, equal rights and an end to the UCMJ,” or by demonstrating or donating.
“Most important of all do not be afraid to say what you think at every opportunity including while you’re at work—the Bill of Rights is not suspended during working hours although your ‘superiors’ may want you to think so.”
The editors of the underground paper Connections, describes its relationship to the counterculture as such,
“The ‘Underground press’ is many things (Political freedom, human rights, protest, news, underground culture, revolutionary though, etc.) Most of all, it is the thousands of people who, like you believe in a better world free of war, hate, injustice, poverty and ignorance.”
What is its relationship, then, to mass media?
“We exist as a counter-medium standing against other media which purport to have all the answers and solutions to problems; against all other media which would give the impression that systems of knowledge… We take issue in contrapunctual fashion, to those media which have a monopoly on right answers.”
Soldiers related to the personal nature of GI Press journalism, oft joining the resistance movement themselves after realizing there was such a thing to begin with. The context in which social movement journalism develops is key to understanding what it is in reaction to, and for what it stands. The US media has matured from a handful of newspapers scattered through a few major cities into our entire environment. It is to modern society what the natural environment is to agricultural societies. A cultural environment teeming in media, however, is by no means natural: It is a construction of people for the sole purpose of profit. Advertising has permeated every niche of sociality, including deep structures of social life: We now live in an age where “stealth marketing” turns movie plots, concerts, and even private conversations into marketing events.
To call corporate media control of culture “censorship” would be a gaff in ratiocination. On the behalf of, but certainly not the same as censorship, new techniques of cultural orientation, as Bob Ostertag observes, “frames news, entertainment, and advertising so as to limit the range of options for social change to those that are consistent with corporate interests.” Of all the lack in coverage of important cultural developments, none is so debilitating as the lack of counterculture treatment.
The GI Press was crucial as a space where GI’s could question the policies, laws and orders of those who controlled their lives. The Pentagon, White House and Military drafted vague guidelines for the “brass” to follow, which resulted in gross abuses of power such as assigning editors and writers to Vietnam or Ft. Leavenworth. Despite this coercion from the military, the GI press remained imperative to the anti-war movement within the military throughout the war in Vietnam.
They were able to refuse their group’s behavioral model and mold one of their own; a process which became easier as more and more soldiers began to refuse the orders of their superiors, thereby increasing the body of ideas and viewpoints from which the soldiers could cognize in such a creative—not only ingenuously, but also as inventers of digital data—manner. They rejected the view inculcated into them—inculcation being a certain array of actions and reactions liable to evolving a certain cognitive reorientation into the recruits —and began acting in a more moral and just way.
Towards a People’s Press and a Better Way
The 1960’s—that decade to which many of us look for hope—was, first and foremost, a black revolution. For that reason, obviously, any hope of social change in the United States of America rests in our ability to unite our multifarious communities, all too often separated by socio-economic status and subtly racist urban planning. Ideas vulnerable to change must be the platform of any social transformation, and a formidable underground network—both through the internet and in the analog world through local magazines—is our best prospect of uniting an unknowingly united population.
Bernard Bailyn, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”
For more on the GI Anti-War Movement visit www.sirnosir.com