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The Other Side of War: Fury and Repression in St. Louis

Photo by Paul Sableman | CC BY 2.0

History often follows something of a dialectical pattern – power begets resistance, war generates blowback, and so forth.  In 1960s America, it was a brutal imperialist war in Indochina – the bloodiest in U.S. history – that gave rise to some of the largest and most incendiary protests this country has ever seen.  There was, at the same time, a crucial third part to this dialectic:  massive governmental repression designed to quell those protests.   Much is known about the war and the deep opposition to it, far less about the nefarious work of the FBI and kindred intelligence agencies to crush not only the antiwar movement but other forms of social revolt.

Thanks to the remarkably diligent and patient efforts of one activist, filmmaker, and investigator, that state of affairs could dramatically change.  Nina Gilden Seavey recently won a landmark federal lawsuit to gain access to a vast collection of files held by U.S. intelligence agencies that for years infiltrated, probed, and sought to disrupt anti-Vietnam War mobilizations of the 1960s and 1970s.   There can be no doubt:  security-state attempts to destroy or at least impair those mobilizations were considerably more ambitious – and more effective — than generally believed.

Seavey, professor of Media Studies and Public Affairs at George Washington University and whose father was prominent St. Louis civil-rights attorney Louis Gilden, has fixed her sights mainly on the proliferation of radical protests during the years 1969-72 at Washington University in St. Louis – the very time I had joined the political science faculty.   In those years the university had become a cauldron of militant new-left politics, mostly revolving around student anti-ROTC protests that led to the torching of one ROTC building, a familiar target of antiwar fervor on campuses throughout the U.S.   An organization called the Washington University Liberation Front, or WULF, had formed to channel student activism toward common strategic objectives.

On May 4, 1970 some 3000 Washington University students – along with a scattering of professors and community activists – marched on the second ROTC center where prospective Air Force officers were being trained for military service.  The marchers had been angered by President Nixon’s sudden expansion of the war into Cambodia.   That anger was intensified by events unfolding earlier the same day at Kent State, where the National Guard opened fire on defenseless protesters, killing four and wounding 11.   I was one of those marchers looking to quickly reach the edge of campus, site of the ROTC facilities.  As with other spontaneous outpourings across the country, the crowd quickly turned combative and violent: within minutes this ROTC structure was also burned to the ground.   Firefighters were repelled by a fusillade of rocks and other projectiles.   The episode reinforced an anti-militarist frenzy that would not recede until the end of the academic year.

Law-enforcement reaction was swift:  12 protesters were arrested and charged with various (mostly nebulous) crimes and banned from campus.  Six were convicted of charges associated with “rioting”.  A new law was invoked for the first time – the 1968 fascist-sounding Civil Obedience Act passed by Congress to broadly target activists who could be deemed to “interfere with public safety”.  Speaking at the Pentagon one day after the anti-ROTC events, Nixon lauded patriotic American troops fighting in Vietnam (roughly half a million at that point) while mocking “these bums, you know, blowing up campuses.”    The harsh crackdown in St. Louis was clearly meant to send a message across the nation:  the lives of antiwar resisters could be ruined, or at least severely disrupted, with one arrest.

If Nixon famously adopted a hard line toward opponents of an increasingly unpopular war, so too did FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered a nationwide campaign to infiltrate and derail what by 1970 had become one of the largest social movements of any type in U.S. history.   In the lengthy course of this repressive campaign the Pentagon and FBI, along with cooperative state and local agencies, had assembled files on an estimated 25 million Americans.  The “deep state” had established its own menacing trajectory.

The FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program was maintained full-force during these years.  Begun in 1956 to harass and round up Communists, the program later targeted the usual suspects: Civil Rights movement, socialist organizations, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, and sundry new- left groups.   Hoover ordered his phalanx of agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize, or otherwise eliminate” all manifestations of popular revolt.   Illegal surveillance, then as now, was the norm.   The FBI worked in close partnership with the NSA, CIA, and Pentagon, while the CIA carried out its own subterranean work under the provocative heading Operation CHAOS.   COINTELPRO was terminated in 1971, but nobody believed that had much of an impact on the well-entrenched FBI modus operandi.

One of the Washington University students arrested was Howard Mechanic, accused of throwing a cherry bomb during the anti-ROTC actions and charged under that 1968 Act.   Mechanic was sentenced to the maximum five years in federal penitentiary but, having exhausted his appeals, in 1972 decided to flee underground rather than face extended incarceration.  He ended up in Scottsdale, Arizona under the pseudonym Gary Tredway and managed to carry on a relatively “normal” life for nearly three decades before being discovered and reported (in 2000) by a probing local reporter who had interviewed Mechanic/Tredway when he was running for the Scottsdale city council.

Wanted as a “fugitive” by the FBI, he had been described as “armed and dangerous”.   Arrested and sent back to prison, Mechanic remained behind bars for more than a year before being pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office, January 20, 2001 (the same day he pardoned another erstwhile “fugitive”, Patricia Hearst).   For a president who gave us NAFTA, a draconian crime bill, media deregulation, the Balkans war, and the abolition of Glass-Steagall, this had to be one of the higher achievements of his administration.

Mechanic’s liberation from federal confinement gained impetus from a tenacious campaign waged by friends, colleagues, and others, including a contingent of anti-war folks involved in the Washington University events at the time of Mechanic’s arrest.   Celebration segued into a momentous “reunion” at the university in April 2001, which brought together activists from around the country, some (including myself) given “defenders of peace” awards from “the friends of Howard Mechanic”.   The Mechanic saga forms a vital centerpiece of Seavey’s research and filmmaking.

Much like student radicalism, the dynamics of political repression at Washington University had rather deep roots.   A mid-sized liberal-arts institution known for its enlightened atmosphere and progressive faculty, the space for truly subversive action narrowed precipitously when it came to opposing the war, however immoral that war had been widely viewed by 1970.   The brute reality was that the university was dominated by such corporations as McDonnell-Douglas and Monsanto, both with headquarters in St. Louis, along with Olin Industries and the Mallinckrodt Chemical interests.    The CEOs of these huge contractors all sat on the WU Board of Trustees.  Further, Sanford McDonnell was simultaneously chair of the Board of Trustees and chair of the board at McDonnell-Douglas.    The St. Louis Globe Democrat, once home to such arch-conservatives as Pat Buchanan, relished publishing front-page “exposes” of campus radicals.   In the end, freedom would have its definite limits.

During my seven years at Washington University I had the privilege of several visits from neatly-attired FBI agents to my office, classroom, and political gatherings that had become almost routine in those days – including a rather harmless film festival I had organized.   After the second anti-ROTC upsurge two of these operatives set out to intimidate me with supposedly incriminating photos.  More preposterous, it turned out that a close grad-student friend (and “research assistant”) had been doubling as a federal informant.  Infiltration of the new left was far more pervasive than anyone imagined at the time.  We knew that Nixon was hellbent on destroying the antiwar movement, but were somewhat naïve when it came to the extraordinary level of federal spying and sabotage, much of it surely aided and abetted by the university hierarchy.   In the midst of the turmoil Sanford McDonnell denounced me in a speech for being strangely ungrateful to my generous corporate paymasters, then called for my dismissal – a wish that would soon enough come true, thanks in part to a cowardly administration.  (Had I decided to stay and fight – preferring instead to take up a sociology position at UCLA – my attorney would have been Lou Gilden.)

Seavey’s pathbreaking investigative work could provide fresh insights into the labyrinthine earlier operations of the security apparatus, adding to the store of knowledge accrued from the revelations of NSA whistleblowers William Binney and Edward Snowden, the recently-freed Chelsea Manning, and of course Wikileaks.  We have nowadays come to realize that surveillance-state intrusions into political activities of Americans citizens has been nearly Orwellian in scope, though we still remain in the dark about much of its origins and early history.   To gather new sources of information, Seavey has been forced to tangle with those very bureaucratic fortresses set up precisely to insulate and defend the power elite.

Seavey notes that the feds have been releasing just 500 pages of files monthly — this following 386 separate FOIA requests, quite likely the most ambitious such undertaking in U.S. history.  “At that rate, it would take 60 years to get all the records”, laments Seavey.    She is currently asking for a more reasonable 5000 pages a month – an amount that would appear to reflect an enormous record of political activism or, perhaps more likely, the extent of authoritarian security-state initiatives to track and monitor every sign of social protest.   Seavey presently awaits a federal court decision to lay out a specific new release plan.

Once the bulk of the files is made publicly accessible, Seavey will move to complete a documentary called My Fugitive, scheduled for 2019 with a 2020 release that would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Washington University ROTC events.   “This story is much bigger than St. Louis”, Seavey notes, “but St. Louis was the crucible.”   Seavey founded and currently heads the Documentary Center at George Washington, and she is an experienced and award-winning filmmaker in her own right.   She points out that My Fugitive “goes beyond one man’s wrongful conviction and flight to delve more deeply into an exploration of government spying and the use of information to achieve political ends.”   (Seavey and her family were also targets of federal spying in St. Louis.)   She adds: “. . . with our ongoing litigation in Seavey v. Department of Justice, et.al., the past and the present embrace, and inform, each other.”

For Mechanic, whose sacrifices in opposing a criminal war remain part of his everyday life to this day, the original punishment of five years (based on faulty evidence) was cruel and unusual by any reckoning.   Meanwhile, the Civil Obedience Act has reportedly never been used to indict or convict anyone since it was unveiled to snare Mechanic.

Mechanic’s underground tribulations were hardly unique, but the ordeal surely must have brought more protracted hardship and grief.   Famous Weather activist Bernardine Dohrn voluntarily surfaced in 1980, but she was allowed to plead guilty to aggravated battery and jumping bail, fined $1500, and placed on three-year probation.  David Fine, who planted a homemade bomb at the University of Wisconsin in 1970, killing a physicist, was apprehended in 1976 and spent less than three years in prison.   When Abbie Hoffman (alias Barry Fried) emerged in 1980 after six years in hiding, he was given a perfunctory one-year sentence and set free in four months.    For simply hurling a cherry bomb (which he stoutly denies), Mechanic was given the maximum five years.

A former colleague at Washington University, literature professor Carter Revard – who put up his house as collateral for Mechanic’s 1970 bond – said many years later that he had no regrets; he would have been happy to step forward again.   In April 2000 Revard told reporter Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine: “They gave him five years for throwing a cherry bomb while they were handing out Medals of Honor for dropping napalm on civilians.  I think the people who should be in jail are the people who prosecuted him.”    To that Revard could have added a tight circle of Harvard-educated imperial elites, liberal champions of technowar, who orchestrated the Indochina horrors from the outset and never expressed any regrets — or apologies.

It could be argued that for American society the Vietnam War never really ended; its tortured legacy pervades both American domestic politics and foreign policy to this day – as does the most far-reaching security network of any government.   In Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, H. Bruce Franklin refers to “Vietnam’s defeat of the mightiest war machine the world has ever known”, adding: “Looking backward, historians of the future may recognize that this war machine was . . . the most stupendous achievement of American culture.  By defeating this war machine, the people of Vietnam not only exposed the myth of its invincibility but also ignited a series of wars within the culture that created it.”