Podcast: “The right not to fight an illegal war” – John Catalinotto
“I thought, what could I be doing that’s more effective than helping the GIs organize to stay out of this war, and I couldn’t think of anything that was more effective.”
“This was at a time when the guys in the military were beginning in large number to turn against the war. And probably they were doing this because the first large group of US soldiers that had been sent over in 1965 and 1966 were coming back, and they were talking to the new recruits and the new people in training and telling them how rotten the war was. So there was an entire mood shifting against the military and against the war.”
“The first demand that we listed as American Servicemen’s Union was the right not to fight an illegal war like the war in Vietnam. So it immediately was a confrontation with the entire Pentagon.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
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John Catalinotto’s new book, “Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions” is available from Amazon.
John Catalinotto: This was the imperialist state itself and we were undermining it by strengthening the political consciousness of the individual working class youth who are in there. They wanted to fight against this war. They wanted to take it on and we were giving them the political structure and education and the way of communicating with each other that would allow them to do it. I mean, I thought, what could I be doing that’s more effective than helping the GIs organize to stay out of this war, and I couldn’t think of anything that was more effective.
Robert Raymond: This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. My name is Robert Raymond and we’re on the line with John Catalinotto, a civilian organizer who worked with GI resisters, specifically the American Servicemen’s Union, and its leader Andy Stapp, throughout much of the Vietnam era. His 2017 book “Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies Soldier Revolts and Revolutions” ties together stories of people who led military rebellions, from the French soldiers refusal to fire on Parisian workers during the Franco-Prussian war to the Portuguese revolution in the 1970s.
Hi John. Thanks for joining us today. I want to get into your work with the American servicemen’s union in just a moment, but first just to provide some context, could you give us just a brief history and description of the ASU?
John Catalinotto: The American Servicemen’s Union got started really with a personal struggle that an individual who went into the army in order to organize got involved in himself. That was Andy Stapp of course, and Andy went into the army in 1966 and by the spring of 1967 he was already in conflict with his officers. And when he got into conflicts, he got legal charges against him, they were going to give him a court martial. He searched around for help, and the organization that I worked with, Youth Against War and Fascism, saw that he was in trouble and offered to help him and he accepted it. So we sent a group of people, I wasn’t among them, to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and they participated in what was probably the first demonstration inside a court martial in the US military. Because he was convicted, but they had a demonstration and it was a big deal. And Andy was a very winning personality.
And this was at a time when the guys in the military were beginning in large number to turn against the war. And probably they were doing this because the first large group of US soldiers that had been sent over in 1965 and 1966 were coming back, and they were talking to the new recruits and the new people in training and telling them how rotten the war was. So there was an entire mood shifting against the military and against the war. And Andy was a guy who fought with the sergeants, and was looked upon as a leader, and he also was a great raconteur and he would win people over politically who were searching for political reasons why they were in the situation they were in.
So when this court-martial took place and such a big struggle developed around it, it drew even more people to his side and it made both him and us who were organizing as civilians from the outside, aware that there was a real opportunity within the military to start an organization that could fight against the Vietnam War and could fight for the rights of the GIs. And the struggle went on throughout the entire summer of ’67 and the fall and by the winter, by December, they decided it would be a good idea to try and organize and to organize a union.
Now when in 1967, about 35% of the workforce in the United States were in unions. Now it’s only about 11%, 12%. So it was like a normal thing for a young working class guy. It was mainly guys who would face the draft or were in the military, although there were women who were involved in the struggle too, it was normal for them to think of being in a union. That was like a normal thing to do. And we and Andy thought it would be a good idea to call for this type of organization. Now a union, I mean, the bosses hate the unions enough. They don’t like to have somebody representing the workers. In the military it’s even more serious in that the military depends on the chain of command to carry out on their wars, which means that they give orders down the line and the people in the bottom are supposed to follow these orders. Everybody’s supposed to follow the orders as it goes down the chain of command.
And if there’s an organization that represents the rank and file, which is the way we had conceived of the American Servicemen’s Union, representing the workers or the rank and file troops, then it means that there’s something in the way of this chain of command. And our concept as politicals was that not only would this organization represent daily demands and needs of the GIs, like for higher pay or for some time off or to fight against racism. Of course that’s more than a daily demand. That’s a very important one, but also the first demand that we listed as American Servicemen’s Union was the right not to fight an illegal war like the war in Vietnam. So it immediately was a confrontation with the entire Pentagon. It was very clear that that’s what it meant.
Even though it had a sort of harmless sounding name of the Union. And it developed and it kept developing over the years. I’ll say a little bit more about that, but it developed over the course of really up until about ’74. In ’73 the Pentagon and the people running the United States decided to end the military draft, and they were winding down the war in Vietnam in the sense of pulling out the US troops little by little, and they were getting guys who were in Vietnam, if they returned back to the states, they would try to get them out of the military as quickly as possible. So the in a way, we won, I mean it wasn’t just the American Servicemen’s Union, but in a way the resistance of GIs to this war, both a passive resistance and a very active resistance, made it impossible for the US to carry on the war as it had originally planned, but by removing a lot of the people from the military, it also eliminated the driving force of forming an organization like the American Servicemen’s Union.
So that by 1975 when the war ended, the ASU didn’t do much organizing after that. But in the time that it was there, it took on both legal struggles representing GIs who had refused to do things or you know, refused orders to go to Vietnam. It defended GIs who even who fragged and were accused of fragging and killing their officers, defended Black GIs who had a meeting because they didn’t want to go to Chicago to do riot control duty. It represented them in all kinds of cases like that, and tried to promote the organization. The American Servicemen’s Union had a monthly newspaper. We reached, American Servicemen’s Union reached bases all over the world and had thousands of members. The newspaper, when it got it into some place where you know, even if one newspaper made it into a barrack, sometimes everybody in the barracks would read it.
They just handed it around and it had gotten into Vietnam. And my book, I sifted out from about 1200 letters [published in the monthly ASU newspaper, The Bond] that GIs sent in the course of that period, mainly in the first few years I sifted out about 90 letters and edited them and published them. And it gives you a real feel for how the rank and file guys felt and how the way they felt it and the depth of their feeling changed in the course of a few years from sort of a personal opposition to organizing and fighting and wanting to get rid of the officers and stuff like that. It was really, it was an exciting, for me it was a very exciting period to be going through, changed my entire life. I would say,
Robert Raymond: Yeah, can you talk a bit about what first got you involved in politics and organizing in a more general way maybe? And then I’d also love to know more about what first compelled you to specifically become involved with the ASU. Just sort of what inspired you to take that specific path, especially in the face of the potential repercussions that one might face doing that kind of organizing work during that era?
John Catalinotto: Well, I think it was really concerned about nuclear war, that was a driving force, you know, about existence. Just like today, a lot of young people are very motivated by the environmental struggle, because they see, are they going to be able to exist, and that motivated me. And the other big thing of course was the black liberation struggle, the civil rights movement earlier in ’61, ’62 that propelled me into political activity. But with regard to the American Servicemen’s Union, I knew Andy, worked with him a little bit in December of ’67 and I didn’t think that I would be playing the kind of role that I wound up. But a couple of the people who I worked very closely with, who I thought would be doing that [helping set up the ASU], they were doing some time in federal prison because of the support work for the ASU.
So I figured, well I’m getting the job because then I was asked to do this job of being a circulation manager [of The Bond]. Sounds boring. Right? Except that we only started out with maybe about 50 subscribers and some lists in January of 1968. By April of 1968 we had something like 3000 subscribers. I mean it wasn’t because I was a fantastic circulation manager, it was because the time was so ripe in the military, and it just like every day I said, what is going on here? It was like this big explosion was happening. And I was sitting on it, you know? So from that point of view, that’s why you got the feeling, we can end this war. We can help the Vietnamese. I mean that that was very powerful motivation and talking about the political repercussions, in some ways we thought that considering what the Vietnamese are going through, simply facing something like losing your job or even going to jail seems like a small thing.
Naturally, if that actually happened [going to jail], you wouldn’t be happy about it. But as far as worrying about it, it was like something you kind of put in the corner of your mind. I mean, I sort of, the first couple of years I did this I thought, well, any day now I’m going to walk home and there’s going to be somebody saying, you know, Mr Catalinotto, please stand over here. But it didn’t happen and I just kept organizing. I mean I thought, what could I be doing that’s more effective than helping the GIs organize to stay out of this war? And I couldn’t think of anything that was more effective. This was the imperialist state itself and we were undermining it by strengthening the political consciousness of the individual working class youth who are in there.
They wanted to fight against this war. They wanted to take it on and we were giving them the political structure and education and the way of communicating with each other that would allow them to do it, to express their wishes and not to follow the wishes of their officer, which really in the end turns out to be the wishes of the bankers and business people who run the society over here and send it down through the top generals, through the colonels, through the majors, through the captains, to the lieutenants who ordered them out to get killed in the field and they were going to stop it. That was what we hoped and what we believed was possible.
Robert Raymond: Wow. I think that’s a really, really powerful way of looking at it. And so I guess there were two main cases that you were involved with, the Fort Hood 43 case in 1968 and the Hawaii sanctuary effort in 69. Could you tell us a little bit about those specific cases? Either you can start with whichever one you’d like to first
John Catalinotto: I say about the 43 case, that came simultaneously and because of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Where Hubert Humphrey, won the nomination over Eugene McCarthy. Eugene McCarthy was supposed to be the anti war person and Humphrey was more representative of the Johnson group and Johnson was forced to resign because the war was so unpopular, so, and this convention was going to be the site of the demonstration organized by radical young people. They called themselves yippies. It was going to be a big antiwar demonstration. A lot of young people going out there. And we were thinking of going out to Chicago. And people in the first or second armor division at Fort Hood, many of whom were themselves just come back from Vietnam, were ordered into Chicago and they were going to be used if the demonstrations spilled over into the African American neighborhood and resulted in a rebellion. They had the troops ready there.
This was after the spring, in the spring of 1968 they don’t make years like 1968 anymore. 1968 was a year where every day was like a month. You know, Martin Luther King was assassinated, who had been against the war for a year, openly against the war for a year. And there were rebellions in a hundred US cities. And then a number of them, federal and national guard troops were used to repress the community. So all the troops knew about it. But the black troops were very upset about the idea that they were being sent to Chicago to fight against their people. So they held a meeting with about a hundred black GIs, and they weren’t supposed to be holding this meeting to discuss what to do. And at the end of the night, the colonel sent in the MPs and they arrested 43 of them. That’s why they call it the 43. And the American Servicemen’s Union got a call from some soldier who knew about it.
And in the course of the call, or a couple of days after, we were able to get the names of all these people. And we got legal representation for them. And so we wanted to go down and talk to a few of them who were like supposed to be the leaders, you know, and they faced the heaviest charges. And so that’s where Andy Stapp and I went down. I mean it was, it was somewhat funny. I mean we, we had to pretend we were like 18 year old students so that we could fly half fare. I mean when we doing everything on a low budget, you know, and we flew through Love airport in Dallas where they have a big statue of a Texas ranger and other ones, reactionary Texas rangers in the middle of the thing with his gun and saying, it had a sign on it, one riot, one ranger.
But we knew we weren’t going into friendly territory. Anyhow we went out and we met, we met the guys on the base and we got thrown off the base. I mean off the base was hard because it was Killeen, Texas. It was in the middle of rural Texas. The base is like halfway between Dallas and Austin, it’s rural Texas and the sheriff runs the place and they do what they want. You know, it’s almost safer on the base. At least the army has to obey the law. So they actually, I only stayed there for a few days and we got all the information with the guys and I went back and we wrote it up and stuff. But Andy and two of the veterans, one just got out of the army at Fort Sill and flew right to Killeen to join the struggle, and the sheriff finally a couple of days later arrested all three of them.
And they charged them with vagrancy. And then the guy said, how can you charge me with vagrancy? I got $600. Vagrancy. Fined $600. Like that’s a lot of money in those days. $600, that’s like maybe 4,000, you know, today, 5,000, but he had just gotten his separation pay ’cause he got out.
Anyway, that’s a side story to the real thing. We organized the defense. We had one of the best defense lawyers in the country, Michael Kennedy, who worked with the emergency civil liberties committee, and that we represent, we got lawyers for all the 43 guys, but at the court martial towards the end of October, I went down there with my life partner and we attended the court-martial along with another veteran and some other people who were supportive. And most of the soldiers got off or they were able to win the case. And a few of the guys how to do some months time, but they thought that was a big, even the ones who did time thought it was a big victory because they could’ve faced like five, six, seven years in jail and stuff like that, but the military felt they had to make a compromise and they let most of them off.
They found a way of doing that and that was a big struggle, and for the union it was a point of showing where we stood with regard to the black struggle and support for the African American soldiers who were organizing, so it was a very important struggle.
Robert Raymond: Yeah, it certainly sounds like it. A year later you were involved with another pretty important case, the Hawaii sanctuary effort. Can you talk about what that was all about?
John Catalinotto: Yeah, the sanctuary was an amazing thing. Andy was invited to go out, but his spouse was about to have a baby, so he didn’t want to take a trip at that point. So he said, okay John, you go. So I got on the plane and went to Seattle and I went to Hawaii. And I was treating it like a routine thing. I’d go out there, I’d bring some newspapers [The Bond], make friends, we get the newspaper out to everybody. But a guy named Buffy Perry was in the Air Force and was a politically conscious guy. He was going to make a personal stand, refuse to cooperate with the military and take sanctuary in a church called the Church at the Crossroads, which was sort of a progressive church in Honolulu. So, and when we were the main speakers at demonstrations at the beach there, Waikiki, and then we marched through town and stuff.
But at the end of the demonstration, another few GIs joined. And then later on that night another few GIs joined, and the next day. And so it just kept growing like that. And you know like this, the third day in, marines came over from Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station and they brought 60 pounds meat to contribute to the GIs who were taking sanctuary. And then there was actually the first night, there was a rebellion of black Marines at that Kaneohe Marine Corps Air station. And my big contribution to that struggle that week was that I organized the solidarity action, and about 10 of us went over to Kaneohe and we had a demonstration outside in solidarity with the Black Marines. And it was just like every day another five, six GIs would join the sanctuary. It looked like it would just keep growing, a snowball in Hawaii. And you could roll down a hill I guess and gather something.
And I thought it would go on forever. We would just end the war right there. It didn’t quite work out that way. You know, the people in the church, I think they were getting a little scared of what was happening. It was like they had this tiger by the tail, they wanted to make a moral condemnation of the war, but they didn’t think that they were gonna actually be taking on the Pentagon, breaking it and challenging it like that. But I was only able to stay the first week, but other people came out, including a few GIs who were AWOL and some other civilian organizers. I had to go back to work and my day job, but they stayed on. It lasted for a little over a month. And finally when it wasn’t able to keep growing, it kind of developed its own internal problems.
And then the MPs moved in and they arrested a whole bunch of people at the end, and other people escaped. Some went to Canada, some went back into the mainland and wound up in stockades again. Anyhow, it was quite a struggle and even though it didn’t explode the army at that time, it was just at that time that the Nixon administration began to withdraw troops from Vietnam. So the Nixon administration was afraid. They all were afraid of expanding the war too much. The military leadership in 1968 and maybe even ’67, [General William] Westmoreland, he asked for a million troops.
They had as many as 550,000, 543,000, something like that was the maximum US troops in Vietnam. The army was three and a half million troops at that time. Now it’s fewer than 2 million in this professional army that exists today, but there were three and a half million with a smaller population. And they asked to put a million troops in Vietnam instead of 550,000 and I think Johnson said, well, if you have a million will you win? and they said, well, we have to see how it goes.
And then Johnson said, well, maybe we better not, because he thought it could lead to a bigger disaster, and it could’ve. That could’ve led to a bigger, from their point of view. It could have led to a real collapse of the military, which from our point of view would not have been a disaster. It would have been a great opportunity for political change in a revolutionary direction, but of course it would have meant a wider war. Could have meant war with China. It was a big thing going on, but we were organizing and we just sort of tried to forget about the things that you mentioned. You know, despite the potential repercussions. We tried not to think about the repercussions, we just went ahead and organized.
Robert Raymond: I would love to talk about your book a little bit. You also mentioned that you’d compiled some stories earlier on GIs who went from feeling a sort of personal discomfort or unease with the war to something more politicized and more organized. I’m wondering, are there any examples that you might want to share that might capture this idea?
John Catalinotto: Actually, when I mentioned it before, I wasn’t thinking of individuals who went through stages, although that happened too. The guys who came around the American Servicemen’s Union, a lot of them did not go in as political people trying to organize. They went in because they got drafted or they got pulled into it. Even one who was, I’ll take Terry because in some way he’s the epitome of what you’re talking about. He didn’t go into Vietnam, but he got drafted into the military and he did not want to go to Vietnam. And it was partly motivated, just not wanting to be in the war. And in the course of… He deserted and went to Europe and his political development took place in Europe, because he was in Paris in 1968, at the time of the uprising of the French working class, the students first and then the French working class had a general strike that lasted for a month and raised the possibility of real revolution, even though it didn’t take place.
So he had a political development that was like being thrown into this cauldron of revolutionary development, where his personal motivation came from opposition to the Vietnam War and a very strong one. And he immediately began to politicize because of that. But then it was accelerated by the experience in Paris and he decided to come back even though he faced time in prison. And he was actually sentenced to three years in prison for desertion. But while he was in the Fort Dix stockade, he and others organized a stockade rebellion and part of the stockade burned down and they faced serious…
He faced 56 years possibly in prison, but he won. He won the case, and he actually wound up spending about a year and a half in prison. And then he was let out early. They had to reverse the case on the technicality. And he became an organizer for the American Servicemen’s Union. So that’s one kind of development. There’s so many who went to Vietnam and because of what they experienced there came back and became organizers. And they would come back, and really angry at the army for putting them through, and then would have developed a sympathy for the Vietnamese. So when you combine the two, and also a hatred of racism, whether or not they were black or white GIs, if they hated racism enough that would make them political.
Robert Raymond: Yeah, no, that definitely makes a lot of sense. And so I’m wondering if there was one main point that you wanted to get across with your book, something that sort of seemed through the entire text, what would you say that would be?
John Catalinotto: I’ll just say this about my book. I wanted to show how organizing in the military not only allows the possibility of stopping the particular war, which is something that is usually very desirable. I mean the wars that are carried on these days are wars of the empire against colonial people. Anybody like me, probably like you, feels more sympathy for the colonial people than for the empire. And it’s great to be able to stop the war. But we also, at the time of the American Servicemen’s Union, the way we looked at it, which may not be the same way that pacifist organizations or some of the other organizations looked at it, was that there was a potential that the struggle within the military would also allow a change in the society as a whole, revolutionary change.
So in order to kind of underline that in my book, I took those four examples, the Paris commune, the Russian revolution, the revolt of the German North Sea fleet in November of 1918, and the Portuguese revolution in 1974-75, to show that rebellions in the military led to political, and in the case of Russia, to a social change.
Even in Portugal, it sort of opened the door to that. In Paris too, of course it didn’t last very long, but in some ways the Portuguese experience is very helpful as an analogy [to the U.S.] to think of, because it was colonial wars in Africa, when the African countries in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau were waging guerrilla wars against the Portuguese occupation. They were Portuguese colonies, Portugal though is a poor country.
But still it had colonies and the Portuguese army was worn down by these revolutionary wars in Africa, and that transmitted within the Portuguese military itself. So that junior officers led a revolution against the fascist government in Portugal and then opened the door for the working class of Portugal to make enormous gains over the course of, you know, about a year [and a half]. And until there was kind of a shift back in the other direction. I mean that was another exciting period where it looked like there could be a revolution in Portugal too. These are parts of history that are not emphasized and people don’t even know about it over here, because it’s not like the rulers of the United States wanted to teach everybody how to make revolution.
They want to make it seem like it’s impossible to do something like that. So don’t even think about it. And I’m saying at least think about it.
Robert Raymond: Well, I certainly think your story is compelling and one I’m sure that is inspiring many people to think more about that. I’m wondering, are there any last thoughts you’d like to share before we close out today?
John Catalinotto: You know, I’ve been politically active for 56 years. I’ve been involved in a lot of very interesting work and some of it has been effective and some less, but nothing has been as compelling and exciting as the work I did with the American Servicemen’s Union. It’s like, well, what did you do while you were there on earth? You know? Oh, I helped organize the American Servicemen’s Union.
Robert Raymond: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and wisdom with us, John.
John Catalinotto: Thank you.
Robert Raymond: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US war in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. This episode was recorded and edited by myself, Robert Raymond. Special thanks to our executive producer, Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.