Podcast (VN-E41): “I was trying to put the army on trial” – Steve Morse
Steve Morse grew up as a Quaker and was granted conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war. Despite this privilege, he intentionally joined the army in order to organize against the war from within, eventually serving in Vietnam and Cambodia. At Ft Lewis, Washington and again at Fort Riley, Kansas, Steve was court martialed twice for distributing subversive literature.
“They were charging me with distributing literature without prior approval of the commanding general … I was trying to put the army on trial. It was a very heady time.”
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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.” Last year marked 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
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With my privilege, I felt like there was a certain amount of a sense of like I had it really easy – very easy getting the conscientious objector status and very easy carrying it out. Had that not been true, I’m sure I would not have done this. End of September ’69, I joined.
This is The Courage to Resist podcast. Since 2005, Courage to Resist has worked to support military resistance to illegal and unjust wars, counter recruitment, draft resistance and the policies of empire.
Steve Morse is our guest today. Steve grew up as a Quaker and thus was granted conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war. Despite this privilege, he intentionally joined the Army and there became an activist changing many perspectives and having great success.
Steve, welcome to the podcast today. Excited to hear your story of activism. You’ve got an interesting story of activism, slightly different than a lot of the activists we’ve had on the podcast. Steve, tell us about your growing up years a little bit.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, Southeastern Pennsylvania. My mother’s family were Quaker farmers for many generations. So I grew up Quaker in the ’50s and they had an alternate view of the cold war, which I’m very grateful for. They didn’t submit to the fear of the cold war. My father became a Quaker and he was involved in peace activism. And so I accompanied him on, I don’t know, maybe a few peace protests, which were like Ban the Bomb, maybe the late ’50s. Before he was a Quaker though, he came from a New England background where his parents were both big promoters of World War 1. I didn’t know any of that when I was young, but it did affect the kind of person he was. He was in military intelligence in Hawaii. He thought of becoming a conscientious objector, but he saw Hitler needed to be fought.
However, he wasn’t fighting Hitler. He was interrogating so-called subversive people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii in military intelligence. And I found out only when I was age 56 that he was also interrogating subversive people within the US army, which he realized, I think ironically, that his son had become. I grew up with a Quaker peace idea and I was in a peace group in high school. I went for two years to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania where there was a lot of activism going on. And it was just when the Vietnam war started, or at least when the regular troops started going in, in February of ’65. And I arrived there in the fall of ’64.
I was trained to be a conscientious objector. I read the handbook for conscientious objectors in high school. I had an unusually easy route to getting it and to carrying out the two years of alternate service. So I applied as soon as I was 18, and within a month, they told me that if I were no longer in school, they would give me the 1-O classification, which was civilian alternate service for two years.
And Steve, that’s because you grew up as a Quaker and there was lots of evidence.
Not only because I grew up as a Quaker, it’s also because it became much harder once the Vietnam war got hot. That’s one. Another thing is I was working at a summer camp as a counselor that summer. And my immediate supervisor was a guy I got on with very well and we talked a lot. And he was in the Army Reserves so I got him to write a recommendation for me and that was supposed to help a lot. I was politically active with Students for Democratic Society, SDS, in college. I was on a community project after my first year there in Cleveland, in a black community. I left [college after two years and] I came out to San Francisco. Some of the people that were there [in college] felt they couldn’t leave because they’d be drafted. And I had this cushion, I had this privilege.
I had a privilege based on being Quaker. I had a privilege based on access to education. [Not financial privilege] – we were pretty poor actually, my first years of life. Anyway, I came to San Francisco. I didn’t get involved right away, but I was knocking around. It was just pretty much before the hippie era, it got big the summer of love – the summer of ’67. I came to the Bay area in October ’66. I was trying to find out some alternate service to do. You were supposed to leave home anyway and I wanted to come out here to do that two years of civilian service. I was looking around and I found an agency. In the end, this agency just covered me. I didn’t get paid by them. And I was interested in their programs for a while, but after a while, not so much and nobody ever bothered me.
I just did what I wanted. [The agency said political organizing was fine with them, and] I got involved politically out here. I got involved with Progressive Labor Party [PLP] particularly [with the San Francisco Draft Resistance Union]… I’m not sure I would’ve stayed with them, but I got arrested with them in August ’67 in a political arrest that went on for a long time, 20 months in court, including a three week trial. Our most successful venture in that court was when we decided to defend ourselves because we had the transcript from the previous trial and they were trying to bring us back to trial again. And we prepared our defense based on lies and contradictions of the police. When we were about ready to become our own lawyers, they said, “Oh, well, I think we’re going to resolve this case,” and they basically let us off.
In the draft resistance union – it didn’t become a really big organization, but a lot of the people in it were activists. What happened was when they got called up to go down to the induction center, they would go down. And we’d have some leaflets and they would go in and say, “Okay, you can take me, but I’m going to organize.” And they were trying to organize within [the induction center], talk among the guys and pass out leaflets among the young men who were down there. And typically, they would get kicked out, the military didn’t want this, so they would send them away. And maybe they would be called to go down to the induction center again. This seemed very successful for a while, [but it wasn’t a strategy that new people could effectively use]. I wasn’t facing the draft, of course, but we would picket out in front of the induction center while one of our members was in there.
Another thing I did during that period of time was I got involved with probably the first GI paper. it was The Bond, and a couple people in Berkeley were putting it out. I didn’t really work on the writing of it, but I worked on distributing it in San Francisco. So I went around to bases like the Presidio, and I’d get escorted off there rather quickly. And I went down to the service club at the USO [and met a guy who was trying to organize within the Navy. We became friends and I gave a stack of papers each issue]. This was the summer of ’67 and into the fall. After 12 issues, the editor got a little bit off base and he thankfully decided to not continue publishing. He gave [the name and mailing list] to the American Servicemen’s Union, which was beginning to organize within the Army.
I stopped doing that, and I was not wanting to be in the Army for sure but all these things [about GI Resistance] were in the back of my mind. Then Progressive Labor Party decided to have an Army program in ’69 and get some people in the army and try to organize. I was ambivalent about that because I was out of it. I wasn’t facing the draft, wasn’t facing going in, but they leaned on me to do it, and I went along with it. A lot of the reason I went along with it was from things which were quite separate from their organization that I had been involved in, [like the October ’68 peace march led by GIs and veterans, and defending the Presidio 27 facing mutiny charges]. And to be involved with a [committed] group of people who were trying to do the same thing was attractive.
Another thing was that the GI movement had grown by 1969 and the level of combat in Vietnam was less. So both of those things were attractive in terms of doing what I was thinking of doing at that time and I was meeting with people about doing. With my privilege, I felt if it were a viable thing to organize, then there was a certain amount of sense of like I had had it really easy getting the conscientious objector status, and very easy carrying it out. Had that not been true, I’m sure I would not have done it. But a sense that the working class people, men, young men, were having to face this, it was a commitment I was making to them and to ending the war as well. So anyway, at the end of September ’69, I joined. So I went to basic training at Fort Ord.
Just for clarity’s sake, Steve, you’re saying that you intentionally joined the military, even though you had a conscientious objector status?
That’s right. I had a 1-W status. Nobody knows what that is, but that’s a completion of alternate service. And I wrote to the draft board and asked to be reclassified as 1-A so I could join the Army. And they just let me do it. I don’t know what they thought – maybe “Oh, you don’t get this every day.” But anyway, I did that. So I was at Fort Ord, California near Monterey which is no longer an army base, but it was. I had orders for Fort Knox, Kentucky, where they do armor training, but they canceled those orders because they were investigating me and they were doing it at that base. So they put me in infantry training, which is training they had there. Presumably this investigation was continuing.
I did they infantry training and then I had orders for Vietnam after that. And I said, “Oh man, I’m in this too deep. What the hell was I thinking?” I threw caution to the wind, shall we say. I was a good student. I could take tests. And if I answered every question on the Aptitude test they gave me, I probably would have been a company clerk. I selectively missed quite a few questions. And also I didn’t sign up for a school. I didn’t sign up for three years. I signed up for two years. And so I was sort of at their mercy in a way. it was a bit of magical thinking perhaps – they would find me subversive and keep me in the States. And they did that to some of my comrades, some of the people. So I was not really ready to submit to just going to Vietnam without protest.
But I wasn’t going to refuse. So I kind of made myself underground for about a week and a half at the Overseas Replacement Station [at Ft Lewis, WA]. I passed out these leaflets rather flagrantly because I didn’t think the stockade was worse than being sent over to Vietnam infantry. I was in the stockade on pretrial confinement which was later ruled illegal because I didn’t fit the criteria. So I was in there for six weeks before I had a court martial. There were some things that were harsh in there, but I also found that there was a whole community of resisters in there which was already set up, and that I just contributed to. That was actually exciting in some ways. I was preparing to go on trial and I had a lawyer who was sympathetic, kind of a movement lawyer. But I decided to be my own attorney, which harked back to when I prepared to do that as a civilian.
And so I was my own attorney for a two day trial and they changed the time and the place of the trial so that people would not attend. But in fact, the courtroom was full, filled with people I didn’t know mostly. Some were GIs and some were the civilians who had been among the many thousands that had protested the Cambodian invasion. They were charging me with distributing literature without prior approval of the commanding general. And so we were able to prove that there was literature that was distributed that didn’t have that approval, but wasn’t political and people weren’t brought to court martial for that. Anyway, I was trying to put the Army on trial and it was a very heady time, and they gave me a four month sentence.
They ruled my pre-trial confinement was illegal, but still gave me a four month sentence. Two weeks into the sentence, they told me, “You’re not going out on work call today,” so I figured it was orders for Vietnam. Anyway, I had to figure out very quickly what I was going to do about this. And I made the estimate that they were trying to get me to refuse to go and then give me a five-year sentence for that refusal. And that was something that had happened to one of the guys in the stockade that I was working with politically, who had started an underground paper.
So you did in fact receive orders to go to Vietnam?
Yeah, I mean, I had orders before I was in the stockade, but you might say they were reinstated. So they commuted my sentence. I had a four month sentence, so two weeks into the sentence, my sentence was commuted. So yeah, I was sent to Vietnam. I was in the rear for a while and then I was sent to Cambodia, and it was June 15th. [Nixon had said troops would be out of Cambodia by the end of June. Well, I had really been part of the protest against Cambodia in the way that I did my court martial. I tried to fake being in supply; they didn’t act like I wasn’t in supply, but they just sent me to the field anyway, and said, “Oh, you’re in supply. Okay. Well, go over on this machine gun over here.” [It was an armored unit, which is what originally I was supposed to be trained for].
Pretty hard initially, because I got these newspapers from Progressive Labor Party’s (PLP’s) paper Challenge, which was really a badly written newspaper. I got 25 of them that had a big article about my court-martial. I’d been in the field for three days. I was with these two guys who were harassing me a lot. And you really couldn’t get to know other people because we were in a combat situation. [I was scared more by the political situation I was in than the combat].
From then on, we were in the area which the Army defined as III Corps, which included Saigon. We were driving around in these armored vehicles and we weren’t doing any combat, which was very fine with me because my mission there was to talk to people about the war and get to know people. And if people were relaxed, then that was a good thing that there was no combat. People were more relaxed and I was more relaxed and I wasn’t facing being killed or having to shoot at people or pretend to shoot at people. I got sent back after four months, which was unusual because the standard thing was to be there a year. And they made it very clear that it was because of this literature I was passing out and talking too much to people.
So they just wanted your influence out of Vietnam?
Yeah. And I really saw things shift while I was there.
Yeah. Maybe talk about some of the influence that you had while you were there.
Well, when I got there, they were talking about K troop, as Killer troop. “We carved a K on their heads when we killed them”, and stuff like that. And I didn’t know what to make of it. They liked to harass new people. I had no rank. I never had any rank, but I was older than most. And then later on, I didn’t hear any of that. And when new people came, I was not at all about harassing people. My whole reason for being there was totally different. So I got to be friends with these people who were newer, and I was already a person who had been there longer. So I didn’t hear much of that stuff anymore. And I think that was really a time when things shifted some, because this troop had a reputation of being gung-ho.
Anyway, I got shipped back and sent to Fort Riley, Kansas. Once again, I wasn’t trained for what they were doing, air defense artillery. And so they had me be a training clerk and I worked about a half hour a day. They told me I was doing a great job making out the training schedule. Anyway, after a couple of months, the unit was being transferred up to Custer Hill [which they tried to keep free from dissidents. So at that point, I was transferred to a different part of the base, Camp Forsythe, which turned out to be a place where they had a lot of dissident people.
Well, the thing I got busted for the second time at this stockade was again a leaflet. There was a revolt on base which involved the unit I was in and the unit I had been sent from. They were both handling targets for people who had come from as far as a thousand miles away for rifle and pistol practice. And they were being mistreated, 12 hour days out in the rain. And so they went on a little wild cat strike for about an hour. A friend of mine there and me, we wrote up the leaflet about this and talked about what they had done, the strike, but also the political ramifications of these police and such people coming that would be used in domestic repression. Nixon was really preparing some domestic repression at that time, Operation Garden Plot and such. So that was a leaflet that we passed out, and I gave it to the wrong person. I really didn’t want to get busted this time, but I did. And so I had a court martial that was really quite similar to the other one. I defended myself. We filled up the courtroom with about 30 people.
I challenged the Army. Again, I tried to put them on trial. This time the court martial was also a special, which at that time, had a six month limit. But anyway, I got another four months then. This time I did the full sentence. The last half of that four months with good time, so about three and a third months, I was put in solitary for having literature on me in a surprise inspection. The most intense racism that I encountered in the Army was there where most of the people in solitary were black. Sometimes people were beaten, and it was always black soldiers who were beaten. When I got out of the stockade, I was basically out of the army.
Back in San Francisco, I was active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War for a year. It was good in a way, but there were a lot of people that were emotionally struggling within the chapter. After a year, I decided I had enough. I married my wife; we’re still married years later. I met her in ’71 at an anti-war protest right after I got out, and we have two daughters. And I mostly focused on working and raising a family for a while. Mid eighties, I got back re-involved, with a new veterans’ group that started, Veterans Speakers Alliance, which then became affiliated with Veterans for Peace. And we did a lot of speaking in schools and we did some protests as well. We had three marches on Reagan’s ranch outside of Santa Barbara, California. There was a feeling that a lot of what was happening in Central America was so similar to Vietnam. Nothing had been learned by the government. They were just trying to do the same thing except without the battalions of US troops, but otherwise pretty similar.
Later, I became active as a counselor, as a volunteer counselor with [the GI Rights Hotline]. I did this about 14 years, including over two years as a full-time coordinator.
Last August, a friend of mine and I, started a climate crisis and militarism group within Veterans for Peace. And we’ve been leading that effort and it’s really been growing. At the Veterans for Peace virtual convention we set that up and we’ve been meeting every two weeks. It’s a lot of work. We’ve got a lot going, we’ve got a letter to John Kerry who is the climate envoy now. We want him to address militarism and how militarism affects the climate and also the huge amount of wasted resources that could go to climate mitigation, could go to human needs, stuff like that. So we’re doing that. And John Kerry, we’re coming up on 50 years of John Kerry having testified before Congress as a representative of anti-war veterans, a very blistering speech against the Vietnam war, but he hasn’t seen fit yet to bring militarism into his work on climate. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
We’re trying to bring into the climate movement a discussion of militarism as a central issue. So that’s been keeping me active lately. I’m also involved in labor and climate issues trying to combine labor and climate movements. I’m sure it’ll happen. It’s slower than it should be, but we’re moving forward for that too.
Well, very good, Steve. Thank you so much for sharing your story of activism and your unique approach to stemming the combat in Vietnam and being an activist in the trenches literally. Thank you for sharing that story.
This podcast is a Courage to Resist production recorded and edited by Matthew Breems with special thanks to Executive Producer Jeff Paterson. Visit couragetoresist.org for more information and to offer your support.
Transcript updated and edited for clarification, May 19, 2021.