Special of the week; Issue 51-1968
And E.R. the national educational radio network presents special of the week from the University of Michigan from the program background. Your host Tom Rickey our guest today on background is Professor Joseph Sachs of the University of Michigan Law School Professor Sachs has recently with a group of others who traveled to Paris and Stockholm there is talked with the American desert ors from the Armed Forces in Europe. Do you have any kind of reliable figures about the numbers of men who deserted the United States armed forces and gone to Paris or Stockholm. Yes the Swedish government during our visit issued official figures that they had had one hundred sixty nine applications from American desert hers. For asylum in Sweden. Of that number they said that they had refused
five mostly because they were not people in the army or one or two were not American citizens. Of that number some have gone back to their units in the armed services. So there are something like a hundred fifty or so in Sweden. There are no official figures in France but the best estimates we could get from talking to people was that there were about 30 40 possibly even 50 in a scattering in other Western European countries. The trip was organized as I understand it by the American group clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam. How many and what kinds of people went with you. Well we were a delegation of 16 people. A good many of them were clergyman. Some were people from the universities in various disciplines there were two lawyers a professor from the Harvard Divinity School a man from the Asian Studies Center at the University of California.
One of our people was the mother of one of the desert hers a couple of writers and so we were the multifarious group and we were from all parts of the country. What did you find in your travels. Just generally. Well I think we came back or at least I came back with several strong impressions. Ron and I suppose the most important feeling I had after talking to the desert ors was that they represented an enormously diverse group of American youth. From every part of the country from large cities what was to me a surprising number from small towns particularly in the south and in the Midwest and from every kind of background boys whose fathers were lawyers real estate brokers truck drivers clerks even professional army people. And the same kind of diversity as their educational background. We met a boy who was doing graduate work in Stockholm and I met a boy who had only finished the eighth grade so it's a sort of slice of American
youth. Specific age bracket I'm taking this course. Well they're the diversity is not so great. I suppose if there is a median age it's probably 22 or 23. I met a few who were 19 or 20. I didn't meet any who were much older than that although one of the people on the trip told me that he encountered Deserta who had been in the Army for 16 years but I didn't meet that fellow myself. If there was a single. Common thread it seemed to be that most of these people had grown up in what we would think of as conventional American homes. I had gone into the Army many of them as volunteers not with anti-war feelings indeed a number of them even with enthusiasm about the war and that it seemed to be the contrast the stark sharp differential between what they had been told about the war and about what America was doing in the war
and what they actually saw with their own eyes that shocked them. And when you think back upon that I suppose that explains why I saw so few of the kind of let's say radical or very militant anti-war young people that you see here over there. Those people I think wouldn't have been so surprised. Had any of these men. This is a question that comes up because of some of the coverage that's been given. The deserters are in Europe. Have any of these men been in trouble within their unit within the armed forces prior to their desertion and they've been under investigation say for I want activities within the armed forces or indeed anything of that kind. Yes a few although at least from the people I interviewed I would say this was by no means a majority or even a very substantial number but a few told me that after some of the experiences they had been in they had for example applied for a discharge from the army as conscientious
objectors within the service which of course is permitted by Army regulations. One or two told me that they began to feel so strongly about some of the things they saw that they organized a discussion group or even a demonstration and that had not been taken very kindly by the army so some of them had been in in some trouble in that respect. One or two of the boys had been in other kinds of trouble but you think of routine problems with the army. What's the legal status. The men have deserted friends. It differs a little between the two countries but in both countries they're there legally they are not in hiding in any sense. In Sweden they are given a particular status called humanitarian asylum. What this means is that the Swedish government has formally taken the position that they are entitled to refuge
and entitle her to stay in that country and not be sent back to the punishment that they would receive in America. Each of the boys has to apply for this status before the Swedish aliance commission just as the Czech and Greek refugees of whom there are now a substantial number in Sweden do in Sweden also they get as any Swedish citizen as welfare benefits the opportunity to go to school and to be paid if they go to school in the Swedish government encourages them to do this and to begin making a productive life for themselves in Sweden. Now in France their legal status is somewhat more ambiguous. The government tolerated them I think that's the proper word that I should use. It does however not give them financial benefits although of course I'm sure it also wants to see them go to work and the French government does not permit them to engage in political activities although the Swedish government perhaps I should
have mentioned this a moment ago does that is they are free in Sweden. The desert are yours to engage in political activities if they want to. Just as any Swedish citizen is. I suppose the difference is what accounts for your saying a little earlier that in Sweden apparently the government has more accurate figures about the numbers of men who are there as a result of deserting the armed forces of France. The numbers are not readily available. Yes that's right. I'm not even sure that the French government knows exactly how many disorders there are. They could certainly find out if they wanted to because in France the desert ER's are required to apply for work and residency permits at frequent intervals. But I guess the only distinction I mean to make is that the French government does not have the kind of active continuing relationship with them and perhaps this is more the consequence of Sweden being a sort of welfare state than it does with any
particular distinction between the formal position of the government about the deserters. This is a matter of curiosity did you find it. The men and friends you talk to interested on going to Sweden. Yes you can. Yes several of the people I met in France planned to go to Sweden. This is largely attributable to things I think. First the job and housing situation particularly in Paris is a very tight one indeed although jobs are not easy to come by in Stockholm it's it is easier than in front's. Also the opportunity to get some subsistence benefits from the government is certainly an inducement to them and there is a larger community of Americans there and perhaps this is an appropriate point to say that these people are a community that is they are an exile community just as the White Russians in the United States are the with Wayne ians or any other exile group and of course they do have common
interests. Is there any opportunity for the other in Stockholm or in Paris to eventually become citizens of either those countries and remain there permanently if they choose to do so. Yes I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that in France but I did make inquiries in Sweden as I understand it after they have been in Sweden for five years. They may then apply if they want to for citizenship. And as I understand it they do not have to make a declaration in advance as I understand for example you do and in Canada so that most of the desert areas have not really faced up to this question. I think they are realistic and hardheaded enough to realise that they may have to stay there for a considerable period into the future. And I think they're staying open minded about their very long range plans. This is a fairly unusual kind of event it seems to me American citizens in exile because of what might be called political
reasons. Is that true in your experience. Yes I must say this was certainly the first experience of any kind that I had had with this and to go back to one of your earlier questions about my impressions. I suppose my saddest impression from the visit was to think that I as an American coming from a country which we have always viewed and quite properly as itself a principal place of refuge for political exiles should go for 5000 miles away and see American citizens themselves exiled from their own country in a foreign land it's a moving and tragic experience and it's made I think more poignant by the fact that as you move around in France and in Sweden you find that overwhelmingly the
public in those countries shares the desert or is your view about the mistaken nature of the ruler. And so in an ironic sense their views are more hospitably received in those countries than of course they are here in the United States. To return to an earlier topic for just a moment. What's your feeling. What can you compare At any rate your feelings about the man you met and the kinds of feelings one gets when reading about such men when they're presented in some of the national news media in this country. Yes. As you know there have been several articles recently in popular magazines about the desert areas and many of the things said in those articles are accurate as far as they go. They emphasize some things that seem to me to misrepresent overall the situation of the deserts for example.
One article suggested that a lot of the desert ER's are finding themselves involved with drug problems and that sort of thing. Now there are some desert areas in Stockholm who have. Had some of those problems but from everything I could tell when I talk to a very considerable number of the desert ER's this is a problem of very small proportions Indeed I would guess of smaller proportions than the percentage of the general community in the United States in fact I can I can give you a statistic that may be of some usefulness of the desert is in Sweden one hundred fifty or sixty or only three have gotten into trouble with the police and the Swedish government keeps very careful records of this. Two were convicted in the town in Sweden. First person Nacho and run for a drug problem. So I think it's an unfortunate mistake to emphasize the social
misconduct. Certainly my impression and I spoke to officials in the Swedish government both in the Ministry of Interior and the alien's commission and two lawyers in Sweden and other people in the community there was that overwhelmingly the desert areas while they have a hard life difficult time adjusting themselves to a foreign culture are getting along pretty well and are living productive legal and socially useful lives. They don't you talk to. Plans to stay in Sweden perhaps bring whatever family they have now to Sweden or to begin putting down roots. Yes as I said before I think that being realistic they realize that they will be there for a considerable period of time a few of the disorder's are married both in France and in Sweden we met a small handful who had their wives with them. I also met one or two who had wives in the United States and at
least one of those whose wife was coming to visit a number told me that they had Swedish girlfriends which I think is understandable. Can you give us some idea of Professor Sachs about the public's acceptance of the general public's acceptance of. These deserters in Sweden aren't crimes. Yes usually one needs to be very cautious about saying that he has felt the pulse of public opinion after being in the country for only a few days but we were fortunate in that the presence of our delegation gave rise to considerable newspaper controversy including an editorial in each of the major Stockholm newspapers about the desert areas and I think that gave a picture at least about some important public attitudes that we might not have been able to get otherwise. Each of the papers made it a point to say that while it was important that the government was giving a status of asylum and benefits to these boys that the benefits were subsistence
benefits and that it was important to go beyond merely the formal requirements of the law and to make a concerted effort to see that they were able to live at a level beyond mere subsistence that this in itself was an important protection to make sure the boys did not become anti-social and that the government should concern itself about the kind of jobs that they got. And one of the papers. Concluded its editorial with a sentence that I think might be of interest. It said we have the obligation to support and respect those who in protest against a cruel war choose to look for their future in this country. And I think the fact that a sentence like that comes out of an editorial of a major party excuse me a major newspaper representing the dominant political party in Sweden the Social Democrats is a pretty good indication of popular opinion toward them.
Let me ask you something about the motives of individual people you met for deserving the armed forces. Can you comment about that. Yes. One of the things that I made a special point to do is to talk individually with as many of the desert hers as I could and to put them quite bluntly the question of how did you ever get yourself into this position and make the decision to do something that seems so serious and so irreversible. And I tried to make careful notes as I could about their responses and let me just report to you what I learned from one or two of them. One of the boys young fellow from Des Moines Iowa said this to me. He said I'm an average American boy from demoing who was taught the flag was red white and blue and that you should love it. I was glad to get drafted and in basic training we were told all the bad things about the Viet Cong. I believed it. I had no reason not to. I was never told anything else. I was sent to Germany and there are a few people in my
unit deserted were caught sent back and I was assigned to guard them. We talked and they seemed real nice and intelligent but I thought they must have been brainwashed by the Communists. People started to be ordered to Vietnam from my unit and our unit was then filled up with returning Vietnam veterans and I began to hear what it was really like. Some of them were just killers saying it doesn't matter they're not even human beings. Then I began to ask who really is brainwashed. And once you ask that that's it. This was another young man from a small town called Marshall Minnesota. I picked this one because he was one of the boys who was in Vietnam and deserted from there. He said I was 13 months in Vietnam. I was not political or anti were. I thought there were people excuse me. I thought the anti-war people were off their rockers and I wouldn't associate with them before
I went in the army. I would never have deserted if I hadn't been Vietnam. I was in Germany and though I heard anti-war propaganda there I didn't believe it but when I got to Vietnam I saw piles of bodies of people not yet dead with no one giving aid. I saw with my own eyes an 18 year old girl who had her arm blown off. And I saw on that Palm dropped. I kept hearing that we were doing for the Vietnamese people. I kept hearing what the enemy was destroying but not what I was going to destroy. You can accept this when you're in the U.S. or in Germany but not once you get to Vietnam. When I got there I found that even the Vietnamese who worked on the military posts themselves said how much they were against the American presence in Vietnam and during the Tet Offensive some of them actually participated in attacking the American soldiers. All this was a terrible revelation to me.
Some of these men than were actually engaged in combat in Vietnam at one time or another. Yes I think I couldn't put together any specific figures on how many of them deserted from Vietnam directly of course I met the sailors from the Intrepid you remember the people who deserted from the ship but came to Stockholm via Japan and Moscow. I think it's fair to say that the majority deserted from units in Germany but even of those a great many seemed to find that the moment of decision for them came after a number of returning veterans from Vietnam came into their units and they began to talk at length about what was going on. So it was I think the impact of Vietnam even as to those who did not themselves have a presence there that was very significant. Perhaps I want to add that.
Apparently those men who are in Germany make the decision that they want to get to Sweden and find it not terribly difficult to do so. Those in Vietnam of course have a much more difficult time because they can't leave directly from Vietnam. They would have to go I suppose via Japan or some other place where they would be on leave and of course must be under cover during that time. Have you any more. Testaments there. The man you're mad. Yes this is a boy from a town called Chesney South Carolina which I'm afraid I've never heard of. He told me he joined the Marines. He said I began to worry about what I was doing while I was in boot camp. The regulars said the military is fair if you tell them what you think. So he said I asked for a discharge on the ground that it was good for the army in the individual which apparently is what the
regulations say. I didn't want to make trouble. An officer told me that I'd be punished if I didn't buckle down after he saw my application. And one of the officers with whom I doubt said this man is a nut. He believes we're killing innocent people in Vietnam. I was I was refused a discharge. And although I had no orders to go to Vietnam I decided to desert at least 30 other Marines in my base camp. I knew I was going to desert but no one turned me in. I'm going to school in Stockholm he said. Perhaps if you'd like I have one more here. This is a fellow from Redding California. He said My parents are mainstream middle class. They don't believe in killing Vietnamese but more strongly they don't believe in making waves. I was drafted and I rationalized that I wasn't doing anything myself. I was suppressing
my emotions. I didn't talk back or strike out at the military system. One day someone said to me what are you doing in the army. And I realized my life was being directed toward destroying. And I had a lot of tension inside. I had orders to Germany and spent two days with my parents but I had no communication with them. I came to Sweden directly from the United States. In fact I'm a bout to interrupt myself to say I think this was the boy who told me he went into the airline office in California in his military uniform and bought his ticket this week. I asked him Are you opposed to the war. And he said to me I'm opposed to hate. I'm not politically oriented I'm religiously oriented. It seems to me that from some of your knowledges Anyway some of the causes of such assertions might well be attributable to simple inflexibility in Army regulations or in some cases.
I think that's true in fact one of the things that struck me was that a number of these fellows once they began worrying about what they were doing and what they were being asked to put their lives on the line or seemed to want to have some justification that is obviously I think we can all understand that the decision to desert is a very difficult one and I think they wanted someone to justify to them the rightness of what they were doing. And a number told me they went to see the chaplain or they went to see their commanding officer or they talked to their colleagues and I think it is a sad fact that their experience in doing this was that rather than being persuaded that they were doing the right thing they were simply confirmed in their feelings that they simply as one voice said to me I simply can't put the uniform on another day.
I think I read to you the boy who said. Someone said to him this man must be a nut he thinks we're killing innocent people. Perhaps I want to add one other thing because it's a question that's often been asked me and that is. What makes you think that these boys motivation was not simply one of saving their own neck. And that's certainly a fair question. Another aspect of my conversations that surprised me was the extraordinarily large number of these fellows who one had been in the Army for a substantial period of time. A number had been in the Army over two years and the number who were in a position where there was simply no prospect from anything they could tell that they were going to be ordered to Vietnam. In fact one boy astonishingly told me that he'd been in the army twenty eight months. That he had only 60 days left to go before he would be discharged. And I said to him Well why in heaven's name did you desert. And he said to me I woke up one
morning and said to myself in 60 more days I'll be out of this and never have to face up to the question What have I done and what have I been a part of. And he said when I asked myself that question I said to myself I just can't put that uniform on. So it's a complex decision and I think what you see or at least what I saw was that this common thread among these young men and that made them attractive. I think that's the right word. That there was a kind of deep sensitivity a kind of deep humaneness about them that simply made them feel that they could no longer be a part of this enterprise and for that reason it must have been a fairly disturbing kind of experience. It seems to me if it was indeed realizing that as a practical matter it is not going to be easy
for any of these boys to come back to the United States within the forseeable future or in any kind of. Decent terms. I couldn't help having the feeling after talking to many of them and hearing them express in their own ways what they had done and why they had done it that these were really the kind of young people that we needed. While it may be desirable for them in their own interest to come back here I think it's important for us. We need these kind of sensitive and humane people in this country particularly at this time. I think one would be unrealistic to think that in the very near future there is going to be a massive change of heart and a sort of open arms. Welcome back for these people. On the other hand I think there are two factors that give me some optimism. One I think we have seen a growing sense all through the
American population that the war was at the very least a mistake and an unfortunate enterprise. I think as time goes on even more people will realize what a terribly cruel enterprise it was and I hope in the light of that I begin to understand in a more compassionate way the reluctance of these boys to be a part of it. I think in addition to that it's important to recognize that this is essentially a human problem and not a political problem that these are a couple of hundred young men who have wives and who have futures. And even though we may feel that we wouldn't have done what they did or perhaps even that they were misguided in what they did that we ought to. Begin to have the sense that every war produces a
- Special of the week
- Issue 51-1968
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- No description available
- Public Affairs
- Media type
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 69-SPWK-401 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Special of the week; Issue 51-1968,” 1968-11-23, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 30, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-kh0f0841.
- MLA: “Special of the week; Issue 51-1968.” 1968-11-23. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 30, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-kh0f0841>.
- APA: Special of the week; Issue 51-1968. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-kh0f0841