AMERICAN RITA GI'S IN THE PARIS MAY OF 1968
Max Watts, Annandale, Australia, 1.5.08
History, they say, is written by the victors. As so often, “they” are wrong. The Vietnamese, and their RITA (1) allies, won their war against American Imperialism, against the Green Machine, but who’s writing those stories ? That History ? Who today knows that American soldiers fought on the Paris Barricades, in May ’68 – against the war, against repression, for the new world then a-birthing ?
Anti-Vietnam war American soldiers began coming to France, Paris, in December 1966. Of course, there had been AWOLs, Deserters, before, but – as far as I can determine – the first GI who went looking for help from Vietnam supporters in France was Private First Class (Pfc) Gregory Graham. Pfc Graham – after a complicated journey from West Germany through Amsterdam, Belgium, to France, there found the Paris American Committee to Stop War, PACS, which didn’t really know what to do with him (2).
Gregory Graham had joined the Army on his 17th birthday – “to get out of the orphanage” in Waco, Texas, where he had been living since he was six. “Ah doann mind barbecued bonzes, but ah hate fried drivers, that ain’t my scene. I split”(2). Splitting involved going to Amsterdam, looking for long-coated and long-haired hippies, Provos (3) who, when he told them he didn’t want to go to Vietnam, took care of him for a while, but then – harassed by the Dutch police – sent him on to Paris, where he drifted around till someone sent him “to the Americans, to PACS”. Some of whose members, including me, thought being for peace in Vietnam included helping anti-war GIs. Initially, deserters (4).
Graham was found a place in psychiatric hospital on the Loire, where he was classed alternatively as a patient or a gardener (depending on who asked). But soon word got out that “we”, “we being an ad hoc group at first called the AA (Aiders and Abettors), then the Baby Sitters, would help such American “deserters”, AWOLs, and – soon - “off-base Resisters” (RITAs). (Initially few of us, French or Americans, recognised the – important – differences).
In April 1967 a series of accidents (beginning with the arrest of 2 GIs sleeping in a borrowed car on the Seine Quays) led to Pvt Louis Armfield getting “papers”, i.e. a temporary, but renewable, French carte de sejour. Louis became the first American AWOL or deserting soldier to obtain a residence permit in a Capitalist country. Armfield set a precedent, and was soon followed by dozens others in France. Some months later Sweden, then Canada, also “opened up” to American soldiers. More GI’s arrived in Paris, and – perhaps more to the point – not only their quantity, but also their “quality”, increased. If Graham (later dubbed Baby A) would have been unwilling (and probably incapable) of addressing the media, soon soldiers, as Hector, made the point “I didn’t leave the army just to pluck chickens in Orleans”. Initially – for various reasons – (the French police prohibited “political activity” in France and there were justified grounds for fearing actions by the CIA or Military Intelligence against soldiers in France, the army exercised pressure on identified GI’s families…) – media interviews were given anonymously, “Chinese shadows on a curtain”. But with growing numbers, confidence also grew, and by December 1967 Pvt Dick Perrin, supported by Black Power leader Stokeley Carmichael, “came out in front of the curtain” and spoke openly to the New York Times and CBS television.
Perrin also explained that many GI’s now resisted inside the army, using the acronym RITA. Even if some of these Soldiers were temporarily in France (or Sweden, Canada) they considered themselves as still in the army, as “off-base Resisters”. These GI’s - mostly volunteers, (few draftees were then sent to Europe) were socially, legally, economically, quite distinct from their draft resister colleagues. And they worked in the first place with other soldiers, still on base, particularly in the 7th Army, USAREUR, in West Germany. Of course, they also developed growing contacts with the GI movement in the USA, and – despite logistic problems, with soldiers in Vietnam and – on R&R leave in Australia. Later the contacts also extended to the all-volunteer US Air Force in Britain.
By early 1968 the leaflets (classed as RN = Rita Notes) written by GI’s, mostly distributed in American bases in West Germany, were joined by the first American GI Paper in Europe: “ACT” – also known as “RITA’s ACT,” or “GI’s ACT”. Act was written exclusively by American Servicepersons, mostly soldiers, who usually signed with name and service number. A recto-verso single page, A-4 format, ACT went from an initial 10,000 press run to 25,000, and was reprinted both by supporters (e.g. Sydney FTA) and – Military Intelligence (MI). (Act editors thanked MI !) – ACT appeared as often as “necessary and possible” – seven times in the next two years.
Pvt Perrin had already worked in Fort Sill with Pvt Andy Stapp, who founded the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) in January 1968. The ASU monthly – the BOND - was also soon distributed via Paris.
From the beginning in early 1967 the soldiers in France and their civilian supporters, later also known as FRITAs (Friends of RITA) had problems with their native (i.e. French) allies. The GI’s and their American friends had expected, almost feared, that they would be helped, even taken over, by the French Communists, but the PCF initially wanted no such relations with “illegal” immigrants. Various religious groups were more supportive, above all the Quakers, who allowed their permanence in rue Vaugirard to become a very useful reception centre for drifting GI’s.
The Curiel-led group, Solidarite, early extended some help, but work with them ran into a double problem: Mutual incomprehension between French and Americans – the French carried over clandestine methods remembered from the Algerian war, or even the preceding anti-German, resistance, which were incomprehensible to the GI’s. Also: both French and Americans assumed they would be the leaders, the others - auxiliaries. To this could be added political “divergences” between old and new leftists… on such matters as dope. But the most difficult gap arose thru misconceptions towards “media” work: for the Americans, this was directed outwards, towards other soldiers and – secondarily – towards the American public. In the first place using widely distributed “GI Papers” (such as ACT, Bond, and Rita Notes), soon even the quite legal Overseas Weekly (a private scandal sheet often dubbed the Oversex Weekly, widely read by GIs.) And, when possible, establishment media in Europe and the USA. In early 1967 the Paris GI’s began to give multiple “clandestine” press conferences. The content was unimportant, as long as the word got out: There are American soldiers – resisting the Vietnam war. Important was that other GI’s, supporters, would know “we are here !” These concepts were often difficult to understand for the French.
A serious political problem arose within the off-base RITA groups, particularly in Sweden. It had soon become obvious that some GIs would, for many reasons, return to their units, even once they had become well established in France, in Sweden, in Canada. This, some felt, was a surrender, almost a form of treason to “the cause”. The ACT group saw this as an individual decision, and in any case “we have no jails, no stockades, to stop someone from going back”. “Go back to the army, your unit, but stay in touch. And take some papers with you, give them to the others. In any case, we want the maximum contacts between off-base RITAs in Paris, and others inside, inside the Green Machine.” And such contacts were often effectively started inside the stockade, inside Army prisons, in the first place in the Mannheim stockade, in West Germany. GI’s, returning from AWOL, French leave in Paris, were usually sentenced to some months in Mannheim (5). Often GI’s came to Paris soon after leaving Mannheim. Sometimes after several stays in jail. An American officer in Germany complained that Mannheim had become a “hotel for tired deserters”.
By May 1968 these problem had become academic. Paris had, in many ways, supplanted Amsterdam as a “GI weekend leave” target. Many American Soldiers now came to France from bases in Germany to meet with “off-base RITAs”, as many GI’s living in France now considered themselves. Terry Klug, Dick Perrin, other GI’s, marched, anonymously submerged in the crowd, in the 1968 May Day demonstration. The young Americans soldiers did not know that this, 1 May 1968, was the first time the Paris march had been allowed since 1953 (8).
I met Dick and Terry at the Odeon metro that evening after they’d marched. They were deliriously enthusiastic – “so many red flags, so many people!” They assumed the revolution would start on the morrow. I, old and blasé, hosed down their excitement. “Nothing much will happen”. They – it turned out – were right, I, the worldly-wise experienced old man, was wrong.
Anti-war GI’s were going to meetings in France, and even beginning to speak there. Klug had spoken at a student meeting in Reims, or was it Rennes ? Openly, as an anti-war GI, applauded to the rafters. He took a chance, he could have been arrested afterwards, and perhaps expelled from France, even turned over to the Army. The organizers, warned, got him away immediately. Dick Perrin had been asked to address a big anti-Vietnam war meeting at Nanterre University – I strongly advised him against this, the then new Nanterre campus was isolated and it would be easy for the police to pick him as he left. Perrin was quite disappointed, but listened to me. Didn’t go. Then he showed up, happy: “They have closed Nanterre, the whole university. The meeting will now be held in the courtyard of the Sorbonne. They still want me to speak..” Wise old Max pontificated: “OK, there there is no danger, the flics never come into the Sorbonne, and there are dozens of ways out, they can’t watch them all.”
I was driving to Switzerland, 3rd May, listening to a radio peripherique, a news flash: “The police are entering the Sorbonne, arresting dozens, hundreds..” I was not proud of myself, my advice. Perrin, finally, was the only “male” who escaped that razzia, first disguised as a girl (the police, that first day of the new May, were only arresting males !) – later a professor, sympa (Greppin?), took him thru the police line “my American assistant”.
A week later June and I returned to Paris, after a tournee through Basel, Zuerich, Southern Germany, Heidelberg, Saarbruecken, organizing Rita routes, support groups. We had followed Paris events - a week of constant, growing, demonstrations, on the radio, by telephone, but had no idea what was about to happen that Friday, 10 May. The night of the barricades, which began a mass movement, soon including 10 Million strikers. The most important challenge to Capitalism in Europe since 1945.
I - drive-lagged - did not go to the – by then weekly dinner at Tian-the-Vietnamese‘s apartment. There were many GI’s, just in from Germany. Visiting, considering desertion, resistance, organising.
On that Friday, after dinner, almost a platoon of American soldiers left the table, they had had news from the Latin Quarter. “Let’s “go down to the barricades, fight the pigs !” They did. Perrin describes it well in his book (7). We still await words from Klug, Wagner, details from other (surviving) GI’s.
US Army Lt Colonel (LTC) C.T. Lakes – writing a confidential report “U.S. MILITARY “DESERTERS” IN FRANCE” on 27 June 1968, is precise: "Private Jesus Michael Garcia, RA (a Regular Army Volunteer, not a “US” Draftee) 18961451, from the 5th Battalion, the 81st Artillery, otherwise based in Wiesbaden, West Germany) “was severely mauled fighting the French police during the rioting”.
Private Garcia was not alone, but others remain anonymous. They did not advertise.
Lt Colonel Lakes sometimes gets his facts half-right: “RITA maintained an office in the Sorbonne during its occupation by the students and actively assisted in the students’ activity.” In fact the RITA office was in Censier, but n’importe. Close enough. American GI’s certainly were glad to give what help they could to the French in May 1968, not only to the students but to other strikers. Much happened that I, for one, cannot recount, remember…. One group – did go to the Renault strikers, brought solidarity messages to the surprised, very happy, workers, occupyig the factory, and a big bag of canned food, bottles of wine. A black GI, very embarrassed, spoke. Not quite John Reed in Petrograd, but the spirit was there…
(1) RITA: Resistance, Resist, Resister – inside the Armies. Acronym coined by Pvt Dick Perrin in 1967, replaced earlier terms such as “A&A (Aiders and Abettors), Baby Business and Baby Sitters. Also: Dissent(ers).
(2) Graham’s Texan needed translation not only for puzzled French, but also for many PACS members. He had no objection to Vietnamese Bonzes (Buddhist priests), self-doused with petrol, burning themselves as an anti-war protest, “that was their business” - but he disliked the prospect of being personally fried - when a gas (petrol) truck such as he would drive in ‘Nam went over a mine – and living 3 days before dying.
(3) Provos – in Amsterdam, then, were not Irish revolutionaries, but young Dutch anarchisants, self-titled “Provokateuren”, who believed in action, rather than theory. They joyfully took care of deserting American soldiers, but were not really sure what to do with them.
(4) PACS members were mostly middle-class expats, anti-Vietnam-war activists, but – although aware of (also usually middle-class) Draft Resisters and Draft Dodgers, had had no experience with volunteer soldiers such as Graham.
(5) AWOL (Absent Without Leave)/ Desertion: During the Vietnam war the US army rarely prosecuted for desertion. By 1968 all stockades were overfull. “Legally” (6) 532,000 GI’s deserted between 1965 and 1972, three times that many went “AWOL”.
(6) “Legally” a GI deserts if absent more than 30 days, though the intention to remain away permanently also is a factor in determining an eventual prosecution for desertion. Most prosecutions were for AWOL, and resulted in some months in the stockade.
(7) “G.I.RESISTER – The story of how one American Soldier and his Family fought the War in Vietnam” - Perrin, Dick, 2001, 2002; Trafford Publishing, Victoria, BC, Canada; copies also direct from Dick Perrin: email@example.com Box 62; Lebret, Saskatchewan SOG 2YO, CANADA. Phone: 1 306-332-5976(8) Few remember now that after the police shot 7 demonstrators dead on the 14th July 1953 May Day marches and the 14th of July “workers defiles” were banned in Paris for the next fourteen years.