When Antiwar Activists Salted the US Military
The practice of “salting,” covertly getting a job with the intention of organizing a workplace, is receiving renewed attention lately. During the Vietnam War, activists used this tactic to build the antiwar movement within the ranks of the US military.
The tactic of “salting” — getting a job with the specific intention of organizing your workplace — has recently been grabbing news headlines.
In a recent Bloomberg story, labor journalist Josh Eidelson showed how the Starbucks union drive, which began in Western New York and continues across the country, was started by salts. Eidelson, as well as labor journalist Luis Feliz Leon and scholar Mie Inouye, emphasized the critical role salts also played in the successful Amazon union drive in Staten Island. During recent Senate hearings on union busting at Starbucks, ex-CEO Howard Schultz referred to salting as a “nefarious act,” and industry groups are backing Republican efforts to crack down on the practice.
Salting helped build the labor movement over the past century and is clearly making a comeback in the new surge of union organizing. Right now, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of salts or salts-in-training who are driving new organizing efforts that will surface in the months and years ahead.
But while the tactic of salting in the workplace is getting attention, much less well known is the crucial role that salting played in building antiwar resistance in the US military during the Vietnam War.
From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, dozens of left-wing organizers entered the armed forces with the explicit intention of organizing antiwar resistance within the ranks. Some of them adamantly enlisted, but many were drafted and then decided to report to induction with the goal of talking to fellow GIs about the war, imperialism, and racism. Some were secretive about their military salting, while others were bolder and more open. Many soldiers who were politicized after entering the military were influenced by GI salts.
These GI salts played a crucial role in kickstarting and sustaining the massive wave of soldier protest during the Vietnam War. They established some of the most high-profile GI antiwar groups and drove some of the most notable cases of troop dissent, providing inspiring models for thousands of other servicemembers who doubted the war. They helped convert latent troop discontent into organized resistance. These were the “militant minority” of antiwar GIs, with radical visions of peace and equality, willing to take risks against military authority because they were driven by a higher mission to end the war.
The GI Movement Against the US War in Vietnam
The GI movement against the US war in Vietnam involved thousands of active-duty soldiers and threw the US military into crisis. It may have been the cutting edge of the wider antiwar movement. Yet, the history of the GI movement is little known to many.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a massive escalation of the US war in Vietnam, which included the start of a three-year bombing campaign and a huge troop buildup. Almost immediately, soldier dissent began brewing in the armed forces. In November 1965, Lieutenant Henry Howe was arrested for attending an antiwar rally in El Paso, Texas, outside of Fort Bliss. In June 1966, Privates Dennis Mora, James Johnson, and David Samas, who were stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, held a press conference to announce their refusal to ship to Vietnam. In late 1966, Captain Howard Levy, an army medic, refused orders to train Green Berets headed to Vietnam because he did not want to be party to war crimes.
Acts like these — and many more — inspired the rise of the GI movement. By 1968 and 1969, new antiwar soldier groups were forming. Off-base antiwar coffeehouses aimed at GIs, often staffed by sympathetic civilians, were spreading from coast to coast. A growing number of subversive GI antiwar newspapers were circulating around the barracks. Soldiers were openly refusing orders on political grounds. For example, dozens of black troops — known as the “Fort Hood 43” — refused orders to suppress protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
By the turn of the 1970s, all this had exploded into a full-fledged, global movement of GI resistance to the war. From military bases in West Germany and Hawaii to Mountain Home, Idaho, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, GIs openly protested the war, imperialism, racism, and military authority. In 1970 and 1971, hundreds of troops staged antiwar protests across military bases on Armed Forces Day, which they dubbed Armed “Farces” Day. Thousands of GIs stationed in the United States, the Philippines, and Japan turned out to see Jane Fonda’s FTA show in 1972, cheering as it mocked the war and military brass (“FTA” was the acronym for the army’s recruitment pitch of “Fun, Travel, Adventure,” which GIs reworked into a protest slogan, “Fuck The Army”).
This spirit of resistance carried over into Vietnam. US troops wore peace signs, grew their hair out, and freely used drugs. Many avoided combat and some outright refused orders to fight. A shocking article published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 1971, authored by Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr, conveyed the scope of the crisis. “The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the US Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States,” Heinl declared. “By every conceivable indicator,” he continued, “our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.”
“It Was the GIs Who Could Bring a Sudden Halt to the War”
What’s less known about the history of the GI movement is that dozens of left-wing organizers — socialists, communists, anti-imperialists, Black Power advocates — entered the military with the conscious intent of building resistance to the war. These GI salts — driven by deeper political motivations, with links to civilian and legal support networks — played a pivotal role in galvanizing the rise of organized antiwar dissent from within the armed forces.
One of the most famous GI salts was Private Andy Stapp, who joined the army in May 1966 with the explicit goal of organizing antiwar resistance from within. Stapp, who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, had grown critical of US imperialism as a college student and plunged himself into the growing peace movement. But he felt he needed to go beyond burning his draft card and attending street protests “to end the slaughter” in Vietnam. He had to enter the very machine that was waging the war.
“It was the GIs who, if they refused to fight, could bring a sudden halt to the war,” he later wrote.
In late 1966, Stapp arrived at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where tens of thousands of troops were stationed. He quickly set about discussing the war with his fellow soldiers in barracks “bull sessions” and shared radical literature that he kept in his locker. Stapp’s rebelliousness against military authority — he snagged not one, but two courts-martial in 1967 — earned him respect from rank-and-file GIs. He soon recruited a tight-knit circle around him to help spread antiwar resistance on base. They linked up with several off-base supporters from Youth Against War and Fascism, a youth group connected to the communist Workers World Party.
On Christmas Day, 1967, Stapp’s group formed a new organization, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU). Its eight-point program included demands like “The Right of GIs to Collective Bargaining,” “An End to Racism in the Armed Forces” and “The Right to Disobey Illegal and Immoral orders.” The organization acquired its own newspaper, the Bond, that would go on to print dozens of issues.
News of the ASU quickly spread, and chapters formed across the world. The ASU was loose and decentralized — essentially, anyone could join by declaring themselves a member. During its run, the Bond printed hundreds of stories of protest and letters from GIs who claimed to be ASU members or were sympathizers. Stapp was eventually kicked out of the army in the spring of 1968, but he became a minor celebrity, with Esquire magazine running a cover story on Stapp and the ASU.
The ASU’s vision of a radical soldier’s union inspired innumerable others to join the resistance movement in the armed forces. One of them was David Cortright, who participated in the GI movement and later authored the classic history, Soldiers in Revolt. Upon Stapp’s death in 2014, Cortright told the New York Times about the impact that Stapp had on him. “To me, it was like a light going off, like a flash of illumination, that maybe I could do the same,” Cortright remembered.
Another famous example of GI salting involved Private Joe Miles, a socialist from Washington, DC, who had been radicalized by Malcolm X and was active in the civil rights and antiwar movement. When Miles was drafted into the army in 1968, he was a dedicated member of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), and he intended to organize his fellow GIs against the war. He read the Uniform Code of Military Justice from cover to cover so that he could try to avoid punishment.
When Miles got to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in early 1969, he began organizing barracks “rap sessions” with his fellow black GIs where he’d play tapes of Malcolm X speeches and they’d talk about war and racism. Together, the circle around Miles, which grew into a multiracial group of black, white, and Puerto Rican troops, formed a new organization called GIs United Against the War in Vietnam that demanded an end to the war and to racism in the military while calling for GIs to be allowed to freely express their antiwar opposition. Among other things, GIs United organized a petition to hold an on-base meeting about the war.
The army eventually transferred Miles to Fort Bragg, and it cracked down on GIs United after the group staged an impromptu on-base rally in March 1969 that attracted dozens of soldiers. The arrested leaders became known as the “Fort Jackson 8,” a major cause célèbre of the GI movement. The YSA and prominent left-wing attorneys came to the GIs’ defense, and the case grabbed national headlines. Like the ASU, GIs United spread to several other bases, and the group’s story emboldened others to resist.
“I Did Something That Other People Knew About and It Tempted Them to Do Stuff”
Howard Petrick was one of the earliest GI organizers against the war. He served in the army from 1966 to 1968 and was at the center of a high-profile defense campaign after the military cracked down on him for his dissent. Petrick, now seventy-seven years old and living in San Francisco, spoke to Truthout about his motivations and experiences in organizing against the war from within the army.
Petrick grew up near Erie, Pennsylvania, but moved to the Twin Cities in the mid-1960s, where he was radicalized and mentored by Ray Dunne, a Trotskyist who helped lead the famous 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis. By the time Petrick was drafted in 1966, he was a dedicated antiwar activist and, as a YSA member, a socialist. He knew fellow YSA member Joe Miles “pretty well” before Miles went into the army.
Petrick did not want to get drafted — it “was one of the worst days of my life,” he said — but he was determined to use his time in the army to talk to other soldiers about the war. When he arrived at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, he was struck by how much doubt toward the war he observed among GIs. “A lot of them were questioning the war,” he said. “It was a fertile situation” for antiwar organizing.
Petrick began quietly talking about the war with fellow GIs and soon hit it off with a few kindred spirits. One of their first acts was to tack up “a little petition” on one of the base’s bulletin boards demanding the military justify the war. Petrick says around twenty GIs signed before it was taken down.
Petrick was soon assigned to the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas, right when the trial of the Fort Hood 3 was taking place, which instilled in him the need to avoid arrest even as he organized from within. “I was going to be a good soldier and follow all my orders, but I was going to speak up whenever I could,” he said.
Petrick was assigned to be a cook, and he started befriending GIs on base, forming a “pretty good group” around him. “I learned right away the guys who were against the war,” he told Truthout.
Petrick shared radical literature that his friends sent him. “We were having meetings of ten, fifteen, twenty guys about the war” a few times a week, he remembered. They debated with pro-war GIs to try to persuade them against the war. “We just looked for any angle that would open up people’s minds,” Petrick said.
Meanwhile, Petrick was attending antiwar rallies in nearby Austin and staying in touch with the YSA. In April 1967, the army searched his locker, confiscated his radical literature, and questioned Petrick on his political beliefs, beginning a months-long ordeal where he was threatened with court-martial. His YSA comrades and the wider antiwar movement came to his defense, forming a “Committee to Defend the Rights of Pfc. Howard Petrick.” He was eventually given an undesirable discharge in March 1968 (which was later overturned), but continued to organize against the war, speaking at antiwar rallies and meeting with GIs.
Petrick’s story filled the GI press and his example inspired other GIs to oppose the war. “The thing I’m proudest of is that I did something that other people knew about and it tempted them to do stuff,” he said. “I got letters from guys all over the country, and when I got out of the Army, I made a tour and I went to Army bases all over the country and talked to these guys in coffeehouses or sometimes in the barracks” and tried “to help them from my limited experience.”
Organizers like Petrick, Stapp, Miles, and others not only helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the Vietnam War–era GI movement, but also left an enduring legacy for organizing dissent and resistance in the military. To be sure, the US military today is in some ways worlds away from the days of the Vietnam War. There is no official draft, which contributes to the larger isolation of the armed forces from civilian society. The US is not fighting an unpopular war that mobilizes hundreds of thousands of soldiers and directly touches the lives of millions of people.
At the same time, a de facto “economic draft” continues to fill the army’s ranks with poor and working people. Indeed, if the United States achieved Medicare for All, free higher education, and a $20 minimum wage tomorrow, military recruitment would lose much, if not most, of its appeal. The armed forces remain ridden with racism and poverty, as well as sexual assault that overwhelmingly impacts the growing number of women in the military. Day by day, the United States lurches further into inter-imperialist conflict with Russia and China.
Together, these factors will likely intensify the feelings of entrapment, injustice, and impending disaster that motivated GI resistance to the Vietnam era. The job of the Left is to relentlessly shine a spotlight on how US militarism and the bipartisan foreign policy establishment threatens the welfare of working people, women, and people of color. If the Left takes this project seriously, it may not be long before the resurgence of salting in the labor movement, and the new mood of labor militancy more generally, also shows up in military spaces.