Summer of Love, Summer of War – The New York Times

Attendees of the Human Be-In Festival resting in a field in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967. Baron Wolman/Iconic Images, via Getty Images

In 1967, an ocean away from the escalating Vietnam War, the Summer of Love bloomed with psychedelic colors in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Most of us remember the two events as distinct phenomena: One was a story of firebases, napalm, jungles and the draft; the other of communes, L.S.D., flowers and rock music. In fact, the two were inextricably linked.

San Francisco Bay was often the last place a servicemember would see before heading off to war. By 1967, the United States commitment in Vietnam had escalated dramatically, to 500,000 in 1967 from 23,000 men in 1965, with more than 200,000 shipping out from the Oakland Army Base, an enormous facility located just below the eastern end of the Bay Bridge. It sent more than just men: The Oakland port also sent 37 million tons of matériel to Vietnam during the first eight years of the war.

Young soldiers passing through the Oakland facility often made time to travel across the bay to catch a glimpse of the emerging scene in the Haight, especially once the neighborhood began attracting national attention. Among the hippies and gawking tourists, you might see packs of soldiers and sailors, in town for a few hours on leave. The war infiltrated the Haight in other ways, too — one participant in the scene, Reg E. Williams, wrote in his journal that during an LSD trip, he thought he glimpsed an armada, bound for Southeast Asia, passing through the fog under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Others saw a similarity between the military mobilization on one side of the bay and the cultural mobilization on the other. Paul Williams, a young rock critic who visited San Francisco in 1967 and would soon move to Northern California, imagined the Fillmore Auditorium and other psychedelic rock concert halls as “induction centers” just like the one in Oakland that antiwar protesters targeted, except in these venues, “the teeny-boppers, the college students, the curious adults come down to the Fillmore to see what’s going on, and they do see, and pretty soon they’re part of it.”

While there were differences between antiwar activists and the less-overtly political “freaks” of Haight Ashbury, the freaks also opposed the war. Hippies in the Haight passed out flowers to protesters marching through their neighborhood, when they didn’t join the marches themselves. Psychedelic concert posters from the era show that many of the earliest rock shows — including the one Ronald Reagan infamously condemned on stump speeches when he ran for and won the California governorship in 1966 — were benefits for antiwar efforts. After a long day on the barricades, it seems that even the political activists yearned to get inducted into the Summer of Love.

By 1967, the political and countercultural scenes of the Bay Area, always closely connected, were merging in new ways. The organizers of the January 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes clearly had Vietnam on their mind. “The reason we can no longer identify with the kinds of activities that the older generation are engaged in,” Jay Thelin, a co-owner of the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street as well as a member of the Council for a Summer of Love, remarked to reporters, “is because those activities are for us meaningless. They have led to a monstrous war in Vietnam, for example. And that’s why it’s all related, the psychedelics and the war and the protesting and the gap in the generations.”

Thelin’s brother Ron concurred. “Ultimately,” he wrote of the Human Be-In and similar efforts, “the energy generated in gatherings like this could shift the balances enough to end the war in Vietnam and revitalize many dead hearts.”

When life in the Haight worsened over the course of 1967, as hundreds of thousands of young people made pilgrimages to San Francisco and as harder drugs and hustlers entered the picture, the specter of Vietnam appeared even more intensely. To Chester Anderson, who published the Communications Company broadsheet, the Haight had become “a scale model of Vietnam,” a place where “minds and bodies are being maimed as we watch.”

Some participants even imagined the hallucinogenic drug experimentation so central to the mystique and experience of the Summer of Love as a kind of parallel to the war in Southeast Asia. Darby Slick, guitarist for the Great Society and brother-in-law of the singer Grace Slick, described taking drugs not as a joyous experience but rather as “our Vietnam, the Battle of the Brain Cells, and drugs were the weapons, the transport ships, the airplanes, and people were the weapons too.” The war, present in the Bay Area in a very concrete way, took on powerful symbolic meaning. As a letter to the underground newspaper The Berkeley Barb succinctly put it: “There probably would be no Haight Ashbury without the war.”

Just as the war became a central theme in the counterculture, the counterculture became central to the G.I. experience in Vietnam. By 1967, military leaders were beginning to realize that they had a severe morale problem among younger soldiers, many of them draftees who felt alienated from their older senior officers and confused by the war’s purpose. More and more took to drugs to escape the war’s pressures, aimlessness and boredom. One Army report in 1968 estimated that marijuana use increased 260 percent over the course of the previous year. The armed forces tried to limit drug use through disciplinary measures, but without much success.

More successfully, they turned to a tactic that had worked well in the past: They would provide troops with leisure activities from domestic life to buoy spirits. By 1967, this meant welcoming the countercultural sounds and styles of rock to Vietnam, with the odd result that as antiwar protesters back in the United States tried to “bring the war home,” as the slogan of the time went, the military brought peace, love and flowers to the war.

Of course, the Grateful Dead were not about to join Bob Hope on a U.S.O. tour of Southeast Asia. To address the lack of available entertainment in-country, Armed Forces Radio Vietnam added additional “acid rock” programming in the years after 1967. The Pacific Stars and Stripes correspondent Stephen F. Kroft reported in 1970, “The ‘Sergeant Pepper Show,’ an hour and a half of ‘underground’ music broadcast on Sunday evening over AFVN-AM, has been expanded to two hours” after survey of troops in 1968 had revealed a hunger for the new, countercultural genre of music.

The Entertainment Branch of the Army also developed a program — the Command Military Touring Shows — to audition, organize and support touring soldier rock bands. Performing songs ranging from “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane to the overtly antiwar anthem “War” by the Motown singer Edwin Starr (with its chant “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”), bands like Fixed Water, Fresh Air and the Electric Grunts delivered their fellow G.I.s a psychedelicized taste of home.

Fixed Water was especially popular. In the summer of 1969, as Woodstock took place in upstate New York, the band toured Vietnam. Ersatz-psychedelic posters produced by the military made declarations such as, “USARV Special Services Entertainment Branch is proud to present the mind-bending psychedelic sounds of the ‘Fixed Water.’ ” The band was so well liked that it went out on a second 60-day tour of bases that fall. “Strong and heavy,” the poster read this time, “the ‘Fixed Water’ is the ultimate in psychedelic now-sounds. Prepare yourself!”

The Entertainment Branch even created an interracial “Rock ‘n’ Soul” band clearly modeled on Sly and the Family Stone. Named after a song by that Bay Area band, Everyday People performed around Vietnam during 1970 and 1971, garnering attention for its ability to bring servicemen together for moments of solidarity and collective release despite the racially charged tensions of the military at the time, when a disagreement over whether soul or country songs should be played on a base jukebox could lead to a race riot. In contrast, at an Everyday People concert, “Performers were very ‘together,’ ” as one Entertainment Branch assistant reported, “and succeeded very well in securing audience participation.”

Here was a profound irony: Everyday People and other C.M.T.S. rock bands did indeed seem to raise morale in Vietnam, at least if Entertainment Branch reports, Army newspaper articles, audience evaluation forms and the memories of G.I.s are to be believed. But they did so by producing mini-Haight Ashburys, tiny Summers of Love, within the sprawling American military intervention overseas. Even as the sounds of the Summer of Love were successfully imported to raise morale, never causing G.I.s to stop fighting in any direct way, they also seem to have intensified a profound disillusion with the Vietnam War. As one veteran, John Imsdahl, remembered, “We listened to Janis Joplin and, you know, home music — you know. So definitely, we were — we were antiwar. It’s odd to say that.”

Whether or not the cross-fertilization directly generated antiwar sentiment among the troops or not, the links between San Francisco and Vietnam produced potent contradictions. The photojournalist Tim Page caught these strange intersections in a May 1968 photo: An American G.I. sits ostentatiously on a tank turret, holding a pink umbrella. In his helmet in large letters, he has labeled himself a “hippie.” Another iconic Page photograph from 1968 crystallizes the paradox even more vividly: an American soldier wearing a large gold peace medallion, but the symbol dangles from his neck between a bullet-filled bandoleer. In Vietnam, as in San Francisco, peace and war, dissent and continued American military imperialism hung together — not apart — after 1967.

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