Washington, D.C. civil liberties attorney David Rein (right) explains the court martial verdict to defendant Roger Priest’s parents April 27, 1970 at the Washington Navy Yard in a case that stemmed from Priest’s publication of an alternative GI newsletter.
From left to right: stepmother Dorothy Priest; father Roger A. Priest, mother Pauline Priest and Rein.
Priest received probably the lowest penalty short of not guilty when he was convicted of two minor charges, given reprimand, reduction in rank and a bad conduct discharge for his newsletter activities.
Priest worked in the Navy’s Office of Information at the Pentagon when he published his mimeographed alternative GI newsletter and faced charges of up to six years hard labor, forfeiture of pay and grade and a dishonorable discharge.
OM had a print run of 1000 and featured anti-Vietnam War articles and information as well as acting as a “gripe” forum for armed service members.
The court martial at the Washington Navy Yard included charges of soliciting fellow soldiers to desert, urging insubordination and making statements disloyal to the United States
The Navy charges were all based around the issue of free speech in the military and would become nationally publicized at a time when GIs were increasingly resisting the Vietnam War, including refusal of orders to go to Vietnam and refusal of orders to fight for those who shipped out.
Upon appeal, the conviction was reversed and he was granted an honorable discharge.
The following excerpts of Roger Priest’s anti-Vietnam War activities and subsequent court martial are from “His crime was speech” by Dale M. Brumfield posted on the Lessons from History site:
The Defense Department reported that in 1970, almost 245 underground presses published at least one anti-Vietnam edition on America’s military bases.
But it was one fearless sailor working inside the Pentagon, Journalist Seaman Apprentice Roger L. Priest, that pushed hardest against military boundaries and caused the Defense Department the biggest headaches.
Roger Priest entered the Navy in October 1967 and was transferred to the Pentagon’s office of Navy Information in January 1968.
“I was anti-Vietnam before I got into the service,” Priest told Washington Post writer Nicholas von Hoffman. “I thought I could live this lie … and I’m not even killing, I’m just shuffling papers.”
Throughout 1968, Priest became more disgusted with America’s role in Southeast Asia, leading him to create the only underground paper published by someone who actually worked inside the Pentagon. It was published on his own time and with his own funds and was one of the few such papers to use the creator’s real name instead of a pseudonym.
“How many more women and children must be burned before the people of the United States realize the horrendous crime they are committing against a peasant people?” he wrote in his paper he called OM — the Servicemen’s Newsletter before later changing it to Om — the Liberation Newsletter.
1,000 copies of the first mimeographed issue of OM appeared on April 1, 1969. The next morning, within 90 minutes of arriving at his desk, he was abruptly reassigned to the Navy and Marines Exhibit Center at the Washington Navy Yard. “I don’t care if they send me to the North Pole,” Priest told the Washington Post, “I’ll write my stuff on ice cubes if I have to.”
Exercising his First Amendment rights while knowing full well he was placing himself in the U.S. Navy’s crosshairs, Priest published a second edition of OM on May 1, then a third one on June 1, each with a press run of 1,000 copies.
Priest also raised the ire of the Navy when he made an antiwar group the beneficiary of his service life insurance and urged other soldiers to do the same. In his case, if he was killed by the Viet Cong in Southeast Asia, the War Resistor’s League would receive his $10,000 payout.
OM was unapologetically blunt. “Today’s Pigs are tomorrow’s bacon” stated one headline in issue two that described Joint Chiefs Chairman General Earl Wheeler. OM called Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird “People’s enemy no. 1” and “a practicing prostitute and a pimp.”
Other statements appearing in the paper that crossed the Navy included “Our goal is liberation … by any means necessary,” and “Shoot a pig!” A headline in another issue read “Be Free Go Canada,” then listed the addresses of groups in Canada aiding military deserters. The article also explained that “landed immigrant status” was available in Canada to deserters.
On June 12, 1969 Priest was interrogated about OM by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Three days later, fourteen official charges were lodged against him, including soliciting fellow soldiers to desert, urging insubordination, making statements disloyal to the United States, using “contemptuous words” against South Carolina Representative L. Mendel Rivers, and worse, not stating in the paper that his statements were his own opinions, and not those of the U.S. Navy.
Von Hoffmann wrote on June 25, 1969, that Priest was accused of “everything that’s happened to the Navy except perhaps stealing the [U.S.S.] Pueblo.” Priest also noticed at this time that he was being followed around by civilians in Ford Fairlanes and Plymouth Valiants.
“… This whole thing hinges on free speech, freedom of the press,” Priest told von Hoffman. “They’re not talking about my military behavior … they’re talking about what I do on my own free time, outside of the Navy, in my own apartment … in other words my rights as an American citizen.”
In July, Priest published a special “Best & Worst” issue of OM in conjunction with a defense fund called LINK, “The Servicemen’s Link to Peace.” On July 21, Priest — holding a sign that read “My crime is speech” — led a demonstration of about 100 people in front of the National Archives building. The next day an article 32 pre-court martial investigation convened at the Naval Air Station in Anacostia.
Just over 100 members of the Navy Ceremonial Guard armed with M-1 rifles, live ammo and gas masks stood watch as Navy aviator Commander Norman Mills conducted the proceedings. Priest was represented pro-Bono by Washington Attorney David Rein.
“If I can be put away for a number of years in prison for the mere writing of words — an act so basic to the founding of this country that it finds its basis in the First Amendment of the Constitution — then my crime is speech,” Priest said in his opening statement. “But let me tell you this: OM will go on, for others will take up the pen where I leave off.”
During this trial, the prosecution admitted that approximately 25 naval intelligence agents were assigned to follow and harass Priest (hence the Fairlanes and Valiants). Furthermore, when a letter found in Priest’s trash was introduced as evidence, ONI special agent Robert Howard testified that the Washington DC department of sanitation provided a truck exclusively for trash pickup at Priest’s apartment building.
Attorney Rein said that this activity alone “brought more discredit on the armed services than anything Roger Priest has done.”
A furious DC Mayor Walter Washington promised a “full and complete investigation” of the sanitation department when director, William Roeder was quoted as saying “If the police ask us to do this, we cooperate with them.” He later denied making the statement.
“City Denies Trash Spying” trumpeted the Washington Post in embarrassing contradiction to the testimony of ONI Agent Howard.
Despite the disorganization of the proceedings, Priest was ordered to appear before a general court-martial on charges that he solicited members of the military to desert and commit sedition, and that he published statements “urging insubordination, disloyalty, and refusal of duty by members of the military and naval forces with intent to impair loyalty, morale and discipline.”
The combined charges carried a maximum sentence of 39 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
During this time Priest kept a low profile at his Navy job, obeying orders and being careful to not break a single regulation. His strategy was to force the Navy to court-martial him only for OM’s contents, which he created on his own time, and not on some extraneous charge that disguised the political nature of his battle.
Not to be held down, Priest published “The Court-Martial Edition” of OM in October 1969.
In it, OM bestowed the “Green Weenie” award to the “25+” people “assigned to gather information, interrogate, follow and harass” him.
“ONI left no stone unturned or garbage can unmolested, nor did they mind to stoop to entrapment in trying to deny the constitutional rights of free speech and free press to Seaman Roger Priest,” OM declared.
By April, Priest had become a hero to other like-minded servicemen across the country. LINK Director Carl Rogers estimated his organization spent over $17,000 in buttons, posters, postage and travel expenses for Priest’s speaking engagements.
“No group like ours,” Rogers warned, “can begin to counter the resources and the manpower of the Pentagon … to harass and oppress dissenters.” Rogers also reported, however, that the court-martial had backfired on the Pentagon, resulting in about 10,000 reprints of OM (far more than the original press run of 1,000) and 10,000 “OM” buttons distributed in a little over two months.
Priest gained support from the infamous Chicago 7 — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner
Priest also gained an unlikely ally when New York Senator Charles Goodell issued a statement September 5 that said in part, “When Roger Priest enlisted in the Navy, he accepted certain well-defined responsibilities as a soldier. He did not, however, forfeit his constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States.”
The court-martial board convicted Priest only on two minor counts of promoting “disloyalty and disaffection among members of the armed forces.” They recommended Priest be reprimanded, reduced to the lowest pay grade and receive a bad conduct discharge, but no jail time.
Thrilled with the outcome, Attorney Rein said he would nonetheless appeal the bad conduct discharge.
On February 11, 1971, a panel of Navy appeals judges reversed that conviction and awarded Priest an honorable discharge, citing the grounds of reversal on a “technical error” by Judge Raymond Perkins where he failed to explain to the court-martial that disloyalty to the Navy or a superior officer was not the same as disloyalty to the United States.
Also, upon review of the case, the reprimand was dropped by Rear Admiral George Koch, commandant of the Washington Naval District.
Priest’s case presented a conundrum regarding military dissent: How does a country impress young men into the army to fight a war they ideologically oppose or even outright despise? Are men so profoundly disaffected reliable soldiers?
An anonymous columnist proposed a somewhat cynical solution off-record to von Hoffman: “You can’t fight imperialist wars [anymore] with conscript armies. You have to use mercenaries.”
For more information and related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsmLuExUi
Photo by Ray Lustig. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.
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