The Few, the Proud, the Spies

Spying on civilians was part of El Toros mission

Photo by Myles RobinsonJarheads and KC-130 Hercules planes aren't the only things gone for good from the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which officially closed on July 2. A small military surveillance operation that spied on Orange County political activists was also mothballed.

According to recently declassified documents released by the U.S. Navy to me earlier this month in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Marine base compiled dossiers on anti-war demonstrators during the Vietnam War, routinely forwarding intelligence reports not only to military higher-ups but also to the FBI.

On May 21, 1966, members of the UC Irvine chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—the anti-war group co-founded nationally by now-state Senator Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles)—and others demonstrated outside the base. Military surveillance team members took photos, filmed protesters, taped the speakers, and recorded the license plates of rally participants.

The base behind the Orange Curtain was an important target for anti-war demonstrators at the time. Just months earlier, in 1965, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Force had landed in Da Nang, South Vietnam, "marking the beginning of large-scale Marine involvement in Vietnam," according to a Marine history Web site (www.geocities.com/Pentagon/ 3026/history). More than 13,000 Marines died and 88,000 were injured in the war, the longest in the Marine Corps' history.

The base's 6th Counterintelligence Team report of May 27, 1966, runs some 66 pages and includes transcripts of speeches and copies of handouts given at the rally six days before, as well as copies of surveillance photographs of the protesters.

On paper, counterintelligence teams spent the Cold War hunting possible Soviet spies that infiltrated Marine Corps installations such as El Toro. They also monitored Marines suspected of being Soviet agents. By the 1990s, declassified Marine Corps documents released by the Federation of American Scientists show the El Toro counterintelligence team was one of only three teams nationwide that specialized in locating and countering "technical surveillance"—Defense Department jargon for high-tech spy gadgets and such. But monitoring and observing civilians—even civilians gathered around the base—were never part of any counterintelligence team's legal mandate.

The El Toro counterintelligence team noted that its "investigation" was to determine the extent of military personnel participation; the extent of the rally's influence on the personnel; the rally organization and its nature; and the identity of personnel participation, if any. However, the remainder of the report is devoted to identifying the "civilians" who participated in the demonstration. Nowhere does the report indicate any active personnel involvement.

The report states that instead of watching the base, a "surveillance team" was stationed at the Irvine train station to observe demonstrators parking there. The spies dutifully recorded the license-plate numbers of a tan-and-gray Volkswagen bus parked there and began taking down the license plates of another 19 vehicles, including two more Volkswagen buses, two Volkswagen "sedans," a Morris Minor, a Volvo, a Fiat and a Renault. There were more Fords than any other make. The spies gave up after the area became too congested.

At 2:16 p.m., the 37 demonstrators formed a straight line and marched from Central Avenue in Irvine toward Trabuco Road. The report identified UCI student Patty Parmalee as an "obvious leader" of the group. It noted that the Marines had a file on her already. By 2:56 p.m., the group had reached the main gate to the base and began passing out literature along Trabuco Road.

The literature the SDSers passed out, which was preserved for history in the file, included an untitled SDS leaflet (about rights under the draft law), another titled "Victims and Executioners" and a "National Vietnam Examination."

At 4 p.m., Parmalee introduced the first of two speakers. If the Marines were expecting a couple of bomb throwers and communists, they would be disappointed. Reading the transcripts, their speeches appear rather tame, even reasonable. Greg Hofmann, identified in the files as representing the UCI SDS, explained to the gathering that "demonstrations of this type are about the only method of political expression left to us," but he cautioned that "as we march, it's very easy to think that I am moral and these guys are all misguided." He suggested that "it is easy to be antagonistic toward people who disagree with you" and called for dialogue: "Talk with them; try and reason things out."

The other speaker, Bill Timmerman, who was from the SDS regional office in Los Angeles, continued in the same vein. "What brings 40 or 50 people out to a Marine base carrying signs that read, 'The U.S. should leave Vietnam' and, 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'?" He suggested that the Marines know the brutality of war "better than we do because they have the experiences that so far none of us has. But I don't think, however, this justifies anyone telling us that we should experience it first before we disagree with it. The more important problem, as I see it, is whether or not what the U.S. government says about the war in Vietnam is supposed to protect us from Communism is the truth or not." He even criticized totalitarian governments. He concluded: "Before we give up and say the only alternative is war, we better be sure there aren't any others. And that I think is why most of us are here today."

Parmalee then spoke, according to a transcript in the released files, criticizing the draft for making the U.S. more "totalitarian" but endorsing a suggestion from the audience of a "universal draft" in which "draftees will have the opportunity to decide whether to work for warfare or peace." She asked folks to write to then-President Lyndon Johnson and their congressmen.

The demonstrators encountered only one person who raised objections to the speakers "during the entire program": an unidentified Caucasian, aged 25 to 30, with a black crew cut, according to the surveillance report.

The surveillance team took "still and motion-picture photographs" of the demonstrators; copies of the photos were appended to the report and "annotated to provide identification." Those annotations, some of which are now blacked out, indicate 21 demonstrators were identified, including a Cal State Fullerton junior, a Magnolia High School student, an SDS member from Chapman College, a Cal State Long Beach psychology professor, a Bellflower High School teacher (who also headed the Teachers' Association), and someone wearing a "dark sweat shirt" who had been recently contacted by the Newport Beach Police Department about "similar activities."

Two names were not blacked out: M.B. Ogden of Tustin, who was identified with his address and phone number, and Parmalee, who "would not give her address" but said she could receive mail at UC Irvine. In the annotation is, nonetheless, her full address in Laguna Beach with telephone number. The notation continued: "She is already quite well-known."

Reached in Manhattan, where the 59-year-old now lives, Parmalee said she did not know the Marines had spied on her, although she was well-known: the local media covered her activities.

Of the 1966 demonstration, she confirmed, "Yeah, I organized that." The goal was to educate the draftees about the war since the base was "so close." "People told us we were crazy . . . the Marines will kill us," she said, attributing the warning to the SDS regional office in Los Angeles. She thought the Marines would throw rocks at her, but the ones they passed along the march route were more shocked than angry; they "ogled" in amazement at the first anti-war demonstration at El Toro.

Her FBI file (which she had received under FOIA) didn't indicate the Marine surveillance, although it mentioned the protest. A comparative-literature teaching assistant at UCI when the school first opened the previous fall, Parmalee and Hofmann, a freshman student of hers, started the local SDS because "there was nothing else going on" in Orange County, which was "such a conservative place." "Everybody was shocked that we would stick our necks out," she said. "We had to take on all the issues" with a group of about 20 active students. Her students were "politically naive," largely freshmen from the first class to attend UCI.

Parmalee said she and her dedicated comrades were "the smart people" who worked together during SDS' heyday, before ideological splits tore the national group apart.

Hailing from Salt Lake City, Parmalee and her parents never talked politics at home, and UCI was really where her radicalism flourished (she had organized a teach-in in Salt Lake City). The UCI SDS also helped start a mimeographed underground paper, Oscar, at local high schools in Orange County and distributed the Vietnam War Examination leaflet throughout the county, sparking news coverage. Parmalee said the FBI came around campus asking about her, telling her department head, English professor Hazard Adams, that she was a "bad seed."

Adams stood up to the FBI, she recalled, but her teaching-assistant contract was not renewed. Adams, who was reached at the University of Washington, where he now teaches, could "vaguely recall" that an FBI agent may have come to see him about Parmalee. "I can't remember what transpired," he said. "If Parmalee's [contract] was not renewed, I doubt if it had anything to do with that. . . . I can't imagine the FBI matter having any effect on what we would do."

But other radical UCI faculty members who had supported SDS also got fired, according to Parmalee. And SUNY Press recently published Adams' novel Many Pretty Toys, which is about a faculty firing circa 1970 in which "some of the events . . . are influenced by what went on at UCI," he said.

The El Toro protest led Parmalee to anti-war work with GIs in Berlin, where she lived for a year. On her return, she helped start the Green Machine, a radical coffeehouse outside Camp Pendleton. She is still politically active; she is now engaged in Nicaraguan solidarity work, the Marxist School in New York and the Union of Radical Political Economists.

Hofmann, whose name is misspelled as Gregg Hoffman in the surveillance file, doesn't remember the El Toro demonstration. Reached in San Jose, where he now lives, Hofmann, a graduate of Newport Harbor High School, does recall his undergrad days, when he co-founded the SDS chapter at UCI with Parmalee. He recalled it as an idealistic, turbulent if politically naive time, and he has especially fond memories of SDS' guerrilla theater group, which staged skits and political theater in Orange County, including protesting Marine Corps recruiters on campus. After being reminded that at one such 1968 event, a recruiter was hit with a water balloon, Hofmann took pains to deplore the occurrence, saying it wasn't a part of the skit. But the liberal administration under UCI chancellor Daniel Aldrich agreed with protesters' demands that future Marine recruitment be held indoors, where students had to seek them out. (Today, the Marines recruit in the open at UCI.)

In a 1969 Los Angeles Times profile on UCI political activists preserved in a FBI file, Hofmann is quoted as being unsure what he would do after college. Criticizing corporate capitalism, Hofmann told the Times: "There just aren't many jobs today that let you be a human being. Everything contributes to the kind of society we have now—the hypocrisy and preoccupation with material possessions that victimize everyone who doesn't define success and happiness in terms of money and status." These days, Hofmann limits his political activism to donations to such liberal causes as Amnesty International. An English major then, he didn't graduate with his comrades who entered UCI's first freshman class; instead, he came back about 10 years ago to finish his degree—this time in philosophy—amazed at how the campus had transformed itself from four buildings to a major university. After editing guitar and graphics-design magazines, he now works for a major computer company.

The report claimed that many participants were "obviously not students," suggesting they could be from the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. The report concluded that no military personnel were involved and that there was no evidence the rally influenced any such personnel. "The departure of the participants at 4:24 p.m. was orderly and without incident."

According to the El Toro base commanding general's July 19, 1966, cover memo accompanying the report, the protesters "failed to obtain the desired publicity," which he attributed to the military's ample warning of the pending demonstration, thorough briefing of military personnel as to the aims of the demonstration, Orange County law enforcement's "cooperation and control," the protest's restriction to a remote area with limited contact with military personnel, "no visible concern" on the base, the remoteness of the base from populated areas, and the "local conservative press."

By conservative, it undoubtedly meant the then-Santa Ana Register, which published two front-page photos on the demonstration but with no story beyond a brief caption: "Pickets at El Toro." One photo showed a protester holding a sign reading, "We Americans Want Peace." Right below one photo was a headline about another protest 3,000 miles away: "NYC Vietniks Sit in Path of Armed Forces Parade."

Spence Olin, then a young faculty member who was also assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at the time of the El Toro demonstration, does not remember that protest, but "I presume my picture is in there," he said in reference to the military dossier. [The photocopies released do not clearly identify anyone.]

Olin, who was subsequently promoted to dean of humanities at UCI before retiring, recalled Parmalee as a "bright" graduate student. A historian who co-edited the now defunct Journal of Orange County Studies, Olin views that initial UCI class as exceptional. "Unlike any subsequent period in UCI history at least, there was a substantial proportion of the students who were prepared to be activists on behalf of what could be called radical causes . . . never a majority, but certainly several hundred," he said.

He attributed the radicalism to the Vietnam War and the "general tone of the times." About the FBI, Olin said, "I remember they were on campus, but I don't believe they ever talked to me. Hazard [Adams] is a man of real principle. . . . He wasn't on the side of the student protesters, but he's a man of conscience, so [what he] would not want to do is undercut them."

Olin believes that period of student turmoil was "influential in the long-term thinking," even of those "opposed to what was going on" in the area of democratization of university decision making. "What the students there now don't realize is the sort of battles that were waged in opening up the process . . . and many departments have abandoned those," he noted.

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