Memories Of April
The Strike as History (Third in a Series)
When Carl Offner, a seventh-grade math teacher, recently told his students that he had been arrested in an anti-war demonstration he got neither hisses nor applause in response. The class merely looked at him, puzzled. No one knew anything about the war in Vietnam.
In recounting that story, Offner seems bitter. "It's like they (the politicians, businessmen and the media that represents them) are re-writing history," he says. "It's like none of it ever happened."
Ten years ago, when Offner was a third-year graduate student in mathematics here and a member of the Progressive Labor faction of SDS, the war was a national obsession. Pamphlets and petitions circulated through Harvard dorms; students held workshops and teach-ins. Body counts appeared nightly on the television news. The war was, as former Crimson President James M. Fallows '70 recollects, "a reality that couldn't be denied."
That reality created anger and frustration that spilled over April 9, 1969, when some 300 radical students took over University Hall. Early the next morning, blood spilled too, as then-President Nathan M. Pusey '28 summoned hundreds of police to clear the building. Thousands of students struck for days in sympathy with the protesters. It was a week that etched memories, painful and exhilarating, in students' minds.
"They were great days and they were terrible days," Michael S. Ansara '68, a former SDS organizer said at a forum held here last weekend." We didn't end the war. The Vietnamese did. But we helped."
Once the United States finally halted its destruction of Vietnam the self-proclaimed New Left, torn by factionalism and deprived of the war as its impelling centerpiece, dissipated. But contrary to contemporary mythology. Harvard's radicals did not simply cut their hair, don suits and flock hastily to the nearest law or business school. Many are teachers in urban schools, directors of public interest groups, union organizers. Some are academics. Few, if any, now believe that revolution lurks just around the corner. But if they have discarded some of the rhetoric, they have not abandoned their ideals: radical or progressive politics, albeit in different, perhaps subtler, forms, remain central to their lives.
"I feel basically the same now as I did then, only more confirmed, more strongly." Katharyn Gabriella says. A graduate student at Brandeis who lived near Harvard in 1969, Gabriella was among the group that occupied University Hall. She has never run, nor even walked with ease, since then. Police crushed her ankle during the bust and left her lying on the ground. Had two students not tailed a taxi and rushed her to a hospital, she says, she would have lost her foot.
Many former students interviewed recently remain angry about the bust and disillusioned with Harvard's stance toward the world, the nearby communities and its students. Yet they are also grateful for the education they received here, both in and out of the classroom. "It's like there are two Harvards," says Neal I. Koblitz '69, now an assistant professor of mathematics. Koblitz arrived at Harvard opposed to the war in a vague, apolitical sense. Midway through his senior year, he joined SDS.
Claude Bernard '72 underwent a sharper, and probably more unusual, transformation. After growing up in a conservative Long Island town. Bernard came to Harvard believing, he says, "that we should bomb the hell out of the Vietnamese." Within a few months, he found himself joining anti-war demonstrations--the beginning of a leftward course that, he says, has continued ever since. While a graduate student in physics here, Bernard worked during the 1976 presidential primaries for the left-populist campaign of former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris. Most Massachusetts voters, however, supported Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), and then Gov. George C. Wallace or Jimmy Carter; Harris ran poorly.
Other students came here politically concerned, but not politically sophisticated. For instance, Lowry Hemphill, a member of Radcliffe's Class of '72 for two years, worked for anti-war candidates before entering college. But, as she says, she "hadn't exactly been exposed to a lot of political debate in a girls' boarding school." At Harvard she began to view the war in what she describes as "the context of a larger critique of society." She, too, became one of the roughly 300 active members of SDS.
Former SDS members take credit for at least a large part of the political education students received here at the time. "It wasn't just demonstrating and taking over buildings," Offner says. "It was hard work, leafletting, petitioning, bringing out the facts to people."
The work paid off, he says, and by April 1969 the students' mood had changed drastically. "If we had tried to take over University Hall in September (1968), Pusey wouldn't have had to call the cops," he says. "The students would have kicked us out then." The broad support for the strike that followed the bust, he says, is proof of SDS's success in promoting the anti-war cause.
Although there was wide-spread opposition to the war by that spring, there was less agreement as to how to voice it. Even a large number of SDS members and sympathizers initially opposed the University Hall takeover. But those who occupied the administration building believed all other channels had been exhausted. As Koblitz says, "While you were writing your Congressman, the Vietnamese were still getting napalmed. We had to do whatever we could to stop it."
Some students opposed the takeover because it was too extreme; they still claim that the Faculty would have eliminated ROTC without it. Members of anti-war groups, such as the Young People's Socialist League, as well as small ad hoc conservative groups, further regarded the takeover as an abrogation of civil liberties.
The socialist league, led by Steven J. Kelman '70, now an assistant professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, formulated the ROTC policy that the Faculty eventually adopted. "We were the only anti-war organization that was explicitly critical of what SDS was doing," Kelman says. He terms SDS's rhetoric as "strange and off-putting" and believes that, if put into effect, it would have led to a society that was "less decent, less good."
Many SDS members disdain this type of criticism, however. Ansara called people who question the morality of the takeover "short-sighted and pea-brained." He said that "the strategy of disruption and confrontation was necessary to force the issue on the American people."
"Maybe we didn't take human dignity seriously enough," says John Berg, a graduate student in government during the strike and member of the Progressive Labor Party. But, he adds, practically everyone else took it even less seriously in those days.
There was hostility everywhere, Fallows remembers. Students fought among themselves and against the Faculty. The Faculty itself was bitterly divided. "Attitudes like that were not part of the solution but part of the problem," he says. "Everyone was to blame."
On the rare occasions when former foes meet to discuss the strike, such as the commemorative forum at the Kennedy School last weekend, tensions remain apparent. Certainly the factionalism that existed within SDS, and the lack of cooperation between various anti-war groups, are among the reasons the New Left, like previous radical movements in America, failed to become a lasting, influential force. All sides admit to having made mistakes--but participants, on the whole, are satisfied that their position was correct. Many wonder aloud about how the groups could perhaps have cooperated more closely; privately, off the record, they describe their former antagonists as "flaming assholes," "brash and arrogant," and "moral cowards."
The infighting did not permanently scar students but some still cringe at the memories. One former student, for example, angrily recalls the night when members of SDS left a dead rat outside his friend's door. For others, the memory of those days has kept them away from Cambridge. Kenneth Glazier '69 was an anti-war moderate who expected to spend the spring of his senior year playing frisbee in the courtyard. Instead he unexpectedly found himself, as a leader of the Student-Faculty Advisory Committee, chairing the mass meeting at Memorial Church when the strike was called. Caught in the crossfire between the factions, Glazier didn't return to Harvard for ten years. Despite his trepidation, he participated in the Kennedy School forum last weekend. Referring to the heckling and hisses that, as he had anticipated, greeted him at the forum, he says, "It's ridiculous. People still don't listen to one another."
But the vestigial hostilities are only one part of the strike's legacy. Students of the last decade say their experiences taught them new ways of looking at America's role in the world, and led them to conclude that Vietnam was not an isolated episode or an aberration in an otherwise pure history. "The U.S. is still just as militaristic, just as exploitative, maybe not in such obvious ways," Gabriella says. People who do not see the similarities between American policy in Vietnam and its role in Chile, Nicaragua or Southern Africa suffer from "a failure of imaginative empathy," she says.
The spring of '69 caused few people to regret attending Harvard, but still left many aware that Harvard is not only a school, but an institution--big, rich and powerful. Bernard says, "I loved Harvard. But I also saw that it was a big corporation, fairly insensitive to people's needs." Concern for those needs became a major issue in the strike. Students subsequently worked with tenants' groups in Cambridge and Roxbury, with mixed success. The strikers helped pressure the University into building a housing complex in Roxbury; three buildings in that project are named after Harvard students. They did not, however, halt Harvard's expansion, didn't prevent rent increases in Harvard-owned buildings, didn't save houses from demolition. "But failing there doesn't mean we were wrong to fight about it," Berg says. "It just means we didn't do it well enough."
Former students say they learned to think twice before accepting authority, learned to be more thoughtful, more introspective about their lives. Fallows, for example, planned on being a journalist long before the strike. As The Crimson's president in 1969, he sought to keep "journalistic objectivity," a stand which he says earned him the label of conservative even among some of his fellow college reporters. Despite his attempt to keep distance between himself and the events around him--events which make him "glad to have been at college in 1969 instead of 1979, even though it was probably a lot less pleasant"--he relishes the sense of engagement, the emotional commitment and introspection students underwent then.
For many students, this type of psychological confrontation peaked during the takeover. Hemphill, one of the first students to enter University Hall, says, "The occupation seemed very good at the time. It represented, for me, taking a moral stand." The stand proved a costly one. The Committee of 15, the precursor to the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities, forced Hemphill to leave Radcliffe for a year in 1970. She subsequently attended another school, specialized in urban education and is only now returning to Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Perhaps the most important thing the strikers gained is a sense of resolute patience. "Back then, we thought we could go to Washington and watch the White House burn," recalls Judith E. Tucker '69, a former member of SDS and a graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies here now. "We didn't have a whole lot of political savvy. Now we know that change is going to come but it's going to come real slowly."
The transition Tucker describes, like the initial radicalization of students, did not happen overnight. Nor did it affect all students in the same way. Disarray displaced decentralization in SDS: sympathizers drifted away, alienated by the more extreme and violent factions, which were highly visible if not dominant. The war ended but only after Richard M. Nixon was elected for four more years. Unemployment statistics seemed as important as body counts had a few years earlier. Former militants, confused and depressed, retreated from politics for a few years. "The quietness came because people didn't know what to do," Berg says. "It took a couple of years to start thinking about politics again," he admits, adding that even now he isn't quite sure how best to translate thoughts into action.
The activists who were students here ten years ago say they hope they left a heritage deeper than mere nostalgia for excitement. There are, they say, tactical lessons to be learned from that era. Ansara, for example, believes that SDS members among themselves wrongly downplayed the group's successes. "We denied our victory," he says. "We attacked our supporters for fear of being co-opted," he says. "I would love to do what we did then with the knowledge that we have now." Skip Griffin '70, then-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students, believes that blacks at the time "felt the need to provide our own leadership, develop our own goals." Now, he says, the time may have come for broader alliances between the races, the sexes, and between workers and students. Gabriella, too, cautions against romanticizing the '60s. "You've got to look at the past realistically or else you just start again and the world keeps going around in the same circles."
And there are moral lessons to be learned. Ansara told today's students, noted for their complacency: "You have freedom to explore ideas, raise controversial questions. You should appreciate that." On this point, Kelman agrees. "We took too much for granted," he says. "We assumed that young people's burst of idealism was natural. Now it seems like a very precious and not always attainable thing."
Looking back, the one-time student activists can gauge their impact, and they are proud of it. Environmental concerns, the consumer movement, feminism, the 18-year-old vote, and the end of the draft are just some of the changes that the student movement at least helped to spawn. But many also see the conservatism rapidly encroaching on the country today, and find it frightening. They look with hope at the student coalitions arising on campuses today in response to nuclear power, corporate involvement in South Africa, the J.P. Stevens boycott and other issues. This new activism is still only building--but, they note, it is a beginning. Thousands of Vietnamese died, they remember, before more than a few people began to care.