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."