Ten Years Ago This Spring
Early yesterday morning, at about 4 a.m., a little group of Harvard undergraduates who would doubtless consider themselves "politically concerned" sought amusement in the Yard. They turned around a few of the chairs set up for Commencement and delivered a few off-the-cuff speeches from the stage set up outside Mem Church. This proved satisfactory.
MAY 1970. Another game in the Yard. Different ground rules. It was called "Capture the Flag" and sponsored by an organization called the November Action Coalition.
For a week or so the previous fall, the NAC had mobilized for a series of marches, pickets and confrontations. There was, after all, a war on. On April 15, the NAC's "Bobby Seale Brigade" split off from a peaceful anti-war rally of about 60,000 in Boston and paid a visit to Harvard Square. A game of sorts ensued there; more than 200 people were injured, windows were smashed, stores (including Saks Fifth Avenue on Holyoke St. and the Harvard Pro) two buildings and two police cars were gutted with fire as guerilla warfare invaded Mass Ave and Mt. Auburn St. Rocks, bottles and the sound of "Street Fighting Man" from a room in Claverly to be sure, rather than M-16s, napalm and black pajamas, but it would do. Tear gas canisters tossed into the Yard--and tossed back--and into Quincy House courtyard. A curfew gave Cambridge police the power to arrest on sight anyone seen walking the streets. The Crimson turned into a makeshift first-aid center as police charges forced protesters out of the Square.
This was more than your every-day neighborhood casual trashing. Norman Mailer '43, speaking in Sanders Theatre a few nights later, had this comment. "Throwing bricks is good for some people and bad for others. The main thing is to do it authentically." Veritas, always. He also said, "Revolutionaries have two options--one is to be militant and the other is to think." An undergraduate observer, Frank Rich '72, watched the Battle of Harvard Square and cared not to debate its propriety or effectiveness as a tactic for ending the war--"to talk for or against violence as a means to get peace or killing as a means to stop killing or the feasibility of starting a revolution at this time seems a waste of effort now." He was, however, left with one overriding vision.
A girl, tripped out on mescaline, stood on Mt. Auburn Street Wednesday night listening to friends analyze the events. But her eyes were open, not her ears. She ignored the clacking voices and muttered, "fatalistic...fatalistic...fatalistic." Tripping or not, it wasn't too hard to look around the streets of Cambridge and see what is coming next. Fatal. That's the only word.
It didn't quite turn out that way on the streets of Cambridge--though 19 days later at Kent State and 30 days later at Jackson State the prediction would prove apt enough--but the comment reflected the tenor of the times. Police shut down Widener and Lamont Libraries after receiving an anonymous bomb threat. We might not always do this, they say, but in times like these we have to. For the hell of it one day, about 15 kids, aged ten to 13 according to reports, decided to have some fun. They stood on the Weeks Memorial Bridge and rained "rocks, bottles and pieces of wood" on the freshman heavyweight crew team passing below. "The kids don't at all understand the seriousness of their behavior," said coach Ted Washburn. This was by no means an act of revolution; it made no sense at all. It was the kind of thing that was happening at Harvard ten years ago this spring.
ARIDE ON the T. David R. Ignatius '72 now works for the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street fuckin' Journal. He used to write about Revolution with a capital R which stood for Right Now and Right here in River City. It was the day after a Chicago jury, under the studious supervision of Judge Julius Hoffman, found five of the remaining Chicago 7 guilty--Seale had already been bound, gagged, hit with contempt of court and severed from the case. The Day After--TDA, for short--15,000 angry protesters gathered in Government Center and about a third of them marched down Tremont St. for some trashing.
TDA started with martial intoxication. It seemed as if we were riding the subway to a war, and needed only some General Patton to tell us that we were gonna meet destiny at Park Street station. Riding the escalator up through the dark who knew what was going to happen? Will the Revolution begin today; heart pounding some part of me churning out anger and bile in amazing degree, and suddenly as I reach the street and see everybody else nervous or flipped out I know that it's not about to happen, and have no idea whether it ever could. But there was that moment in the dark when I didn't know how many people had brought bombs or guns, and whether this might be it.
It definitely wasn't. When the small, brutal battles, "police flailing their pricks," ended, Ignatius wrote, "we are lost, we are angry, it is nothing; we make it out of the park; it is over. It is meaningless and worse, it is every bit as unreal as going to a class or writing about something or doing just about anything except fucking." He thinks of the Scots attacking Rommel in North Africa in a nighttime raid, using bagpipes to freeze the Germans with stark fear, and wonders, "Maybe we needed kazoos, ten thousand blood-curdling kazooers marching down Tremont."
ANOTHER DAY, another subway ride. Joseph D. Bertagna '73, then a freshman and goalie for the hockey team. He's been out in Boston with some friends, now he returns home on the Red Line and gets off at the Harvard Square stop. "I could tell downstairs in the station that something strange was happening," Bertagna, now director of sports information, remembers. "It was too quiet. You can usually hear the traffic and everything from the Square outside, but instead there was this eerie quiet. As I'm walking up the stairs these four guys wearing gas masks rush past me in the other direction and warn me to watch out. 'Jesus, what the hell am I doing here?' I wondered." When Bertagna got outside, lines of police stretched out down Mass Ave, nightsticks in hand, watching, waiting, silent.
They eyed Bertagna suspiciously and told him the only unlocked gate to the locked Yard was the one across from the Union. He walked through a no-man's land on Mass Ave, tightly coiled police to his right, students shouting insults and occasionally throwing missiles to his left. Safely returned to his North Matthews room, Bertagna sat on his fire escape overlooking the Square as the police finally got the order to charge and went after protesters. Police fired tear gas into the Yard and students hurled them back. The whole scene was "an amazing spectacle," Bertagna recalls, "surreal, like a movie." There were battles before his eyes, bonfires, trashing and constant rumors of even more destruction elsewhere. So this was Harvard.
It took Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent atrocities at Kent Sate to get the mass of students actively involved in efforts to stop the war. Four days after Nixon's April 30 announcement, a meeting of 2700 students and faculty members put Harvard, like more than 300 schools across the nation, on strike. They demanded that the U.S. "unilaterally and immediately withdraw all forces from Southeast Asia," that the U.S. halt "its systematic oppression of political dissidents and release all political prisoners," and that "universities immediately end defense research, ROTC, counter-insurgency research, and all other such programs." A Boston-wide rally drew 40,000 to Soldiers Field and 11 of Harvard's most prominent professors trooped--along with hordes of students and others--to Washington to lobby aaginst the war.
They met with former colleague and friend Henry A. Kissinger '50--on the record, to his displeasure. Thomas C. Schelling, professor of Economics, told Kissinger: "As we see it, there are two possibilities. Either one, the president didn't understand that when he went into Cambodia that he was invading another country; or two, that he did understand. We just don't know which one is scarier." Kissinger was nonplussed. He later recalled that the meeting once and for all convinced him that the world of academia, his former environment, was divorced from the realities of government and thus just didn't understand.
MEANWHILE, the strike continued and the Faculty passed a couple of partial measures to free students for anti-war activity. Exams were deferred, cancelled or skipped in most cases, although seniors still had to fill requirements and pass courses if they wished to graduate. Amid the potpourri of distractions the "obstructive picket lines," the non-violent direct actions, the Free University in (until it was hit by fire, at whose courtesy one may speculate) Lawrence Hall, the leaflets, the meetings, the rallies, the hearings of the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (as in, went SDS chants, "get some feathers, get some tar, let's go get the CRR") the constant circulating and recirculating of issues and anger and unity and division, there was still a Commencement in spring 1970. Life went on. But it was an active spring. And when students plaved "capture the flag" in the Yard, one flag said "Veritas" and the other bore the insignia of the NLF.