"The big questions at graduation in 1968 were whether you were going to go, whether you would wear an arm band or whether you would strike," one graduate remembers of a day marked by bitter silent demonstration against the Vietnam War. Few seniors attended the ceremonies that morning and when a heavy rain forced the afternoon speeches inside Sanders Theater, even fewer stayed to listen to the afternoon's main speaker and honorary degree recipient--Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran.
In the weeks preceding Commencement, the campus had met the Corporation's decision to grant the shah a Doctor of Laws and to let him speak with barely a whisper. While William G. Saltonstall '28, then-president of the Associated Harvard Alumni, remembers that he kept his fingers crossed for fear of protests, only a dozen members of the Iranian Students Association of the United States bothered to demonstrate at Sanders. Saltonstall's worries subsided when both students and Faculty in the audience were extremely receptive to the shah's address.
At the ceremony, in fact, the shah's remarks were far from controversial, stressing humanitarianism more than anything else. Proposing a plan for the "Universal Welfare Legion," an international program along the lines of the Peace Corps, the shah spoke passionately against hunger, bigotry, poverty and ignorance. More ironically perhaps, the shah also decried the oppression of mankind.
Throughout his speech, the shah lived up to the generous introduction of former president Nathan M. Pusey '28. Called a "twentieth century ruler who has found in power a constructive instrument to advance social and economic revolution in an ancient world," the shah's message was indeed thoroughly modern. He soundly denounced Holy Wars, which for centuries had been the belligerent reminders of ignorance. Today, the shah asserted, "humanity as a whole has come to realize that all people in the world were created by one God and that everyone is entitled to worship God in the way that he considers appropriate." The shah finished his message to a class embittered by Vietnam with a dose of idealism. He called for the graduates to devote some part of their lives to selfless human services and to live with high ideals and--perhaps more relevant today--holy purpose.
Perhaps the biggest irony of that day was that most students took the University's word that the shah was a progressive and beneficient ruler. "Most people saw the shah as pretty enlightened," Victor Koivumaki '68 remembers. "At the time, it seemed like a plausible choice because there was a real feeling that the shah was advanced." Class Marshal David Marshall '68 echoes Koivumaki, adding that the class day speech by Corretta King, speaking in place of her recently assassinated husband, drew much more attention. But Marshall attributes the absence of protest to ignorance more than passive praise. "Iran was not a country anyone knew anything about," he says, adding, "The first time I heard about the shah was at graduation--Iran wasn't on anybody's personal map."
The issue was Vietnam. "We had the feeling that what the shah was doing was minor league stuff," Marshall explains. "Our lives were on the line with Vietnam." So intense was opposition to the war and the draft on campus that some seniors saw the Corporation's selection of the shah--a figure with no connections to Vietnam--as the administration's effort to "duck the issue." "To avoid problems." Glen A. Padnick '68 reasons, "the University picked the most neutral figure it could."
Pusey today denies this charge and repeats praise of 12 years ago with an added twist. "He seemed sincerely interested in how to promote modernization in backward parts of the world and he seemed to be doing it pretty well," Pusey says, "But I guess he was doing it too well. That was his problem."
Today it seems easy to pick out some clues to the shah's fate that were revealed that day: the small group of Iranian students who called him "oppressive;" the fact that the shah was in the United States to negotiate a multi-million dollar arms deal with the Pentagon; and the shah's remark that ignorance "leaves unutilized a huge human capital." In light of recent events, the shah's speech and the University's decision to bestow an honorary degree upon him seem as ironic as the explanation for his selection one corporation member offered in 1968: "The Corporation grants the honorary degrees with the idea in mind of bringing honor to Harvard," R. Keith Kane '22 said, "Thus we do not choose people who are controversial."