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Reflecting On the 1969 Student Strike

News Feature

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 1969 student takeover of University Hall, an event that shook the Harvard community to its roots and helped change the way a generation viewed education and authority. Television viewers across the nation saw police raid the building at dawn the next day, and students boycotted classes for more than a week in protest. Today, in the first of a two-part series, a look at Harvard then and now Wednesday, a grown-up generation remembers.

"People back then would stop doing drugs, forget their homework, and come out and participate," recalls Marjorie A. Angell '67-9, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who joined the student protests in 1969.

It's hard today to imagine a time when thousands of Harvard students regularly held vigils and marches to protest the U.S. government's foreign policy; when buttons and banners were in and studying was a sign of political apathy; when three-quarters of the student body would boycott classes to show solidarity with classmates clubbed by police after taking over a University building.

Harvard itself could not end the war in Vietnam, and most students realized it--but they were looking for a way to disassociate themselves visibly from national policy, to bring the issues home to America's campuses. Universities across the country became surrogate targets for anger and disillusionment.

"Students were disturbed that Harvard as an institution did not distance itself from the war," says Professor of History Charles S. Maier '60, then an instructor. Because Harvard did not distance itself from Vietnam--by terminating contracts with the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC), for example--"it was somehow complicit," Maier adds.

Students couldn't fight the president, so they fought the authority around them," recalls one student activist. ROTC was seen by SDS members as the staffing mechanism for an army used to repress popular movements.

The battle at Harvard climaxed with the April 1969 occupation of University Hall--but political activism at the University did not rise overnight. Tension had been growing for several years. In 1967, 71 students pledged to refuse the draft: when Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara came to speak at the Institute of Politics and refused to debate an anti-war spokesman, 800 students blocked his car and McNamara escaped through the University's underground tunnels.

In October of 1967, 300 students imprisoned a recruiter from Dow Chemical, a manufacturer of napalm for use in Vietnam, for several hours in Mallinkrodt Hall. When the dust settled, 74 students had been placed on probation, and 171 received official warnings from the administration.

In December of 1968, 100 students, angered by not being allowed to sit in on Faculty meetings on the status of ROTC, held a sit-in at Paine Hall. Fifty-seven were eventually placed on probation.

But though protest was growing across campus, the student body was not yet unified in its goals or tactics. The SDS was never backed by a majority of students, but it raised issues and debate at a time when tensions were already high.

It took a growing intransigence on the part of the administration, and later the use of force in clearing University Hall, to unify student protest, and to crystallize the political divisions already growing in the community.

President Nathan M. Pusey '28 and fellow top administrators were seen by students--and many faculty members--as overly inflexible and unwilling to listen to student demands. "He was pretty dogmatic in response to challenges to authority," recalls Lamont University Professor John T. Dunlop, who served on the student-faculty Committee of 15, which debated disciplinary action against the protestors and made recommendations on restructuring the University in the aftermath of the crisis.

"Pusey was too aloof, he didn't understand the urgency of the situation," says Maier, adding, "Negotiation unfortunately wasn't in his vocabulary."

In a January 1968 report to the Board of Overseers, Pusey vocalized his hardline stance in a way that heightened the anger of protestors. "Safe within the sanctuary of an ordered society, dreaming of glory, they play at being revolutionaries and fancy themselves rising to positions of command stop the debris as the structures of society come crashing down," he wrote.

But the final straw for most moderate students, and the issue that "radicalized" them, was decision to call in the police to clear University Hall. Before the bust, the occupiers were a clear minority; after, they became "a martyred band that had destroyed the credibility of a university and its decision making procedures," as one observer put it.