A War-Torn Tale from Home

Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969 By Roger Rosenblatt Little, Brown, & Co., 228 pp. $24.95

A CROSS THE NATION, STUDENTS had already risen up on such campuses as Columbia, Berkeley, Northwestern and University of Michigan. On the afternoon of April 9, 1969, it was Harvard's turn. Filled with that '60s mixture of anger, rage and disillusionment--much of it prompted by the continued war in Vietnam--about 300 students seized University Hall, physically pushing some of the deans down stairways and out the doors. Before dawn, President Pusey unilaterally summoned the Cambridge police to force their way into the Hall and get the students out. Donned in helmets and equipped with nightsticks and tear gas, the police stormed the building.

The students fought back, but eventually all were removed, a number of them bleeding from blows to the head. In the remaining months of the semester, the Harvard Faculty and administration were faced with the immensely complicated task of somehow attempting to prevent the campus from erupting in continued acts of violent protest--all the while trying to determine what exactly had happened in the takeover and how the perpetrators should be disciplined.

This period is the subject of Roger Rosenblatt's insightful new book, Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969. Although he is currently a contributing editor of Time and The New Republic and the author of such books as Children of War, Rosenblatt in 1969 was firmly imbedded within Harvard academia. Having recently received his PhD in English from Harvard, he was the newly minted Head Tutor of Dunster House, a Briggs-Copeland Instructor, and the director of the freshman writing program. Popular among students and well-regarded by his peers, Rosenblatt gained the reputation of "a guy you could go to for help."

The Faculty chose not to press criminal charges against the transgressors but instead to discipline from within, electing 15 Faculty members to a committee (of which Rosenblatt was an integral member) to commandeer this effort. Hearings were held and all of the involved students summoned to attend at specific times, but of course none of them did. "It was all very eerie and surrealistic.... Committee members would sit behind a long table looking at the empty chairs before us." As the group moved toward determining levels of culpability, a student petition made it explicit that there was more at stake than just a diploma from an Ivy League college. Expelled students, in the rules of the day, became highly susceptible to being drafted.

Rosenblatt never flinches from his deeply felt conviction that the students had to be punished decisively for their actions and he suggests personal distaste at their smug and self-aggrandizing conduct. "The students were not only sure they were right; they were sure they were wonderful." But he condemns the adults in the institution as well: he implicates the administration for "overreacting and behaving stupidly" and the Faculty for being strangely apathetic and botching opportunities where they might have been able to respond successfully to the students' myriad complaints. The prevailing sentiment among the Faculty, according to Rosenblatt, seems to have been, "If you want it, take it." He says: "I do not know why, but there was an impulse running under the events of that spring to let things go to hell, and it was acted upon by young and old alike."

What makes Coming Apart so impressive is that while Rosenblatt certainly presents a gripping account of the takeover and its aftermath, he succeeds in doing more than just that. He addresses one subject that a less acute observer might miss completely: namely, the possibility that the riots might have been fueled at least partially by Harvard's tendency to treat its students as the so-called future leaders of the world: "One of the reasons that very few people who had gone to Harvard ever felt any emotional loyalty toward it is that, by design, one's loyalties were supposed to go outward, toward the outer world of power, not inward toward University Hall. What the University called fostering a sense of independence, the students called loneliness; in some instances, abandonment."

Throughout the book, Rosenblatt interweaves the views of those Faculty members, administrators and students who were at Harvard during that period, liberally quoting such luminaries as John Kenneth Galbraith '50, James Q. Wilson '63, Martin H. Peretz '65 and Al Gore '69, including former Crimson executives Michael E. Kinsley '72 and James M. Fallows '70. One can sense the months spent conducting interviews and amassing varying perspectives to present a balanced portrait of how the riots were perceived by everyone, from leftist student revolutionaries to conservative academics.

This was undeniably a ground-breaking period in Harvard's age-old history: established power was thrust aside in an institution which generally demanded--and received--respect for traditional authority. Many of the issues which this campus is grappling with today--minority representation in the Faculty, the University's continued affiliation with ROTC and the desire to assure individual rights without inviting victimization--first boiled to the surface, in dramatic fashion, during and after the takeover of '69.

Toward the end of the book, Rosenblatt writes: "I never felt the same after the spring, and it was not because of anything that I brought about or that happened to me. I did not feel that I belonged in my time, or that I knew my country anymore. There had been a great eruption in the earth, and the grass and rocks were upturned everywhere." It is a tribute to Rosenblatt's skill as a writer that he is able to get on top of this varied landscape and bring it to us with such level-headedness, lucidity and candor.