Around 10 p.m. on a spring evening in 1968, police hauled Oliver M. Lee `51 out of Bachman Hall on the University of Hawaii (UH) campus.
For two days, Lee and about 150 others had been sitting in UH's administration building. Most of the others were students. Lee was an assistant professor of political science--and the reason the students were there.
He was a radical, a Marxist. In the Vietnam War, he sided with the Viet Cong, admiring the peasants' "revolutionary optimism" and decrying the US government's "imperialism." He had helped found the Hawaii Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The group held small protests--never more than several hundred persons--but once they burned President Lyndon B. Johnson in effigy.
A year before the sit-in, Lee had been offered tenure. But then an anti-war student group published a flyer against the draft urging radicals to infiltrate the military and "eliminate" officers. Lee was the group's faculty advisor, and when administrators found out, they promptly revoked his tenure offer and said 1968 would be his last year at UH.
The sit-in was a demonstration of support for Lee as a professor. Ultimately, he got his job back, but only after the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) threatened to censure the University of Hawaii for violating a professor's rights.
"The great, great thing is that because of Oliver Lee's character and his sticking to his guns ... the First Amendment cannot be touched at the University of Hawaii," says George K. Simson, a professor at the time of Lee's case in the English department.
Today, Lee says he feels vindicated, having kept his post and seen public opinion turn in his direction. But back then his political activity as well as his opinions were repeatedly challenged, by students and by the government. When Lee requested a copy of his FBI file in the 1970s, he received a 690 page file, including accusations from past students and day-by-day accounts of Lee's activities.
Becoming a Radical
Before he was 20 years old, Oliver Lee had lived in Nationalist China, Nazi Germany, the British colony of Mauritius and Iran under the Shah's rule.
The son of a German mother and a Chinese father, who divorced when he was just three years old, Lee left Germany for China two years before the Second World War broke out. He lived in Mauritius in safety during the war, then followed his father, a Chinese diplomat, to Iran for just a year.
While Lee says he remembers select moments from each of the regimes, but his recollections are nonpolitical and decidedly not those of a radical. (He recalls believing the Hitler Youth to be "more or less a boy scout kind of thing" that wouldn't let him in because of his Chinese ancestry).
When he landed in New York City in 1946, Lee says he already held liberal democratic leanings. Though he was not naturalized and could not vote, he supported President Harry S. Truman's reelection and, later, Adlai E. Stevenson's campaigns.
But over the next two decades, his liberal democratic roots gradually turned into ardent anti-war activism.
It began soon after college with disgust at McCarthyism. By the early 1960s, having spent a decade studying international relations, Lee began to build his case against United States foreign policy. By the Vietnam War, he was a self-described radical.
"Harvard didn't radicalize me," Lee says.
But Lee's concentration in Government did introduce him to Chinese foreign policy, a subject he studied by sitting in on seminars with renowned China scholar John K. Fairbank `29.
Lee recalls being impressed in particular by one of the guest lecturers, named Owen Lattimore, a prolific Asia scholar at Johns Hopkins University.
In 1950, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy accused Lattimore of being the Soviet Union's top spy in the United States. Though later cleared of all charges, Lattimore was called before McCarthy's Senate committee for questioning.
Lee traveled to Washington to watch a couple of the hearings and recalls that Lattimore held his ground "calmly and courageously."
"That was part of my early political education," Lee says. "I felt very negative about the senators. I saw them being bullying. I knew enough about Lattimore's background to know that the senators were full of baloney."
Lee followed his time at Harvard with graduate work at the University of Chicago, but he says that period didn't radicalize him either.
It was not until he began his first teaching job at the University of Maryland in 1958 that Lee moved decisively to the far left. Many of Lee's colleagues and graduate students in Maryland were fairly leftist, he recalls, and in the late 1950s, anti-Communism was less virulent than earlier in the decade.
A series of US foreign policy moves--which Lee calls "American shenanigans"--left him disillusioned with the American government.
First, Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959. In response to the takeover, the US imposed a trade embargo.
Of Castro's revolution, Lee says, "I felt good about it, and I felt negative about the American government."
Then came the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. American support of right-wing generals in Laos further eroded Lee's trust in the government.
By this time, Lee was teaching and writing about Chinese and Soviet foreign policy. His opinions went against what policy-makers and many scholars were saying at the time.
One of his early publications, for instance, was an article in Nation magazine entitled "The Myth of Chinese Communist Aggression."
By this time, he recalls, he would sometimes be asked if he was a communist. His answer was always no. He endorsed Marx and Lenin's writings, but wasn't prepared to espouse the entire communist ideology.
In his classes at Maryland though he would regularly praise the Communists' foreign policy, or at least justify it. He insists his presentations were "professional and factual," but some of his students thought otherwise. They wrote letters to the FBI and sent copies of his handouts to the Bureau. Lee would first learn of his students' letters when he asked for his file.
Showdown in Hawaii
Lee moved to Hawaii in 1963 to take a temporary teaching position at the University of Hawaii (UH). The temporary job was extended twice and, in 1967, the department voted seven-to-one to offer Lee a permanent post. He received a letter of intent from the university granting tenure.
Within a week, it had been revoked.
In the intervening days, an anti-war group called the Student Partisan Alliance (SPA) had distributed a statement on the draft advocating that anti-war activists join the armed forces and then encourage desertion, destroy weaponry, divulge classified information--and even "eliminate officers and non-coms in combat."
Lee was faculty advisor to the group. He says he supported the SPA's position on the war but felt killing officers went too far. Nevertheless, on the basis of some informal reading of Supreme Court decisions on sedition and the First Amendment, he assured the students they were on sound legal ground.
When news of the flyer hit the presses, Dean of the College W. Todd Furniss and President Thomas Hamilton withdrew their offer of tenure and said Lee's appointment would be terminated at the end of the year.
Throughout the process, administrators defended their action and accused Lee of ignoring "academic responsibility."
"The protections of academic freedom," Furniss told the faculty committee, "do not and were not meant to extend to irresponsible behavior by a faculty member."
Robert E. Potter, who was an associate dean at the time, defends President Hamilton against charges that he disregarded the right of free speech.
"Hamilton was a strong supporter of academic freedom," Potter says. "Along with that academic freedom, there must be the responsibility to use that freedom wisely."
However, in December 1967, the hearing committee returned its verdict: the university had erred in removing Lee without due process and been unjustified in revoking its tenure offer.
Within 24 hours, President Hamilton announced his resignation.
Neither the resignation nor the committee's verdict got Lee his job back. Nor did the student takeover of Bachman Hall in support of Lee's cause that spring. Lee joined the sit-in on the second day and was carried out of the building that night as one of 153 persons arrested by the police. After getting bailed out, Lee and the protesters returned to Bachman and camped out for nine days before folding their tents.
Lee's battle looked lost until the fall of 1968 when the powerful American Association of University Professors weighed in on the case. At its convention that year, the group said UH had violated Lee's academic freedom when it revoked his tenure offer.
Under pressure from the AAUP, the Board of Regents reinstated Lee's tenure.
'I would be right there'
Lee still speaks of the tenure battle with victory in his voice and says many in the university remained supportive throughout the struggle.
"A lot of them felt the victory was a victory for academic freedom," he explains. "Rather than hurting the university, it was benefiting the university."
But when he retires this month, after 38 years at UH, Lee remains an assistant, not a full, professor and so will not be called "emeritus"--something he blames on his earlier activism.
After the controversy, students continued to take Lee's classes on American foreign policy and US-China relations, Lee says, and he suspects some of them came because of his reputation.
He continues to organize protests on occasion, having found a "good many causes over the years." Last month, he walked the picket line during the two-week UH faculty strike. When the Asian Development Bank held its annual meeting in Hawaii, Lee was one of about 600 protesters.
Lee laments the loss of "excitement" and the "sense of efficacy" that was present in the 1960s though, saying the results of recent protests have been "not terribly impressive."
He writes newspaper columns--on Taiwan, Tibet, Iraq, Kosovo and other topics--though fewer these days. But he insists that age has not mellowed his activism.
"There hasn't been the kind of outrage in American foreign policy that there was in the Vietnam years, not so massive and not so long-lasting," he says.
As for longing to return to the activism of the Vietnam era, Lee says "God forbid" there be another such war. But, he adds, "if it were to happen, I would be right there."