Rebel With a Cause

Vietnam and Student Unrest: A Profile of Michael Kazin

Courtesy TIMOTHY G. carlson

April 9, 1969: Michael Kazin ’70, co-chair of the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, stood in University Hall with his hand raised after students took over the building.

It’s an April night in 1969. Richard Nixon was elected president this past November, replacing Lyndon B. Johnson. Later this month, after 14 years of war, the number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam will peak at 543,400 men. In December of this year, a draft lottery—which will determine the order of conscription through a random drawing of birth dates from a jar at the Selective Service Headquarters—will be held for the first time since 1942.

In the night, 300 students gather in front of the Loeb House, home of then-University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28, and look on as Michael Kazin ’70 affixes a list of demands to the door. At the top of the list is the expulsion of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps—a program that to anti-Vietnam students represents the administration’s complicity with the war effort—from Harvard’s campus.

Tomorrow at noon, students, with Kazin among them, will break in and occupy University Hall, expelling administrators and nonviolently holding the building until 3 a.m. The Boston Globe will estimate that, at one point, as many as 500 students are inside the building.

“It was more than an adolescent rebellion,” Kazin would later reflect. “We did not aim simply to desecrate the temple. We were fighting to stop a war.”

In the early hours of April 10, 400 city and state police officers, armed with billy clubs and Mace, will break in and arrest about 100 demonstrators. Though most will face penalties no more severe than a $20 fine, the occupation—and the administration’s decision to engage the police—will have more lasting consequences for the student body, including the expulsion of several undergraduates, a massive boycott of classes, and a ten thousand-strong rally lasting several days at the Harvard Stadium. The protesters will achieve their goal of ending the University’s support for ROTC shortly thereafter.

For Kazin, who will go on to become a history professor, writer, and prominent leftist political thinker, it’s not a bad way to make history.

Kazin was a junior at the time and one of three co-chairs of Harvard’s chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, which concerned itself with 1960s-era hot topics throughout the decade—everything from sexual mores to the plight of the underprivileged to nuclear disarmament. Kazin, however, was most concerned with the draft and with ROTC, which, prior to its expulsion from campus, offered course credit to participants.

This was Harvard, though, not Berkeley, and so what had exploded into the Free Speech Movement in 1964 in California took on a slightly different temperament. The plight of the working people was never the primary concern; instead, military issues, especially with the draft looming over graduating students, were at the forefront of student radicalism. Many Harvard students, Kazin included, were also cautious in light of events that transpired in the earlier part of the decade.

In 1968, for example, Harvard Divinity School students had begun to shelter Paul Olimpieri, a Marine resisting the draft, in Andover Chapel, claiming that he was serving an “authority higher than any political government or military organization.”

In September of that year, students proposed setting up another sanctuary for resisters and deserters in Claverly Hall—a move that was vetoed by Kazin and the rest of the SDS.

“In the end we would be dealing with punishment and the free speech issue instead of with the real issues of resistance,” Kazin said at the time.

“The Divinity School’s appeal to higher conscience is a bit too individually oriented,” he clarified. “The war and American foreign policy are unjust, and everyone should be resisting.”

In this idea of general resistance—what Kazin had earlier called “mass protest”—lay the seeds of his later career.

His interest in the welfare and intentions of the “masses” went beyond ending the war in Vietnam. Upon his election as co-chair of SDS in February of 1969, Kazin voiced his intent to not only abolish ROTC, but also to ally with working people in Cambridge to curb rising property rent. While Harvard undergraduates had attempted to unite with the working class earlier in the decade, they had met with mixed success. In one better-known incident, students attempted to organize meat packers at the Haymarket, only to be jeered off the premises.

But Kazin persisted in addressing the needs of the larger community during his time at SDS, demanding among the list of student demands that April that the University not tear down residential housing to make space for a new medical complex.

Kazin continued on from Harvard to join the Venceremos Brigade, a band of several hundred students who traveled to Cuba in 1970 to work with farmers harvesting sugar cane to help them meet Fidel Castro’s ambitious goal of reaping ten million tons that year.

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