Mill Street: Chronicle of a Confrontation

McNamara Visit In Retrospect

It was already growing dark when Barney Frank '62 began to walk across the Yard to the Law School. Frank was tired, angry, and dejected. Twenty minutes before, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had been engulfed by angry students; it had been a humiliation for Frank as much as for the Secretary. For three weeks he had been at the center of preparations for the McNamara visit. He had arranged the time schedule. He had selected the 120 undergraduates who would see the Secretary. He had talked with Students for a Democratic Society. He had made arrangements with House Masters, cleared agreements with the Harvard Administration, and coordinated plans with the University Police. He had aimed all his efforts to prevent what had happened just twenty minutes before. Now as he walked to rejoin the Secretary of Defense at the Law School, his sentiments were to the point: he swore.

Clearly, this had been Barney's Baby, and he took the protest in a very personal way. The cautious hostility he had for SDS now moved closer to hate. He would say later that he believed the Harvard campus was faced with a monumental issue: whether such blatant violations of personal liberty were to be tolerated. For his part, he did not see how they could. SDS had shown itself to be profoundly "undemocratic," and their tactics deserved to be damned until they were discredited. He might have liked to undertake that fight, but as associate director of the Kennedy Institute he was not about to do it and thereby jeopardize the Institute's program. Yet, there was more to his belligerence than simple disagreement. There were the efforts of the last three weeks, and the frantic attempts to avoid embarrassment for McNamara. Three weeks of futility. Frank knew that this time he had been beaten.

His feelings may have been singular only in their intensity. Other people were--or would be--thinking similar thoughts about the afternoon's events. For the meeting of McNamara and his critics on Mill St. was not an ordinary occurrence for Harvard. It resembled no other political protest in the College's recent history. Previous demonstrations had been mild in comparison. The most memorable, perhaps, was George Wallace's visit to Cambridge in the fall of 1963. It provoked a large demonstration on Cambridge Common and picketing around Sanders Theatre. All that happened then, however, was that someone let the air out of the tires of Wallace's car. And when Madame Nhu arrived a few weeks later, angry critics marched outside Rindge Tech shouting loud enough to interrupt her speech inside several times. But neither of these incidents was anything like what happened last Monday. The reaction to McNamara caught the College's top administrators by surprise and left them cold with indignation.

Beyond Bounds

Sitting in Dean Watson's office less than an hour after the last students left Mill St., Watson and Dean Monro deplored the afternoon's events. Over and over they emphasized that this demonstration had exceeded the bounds of normal, permissible, and predictable behavior of Harvard students -- the two men simply hadn't expected it. Neither had been at the scene, and as they received more and more information, they became increasingly offended. Monro said initially that the matter would not go before the Administrative Board, because the College disliked judging any sort of political protest. The next day, having seen television films of the demonstration, he brought it before the Board. There would be no punishment now, he warned after the meeting, but "If this happens again, action will be taken."


It was only then, more than 12 hours after the Secretary of Defense left Cambridge, that the Administration of Harvard College really became involved in the McNamara visit. Before that, almost everything had been handled by the Kennedy Institute of Politics. The weeks preceeding the Secretary's arrival had not been inactive ones for the Institute. A new experimental program, designed to bring undergraduates into closer contact with public figures, was to begin, and a long list of details had to be attended. More importantly, there was political groundwork to be done if the Secretary's visit were to be successful. The Institute was fully aware that its first "honorary associate" was a controversial figure and that his presence would probably stimulate protest.

Almost three weeks before McNamara was scheduled to arrive, David M. Gordon '65, who had worked for the Institute of Politics last year, began meeting informally with Michael S. Ansara '68, one of the leaders of SDS. During most of the controversy between SDS and the Institute, Gordon was to play what Barney Frank called a "double-agent role with the consent of both sides." He was always on good speaking terms with Ansara (and therefore privy to most of SDS's plans), but his primary purpose was to protect the Institute and insure the success of its program. There was a good reason why he should have been partial to the Institute: Gordon himself had worked out the framework for the Institute's undergraduate activities during the previous year.

Meeting informally every few days, Gordon and Ansara reviewed most of the preliminary issues. Gordon laid out his conception of the Institute and the purpose of the undergraduate program. He was particularly worried that SDS might choose to disrupt McNamara's meetings with small groups of 50 undergraduates each, and that the meetings' usefulness might be destroyed.

Ansara, like many members of SDS, doubted the value of some of the Institute's programs. He was not convinced that public figures would speak candidly even in small groups and even if their remarks were "off-the-record." And he thought it important that the honorary associates be questioned publicly about current issues within their purview. Ansara believed these arguments in the abstract; and in McNamara's case they had a special persuasiveness. McNamara engendered hatred as a symbol of the Vietnam war; his stiff personal style alienated people even more. Ansara assured Gordon that most SDS members would insist on some sort of demonstration. Nevertheless, he simultaneously pledged to do everything he could to avoid a disruption of the Secretary's private sessions with students. He was not enthralled by the meetings, but neither was he convinced that they were entirely useless. Certainly, they could do no harm and would not spoil SDS's plans.

Ansara then produced a concrete proposal: would McNamara be willing to debate an anti-war spokesman at Harvard? If he would, then a demonstration might be unnecessary. Gordon doubted that the idea would be acceptable, but said he would check out the proposal with the Institute's directors, Richard Neustadt and Frank. The answer was, as expected, a firm no.

All this happened before the idea of a debate was broached publicly. It happened before SDS decided to make the challenge official and before petitions demanding a meeting between McNamara and Robert Scheer, editor of Ramparts magazine, were circulated throughout the College and Radcliffe. But once the petitions were distributed, they collected more than 1600 names, including those of some 50 Faculty members and more than 90 teaching fellows. This put some punch behind the proposal, and it also probably began the gradual alienation of SDS and the Institute. For, by going to the community, SDS had informed the Institute -- that is, Frank and Neustadt -- that it intended to pressure them into either accepting a proposal which had already been rejected or suffering unspecified consequences. Both Frank and Neustadt, who consider themselves to be fair but hard-nosed individuals, were antagonized by this approach.

Bloody Bones

But SDS had chosen the tactic for a number of reasons First and foremost there was McNamara himself. The antipathy held towards this man by many students -- "radicals" and some non-radicals as well -- is hard to describe. It was voiced on Monday afternoon in the anguished cries of "Don't you care?" that answered the Secretary's admission that he didn't know how many civilian casualties U.S. troops had caused. Many students who heard McNamara Monday could only describe him in superlatives -- "one of the most callous, arrogant men I have ever seen," said one. So intense was two students disgust that they were prepared at first to dump bloody bones at the Secretary's feet as a gesture of protest.

McNamara's presence, it could be reasonably said, amplified the anti-war sentiment already present at Harvard. Even if some of SDS's leaders had been predisposed not to demonstrate, they would have been hard pressed to resist the will of the rest of the organization.

There were other less ideological, but still very important reasons to protest. Harvard, over the last two years, has been a frustrating place for SDS. The organization has never been able to achieve a truly wide impact; no issue has seemed clear-cut enough to attract strong, long-term support. SDS members complain about the apathy of the average Harvard student. They often yearn for something closer to a Berkeley. The Harvard student body doesn't seem to get stirred up, and the Harvard administration is difficult to offend.

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