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Harvard Activism '70: Some Rioted, While Others Returned to the System

By William R. Galeota

MAY, 1970 was not a happy month for radicals at Harvard. While ROTC buildings went up in flames across the nation. 350 Harvard students successfully interposed themselves between Shannon Hall and a group of 200-odd SDS'ers bent on burning it down. This spring's student strike tooke up the 1969 symbols- like red fists and "Fight ROTC" chants- but these appeared to have lost whatever power they once had to set masses of Harvard students into motion. The radical leadership of the strike splintered and political leadership passed to a group of "moderate" students and Faculty planning little more dramatic than support of anti-war candidates this fall. Even the Old Mole. the local radical newspaper which had spewed out daily "Strike Specials" for weeks in April, 1969, gave up after two or three specials this spring.

Nor were the radicals comparatively weak only during May. Throughout the year, they proved able only to fight battles, not campaigns. University Hall. Holyoke Center, and the Center for International Affairs were briefly occupied. picketed, or otherwise besieged upwards of 20 times this year, but none of the actions provoked a replay of the crisis of 1969. Radical campaigns started, flared, then halted; disciplinary hearings before the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities were their principal monuments. For the most part, the rest of the University noted the expulsions or suspensions which resulted from these hearings with a nod, and then went back to its business.

In part, this weakness stemmed from divisions within the radical movement. Even during 1968-69. Harvard SDS experienced bitter infighting between its two principal factions: the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) caucus, and the New Left caucus. WSA, led by the well-organized and elite Progressive Labor Party (PL), viewed the New Left caucus's rather diffuse ideology- which centered on support for most all wars of national liberation- with scorn. For its part, the New Left caucus generally felt that WSA's rigid Marxism-organizing for a workers revolution- was inapplicable to present condition. Even during the height of the 1969 strike, salvoes worthy of the worst moments of the old Left flew back and forth between the caucuses. Analyzing April, 1969, for example, the PL newspaper Challenge concluded Harvard radicals had been led astray by New Left caucus members who were, in effect, no more than tools of the Harvard Corporation.

DESPITE such verbal battles, the two caucuses held together in one Harvard SDS during 1968-69, and the combination was potent. WSA-PL provided good organizers- "I don't like PL's ideas but their tactics are usually the best" was a refrain commonly muttered by SDS members at mass meetings. The New Left caucus, on the other hand, possessed more charismatic leaders like Michael Ansara '68, and a looser ideology more attractive to non-SDS students.

Though the two SDS factions complemented one another in one sense, in the long run they were incompatible. At stake were not only specific ideological points but two drastically different approaches to politics. As revolutionaries, the short-haired PL'ers always resembled Lenin: intense, hardworking, and following on ideology which- no matter how far removed from reality- had at least a rigorous internal consistency. By contrast, New Left members resembled Che Gucvara: they sported long hair, waxed as romantic revolutionaries, and stressed ideology less than I got feeling to pick up a gun and fight. The tensions between these two life styles could not easily be accommodated within one organization; the national SDS split in June 1969. Harvard SDS followed suit: it became the property of the WSA faction, while the New Left caucus regrouped as the November Action Coalition (NAC).

The open split made the left's internal warfare public property, and the spectacle was one not calculated to draw new recruits to the radical cause. In October, 1969, Boston PL members even called press conferences to attack their political rivals and flabbergasted establishment reporters by charging that Mark Rudd (former leader of Columbia SDS and now a member of the street-fighting Weathermen) was a real live police agent.

MOREOVER, as a result of the split, each faction moved to strengthen its position vis a vis the other and, in the process, moved further away from the mainstream of Harvard life. Trying to begin organizing workers, WSA members began getting jobs, often full-time ones, as workers at Harvard or in Cambridge and treated the University to the amusing spectacle of seeing its recent graduates sling hash in the dining halls. Members of NAC also tried to find a revolutionary constituency: they searched among Greater Boston blacks, tenant unions, street people and working class teenagers.

The result of this jockeying for position was that Harvard radicals moved themselves into position where they were unlikely to attract continuing support even from those on their immediate right. As spring opened, PL was still preaching the ultimate proletarian revolution, while NAC, going them one better spurred Boston street people to begin the revolution now by breaking windows in Harvard Square.

A teaching fellow on the non-radical left summed up his view of the situation like this: "The sensible people on the left, even a lot who were SDS members a year ago, have nowhere to go. PL has its head wedged as usual, and now the rest of them have gone crazy."

II

WHILE radicals feuded, "moderate students"- a term encompassing virtually everyone outside SDS and NAC- began to reassert themselves as a political force. The academic year 1968-69 had been one of shell-shock for most moderates, As moderates watched the McCarthy campaign's bloody denouement in Chicago and the dismal spectacle of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey competing for the hearts and minds of Middle America. political activity on the right of SDS virtually stopped. Some were radicalized: probably a greater number simply withdrew from politics. This absence of a continuing counterweight to SDS in 1968-69 meant that, when the April crisis erupted, the mass of moderate students became, for the most part, a shuttlecock to be hit back and fourth between radical activists, liberal faculty, and conservative faculty and administrators. "Moderates" flocked to the stadium meetings, stenciled strike fists on their tee shirts, and finally brought the strike to an end by returning to their prior state of political inertia and exhaustion.

The rebirth of moderate political activity came in the fall of 1969 with the Moratorium. The memory of Chicago had dimmed, and if the McCarthy campaign hadn't ended the war, the April upheaval at Harvard hadn't seemed to do too well at that task either. So in October and November, Harvard students flocked to demonstrations in Boston and Washington and flowed over the Greater Boston area canvassing against the war. Though the Moratorium organization- led by veterans of the McCarthy campaign-carried the fall political season, it atrophied during the winter and formally dissolved itself in April, 1970.

INSOFAR as it had any strategy, the Moratorium had aimed to show widespread opposition to the war through large-scale rallies and demonstrations. October and November had fulfilled that goal; continuing the demonstrations in the spring seemed to raise the embarrassing possibilities of declining attendance combined with sporadic post-demonstration violence such as the April 15 Harvard Square riot. In addition, the Moratorium faced the recurring problems of any organization trying to rouse "moderate" students: politics did not rank high on the priorities of the average student, and a crisis was generally needed to rouse him. President Nixon seemed to have taken away the crisis: the war, while it continued, did so in a page five not a page one fashion: casualties declined and withdrawals of troops were announced. At least for the time being. Nixon had taken away the main tool for organizing moderates. In May, he was to restore that crisis: the successor to the Moratorium would spring up, and moderate political activity would reach its highest point since the McCarthy campaign.

The Cambodian invasion- and the speech with which President Nixon announced it- struck raw nerves among Harvard students. "If I feel like kicking in the television tube." said a conservative Lowell House economist, "you can imagine what those guys in NAC are feeling like doing." Four days later, a mass meeting of 2700 Harvard students, Faculty, employees and assorted Greater Boston radicals was in the process of voting for a strike at the University. As the meeting- held in Sanders Theatre. Memorial Hall, and Lowell Lec, and linked by a halting PA system- wound on its way, couriers scurried back to the Harvard Administration's command post in Grays Hall with reports, dismal ones. SDS (or NAC) was planning (had already begun) a march to burn down Shannon Hall (or the Center for International Affairs.) The command post, and most of the university braced itself for a return to April, 1969.

THE mass meeting itself was sharply divided. A large but unorganized group of moderates had come to the meeting: they were willing to accept a strike, but wanted political action during the strike directed outward- toward ending the war-rather than inward against the University. The moderates noisily applauded Dean May when he gave a brief announcement, and remained conspicuously seated when the rest of the crowd gave Panther leader Doug Miranda a standing ovation. In the end, however, they lost the crucial vote of the evening, as the meeting approved, 1770-900 a demand calling on the University to immediately end "defense research. ROTC counter insurgency research, and all other such programs": the passage of this resolution implied that political action during the strike would be directed against the University.

The real impact of the moderate presence at the meeting became apparent an hour later, when SDS and NAC members marchen toward Shannon Hall. In an impromptu debate on whether the building should be burnt down, leaders of both radical groups suggested caution, and revealed they were unsure of their political base. "I don't think that it was good that Dean May was applauded," one SDS leader told the crowd, "I think we should have a march to the Houses to build support," After more than an hour of debate, the crowd drifted off. A day later, the scene was repeated. SDS marched to Shannon Hall, only to be frustrated by a crowd of some 350 other students, most of them freshmen. Some had come on their own: others were prodded into action by freshmen proctors and baby deans. The face off between the two groups raised the possibility of open brawling among students- the one thing Harvard administrators had always implied would be sure to close the University- but after an hour or two of discussion, SDS again turned away.

THOUGH the face-offs at Shannon Hall were the most dramatic instances of moderate student action in the spring. the moderates ultimately won the day in later mass meetings. The first strike meeting had set up a strike steering committee, and had left its mandate largely undefined. The committee then took upon itself the responsibility of drawing up tactical plans for ratification by later mass meetings. Within a week, the strike steering committee was in deep trouble. Enough moderates came to a mass meeting to vote down proposals for further obstructive picket lines around University Hall, and to pass a motion calling for political action to be directed outside the University, and reducing the strike steering committee's power to negligible proportions. The steering committee splintered over the issue: a majority of the committee voted to reject the mass meeting's decision, much of the committee resigned and soon the committee and with it. the radical thrust of the strike- was but a memory.

This collapse of the radical strike aided early organization of another center of political action. Within hours after the Cambodian invasion, the moderate left was getting busy. Anti-war students and Faculty met in small caucuses around the University, and began planning lobbying trips to Washington, summer canvassing against the war, and support for anti-war candidates in the fall. Organizers of the as-yet-unnamed effort wryly admitted that it seemed like a throw-back to political action of earlier years. "Maybe we could call it Indochina Summer," mused Everett I. Mendelsohn, professor of the History of Science, recalling the similar 1967 Vietnam Sumer campaign.

"INDOCHINA Summer" would have been a little too flip, so Harvard Peace Action was the name eventually chosen for the effort. By May 8, the group had shepherded more than 1000 Harvard students and Faculty to lobby on Capitol Hill against the war; after the trip. it began to lay out plans for summer action against the war instudents' home towns. Peace Action maintained an attitude of neutrality toward the Strike Steering Committee: nonetheless, its very existence as an alternate center for political action against the war began to siphon off students disgruntled with the strike's approach. Several hundred signed up with Peace Action to do anti-war campaigning in their home towns over the summer.

As the spring drew to a close. Peace Action was the most successful political show in town. How long it would remain in that happy position was most, however, most uncertain. What impact would non-violent, essentially "within the system" political work have on the course of the United State's foreign and domestic policies? How long would students remain satisfied with this approach, entailing as it does a considerable amount of paperwork, shoe leather, and otherwise demanding tasks? In the end, will Peace Action only provide a new stream of disillusioned liberals for the radical cause? Questions like these were hashed over in the group's Phillips Brooks House headquarters throughout the May. No sure answers could be found: the unsatisfying conclusion emerged that, whatever the deficiencies of the Peace Action approach, no other seemed more likely to work.

That note of uncertainty just about sums up the political lessons of the past years at Harvard. Student political action-whether radical or more moderate-has been largely unsuccessful in achieving substantive goals like pressing the war to an end. Victories have been transient, and the groups which won them have often disappeared within a few months, or turned to bickering with their political rivals. Students as political workers have had little staying power; increasing it, if that can be done, will probably be one of the main preoccupations of activists of all shades in the months and years to come.

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