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Meditations on a Quiet Year



The stars are dead; the animals will not look;

We are left alone with our day, and time is short and History to the defeated

May say alas but cannot help or pardon.

The past year was filled with anxiety in its passage. Yet in retrospect it appears to have been a constructive period when attitudes began to alter, and restorative forces have reasserted themselves.

THE CLASS of 1972 studied for spring exams this year for the first time in their college careers. Over coffee in the dining halls, students argued about free speech, or about equal admissions for women at Harvard. But for most, the spring was the reserve book desk at Lamont or Hilles, and writing papers alone in rooms late at night.

Or it has been sitting by the river and drinking beer, or falling in love, or writing novels or painting pictures, or watching the Dick Cavett Show on a color television. But whatever we have been doing, it has been personal and private, and there has been time to think. And most of us have realized that yes, the smug predictions are probably true, and the wave has crested. This is the quietest year at Harvard since Robert McNamara came to town in 1967, and Nathan Pusey's values have been reasserting themselves.

It is one year after the nationwide strike hit Harvard, the Faculty voted examination options that meant we could spend as much time as we wanted opposing the war, and hundreds of students repeatedly surrounded University Hall and prevented the Deans from going to work because they would not give pay to striking workers as they gave grades to striking students. And Harvard no longer seems to be a place where any of that could ever have happened.

The student movement as a whole has been less in evidence this year; but the eerie silence on the Harvard campus cannot be explained only by the forces of national faddism. The student movement here has indeed suffered because it was no longer glamorous; but it has also been smashed by clever repression and by Harvard's institutional identify, one of the strongest in America.

TO BEGIN with, there is the war: it spawned most of the radical movement, and fueled it for six years. Harvard has always been a strong anti-war campus. But the war got lost for a long time this year, and most of us were no longer sure that it could affect us, or that the villain we were fighting was real any longer. While patient bombardiers were dropping tons of napalm, defoliants, white phosphorous and fragmentation bombs on Indochina, Nixon told us that it was almost over, and that he was winding it down. Nobody trusts Richard Nixon-but over the summer, like hypnopaedia, the message began to get through. Maybe he's right, maybe this time he's not lying (it is hard, after all, for people raised on George Washington to realize that the President of the United States is an unprincipled remorseless liar). Maybe if I just sit tight it'll all end.

We had, after all, cut our political teeth on Lyndon Johnson, who sent his killers over to nail the coonskin to the wall. Johnson organized us as effectively as any antiwar campaign, for his defiant cowboy style would admit no doubts or hopes for respite: he intended to win no matter how many are killed or who might protest. Nixon learned from Cambodia that the shoot from-the-hip style was a risk. If he told the people what he intended to do they would get angry; so, instead, he lied, couching plans for victory in the rhetoric of withdrawal, calling mass murder a decrease in the level of action.

Fighting Nixon this year was like pursuing a shadow: his outrages were so transient, so ambiguous, that one could never land a punch before the opponent had disappeared. The bombing of North Vietnam this fall was a nightmare of impotence: it began on the Friday before the Yale game (and before major football games across the country) and was over, temporarily, before the sleepy celebrants woke up on Sunday. How could students mobilize against something that had already ended? And so, somehow, he had wiped out the major gain of the antiwar movement over the past six years, and he could bomb the North whenever he felt like it.

The invasion of Laos was another nightmare of shadow and substance: no one knew when it had begun, no one explained why it was going on. Nixon refused to appear on television and organize us with smug face and hackneyed rhetoric into a movement that, whatever its internal political differences, hated him and wanted, above all, to destroy him and all he stood for. And we were confused, and tired, and we could not understand. And it seemed better to wait for spring.

AND THEN there was the Movement: in the nation, the Panthers were being crushed by legal repression. The government was not dramatic: the murder of Fred Hampton had proved almost counterproductive, so it chose to paralyze the Panthers with hearings and indictments and briefs and writs; to use as weapons all the legal trappings which most students still felt, under it all, were safe nets to catch us when we fell. And the Panthers fell apart.

And there was the Weather underground. Who could relate to a group of faceless terrorists? The bombing of the Center for International Affairs came and went, and nobody was particularly unhappy or particularly glad: it had nothing to do with us.

At Harvard, there was SDS and its guiding force, the Progressive Labor Party: this year's freshmen met the movement at Harvard only in them. Now as never before their rigid ideology seemed stultifying and irrational, their activities seemed clamorous roboticism, their causes obscure: as the bombs dropped on North Vietnam, SDS held a demonstration against Harvard's system of parking fees for workers; as crowds marched to Boston Common to protest the invasion of Laos, SDS demonstrated at Holyoke Center against Harvard's apprenticeship program. Many felt that if SDS was the best that radicalism at Harvard could provide, even the stacks of Widener would be more fertile ground for finding a viable sense of self, and a vision of the good and true life.

The November Action Coalition (NAC)-the radicals who once would have formed the New Left Caucus of Harvard SDS-had fallen apart after the spring strike. NAC had been a strong city-wide campus-based radical group which had organized Boston-area students to support the Panthers; it achieved prominence when a NAC-organized march from the April 15 Boston Common antiwar rally last spring exploded into streetfighting in the Square. Many of the NAC leaders left Harvard-voluntarily or involuntary-after the spring of 1970. Fall found them organizing in small collectives or trying to get jobs. The successor group, the Radcliffe-Harvard Liberation Alliance, held meetings and showed films, but never staged a demonstration of any kind.

THE "Counter Teach-in" and its aftermath showed dramatically the state of Harvard's movement. Radicals had felt deeply the galling fact that they had done nothing of note all year to stop the carnage in Indochina; most felt that the movement was dead, and that its enemies-a White House aide and puppet officials of the South Vietnams and Thai governments-were coming to town to dance on its grave before the eyes of the world and the cameras of USIA.

What wonder then that pure blind rage-the feeling that " there is some shit I will not eat " -drove many into an action that both unjust and stupid.

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