A Parting Shot

The last veteran of the American Civil War died on December 19, 1959. His name was Walter Williams and he claimed to have served as a foragemaster with the Confederate Fifth Cavalry under General John B. Hood. He survived the last Union veteran by nearly three years. Shortly before he died, he was asked about the war. "It didn't settle anything," he said.

When the Class of 1972 graduates in June, the last organized group of undergraduates which participated in the Harvard strike of 1969 will have left the University. And so ephemeral are the politics of Harvard's undergraduate student body--and so great the self-willed forgetfulness of the larger institution--that the metaphor of the last veteran, outlandish as it seems, is not totally inapt. When we leave, the bonds and rifts which the strike set up between us will vanish, and the last few remnants of a collective mind which at odd moments during that battle seemed fused into one inchoate but unanimous rage will be atomized. For most, the strike will become something they did at college. It will be a historical phenomenon.

For those in the classes below, this is probably one of the last lectures they will be subjected to about the meaning of a bizarre and murky struggle now three years in the past. It may be difficult for them to understand the sense of loss which I feel at this passing unless they realize that for me--and for many of those who participated--the strike was the most important experience of our lives. In countless small ways, the insights and ideas which came to us during April of 1969 still govern our thinking and our daily living. Affiliations, friendships, and hatreds which we formed then are still compelling, though we are now quite different people than we were when we stood at the steps of University Hall, or in Memorial Church, or in the end zone of the Harvard Stadium.

And so I would like to make some assessment of the strike as a historical phenomenon. It is no longer worthwhile to view it as living experience, for Harvard, like a river, is carrying its disruptive elements to the sea. The University has emerged unscathed; this being true, we must ask ourselves what meaning and result our strike had.

To begin with, we should view it as a concrete political struggle. Administrators, parents, professors, and psychiatrists have expended a great deal of effort to cloud the fact that the strike was fought for a group of specific demands. The major demands were three:


1. We demanded that Harvard abolish its ROTC program by breaking all existing contracts with the Department of Defense and not entering into any new ones. It seemed not unreasonable to ask that Harvard refuse to allow the American military to train its students to murder Indochinese with rifles and cannon and bombs. We won a victory against ROTC. Col. Pell packed up and went back to the Pentagon; Shannon Hall is now a day-care center.

But the victory is probably fleeting, Princeton, Brown, and Dartmouth all had their revolutions against ROTC too. But now, sensing that the coast is clear, the men who run these universities are openly considering inviting the military back on campus. Given the quiet that reigns at Harvard, it seems likely that tin soldiers with toy rifles will be marching here again quite soon.

And in a larger context, the triumph over ROTC meant little. At most it gave us a good feeling to have destroyed the crudest connection between our University and the war machine. But our strike did nothing material to slow up the flow of soldiers and pilots to Indochina: faced with loss of certain Ivy schools, the Pentagon quietly moved into colleges which it had previously considered unworthy and revamped its student training programs so that they would not require term-time campus training. And the abolition of ROTC left untouched the many more important ways in which Harvard serves the military. They have been detailed many times before; let it stand that a University which holds a chair for Henry Kissinger and harbors Samuel Huntington, Ernest May, and Roger Fisher cannot be said to have disengaged itself in any way from the war.

2. We demanded that Harvard drop its plans to demolish certain low-income housing units on University Road and near the Medical School's Affiliated Hospitals Center. Faced with pressure from students and tenants--and embarassed by a clumsy lie by its President--the Administration changed its plans. The housing is still standing; in the medical area, moreover, continued agitation by tenants and medical students has forced important concessions to the tenants' union there.

But again, this limited victory has not changed matters much. Harvard continues to view its tenants--and, indeed, most of the people of Cambridge--as chattel to be uprooted and driven out at will. Last spring's dispute over the use of the Treeland site illustrates nicely the arrogant, feudal paternalism with which Harvard manipulates Cambridge and its neighborhoods.

3. We asked that the Black Studies program be set up according to the agreement made earlier in the year between Harvard and Afro. Few people now remember the remarkable duplicity exhibited by the Administration in planning the Afro-American Studies Department. Although they had agreed earlier in the year that it was to be a full academic department, with a chairman and a Faculty, the Administration in April attempted to set it up as merely a Committee on Degrees, which would offer no courses other than tutorials and would grant degrees only to students who had completed all requirements in one of the existing departments. Incensed by this retreat, the Harvard Association of African and Afro-American Students joined the strike and won their original demand. The Department granted its first degrees last year, and it seem likely to survive as a healthy Department despite the present criticism. That Harvard, a racist institution throughout its history, should fund an academic center in which racism can be studied and combatted seems to me, then as now, an entirely reasonable and just demand.

But the worth of the demands does not explain the fact that hundreds of Harvard students were willing to face censure, disciplinary action, beatings or imprisonment to tell Harvard that its actions were reprehensible. There must, in fact, be larger causes behind the strike. These are many and various, for it happened at the end of a decade which had seen activism blossom across the American landscape. But to understand fully why many of us chose to oppose Harvard at that point in time we must examine the values which Harvard cherishes and teaches.

Harvard today clearly has little in common with the seminary established in Cambridge in 1636; our teachers are not much concerned with pointing us along the peculiar lonely path which the Puritans followed to spiritual salvation. Nor are its values those of classical education: Harvard really does not try very hard to force us to drink of the fountain of Western civilization.

The true value system of this University is that of Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, John Dunlop, B.F. Skinner, and the other theorists of social manipulation who lurk around William James and Littauer. In the traditional sense, they are not values at all. For what binds these men together is an ethic of brute competence--a belief that they are members of an intellectual elite which is more clearly fitted to make the crucial decisions in American life than any other individual or group in the country. It is this, an absolute confidence in the intellectual and moral fitness of the A students to run every aspect of the nation and the world, that Harvard teaches us; and coupled with it comes an absolute contempt for the C students, for all those whose background or race or education or style mark them as unsuitable to join the elegant world of the elite. We learn here that the C students must be deprived of any power and prevented from making mistakes which the elite could avoid.

In 1969 we looked around and saw the United States transformed into a hideous monument to these men and their beliefs: cities everywhere run like kingdoms, filled with high-rises for the A students and rubble for the rest; an electoral system designed to preclude any real choice by those voting; a monstrous war begun by executive order and designed by the former Dean of the Harvard Faculty and his bright young cronies. Our rebellion was, in part, an attempt to destroy the identities which Harvard had prepared for us as administrators of the A students' empire, to reach out and proclaim our kinship with all those who had been denied admission: America's victims at home and abroad. We wanted to break down the walls which made us the rulers and them the ruled, and force the University to listen to our voices and theirs.