Time Magazine, the preacher to the Nation, is fond of weighing the returns from Harvard heavily when it sifts through the mounds of evidence that pour through its good offices. In its relentless search for national patterns and trends, the Magazine seizes upon even the most insignificant rumors floating out of Cambridge as the harbingers of nationwide change.
Several months ago, for example, the picture of a drunk and grinning Harvard sophomore, happily chewing away at a broken lightbulb, graced the Magazine's pages. Lightbulb-eaters, we were told, were replacing left-wing activists as Big Men on Campus, and universities were rapidly returning to the halcyon days of a previous era.
Just as Time escorted activism off the national stage, so had it several years earlier ushered it into the spotlight--this time, too, with Harvard setting the pace. The Harvard strike of 1969 was enshrined on the front cover of Time as one of those events that had Made It. Never mind that students at other universities had rebelled while Harvard was still simmering quietly--the movement only counted when it arrived in Cambridge.
This kind of glib trendiness sloppily obscures both the origins of student rebellion here and the changes it has undergone in the past year. The very real events which quickened the anger of students--most notably the war in Indochina--are purposely forgotten by the technicolor pictures, the catchy, cute Timese, the mock attempt to mix levity and analysis. The vapid generalization and the smug clichevie for supremacy, and the product passes for hard-won analysis.
HARVARD WAS quiet last Spring. The turbulent ever is of the past few years--building seizures, picket lines spewing invective, trashing marches all disappeared, leaving behind only faint memories, seniors regaling freshmen with tales of the past in dining halls and library alcoves. The electric ambiance of the past was quietly defused: the ever-present sense of contingency gave way to a deadening stasis.
The only feeble attempt to stage a disruptive activity--a graduate student strike last March--was an unmitigated failure. Undergraduates surged across picket lines, keeping class attendance from falling off appreciably and breaking the strike in four days.
After that debacle, it was all downhill. Undergraduates did not get another chance to ignore bullhorn calls to action because none were sounded. In past years, the Yard at 12 noon has been the recruitment site for afternoon demonstrations. This Spring, the Yard was as quiet as a murmuring meadow.
IN RETROSPECT, the prospects for any resurgence in radical activity this Spring were dashed last January when the Vietnam peace agreements were signed and one phase of the decade-long American involvement in Indochina shuddered to an end. Opposition to the genocide in Vietnam coupled with varying degrees of support for the National Liberation Front has been the issue that has unified radicals and left-liberals at Harvard and shaped the character of protest here for the past six years. The war is not over by any means, but its searing vividness has been dimmed enough to sever most left-liberals from the radical coalition, leaving the radicals floundering about in search of the base for a new alliance.
Unity against the war has been the most prominent feature of successful activist campaigns. Every Spring, radicals have sought to make the war the central issue in activist campaigns: every Spring, the success of those campaigns has hinged upon the extent to which the radicals could persuade the liberals to close ranks.
In 1967, the coalition formed briefly: Robert McNamara came to town and was greeted rudely by demonstrators clambering over his automobile. The coalition was bound together more strongly in 1969: the link between ROTC and the war, aided by the bloody bust that followed the takeover of University Hall, insured the success of the ensuing strike.
In 1970, the alliance was imposed from the White House: Nixon's aggressive television speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, coupled with the killings at Kent State, sparked resistance at Harvard and at hundreds of other campuses.
The coalition never formed in 1971. The radicals who shouted down the pro-war speakers at the Counter-Teach-In that Spring violated one of the most worshipped of liberal canons. By not permitting the Nixon supporters to air their views--however disgusting those views were--at a public forum, the radicals rubbed liberals the wrong way, splintering the coalition and eliminating the chance for an active Spring.
Even in 1972, when the activism was given a decidedly local flavor by black students attempting to force Harvard to sell its shares of Gulf Oil stock, the war added to the tumult. Nixon's decision to increase the bombing and to mine Haiphong Harbor in an attempt to stem the North Vietnamese offensive coincided nicely with the blacks' seizure of Mass Hall. The war reinforced the unrest, swelling the size of the picket lines that circled constantly around the embattled Administration building.