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Harvard Was Quiet, But Vietnam Will Win

By Daniel Swanson

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.

Vietnam is not yet free from war, and Nixon's criminal bombing continues to murder, maim, starve and make homeless the people of Cambodia. Yet even to a skeptic, the overall situation in Indochina seems more peaceful today than it has been since America's original escalation in the early sixties. The relentless aerial bombardment of Laos and of both sections of Vietnam for the past decade, highlighted in a perverse way by the savage terror bombing last Christmas, has ended--perhaps for good.

Although the bombing in Cambodia--now in its 117th consecutive day--may be just as severe, it does not yet have the same immediate impact. Most people know little about the embattled country. Reporting from Cambodia is scanty and shoddy, the outlines of the political dispute there are hazy, and the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, to which many Harvard students would be attracted, is still a shadowy and elusive force.

As a consequence, Watergate, which is close to home, has gripped students here as well as the rest of the nation while the more monstrous Nixon crimes go unnoticed. There is no Cambodian Bach Mai Hospital yet to which one can point as a vivid and burning reminder that the war has not ended.

If the bombing continues, however, the eerie quiet will be shattered. Eventually, the voices of the screaming children will be heard in Harvard Yard. Protest will slowly mount again, first in the form of picket lines and peaceful demonstrations, then, if the killing continues, the tear-gas and the riot-equipped police and the rocks sailing lazily into the plate glass windows will return to the Square. It may take a long time, but the criminality in Indochina will again be answered in the streets at home.


IS THE STRUGGLE in Vietnam settles into a tenuous peace, we recognize increasingly that it has touched us all profoundly. The first generation of the radicals of the 1960s links its conversion to the early civil rights movement and the Cuban Revolution, but for those of us who abandoned the old ways in the latter part of the decade, Vietnam has been the crucial experience.

Since the Second World War, Americans have been taught to hate aggression and indiscriminate killing. Genocide was never hailed as a virtue, of course, but in the post-Hitler era it has come in for special condemnation. Mass murder, we were told, was the single most abhorrent feature in the programs of both the Nazis and of international Communism. Both systems practiced slaughter and butchery on a mass scale, and that was reason enough for opposing their advances. Even today, the handful of stalwarts who still defend America's entry into Vietnam base their position on the alleged need to prevent the bloodbath that would inevitably follow a Communist takeover.

Increasing numbers of Americans, however, drew the opposite conclusion from the Vietnam war. As the conflict escalated and the body counts from Vietnam continued to mount, students, and others, began to apply this moral imperative against genocide to their own government. Even if the Vietnamese dead were all Communist automatons bent upon subverting liberty, and even if the American cause was initially just, the extent of the killing, the mounds of the dead, showed that the U.S. government was pursuing a policy of moral obscenity. No political goals were worth such a toll in lives. Why fight to avert a bloodbath if you create one in the process?

This aversion to mass murder of any sort, which grew with each year of the seemingly endless bombing, napalming and free-fire zones, explains why a growing number of people, eventually including a majority of the American population, called for withdrawal from Vietnam. The continuing carnage sickened even those on the moderate right, and the unity against the killing gradually broadened.

Much antiwar sentiment was based solely on this aversion to the killing, but some people, particularly students who had time to ponder such matters, started to search for an explanation for the Vietnamese resistance. In the face of a nearly total onslaught by the greatest military power in the world, why did these people continue fighting? Who were these Vietnamese, and why did they rebuild bridges with their bare hands and go into battle against an enemy that was vastly superior in the weapons of modern war? Why did they troop down the Ho Chi Minh trail, year after year, to face almost certain annihilation?

We gradually learned that the Vietnamese were fighting for many of the same things Americans had always been taught to cherish--independence, social justice and freedom. As our knowledge of the National Liberation Front and of North Vietnam grew, our political support for their cause expanded simultaneously. A new dimension of hatred for the American government surged up within us. No longer were the actions of the United States criminal merely because they unleashed indiscriminate violence against a smaller nation. Now, we saw those actions as criminal because the destruction was intended to annihilate a people who were striving against almost insuperable odds to achieve some measure of dignity and control over their own lives--ironically, objectives Americans have traditionally championed.

Vietnam became a symbol for us, proof that socialism could work, that people could master their own destiny. The Vietnamese revolutionaries seemed courageous and cooperative, almost superhuman. Socialist men and women stood in the rice fields and the high plateaus, calmly firing rifles skyward as American divebombers screamed down to engulf them in flaming destruction. Vietnam showed us that might can never subdue justice, that a people striving together to be free cannot be stopped short of genocide.

So we supported the National Liberation Front. We carried their flags, we applauded their victories, we honored their heroes. Some of us went so far as to see ourselves as fighting for them in the streets of America, a fifth column behind enemy lines. We awaited Vietnam's inevitable victory.


FORTUNATELY, the growing support for the NLF did not force radicals to adopt tactics markedly different from those of liberals who fought the war on loftier, more abstract moral grounds. The goal for both groups was the same: an immediate end to American military involvement in Indochina. The liberals wanted the killing to stop: the radicals wanted the killing to stop and the NLF to win.

The radicals, of course, were always more strenuous in their opposition to the war, but their participation in trashing demonstrations one day did not make it impossible for them to bail out of jail wash off the tear gas, and join a peaceful rally the next. The antiwar movement was always characterized by several levels of participation: liberal students headed for law school could avoid a career-crippling arrest by steering clear of militant demonstrations and still contribute meaningfully to ending the war by joining the peaceful waves of people who clogged the streets in quiet and orderly marches.

Tactical differences, although real, were usually not broad enough to destroy the radical-liberal coalition. The two groups may have disagreed about the reasons for the war, the structure of America and the ultimate vision of the just society, but on the immediate issue of the moment they were in agreement--the war must stop. Now that the war seems to be over, this bedrock basis for a firm alliance is eroding, causing the two groups to drift away from each other.

If the Cambodian bombing continues through the summer, the alliance will form once again. But if, as is more likely, Watergate and Congress force an end to the aerial genocide, the war will have disappeared. Barring another brutal American intervention in the Third World in the near future, radicalism on campus will pull up abruptly at a temporary stasis, probing gently for new outlets, a new basis for the alliance.


THE NUMBER of confirmed radicals here probably hovers somewhere around 200--perhaps half what it was at the peak of the 1969-70 activism. This number, though smaller, is still large enough to provide the initial spark for successful activist campaigns. Moreover, most of the Harvard left is centralized in the New American Movement, a group which eschews the fanatic factionalism of the most recent incarnation of SDS. The left is organizationally stronger here than it has been since 1970.

NAM conducted a wide range of activities this year, including a support campaign for the United Farm Workers' lettuce boycott, a petition campaign against Harvard's Faculty hiring policy--which allegedly discriminates against radicals--and, Vietnam-America Friendship Week, a program of films and teach-ins about the war.

By past standards, all of these campaigns were well-planned, yet all of them failed in varying degrees. The immediate fault lay not with the radicals, but with the lack of response from Harvard's phalanxes of left-liberals, who still make up the bulk of the undergraduate population.

As recently as 1960, a majority of the undergraduates here were Republicans, but the flow of events in the sixties steered the entire campus quite a few degrees leftward, situating most students at a point on the political spectrum where they could be attracted to support radical campaigns, particularly those concentrating on the war.

The lightbulb-eating analysis by the professional mystifiers at Time Magazine notwithstanding, most Harvard students still adhere to this hazy left-liberalism. Polls taken last fall indicated that more than 70 per cent of the student body here intended to vote for George McGovern for president. The basis for a Spring activist coalition still existed.

Then the war ended, and with it the immediate chances for a successful activist upsurge. No sane person, of course, would exchange a resumption of the genocide in Vietnam for the increased prospects it would mean for Harvard activism. Still, no new formula for unity was found to replace the old one. NAM sputtered about, groping for a new basis for the old alliance.

Whether such a systhesis can be achieved at Harvard in the absence of Vietnam is an open question. The war presented us with a stark contrast between good and evil, a contrast which blurs into varying shades of grey on other issues. Criminal apocalypses loomed at several junctures over the past decade--the Cambodian invasion, the mining--but now, in the relative quiet of the moment, our fears at them seem almost juvenile. With the war nearly over, the imperatives for action are less obvious, less strident.

As the search for the future proceeds tentatively, the meaning of the past becomes ever more clear. Vietnam has changed the lives of all of us. It has illuminated the yawning chasm between our government's professed ideals and its conduct. It has forced us to examine our society and our history more closely, searching for an explanation for the decade of genocide.

At the same time that Vietnam depicted the contradictions of American society framed by burning napalm fire, it hinted that the impasse can be traversed. The Vietnamese have prevailed. They have gone several steps further toward winning their freedom and are now in the process of constructing a socialist society of freedom, humanity, equality and justice across all Vietnam. Though the tactics of their struggle have little immediate relevance to the tasks before us in a modernized society, their success in the face of insurmountable odds gives us heart that those tasks can eventually be accomplished in America.

Despite battling in the inferno, the Vietnamese have not lost their humanity. The violence which for decades they have been forced to contend with and resort to has not obscured their goals or tarnished their ultimate vision. Vietnam will be free, and Vietnam has taught America both the price and the value of freedom

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