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War Worries

Reminders, But No Replays, of the '60s

By Jonathan S. Cohn

The comparisons were inevitable.

As soon as President Bush ordered troops to the Persian Gulf this summer, some critics said the engagement would be another Vietnam. And as soon as activists started their campus protests this fall, some would-be historians hailed the '90s as a revival for the New Left.

But the activists who actually lived through the '60s, and even a few who didn't, say they are not impressed with this recent show of student force--at least not yet. They recognize that a moral awakening may be creeping across America's colleges, but they say today's students have far to go before they can meet the standards set by their flower-child parents.

At Harvard, which was home to many a student takeover in the late '60s, anti-war sentiment of the Persian Gulf genre first reared its head this week. On Thursday and Friday, the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) sponsored a teach-in at the Science Center and attracted respectable crowds.

The concept of a war "teach-in" had the '60s written all over it, and students heard much of the same rhetoric they would have 20 years ago.

"It's a hopeful sign that we're learning from the struggles of the past," said Andy Stamp, a Vietnam vet who once headed an organization of 15,000 active duty soldiers opposing the war.

Stamp and his fellow speakers didn't pull any punches; at one point, Stamp told his audience that "George Bush wants us to condemn Iraq, I think we should tell him to stick it, or he will bring us all down with him."

But while the teach-ins drew mostly favorable responses, organizers were not altogether pleased with the show of emotion. Rosa A. Ehrenreich '91, who is president of PBHA, says that many of her fellow undergraduates just didn't have the Gulf on their minds this week.

"The thing that upsets me is that Harvard students just aren't concerned with the possibility of a war occurring," Ehrenreich said last night. "All that matters to most of them is that it's Head of the Charles weekend."

Of course, the optimists say that it is still too soon to make pronouncements about the impact of Persian Gulf protests.

After all, American troops have not yet engaged the Iraqis in combat. And while the New Left emerged after years of military build-ups in Vietnam, the Middle East crisis is only three months old.

Todd Gitlin '63, who has written several books on the '60s and is now a sociology professor at Berkeley, agrees that final judgements are premature.

"The ['60s] movement obviously mushroomed," says Gitlin, who was a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national New Left group.

Were it not for Vietnam, he says, the '60s activism "would have remained a simmer just as the activism of this country has been at a simmer for many years. Surely if the Gulf crisis turns into war, the anger that is simmering will start to boil."

Gitlin notes that just as the students of the '60s were preoccupied with civil rights before Vietnam, so students of the '90s were preoccupied with the environment before the Gulf crisis.

But even if the Gulf crisis does become a war, Gitlin says the protests at college campuses will look very different from the ones that rocked Harvard, Berkeley and other schools 20 years ago.

For starters, Gitlin says, today's students might be less eager to protest. While many students in the '60s were willing to be different because their economic futures were secure, today's students must contend with a far less welcoming economy--a factor that will reinforce conservatism.

"The difference is the economic climate," Gitlin says. "The economy is contracting...and many students are worrying about whether they'll be doing as well as their parents did."

In addition, the draft played a key role in turning college students against the Vietnam War. Despite all the hype over leftist ideologies, most historians agree that only the end of college draft exemptions drove anti-war sentiment from the political fringes to the campus mainstream.

So it may take another draft to ignite America's college students against the war, and that, Gitlin says, is a pretty unlikely possibility right now.

"I think that lesson was learned from Nixon, and other presidents," Gitlin says. "You don't fight a war with a democratic army."

Today, Harvard students are being asked to march through Boston Common, as part of a nationwide protest against the war.

Although organizers say they have high hopes for a strong turnout, they recognize that anti-war sentiment is still not very solid. And that realization has at least a few Harvard activists worried about the future.

"These are our future leaders of America--What are they going to do when they are our senators?" Ehrenreich says. "I'm embarassed to be a student here sometimes."

Michael Mayo and Jonathan Samuels contributed to the reporting of this story.

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