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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Class of 1970 Couldn't Escape National Campus Turmoil

By Victor Chen

In 1966, an article in the undergraduate yearbook dubbed student anti-war protesters "The New Radicals." At the time, they were a largely unknown segment of the student body.

Then there was the McNamara demonstration. The Draft Resistance Movement. Anti-war marches. Protests against ROTC. And then, finally, the takeover of University Hall in April of 1969.

By 1970, the Harvard community was intimately familiar with the activities--most notably the anti-war movements--of these "New Radicals."

For many members of the Class of '70, the activism defining their underclass years was exhilarating.

But as their college careers drew to a close, 1970 became a year of confusion and disappointment rather than the year in which goals were finally fulfilled.

An article entitled "The Quiet Changes" in the 1970 yearbook captured the zeitgeist of the year.

It detailed the relative calm on campus that followed the tide of radicalism of the preceding years. The year 1970 was one of "tension, turmoil, introspection and questioning," the article read. The student population was silent, brooding--and still angry.

There were three building takeovers and a host of demonstrations on campus during the 1969-70 academic year.

But the demonstrations of that year did not have as "electrifying [an] effect on the Harvard community" as the preceding events of the late 1960s, the yearbook article said.

This year was different. It was the year of Vietnamization. It was the year of Cambodia. It was the year of Kent State and Jackson State. It was the year that the war officially began to end, and the pain continued to mount.

In 1970 students began to see their exhausting campus protests yielding little they had hoped for.

An Escalation of Troubles

In June 1969, President Richard M. Nixon introduced "Vietnamization." The new policy called for the build-up of South Vietnamese forces and the withdrawal of American troops. That year, Nixon removed 60,000 American soldiers.

Still, students could not help but be wary. The troop reduction was coupled with the first American bombings of Cambodia, a neutral country. Campus protests increased in the wake of continued American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Large-scale demonstrations, called "moratoriums," attempted to bring demonstrations off campuses and into the cities. Two Moratorium Days in the fall of 1969 drew several hundred thousand protesters to Washington.

In November 1969, demonstrations across the country were spurred on by reports of an American massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968 at the village of My Lai. U.S. Army Lieutenant William L. Calley was tried and convicted for his role in the massacre.

The administration attempted to quell student protests. In response to criticism that the draft was inequitable, the White House instituted a lottery system in December of 1969. It effectively ended student draft deferments.

But the war went on, and student opinion concerning Nixon's handling of the war worsened. Nixon would not legitimize their demands for peace. In November 1969, Nixon gave a speech in which he argued that a "silent majority" of Americans supported his administration's strategy in ending the war. The speech only angered students further.

`Under Heavy Siege'

In the spring of 1970, according to Dan Rather and Gary Paul Gates in their book The Palace Guard, the White House was "under heavy siege."

"[T]he strident and divisive police policy undertaken the previous fall [by the Nixon administration] had begun to reap a bitter crop," the authors write.

Nixon was continuing the Vietnamization process. In April of 1970, he announced that another 150,000 American troops would be sent to Vietnam by the end of the year.

But a few days later, Nixon--reportedly feeling energized after watching the movie Patton--decided to send troops into Cambodia to clear out Vietcong sanctuaries, Rather and Gates write.

He once justified the decision by saying, "I would rather be a one-term president than be a two-term president at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power."

Not surprisingly, the Cambodia invasion triggered hundreds of protests, especially on college campuses. A telegram sent by college and university presidents around the country asked Nixon to "consider the incalculable dangers of an unprecedented alienation of America's youth," according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education published at the time.

Before this, the administration had found great success in "blunting the edge of Vietnam protest," Rather and Gates write.

But the students' anti-war sentiments exploded. The period was reminiscent of Johnson's last two years in office, Rather and Gates write, with students once again beating at the hatches.

Nixon appeared disdainful of the student protesters and did little to improve his relations with them.

When leaving a Pentagon briefing, Nixon reportedly made a passing comment about "these bums...blowing up the campuses." He unfavorably contrasted student activists with the soldiers serving in Vietnam who "stand tall, and they're proud."

Other events served to illuminate the resurgence of student anti-war spirit. One was the verdict in the long, sensational trial of the Chicago Seven--seven war protesters who were accused of conspiring to incite a riot when they demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

All seven were acquitted in February of conspiracy charges. But five were found guilty of crossing state lines with intent of inciting riot. The charges against the five convicted--Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger and Kennie Davis--were later overturned, but not before the convictions touched off a wave of student protests.

About 15,000 gathered in Boston on what came to be known as The Day After--February 19, 1970--to voice their criticism of the verdict.

Political strife across the nation was only exacerbated by economic woes. The economy soured as a result of federal deficits in the 1960s and growing international competition and energy costs. Unemployment rose six percent in 1970, and the real gross national product decreased.

The Nixon administration stymied political reforms that year. It did not support several bills passed by Congress and supported by students.

One bill gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Another increased Social Security benefits and funding for food stamps. And several other bills, such as the Clean Air Act and an act to control water pollution, addressed environmental concerns. The differing political agendas of the Nixon administration and students signalled the growing rift between the two.

Four Dead in Ohio

Campus tensions heightened at Kent State University in Ohio in early May, when National Guard troops were sent to the campus to quell anti-war demonstrations.

On May 4, 1970, confusion erupted on campus and troops fired on student protesters. Kenneth J. Heineman describes the shootings in his book Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era:

"In thirteen seconds the Guardsmen expended sixty-one rounds. A few hundred feet away in the parking lot, Allison Krause fell mortally wounded. Jeff Miller's face was blown off. [Alan] Canfora took a bullet in the wrist and [Tom] Grace, shot in the foot, writhed in agony. Loaded onto an ambulance, Grace watched as medical attendants pulled a sheet over Sandy Scheur's head. Four dead, nine wounded."

The administration immediately responded to the killings at Kent State, but its words were less than conciliatory.

The deaths "should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy," read the official statement, issued in Nixon's name but written by his press assistant, Ron Ziegler.

The statement not only shocked students but also Nixon's own staffers, many of whom refused to believe the president had seen the statement before it was issued, Rather and Gates write.

In the immediate wake of the Kent State deaths, college campuses across the country seemed ripe for more violence between students and police.

One of those campuses was Jackson State College. One clear night in May, 11 days after the Kent State incident, police officers and National Guards swarmed onto campus to respond to a reported bonfire.

In the process, they forcibly herded students into a nearby residence hall. Their presence and actions drew the ire of many of the students at the predominantly Black college, who had also complained about racial insensitivity among police officers in the past.

Minutes later, gunfire erupted. Officers would later deny that they had fired on students. Others would say they had seen a sniper in the dormitory. But in the end, there would be no universally accepted reasons for the deaths of Phillip L. Gibbs and James Earl Green and the wounding of 12 other students.

The violence against students at Kent State and Jackson State touched off an avalanche of public opinion against the administration.

Moderate students joined the radical anti-war movement and helped to close down at least 200 colleges and cripple several hundred more.

The weekend following the killings at Kent State, 100,000 people descended upon Washington for a demonstration outside the White House. By this time the protesters had dropped the conciliatory tone of past moratoriums. "Fuck Richard Nixon," they cried.

The Nixon administration had sunk to its lowest point as far as student demonstrators were concerned. The year before, administration had promised to "bring us together" and "lower our voices," Rather and Gates write. But now, it was the vilified enemy.

The End of the War

By the fall of 1970, the war finally seemed to be winding down. Congress had repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had permitted the president to use military force in Vietnam for "police action."

National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was meeting secretly with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam in Paris. In October, Nixon proposed a "standstill cease fire" and offered a proposal to the North Vietnamese for mutual withdrawal. In three years, the last American troops would leave South Vietnam.

But the legacy of 1970 lingers. After countlessinvestigations, a presidential commission andthree trials, the search for reasons behind theMay 4 shooting at Kent State continues.

A Kent State associate professor ofinstructional technology, Drew Tiene, created adocumentary about the killings this spring. Anundergraduate in 1970 who had been a demonstratorin the anti-war movement, Tiene wanted thedocumentary to be used as "a tool to teach peoplewhat led to the deaths," according to an articlein the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Kent State is another example of a longstruggle in this country of the right of people toquestion government policy. To what degree shouldthe government suppress these voices? To whatdegree is military force acceptable? At what pointdoes a demonstration become too violent andprovide just cause for authorities to respond inkind?" Tiene asked in the Chronicle.

Amid the chaos of increased violence on collegecampuses and in Cambodia, 1970 became a year ofdisillusionment and confusion for students atHarvard and across the country. They wererealizing the limits of their own powers--even enmasse, they could not force an intractableadministration to act.

Carol Friedman '73 was active in the StudentMobilization Committee, an anti-war nationalcampus group. She attended the moratorium atWashington in October.

And yet she says she felt that the excitementamong protesters was not one of idealism butrather one defined by frustration and outrage.

The call "to do something," to end thewar in Vietnam, was going unanswered.

"In terms of this goal, the successes and eventhe failures of the movement seem unfortunatelylimited," Friedman wrote in a 1970 yearbook essay."Nixon is still planning the patterns for thenation, and his pattern does not seem to beleading to peace. Maybe the entire pattern needschanging.

But the legacy of 1970 lingers. After countlessinvestigations, a presidential commission andthree trials, the search for reasons behind theMay 4 shooting at Kent State continues.

A Kent State associate professor ofinstructional technology, Drew Tiene, created adocumentary about the killings this spring. Anundergraduate in 1970 who had been a demonstratorin the anti-war movement, Tiene wanted thedocumentary to be used as "a tool to teach peoplewhat led to the deaths," according to an articlein the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Kent State is another example of a longstruggle in this country of the right of people toquestion government policy. To what degree shouldthe government suppress these voices? To whatdegree is military force acceptable? At what pointdoes a demonstration become too violent andprovide just cause for authorities to respond inkind?" Tiene asked in the Chronicle.

Amid the chaos of increased violence on collegecampuses and in Cambodia, 1970 became a year ofdisillusionment and confusion for students atHarvard and across the country. They wererealizing the limits of their own powers--even enmasse, they could not force an intractableadministration to act.

Carol Friedman '73 was active in the StudentMobilization Committee, an anti-war nationalcampus group. She attended the moratorium atWashington in October.

And yet she says she felt that the excitementamong protesters was not one of idealism butrather one defined by frustration and outrage.

The call "to do something," to end thewar in Vietnam, was going unanswered.

"In terms of this goal, the successes and eventhe failures of the movement seem unfortunatelylimited," Friedman wrote in a 1970 yearbook essay."Nixon is still planning the patterns for thenation, and his pattern does not seem to beleading to peace. Maybe the entire pattern needschanging.

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