As a freshman, Richard E. Hyland ’69 was not particularly attuned to Cold War politics. While students at the College protested the United States’s campaign in Vietnam, Hyland did not identify with the anti-war movement.
One day, though, Hyland found a small leaflet slipped under the door of his freshman suite.
“The leaflet said ‘If you’re for the war in Vietnam, why aren’t you fighting it, and if you’re against the war in Vietnam, why aren’t you in the streets fighting against it with us?’” Hyland said.
Inspired by the leaflet, Hyland rushed to the periodical reading room in Lamont and began to study Vietnam. Soon, Hyland knew he wanted to join the anti-war movement at Harvard.
In the late 1960s, students, professors, and administrators were sharply divided over the war. Anti-war student activists clashed with politicians and University administrators as the nation grappled with one of the most brutal—and controversial—wars in the country’s history.
In 1966, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was invited to Harvard to be made the first Honorary Associate of the Kennedy Institute in an event organized by Barney Frank ’61-’62. The ceremony brought the controversial McNamara to Cambridge to deliver remarks to a preselected group of 120 students.
When the Students for a Democratic Society, a collective of College anti-war activists, heard about McNamara’s impending visit, the organization challenged him to a debate with Vietnam War critic and journalist Robert Scheer.
“We took the position that if McNamara was going to come to Harvard, which was fine, he needed to debate the war. He couldn’t just come and get a free pass and go unchallenged,” said SDS leader Michael S. Ansara ’68. “We didn’t dispute his right to give a speech…but we said that the university has to be a source of free exchange of ideas and debate.”
McNamara rejected the group’s invitation to debate, prompting SDS to organize a protest against the Secretary in the Quincy House courtyard. When McNamara attempted to leave campus after giving a talk to the preselected 120 students, he was mobbed by hundreds of student demonstrators and prevented from leaving the premises. The crowd forced McNamara to abandon his car and climb onto the hood, where he agreed to take only three questions from the demonstrators.
After McNamara said that he could not say how many civilians had been killed in Vietnam, Ansara challenged him. “I said ‘You can’t because you don’t know or because you don’t care?’ at which point McNamara completely lost it.”
At this point, Ansara recalled, McNamara became belligerent, putting his finger on Ansara’s chest and raising his voice. “He started shrieking ‘I was tougher then and I’m tougher now.’”
Ansara was stunned by McNamara’s reaction.
“I couldn’t believe it. Here is the Secretary of Defense, in charge of this war, just completely losing it and saying that he’s tougher than we are, I think my jaw dropped to be honest with you,” he said.
The confrontation ended when the police arrived to whisk McNamara away.
Despite the presence of College students at the protest, other students were shocked by the event. Over 2700 College students signed a letter of apology to McNamara, and the protest was ridiculed by The Crimson’s editorial board.
“We were right about the war… we understood that we would provoke a reaction and that it would give us a chance for discussion and debate,” Ansara said. “You’re not going to get a debate by being polite.”
SDS was not the only group of activists protesting against the war. Another student group named The Resistance was specifically dedicated to opposing the draft and the use of draft cards.
In 1967, The Resistance member Michael K. Ferber ’69, along with several others living in Boston and Cambridge, was charged with conspiracy to aid, abet, and council draft deferment after bringing a bag of draft cards to Washington as a protest. Although he was convicted, the case was later thrown out on appeal.
Although Ferber later dropped out during the trial, he recalled that Harvard students took notice. “I was briefly a hero on campus, as the one Harvard person and draft resister in the group. People would come up to me on campus, including some faculty and some who disagreed with me…I sensed a good deal of support and respect from just about everybody I dealt with,” Ferber said.
Similarly, in an act of protest against the mandatory draft, David A. Reed ’68 burned his draft card and refused to report for duty in March 1966. Reed, who was on a leave of absence at the time, staged a sit-down during his sentencing and had to be forcibly removed from the courtroom. He was sentenced to three years in federal prison for burning his draft card.
Like the divided student opinion, Harvard faculty and administrators also found themselves on both sides of the heated debate.
Charles S. Maier ’60, then a history instructor at the College, said the division between students and faculty was not as black and white as some have argued it was.
“There were great divisions in the faculty… The lines were not clearly professorial-student lines, they were intra-faculty cleavages as well,” Maier said.
According to Maier and Ansara, there were certainly a handful of professors who were openly supportive of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations on campus, such as History professor Franklin L. Ford ’48. In another case, 50 professors signed a letter authored by the SDS in support of the McNamara-Scheer debate.
Still, displays of faculty support of anti-war student activism was, according to Hyland, an aberration from the norm.
“Intellectual dialogue broke down in an amazing and demonstrative way. They were unable to bridge the gap and understand that the world was changing…There was just a complete absence of any kind of communication,” Hyland said.
Ansara echoed this assessment, adding that he thought the faculty contributed to the lack of mutual understanding.
“Pusey had no idea what we were talking about or what issues the students were struggling with. [The administration] thought that everybody should be happy to be at Harvard to be groomed to be part of the elite,” he said.
Despite student and faculty activism against the war, the war went on. As the violence from the conflict reached a head in the following two years—1968 and 1969—tensions between anti-war activists and the rest of Harvard only became more entrenched.
According to Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ‘67, a student at the College during the war, the class of 1967 was “on the cusp” of being politically active.
“We were not a class that was very politically active...things changed rather dramatically in a year’s time, a number of campuses experienced students being involved in protests for very worthy causes, but we were a fairly tame class,” he said.
Yet the protests that roiled Harvard’s campus during the 1960s form only a chapter in a broader national history of Vietnam War opposition at American universities. In the final years of the 1960s and the early 1970s, protests famously erupted at Kent State University, the University of Washington, Columbia, the University of Maryland, and the New York University.
Anti-war protests were also not bound to university campuses. Large demonstrations took hold in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, and a particularly famous demonstration took place at President Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969.
Ansara believes the uniqueness of Harvard’s protests was merely perceived.
“Everybody thought that because it happened at Harvard it was so unique and special. The only thing that made it unique was that it got more attention than it deserved. What happened at Harvard happened at 1,200 other colleges and universities in pretty much the same way,” he said.
Although the protests were going on at Harvard, Ansara added, it did not mean they were particularly special.
“Harvard loves to believe that it’s totally unique but in this case it was only one of the thousands of universities going through this experience in those years,” he said.
—Staff writer Laszlo B. Herwitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.