A chorus of voices pounded against the walls of Sanders Theatre: “U.S. out of Southeast Asia; butchers out of Harvard!”
Sanders Theatre, ordinarily tranquil and decorous, was in total uproar on the night of March 26, 1971, as the left and right clashed over U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Student demonstrators floated balloons with anti-war messages to the ceiling and threw marshmallows towards the stage of pro-war speakers.
As a reactionary response to anti-war “teach-ins” around the country and at Harvard itself, a band of conservative students had planned this “Counter Teach-In: An Alternative View” in Sanders. The group, Students for a Just Peace, aimed to combat what they saw as the underrepresentation of pro-war sentiment on campus.
SJP invited five pro-war speakers to share their thoughts: Dolph M. Droge, a White House adviser on Vietnam; Anand Panyarachun, Thailand’s ambassador to the United Nations; Nguyen Hoan, South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States; I. Milton Sacks, a political science professor at Brandeis University; and Daniel E. Teodoru, Eastern coordinator for the National Student Coordinating Committee for Freedom in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Lawrence C. McCarty of the American Conservative Union moderated the event.
In many ways, Harvard was a microcosm of the political rifts of the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1967, demonstrators from the Harvard chapter of the left-wing group Students for a Democratic Society protested a recruitment visit by Dow Chemical Company due to the company’s role in manufacturing napalm, a deadly substance which, ironically, had been invented in a secret lab at Harvard just two decades earlier. In April 1969, students occupied University Hall after Harvard’s then-President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 rejected a list of demands, which included abolishing the ROTC and creating an Afro-American studies program. A year later, riots exploded in Harvard Square around both the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale and the use of tax money for war efforts.
These events left many conservative students feeling fed up. SJP member Arthur N. Waldron ’71, who helped organize the counter teach-in, called Harvard’s political environment amidst the Vietnam War an “一言堂,” a Chinese term for a place where only one voice could be heard. In the wake of mounting discontent and disillusionment, the counter teach-in was meant to foster diversity within the discourse surrounding Vietnam.
Laszlo Pasztor Jr. ’73, another SJP member, advertised the event in The Crimson as “an attempt to combat the overwhelming prevalence of ‘force-fed’ antiwar feeling at Harvard.”
They planned to hold the event in Sanders Theatre — one of the largest halls on campus at the time — and ensured ahead of time that the space had cameras and recording equipment. At 6:30 p.m., an hour and a half before the event’s start, the organizers met in a room in the basement of the Phillips Brooks House, where a lawyer briefed them on contingencies in case of disruption — because of the charged political climate, they expected the event would be contentious.
Across the yard, SDS called a counter-rally at 7 p.m. to protest SJP’s lecture. Picketers clustered before the entrances of Sanders Theatre, holding banners, waving flags, and shouting slogans. Chants of the word “murderers'' formed a steady beat as the lecture’s organizers headed to Sanders with the visiting speakers.
Bonnie E. Blustein ’72, one of the anti-war demonstrators, recalls the day with clarity. “We were protesting the war, we were protesting Harvard[’s] racism,” she says. With her marched students carrying a banner that read “Defeat U.S. Imperialism” in English, Vietnamese, and Spanish, which they had made with the help of a Vietnamese student. “There had to have been 800 people inside and probably more outside, trying to get in.”
E. John Pennington ’67, who had served as the national secretary of the SDS, was one of the organizers of the counter-demonstration. He was surprised at the turnout. “Our nucleus of 40 people or so was shocked at the overwhelming number of people who came to ensure that the event could not become propaganda,” he says.
Because of the cameras that SJP had set up in Sanders Theatre, Pennington and his fellow organizers suspected that “the organizers of the Sanders Theatre event had one purpose: to create a propaganda film demonstrating that the anti-war movement was dead at Harvard.” Pennington emphasized that the goal of the counter protesters was to stop this film from being made, and not “to do something that would be seen as a violation of free speech.” Blustein and James P. Stodder ’71 both note, too, that they attended the protest with the intention of preventing a film from being made.
Five minutes before the start of the teach-in, security closed the doors to Sanders Theatre because capacity had been reached.
When the speakers came onstage, the noise level in the room quickly climbed to a din. McCarty, the moderator, approached the microphone, but could not be heard over the clamor. Some students waved flags emblazoned with the Viet Cong star and signs inscribed with the word “MURDERERS”; others pelted McCarty and the speakers with wadded leaflets, marshmallows, and miscellaneous detrita. Within a couple minutes, McCarty withdrew from the event.
“One of the speakers tried to mock us by saying we were ‘marshmallow revolutionaries’ since we were throwing marshmallows,” remembers Stodder, “to kind of say that if we were real revolutionaries, we would have been violent.”
Archibald Cox ’34, a professor at Harvard Law School who would go on in two years to serve as special prosecutor in Nixon’s Watergate trial, arrived at the scene in an attempt to calm the crowd down. “If this meeting is disrupted — hateful as some of us may find it — then liberty will have died a little,” Cox said over the protestors, as balls of paper rained over his head. “And those guilty of the disruption will have done inestimable damage to the causes of humanity and peace.”
After Cox’s impassioned speech, some demonstrators filed out, but a majority stayed stomping, clapping, and yelling. At 8:45 p.m., since officials were still unable to quell the protestors, Cox ended the event on Harvard’s behalf. Police escorted the speakers out to Allston radio station WGBH, where they would broadcast the rest of the conversation.
“Naively, I envisioned a serious factual discussion — that was the origin of the teach-in,” reflects Waldron. “I think a lot of the students [attending the event] wanted the same. It would have been fascinating and illuminating.”
After the counter-demonstration, Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer ’71, future Senate Majority Leader, referred to it in an article for the Harvard Independent as “a tour de farce,” arguing for a more systemic approach to change. “For bureaucratic power, with all of its inhumanity and inefficiency, is one of the few ways to get larger things done in the world,” he wrote. Blustein remembers Schumer as “one of the liberal movers and shakers” at the time. On the other hand, Daniel J. Pipes ’71, an SJP organizer, remembers him as someone who “wanted to avoid taking any firm stance.” Pipes claims that his peers never thought Schumer would be able to go into politics.
Pipes brought charges in a court created by Harvard in the wake of heightened campus activism, the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities, against Blustein and two other students — Martin H. Goodman ’70 and John W. McKean ’71 — for disruption. “The case against Blustein is memorable because I was grilled at length by a 32-year-old Alan Dershowitz,” Pipes wrote in an article this March reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the demonstration. “The future celebrity professor of law successfully deployed his formidable legal skills to convince the CRR that his client was innocent of the disruption I personally witnessed.”
Because this was an intra-university hearing and not a legal case, Dershowitz likely volunteered his services — unbeknownst to his defendant, Blustein. She says she was never notified of the hearing regarding the events at Sanders Theatre, and was acquitted in absentia. “I never had anything to do with Alan Dershowitz, and I hope I never do,” Blustein wrote in an email.
Before the Sanders Theatre protest, Blustein had gone before the CRR for her political activism when she and Ira D. Helfand ’72 were charged with harassing a professor. According to Blustein, the CRR accidentally sent her hearing notice to Helfand’s home, then forwarded it to her parents’ house, then to her dorm room in Cambridge, before it finally reached her in Houston, Texas, where she was living for the summer. To Blustein, this series of mishaps illuminated the inefficiency of the CRR.
Th CRR later delayed Blustein from receiving her A.B. degree. When she was convicted for her participation in an anti-war sit-in in the Littauer Center during May of her senior year, the court prevented her from receiving her diploma that June. She had to graduate the following year.
In a 1972 editorial titled “Abolish the CRR,” The Crimson’s Editorial Board argued that the CRR, a separate entity from the Administrative Board, had the sole purpose of repressing student political activism. “The CRR — which celebrates its third birthday this Fall — was established in the wake of the University Hall occupation to facilitate the political repression of student activists,” it wrote. Blustein also noted that faculty who came to the hearings were sometimes “appalled” at the shoddy practices of the CRR. In the Independent, Schumer called it “a body practicing whimsical justice that would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional in a federal court.”
In the CRR cases following the teach-in, the Committee found nine students guilty of disrupting the event; their punishments ranged in severity from forced semester-long withdrawals to one-year suspensions to degrees withheld altogether.
In addition to the CRR trials, Cox ended up pressing criminal charges against three students at the Counter Teach-In: John T. Berlow ’71 and James T. Kilbreth ’69 for trespassing and disrupting a public assembly, and Pennington for disruption alone. Cox dropped Pennington’s disruption charge and Kilbreth’s trespassing charge at the outset of the trial.
A video used by the prosecution showed Kilbreth clapping, chanting, and at one point, throwing a piece of paper at the stage. Two other witnesses claim they saw Berlow “clapping and chanting” at the demonstration. Both Berlow and Kilbreth conducted their own defense in court.
Berlow successfully argued that the event was open to all, so he was not trespassing. In their defense against the disruption charges, both Berlow and Kilbreth asserted that the speakers at the event were “butchers who did not deserve to be heard.” Berlow was acquitted of charges of criminal trespassing; however, both he and Kilbreth were sentenced to 30 days in jail for disrupting the Counter Teach-In.
Back at Harvard, Cox served on the CRR trials of the students, including Stodder’s.
When Stodder went before the CRR, he brought a bag of marshmallows which he invited the committee to throw at him as he gave his self-defense. “I suggested that unless one were to land in my open mouth, it would not do much to prevent me from speaking. This got a chuckle from Archibald Cox, as I recall.”
The CRR technically only gave Stodder a warning, but soon after the trial, Stodder learned that Harvard would no longer offer him financial aid — he had been taking loans from the college since his father decided he no longer wanted to pay for his “Marxist education.” Stodder recalls that the man who told him about his loss of financial aid “looked embarrassed and claimed it was in no way linked to Sanders Theatre. But my academic standing was good and the amount was trivial.” He interpreted this loss as Harvard punishing him for his political activism.
Without a way to pay tuition, Stodder withdrew from Harvard following his junior year. He eventually returned to Harvard almost a decade later to finish his Economics degree in the 1980-81 school year, after working industrial jobs and community organizing.
“Looking back, there isn’t much I would have done differently,” Stodder says. “We’ve lived so long with disappointment and stasis and retrogression that I’m very hopeful about the current environment.”
For Pipes, who went on to found the conservative think tank Middle East Forum, this event solidified his right-wing political views. He also writes extensively on his eponymous blog, where one of his most-accessed posts is titled, “Advice to Non-Muslim Women against Marrying Muslim Men.”
In the 50-year-anniversary post about the teach-in, he reflects, “The uniquely high profile of the Counter Teach-In — in which the largest hall at the country’s most prominent university was booked to take on the hottest issue of the decade — meant that the near-impunity of its disruption had a great impact.” To Pipes, the issue of free speech on college campuses today follows directly from universities’ treatment of protests over the previous decades. He disapproves of universities’ unwillingness to admonish these left-wing demonstrators, referring to the “flaccidity” of Harvard’s response to the Vietnam War protest in particular.
Dershowitz told Business Insider in 2015 that students staging anti-racism protests on college campuses are “not liberals. Liberals accept opposing points of views. Liberals believe in free speech,” — a criticism he did not level against Blustein, apparently, when he defended her 50 years ago.
“It was cultural as well as political,” Stodder says about the anti-war movement at the time. “We were hippies, we smoked grass, we had long hair.” Pennington, however, contradicts this characterization. “Most of SDS at Harvard were not the dope smoking irresponsible hippies this conservative article [by Pipes] described,” he says. “I remember distinctly because we knew the media would be there, that many of us wore coats and ties to the demonstration.” Pennington emphasized that the demonstration was not the flashy, substanceless show that conservative outlets made it out to be, but rather a successful effort to stop a “propaganda” film from being made.
Blustein has maintained a staunch conviction in the right to protest injustice — even, or especially, when it creates disruption.
“We were very proud of what we did at the time, and I’m still proud now,” Blustein says. “I’ve remained a radical activist, I’ve remained a Communist. So I would say at this point that what happened 50 years ago is less important to me than what’s going to happen tomorrow and next year.”
CORRECTION: April 14, 2021
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the class year of Archibald Cox ’34.
A previous version of this article misstated who had made and was carrying the banner that read 'Defeat U.S. Imperialism' during the counter-rally. It was not Bonnie E. Blustein ’72, but other demonstrators who were with her.
— Staff writer Sarah W. Faber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff writer Vicki Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vicku___.