When Students Stopped a War
Mild ‘teach-ins’ at colleges led later to full-out protests
What do you do when you’re against a war that your government’s fighting?
In 1965, as the first U. S. Marines landed at Da Nang, South Vietnam, 3,000 University of Michigan students gathered in Ann Arbor for two days of intense conversations and debate about America’s intervention. Faculty members invited U.S. State Department members so students could hear both sides.
This and other early “teach-ins” were polite affairs, with lectures, movies and musical events. The teach-in concept caught on quickly, and these mild student gatherings became the impetus behind the forceful anti-war demonstrations in the late 1960s and early 1970s that brought down a president and divided a country.
A Gathering Of 30,000
The largest teach-in of the times took place 50 years ago, May 21-23, 1965.
The location? Where else, but the University of California-Berkeley, where more than 30,000 people listened to VIPs like Dr. Benjamin Spock, novelist Norman Mailer, socialist leader Norman Thomas, philosopher Alan Watts, civil rights activist Bob Moses, comedian Dick Gregory, free speech movement leader Mario Savio and many more. Even noted British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell sent a taped message to the teach-in.
The 36-hour event was organized by the Vietnam Day Committee, whose members included an ex-grad student in sociology (and later Yippies leader) named Jerry Rubin.
In addition to the presence of so much star power, the Berkeley teach-in showed that the nascent anti-war movement had more than legitimacy. It had breadth, depth and gravitas as well. Yes, gravitas. Journalists, psychologists, historians and political scientists debated U.S foreign policy. Long — as in nearly an hour long — speeches were delivered. Phil Ochs even sang I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.
Intelligence And Thoughtfulness
Looking back, I’m surprised by how intelligent and thoughtful the speakers were, how everyone from young students to aging scholars knew as much as they did about Vietnam and the war.
Listen to the words of Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS):
“Now the war in Vietnam ... has provided the incredibly sharp razor, the divider, that has finally separated thousands and thousands of people from the illusions about the decency and morality and integrity of this country's purpose internationally."
Pretty heady stuff for a mere student.
Predicting The Results
And then there’s Mailer. Remember, this is May 1965:
“If we wish to take a strange country away from strangers, let us at least be strong enough and brave enough to defeat them on the ground ... Only listen, Lyndon Johnson, you've gone too far this time. You are a bully with an Air Force, and since you will not call off your Air Force, there are young people who will persecute you back ... they will go on marches and they will make demonstrations, and they will begin a war of public protest against you which will never cease. It will go on and on and it will get stronger and stronger…”
As history has shown, Mailer was right. The Vietnam War would end Johnson’s presidency, split the country and spawn a massive anti-war movement. But as history also shows us, the movement itself fractured, especially in the aftermath of Kent State and Jackson State, the Sterling Hall bombing in my own hometown of Madison, Wisc. and the illegal spying and domestic surveillance undertaken by the FBI and other government agencies.
Fifty years ago, we believed what our government told us. Guys like me did our duty and went off to war.
All that’s changed. And a lot of that had to do with the lies about Vietnam and with the FBI’s vast and illegal spying on and intimidation of U.S. citizens. (The latter is presented dramatically in Johanna Hamilton’s excellent documentary 1971, which premiered on PBS on Monday, May 18.)
Still, what keeps coming back to me from 50 years ago are the words to Phil Ochs’ I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore:
It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all