“My Name is Called Disturbance:” the Student Movement to Get Stanford Out of the Vietnam War

Lenny Siegel’s Disturbing the War. The Inside Story of the Movement to Get Stanford University Out of Southeast Asia, 1965-1975an intimate account of campus-and-community struggle, by a sometime mayor (!) of Mountain View, hits close to home for this reviewer. The banner event that brought a sleepy University of Wisconsin campus to life politically, expanding the radical presence from a few dozen to thousands, began with a modest sit-in at a scheduled Dow recruiting session. We hundred or so were suddenly descended upon by club-waving cops, who were in turn surrounded by several hundreds of students soon becoming thousands. All the fears of the sisters, brothers and girlfriends of young Americans shipped to Vietnam, all the fears of the draft for those still on campus, and all the rage at a War murdering a small mostly forested nation across the world, had burst out. After the week of peaceful (except for the cops) campus occupation, nothing would be the same for years and years.

Things were profoundly different at Stanford, far from a public university: the supposed Harvard of the West. On the other hand, the struggles were much the same. Lenny Siegel, very much an activist at or near the center of the struggle, has a detailed, enlivening story to tell. The crucial point is, I think, the  one experienced in larger schools across the country. Except perhaps in the South, administrators would be heard to say privately that the Vietnam War was “probably” a mistake and they would personally be happy to see it end. But the Pentagon contracts with campus science and technology, intellectual preparation and planning of war—these were not only sacred in the way private property is sacred, but also the financial life’s blood of contemporary higher learning.

Siegel takes us back to his Southern California childhood, in the $10,000 “Victory Home,” government-funded thanks to the anti-fascist war, and close to Hughes Aircraft in Culver City. His parents were progressives of the age, not Communists but proud and happy to be on the Left, with so many other lower middle class Jews, at least until the FBI came knocking. They became peaceniks in the early Sixties, proud of their bright and progressive son. By early 1967, Lenny found himself in SDS protesting the appearance of that liberal icon, Hubert Humphrey. Time magazine falsely reported that the demonstrators had thrown bags of urine, and that lie fairly set the tone for the deception engaged in by the university administration. Actually, the Hump had received a worrying disrespect, even anger. Who could possibly be angry about a War?

Students themselves began assiduously researching Stanford’s many ties to the war machine. They learned that the notorious Strategic Hamlet plan emerged within the Stanford research umbrella, alongside the Army’s biological and chemical warfare contract work. Pretty soon, Siegel and others were producing antiwar posters about campus administrators, leafletting young men in San Jose, on their way to pre-induction physicals, and providing draft counseling.

The Bay Area, second only to New York for the sheer intensity of protests, would soon see the phenomenal Stop the Draft Week in 1967, with demonstrators at the Oakland induction Center including Siegel himself speaking for SDS, Berkeley clashes with the cops, and grand jury indictments fought off by the famed attorney Charles Garry. Meanwhile, and like this reviewer a few years earlier, Siegel himself was declared I-Y, too troublesome to be drafted, no doubt because we would have gone on doing what we were already doing.

“Student Power” offered another dimension because the focus on the powerlessness of students to change horrific events became all the more evident with the escalation of US involvement and the revelations about war crimes. Students not all that political-minded could be swept up when the university moved to stifle dissent. They might not be attracted all that much to SDS, but they would defend their fellow students. Direct action tactics, increasingly ingenious as counter-strategies emerged from the beset administrations, included a lot of non-violent guerilla warfare. A shuffling of administrators offered researchers new opportunities for digging up the dirt and educating the undergrads.

“Getting Stanford Out of Southeast Asia” became the premier goal, a demand affixed to the Board of Trustees’ office door with a golden spike in October, 1968. (A nice touch: railroad baron Leland Stanford had himself nailed in the original golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869). This was particularly poignant because, as the author notes, many Stanford students were themselves the children of corporate leaders. In 1969, President Nixon nominated Stanford Trustee David Packard to be Deputy Secretary of Defense, solidifying or at least symbolizing the intimate ties of higher education with the merchants of death and the actual killers.

The author offers a photo of his younger self reading the SDS chapter’s demands to the Trustees, meeting at the Faculty Club, with the caption, “This is what ended my academic career.” (p.86) Perhaps, he now concludes, he came to that particular decision too early. But at the time, the intense focus on disrupting the campus war machine made for pessimism or at least revulsion regarding a future in university life.

Meanwhile, the activities of the days, months and a few years swallowed up other considerations and for good reasons. Like the most vivid direct action times of the 1930s-40s, like the intensity of civil rights marches in Southern cities of the 1950s, the juncture of protesters and police, with the university somewhere between, occupied the immediate attention of more students than could be imagined before 1966 and after 1975. Siegel quotes one of his own leaflets from 1969,”we have built a movement….we have found community.” At that time and place, it felt so true.

1970 brought something new by the simple reality that SDS existed no more. The sectarian entrails wrapped around themselves, but happily, most activists could walk away to better things. The Vietnam Moratorium was certainly one of them.  Earth Day was another. The continuing protest against ROTC on campus, continuing from 1968, yet another.  Some antiwar activists separated themselves from younger students also frustrated at the war’s continuing, by throwing rocks through available office windows—a sectarian error, in the language of earlier leftwing generations. Protesters of all kinds nevertheless came together to shut down the university and to confront police who were anything but nonviolent.

The rest of the volume might be characterized by post-1970 attempts to follow up the earlier work of the antiwar movement and SDS in particular. Activists became increasingly ingenious because they needed to be. The draft had effectively ended while the defense contracting went on and on, with eager support of the Stanford administration. The firing of Maoist professor H. Bruce Franklin attracted wide attention, including campus visits by Daniel Ellsberg. So did protests against the Electrical Engineering professor William Shockley, whose racist “proofs” of low intelligence among African Americans anticipated the rightward shift of liberalism’s less liberal center, Daniel P. Moynihan and Martin Peretz among the chief movers. Students went on strike at Nixon’s final escalation of the War in 1972. Decades later, that strike, along with the larger movement, would be celebrated by campus tours with Siegel as lecturer. Every struggle is lost except…the last one.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.