When the University was Antiwar

In terms of public engagement, the American war in Vietnam defined the focus of US higher education in the 1960s and early 1970s. In undergraduate dorms, graduate student seminars, administrative offices, and faculty meetings, there was virtually no place to get away from the war and its effects. A fundamental reason for this was the fact that the vast majority of male students were potentially eligible for the draft. Indeed, many college men were only a few grade points away from being reclassified as 1-A, which meant their induction was often only weeks or months away. It was the draft that motivated students to begin looking critically at the war and it was the draft that compelled antiwar faculty to take actions designed to protect their male students from the draft and the war. One such action was giving all students A’s in order to lift their grade point averages to a number that maintained a classification keeping them out of the military.

However, even at its peak, the number of faculty participating in this and other actions designed to protest the war were in the minority. Much more common in US academia was either a tacit acceptance of the way things were or an active defense of the policies Washington was engaged in. As historian Ellen Schrecker makes clear in her book The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, part of this defense stemmed from institutional and individual connections to the government and corporate America via research and teaching grants and relationships. Neither the universities’ administrations or their faculty so tethered were willing to bite the hand that fed them, so to speak. Ultimately, their inaction and even defense of US policy in Vietnam and elsewhere were no different than that found in mainstream media and the general population.

Consequently, when individuals employed in academia began to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam, they were met with a venom previously reserved for traitors and communists (which are often synonymous in the American mind). Besides the pillorying in the media, those professors and researchers who spoke out faced discipline, loss of funding, and threats to their jobs, even if they had tenure. Schrecker discusses a few of these cases; Michael Parenti’s dismissal from the University of Vermont is one such case and Bruce Franklin’s from Stanford is two of them. Cursorily, Noam Chomsky, who may be the best known of all leftist US academics and wrote the seminal essay titled The Responsibility of the Intellectuals in 1967 calling on this demographic to act against the US war, never lost his job at MIT. Some college administrations respect the concept of academic freedom more than they do the money represented by trustees, regents, and donors, apparently. Or maybe their financial situations are pretty much impenetrable.

On the other hand, as the movement against the war became more and more radical in its analysis and students realized that the war was not just a mistake, but a necessary manifestation of imperialism, right-wing faculty began to feel those students’ wrath. Schrecker describes the harassment rendered to certain particularly right-wing faculty. One such professor—the economist Milton Friedman—saw his class frequently disrupted by radicals because of his opposition to the protests and the politics behind them. Given his primary role in the establishment of the fascist Chilean president Pinochet’s economic plan after the coup in 1973, one might say Friedman got off easy.

The Lost Promise is a distinctive history. By keeping her focus on university and college campuses and those who lived, studied and worked there the author has created a panoramic narrative that connects the upsurge in campus political activity with the fast-changing world of the 1960s and early 1970s. She seamlessly weaves the politics and culture of the period into the fabric of upheaval and change experienced in academia. The text chronicles the transition on campus from a naive belief that the powers that be would change policy in Vietnam once they understood its negative impact to an increasingly radical understanding that it was imperialism at work. Likewise, the liberation struggle of Black Americans is discussed in the context of the period. Even though the number of Black students was considerably less than Black Americans’ representation in society, their efforts to expand the curriculum to include the history of Blacks and other non-white US residents provoked some of the most disruptive protests of the time. Indeed, not only were those protests some of the most disruptive—from the Third World strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley to the Chicano protests in Los Angeles and the Black Student Union building occupation at Cornell—they were also some of the most violent thanks to the brutality of the police and vigilantes.

In what can only be described as a sad truth by this reviewer, too many of the changes that took place in US higher education because of these years of protests have disappeared. Instead, too many universities and colleges are nowadays little more than training schools for particular strata of the capitalist managerial elite. While this was certainly quite true in the long Sixties, the fact there was a sizable number of politically engaged and radical students led to a questioning of that role. The democratization of higher education that was due in part to the GI Bill was further enhanced by the genuine affordability of a college education for working-class youth. For many potential students nowadays, paying for a college education requires the mortgaging of one’s future. The decades of right-wing attacks on secondary education that began in the 1960s in response to the radicalization taking place on campus have produced the effect they hoped for. This is despite the fact that a fair number of those radical students ended up becoming professors in the university.

The German student radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit once told Jean Paul Sartre: “We do not hope to make some kind of socialist university in our society, for we know that the function of the university will stay the same so long as the system is unchanged as a whole. But we believe that there can be moments of rupture in the system’s cohesion and that is possible to profit by them to open breaches in it.” The period examined and discussed by Ellen Schrecker in her book The Lost Promise was such a moment. One hopes that another with even greater effect is in the offing. God knows it is sorely needed.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com