History Repeating Itself

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

That great American wit (and anti-imperialist), Mark Twain, reputedly once remarked that history does not repeat itself — but it rhymes. Be that as it may, history right now does in fact seem to be repeating itself — once again in my own lifetime – and in a terrible and appalling kind of way.

This is all so deja vu.  Students on college campuses who are protesting against the U.S. government-supported Israeli genocide in Gaza are being smeared in the corporate news media and by demagogic politicians, just like at the time of the Vietnam War when I was in college and was one of the protesters against that earlier war, as “un-American” and dangerous subversives.  Instead of appreciating the idealism of their students and supporting them against these scurrilous attacks coming from outside of academia, pusillanimous college administrators are going right along with them.  Protesting students are being suspended or threatened with expulsion.  Supporting faculty are being sanctioned, too. On some campuses, college administrators are even calling in the forces of state repression to shut down and brutally disperse the peaceful encampments set up by students in solidarity with the Palestinians.

We are indeed fortunate so far, with this kind of incendiary rhetoric reminiscent of Nixon and his vice-president Spiro Agnew, that there has been no repeat of the deaths and woundings of anti-war student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State who were shot by the Ohio National Guard and Mississippi State Police at the time of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970.  However, if things continue the way they seem to be going, we could easily end up with similar tragedies happening.  A NYPD cop fired his gun “accidentally” at the Columbia building occupation, and the LAPD just stood by and watched while the UCLA student encampment was being violently attacked by Zionist thugs.

Back in our day, a genocide was being committed against the people of Vietnam, who were fighting as the Palestinians are doing, for their independence and freedom.   With the support of our tax dollars, millions of tons of bombs were dropped on Indochina, jungles were sprayed with the Agent Orange defoliant (leading to human birth defects that are still taking place today), children ran down the street screaming from napalm burns, peasants were massacred at My Lai and in other villages.  The names of young Americans, whom we knew from our hometowns, were appearing in the growing “body count,” along with thousands and thousands of unnamed and unacknowledged Vietnamese victims.  For us, the sights of Vietnam played on the old black-and white TV screens on the evening news, were intolerable.

My own undergraduate campus, Michigan State, as revealed in a 1966 Ramparts Magazine exposé, played a notorious role in facilitating the U.S.’s misbegotten involvement in Vietnam.  In the 1950s, before the U.S. was more openly involved with the sending in of thousands of troops, CIA agents were given academic appointments as MSU criminal justice instructors to go under cover to South Vietnam and provide support for the corrupt U.S.-allied anti-communist government of Ngo Dinh Diem — such as training his police force in interrogation (i.e., torture) techniques.  Pulling back the cover on MSU’s “Vietnam Project” showed us at that time that, far from being “ivory towers” where knowledge for the betterment of humanity was being pursued — as we had been brought up to believe in the naive 1950s — universities were complicit with the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower had warned about.

Like today’s college students who are justly horrified by the scenes coming out of Gaza and their own institutions’ likely complicity with this genocide against the Palestinians, we felt an imperative to take action to try to bring to a stop that unconscionable war.  So we gathered time and again to protest on the MSU campus, sometimes marching in great numbers the several miles to rally at the state capitol in Lansing.  We organized a teach-in informing the newly incoming cohorts of students about Michigan State’s complicity with the war.  Some of us invaded a Board of Trustees meeting carrying a symbolic coffin to shame them for their inaction.  We confronted military and CIA recruiters.  We occupied the college administration building.  On another memorable occasion, hundreds of us sat-down in the main street dividing the campus and town — blocking traffic and interfering with “business as usual.”  I recall  myself and several friends locking ourselves in the iconic bell tower on the MSU campus and ringing the bell ceaselessly for an hour or more to alert other students to turn out for an anti-war demonstration.

Our collective anti-war efforts on my campus and elsewhere all across the country, I am very proud to say, helped significantly to accomplish the aim of ending the Vietnam War (although, unfortunately, we were not able to pull off the anti-systemic revolution that was needed).  And, eventually, in spite of all the opprobrium directed against us, we came out vindicated in the eyes of most reasonable Americans.

So here we are once again, finding ourselves at another huge moment in the history of this country and the world when we are confronted with yet another genocide against an oppressed colonized people.  The current wave of college students protesting against it is totally impressive.  And they are far more politically-sophisticated and articulate — compared to how most of us were back then — about the rotten and probably irredeemable nature of our existing educational, governmental and economic institutions.

We of the older generations should shake our old tired bones, get out of our cozy armchairs and lend them our support, as best we can.  By paying close attention to what they say and do, there is a whole lot we can learn from them.  Together let’s ensure this awful kind of history never more repeats itself.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.