Ken Burns' Vietnam II: Student Unrest

I never at the time thought that the country was going down the tubes. I was and am too steeped in the American Constitution and American history to think so. Every so often bad politics takes over and then that episode is done and over with.

Ken Burns, in the episode of his series on the Vietnam War that is about the Tet Offensive, briefly refers to the student demonstrations at Columbia University and around the world. I was there at Columbia at the time, as a graduate student and a young instructor, and so I can fill in some of what happened so long ago.

My own concern at the time was with the role of the university at a time of social upheaval, and so I spent a lot of time with an ad hoc faculty group that was trying to mediate between the parties, something that had not been successfully done, because when some of the buildings, one of them including the President’s Office, were first taken over, the Columbia University Administration authorized the NYPD to break the siege, but the Administration got cold feet when some instructors and professors got hit with nightsticks, one badly enough to be brought inside Low Library to be treated for a bloodied scalp. (I emerged with a very tiny scar on one finger that disappeared before I got a chance to show it to my grandchildren.). The cops were called off and there was a stalemate. The athletes appeared before the faculty committee to announce that they wanted classes to resume while the Administration said they would not bend on their demand that the students just leave the buildings, Who, I wondered, as did some other junior faculty members, was looking after the university as a place of learning, of engaging in intellectual dispute rather than violent conflict, something deeply required by the unrest and contentiousness showing up in all parts of the country? The faculty committee, true to Liberal wishy-washy traditions, took a stand in that they set up a cordon of professors to stand between the students in Low Library and the cops outside the buildings. What they got for that was being pelted with garbage. The faculty had proven helpless. They were only employees. To quote a remark made by Peter Gay at the time, but out of context because he thought this was a positive thing, all the faculty are good for is adding new titles to the card catalogue in the library. As I pointed out to my friends who had joined the protesters in the buildings, there were no tanks about to take the side of the protestors. You had made your point and so just declare victory and vacate the buildings, which is just what Liberals like myself were advising the Johnson government to do about Vietnam.

But the stalemate would not break and there was fear that residents of Harlem, just across Morningside Park from the Columbia University campus, would “invade” the campus, this being, after all, the late Sixties. So the Columbia Administration did invite in the cops, and they did what they felt they had to do. I had heard them muttering to themselves about how these kids were spoiled and did not deserve the education they were getting. What happened was that the buildings were taken back. Those willing to leave when the operation was about to begin were allowed to leave; those who put up mild resistance were dragged down the steps of Low Library on their behinds; and those who stayed behind, linking arms in the so-called “last ditch room”, were severely beaten with nightsticks before being sent off to hospitals. The Black students who had occupied Hamilton Hall, the main classroom building for Columbia College, had a much better fate. They were escorted out of the building through underground tunnels under the supervision of the assistant to the Mayor in charge of City Hall-NYPD liaison and some influential Black politicians. I was glad that those students got the chance to play the race card and get better treatment than did the white students in Low Library and Fayerweather Hall, with whom they had only a weak connection. There was, not much later on, a report on the extent of student injuries, but not much came of it.

Everybody got what they wanted: the police the ability to let out their frustrations, John Lindsay, the Mayor at the time, concerned about the extent to which the police would outstrip their mandate; the students, who had made a big point to influence public opinion about the war; the faculty and students who wanted to get their campus back. There were no serious policy changes by the University Administration, even though the Cox Commission, later appointed to investigate the cause of the unrest, tried to argue that it had something to do with the condition of the dormitories, which were alright by the standards of the time. The Administration agreed to change the entrances to a new recreation center being built in Morningside Park, a steeply sloped park between the Morningside Heights campus and Harlem, to serve both the community and the university so that the community would not be offended by the prospect of separate entrances, one from the top of the park and another from its bottom

The Ken Burns series does not, I think, show that the United States was as deeply divided during the Vietnam War as had been the case before the American Civil War, which is what one of the people interviewed suggests. Nonsense. This was not a revolutionary moment. The country was prosperous, the class structure securely in place even while it was making room for Blacks as an ethnicity and would soon be making room for women as the equals of men in the occupational market. The Vietnam War was, instead, a cultural event for most people and those who suffered from it thought they were doing the right thing or were caught up in a fit of political madness from which they could not escape. The Vietnam War was an aberration rather than, somehow, the true nature of America. There was no existential threat to the United States from Vietnam even if there was one from the Soviet Union. It did not shatter American belief in America. We got entrenched there for political and not policy reasons, and there was no reason that had to happen. It would eventually be over however frustrating it was to see the Johnson and Nixon Administrations pander to the belief that the war was winnable when they knew it was not and everyone could see that American leaders were just trying to save face.

The country would go on to other cultural and political preoccupations. The Eighties saw a set of nuclear arms treaties with the Soviet Union and then the collapse of the Soviet Union. The women's movement and the environmental movement took on some prominence. Bill Cosby became the father everyone of all races came to love and Ronald Reagan’s benign grin also captured the public imagination. I do remember, though, the returning veterans who showed up on campuses across the country including mine. Some were mentally scatterbrained; others would eventually die from Agent Orange. There was no relief, for them, from the war.

I never at the time thought that the country was going down the tubes. I was and am too steeped in the American Constitution and American history to think so. Every so often bad politics takes over and then that episode is done and over with. That was true with McCarthyism and it was true with Vietnam and it will be true of Trump who will be looked back on as a disgrace by both political parties. We just have to hang in there and not lose our inner peace. Liberalism is always an uphill fight against the Know Nothings and there have been Know Nothing Presidents ever since Andrew Jackson, who didn’t have a clue about national finance. But see how far we have come in my lifetime, what  with gay rights, women rights, Black rights, with the national acceptance of the idea that medical care is a right rather than a luxury, just as is Social Security and, soon enough, a living wage. The bad things pass, and that includes world wars and labor unrest and scandals in baseball. The only thing that hasn’t been put behind us is the American Civil War, which continues to get fought between Red and Blue states and with active demonstrations in the streets. How we get over that one, I still do not know. Maybe it will happen only when enough Northerners move South.