What does one do when one wants to write a book on a subject where so much has already been written? The answer is find something on the subject that hasn’t been written about in so much detail and publish a book on that. This seems to have been the strategy for Marc Jason Gilbert in the book he edited: The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums, (Praeger, 2001). There are only so many ways one might be interested in reading what Mark Rudd and the students of Columbia University got up to with their occupation of college buildings as part of their protest about what they perceived as their university’s complicity in the Vietnam War, or what happened at the Days of Rage in Chicago. Even though I am way too young to have been there and I live in a different country, after reading a number of accounts I can almost place myself in the middle of the action. Presumably in part, if not in whole, because these places are the most exciting to read about, they are the areas where authors have focused.
But what happened away from the elite universities? What were the activities in opposition to the war in sections of the student movement that were not radically left-wing, at backwater universities or in high schools? This is what Gilbert’s book focuses upon and for that, it is a useful addition to books on the Vietnam antiwar movement. The thirteen chapters are of varying quality but the first two are certainly worthwhile. These are by John Andrew and Jonathan Schoenwald respectively, and they deal with the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and the burgeoning libertarian movement. The YAF was very much pro the war and anti-Communist, but increasingly became to oppose the draft, whereas the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL) opposed both the war and the draft.
One thing that surprised me when reading through this book was how small the campus demonstrations against the Vietnam war actually were. Not being part of this generation but hearing about it second or third hand one might have the sense that the antiwar activity was all-consuming for a very substantial proportion of the student movement. This was not the case. Clyde Brown and Gayle K. Pluta Brown have a chapter dealing with the opposition to the war at Iowa State University that at the time had 21,000 students. As the authors comment, “No significant mass protest had been generated against the Vietnam War at Iowa State University before October 1969.” When they did commence, the largest rally against the war mentioned “drew three thousand people to central campus.” It is not entirely clear whether all of those who attended were students, and even if they were, it is still a small proportion of the student body. The authors mention another march where “Fifty to seventy-five students participated.” This is so small that it is insignificant. The antiwar activity at Ball State University is interesting because of how puny it actually was. Writing about this institution Anthony O. Edmonds and Joel Shrock conclude:
[The students] were local, parochial, ambitious, Midwestern, middle-class, White kids who went to college to make mom and dad proud and find a career. With hardly a red-diaper baby among them, it was a very tough audience for the few anti-war advocates around. Although one Ball State student managed to toss a tomato toward Richard Nixon during inaugural festivities in 1969, that is not the real Ball State. On October 17, 1969, apparently jocked-out residents of Beeman Hall, a women’s dorm at Ball State, started a petition supporting President Nixon’s Vietnam War policy. It read in part: “We must exercise an intelligent degree of faith and trust in our national leader.” By the time it reached the White House, it had over three thousand signatures. This was the “telltale heart” of the heart of the country.
Marc Jason Gilbert’s has his own chapter on antiwar activity at University High School in Los Angeles. As the author admits, this was hardy a typical American high school. The student body contained those who “were children of UCLA faculty and many were second or third-generation Jewish or Asian Americans striving to live up to their parents’ high standards and even higher expectations.” By the mid-1960s “such was the level of academic excellence that even the football team’s linemen went to prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard University.” Given this background it is not surprising that the school had its own radical alternative student newspaper, The Red Tide, that was printed off campus or that a sophomore launched a court case against the Los Angeles Unified School District when the school authorities tried to stifle its distribution at the school. I shall conclude this post with two anecdotes Gilbert mentions about this school when setting the scene prior to the Vietnam War. I found them both amusing:
So distant was the school from later standards of political correctness that even though a large percentage of its students were Jewish, no one raised a voice in protest over the school’s alma mater, which was set to the music of “Deutschland uber Alles.”
At the climax of the Cuban debacle… many …students were asked to wait at the end of the school day for their parents to pick them up. The school authorities explained that nuclear war was expected to begin before they could get home, and the school system preferred that the children not be incinerated in the school system’s buses.