This week marks the 29th anniversary of a tumultuous time in American history, a time when many U.S. campuses erupted in protest over U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Peter Brush, history bibliographer and reference librarian at the Central Library, contributed the following opinion/historical piece.
President Clinton’s critics are comparing the present American military strategy in Yugoslavia to the failed U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Perhaps the best comparisons will turn out to be that neither campaign was in our national interest, and neither campaign accomplished its goals.
Presently there is little domestic opposition to our attack on the Serbs. This could change if we send ground forces to Kosovo, which is something the government is contemplating even though it promised not to and even though most Americans oppose it. Opposition to bombing Communist forces in Indochina was also nonexistent when it began in the early 1960s.
Vanderbilt University, then as now, had no reputation as a locus of political protest. But the war in Indochina dragged on, and spread, and the situation at Vanderbilt changed radically. A look at microfilm files of the Tennessean and the Vanderbilt Hustler in the Central Library made possible the following account of those days of protest:
On May 4, 1970, about 500 Vanderbilt faculty and students joined a community march from the campus to the Federal Building downtown.
Beginning at a rally on Neely Lawn, the group carried an American flag in their demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. That same day the National Guard shot more than a dozen student protesters, killing four, at Kent State University in Ohio.
A couple of days later, hundreds of Vanderbilt students and faculty voted at a midnight mass meeting to walk out of their classes to protest events in Southeast Asia and Ohio. Faculty members voted to grant students a two-week recess sometime prior to the November elections to permit students and teachers to work for “peace candidates.”
Students agreed to circulate a petition throughout the Nashville community condemning President Richard Nixon’s actions in Cambodia. While staying away from classes, students instead attended workshops on the war in Indochina. Activists set up a “telegram table” on Rand Terrace to allow students and faculty the opportunity to send protest messages to Nixon for less than a dollar apiece.
Chancellor Alexander Heard said he did not disapprove of the planned activities.
“It is inherent in a university that freedom of expression extends to peaceful and lawful expressions of grief and protest,” Heard said.
A resolution urging suspension of classes at Peabody College was approved. Seventy-five percent of the students at the Divinity School agreed to stage a “moratorium strike” of classes.
Sociology professor John McCarthy told students to “keep the pressure on” after school ended for the summer. A Naval ROTC drill scheduled for Neely lawn was cancelled. The Nursing School decided to make final exams optional for its students.
The Faculty Council noted “extensive involvement in the events of the past two weeks and/or serious emotional reaction to recent international and domestic circumstances” would constitute an acceptable reason for granting a grade of absence, incomplete or withdrawal from a course.
On May 7, Heard met with Nixon, who appointed Heard advisor to the president on campus affairs. A few days later students rallied in Kirkland Hall to urge Heard to resign his new post, claiming Nixon was using Heard as a political decoy. The students marched into Kirkland and sat down on the main floor. When the protest was over the students exited the front door to the tune of the protest song “I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”
On May 8, Heard told cheering students that he planned to serve as a representative of the campuses to Nixon, and not as the president’s representative to the campuses. According to Heard, the president demonstrated a willingness to listen.
“I will do my best to help him hear,” Heard told a group of 1,500 students. According to Heard, disaffection and disillusionment in the educational community across our country were “so deep and widespread that we have a true national emergency; a national crisis.” The Chancellor received a standing ovation before and after his speech.
On Sunday, May 10, Vanderbilt Divinity students sought to move protest dialogue off the streets and into the churches of Nashville. Visiting 18 churches, the Divinity School students either read a statement about the war, participated in Sunday school classes or passed out a copy of their statement to churchgoers. In some churches the students were denied permission to read their statement, and in others they were welcomed with enthusiasm.
On May 14, Vanderbilt anti-war protesters, led by a guerrilla theatre troupe, demonstrated against the annual NROTC spring review. After the rally, demonstrators carried a coffin up the steps of Kirkland Hall, where University Chaplain Beverly Asbury led the group in prayer to mourn the dead caused by the war.
Heard, who retired in 1982, still maintains an office in Kirkland Hall. According to Heard, anti-Vietnam war protests occurred before and after the events described above. But those days in May were the high point.
In a speech to the Faculty Senate the Chancellor told his audience their reaction to the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State massacre “helped essentially to produce one of Vanderbilt’s finest hours.” The 1970 spring semester ended. Eventually the war in Indochina ended.
The terms of the settlement were about the same as the terms of the settlement reached at the Geneva Convention in 1954, which meant the American effort, no matter how well-intentioned, was mostly for naught.
I fear our attack on Yugoslavia will bring the same result, even if it is virtually inconceivable the war in Yugoslavia could continue as long as the war in Indochina. Twenty-nine years ago Heard and hundreds of Vanderbilt faculty and students made clear to their government the consequences of engaging in an unjust and inconclusive war.
It was a time to remember.
Peter Brush, who served in Vietnam in the Marine Corps, came to Vanderbilt in July 1997. His job as history bibliographer involves serving as a liaison between the Central Library and the history department, everything from purchasing books and other materials to helping students with in-depth research projects.