CHAPTER III: VIETNAM AND THE FRACTURING OF THE ACTIVIST CONSENSUS
So they gave these tests on campus property . . . Refusal meant that you would immediately go to the head of the list of your draft board. So that was the first time that the war became very real to me.
-- Dennis Hale, class of 1966
The escalation of the Vietnam War had a significant impact on Oberlin students. A small minority had been concerned with the war for several years, but the bombing of North Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964 raised campus-wide awareness almost overnight. The Vietnam War, so distant, became a huge presence on campus that affected ideas of community, student power, and free speech, and influenced daily decisions like class choices and social interactions.
The first stirrings of protest against the war occurred in late 1964. In December, the Student Council voted to send a letter to President Johnson opposing the expansion of the war and advocating withdrawal. Opposing expansion was a fairly moderate position, but calling for withdrawal was much more radical. (National SDS could not even agree to support withdrawal.) This letter was put to a referendum of the student body. So that students could be more informed on the issues of the referendum, a forum was held in which professors and students argued both for and against the war. Yet the letter was defeated by a wide margin. The anti-war movement did not have broad-based support. Susan Kerr remembered there was one student “who would regularly walk around Tappan Square with a peace sign. And most of the time he was the only one who would do it . . . He stood out because he would do it even though he was the only one.”
Activity increased in the spring. Students picketed in Cleveland and participated in a fast against the war, which passed from campus to campus across the country. In both cases there were counter-protests. “Eaters for Escalation” tried to counter the press that forty fasters at Oberlin received. In April fifty College students traveled to Washington to join the SDS march against the war.
A critical part of the early anti-war movement was teach-ins. These events were no less important at Oberlin where intellectual discussion and debate were very highly valued. Teach-ins reflected the continuing attitude that United States foreign policy could be changed through discussion. The attitude “that if people only knew” that had pervaded civil rights, anti-HUAC, and on-campus issues continued, but students against the war found a far less supportive campus than those that had advocated civil rights. In many cases these were the same students who had been most active in the civil rights movement including Marcia Aronoff, Bernie Mayer, Matt Rinaldi, and many others who had been to the South.
On September 9, 1965, President Carr’s name appeared in the New York Times endorsing a statement by the Committee for an Effective and Durable Peace in Asia whose avowed purpose was “to support President Johnson’s proposals to bring about a viable peace in Vietnam.” Clearly Oberlin was a long way from the consensus that had characterized civil rights.
In the spring of 1965, a newly formed campus chapter of SDS took on a large role in anti-war activism. The chapter may have formed to fill precisely this void. The Oberlin Review, reporting on the new organization, noted that “with the old Student Peace Union defunct, a stronger need for SDS is apparently being felt on campus.” But anti-war activism remained largely spontaneous, reaching across organizational boundaries. The lack of formal organization in the anti-war movement reflected the rejection of structures inherent in a notion of community based on participatory democracy.
In 1965 the College selected Secretary of State Dean Rusk to receive an honorary degree. The selection sparked controversy. “Many members of the Oberlin Community, students and faculty, have strong reservations about the wisdom of Mr. Rusk’s policies in Viet Nam and the Dominican Republic, and are particularly disturbed by his intolerant criticism of the academic community,” reported the Review. Concerned students considered planning a demonstration for graduation, but the administration reached an agreement with them. Marcia Aronoff remembered, “[We] met with Rusk the night before to argue with him about the mistaken foreign policy of the United States...[and] with considerable hubris felt we could convince him of the inappropriateness of our position in Vietnam.” Radicals still hoped that the war could be ended through education and conversation. That optimism would fade in the next school year.
* * *
On May 14, 1966 Oberlin College administered the student draft deferment test. At least 250 students used this as an opportunity to voice their opposition to the war. The demonstration consisted of two groups. Most participants chose to picket the test. A smaller group of forty or fifty students sat-in at the entrance to Finney Chapel, where the test instructions were given. This group objected not only to the war, but also to the College administering a test designed to facilitate the conscription of students.
In order to avoid a direct confrontation, College administrators decided to move the test site from Finney Chapel to Hales Gymnasium. The demonstrators were warned that if they attempted to block administration of the test at Hales, they would be expelled. The sit-in participants stayed at Finney. The picket moved to Hales, and when the time for the exam arrived, many of the picketers went inside to take the test.
As part of a national SDS campaign against the exam, the demonstrators passed out an alternative exam. It asked questions that challenged students’ understanding of the conflict in Vietnam. The alternative test provided answers and cited sources to support them. The test challenged government assertions that the war was a result of aggression from the North and that America represented justice and freedom.
The demonstrators released a statement explaining their actions. The statement emphasized that the demonstration was directed against the Vietnam War and not against students taking the test.
[W]e feel that students who have chosen to demonstrate and then take the test can be consistent in doing so. We realize also that some students must take this test to avoid being drafted and we have not suggested that those who feel they must take this exam should not do so. By choosing to demonstrate before the test, the student is voicing his opposition to the war.
The picketers and sit-in participants presented a united front, saying that the goal of both was to end the war. But many of the participants wished to push their analysis past a criticism of the war to an examination of the ways in which the College was complicit in the war effort. “Those of the demonstrators who have chosen to sit-in feel that the test-administrators are, by giving the test, essentially recruiting manpower for the War . . . Those who picket . . .feel that for the first time Oberlin as a community is directly involved in the war-preparation effort.”
In this statement, the demonstrators showed clear concern for the integrity of the community. By issuing this statement and passing out the alternative test, they wanted their actions to cause others to reflect on the war and Oberlin’s involvement in it. In many ways, they were implementing tactics learned in the civil rights movement by confronting the community about its complicity in the war.
The issue of civil disobedience, breaking laws or rules in a nonviolent manner, during the Vietnam War years raised the question of what students were willing to risk. For each student it was different. There was undoubtedly a small group of students who were willing to risk a significant jail sentence for draft resistance activities. As we will see later, some students did sever their connection with the draft, and at least one spent time in jail after graduating for refusing induction. Many of the students involved in the anti-war movement had taken serious risks in the civil rights movement by going South and facing the possibility of being killed, so it is difficult to say that these students were unwilling to take risks in the anti-war movement, which they believed in as fervently as civil rights. There were probably many people who participated in the coercive anti-war demonstrations (those which prevented freedom of movement) who were not willing to take such risks. These may even have been the majority of participants, particularly the followers. But many of the leaders, including Peter Blood, Joe Gross, and Jack Hill, remained committed to risking arrest.
In the case of the draft test sit-in, it is unclear how students expected the administration to react, but it is likely they anticipated the possibility of arrest and were willing to accept that consequence. Students went ahead with the sit-in despite the threats of expulsion issued by President Carr, but if they had been expelled, it is unlikely that anti-war students would have accepted this quietly.
Protesters made a distinction between two different kinds of risk: risk of arrest and risk of expulsion. They were much more willing to accept the former rather than that the latter. This may have been because they were unwilling to give up the future prospects that a college education would open for them, but there were also two other factors at work here. First, as Peter Blood recalled,
The reason why it [getting expelled] was such a big issue was at that point if you had an undergraduate deferment you couldn’t be drafted . . . People were very afraid that if they got expelled from campus they would be drafted right away.
So, at least for male students (and men had a disproportionate influence on the direction of student protest) being expelled meant more than just giving up an Oberlin education. It meant the possibility of going off to Vietnam or spending several years in prison. This was quite a substantial risk, somewhat disproportionate to the punishment intended by expulsion during times of peace.
Second, anti-war students believed that their goals should be the goals of the College. They desperately wanted the anti-war movement to be part of Oberlin’s substantive community values in the same way that the civil rights movement had been and to some extent remained. When the campus did not rally behind the anti-war movement, these students were deeply disappointed and their disillusionment led to an erosion of the community ideal.
President Carr interpreted student behavior as disruption and conflict, not sincere concern for community and discussion. He was so upset by this event that in 1966 he dedicated his entire annual report to explaining the issues as he saw them. Though supportive of civil disobedience when off campus, he opposed it on campus. Though he had no problem with students interfering with the “right” of Southern racists not to have to interact with people of color, he did not see any value in confronting College administrators with their involvement in the war. For Carr the test administration was “a matter of simple convenience” for the many students who wanted to take the test, not a sign of College complicity in the war effort. There was certainly some merit in this position, since many students were legally required to take the test. Leaving Oberlin to do so might have created a large burden on students who were not allowed to have cars.
But Carr also considered interfering with this “mere convenience” to be hindering the essential operations of the College, and for this reason he threatened sit-in participants with expulsion. By contrast, he respected the right of picketers to voice their opposition to the war in less confrontational ways. He argued that “it is speech, not action, words, not acts, with which academic freedom, or for that matter civil liberty, is very largely concerned.” At this point, there was not widespread discussion of Carr’s concerns, mainly because the test was given successfully and no individuals were directly targeted by the demonstrators.
This demonstration was significant for several reasons. It was the first time that Oberlin students began to make arguments about College complicity with the Vietnam War. This argument became central to the radical understanding of the relationship between students and the war on many campuses over the next two years. The draft test situation also revealed the changing attitudes toward civil disobedience and its relation to academic freedom. For the first time, national issues became an obstacle to community instead of an aid in forming it. Students were searching for the power to affect their community through picketing and civil disobedience, but their respect for others remained high. However, their initial efforts to influence foreign policy had not been particularly successful. The idealism that had characterized the early movement was beginning to wear away
Dennis Hale, telephone interview by author, tape recording, 13 Nov. 2001.
Mike Faden, “Student Council Takes Stand Against U.S. Role in Vietnam,” Oberlin Review, 8 Dec. 1964, 1.
“Panel Discusses Vietnam Policy,” Oberlin Review, 15 Dec. 1964, 1 and 4.
Mike Underhill, “Students Defeat Both Sections of Council’s Vietnam Referendum,” Oberlin Review, 18 Dec. 1964, 1 and 4.
Susan Kerr Chandler, interview.
“Peace, Pease Spark Political Activism,” Oberlin Review, 12 June 1965, 11.
Advertisement appearing in New York Times, 9 Sept. 1965, 30.
Victor Lucas, “Students From SDS: Elect Executive Board,” Oberlin Review, 30 April 1965, 1; the Student Peace Union worked for nuclear disarmament and was associated by many students with the Old Left. For this reason it was not in a good position to lead the campus anti-war movement, although it’s members were some of the first people to express concern about the Vietnam War.
Student Council to President Carr, 1 June 1965, Student Life Files, Carr Presidential Records, Box 6, OCA.
Marcia Aronoff, interview.
“Quiet Activism Erupts in Spring Protest,” Oberlin Review, 20 Sept. 1966, 17.
Robert K. Carr, The President’s Report (12 November 1966), Oberlin College 1965-1966, 8-9.
“What Do You Know?? Viet Counter-Test,” 1965-66, Student Organization Files, Student Life Group, Box 2, OCA.
“May 14th Demonstration,” 1966, Student Senate Files, Student Life Group, Box 11, OCA.
Peter Blood, interview.
Carr, President’s Report, 6.