The Vietnam War brought unprecedented activism at the University in forms ranging from peaceful pickets and fasting to sieges on buildings and firebombing. It divided the campus deeply between radicals and conservatives, youths and adults, and draft refusers and ROTC cadets.
Toward the end of the war, though, the sense of emergency also united both students and faculty in overwhelming numbers. Most of all, the war shattered the community’s political outlook and its conception of what it means to serve the nation.
Activism came late to the University, largely because it took years of wrestling with notions of nationalism and general political indifference before a significant number of students came to see dissent as a valid form of service.
In March 1965, Landon Y. Jones ’66 wrote an op-ed in The Daily Princetonian pointing to energetic protests at Berkeley, Georgetown, and Yale, complaining that “Unfortunately, demonstrations at Princeton are but flashes in the comfortable night of apathy.” He added that the protesters were confined to a certain type: “a respectable number of these faces wore beards or other traces of so-called ‘beatnikism.’”
Jonathan M. Wiener ’66 wrote an op-ed on the Undergraduate Committee on Human Rights, which was formed to “avoid contamination by the ‘beatnik’ and ‘lunatic fringe’ element” but fizzled out quickly because “the coat-and-tie boys lacked the interest and commitment to create an organization of “responsible” activism.” He concluded that the Vietnam protesters did not represent the overall student body and that there is “no base for committed student activism among Princeton undergraduates.”
In October 1966, one student accused University students of taking “a four-year sabbatical from responsibility and concern” and added, “Berkeley and Harvard and dozens of other campuses are hotbeds of student protest, activity, and activism; Princeton men like to go to the movies.”
The tide of rebellion did take hold in the early years of the conflict, though it was extremely limited in membership. “‘In the nation's service’ does not mean unthinking support of a nation's policies,” Jeffrey M. Schevitz ’62 wrote in a 1965 letter to the ‘Prince,’ “It is my opinion that support of current U.S. policy in Vietnam is in the nation's disservice (to say nothing about the disservice to the world).”
In fall 1965, a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded at the University, despite some students’ concerns over the organization’s ties to the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs and other Marxist societies. Membership was originally confined to a few radical students; most students were baffled by the impulse to protest in such prosperous conditions, and one Tiger Inn senior said he wanted to “punch those guys out.” By May, the group was proud that its membership had grown to 50 — measly by the standards of the later demonstrators.
On Oct. 16, 1965, University students participated in protest in Trenton before hiking 18 miles to Fort Dix, an Army post. That November, 1,002 students pledged their names to a telegram of support to troops in South Vietnam.
In February 1965, 93 University faculty signed an ad in the New York Times urging Johnson not to escalate the Vietnam crisis and charging that the United States “lost the political initiative in Vietnam and is attempting to substitute military actions for political ones.” On Jan. 15, 1967, two ads appeared in the Times signed by 59 faculty, one reading “U.S. Intervention in Vietnam is illegal” and the other reading “Mr. President: Stop the Bombing.”
On March 4, 1965, two opposing groups of students marched in Palmer Square, the peace protesters with signs like “End Bomber Diplomacy” and the pro-war camp with signs like “Freedom is worth fighting for.” In April, students participated in the national SDS march in Washington, carrying a 10-foot banner that read “Even Princeton,” which counter-protesters tried to snatch at a later event.
On Nov. 5, 1966, 150 students and faculty marched from Nassau Hall down Nassau Street and Washington Road to Palmer Stadium in a “Peace Parade,” carrying signs like “Kill for Peace” and “Make Love Not War.” It was the day of a football game, and they encountered heckling from alumni picnicking along Ivy Lane.
On May 11, 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson spoke at the dedication of Robertson Hall while 286 students, dressed in coats and ties, marched silently in protest. A few bystanders threw eggs at the marchers, and one woman shouted during Johnson’s speech, but otherwise the protest was largely peaceful. One participant later wrote, “It has been argued by some, however, that an ardent love of Princeton and America is not most adequately expressed by the uncritical and reverential reception of a speech which was remarkable only in its banality.”
On April 12, 1967, 10 speakers and two singers participated in the Spring Mobilization Forum to End the War in Vietnam in Whig Hall. Three days later, the University’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Young Democrats, We Won’t Go, and the Ad Hoc Committee to Bring About Negotiations in Vietnam participated in a massive march in New York City with Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Oct. 9, 1967, 20 University SDS members protested outside an Army examination center in Newark. Later in the month, University students joined a protest at the Pentagon but were chased off the steps. One recalled seeing the “startled crowd of bleeding, screaming, crying, frightened fellow students” before being arrested.
On Dec. 5, 1967, students picketed for several hours while a recruiter interviewed students for Dow Chemical, the main producer of napalm. In 1969, the SDS attempted to block recruiters from the Marines and General Electric from speaking with students.
Resistance to the draft was prevalent at the University, because full-time students were not always granted deferments, and those who refused service faced five years in prison. In October 1965, SDS advised University students to register as conscientious objectors, regardless of their religion, to “clog up the induction procedure.” The Princeton Draft Resistance Union was created in 1967.
On May 2, 1970, 175 draft cards were handed in at the University Chapel, and at least 350 were handed in that week. That month, the University hosted a conference of The Union for National Draft Opposition (UNDO) that attracted about 200 students.
Some of the most violent protests centered on the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which was overseen by 12 universities to bring technical and scientific expertise to the advancement of national security. The branch in Princeton leased a property from the University in 1959.
In October 1967, SDS wrote to University President Robert F. Goheen on the University’s membership in IDA, arguing, “Research in the service of the warfare state is incompatible with the expressed liberal goals of this university."
One unique voice in the “In the Nation’s Service” debate was David Vogel, who advanced the argument in his “The Tiger and the Eagle” that the University actually has no obligation to the country. “Princeton University existed before the United States of America — and, if the events of this summer are an indication — it will continue to exist long after the United States of America,” he wrote. Because of our tradition of intellectual independence, he continued, there is no “sacrosanct relationship between Princeton’s and the national interests in Washington,” and University resources should not be used by the IDA.
On the morning of Oct. 23, 1967, 31 undergraduates formed a blockade at the entrance to IDA, preventing the employees from entering. At about 1:30 p.m., Police Chief McCrohan decided to intervene and gave the protesters five minutes to disperse before arresting them and loading them onto a bus to the Borough Hall jail. The students, expecting to be arrested, had already arranged for their bail, which totalled $7,300.
In the summer of 1968, all university memberships in IDA were abandoned. However, students still protested against the IDA leasing John von Neumann Hall, which was just east of the EQuad on Prospect Ave., from the University.
ROTC provided another target close to home for Vietnam protesters. On April 25, 1969, at least 200 students marched from Nassau Hall to Pardee field, where they chanted “U.S. out of Vietnam, ROTC out of Princeton” while the Army and Navy ROTC students stood for their annual joint revue behind the reviewing stands on the field.
In 1970, the Dean of the College recommended terminating the University’s contracts with the three services in June 1972, allowing some of the current 123 ROTC students to finish. ROTC students issued a petition stating that, “terminating the ROTC programs on this campus is not a relevant response to American involvement in Vietnam, and in no way benefits efforts to end that involvement.”
The University Trustees, however, accepted the Dean’s recommendation, reasoning that “the efficacy of the programs depends on a degree of their acceptance by the Faculty and the undergraduates that regrettabl[y] does not now exist.” Originally, the University disbanded its ROTC Army, Navy, and Air Force programs, but after later discussion with Army representatives, it was determined that the Army program alone would stay.
In May 1972, a poll of 3346 students revealed 64 percent to be in favor of deferring reinstatement of ROTC until a reconsideration at the end of the war. Alumni from the Class of 1938 agreed to a resolution acknowledging that instruction in the ROTC program “has not always measured up to the University’s level of curriculum” but asserting that the program should be sustained because “Princeton and the nation have important mutual interests.”
For two days, from Feb. 16–18, 1968, at least 200 students and faculty participated in a fast and attended discussions on the war.
In March 1968, SDS from Rutgers and the University protested the draft outside the Newark Federal Building, chanting “Hell no, we won’t go” in support of University student Benjamin Stackler’s GS ’69 refusal to be inducted. In May, in addition to issues that included counseling for drafted students and abolishing parietals, between 1,000 and 1,500 students gathered in front of Nassau Hall to protest the war.
On Nov. 5, 1968, SDS protested the national election outside the same Newark building, and were shoved by members of the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom. Apparently, without provocation, police began clubbing the radicals. Among the victims was Jimmy Tarlau ’70, who had to be treated for scalp lacerations at Newark City Hospital and whose main goal as a student was “radicalizing the University,” according to Princeton Alumni Weekly.
During the 1969–1970 academic year, protests at the University reached a fever pitch, accompanying another change students had been protesting for: 170 women moved into Pyne Hall. By this point, protests had a much wider agenda than the war: investment in apartheid, environmental issues, and women’s liberation had also entered the scene.
On Oct. 12, 1969, about 300 members of the University community joined a march 5,000 strong on Fort Dix boot camp. About 600 soldiers formed a line and pointed their bayonets at the crowd. After a few minutes, they fired tear gas, and the protest dispersed.
On Oct. 14, 1969, a teach-in with about 3,000 attendees was held in Dillon Gym in anticipation of Moratorium Day, for which faculty cancelled classes. Most students favored the moratorium, and dissenters who put up posters advising students to attend class anyway saw their posters torn down. Goheen refused to cancel classes, writing, “It does not, however, seem to me right to force participation in this sort of protest upon members of the University who may feel very differently.”
The second moratorium was on Nov. 13 and 14; the Vietnam Assembly was held in Jadwin Gymnasium with the purpose to “discuss and consider resolutions concerning the war in Vietnam and related issues.” It lasted four hours, and over 1,500 students and local alumni participated. President Goheen clarified that it was a “meeting of individuals” because, “It is wrong for the University to seek to take a position as an institution on controversial political questions.”
Nov. 15 was the day of the Yale game, which a CPUC meeting considered rescheduling. Fifteen busloads of Princetonians forewent the game to join a march on Washington by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The University and Yale bands formed a peace sign during halftime.
On March 5, 1970, radical students harassed Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel as he spoke at Jadwin, in what was called the “Hickel Heckle.” According the Ad Hoc Sub-Committee of Free Speech, “His talk was drowned out by a group of demonstrators so that he could not be heard.” 1,400 students later signed a letter of apology to Hickel.
Student activism reached its absolute peak in May 1970. On April 31, 1970, only a half hour after Nixon announced his decision to invade Cambodia, more than 2,500 students filled the seats and aisles of the University Chapel in a mass meeting and recommended a strike as well as the impeachment of Nixon, making the University first in the strike movement which in days would envelop the nation.
On May 1, 1970, a demonstration was held at Mather Sundial and over 2,500 members of the community voted to strike and form picket lines “around all classroom buildings” the following day. Students carried signs with messages such as “Build not Burn,” “Vietnam for the Vietnamese,” “What Does War Settle?”, and “Fulbright for President.” The eating clubs cancelled Houseparties that weekend, and most student activities were cancelled.
Almost all of these protests were nonviolent, with the notable exception of the firebombing of the ROTC office at 3:20 a.m. on May 2. The four student perpetrators, two of whom attended the University, were taken into custody at 4 a.m. based on eyewitness evidence. They pleaded guilty to attempted arson, conspiracy, and possession of a molotov cocktail and were sentenced to three months in prison and fined $500, in addition to restitution for the damage.
On May 4, a mass assembly was held in Jadwin; over 5,000 spectators were present. For the next week of the strike, faculty held emergency teach-ins and debated University policy, agreeing that it should not condemn the war as an institution, only as individuals.
On May 7, 1970, students marched on the IDA building, crowding the garden, spray-painting the walls, and climbing on the roof. Police came and took control of the roof as students continued demonstrating, sleeping in tarp tents on the property to prevent IDA employees from entering. After five days they were at last forced out, so they moved their tents to behind the Engineering Quad.
William J. Burlingham ’73 was charged with arson for a small fire at 2:25 a.m. in the IDA building; an hour later another fire was discovered in the basement of Nassau Hall. When the campers were ordered out of the Engineering Quad, they moved in front of Nassau Hall, where the University finally dispersed them.
During Commencement in 1970, many graduates forewent caps and gowns and carried anti-war signs.
When students arrived back at the University in fall 1970, the enormous tension of the mass meetings and protests was gone. The ‘Prince’ reported that “Princeton 1970–71 was an emotionally burned out university, whose chief attribute was disillusionment.” Even the two-week recess to allow canvassing for anti-war candidates was hardly used; most students were overwhelmed just preparing for the exams, which had been postponed in the heat of the spring.
However, the fundamental overhauls the University had undergone in its years of turmoil remained; the “return to apathy” some students predicted could never be complete. The shift took place in part at an institutional level; student participation in University affairs was greatly enlarged so that protests wouldn’t be their only recourse. For example, the “Kelley Committee,” the Special Committee on the Structure of the University, and the University Council contributed to the reform. For the first time, undergraduate advising committees played a role in determining each department’s curricula.
To be sure, a number of Princetonians stayed out of the fray; some even actively supported Nixon through the Undergraduates for a Stable America (USA). However, the sheer proportion of students taking part in demonstrations by the time of the strike showed that the University was not the same one it had been before the war.
The events of spring 1970 were in themselves revolutionary, but the attitudes necessary for their fulfillment revealed a political consciousness unrecognizable only five years earlier, when small groups of protesters were considered a “lunatic fringe.”