Harvard and Beyond: The University Under Siege

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Harvard and Beyond: The University Under Siege

Magazine article excerpt

By: Anonymous

Date: April 18, 1969

Source: "Harvard and Beyond: The University Under Siege." Time. April 18, 1969.

About the Author: Time magazine is a weekly publication featuring news analysis and commentary.


The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of political unrest in the United States. The nation's participation in the Vietnam War was a major motivating factor and led to an increase in public demonstrations and protests, a phenomenon that extended to the student populations of many American universities. The protest movement focused on a desire to promote peace in direct opposition to wartime activities and also actively rejected the government policy of conscription, or the draft. When it became clear that broad movements against the war were unlikely to cause major changes, protestors also targeted smaller issues that were more directly linked to their personal lives yet still political in nature. University protests originated at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, a campus known for liberal political beliefs and a tendency toward activism. However, by 1969, Harvard University joined the ranks of American universities whose students were staging protests, proving that even the more conservative, traditionally structured institutions were not immune to the growing unrest on campuses across the country. The events at Harvard also illustrated how standard administrative practices for dealing with minor uprisings were no longer practical or effective, as the students refused to be intimidated by authority figures and went on to find other methods of making their displeasure with the situation clear.

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The 1969 student protests at Harvard University took many people by surprise as it was assumed that the University's reputation for rational debate and traditional beliefs would outweigh the unrest that was growing among student populations nationwide. Instead, a small group of Harvard students took a stand against University policies they deemed to be supportive of the war in Vietnam. Acknowledging that there was little they could do to affect the president or federal decisions directly, the students turned their attentions to their immediate surroundings and policies they might be able to control.

The University's continued contracts with the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) was just one example of Harvard's failure to distance itself from the conflict in Vietnam. Rather than protest national foreign policy on a broad scale, the students made demands of the University governors. They staged a lock-in, taking over the administrative offices, and informed the University that they were not open to negotiations. When the situation escalated and the students were forcibly removed, they went on to boycott classes for several days. Ultimately, the University's decision to use force against the protestors resulted in even more students participating in the strike, because its administration underestimated their students' dedication to their stand.

Political activism did not spring up overnight on the campus of Harvard University. Two years earlier, Harvard students protested against U.S. conscription policy when seventy-one students promised to refuse the draft. When Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was a guest speaker at the University, a student attempted to engage him in a debate regarding the war. When McNamara refused to discuss the issue, a group of eight hundred students proceeded to surround his car and McNamara was forced to use the University's underground tunnel system to leave. In the fall of that year, a recruiter from Dow Chemical Company was restrained for several hours by three hundred students who protested the fact that the company manufactured the napalm that was being used in Vietnam. In 1968, one hundred students held a sit-in when they were refused admittance to a faculty meeting where the status of the University ROTC program was scheduled to be discussed. These protests resulted in a number of students being placed on probation, as well as receiving official warnings.

The lesser protests also served as a precursor to the more radical protest held in April 1969. Until that point, the Harvard protests were scattered, with only a small percentage of the student population participating. Often, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) instigated the demonstrations, with few non-member students joining them. Despite this, the students who failed to protest still observed the results of these demonstrations, particularly regarding the University's consistent refusal to bend to student demands. When the University reacted to the 1969 protest by using outside force, the general population united in reaction to what they deemed an inappropriately violent means of ending the lock-in.

Student protests in the United States a peaked year later, when National Guard troops attempted to disperse a four-day protest on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and fired into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine. The killings at Kent State resulted in massive protests at universities across the United States and temporary closings of many universities and high schools.



Farrell, James. The Spirit of the Sixties: The Making of Postwar Radicalism. Routledge, 1997.

Rosenblatt, Roger. Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969. Little Brown and Company, 1997.

Web sites

The Harvard Crimson. "Reflecting On the 1969 Student Strike." April 9, 1984. <http://www.thecrimson.com/ article.aspx?ref=269548> (accessed May 21, 2006).