Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The anti-war movement: looking back forty years later: ‘If we sound like a confused generation, we were.’

Published: February 12, 2010
Section: Features

This coming May will mark the 40th anniversary of the nationwide student protest against the Vietnam War, a protest in which Brandeis was declared the National Student Strike Information Center. Brandeis students began receiving call after call as colleges from as far as Texas phoned in to announce that they, too, were going to strike against the war. Classes nationwide came to a halt as students focused their energy on the strike.

Although they entered the political landscape pretty quickly, these student protests against the war didn’t abruptly emerge in 1970.

Rather, smaller incidents took place during previous years, like the sit-ins of 1969 in which Brandeis students held sit-ins in certain buildings to protest a variety of issues, mainly the war.

This may seem like a mere historical story, but to my father, Rick Blum ’71, the events are still vivid in his mind.

Blum clearly remembers how he “saved the day” in one such sit-in that took place in the Bernstein-Marcus Administration building.

In the middle of March of 1969, a group of students was facing immediate disciplinary action for having stayed in the building past 6 p.m. the day before.

Blum, upon hearing that another group would be trying it again, decided to drop in to see how he could help, despite knowing that students would again face punishment at 6 p.m. when staff members would come to collect their student identification cards.

He sat and listened quietly to their dilemma as they said they would all stand behind the students, even though they too would be subject to disciplinary action. As Blum sat in the background, an idea came to him.

“First thing I had to do was establish my radical credentials,” he laughed, “so I stood up and started singing ‘there’s a man going round taking names.’”

Everyone laughed and then Blum restated the problem before continuing, “but it doesn’t sound like it’s said anywhere that you have to give in only your IDs. Why don’t half of us stay here and the other half of us go around to all the dining halls and see how many IDs we can get.”

Since most of the students who weren’t at the sit-in supported the cause, they willingly handed Blum and the others their IDs. When 6 p.m. rolled around, staff members came to the administration building to collect the student IDs, and instead were handed a basket of hundreds of cards. Blum chuckles at how, a few days later, they all received an envelope in their mailboxes with their IDs in it, and faced no punishment.

The sit-ins of ’69, however, were a tiny preview to what was soon to take place in the Spring of 1970.

The events surrounding the National Student Strike remain clear in the mind of Professor Gordon Fellman (SOC).

In objection to the bombing of Cambodia, a meeting had been held at Yale University for students to discuss the formation of a national student strike against the war. It was there that Brandeis students volunteered to have Brandeis be the headquarters for the strike, and, subsequently, Brandeis became the “National Strike Information Center.”

That Sunday night, Fellman received a phone call around midnight from a student requesting that Pearlman Hall be used as the headquarters for the strike, “probably because it is a fairly small building, and because they knew the sociology faculty wouldn’t object.”

The student-caller had requested they use Fellman’s office, and wanted to receive entry right away. Not wanting to “shlep” out to Brandeis at midnight, Fellman called campus police to open his office for the student, to which campus police had replied “Oh, another one?” recalls Fellman with a chuckle.

The students received a phone line via the university, which would later rack up quite a bill. Thus began Brandeis’ involvement in the nationwide student strike. Students from colleges across the country phoned in to announce when their schools were on strike.

Rick Blum was being trained on the university switchboard that night and had the responsibility of directing calls to the university and connecting them. Since it was his first night on the job, he was only meant to stay for a few hours, but ended up staying half the night as more and more colleges phoned in.

Blum laughs as he remembers how he would answer the phone and be surprised to hear a voice with a southern accent.

“Hi, I’m calling from the University of Texas, we’re on strike,” he mimics.

He continued, “At a northern college, we didn’t know that the southern colleges were as radical as we were.”

Unfortunately, not everything about the strike can be recounted with humor. On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were shot dead after the National Guard opened fire at the student strikers.

Subsequently, as colleges phoned into Brandeis, “The Kent four” were added to the list of reasons for striking. As of May 11, 1970, a total of 157 schools were listed as on an indefinite strike.

As a caller from the University of Pennsylvania explained, it was a “strike against the war—not against the university.” In fact, many of the university’s administration members supported the national strike, and Brandeis cooperated by cancelling final exams and ending the semester early. Blum recalls how they were sent home and told, “Go stop the war.”

“The only thing was, nobody was telling us how to stop the war,” Blum justifies as he jokes about how they all went home and flocked to the beach.

As Blum finishes his story, he pauses and then says, “If we sound like a confused generation, we were. We were born right after World War II and we were raised with a lot of optimism; the great war was over, future’s wide-open … and then they throw in this extra detail ‘by the way, we’re going to send you all to die in a civil war in Asia.’”

Both Blum and Fellman agree that while the immorality of the war played a large part in the reasoning behind the student protest, there was also a deeper underlying issue: “What the anti-war movement was heavily about, once you peel away some of the layers, was the draft,” Fellman said.

“I thought the war was immoral, I think any way you could get out of [the draft] was okay,” Feldman said. “I also thought that if you are getting out of it because of the morality of it, you had an obligation to end the war.”

In the end, Fellman said, as strong as the anti-war movement was, it eventually died out and has not yet been replaced.

“Everybody back then was involved in the war, we talked about it non-stop,” Fellman said. “Every time you went to a party, a dinner party, any gathering, people always talked about the war, which makes it so eerie now that America is doing equally destructive things in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s just not part of the daily conversation.”