On a '60s campus, fighting the war in our own way

ROGER SIMON

September 19, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

On Monday, the phone rang and the caller identified himself and asked if I remembered him.

Give me a hint, I said.

"I was assistant to the chancellor when you were in college," he said. "I am doing a book on campus radicalism and I was wondering if I could fly in and interview you? It might be fun."

Fun? It was 1969, the Vietnam War was very much on our minds, and every student journalist in the country was going after the same story: What kind of war work was being done on campus?

We had tried to crack the story for a long time but had turned up only hearsay and rumors. And then one evening, a kid came down to the newspaper office with a manila envelope under his arm.

His father was a professor doing work that the kid thought was wrong. He thought the university should not be "complicit" -- that was the buzzword then -- with the war in Vietnam.

And he handed us the envelope. In it were secret government contracts between the Defense Department and the university under which the university's computer, one of the largest in the nation, would program bombing runs over North Vietnam.

We printed the story. That evening students attacked the computer science building and tried to burn it down.

The next morning we had an editorial board meeting to decide whether the paper would condemn the violence or condone it.

It seems a silly discussion now, but it wasn't then. Violence then often was not a spasmodic act, but a conscious decision you made.

And if you chose violence you rationalized it as being designed to end the greater violence of the war.

"What if we condone the violence and they attack the building again and somebody gets killed?" I said.

"What if we don't stop that computer and the bombing runs continue and a lot of people in Vietnam get killed?" others said.

The peace faction won. We condemned the violence.

I don't remember precisely what happened next. I do remember the building did not get burned down. (I also remember that nobody ever cared very much about what our editorials said.) But I don't remember if the governor sent the National Guard to our campus then or if it was after the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State.

In any case, it was not something I had thought about in years.

Then, two days after I got the phone call from the guy doing the book, Katherine Ann Power surrendered in Boston for her part in the robbery of a bank in 1970 in which a police officer was killed.

Power was one of the last of the fugitive radicals from the war years and had spent 14 years on the FBI's most wanted list.

At Brandeis she and her roommate decided they had to act to end the war. So they decide to rob a bank. And use the money to buy explosives to "melt down the wheels of trains that carried weapons."

Power, who today faces life in prison for manslaughter and armed robbery, said in a statement last week that she knows some will ask how she could commit "such an outrageously illegal act."

"The answer lies in the deep and violent crisis that the Vietnam War created in our land," she said. Then she pointed out how Richard Nixon was breaking the law as well as the priests and nuns who were destroying draft records and the young men who were defying the draft.

TC She said she robbed that bank out of the notion that "if a wrong exists, one must take active steps to stop it." And then she added: "Although at the time those actions seemed correct, they were in fact naive and unthinking."

Friday, I turned to the editorial page of my college newspaper. I still get copies, though I rarely read them.

But now I wanted to find out what issues students were dealing with today.

"Students, faculty and staff who liked to sit in the Union and have a cigarette got a little surprise when they returned to campus," the lead editorial began. "Smoking in the Union is no longer allowed."

Once upon a time I would have felt sad that today's students do not have the same issues to grapple with that we did.

But now, after thinking about those kids who tried to burn down that building, and Katherine Ann Power, and that dead bank guard, I'm just as glad they don't.

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