PALO ALTO -- Stanford University is tranquil this
spring, graced by the brilliant sunshine and eucalyptus fragrance that
help give the campus its distinctive California accent. Long gone are the
sights and sounds of my undergraduate days three decades ago -- windows shattering in the night, tear-gas
canisters exploding, the president's office in flames.
So it was with considerable curiosity that I returned to campus last
weekend to attend a reunion of the anti-war movement that did so much
to transform Stanford into a political battleground in the late 1960's. What,
I wondered, had become of the students who spent their college years
resisting the war in Vietnam and Stanford's links to it? What, if any,
vestiges of the movement could be found on campus today?
A weekend gathering of 100 or so people can only begin to provide answers, but what I found was not entirely what I expected. Perhaps most
of the investment bankers, venture capitalists and Silicon Valley millionaires stayed home, but by and large
the men and women who attended the reunion were engaged in work directly connected to the values they had
embraced in opposing the war. There were labor organizers, environmental
activists, public health specialists, teachers and urban affairs experts.
But the discourse seemed stale, as though a time capsule sealed in 1969
had been opened and the political tracts in it applied to the world today.
Needless to say, this was not a standard college reunion. Instead of
red Stanford banners and tailgate picnics, there were faded manifestoes and impassioned arguments
about American foreign policy. No one from the university showed up to
solicit donations, which was just as well, since more than a few participants had devoted so much time to
protesting that they never completed their undergraduate requirements.
One person reported that he had finally graduated in 1984. I collected
my diploma a year late because of hours spent covering demonstrations
for The Stanford Daily.
Current students scarcely noticed the reunion, which was understandable on a sparkling May weekend
that was ideal for going to the beach, hiking in the foothills or starting a
new Internet company, which seems to be a favorite campus activity.
The reunion marked roughly the
30th anniversary of the largest, gentlest and most thoughtful anti-war
action at Stanford in the 1960's. It was the nine-day occupation in April
1969 of the Applied Electronics Laboratory, a center for classified, military-related research.
No one knew it at the time, but the peaceful protest, supported by hundreds of students and many faculty
members, was the high-water mark of nonviolent civil disobedience at
the university. A few weeks later students ransacked an administration building and police were summoned to clear it, beginning a destructive spiral of violence that convulsed Stanford for several years.
It is clearly hard for today's students to fathom the passions and
political action that were unleashed by the Vietnam War and the draft.
The biggest cause at Stanford this spring was an effort by students at
Berkeley to save an ethnic studies program that the University of California was threatening to disband.
Several students who addressed the reunion talked about the difficulty of
rallying support for any cause. "Oh, I could do so much with 20 people,"
sighed Sarah Faye McMullen, after one 60's alumnus recalled the disappointment when only 20 students
showed up for an early Vietnam protest. All five of the undergraduate panelists were women, and they pointedly complained about how few
men are involved in political activities. I'm not sure they fully believed
another former protester who declared, "We thought we were going to change the world."
His words reminded me of the deadly serious essay I wrote for Life
magazine as a student, condemning my parents' generation for producing a materialistic, morally
bankrupt world my classmates and I would have to fix. My father, a good-humored man, was restrained in his
Much of the weekend was devoted to discussion of the war in Yugoslavia, starting with a fiery denunciation of the NATO air strikes by Marjorie Cohn. She was an anti-war leader in 1969 and is now a professor at
the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. She attacked the Balkan war as another case of American imperialism, saying the United
States "will protect its markets and international influence at the expense of whatever small country
happens to get in the way." She barely mentioned the brutal Serbian assault on Kosovo.
I liked Marjorie when we were fellow students, and admired her
sense of compassion and fair play. But as she wound through her peroration, ending with "Power to the
People!" I thought I had entered a time warp. I was surprised at how many of our contemporaries agreed
with her. What saddened me was not the opposition to the NATO air war,
though I disagree, but the hollowness of the critique. Surely those who courageously opposed the Vietnam War
can do better today than align themselves with Serbia.