Vietnam still confuses me. Sophomore year we took a course that led us from the Salem witch hunts through the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. The other cases were supposed to prepare us to write a paper arguing for or against American policy in Vietnam. In Student Council, we debated the War. Felix Springer, Peter DuBois, Ed Savage, and I represented our class. Felix was the President. He introduced motions with enthusiasm and determination. I remember one in particular. The Amherst College Student Council resolves to tell the President of the United States to stop bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail. The resolution had near unanimous support. Not from Ed Savage. He listened to the discussion and kept right on stringing his lacrosse racket. He would vote against the resolution. I was confused. What did it mean to stop bombing the trail? What did it mean to the people in Vietnam? What did I know that led me to prescribe military tactics? I could not vote for a resolution whose implications I did not understand. I think Ed and I were the only two to vote against the resolution. It was hard to figure out what was right.
One day I was driving back to Amherst. Outside of Northampton I stopped for a hitchhiker. It was Ed Kahn from the Class of 1969. His head was bloody. He had been carrying a placard in front of Northampton City Hall protesting the actions of the local draft board. His small group had been attacked by students from Northampton Commercial College. The police just had stood by.
At West Dining Hall that evening, word spread about Ed's experience. The sense of outrage moved from the Psi U‘s in the front to the Theta Delta in the middle and on through Valentine. Amherst College decided to act. The next day we were in Northampton, marching to protest the failure of the Northampton police department to protect the First Amendment rights of Ed Kahn and his group. It seemed the whole College was there. That time it was easy to figure out what was right.
Not everyone agreed. Next day the dining hall workers seemed chilly. Dear Helen, benevolent white-haired matriarch of the serving line, grandmother to many of us, said simply, "l saw your picture in the paper." I do not think she approved. The act of protesting was itself still wrong then. Symbols were important. Affirming the Constitution and defending our friend, we marched with a large American flag. Nothing infuriated the people jeering us more than the sight of us with the flag. Several times people sought to grab the flag, which was being defended by Amherst's football team. The end of the march proved to be a logistical problem. We had been walking the street in a circular pattern--Western-movie style, circled wagons, surrounded by the hostile crowd of on-lookers. No one stuck out, vulnerable to the crowd. But now we were going to have to stop, break the circle without leaving anyone alone at the end. The details are no longer clear to me. Somehow we decided to make our way to the Smith College campus. The flag and the football team brought up the end. We made it to Smith, but then there was one more rush at the flag. A brawl seemed imminent. I remember the anguished face of the Smith police chief, a kindly, military looking man. Suddenly someone starting singing the National Anthem. The tussling and scrambling stopped. Everyone sang. Afterwards people began to talk. The National Anthem had established peace and a form of unity. That day the symbols still held the country together.
I think we might have been the last thoughtful cohort of the 60s. Maybe it was Amherst. Maybe it was sophomore American Studies that made us try to think things through and taught us how confusing they were. At least it presented each of us with informed arguments in favor of whatever position we chose to take. I still remember the readings: Bernard Fall, Jean LaCouture, and mostly the Red Chinese. It was the Chinese who led me to write in support of American involvement. I believed them and their threats. I remembered how Mein Kampf had been ignored. I chose to ignore the historians who told us that the Vietnamese and Chinese hated each other and that they were only allies out of necessity. We thought, we agonized, we talked. Only a few people walked out when Secretary of Defense McNamara received an honorary Amherst degree at Commencement that very semester.
By the time I got to Penn things were different. I was a freshman dorm advisor in 1969. The students came to college wearing peace signs as mindlessly as we once wore our class numerals. They were a generation against, against something including the War, but they did not know anything--no Fall, no LaCouture, no history, no late night discussions. They were just certain Vietnam was wrong. Maybe they knew everything. But I was not sure of my young friends. I could not take my convictions from them. They reveled in the anti-war spirit, and it was hard to separate the social from the moral. When next year they came back from disrupting Washington, they talked of their good time knocking over garbage cans and blocking traffic. One student specialized in stealing records from Philadelphia stores. The system was ripping everyone off, and she was righting the wrong by stealing records. I suggested to her that she could trust her moral stand and motivation better if she did not actually keep the records for herself, maybe she could donate them to a needy group. I do not remember what she decided; I would like to believe that the stealing stopped after she confronted herself. Another time the library workers at Penn were on strike. Management was trying to keep the University library open. My students in the "Experimental College" decided that they would help the strikers by going into the library, taking books off the shelves, and piling them on the floor. Make it impossible for the managers to keep the library going. We discussed their idea. It seemed like an effective tactic, but they were clearly into the fun of making the mess, too. Were they really supportive of the library workers? Would they be willing to join in and undo their mess and fix up the library after the strike ended? If they were, then they would know their motivation was true. They decided not to go to the library. Their decision left me more confused. And then I met Felix at our 20th union. We talked about those days on the Student Council. He told me that he now thinks I was right. I am still confused.