Stanford Student Activism Against the Vietnam War: a vehicle for Change?

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Adrienne Keene


EDGE final paper

Stanford Student Activism Against the Vietnam War: A Vehicle for Change?

As 8000 protesters pushed onto Stanford campus in honor if a national moratorium day, an onlooker stood by and said that the protest was simply a “beautiful thing.” Anti-war activism was present on the Stanford campus from the early days of the Vietnam conflict, and incidents of protest increased in frequency and intensity as the war continued on into the 1970’s. The Vietnam era showcased a record high of Stanford student activism, from protests, to sit-ins, to thousand participant rallies. The 1970’s also proved to be a crucial time of change for the university itself, with numerous policy changes, and the replacement of president Pitzer with provost Lyman, and the removal of the Indian mascot. I shall prove that the activism seen throughout the years of the Vietnam War was a pivotal factor in the changing of university policy during the war, and the wake of the war caused the university to reexamine itself and bring about necessary changes, as well as examine the reasons why protest was such a productive medium for change. The Vietnam War was a tumultuous time, the nation’s trust in authority was shattered, and lives turned upside down. Student activism existed as a means of challenging authority and fighting for the rights of all people, and served as a catalyst for change within Stanford University. As a direct result of Stanford student involvement in acts civil disobedience, university policies were reexamined; president Pitzer resigned as university president, the ROTC program on campus was changed dramatically, and ultimately the removal of the Stanford Indian.

Brief timeline of the Vietnam War

On March 8, 1965, the first American combat troops were sent into South Vietnam, with the purpose of protecting the Da Nang air base, so the South Vietnamese troops could be utilized elsewhere. The American public was soon informed that the troops were engaged in active combat. By the end of 1965, over 200,000 troops were stationed in Vietnam. The following year, “operation cedar falls” was put into effect, sending thousands of ground troops into the areas surrounding Saigon. In the final days of January 1968, the Tet offensive was launched by the North Vietnamese, which was a bloody, aggressive campaign that took US troops by surprise. 1969 brought the start of Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, as well as the first news of the My Lai massacre to the United States. Also that year Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” was announced, aimed at shifting the responsibility from US troops to South Vietnamese troops, in hopes of moving the united states out of Vietnam. But within the next year, the United States had moved the fighting into Cambodia, causing an Uproar from the American public. However, the number of troops in Vietnam were decreased in 1970 to around 280, 000. in the next 3 years, troop numbers were decreased and “peace talks” performed, and in 1973, a cease fire was announced and the final US soldiers pulled out of Vietnam, leaving over 200,000 dead in the wake.(Vietnam online)

Stanford Student Activism- causes, effects, outcomes

Stanford students were actively involved in anti-war activities from early on in the United States involvement in Vietnam. There were numerous issues that concerned students, but much of the focus was centered on Stanford’s relationship to SRI (Stanford Research Institute), the presence of a credit-based ROTC program on campus, and general anti-war demonstrations, especially after the expansion of the war from Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia.

Stanford Research Institute was a cutting-edge research facility located near Stanford campus, notorious for secret research, government projects, and controversial research involving animal and human subjects. The main concerns of SDS (students for a democratic society) at Stanford were the close ties of SRI to the department of defense, and their use of studies of biological and chemical weapons, as well as the fact that SRI was establishment was intended to “advance the educational purposes of Stanford” (Mann), and was self described as doing “socially useful” work, neither of which the students felt the organization actually did.

Protest of SRI began in 1968 with a list of demands tacked onto the office of the Board of Trustees for SRI by SDS. The list of demands included that “all SRI contracts, classified and unclassified, be made public, as well as the values of the contracts and the names of the individuals working on them. Furthermore, all Trustees, SRI Directors, and Stanford faculty were told to make public all their cooperate and government connections” (Mann). The protests continued throughout the year and into 1969. In February of that year, responding to Trustees refusal to discuss the demands, students forcefully attended a closed meeting of the Board. Later demonstrations were headed by the “April 3rd Movement”, taking its name from a series of meetings beginning April 3rd and ending with a meeting of 900 students on April 9th who decided to take action and occupy the Applied Electronics Laboratory. The occupation lasted for 9 days, during which printing materials in the building were utilized to print leaflets and pamphlets. All across campus, students were becoming involved in the occupation, attending workshops, listening to speakers, and putting up flyers. 1400 students eventually signed a solidarity agreement stating that they were part of the occupation. (Pugh) Four days after the end of the occupation, on April 22, 1969, the faculty voted to phase out classified research. Less than a month later, the Trustees voted to sever ties between the university and SRI, making SRI an independent company. (Pugh)

The protests of SRI didn’t end with the breaking off of SRI from Stanford, in fact, many students felt that “any moderating influence the Stanford community might have on the type of contracts its research institute would accept would be gone [when] it were sold.”(Mann) and therefore the institution was more of a concern. Demonstrations continued at the site of SRI, and clashes between demonstrators and police occurred at the site.

In the case of SRI, Stanford student activism was nearly wholly responsible for changing university policy. Although few of the Trustees would cite the activism as the sole reason for severing ties with the university, it is clear that it was one of the main causal factors. Before SDS and the April 3rd Movement, there was little concern over the connection between SRI and Stanford University. By having the Stanford name attached to SRI, it was creating a physical connection between Stanford and the Vietnam War, a piece of physical administration that the students could latch onto, something that could be changed by their actions. The SRI movement opened the door for bigger issues concerning the anti-war movement on campus, and since the results were so decisive and positive, it could be seen as a morale booster for those involved in anti-war activities. As one of the first major anti-Vietnam campaigns on campus, as well containing the first successful, long-term, peaceful protest (the AEL occupation) in Stanford’s history, the SDS and April 3rd Movement’s action against SRI served as a starting block for larger anti-war movements on Stanford University campus, namely the anti-ROTC activism, and the larger anti-war moratorium events and all campus strikes.

The movement to end ROTC on campus was also a campaign with decisive results, but not without a long, hard, violent fight. Incidents of anti-ROTC activism were prevalent throughout the early years of the Vietnam War, but the most intense times were in the years of 1969-1970. The Stanford student body’s concern over the ROTC program at Stanford stemmed from the general anti-war sentiment, by supporting the ROTC on campus; it was supporting the military and supporting the War in Vietnam.

Examples of this activism are abundant in the Stanford Daily from 1969-1970, some of which are summarized below. Solely in the months of April-June of 1970, the police were called to campus 13 times to suppress the sometimes violent protestors. On April 1, 1970, ROTC protestors marched to the ROTC building on campus with intentions to board it up. When they were met with police and ROTC students, they proceeded to march to other locations on campus, breaking windows and lights along the way. That night over 100 windows were broken, and over 200 protestors participated in the march across campus, until they were finally dispersed by police. However, student body president Patrick Shea was quoted by the Daily as saying, “it is foolish to think that tonights mindless action is going to remove ROTC or stop the war. If we are serious about abolishing ROTC and stopping the war, we can’t cop out to wanton destruction.” (daily, april 1, 1970). In the following days more headlines announce the increasing action of the student body. “ROTC protests continue, four marchers arrested” (april 2, 1970), “Protestors smash windows in scattered guerilla attacks”(april 7, 1970), “Pitzer closes building after mill-in at ROTC”(april 8 1970). On April 29, 1970, a large sit-in was staged at old union, which ended the next night in some of the most violent clashes between students and police that Stanford had ever seen. Over 200 police officers from all over the bay area were called to campus, and fighting and rock throwing battles between police and the nearly 1000 protestors ensued for most of the night. (april 30 1970). Incidents of this manner continued throughout the spring of that year, and into the fall of the next school year.

The university’s position on ROTC flip-flopped throughout the years of student protest. Credit for ROTC classes was voted out, than given back in a limited capacity, and then voted out again. Eventually, the faculty senate voted out all credit for ROTC activities. Much later, ROTC was removed off the campus, and is still not allowed on the campus even today. The relation between the student activism and the decision to move ROTC off campus are not certain, but the anti-ROTC movement marked an important stage in the student movements of the 1970’s.

A continuing effort throughout all the years of the Vietnam War was the generalized anti-war campaign on campus. The two of the more notable events of anti-war activism were Moratorium day, on October 15, 1969, and the student/ faculty strike when the expansion of troops into Cambodia was announced.

On October 15, 1969, only twenty percent of the student body attended class. The rest were out in the surrounding community, passing out leaflets-to commuters on trains, at the San Francisco airport, in shopping centers, and door to door-or listening to speakers, attending rallies, or engaging in some other kind of active protest. All parts of the Stanford community were involved,

Law students presented a petition to the federal attorney in San Francisco demanding the end of an “illegal war”. Business students attended seminars that questioned the benefits the war is bestowing on the nation…Foreign students at the international center attacked United States policies, while students at the medical school heard a lecture and saw a film showing the medical catastrophe American firepower has wreaked on Vietnamese civilians…Stanford-in-France overseas campus presented a petition to the assistant ambassador in Paris…Stanford-in-Italy sent a telegram of support signed by 49 students to the moratorium committee. The German and Austrian campuses planned a demonstration and a vigil, respectively, at the American embassies of their countries…(Stanford Daily, October 16, 1969)
The day concluded with the largest anti-war march in Stanford’s history down University Avenue in Palo Alto, with over 5000 people in attendance. After the march, over 8000 students and residents of surrounding communities crowded into Memorial Auditorium and Memorial church to hear speakers and to discuss the significance of the day.

Moratorium day marked the result of weeks of preparation and planning, committees were formed, flyers posted, dorm staff members encouraged to involve all their residents in the day’s preparations and activities. Overall, the day was a huge success, involving the campus with a national day of protest, mobilizing all the resources available on campus and in the community, generating community support, and creating a great amount of awareness within the Stanford community itself. The Moratorium effort continued to be at the forefront of anti-war activism on Stanford campus from October 1969 onward, organizing numerous marches, rallies, and protests in the years following moratorium day, many concerned with anti-ROTC efforts as well.

A second large anti-war effort was the student-faculty strike of May 1970. When the American public found out about the expansion of the War into Cambodia, they were outraged. Immediate action was taken to show the student body’s distress over the issue. A strike of classes started on May 3rd, and pickets and protesters blocked the entrances to many major buildings on campus to keep workers, faculty, and students out. President Pitzer even extended the strike, saying that suspending classes was “taken to provide a period of reflection on the extensive activities and discussions of the past week and to alleviate some of the emotional fatigue that has become prevalent” (Daily, may 7 ’70)

The strike spread coast to coast, with college campuses communicating Strike plans to each other. It was another organizational feat, spreading the anti-war sentiment across the United States. The weeklong activities ended quietly however, with little attention paid to the amazing cohesive nature of the event, or to its significance. “Students simply went back to their books or committees. Rallies became fewer and farther between, leafleting became sporadic as students headed home for the summer” (Given). Simply because the week’s ending was anti-climatic doesn’t subtract from the significance of the movement. Like the Moratorium day, the Strike marked an instance of Stanford activism involving outside communities and creating bonds with other like-minded individuals outside of the small Stanford community. It caught the attention of University officials, and the nation-wide strike was noticed by then-governor Ronald Regan, who closed all state universities and encouraged private university officials to do the same. (Given)

President Pitzer resigned from his position as Stanford University president in June 1970, citing the growing university turmoil over student activism and the growing war in Vietnam as his reasons. “Until the most seriously disturbing factor in American life today is remedied, this problem on our campus will not be solved.” (moskowitz) Pitzer was considered a moderate, and he had a great dedication to due process. He had received numerous letters telling him to inflict harsher punishments on violent and non-violent protestors alike, but he refrained. He had faith in the University judicial system, and even hesitated to call police when situations first started becoming violent in spring of 1970. (moskowitz)

The resignation of president Pitzer was a result of the years of protest on campus, and had he not been affected by those protests, he would have remained in his post. An unsympathetic person would have no qualms about assigning harsher punishments to protestors, or calling in outside law enforcement to quell demonstrations. By his large act of resignation, Kenneth Pitzer was showing his ultimate support of the student protestors. In the position of university president, there was a fine line in keeping control of the campus, insuring the safety of the students on campus, and letting the voices of the students be heard, and it was impossible to keep everyone content. By not taking the easy route of harsh controls, Pitzer made it clear he believed in equality and justice for the Stanford community. Perhaps the activism had stirred up feelings within him, keeping him from imposing the punishments and policies that would have made his life as president much easier.

What made student activism such a motivating factor for change? Jill Fogelsong, a class of 1973 alumna offers some insight. She discussed the post World War two sentiment that dominated American society, the belief that there was only one way to do anything, and that the nation must be united on all fronts, even if that means giving up personal expression. She said in an interview,

WWII had resulted in a nation that had stretched itself to the limits, deprived itself of the basics to work together and fought for a common belief.  After the war, America wanted to mend itself from the tragedies of war.  This desire produced an America that began to think as a unit.  Systems developed a central focus which became important for the nation to feel strong once again. 

This national attitude created a strict norm, and anything outside of that norm was deemed inappropriate behavior. In the early sixties, the “hippie” revolution cracked the shell of perfect 1950’s America, and for the first time people saw the possibility of being different. Fogelsong says that this discovery led to the questioning of ones society, community, lifestyle, and government.

With the start of the Vietnam War, the generation of students raised on Dr. Spock and fifties ideals saw for the first time that the dominant authority could be wrong, and felt the freedom to challenge that authority. A comparison of these radical students can be made to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Much like the prisoners in Plato’s famous allegory, these students have been brought forth from the darkness of the fifties where truth was assumed by the information available, and dragged into the blinding light of actual truth. After being enlightened with the fact that the government isn’t always right, the students venture back into the “cave” of society to free the other “prisoners”. Plato stresses the importance of learning by doing and seeing in his teachings, for if the truth of the outside world were told to the prisoners of the cave, they would have no basis for comparison, for the cave is all they have ever known. In this same way the student movement of the late sixties and seventies spread. Students learned by doing, by pushing the envelope a little more, and by testing the actual strength of what they had always known to be rock solid.

The actual strength of their rock solid societal foundations proved to be weaker than expected. Student protests began to have real, tangible results. But why?

Authoritative figures, in this case university officials, were shocked into reality when students began to question what had always been readily accepted. I feel the “shock value” had a lot to do with early changes at Stanford as a result of student activism. No concern had ever been so dramatically voiced from the students as it had through protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, and rallies. The large, public activities involved many students and were completely visible for all to see. No more quiet petitions were set on the desk of the president, now there were throngs of angry students marching to the office of the president and occupying it until agreements could be reached. The figures in charge had never experienced anything to the extent of these student demonstrations, and it makes sense that, in the minds of the officials, if so many students were stirred to action by something, and were willing to be so public and vocal about it, there must be valid backing for their concern and perhaps reason for change.

This initial shock value theory fits into the pattern of visible change at the university, at the beginning of student protests, real results were reached, such as the Faculty Senate voting to ban classified research from SRI, and eventually severing ties with the organization. As times progressed and incidents of activism became more and more prevalent, the changes in the university became less, or at least became less noticeable. This also parallels the increasing violence in the student protests, when there were no visible results to their efforts students may have become frustrated and later, violent.

At the close of the war, university policies were revamped, and although it is not clear everywhere changes were made in the University, it is clear that many things at Stanford were reexamined and questioned. With the risk of being too abstract, the terms of anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep apply rather well to the situation of Vietnam and the United States. Van Gennep discusses rites of passage ceremonies in terms of three phases: separation, liminality, and reaggregation. In the separation phase, the participant is taken away from the known, the everyday, and the mundane, and put into a phase of liminality. Liminality can be described as the opposite of structure; it is the complete unknown, where things seem unreal and perhaps even otherworldly. In the final stage, reaggreation, the participant is brought back into the throws of “normal” society, often with a sense of enlightenment and perhaps even a new identity. (Turners) I feel the comparison to the Vietnam war is rather clear, the separation phase being the start of the war, the liminal phase being the years of the war, where things were thrown out of the sphere of normal existence, and reaggregation including the ending years of the war and the years directly after. It is the reaggregation phase that I am primarily concerned with. The Turners, two anthropologists who adapted Van Gennep’s theory for their research, stress the importance of a self-evaluation in the reaggregation phase, to determine one’s new place in society. That self-evaluation is precisely what Stanford must have gone through in the years ending Vietnam. An examination of what was lost, what was gained, and what needed to be changed in order to fill the physical and emotional holes left by the war. Fogelsong also discussed the re-evaluation the university experienced after the war:

After the war, the country in general became less likely to follow traditions without thought and began to question those concepts and beliefs that perhaps had generally be taken for granted.  Traditions were loosened, new and liberal interpretations to that which had always been began to open up.  I think that the university environment responded in much the same way.  There was probably a blossoming of new ways to view the world and new philosophies to develop.  The university was now capable of producing new and creative ways to develop their system.  The old ways were no longer simply accepted. 
The removal of the Indian mascot could be viewed as a result of the self-evaluation of the university in the seventies. In November of 1970, the first issues with the Native American mascot were raised by a group of Native American students; they had objections to the performances of “Prince Lightfoot” the incarnation of the mascot at Stanford sporting events. They felt the performances were demeaning to their cultures, the taking of sacred ceremonies and making them half time spectacles. Later, In February 1972, a group of 55 Native American students presented a petition to president Lyman (the replacement for president Pitzer). The petition

Urged that "the use of the Indian symbol be permanently discontinued"--and further urged that the University "fulfill its promise to the students of its Native American Program by improving and supporting the program and thereby making its promise to improve Native American education a reality."  The petition further stated that the Stanford community was not sensitive to the humanity of Native Americans, that the lack of understanding displayed by the name of a race being placed on its entertainment, and that a race of humans cannot be entertainment.  The mascot in all its manifestations was, the Indian group maintained, stereotypical, offensive, and a mockery of Indian cultures.  The group suggested that the "University would be renouncing a grotesque ignorance that it has previously condoned" by removing the Indian as Stanford's symbol, and by "retracting its misuse of the Indian symbol" Stanford would be displaying a "readily progressive concern for the American Indians of the United States." (Woodward)

Later that year, the mascot was removed in all its forms from the university.

Vietnam raised many issues of what it means to be human, and the innate rights of human beings. With incidents such as the My Lai massacre, where an entire village of civilian Vietnamese was murdered for no apparent reason, it became evident that the value of humanity was not as high as it should be. The mascot was an example of the university devaluing the humanity of a race of people. University Ombudsperson Lois Amsterdam added her own opinion to the Native American students’ petition before giving it to president Lyman, stating,

Stanford's continued use of the Indian symbol in the 1970's brings up to visibility a painful lack of sensitivity and awareness on the part of the University.  All of us have in some way, by action or inaction, accepted and supported the use of the Indian symbol on campus.  We did not do so with malice, or with intent to defile a racial group.  Rather, it was a reflection of our society's retarded understanding, dulled perception and clouded vision. (woodward)
Stanford University’s community members were ready to move forward in the wake of the heaviest fighting of the war, and after looking at its position in society as a hotbed for change, the university was ready as well. The mascot is truly an example of a “new and liberal interpretation to that which had always been” (Fogelsong).

The period of the Vietnam War was a period of complete uncertainty for the citizens of the United States. No one was sure what the next day would bring. Students across the nation fought authority and injustice through forms of protest- sit-ins, marches, rallies, demonstrations, and strikes, and Stanford University was no exception. Stanford became the site of years of increasing protest over University policy, with some of the issues being Stanford’s ties to SRI, and the ROTC program on campus, as well as the general anti-war and moratorium movements. Student activism had real results, which could be attributed to the initial shock of administrators coming out of a post WWII generation where compliance was key. Due to the university’s re-evaluation of itself in the closing years of the war, additional changes occurred at Stanford, most visibly the removal of the Indian mascot. It is hard to determine whether the changes to the university would have come about without the student activism, but it is clear that the student protest on campus served as a medium for the examination of policy that may not have been evaluated for many years. Jill Fogelsong puts it perfectly when she says,

In times of peace, change occurs at a slow, quiet, evolving pace. In times of war, change comes with a crashing surge and in public. It's forward, blunt, controversial, and sometimes painful.
Change in life is inevitable, but in times where nothing is as it should be, change is accelerated by one means or another. During the Vietnam War, that accelerating factor was student protest. When nothing is certain in life, the one thing that we can rely on is our own personal beliefs, and the ability to act in protection of those beliefs. Sometimes all we have is our ability to act, and in many cases, that is enough.

Works Cited

Fogelsong, Jill . Online interview. 20 Nov. 2004.

mann, fred. "Stanford Research Institute: Yesterday and Today." The Stanford Daily 13 Nov. 1970.

"Moratorium Protest Sweeps Natio, 800 Jam Stanford Anti-War Rally." The Stanford Daily 16 Oct. 1969.

"Pitzer Cancels Friday Classes As Effective Strike Continues." The Stanford Daily 7 May 1970.

"Pitzer Tells Why He Quit Stanford." The San Francisco Chronicle 27 June 1970.

"Police arrest 23, Break up sit in with swift early morning sweep." The Stanford Daily 24 Apr. 1970.

Pugh, David. The Anti-War movement at Stanford 1966-1969. .

"ROTC demonstrators Smash windows; dispersed by police." The Stanford Daily 1 Apr. 1970.

"SDS disrupts board over Asian Relations." The Stanford Daily 7 May 1968.

"SDS disrupts board over Asian Relations." The Stanford Daily 7 May 1968.

"Senate Terminates ROTC credit." The Stanford Daily 8 May 1970.

Turner, Edith , and Victor Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1978. 1-14.

Vietnam Online: The American Experience. PBS. .

"Violent Fights Erupt After Sit-in; Students Battle Police for Four Hours." The Stanford Daily 30 Apr. 1970.

Woodward, Denni. The removal of the Indain Mascot at Stanford. .

Works Referenced

Toohey, Timothy J. (collector)

Vietnam Moratorium: papers, 1969-1972

(special collections box of clippings, leaflets and papers from era at Stanford)
All Stanford Daily Archives 1968-1971
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