Columbia in the 1960s
Alum, Staff Member
School of General Studies 1966
Columbia University in the 1960s was host to important causes I felt passionately about. I believed the Vietnam War was an unjustified and immoral American aggression. However, my circumstances—full-time studies and working long hours to pay my way—left little time for active involvement. But as President Johnson escalated the war and so many young people were dying, I felt compelled to become active in the anti-war movement. When I did, I soon found that I couldn't ignore the other causes, so I kept tabs on them all as best I could:
- Eavesdropping on Betty Friedan and a few of her friends sitting together in the newly refurbished Lewisohn study lounge, discussing the nascent sexual revolution, modern women's movement, and her new book, The Feminine Mystique.
- Running into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in months, who cautiously looked around as we spoke. He had recently returned from a political trip to Cuba in violation of U.S. law and was concerned the FBI was looking for him.
- Attending a teach-in at Miller Theatre taught by a Columbia professor who explained the history of Southeast Asia, Vietnamese and Chinese tensions, the origin of America's involvement in Vietnam following the French defeat at Dien Bein Phu in 1954, the "domino theory" metaphor, the propped-up Diem regime in South Vietnam, McNamara's misjudgments, etc.
- Listening to Mario Salvo's pitch, in front of Ferris Booth Hall, trying to rally support for the UC Berkley Free Speech Movement.
- Showing up for SDS impromptu gatherings outside Ferris Booth Hall and scheduled assemblies inside. (I had a tenuous relationship with Students for a Democratic Society and Mark Rudd because I abhorred their methods.)
- Photographing the April 1967 Vietnam War protest march in New York City for a class I was taking (The Social Uses of Photography). I used the images for my term portfolio.
- Participating in the October 1967 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Contrary to the "nonviolent surrounding of the Pentagon" advance billing, when we arrived, Dick Gregory gave a rally speech and informed us that the Pentagon grounds would be invaded and after dark the protest would turn violent. We who chose nonviolent protest would depart at darkness. Enduring images: a flower in the rifle barrel of a soldier, the FBI photographing our faces. Enduring smell: the pungent odor of tear gas wafting across the landscape after dark as we waited for the buses to take us back to the Columbia environs.
- Declining a request from a grad student acquaintance (a far-left radical extremist) to give my Vietnam War protest march photos to a group traveling circuitously from Kennedy Airport to Hanoi. They wanted to give the photos to their North Vietnamese political hosts for propaganda purposes. I was committed to internal dissent and didn't want to cross the line, especially with the enemy during wartime.
- Helping promote Dr. Benjamin Spock's visit to Columbia to advise students on how to avoid the draft. Spock discussed a broad range of scenarios: conscientious objector status, alternative service, medical deferment, underground network, refuge in Canada or Sweden, etc.
- Supporting the April 1968 occupation of the Mathematics building. I was no longer a student at Columbia, but I was sympathetic to the cause. Following work in midtown, I took the subway to 116th Street and bought hoagies and drinks at TaKome for my SDS acquaintances occupying Mathematics. They helped me up to the south-side ledge of the building and we ate dinner together and talked about the day's events. After a couple of hours, I headed uptown to my place.
Great memories are the residue of even greater experiences; those times at Columbia were a crucible of challenge and growth and are among my greatest memories.