The Last Teach-In

The remarkable growth of the antiwar movement can be measured by the size of the rallies on the Boston Common as they grew from year to year after that first poorly attended one in the spring of 1965. Two years later, a rally on the Common brought thousands of people. It was observed by the FBI and is described in an entry in my FBI file.

I got that file under the Freedom of Information Act—several hundred pages, mostly boring, with many blacked-out sections, but reminding me of many forgotten rallies and speeches. The FBI is supposed to investigate criminal activities, but, like the old Soviet secret police, it seems also to take note of gatherings and public statements where the government is criticized.

The FBI file reported: “On October 16, 1967, a public anti-draft protest demonstration took place on the Boston Common … with an estimated 4000–5000 individuals, males and females, in attendance. This protest demonstration … was observed by Special Agents of the F.B.I. Among the speakers appearing at this demonstration was Professor Howard Zinn.… The morning edition of the Boston Globe … carried an article captioned ’67 Burn Draft Cards in Boston—214 Turn in Cards, 5000 at Rally.’ ”

The FBI report also reproduced some of my speech as reported in the Globe: “The 13,000 Americans who died in Vietnam died because they were sent there under the orders of politicians and generals who sacrificed them on behalf of their own ambitions.… We owe it to our conscience, to the people of this country, to the principles of American democracy, to declare our independence of this war, to resist it in every way we can, until it comes to an end, until there is peace in Vietnam.”

The people assembled on the Common that morning then marched to the historic Arlington Street Church, where they crowded into the ancient pews to listen to William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, and Michael Ferber, a Harvard graduate student (both would be indicted, with Dr. Benjamin Spock and writers Mitchell Goodman and Marcus Raskin, for conspiring against the draft law). Coffin, whom I had met years before in New Haven, was one of the antiwar movement’s most eloquent speakers. Ferber was new to it, but made an extraordinary, passionate, personal statement.

Then the historic church candlestick, placed there over a century before by the antislavery preacher William Ellery Channing, was held up as young men approached it and held their draft cards to the flame.

The scene was being enacted all over the country, with draft cards either burned or collected to be turned in to the Justice Department in Washington. And the following day a huge antiwar rally at the Lincoln Memorial culminated at night with an eerie confrontation at the Pentagon, thousands of protesters facing thousands of National Guardsmen and Army regulars. At one point a former Green Beret, now a protester, speaking through a bullhorn to the soldiers, told why he had turned against the war.

By 1968, antiwar feeling was so widespread that President Johnson had to cancel all his public appearances except those at military bases. He was told by a special group of advisers that he should not send more troops to Vietnam because the country would not stand for it. It was at that point that he announced he would not run for reelection. Both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, in their campaigns for the presidency that year, had to promise that they would bring the war to an end.

Nixon, elected president, continued the war, and the antiwar movement declared October 15, 1969, a Moratorium Day—asking that everyone stop business as usual and gather in demonstrations throughout the country. Several thousand of us marched from Boston University down Commonwealth Avenue, and it seemed that every few blocks more thousands joined. As we approached the Common we saw marchers converging from all directions. Those of us who were on the speakers’ platform could see the Common packed with people—men, women, children—as far as the eye could see, a hundred thousand or more. I could not help thinking of that tiny group of a hundred who had come to that first meeting on the Common.

That day, throughout the nation, in towns and cities that had never seen an antiwar rally, several million people were protesting the war. It was the largest public demonstration in the nation’s history.

On Moratorium Day I was racing from one antiwar rally to another, as so many others were, our voices hoarse by the end of the day. At one point I drove past the Newton College of the Sacred Heart, a staid, conservative Catholic school for young women, where early in the war I had been invited by an antiwar nun to speak and had received a polite but definitely cold reception. Now, as I passed, I saw on its entrance gate a huge banner with a painted red fist and the words “STOP THE WAR!”

At Boston University, antiwar activity was intense, with rallies and building occupations and all-night teach-ins. I recall speaking at three in the morning in the university’s largest auditorium to an audience struggling to stay awake but determined to show their solidarity. The campus newspaper, under the editorship of the fiery Ray Mungo, had made national news by calling for the impeachment of Lyndon Johnson. We gave sanctuary to a deserting GI, a thousand students and faculty filling the university’s chapel for five days and nights, until federal agents kicked and pushed their way through the tightly-massed group early one Sunday morning, smashed down a door, and took the GI into custody. President Nixon, making a gesture toward his campaign promises, began withdrawing troops, but he also launched secret bombings of Cambodia, with which the United States was not at war. In early 1969 and 1970, he extended the ground war to Laos and Cambodia, the two neighbors of Vietnam, in a vain effort to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops into South Vietnam.

The Cambodian invasion provoked nationwide protests, and on the campus of Kent State University, in Ohio, trigger-happy National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of unarmed student demonstrators, killing four of them, crippling another for life. A photo flashed around the world showed an unnamed young woman, her face anguished, bending over the body of one of the dead students.

On television I saw the father of one of the victims, Allison Krause, barely able to control his grief, pointing to the fact that President Nixon had referred to student protesters as “bums.” He cried out, “My daughter was not a bum!”

A few years later, when some visiting parents were sitting in on the introductory session of my course “Law and Justice in America,” I handed out the syllabus, which included as one of the course topics the shootings at Kent State. At the end of the session, one of the new students came up and introduced herself and her parents. She was Laurie Krause, the sister of Allison. I recognized her father from the television screen and felt a pang of unease that their unspeakable grief was represented so matter-of-factly on a course syllabus. But they seemed to appreciate that the Kent State affair was not forgotten.

The spring of 1970 saw the first general student strike in the history of the United States, students at over four hundred colleges and universities calling off classes to protest the invasion of Cambodia, the Kent State affair, the killing of two black students at Jackson State College in Mississippi, and the continuation of the war.

That June I was the invited commencement speaker at Queens College in New York, and several thousand graduates and parents crowded Madison Square Garden for the ceremony. My comments on the war and on the U.S. government brought some of the parents to their feet with shouts of anger, but when I finished the graduates rose from their seats and applauded for a long time.

Even more striking was that high school students all over the country, stimulated by the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement, were demanding more democracy, more of a voice in decisions affecting them. In my town of Newton, Massachusetts, that June of 1970, students at the local high school won the right to choose their own commencement speaker. They invited me.

By this time I had spoken against the war at hundreds of situations around the country—teach-ins, rallies, debates. But nowhere did an invitation to speak bring such a violent reaction as did the one from Newton North High School. I learned something from this: that the high school years must be the most important years in shaping the social consciousness of young people, because at no other level do parents and school officials become more hysterical at the possibility that the students will be exposed to ideas which challenge the authority of government, of school administrations, of parents.

The local veterans’ organizations in Newton immediately called for a boycott of the commencement. The mayor, who had been scheduled to speak, announced that if I spoke he would not appear on the same platform. Some parents said they would organize a walkout.

I was visited by a delegation of students, obviously embarrassed. The principal had asked them to ask me to withdraw. I said yes, I would, if they took a poll of the student body and the students—who had invited me in the first place—now wanted me to withdraw. The poll was taken. The students voted overwhelmingly that I should speak.

The day before the ceremony, my wife answered a phone call. The voice at the other end (Roz said it sounded like “a nice old lady”) said, “Just tell your husband that my two boys are now out in the garage, building a bomb for the commencement.”

The football field where the graduation ceremony took place was ringed by police. The principal, sitting next to me on the platform, was visibly nervous. I don’t remember exactly what I said that day (the FBI was not on the job; there was nothing in my file on this event, and I have grown to depend on them for accurate reports on my speeches). But I know I spoke as strongly, as feelingly as I could about the war, the Kent State shootings, the right of young people to refuse to fight in an unjust war.

The stands were full—parents, students, teachers. When I started to speak a handful of parents conspicuously rose and walked out, but when I finished there was a standing ovation. Here, as at other gatherings, it seemed to me that people were grateful when someone voiced openly what they were thinking and feeling but had no way of expressing.

(For years after that I would run into young people who stopped me on the street, or on a bus, saying, “I graduated from Newton North in 1970, and I’ll never forget that day.” It confirmed what I learned from my Spelman years, that education becomes most rich and alive when it confronts the reality of moral conflict in the world.)

Around this time I was invited to Tufts University to debate William F. Buckley, the well-known writer-columnist-conservative. (I was offered $300, which impressed me; I was accustomed to getting nothing. I learned later that Buckley got $3,000—but I suppressed my resentment.) The Tufts gymnasium was packed that night with thousands of students, and thousands more were turned away. Obviously, it was not my presence but the famous Buckley who was attracting them.

When we were introduced by a Tufts philosophy professor the applause seemed fairly even for both Buckley and myself. As the debate went on, however, the applause diminished for Buckley, grew louder for me. I knew this was not because I was a superior debater, but that my arguments simply made more sense to a student body that had itself decided the war was wrong.

At a certain point I glanced over at Buckley, who had a reputation for debonair coolness, and I saw he was sweating. Before the question period was declared at an end he rose and said he had to go. In a column he wrote after the debate he said how appalled he was that American students should applaud such opposition to their own government as they heard that evening. I found it curious that Buckley did not seem to understand that unsparing criticism of government is an essential element of a democratic society.

“Counter-commencements” were being organized around the country. I spoke at such an event at my alma mater, Columbia University, while the historian who had chaired my dissertation defense, Richard Hofstadter, was giving the official commencement address nearby. At another, at Wesleyan University, I shared the counter-commencement platform with two of my heroes, the historian Henry Steele Commager, who had been my teacher at Columbia, and William Sloane Coffin, with whom I had become friends over the years.

It was a time of incredibly intense passions, as the horrors visited on the people of Vietnam became more known, as the bodies of young Americans were shipped home by the tens of thousands. Perhaps there was a special desperation about what was happening because we felt we were in some way responsible. Again and again, since World War II, there had been talk about the responsibility of the German people for the Nazi atrocities. Yet atrocities were now taking place in Vietnam—undoubtedly on both sides, but the most massive firepower was ours, the foreign presence in that country was us. The My Lai massacre was only one instance of the awful things done by our soldiers, and we, by our failure to stop the war, were responsible and therefore must act.

For some people it was too much to bear. Norman Morrison, a pacifist father of three, set fire to himself, giving his life to protest the war, as did a woman named Alice Herz. (Later, in North Vietnam, I met Vietnamese peasants whose only English words were “Norman Morrison, Norman Morrison.”)

One evening in Boston I got a phone call from Washington, from a student of mine whose anguish about the war had been very visible when he spoke to me after class. He had gone to the Capitol steps earlier that day, doused himself with gasoline, and then been arrested before he could do anything more. (To this day I hear from him once a year or so; he is obviously still troubled. He writes poems, is fearful of police and the FBI, a gentle person still tormented by the violence of the world around him.)

But for most of us, the movement was a life-giving force. To join a hundred thousand others in marches and rallies, to know that even if you felt helpless against the power of government you were not alone in your feelings—that people all over the country, of all ages, black and white, working people and middle-class people, were with you—was to be moved beyond words.

To hear Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Country Joe and the Beatles, to have artists and writers on your side, to read that Eartha Kitt upset a White House lawn party by raising her voice against the war, to see Mohammed Ali defy the authorities even at the cost of his championship title, to hear Martin Luther King speak out against the war, to see little children marching with their parents, carrying signs—“Save the Children of Vietnam”—was to feel that the best of human beings were fighting your cause.

While we were an embattled minority, it was thrilling to imagine that the beautiful humanity of so many of the people we encountered in the movement (forgetting its dogmatists, its bureaucrats, the power-seekers, the humorless ones) represented the future. It seemed there could be some day a world of just such people, the kind you could work with, share everything with, have fun with, trust with your life.

We often read in the press—or heard from some people—that the opposition to the war came from young people wanting to save their own lives. That was so clearly untrue; millions of people protested the war not because their own lives were at stake, but because they truly cared about other people’s lives, the lives of Vietnamese, of fellow Americans.

There was no more powerful argument against the claim of selfishness, and no greater inspiration for continuing the struggle to end the war, than to be joined by the GI’s themselves—those who refused to go out on patrol, who deserted (perhaps a hundred thousand of them), who were courtmartialed and sent to prison, who came back from the war and chained themselves to the fences of the Veterans Administration, who marched with their crutches, with their artificial limbs, in their wheelchairs, to cry out against the stupid slaughter.

On army, navy, and air bases in the United States, soldiers getting ready to go to Vietnam joined those back from the war to call for a halt. They put out antiwar newspapers and gathered in movement coffeehouses set up near military bases, where they could listen to music, talk, find an alternative to the bars and the macho militarism they were supposed to enjoy. The first such coffeehouse (called the U.F.O.) opened in Columbia, South Carolina, and our son Jeff, barely out of high school, went there to become part of the working staff as a musician.

I traveled to Mountain Home, Idaho (the FBI recorded this visit), to meet with airmen stationed there who put out an antiwar newspaper called Helping Hand. We talked, listened to music, then late at night drove high into the mountains to strip and bathe in the hot springs, under a sliver of moon.

In the spring of 1971 I traveled to Detroit to participate in the “Winter Soldier” hearings—where Vietnam veterans were gathering to give testimony about the atrocities they had witnessed or participated in, actions which had helped turn them against the war. That was the first of several encounters with Jane Fonda. She became the object of “patriotic” venom, but I always admired her willingness to step out of her superstar life to take a stand on the war.

On that occasion I also met the actor Donald Sutherland, who would soon play in a movie based on the book Johnny Got His Gun, written by one of the blacklisted Hollywood writers, Dalton Trumbo. This book, perhaps the most powerful antiwar novel ever written, had a profound effect on me when I read it as a teenager—prepared me, I think, for my later revulsion against all war. When I started teaching I often assigned it to my students. I also had them read Born on the Fourth of July, the memoir by Ron Kovic, a working-class kid who joined the Marines at seventeen, and at nineteen had his spine shattered by shellfire in Vietnam. Paralyzed from the waist down, in a wheelchair, he came home to become a protester against the war. In his book, Ron Kovic tells how, back from Vietnam, he heard Donald Sutherland read from Johnny Got His Gun, and how it crystallized his own feelings.

That chain of relationships made me think of how connections are made—you read a book, you meet a person, you have a single experience, and your life is changed in some way. No act, therefore, however small, should be dismissed or ignored.

One day in the 1980s, I got a phone call in Boston; Ron Kovic was in town, had read some of my work, wanted to meet me. I asked if he would come to my class; the students would be thrilled. He came, but not to lecture the four hundred students in the auditorium. Instead, he wheeled his wheelchair up and down the aisle, asking them questions, conveying in his own way how deeply he wanted a world without war, without violence.

After four years of negotiations in Paris, with fifty-five thousand Americans dead, with over a million Vietnamese dead, after the most intense bombardment of a tiny country by a major power in history, after failing at military victory, the United States signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam in early 1973, agreeing to withdraw. The war continued between the Saigon government and the Hanoi–National Liberation Front forces, with the United States continuing to give military aid to Saigon, but a North Vietnamese offensive smashed through the demoralized South Vietnamese army in early 1975.

That April, a teach-in was organized at Brandeis University in the Boston area, to ask for the cessation of U.S. military aid to Saigon. I was on the platform, as I had been so many times during the war, with Noam Chomsky, who had been one of the first American intellectuals, and undoubtedly the most influential, to speak out against the war. His 1967 article in the New York Review of Books, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” was a historic document delivered in a tone of firm rationality, an eloquent call for others to speak up against American policy in Vietnam.

Noam and I had first met in the summer of 1965, on a plane ride to Mississippi with a delegation to protest the jailing of civil rights workers there. The antiwar movement brought us closer together, and Noam and his wife Carol, Roz, and I became friends. Of all the movement people I knew, there was no one person who combined such extraordinary intellectual power with such commitment to social justice.

In the midst of that Brandeis meeting in 1975 (I forget who was at the microphone) there was an interruption. A student came racing down the aisle, waving a piece of paper. He was with the campus newspaper and they had just received the news: Saigon had surrendered, the war was over. Everyone in the auditorium stood and cheered. We shook hands. We embraced. I felt great joy, but perhaps more than anything a sense of relief that the killing had stopped. It was, I suppose, the last teach-in of the war.

There was also an exhilarating feeling of pride, even awe, for, as the great anarchist-journalist I. F. Stone said, it was human beings against technological power, and human beings had won. It was an exciting thought, that apparently powerless people, both in our country and in Vietnam, had confronted the awesome power of the United States government and brought a terrible war to an end. But there is more to say about the antiwar movement—about priests and nuns, about going to Hanoi, about being part of an underground, about being arrested, about jails and courtrooms, about the problem of obedience to law and subservience to government.

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