Spring 1970: ‘Strike the war,’ Dylan, locusts, and opening the gate
(Last of three columns on the fundamental transformations at Princeton 40 years ago)
By Gregg Lange ’70
Posted on July 7, 2010
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
– Bob Dylan,“Highway 61 Revisited,” 1965
NOTE: In our previous melodramatic episode of the annals of Princeton in 1969-70, we described how national unrest over the Vietnam war descended on Princeton, exacerbating the inevitable distraction from the huge campus changes – everything from coeducation to the new University Council (CPUC) to the demise of the single wing to Afro-American studies – seemingly taking place on a daily basis. The one thing almost everyone was looking forward to was the end of the year and a nice boring summer; even another potential Woodstock (the remote Isle of Wight Festival would draw 700,000 people in August) seemed to offer relief from the relentless change and the aura of the war.
On Thursday, April 30, 1970, the day before Houseparties, I had turned in my thesis – to the muffled sobs of my adviser – and was driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to fetch my fetching girlfriend when Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia. I had to pull over to the shoulder for half an hour before I could recompose myself just enough to drive. Meanwhile, the Chapel was packed and the talk was ugly. The quiet professor Stan Kelley, who had already done far more than his share to improve Princeton, felt compelled to speak from the pulpit and urge people to think and act productively.
The following day, Princeton president Bob Goheen ’40 *48, a decorated World War II hero and silent observer at the Chapel, released a public statement essentially saying that President Richard Nixon was misguided.
By the time we returned to Princeton, Houseparties had been canceled (actually, four clubs sort of held parties, which weren’t much fun), meeters were meeting, organizers were organizing, most other campuses were rumbling ominously, and just about everybody from the left (your high draft number wasn’t a sure thing anymore) to the right (ROTC members now faced a newly energized war they had hoped was winding down) was apoplectic. Five thousand exhausted and distracted people were faced with decisions too difficult for a well-rested sage to contemplate.
The six-week period between April 30 and June 9 is probably the most dissected in the history of the University with the possible exceptions of the Battle of Princeton in 1777, Washington’s visit in 1783, and the 1896 Sesquicentennial. Tom Krattenmaker wrote a fine article on that spring for PAW 25 years later (May 10, 1995), and the unrest and its antecedents take up an entire chapter of Don Oberdorfer ’52 and J.T. Miller ’70’s wonderful Princeton University: The First 250 Years . So let’s just note some crucial items for bitter flavor:
- The Meeting : Based organizationally on the previous November’s Vietnam Assembly , the entire campus community (alumni could not vote) piled into Jadwin on Monday, May 4. Four hours of debate among 4,000 people yielded an overwhelming consensus left of center but not on the left wing; the vote was to “strike the war” (2,066 votes) as distinct from striking the University (further left – 1,522) or business as usual (181). The great middle, many of whom had signed an apology to Walter Hickel – the U.S. secretary to the interior whose talk in Jadwin Gym had been drowned out by about 75 demonstrators – only two months earlier, now were voting to strike; they wanted concrete action, by a 20/1 margin. Significantly, the winning resolution had been crafted by the new CPUC and was presented by Stan Kelley.
- The Killings : At Kent State on May 4 (by the National Guard) and at Jackson State on May 14 (by the State Police), fatal government attacks on students assured that every campus to the left of Bob Jones was in turmoil. Although Neil Young’s Ohio is the famous cultural result, I always think of George Segal’s sculpture “Abraham and Isaac” (next to the Chapel) and Dylan’s Highway 61 ; Kent State’s searing aftermath was a societal change of biblical proportion.
- The Faculty : The votes of The Meeting urged the faculty to be flexible, but crucially did not try to subvert its authority. A huge number of exams and papers were put off until fall or waived, but standards were clear in each case. On the other hand, if any faculty member tried to interfere with a student involved in the strike, I never heard of it. Seniors were in a unique bind; if they weren’t headed for honors, comps were often canceled, but nobody was excused from a thesis (most were already in); different departments handled their charges differently. The academic notices in the Prince were complex and exhausting. Department meetings took place daily. ROTC was voted off the academic rolls.
- The Athletes : Ivy sports degraded almost instantly. The lacrosse team mainly persisted, in part because it was coach Ferris Thomsen’s farewell season. In contrast, many members of the track team quit or joined an anti-war statement at the Heps and track coach Peter Morgan resigned in despair; he was replaced by Larry Ellis, now in the Track Hall of Fame and the first black head coach in any varsity sport in Ivy history. Other squads had teams and no opponents; some had opponents and no team.
- The Groups : Political activity was incessant. Among the perhaps dozen ad hoc anti-war groups, the largest was the Movement for a New Congress, with perhaps 400 students on campus working feverishly to elect anti-war candidates; organized first, Princeton became the national headquarters. It had an effect in the 1970 primaries, much less in November, then died. The group that ultimately was successful was UNDO, an intense band that became a national clearing house for anti-draft activity. After long and tedious efforts by many such organizations, the Nixon administration perversely allowed the draft to die in June 1973 rather than end the war even then.
- The Demonstrations : Hundreds of students turned in their draft cards to Dean Ernest Gordon, a veteran of Japanese World War II POW camps, who welcomed them in the Chapel. Revived by the campus killings, the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) resumed, as it had periodically since 1967, demonstrations on Prospect Avenue against the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), the defense think-tank renting Princeton property (now von Neumann Hall). With added recruits now, they put the building under siege with 250 people. Local police were about to break up their shantytown with shotguns when Dean of Students Neil Rudenstine ’56 essentially told the students they had to vamoose or get whacked; unlike at Harvard and Cornell and Columbia, the students trusted Goheen and Rudenstine enough to do it. There were a couple of Molotov cocktails thrown around campus (castigated by the Prince : “If there’s anything America doesn’t need at this point in its history, it is people who throw – or drop – firebombs”) and marches at Nassau Hall, but nothing else as threatening as IDA.
- The Seniors : The class met (nobody missed it) two days after Kent State and The Meeting. Moderates felt betrayed and angry, radicals were bright enough to propose rational ideas, and the class decided to dump its longed-for graduation festivities: no prom, no steer-and-beer, a radically retooled class day intended to inform the alumni and parents why the war was such a mistake. They voted not to march in the P-rade, but to explain to the returning alumni why (the class president was “volunteered” for the task). They voted not to wear caps and gowns at Commencement, and urged donation of the savings to anti-war causes. But they also voted not to impede anyone who wished to wear them, or to march in the P-rade; they were sick of coercion. And lastly, they voted to petition the University to remove the padlock (in place except for rare occasions for 65 years) from the symbolic front campus FitzRandolph Gate to symbolize the unity of the University with its community, and the unity of the class despite its diverse membership.
- The Alumni : Most thought essentially all of this campus activity inconceivable; coeducation was one thing, but many of the huge numbers of World War II and Korean War veterans simply suspected the kids were cowardly, not to mention the administration. The imminent rise of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton was assured.
The P-rade on Saturday, June 6, was the beginning of the endgame. Chris Connell ’71 has captured Class of ’70 President Stew (then Dill) McBride’s thankless position in his article in the current issue of PAW (July 7) . The class’s unwillingness to march as usual rankled older alums for decades.
Baccalaureate on Sunday was presided over somberly by war heroes Goheen and Gordon. The recessional was “Not Alone for Mighty Empire”:
God of justice, save the people from the clash of race and creed,
From the strife of class and faction, make our nation free indeed;
Keep her faith in simple manhood strong as when her life began,
Till it find its full fruition in the brotherhood of man!
– William P. Merrill, 1911
On Monday, the teach-in substituting for Class Day featured George McGovern, the anti-war senator from South Dakota. Many seniors came with their parents; many came alone; some stayed away.
Inevitably, in the end it came down to Tuesday’s Commencement, five weeks after Kent State and every subsequent campus complication mankind could conjure up. So, of course, nature lent a cacophonous hand. It was, for you closet entomologists out there, the great Brood X. The largest U.S. periodic cicada emergence, it came out right on cue and, I swear on the Big Bug in the sky, peaked in volume on the front campus during Commencement June 9. The millions of friendly orange and black bugs were crawling over everybody’s mother, and making a pitiful ’60s sound system half-unintelligible.
Connell’s article portrays the day admirably through the eyes of valedictorian Ray Gibbons ’70. Some black graduates stood and turned their backs silently in protest of South African investments, the Latin salutatory was eliminated in deference to a blunt dialogue enumerating the class’s seething frustrations with business as usual (Hal Strelnick ’70 and Mike Calhoun ’70 “ask you to listen that we may move together beyond the rhetoric that has reduced human beings on one hand to pigs and on the other to snobs and bums”), but the ceremony – the audible parts – continued calmly, with most of us sitting in suits and ties and white armbands with the class peace logo. Surreally, Bob Dylan was there to receive an honorary degree (thereby astounding even those who invited him: it was his first, and the last for another 34 years) escorted by a stunned Rudenstine. Dylan was so unnerved and/or intrigued he recalled his adventure in the song Day of the Locusts , which appeared on his album New Morning that October. He’s been a class icon ever since – “In Locusts Parentis” our cringeworthy motto.
Then we opened the FitzRandolph Gate, as classes had done at graduation for many decades, and we and our friend (and eventual honorary classmate) Bob Goheen left it open, which no one had ever done, with the inscription “Together for Community.” With all the astonishing, disrupting, frenetic activity of 1969-70, it now seems to me our last simple statement of opening the gate may well have been the most important of all the outcomes for Princeton.
Good for us; good for us all.
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.
And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill,
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody.
And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill,
Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me.
– Bob Dylan, “Day of the Locusts,” 1970
We posted this to provide a look back at those turbulent times by someone who was there on the front campus on graduation day to get his diploma along with Bob Dylan. This was not just an ordinary graduation. It came at the peak of a very difficult time for Dylan's generation. And notice that the writer confirms that the ceremonies occurred at the very height of the din created by the Brood X cicada emergence. There's no way Dylan could have left them out of the song.