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Student protesters reflect on the legacy of campus activism during the Vietnam War

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Early this morning, the quad at the center of Occidental College got some new residents.

MATTHEW VICKERS: Here at this side of the encampment, we have 17 four-person tents. There are a lot of people out here - I would say over 30 people already here at 5:14 a.m. It's very optimistic.

KELLY: Matthew Vickers is a junior at Occidental, a small college in LA. He's one of many students on dozens of campuses all over the country to set up encampments protesting Israel's war in Gaza. Well, the protests only grew over the weekend, and so did the police response, with more than 200 people arrested nationwide on Saturday. Now, these protests are very much of this moment, and yet they echo another moment of political upheaval more than 50 years ago.

VICKERS: Most of the Palestinian solidarity movement have taken direct tactical and sort of moral inspiration from the movements of the '60s. I think the parallels cannot be more obvious.

KELLY: Matthew Vickers again at Occidental College, which, like so many campuses, saw major protests during the Vietnam War. In April of 1969, hundreds of students protested military recruiters on Occidental's campus. And dozens occupied an administration building just a stone's throw from the current encampment. Vickers says he also drew inspiration from another moment the following year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Good evening, my fellow Americans.

KELLY: This is Richard Nixon in 1970, announcing that the Vietnam War would be expanded into Cambodia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.

KELLY: In the following days, millions of students on campuses nationwide protested Nixon's decision. It was during these demonstrations that four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University.

VICKERS: And that was followed by thousands of arrests, similar to this moment. And that goes to show that if we are willing to do something for others, for Palestinians, we can do it.

KELLY: This parallel between today's protests and those of the late '60s - it's being repeated over and over across the country. At the University of Michigan, pro-Palestinian protesters are camped out on an open space called The Diag, and they do not plan on leaving.

ALIFA CHOWDHURY: It's like, are you camping forever? And we're like, I guess.

KELLY: Alifa Chowdhury is a junior at Michigan, one of the protest's organizers. Their encampment on The Diag is on the exact spot where students in the '60s marched against the Vietnam War.

CHOWDHURY: So we're building on things that have been done before. This is not a new phenomenon. We stand on that protest issue today.

KELLY: Same goes for students at UNC Chapel Hill.

LILY: Just like during Vietnam, right now is this, like, unearthing moment where we're turning over the topsoil, and we're getting to see the ideology that lives within university administration.

KELLY: Lily is a senior at UNC who's helping to organize students on campus, and she asked that we use just her first name for security concerns. There have been reasons for students to be careful.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: That's the sound of police clashing with protesters at USC, UT Austin and Emory University. So what do the campus protests of today really have in common with the campus protests of the '60s? And what might we learn from the way that movement played out? For some who experienced the campus protests of the late '60s, the response of the police is one clear similarity.

TOM HORWITZ: They felt that the way to get us out of the buildings was to beat us up on the way out. So there was a lot of blood and a lot of hurt people.

KELLY: Tom Horwitz was a student at Columbia University. In the spring of 1968, when that campus got turned upside down by student protests, he spent six days occupying the mathematics building with fellow students before police violently cleared out the protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) No violence, No violence.

KELLY: The protests at Columbia that year became a flashpoint for the student activist movement around the country. And this spring, too, Columbia was one of the first sparks of the broader student movement we are seeing now after an encampment on Columbia's campus was dispersed by police and then reassembled by students. Horwitz sees his generation's campus protest reflected in current students, and he has this advice for them.

HORWITZ: It's important to keep the simple truth of your position and say it clearly and articulately and nonviolently, the simple truth that the projection of military might in order to solve problems is almost always a terrible thing. And we see it in Gaza, and we saw it in Vietnam.

KELLY: There is one place in particular where the protests of the '60s and the protests of today collide - inside the classroom of Professor Frank Guridy.

FRANK GURIDY: The parallels and the comparisons are inevitable.

KELLY: Guridy is a professor of history at Columbia. He's currently teaching an undergrad research seminar about the 1968 protests on campus and in a fitting setting.

GURIDY: Yes. I teach the course at Fayerweather Hall, which was one of the buildings that was occupied in 1968 by students.

KELLY: And not far from the encampment on campus today.

GURIDY: As in 1968, the Columbia students of 2024 are absolutely galvanized by what's transpiring in Gaza and the Middle East. And in that sense, it is uncanny resemblance to what transpired in the late '60s in this country, where U.S. students and other people in this country were inspired to speak out and mobilize against what they saw as an unjust war in Vietnam.

KELLY: You just described students as absolutely galvanized. And I am curious how cohesive or not student views today versus then are. You know, of course, today we're seeing counterprotests at some campuses, including Columbia - range of student views all over the place. It was the same during Vietnam.

GURIDY: No doubt. And I think that's the thing. I mean, I think as we get distant from Vietnam, I think there's this growing perception I detect that somehow there was a widespread support for the anti-war movement, and there was not. So in that sense, this campus, just like the country, was absolutely polarized in 1968 as it is in 2024. And I think that's an absolute similarity.

KELLY: I have been struck by another similarity between '68 and today, and this is the calls for universities to divest. In the '60s, students were trying to get their administrations to divest from the defense industry or anything connected to the war in Vietnam - today's students also targeting the financial choices made by their institutions. What do you see as similarities, parallels there?

GURIDY: No question, right? So in '68, the students were galvanized against the war, were targeting all sorts of things - everything from CIA recruitment and military recruitment on campus to the university's affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis, which was a research arm that was facilitating military research at the time. And so, yes, they were very much directed towards - one of the major goals of the protest was to get Columbia to disaffiliate with defense research at that time.

And yet divestment is a strategy that predates '68, as we know. I mean, any historian of social movements would tell you that it was very active in the movement against the Nazis around the world in the 1930s. People were calling for boycotting Nazi Germany at that time, including on this campus. So there's a longer history of divestment. And, of course, that goes after '68. When we look at the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s, that - you know, Colombia has a long history of divestment activism.

KELLY: So let me raise the perhaps darkest difference between now and then, which is the U.S. doesn't have boots on the ground in Gaza. There's no American college student facing a draft. It doesn't exist. How does that change the conversation?

GURIDY: Yeah. No, that's a huge difference. The draft was a real reality, including for privileged college students in the late 1960s. And so the sense of urgency was slightly different for the college students and the anti-war movement at that time. And so yes, but I think because the U.S. is directly involved in both wars - in the Gaza War supporting Israel and, of course, in supporting the South Vietnamese government against the Northern Vietnam communist government - you know, in some ways, that strikes me being more similar to different.

So even if the prospect of troops landing in the Middle East is not evident, at least not at this point, I think the sense of urgency is very much there because of the way in which the Gaza-Israel question, you know, plays out domestically here and on this campus in particular.

KELLY: As someone teaching the history to current students, I am curious. Is there consensus that the 1968 protests directly influenced U.S. policy when the U.S., as we know, didn't get out of Vietnam until 1975, seven years after the 1968 protests?

GURIDY: Yes. You're stepping into a long debate about what '68 means, the debate that we historians still have now. In fact, when we had our 50th anniversary conference in 2018, we had a panel looking back at '68. And one of my colleagues was saying, like, wow. You know, '68 didn't really deliver the things that the protesters wanted. That's a fair point. I think that's absolutely true. But as a social movement historian, you'd be hard-pressed to find any case of a dramatic political, social change that didn't have a social movement behind it. And so even though it took five more years or so for the Vietnam war to end, you know, the power of those social movements is undeniable.

And so in my mind, the '68 protests at Columbia were overwhelmingly positive. Now, I know there are many of alums who would disagree with me (laughter). But I think that, as a whole, the university, you know, turned out to be a more welcoming place, even though there are plenty of people who really lamented what transpired and felt that the students were really trying to destroy the university. I happen to disagree with that argument. But I think that for Colombia, you know, even though the central administration really has never publicly acknowledged '68 in any significant way, I would argue that it actually produced a better campus environment for the students - subsequent generation of students than what existed before.

KELLY: Are you optimistic that that may be the case for 2024, that these protests may ultimately result in a better Colombia and better colleges and universities across the country?

GURIDY: I'm not so sure, Mary Louise, I have to say, because I'm a little worried about the way in which our university leadership has responded to the protests. I mean, right now our campus is still on edge, you know, and it's not clear how this is going to wind up. But for the institution, I think it's going to take us a while to recover from what's transpired here.

KELLY: Columbia University professor of history Frank Guridy. Thanks so much.

GURIDY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG,"TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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