In November of 1969, when I was a freshman in college, I took part in the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history. Half a million of us crowded the Mall and the streets in Washington D.C. The crowd was mostly college students, but not exclusively. Parents of a friend of mine marched with us. We were certainly right about the ongoing calamity of the war in Vietnam. But being right often doesn’t change anything. Looking back at that “historic moment,” the immediate result of that astonishing outpouring of grief and anger was the expansion of the war and, just three years later, Nixon’s re-election landslide.
In May 1970, Nixon heedlessly expanded the war into Cambodia. College students across the country protested, sometimes violently. After an ROTC building was burned down at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard was deployed on campus. Facing demonstrators the next day, the Guard troops opened fire, killing four students. Two black students at Jackson State University were later killed by the Mississippi state police after protests there. Those killings galvanized many college students, and a nationwide student strike closed colleges and universities, including my own. Classes were suspended and the few weeks that remained in our academic year were spent attending strike meetings, debating the strike demands, and organizing further protests. We were all excused from final exams and/or papers, allowing me to escape from my course on the German novel without having to finish reading The Magic Mountain. I’m chagrined to confess that is an assignment I have yet to complete.
Much of the rhetoric of the strike was focused not on Vietnam, but on racism. The organizers of the nationwide movement announced that the first of their three strike demands was to “end the systematic repression of political dissidents and release all political prisoners, such as Bobby Seale and other members of the Black Panther Party.” The other demands were that the United States “unilaterally and immediately withdraw all forces from Southeast Asia,” and that colleges and universities end their “complicity with the U.S. war Machine.” Needless to say, none of these demands were met, and most of us returned to school in the fall with a deepening sense that the nation was determined to stay the course both in Vietnam and at home, a disastrous path that culminated in Watergate, Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and humiliation in Vietnam.
One of the principal strike leaders at my college was a former child TV actor named Stephen Talbot. Talbot had played the role of Gilbert Bates, a friend of Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on the hugely popular TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver. I’m not making this up. Talbot went on to a long and distinguished career as a journalist and documentarian, best known perhaps for his work on PBS’s Frontline. As the Beaver’s neighborhood companion, Gilbert was responsible for giving his friend mischievously bad advice that often got the innocent Beaver in trouble. “Gee, Beave, I don’t know,” was how Gilbert would always try to squirm out of responsibility for his impish actions.