Fifty years ago, a very different mid-semester disruption


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One Wednesday during spring semester, the College announced a major disruption to classes for the rest of the school year. Events in the world beyond the Purple Bubble had rendered it impossible to conduct business as usual.

But the year was 1970, not 2020. And the semester came to an early end not because of a global pandemic but because of a student-led, faculty-endorsed strike in protest of the Vietnam War.

In early May, students at Williams and other colleges across the country went on strike in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Fifty years later, at a virtual faculty meeting on March 11 after in-person classes were canceled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, President of the College Maud S. Mandel referred obliquely to the strike.

“The decision that was sent out today is not unprecedented in Williams history, but it’s been 50 years since a semester was disrupted in this way,” she said.

There are several clear differences between the disruption in 1970 and the current one in 2020. The 1970 strike was the result of student-led activism, rather than a decision made by the administration. The strike occurred only a few weeks before the end of the semester. All students could continue living on campus if they wished. And the College was a very different place; it was smaller, whiter, and almost exclusively male.

“The nations’ campuses must act”

The main source of outrage fueling the 1970 strike was the announcement by President Richard Nixon on April 30 that the U.S. had invaded neutral Cambodia.

“When the Cambodian bombing became public, it created an almost national outcry, in part because Nixon had won his election in part because of a ‘secret plan’ to secure peace in Vietnam — and here we were involved in extending the war to another, supposedly neutral country,” said George Marcus, current professor emeritus and then-assistant-professor of political science.

Another cause for unrest was the trial of Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party whose prosecution many students saw as politically motivated. On May 1, students from various colleges, including Williams, attended a Yale rally to free Seale.

At a meeting that weekend, anti-war organizers called on the crowd of college students to lead strikes at their own institutions.

On the drive back to Williamstown, the students who had attended the rally decided to bring the strike movement to the College, said Jim Lobe ’70. Once they returned to campus on Sunday night, they began making signs and calling meetings to raise student support for the protest.

“We all created a momentum that became pretty irresistible within about 24 hours,” Lobe said.

The tumult increased after the shootings of four unarmed Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4.

“So now they’re killing us,” Brewster Rhoads ’74 said, recalling the sentiment of the time. “It immediately escalated this into ‘Okay, the U.S. government is shooting college students who are fighting the war.’ It’s hard to communicate today what that felt like, what it meant.”

This time not even the beautiful Berkshire spring can hold back the stench emanating from our now extended atrocities in Vietnam. But moral outrage itself is not enough. Finally the nations’ campuses must act.

—The Williams Record, May 5, 1970

That afternoon, the faculty voted in favor of a two-day strike to all classes and College related activities, with plans to reassess on Wednesday. Roughly 1,300 students and faculty packed into Chapin Hall that evening for a campus-wide meeting that lasted until 1:45 a.m. The president of College Council shared a statement from President of the College John E. Sawyer ’39, who decried the war and urged Nixon to take note of students’ efforts.

That night, students joined thousands of their peers across the country, voting overwhelmingly in favor of an indefinite strike.

“This time not even the beautiful Berkshire spring can hold back the stench emanating from our now extended atrocities in Vietnam,” read an editorial in the Record the next day. “But moral outrage itself is not enough. Finally the nations’ campuses must act.”

In the eyes of Bob Katt ’70, one of the leaders of the strike, the primary goals were twofold: to send a message to the nation’s leaders and to free up time for political organizing. “For a lot of people, it was, ‘This can’t just be business as usual,’” Katt said. “That was a very strong feeling.”

On Wednesday evening, the faculty voted to accept the strike.

“The Faculty shares the sense of outrage that has swept campuses across the land at the re-escalation of the war in Southeast Asia and the tragic violence it has caused throughout the nation,” read its resolution.

Marcus said that the predominantly liberal faculty “was even more inclined to do something about this” than the students. “The faculty didn’t see themselves as separate from the larger public outrage,” he said.

“Basically we’d all had it with Nixon,” recalled Professor Emeritus of History Peter Frost, then an associate dean.

The faculty offered students three options regarding coursework. First, students could choose to complete their assignments on time, even though classes were largely not occurring. Second, seniors could choose to take their classes pass/fail so that they could stop doing coursework and still graduate on time, assuming their prior work in the course was deemed sufficient. Third, all students could defer their work, take an “incomplete” in a course and finish their assignments by Oct. 15 to receive credit.

Not all students supported the strike. Campus conservatives who supported Nixon’s tactics criticized the College’s willingness to give in to progressive student demands. In a Record op-ed, two students argued, “By giving its blessing to one side of the issue, the College in effect has closed the issue, has discouraged any dialogue, and it is therefore incumbent upon the College to reestablish that dialogue by instituting a program where pro-Nixon views are presented.”

“We shut the polls down”

In the days and weeks that followed, some students left Williamstown for Washington D.C. to meet with politicians. Some engaged in activism on other college campuses; Rhoads stayed on the floor of his cousin’s dorm at Smith, compiling and disseminating daily news releases about the state of protest in Western Massachusetts. Others took action from Williamstown. And many students proceeded as usual, completing schoolwork on time and receiving grades as scheduled despite not having class.

Two main activist groups formed on campus: the student-run Strike Central located at the now-demolished Seeley House and the professor-led Pause for Peace campaign.

One of the main operations in Strike Central was the effort to shut down Nixon’s rigged opinion polls. The Nixon administration purported to hold polls on issues like the president’s handling of the war; people could call a specific phone number and register their opinions. But the phone numbers were sent only to Republican loyalists, and the poll results were therefore always skewed toward Nixon’s interests.

“There was a Williams student in our class whose father was a high-placed administration official,” Katt said. The official, “who did not agree with what was going on” with the polls, would send the phone numbers to his son, who would pass them along to Strike Central. The Seeley House organizers would then announce the numbers on a college radio network.

“Within an hour or so, we would be glutting the secret poll number with students calling in,” Katt said. “And that’s how we shut the polls down. Because the calls were flooding in on the side of opposition to the war, Nixon would close them down. We shut down, I think, three or four different numbers that they tried to put out.”

Lobe, a Seeley House organizer, recalled that the faculty-led Pause for Peace was much more “top-down” than Seeley House.

“Seeley House people, who were more, I guess, social-anarchistically-inclined, didn’t really work with the Pause for Peace people,” Lobe said.

Pause for Peace, led by Marcus, called for a nationwide, one-hour stoppage of work on May 20. It tried to collaborate with labor unions and corporations, but encountered significant obstacles.

“Labor unions, whatever portion of their membership was drawn from the anti-war movement, were at risk of both unemployment but also legal [issues] — because inasmuch as the unions had signed contracts with various corporations for the terms of work, they were worried about being sued by those corporations for breach of contract,” Marcus said. Similarly, he noted, even corporations sympathetic to the anti-war movement worried about being sued by their stockholders.

“Got to revolution”

Strike posters, T-shirts and pamphlets popped up on campus, while anti-war music blasted on the College’s quads. Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 album Volunteers was the soundtrack of that May, with lyrics like “Look what’s happening out in the streets / Got a revolution / Got to revolution.”

In the midst of this political upheaval, Lobe recalled, the College’s formerly rigid social structure temporarily relaxed. “Once things were underway, there was — as there has been historically, all around the world — a festival-like sense,” he said, noting that clique divisions in the dining halls broke down during the strike.

While some students, such as Katt and Lobe, remained holed up in Seeley House for much of the month, many others took advantage of the strike period to begin summer break a few weeks early. As the weather warmed, students spent time relaxing in the grass, going on road trips to visit friends and taking advantage of the sunny days.

Often, Katt saw his fellow seniors, most of whom were taking classes pass/fail, playing frisbee on the lawns instead of engaging in political activism. His peers’ inaction made him angry at the time. “It was years before I could even touch a frisbee,” he said.

Rachel Martin ’90, who wrote her senior thesis about the strike, also mentioned the organizers’ frustration about other students’ lack of participation.

“The students who were arguing the loudest at the faculty meetings and at the campus meetings and at the calls to go on strike — they, I believe, honestly felt that they were going to do serious political work with the time that was offered by classes being suspended,” she said. “But not everybody did that.”

For some, however, the strike’s problems lay not with inaction but with ideology. An article from the Record’s daily newsletter on May 16 describes the reactions of black students, many of whom lamented the watering-down of the fight to end political oppression, a movement that black activists had long been pushing. One black student denounced what he saw as the strike’s performative nature, saying that many of his peers were just “playing revolutionary” and showed no plans to sustain the movement in the long term.

“It just kind of faded into summer”

On-campus strike activities had mostly petered out by May 14, as the last students departed for the summer or pivoted their attention to their upcoming graduation. Pause for Peace, which had failed to garner traction, closed down.

“Gradually, people dispersed to do whatever they were going to be doing, not all of which was anti-war or even political, necessarily,” Lobe said. “It just kind of faded into summer.”

On June 7, the College held its 181st commencement. The Record reported, “An academic year that was far from traditional ended on a traditional note.” The strike was not completely forgotten, however, as 32 seniors received provisional degrees, which would be made official upon the completion of coursework by Oct. 15.

“At graduation, I did not get a diploma,” said Katt, who eventually received his degree after finishing his coursework. “I got a folder with a little slip of paper… That’s what I got at graduation. And I saved that piece of paper for a long time.”

A few weeks after the strike had died down, an article in the alternative student newspaper, The Williams Advocate, ruminated on the possible effects of the strike on the College.

“People say this strike will change Williams College,” the article read. “People say Williams College will never be the same. But people — even the ones who think themselves so far-sighted — rarely see beyond present actions, things they can feel.”

In the fall, classes resumed as scheduled, despite a fleeting plea from students to suspend classes during the week before the 1970 midterm election.

There is not a clear consensus on the strike’s efficacy even among its organizers. “I don’t think it was successful,” Katt said, citing the low levels of student participation on campus.

Rhoads argued that, although the Nixon administration’s eventual shift in military policy did not result from the strikes alone, student activism was “a piece of the pie.” The strike also prompted a moment of reckoning for American students, he said.

“What the strike did was get us to think about what it was that needed to be done in America to change the course of history,” he said. “It was like, ‘All these things are wrong — what are we going to do to fix it?’”

Article design by Aki Takigawa. Reported by Sofie Jones and Irene Loewenson. Images from the Williams College Archives.