From Nixon to Nike

Save for the 47,000 Americans killed in action, and the nearly 11,000 more that died of other causes, the United States survived the Vietnam War. But Americans — especially college students — suffered another casualty along the way, one that changed how they came to see their elected leaders.

The nation lost its innocence, and some still grieve.

“The legacy of the ’60s is the idea that America has failed,” says Professor Emeritus Alfred Appel, who watched the war unfold at home and abroad while teaching English at Northwestern.

Thirty years ago today, NU was in day five of an eight-day strike that has been called the biggest expression of activism in NU history. And Appel says the aftermath of that activism is a pervasive cynicism about America and its institutions.

Whether you call it cynicism or realism, doubting authority figures has fueled campus activism for more than a generation. And although Northwestern is often pegged as a hotbed of apathy, a recent spurt of activity has led some to say the current trend might be as important to this generation as Vietnam was to those who lived through it.

“The degree of effects we’re trying to bring about is not as apparent,” said Seiji Carpenter, an activist with Students Against Sweatshops and Students for Ecological and Environmental Development. “(But) IMF and sweatshop issues are just as important, maybe more so.”

Uncivil War

On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen killed four Kent State University students who were peacefully protesting the war. The incident came on the heels of revelations that the United States was bombing Cambodia.

Immediately, NU joined campuses across the country in mobilizing for a strike. On May 6, then-president J. Roscoe Miller canceled classes for the rest of the week.

And then the campus tried to cancel its membership in the United States. The next day, more than 2,500 gathered at Library Plaza and voted to secede from the union.

“It was a serious symbol,” says Allen Streicker, then a graduate student. “We laughed about it, but we were also deadly serious.”

Streicker, an assistant in the university archives, says the protests dominated daily life.

“When the Kent State-Cambodia thing blew up, everything else was dropped,” he says. “Normal routines suddenly seemed irrelevant. All you talked about — at least in my circles — was the movement, the strike, the war and their personal impact on us.”

The strike came to a semi-official end on May14, when 100 students marched on NROTC headquarters in Lunt Hall, protesting the military presence on campus. The activists briefly scuffled with police before Eva Jefferson, ASG president and one of the strike’s chief organizers, persuaded police to not arrest them.

“You could feel the electricity in the air,” says Patrick Quinn, university archivist. “There’s no comparable level of activity in the last 25 years to the situation in the ’60s.”

But it’s not for lack of trying — campus activists today say they have the will protesters had in the ’60s. They just don’t have the numbers.

Some say this is because today’s issues — ranging from protests against the International Monetary Fund and sweatshops to the push for expanded cultural studies programs — aren’t as clearly defined as they were during the Vietnam era, when policy decisions were a matter of life and death.

Carpenter, a Weinberg junior, says this poses problems for groups trying to reach people.

“Because we’re protected from seeing it, a lot of people are lulled into complacency,” he says. “A lot of these protests are aimed at people who are tens of thousands of miles away.”

And Streicker says the impetus behind at least some of the activism was the war’s direct effects upon the protesters.

“There’s an element of self-interest in all we did,” he says. “We weren’t oppressed Russian peasants. We were still American kids in an affluent society.”

And when the United States began to diminish its ground presence in Vietnam in 1971, the movement lost steam.

“A lot of wind went out of the sails when the immediacy of the threat of being drafted tapered off,” says Streicker, who drew a high draft number.

Adds Quinn: “For all intents and purposes, the movement was over at the end of ’71.”

This might surprise some; after all, the war didn’t officially end for four more years. But even after the largest protest in NU history, organizers were dismayed to find out how quickly interest waned.

As The Daily opined in a Nov. 12, 1970 editorial: “Most people would agree that the anti-war sentiment that was so strong on campus last spring is all but dead. Except for (an) Oct. 31 rally in Chicago, in which some NU students participated, there has been no real activity since the May student strike.”

The editorial argued that many had switched gears from protests to politics, working on the campaigns of peace candidates but sapping energy from the antiwar movement.

One such peace candidate was classics Prof. Daniel Garrison, who ran for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in 1968, his first year at NU.

“We were running against the Democratic machine and against Democratic loyalists,” said Garrison, now the master of Willard Residential College. “Nationwide, many groups ran to deprive the get-along, go-along, pro-war Democrat loyalists.”

Garrison made a decent showing in the party primary, and says his campaign was an effective means of educating the public about anti-war efforts.

The NU breed

Education and raising awareness also are the primary weapons of modern campus activists.

A coalition of activist groups — including SEED, Progressive Alliance, NSAS and AAAB — are contributing to a “Disorientation Guide” that will be distributed to next year’s freshmen.

Carpenter said the guide will offer an alternative view of campus diversity and policies that can’t be found in the student handbook, summarizing activist efforts on campus and providing information on getting involved.

Alianza President Lily Gonzalez said such a publication would help ensure that her groups’ efforts continue after the current leaders graduate, recruiting new students to the cause.

Members of the activist group Peace Project hope to release this quarter an issue of The Protest, a newsmagazine that promotes awareness of social issues.

Although founded 13 years ago, leaders say Peace Project has experienced a revival this year.

It is not alone. Spring Quarter has seen The Rock become a focal point for campus activism, with protests and petitions from Alianza, NSAS and the Crazy Horse Malt Liquor protesters sparking debates across campus.

“With the sweatshop movement, we’re seeing for the first time in a long time something that is national in scope,” Quinn says. “It happens to be the issue of the modern generation, and it’s going on in campuses everywhere.”

Desiree Evans, NSAS co-president, says the issue is gaining national prominence.

“This movement has really been growing throught the last four years,” says Evans, a Medill freshman. “It’s just been getting bigger and bigger.”

And the reason for renewed interest, some say, is the same as in the ’60s: elected leaders failing their consituents.

“Democrats and Republicans coming together leaves a lot of people out to dry,” says Peter Micek, NSAS co-president.

Micek, a Medill freshman, says the closing ideological distance between the parties leaves many without an outlet for their political views.

But can today’s activism ever match the levels of May 1970, when the university placed politics over its everyday affairs?

Quinn says it’s possible.

“The same impulse is there that inspired our generation,” he says. “The way things are isn’t the way they’re supposed to be. It’s endemic in society.”

— The Daily’s Daniel Schack contributed to this report.