Political Turmoil That Shaped Us

By Betsy Sullivan

We arrived on campus just a few months after the Black Panther protests and amid the Vietnam War and its draft. Political consciousness was high, and New Haven was in the vise of the kind of corrupt machine politics paralyzing local political reform throughout Connecticut.

Then came the 26th Amendment. Remember that?  College students like us suddenly got the right to vote in the fall of 1971, our sophomore year. New Haven’s Arthur Barbieri machine, facing an invigorated mayoral challenge from African-American Hank Parker with his enthusiastic Yale student backing, sprang into action to try to thwart a federal court order to register college students, but 900 Yale students still managed to register – or at least to try to register. I know. I was helping to coordinate that process and that’s the number I counted at the time. Thanks to the infamous 26 questions New Haven used to try to find students who weren’t really residents, voter registration lines snaked out into the street and wait times were long.

In the end, the Barbieri candidate, Mayor Bart Guida, was re-elected, but lost Ward 1, where Yale students voted. And Parker eventually was elected Connecticut treasurer of state.

College political power was born. But I get ahead of myself. That was just one of the political offshoots of our time on campus.

Our class came of age not just during an unpopular war, but also as Black power, women’s rights and environmental justice movements were emerging. And from fall 1970 through Watergate and the draft’s end to our graduation in 1974, distrust and disillusionment with government accelerated. How much did that impact our career choices? For me, a lot.

I had been steeped from childhood in the apocalyptic threats of a nuclear exchange and my parents had gone straight from college into wartime service. Consequently, international affairs loomed large for me, compelling me to switch from a planned math major to Soviet and East European Studies.

When I flew to Moscow for the first time, heading for a summer job in 1972 armed with the Kremlinology I’d learned from Yale’s Wolfgang Leonhard, there were no direct U.S. flights. And when I got there, my movements were circumscribed not just physically, by government surveillance and restrictions, but also socially, by the dangers I could pose to average Muscovites, who risked being labeled “dissidents” just by having an American in their home.

Decades later, I thrilled at finding myself at Russian friends’ kitchen tables, helping to prepare piroshkies or enjoying a sauna at their summer dacha. I was delighted, as well, to journey with volcano scientists aboard a former Russian military helicopter doing contour flying on a salmon-counting mission that also took us to remote volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Today, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it’s no longer safe to be in touch with those friends.

If China had been open to Americans while we were students, I might have gone with a Chinese Studies major instead, but I settled for Jonathan Spence’s amazing lectures. My parents, both journalists, had met in Shanghai while covering the Chinese Civil War, and I grew up imbibing their stories and love of China. In the mid-1980s, as China opened up, I used a mid-career fellowship to learn Chinese and spend three months backpacking through China. I would sit for hours on end on Chinese trains, three dictionaries open on my lap, trying to communicate and feeling commonalities with everyone I met. In Beijing, I knocked on the door of my mother’s best friend. Her jaw dropped when she saw me – the spitting image of my mother from days long past.

Today, as tensions escalate with China, I again feel the clock turning back to harsh former times.

Then there was Vietnam. It haunted all of us, no matter where we stood. I remember before Yale visiting some cousins who introduced me to their friend, just returned from the war, preoccupied and withdrawn. I strongly opposed the war but wanted to learn more, not realizing then that you can’t just drop into a war zone for a day or even 30 days. You have to live it to understand it. I got my wish, in a way, when I married a combat veteran and found out some of how the war felt on the ground. But I also learned how much Americans’ hostility to returning veterans had added to their trauma.

Later, I covered the wars of the former Yugoslavia, using the Serbo-Croatian I’d learned at Yale to help move across front lines. I still have dear friends there, people who are among the warmest, nicest I’ve ever met. Yet I also met a Russian sniper who killed Bosnian Muslim women just to steal their jewelry. I was held for 72 hours under armed guard by the Bosnian Serb Army, helped a Bosnian Croat politician on a hair-raising trip get from Zagreb through lawless parts of Bosnia back to Tuzla and watched the homemade video of a Croatian man who’d married a Serb as he filmed himself looting her relatives’ homes.

The greatest lesson of war is to avoid it, if possible. It’s a lesson most people don’t learn until it’s too late.

Betsy Sullivan [JE] is a journalist in Cleveland, where she’s headed the editorial board for The Plain Dealer and since 2009 and earlier served in a variety of reporting roles for the paper since 1979, including as the paper’s European Correspondent and then Foreign Affairs Correspondent. She covered the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia under Yeltsin, George W. Bush’s first trip to Europe when Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw “his soul,” the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, among other assignments. She is also president of the Yale Alumni Association of Cleveland. When she’s not working or volunteering for Yale, she spends her time playing tennis, kayaking and hiking in New Hampshire and traveling.