Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?

Few of us were untouched by the protests over the Vietnam war, the draft, the fallout from the Black Panther trials, demands for gay rights and women’s rights, the strikes of the dining hall workers and other political events. Here is how our classmates remember the disruptions of that time.
—Barbara Borst and Elizabeth Sullivan

Question 4: Tell us how political issues affected your Yale experience. Do you remember a specific incident? How do you think back on that time today?

Politics all around us

I arrived at Yale already somewhat politicized, as did most of us I assume, given the prior 2 years. Think about it: Vietnam; the murders of MLK and Bobby Kennedy; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the election of Richard Nixon; the invasion of Cambodia; the Ohio National Guard shootings at Kent State; the Black Panther trials in New Haven; bombs exploding in Ingall’s Rink during the Black Panther protests.

I have tried to describe that time period to my children, but I expect they see it as occurring in another universe.

At Yale my embryonic political awakening in the late sixties continued. Bobby Seale’s trial ended with a hung jury (11 for acquittal) and the judge dismissed the case; the US bombings of Laos began with strikes/protests in response; Nixon’s reelection; the Watergate hearings; ROTC on campus protests.

I would now describe my Yale days as overly arrogant and politically naïve (surprise!), seeing the world too much in black and white; lacking the more nuanced perspective that I have tried to develop over the years. Convinced that McGovern would easily defeat Nixon; not understanding that certain individual efforts could be essentially meaningless (e.g. student strikes). Nor understanding that certain positions were just plain wrong-headed, e.g. ROTC on campus; the bulk of Linda and my charitable donations are designated for Veterans’ organizations.

Issues from my current perspective: growing authoritarianism; racial, ethnic, and socio-economic disparities in our economic and judicial systems; outright racism and bigotry, political hypocrisy; America’s incomprehensible elevation of gun rights above the lives of our citizens, especially children; threats to the freedom of women to manage their own reproductive health rights without government interference. Final thought: my father was particularly impressed by Yale’s adept responses to the unrest during the Black Panther trials. He often quoted the words of William Sloane Coffin at the time: “All of us conspired to bring on this tragedy by law enforcement agencies by their illegal acts…and the rest of us by our immoral silence in front of these acts.”
Colly Burgwin (SY)

Having literally grown up with the political events of the ’60s as a backdrop, I don’t remember specific political issues affecting my time at Yale. The times were crazy and intense, and that’s just the way things were. When I find myself caught up in the political events of today, I remind myself of what was happening in the 60’s, and things come into a better perspective.
Singie Shepley-Gamble [BK]

I would now describe my Yale days as overly arrogant and politically naïve (surprise!), seeing the world too much in black and white.

On the dust jacket of my freshman biology textbook was a sticker: “Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins Must be Set Free.” I guess even though pre-med at the time, I wanted to signal that I wasn’t oblivious to the political maelstrom of the time.
Jim Pavle [BK]

Spontaneous marching against the Cambodia bombing; Huey Newton holding forth for hours, incomprehensibly and spectacularly, in Woolsey Hall on Kant, Nkrumah, and “dialectical intercommunalism”; undisciplined, invigorating debates with POR folks (people thought that way?! hmmm …) and folks ready to burn down Wright Hall to advance the Revolution (people thought that way?! hmmm …); confronting and being elegantly outmaneuvered by Bart Giamatti on a matter of student governance; and, of course, the bookend of strikes that somehow were and weren’t consequentially disruptive – all this mattered to me, but pales against memories of music wafting from dorm windows that were the essential soundtrack of my political education in that period: from Buffalo Springfield to Curtis Mayfield, Country Joe to Ravi Shankar, you guys sent out global vibrations that forever rearranged my cultural, and therefore political, sensibility. Those moments, that feeling, remains most vivid, most precious of all — thank you.

I was already deeply engaged in politics by the time I got to Yale but now had the chance to jump into the rough-and-tumble of urban politics and seized it. New Haven at the time was run by the political machine of Arthur Barbieri and Mayor Bart Guida, who were working hard to suppress the Black vote supporting insurgent mayoral candidate Hank Parker (and to keep Yale students from being able to vote in that race).

I discovered two things about myself. First, that while I’d always loved politics as a mechanism of change, of small-d democratic reform, I hated the cynicism and personalities of a political campaign. And second, as I walked the city’s Black neighborhoods, door-knocking to urge residents to register to vote in that 1971 mayoral race, I found that talking one-on-one with strangers about their lives was a pure joy.

My thoughts of a political career may have ended, but the road to journalism had begun.

Betsy Sullivan (JE)

Politics led to some of my most memorable experiences at Yale. I was very involved in volunteer work for McGovern when he ran for President in 1972. After our sophomore year, I worked for him for two weeks in Kearny, New Jersey, along with Sherrod Brown and his brothers. It was so disappointing when he lost in November, but the whole experience supporting him was formative and enjoyable.
Steve Bauer [SY]

(I wrote this after extended conversations with my political philosophy partner Jeff Bewkes.)

I have been struck recently by the tremendous similarity between the issues the world faces with respect to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the Israeli-Hamas melee and similar encounters that date back to activity immediately following WWII.

And in reading about the post WWII period, where the Allies turned into either enemies or sometimes independent and uncooperative partners, our current confrontation with Russia, though now not communist (in theory), they remain our enemies.

And, the whole backdrop of the US’s fear of Communism, and Truman and Eisenhower’s defining mistrust of Stalin and Russia’s intent to infiltrate every global opportunity where “the little guy” is allegedly being pushed around by either the Colonial Powers or US-supported dictators, smacks of the current day global political game of chess China and Russia are playing with whomever they can get to accept their friendship: Iran, Iran, Hamas, Hungary, Turkey.

And, the wild activity of the current political, military environment reminds me of the Viet Nam period, when fine upstanding young men avoided service while those who could or would not afford college fought and died.

It reminds me of my own thoughts about Communism and Capitalism. It reminds me of some of the speakers at the Yale Student Body Takeover which I witnessed in 1969 when I was being recruited to swim. They were self-avowed communists and it reminds me of how hostile guys like Nixon were to the student intelligentsia, basically dismissing the whole student generation as sympathizers. But, they WERE communists!

I think you and I, Jeff, both took the position that central-planned economies would fail at providing their people with sufficient goods and service; while capitalism was churning out all manner of goodies, but of questionable real value (anti-advertising). And when Russia collapsed, in 1991, we both felt that we had backed the right horse (capitalism).

But, I still feel that when there is a tremendously poor population, serfs as in pre-communist Russia and China, that central planning and communism (from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs) made huge changes much easier than say, capitalism could or would consider. (They argue that capitalism NEEDS the poor to be poor so that it can usurp their labor product for filthy lucre profits.)

The Chinese experience of taking a billion people from serfdom into the modern world economy without war has to be seen as nothing short of a miracle.

And the whole issue with “colonialists” is being bandied about by every woke influence; even though colonialism essentially ended after the 1960’s when Britain, France, Portugal exited their colonies. What the Colonizers did was take a totally backward civilization and bring them into the modern world. Perhaps, the colonized did not feel they got a fair shake, but there was a cost to the colonizers’ investment and if that meant expropriating natural resources, that seems somewhat fair.

Like China today, after the US investment in China during the first two decades of this century, the colonized players renegotiated the deal, they would compete and provide their own people with goods and services and suddenly the US “Colonizers” were forced to compete with their Chinese vendors.

So, it seems, at the very least, my Yale education allowed me hope in understanding a world dominated by political philosophies, or politics. I count that as a badge of courage I am proud of.
—Steve Kase [MC]

The draft

The draft lottery, summer of 1971 — #153. I was told at the time that anyone who drew over #75 would not be drafted. I recently discovered my application for Conscientious Objector status with my typewritten essay. My grandfather was a cavalry officer in WWI and lost the majority of his men in a gas attack. That experience made him an ardent pacifist. He gave up a law career to be an Assembly of God preacher and raised my father and uncles as pacifists and lay preachers. My attorney felt I likely would have secured C.O. status, had my lottery number been bad, given my family history. Others in my class were not so fortunate.
George Huthsteiner [TD]

I was not very politically active while at Yale. Being draft age, I wanted the Vietnam War to end and, as a born-and-raised Democrat, I was not a fan of Richard Nixon’s presidency. But aside from marching in a few mild demonstrations, I avoided political activity. I was also lucky to get a high number in the draft lottery, minimizing the risk that I would be drafted into military service after college. Oddly, the Socialist Workers Party of New Haven — an off-campus organization — kept trying to recruit me, probably after I participated in an anti-war march. I went to one of their meetings. But their view that the workers would rise up and overthrow the bourgeoise and capitalists seemed naïve to me. My political awakening came after my Yale years, but that’s another story.
Jeff Johnson [CC]

I found the Political Union events lacked significant entertainment value — and soon stopped attending. I do remember the labor strikes at the end of the academic freshman and senior years. Trumbull Dining Hall was closed – so, hot tuna grinders from Broadway Pizza became favorites. Cash flow was a bit tight due to the modest refunds from our meal plans. Also, the Durfee hot water eventually turned cold as fuel trucks chose not to cross picket lines. Payne Whitney still had hot water for showers. The Vietnam draft lottery gods were kind to me and my roommates – I remember watching the lottery drawing in a Sears TV appliance department, simultaneously playing on at least a dozen Black & White TV sets. So many impending fates told in a game of chance in a televised broadcast.
Thomas Corbi [TC]

Turmoil on and around the campus

I remember attending a Yale Political Union talk by Senator Frank Church and, afterwards, hanging out with him and a small group of students on the law school steps. I was very appreciative of his openness and quality of leadership. And I remember the protests when General Westmoreland came to speak – an early inkling of cancel culture. Although I was deeply against the war in Viet Nam, I thought that if invited, he had a right to speak and to be listened to with the respect that Senator Church received. And I remember the Pete Seeger Concert in protest of the Bombing of Hanoi. Later in life, I was able to spend time with Pete, a real hero.
Jonathan Rose [BK]

I remember the day that President Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnam to resume after peace negotiations collapsed: May 8, 1972. It was my 20th birthday. After Nixon announced the bombing that night, students spontaneously poured out of the residential colleges and the Old Campus and formed a march down York Street, with hundreds of participants chanting, “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” When the march reached Chapel Street, the demonstrators headed for the main intersection downtown, Church and Chapel. There, the protesters sat down and blocked traffic. The police allowed us to continue to sit in until dawn, when they arrested the remaining protesters, including yours truly. A memorable birthday!
Zack Rogow [TD]

I recall being at the New Haven Green for a rally in support of Bobby Seale and other Black Panthers. What I remember most is a speaker calling out those who enjoyed music and he said, “The only sound you should like is the sound of bullets ripping through the flesh of pigs.” For me, an horrific image that was impossible to empathize with to any degree then or since.
Robert Linden [SY]

I am ashamed to admit that the Panther issue didn’t have much impact on me at the time. I was really just checking the boxes when I arrived at Yale; it wasn’t until midway through the year and probably even more by sophomore year that I began to feel engaged. I felt that Brewster was an honorable guy, which I appreciated, but really it was years later that I understood just how meaningful his behavior in the spring of 1970 had been. My whole group of friends became more politicized as the years went by. Nixon’s increasingly erratic and contemptible behavior, and the ongoing morally indefensible Southeast Asia war, gradually got me out of my own head and into the notion of being more of a public citizen.

I visited Yale the day before the May Day strikes. Many students had left for home. The ones I met seemed relaxed about it all. Kingman had made it clear that, if not openly on the side of any party, he and the institution were fine with the expressions of anger — as long as property and people weren’t harmed. And to the best of my memory, they weren’t. Much. Three years of hearing William Sloane Coffin’s preaching at Battell (he was on sabbatical our senior year) and the general societal unrest chipped away at my suburban Republican upbringing. I was proud of my Dad when he could not bring himself to pull the lever for Nixon a second time.
Ann Larson [BR]

But my focus on national politics before Yale was eventually supplanted by sexual politics at Yale where, for many reasons, I developed an abiding commitment to women’s rights.

I was politically naïve when I arrived at Yale, with little involvement other than student government (!). Politics at the local, national or international level was not a priority. I was a middle-of-the-roader on most issues — didn’t support the war, was not radically anti-war. But even early on in freshman year, I found myself in late night bull sessions that often turned to politics. One night a group of us in the entryway were discussing the politics and morality of Vietnam, including the fairness of the draft lottery and deferment system and who ended up fighting and dying. Late in the evening our Resident Advisor (and Law School student) came up the stairs and walked into our room, clearly under the influence. He listened to the discussion for a few minutes and then said, “You know, the problem in this country is that there are too many a**holes. I think we should round up about ten thousand of them and shoot them.” He then turned to the most vocal and politically active of us in the room and said, “And you’re one of them!” He might have been serious or might have been just performing — it wasn’t clear. It was hilarious and ridiculous, but in retrospect also an anecdote about how messy democracy can be.
Richard Wheeler [SY]

During my first visit to Yale (as a prospective student), I attended an anti-war rally held at the hockey rink, where Yale students were debating how best to respond to an unjust war. The excitement and seriousness of that event clinched my decision to attend Yale when I was admitted later that year.
Eugene Holland [TC]

Lots of ways and none of them encouraged political participation. All that follows is the purple haze of college days: That Kingman Brewster shut down classes during the Bobby Seale trial was a stroke of genius, keeping at bay sit-ins in his office like those at Harvard and Columbia. But it made the teachers pissed off at the students because they had to come up with another way to grade.

That carried over to our class who showed up the next year. We were at odds with the teachers. Doug Kenney treated politics like a joke when he spoke at the Political Union on his chosen topic “TACOS,” an acronym he invented for how our parents saw us: teenage commies from outer space.

Then there was the first attempt to bring Shockley to speak, which led to the first hunger strike I ever saw, set up in tents outside the Commons. One of the strikers was a friend of a friend and I was shocked at what I saw, what it was doing to him physically.

Maybe I just wasn’t responsible enough to get involved. My high school didn’t have a prom (we joked), we had a moratorium. And I marched on the draft board (but didn’t burn my card).

In high school, a guy I knew (the SDS leader in our school) and his dad (a labor leader) were rumored to be under FBI surveillance. That’s right, the FBI was investigating high school students. I heard the whole family moved to the UK. A non-negligible cost of political activism.

My buddy’s mom was the head of the local Democratic Committee. So I ended up being one of the first 18-year-olds in New York to register to vote (on local TV no less). But I didn’t vote until 1980 when Jimmy Carter had conceded to Reagan by the time I did.

I read of (but can’t find) Kipling’s comment on visiting DC that Congress was an aggregation of “astounding bounders.” He was on to something about politics.
Steven Kimball [MC]

Protests in New Haven and Washington

Hands down, my most vivid memory of politics during my time at Yale was the May Day anti-Vietnam demonstrations of 1971. There was a rally on the Old Campus that morning and buses magically appeared to transport anyone and everyone who wanted to go down to DC and join the massive protests. Estimates on the total number of participants vary; what doesn’t vary is the over 12,000 arrests – the largest mass arrest in US history. The tribal/communal energy of that crowd is something I’ve never forgotten.
Richard Okie [SY]

Safely insulated from the draft, I felt a special obligation to work to end the Vietnam war, but felt pretty helpless about it. I concluded street protests had only brought us Nixon. When Navy war hero John Kerry (’66) appeared on campus to talk about Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I felt that this was an organization whose message might get through.

In April of 1971, I found myself in a car of Yale students headed to Washington, hoping to volunteer in support of the group during a protest they called Operation Dewey Canyon III. I’d never been to DC and remember little about the trip. It was a whirl of being ferried around streets I did not know by people wearing fatigues and fabric combat boots who didn’t seem to know what to do with us. I spent an evening on the floor of an office that was apparently set up as a headquarters for the events, and I have vague recollections of preparing flyers mimeographed on colored typewriter paper.

Late that evening, Kerry and his entourage swept into the building to hold a planning session for the next day. I felt a bit like a child, straining to hear what the parents were talking about in the room down the hall. Deep into the wee hours of the morning, I recognized Kerry‘s voice, shouting in a Boston accent in some lengthy and loud argument with one of his co-leaders, who was a Black veteran also dressed in fatigues.

I believe it was the next morning that Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he famously said: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” I guess I was passing out flyers somewhere during that historic moment, and I failed to witness hundreds of uniformed veterans the next day tossing their medals over a fence on the Capitol grounds. The country eventually came to agree with these vets, who had earned their credibility. I don’t think it was demonstrations that ended the war. I think it was Watergate, which was likely why I spent much of the rest of my life as a newspaper reporter.
Sabin Russell [DC]

Before I matriculated, the May events of 1970 had made national news. I was disappointed that I had missed these. Because my parents (both of whom, as we found out later, had extensive FBI files) encouraged me to participate in protests against the Viet Nam war and in support of the Black Panthers, they packed a gas mask into my trunk and reminded me to attend the Bobby Seale/Ericka Huggins trials.

I never had to use the gas mask, and I went to the courtroom only once, but the following year the Nixon administration’s “Saturday night massacre” and the bombing of Cambodia triggered a night-time mass protest (not sure how large it really was) of Yale students determined to march. I remember my boyfriend of the time objecting to my participating, which was pretty much the end of that relationship, and I also remember how, after a couple of hours, I started to feel ridiculous.

When I look back on it, I am not sure whether at the time, I was moved to participate in a protest that felt just and right or whether I was simply performing (for whom?) political engagement. Both, probably. I continue to believe that mass protests have an important role to play in bringing attention to injustices occurring on a national and global scale, and I still participate in them, but I try now to make what differences I can on an individual or local basis.

Looking back, my most significant “political” experiences had nothing to do with my participation in any particular, overtly political activity. These are what stand out to me: learning about Skip Gates’s scholarly work unearthing a hidden African American literary history and glimpsing him late at night at his desk; having coffee with some juniors and seniors who were working in New Haven’s African American community and learning about the realities on the ground there; sitting with my fellow students watching the draft lottery numbers come up. These and other encounters with the effects of policies and social practices as experienced in the lives and activities of my fellow students and professors helped me toward a more nuanced and more informed understanding of politics.

Because my parents (both of whom, as we found out later, had extensive FBI files) encouraged me to participate in protests against the Viet Nam war and in support of the Black Panthers, they packed a gas mask into my trunk and reminded me to attend the Bobby Seale/Ericka Huggins trials.

Coming to Yale, I chose a pre-orientation program devoted to community activism and volunteer opportunities. I enjoyed it but never followed up during the school year – too shy, too nervous about my class work. It was impossible, however, to avoid the intense political backdrop of that time, from the Vietnam War to the local Black Panthers. As freshman year was nearing its end, news emerged that anti-war protesters were going to descend on Washington, DC, with the (naïve?) aim of shutting down the city. Along with a Yale classmate from my hometown in Long Island, I decided to go.

We stopped first at home, where my parents aired their anxieties, arguing (1) that my full beard would make me a target of police brutality, and (2) that if I got arrested, it would ruin my future. I can remember teasing them, saying that some future job interviewer might light up when he saw my police record, exclaiming, “Cool, man, you were at that protest, too?” They failed to smile. To their credit, though, they let me go. My one concession was to trim my beard to a neater-looking goatee.

On our first night in DC, we camped in West Potomac Park along with thousands of other protesters. There was a festive atmosphere, with music and my first drink of wine: Boone’s Farm. When the police closed the encampment, a bunch of us ended up in an apartment somewhere.

By early the next morning, we had embarked on our mission, intending to block streets and disrupt rush hour in the imperial capital. But the authorities were ready for us. Our group was still marching on a sidewalk when a phalanx of policemen moved in. Some of us sat down on the sidewalk. A cop hoisted me up, making sure to yank up the rear of my underpants, giving me a wedgie as I complained, “Hey, I’m not resisting.” “Make up your mind,” he growled, thrusting me into a van along with my comrades.

Along with thousands of others, we were taken to a fenced-in field near RFK Stadium, where we milled about all day, our boredom broken only by the occasional visiting anti-war celebrity. Dr. Spock came, for example — yes, the same Dr. Spock whose permissive child-rearing books had been required reading for our parents. The combative Congresswoman Bella Abzug showed up, and when we griped about the inadequate toilet facilities, she barked, “Let’s go see ’em!” and headed off toward the porta-potties. I admired her for that. Other politicians ventured in only briefly, to preen for the press.

When dusk came, we were bussed to an indoor arena — the Washington Convention Center, I think. In the enclosed space, the tear gas clinging to people’s clothing wafted about, causing us to cough and sneeze. Toward dawn, we were “processed” — fingerprinted and, I think, made to sign some kind of document — and then released.

As it turned out, my future was not ruined. The American Civil Liberties Union sued on our behalf, and our illegal arrests were expunged. I can’t say that the experience transformed me. Rather, it amplified my ambivalence about mass protest. I’ve never been personally comfortable with chanting and waving signs because it can be self-righteous and naïve while alienating people you want to persuade. On the other hand, I recognize that making “good trouble” (in the words of the civil rights hero John Lewis) can be essential in the struggle to bring about change. I sometimes wish I had the courage of the good trouble-makers. As for my own activism: I think that the forces which turned Americans against the war in Vietnam were many and complex, but maybe our demonstration in May 1971 helped make a small difference.
Dan Laskin [ES]

Nixon and Watergate

Before we arrived at Yale, May Day was the big event on campus. I had an older Yalie brother who was super involved in the demonstrations. He got up on stages and made political speeches. I was not radical, but he was. I was aware of the Black Panther trial and the Vietnam War protests. It was surprising when we arrived in the fall of 1970, the campus seemed rather quiet. Richard Nixon was President.

I had first seen Nixon at a Broadway show in New York when he was still Vice-President to Eisenhower (a long time ago). He was sitting directly across the aisle from my family. Can’t imagine that happening today. Even then, Nixon seemed slimy and always trying too hard to improve his image. And he certainly didn’t like Ivy Leaguers.

Nixon did recognize China, which seemed to be a no-brainer. Hard land mass to miss. What was interesting is that he also orchestrated the release of John Downey — that CIA pilot shot down while spying over China and held prisoner for 20 years. John was a neighbor of mine on Edgehill/St. Ronan Street where I moved after graduating. He had a fascinating story and ended up marrying a Chinese woman!

What occupied my mind politically during my Yale years was Watergate. We all know the story. I thought it was cool that Bob Woodward was a Yalie. I was sure Deep Throat was about some porno scandal. Clean-cut John Dean had an incredible memory and was obviously the fall guy. I found it ironic that CREEP was also creepy. Whenever I went home, my parents kept the Watergate TV hearings on ALL DAY. They were boring until Butterfield revealed the tapes, and boom, the big cover up. I loved the Time magazine cover with Rose Mary Woods reaching way across her desk, foot on a pedal and finger on a button, to cause the tape gap. Ridiculous. I saw Nixon resign on TV while sitting in a bar just after we graduated. Let’s hope this time around justice will also prevail.
Cilla Leavitt [TC]

As freshman year was nearing its end, news emerged that anti-war protesters were going to descend on Washington, DC, with the (naïve?) aim of shutting down the city. Along with a Yale classmate from my hometown in Long Island, I decided to go. Many of us were surprised and shocked by the conduct of senior government officials, up to and including President Nixon. But there was a commonly held desire to see the facts emerge, a substantially different attitude from our current, polarized times.

When I arrived in New Haven in September 1970, political issues seemed relatively subdued when compared to the intensity at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. My senior year at Stuyvesant was dominated by protests against the Vietnam War and many days we went to the school only to join with others on anti-war marches. In contrast, the Yale campus seemed fairly tranquil. There was some discussion of the events in Spring 1970, before we arrived, when the Black Panther trials occurred and classes were made voluntary, but I don’t recall much focus on the trial of Bobby Seale, which actually began in October 1970 and continued for most of our freshman year.

Passions about the Vietnam War ebbed, as American troops were brought home and the Paris Peace Conference developed a blueprint for ending the conflict. I do recall registering for the draft in May 1971, when I turned 18, but all draft calls ended in 1972, no doubt selfishly diminishing student interest in the war.

Interest in politics began to increase as the Watergate scandal unfolded. The “Buttery” at Stiles had a television that was continuously tuned into the hearings conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee. The Chair of the Committee, Sam Ervin, was a Democratic Senator from North Carolina. He had an amazing drawl and never seemed to be at a loss for words. At one hearing, he used the word “eleemosynary,” lengthened to something like 10 syllables.

Perhaps a reflection of my circle and the bubble I inhabited at Yale, when I recall the attitudes expressed during Watergate, I don’t remember any serious divisions among the students. Many of us were surprised and shocked by the conduct of senior government officials, up to and including President Nixon. But there was a commonly held desire to see the facts emerge, a substantially different attitude from our current, polarized times.
Steven Davis [ES]

May 1970: After Yale and I accepted each other, I visited the campus to attend a few classes, staying with my brother, a graduate student. It was the week after the Black Panther support rally and the tear gassing of the campus. Very few classes were being held. I only attended one class, Physics 35.

Summer 1973: The Watergate Hearings. I was on campus during the summer of 1973 working on two projects. Mornings and into the afternoon, I was a volunteer amateur contractor. The goal was renovating the industrial kitchen in the basement of 305 Crown Street and moving the Young Israel House at Yale (aka Kosher Kitchen) there in time to be operational when the fall semester started. I had a small room in the Hall of Graduate Studies, including a portable TV with rabbit ears. In those days before cell phones, I had to stay near the room’s phone most of the day. Most days, I watched Senator Ervin and the committee take on Dean, Magruder, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, et al. Afternoons and evenings, I worked on an NSF research project on Human-Machine interactions. The hearings were a major lesson in the need for Separation of Powers and the vitality of the Constitution.
David Kra [DC]

Looking at it another way

Although as an undergraduate my politics were left, I had blind spots that twisted me into conservative directions on some issues. Those blind spots embarrass me now.

There’s a stupid saying that if you are not a liberal when you are young you have no heart and if you are not a conservative when you are old you have no brains. I’ve tried to fix this idiocy by adding that if you are not a revolutionary when you are old you have no soul.

I am much more radical as an old man than I was as a young man for the good reason that I’ve seen enough of beastliness to tolerate repetitions of it no longer and instead to oppose them as they occur daily and to speak for stopping their sources, as far as it is in my little power to do so, especially in the fields of activity to which I have been inclined. It was the counterculture in general that was radicalizing me: especially its sense of humor and joy, its anti-war positions, and its emphasis on the rich humanity of our lives rather than on mechanism and productivity.

Of all the instances of this, the 1971 March on Washington most stands out. I went with my Saybrook posse and had an unforgettable good time. I was but dimly aware of gay issues. With the rest I was laughing when one of ours turned up at fall registration with newly green hair. And yet seeing this did me some good as well, in the longer run. In a sense the sexual freedom the times instigated had the deepest effect on me by allowing me to become sexually active while at Yale.
Bennett Gilbert [SY]

When at Yale, I was heavily focused on my academic work and did not expect to create political change. I associated with other students of various political persuasions and did not try to bring them around to my way of thinking (which was not terribly developed). I was generally more interested in knowledge than in social trends, which changed from decade to decade.

I come from one of the three most Republican states in the country, yet I have never been fiercely partisan at any time in my life. Nixon was President when we were in college, yet I was put off by his behavior over Watergate. I was always quite proud that my first vote was for McGovern, though I concede that a President McGovern would have been less than desirable. A few years ago, I tallied up my votes for President between Republicans and Democrats and found they were evenly split. Yale almost certainly pushed me farther to the left than I would have been had I stayed in state for college. Yet I have never been passionate enough in my life to devote my time and energy to any political cause. As a lawyer, I have found our jury system to be quite fair to all citizens and believe it is our most important democratic institution.

Many of my friends were deeply involved with campus politics, but to me these were less vital and life-changing than the politics of Southeast Asia, where I grew up.

I arrived before the fall, in the immediate aftermath of the New Haven Nine trial, when thousands of activists were still encamped in New Haven. One was my first friend, an extremely tall “international revolutionary” who gave me a copy of Nine More Poems by Mao Tse-tung, which I still have.

The Vietnam War was going on still, and in high school in the Philippines my friends were Philippine radicals, draft dodgers and artists. I didn’t know quite what to do with political movements on campus, although I joined in. The stakes were so much higher in Southeast Asia. Two of the largest US bases were nearby, using the Philippines largely for R&R.

I graduated early from the American School and started university at Ateneo de Loyola in Quezon City; I learned about beat poets and anti-colonialism at the same time. One of my classmates, a poet, at Ateneo joined the New People’s Army and was killed in an encounter with the Philippine military. When Marcos declared martial law at the beginning of my sophomore year, my heart broke but that was the beginning of my career as an Asia specialist and a journalist. Luckily Yale was an amazing place to study Asia; I discovered journalism slowly as a framework to put my regional interests together with my avocation as a writer.

Many of my friends were deeply involved with campus politics, but to me these were less vital and life-changing than the politics of Southeast Asia, where I grew up. I participated in anti-Vietnam rallies in Washington and supported the union strikes in New Haven, but with an air of unreality since the Philippines was undergoing a massive trauma at the same time, while nearby Vietnam was nearing the end of its decades of war and other countries where I had grown up – Taiwan and Indonesia – were deep in dictatorships and had gone through bloodshed and tyranny.

By contrast, the politics of the US seemed rather tame, although an essential demonstration of civil liberties. What I think was most telling about US politics — and our local campus political heroes — was that they aspired to careers and professions of direct social impact, teaching in low-income urban areas, or engaging in gadfly politics through journals and academic work. Absolutely nobody I knew aspired to be a banker — it was something your family might be forcing you to do, but it was not a desirable outcome. Lawyers, yes, but public prosecutors and working on social justice issues was the idea, not income.
Edith Terry [PC]

I was pretty politically aware by the time I got to Yale. Gerry Studds, the first openly gay congressman, had been my “public affairs” teacher during my junior year in high school. He had been a leader of the Gene McCarthy campaign in the 1968 NH primary and the whole fall of 1968 curriculum was spent jumping back and forth between the Puritan Dilemma and the Presidential election. I was responsible for predicting the outcomes of all races in five states ranging from Georgia to Texas to Oregon with Connecticut in there because Gerry knew I was interested in Yale.

Not to be political in 1969–1970 was a little bit like not being alive. But my focus on national politics before Yale was eventually supplanted by sexual politics at Yale where, for many reasons, I developed an abiding commitment to women’s rights. Much of the seeds of this are covered in the book Yale Needs Women but maybe more affecting was that I was raised by two single women: my widowed maternal grandmother and her divorced daughter who had all the skills to have been somebody but self-medicated daily because she felt like a nobody in a man’s world. She had been a senior editor of the Boswell papers but was credited only as “secretary” to the male editors in 1963. Watching how she was treated by the world became understanding when I came to Yale and heard from women about how they felt at this male bastion.

And so began my commitment to working for a “sex blind” admissions policy and my life of working from within on the structural sexism in our society. Today with Dobbs and recent decisions re: women’s rights, it seems to have come full circle. But I have three strong daughters who make their own choices and that began at Yale.
Alec Haverstick [SY]

On strike

There were few times there were not demonstrations or passionate gatherings in Beinecke Plaza. Politics dominated a lot of my random interactions with other Yale students, New Haven residents, workers, faculty and staff. The Vietnam teach-ins were persuasive and calm. The dining hall workers’ strike was emotional and although only partly successful from everybody’s perspective, did ultimately (far too far into the future) lead to better conditions for workers. (I learned about Yankee Doodle and the best times to get a stool at the counter.)

Those who administer Yale focus on the past and on money. Lord knows there are enough of both at Yale. It seems there are virtually impenetrable tiers in the university. We had hoped our thoughts and actions might break them down.
Peter St. Clair [CC]

My high school held a Vietnam war teach-in and a first Earth Day. I played a small role in planning them. I also was part of a panel of young people invited by a local radio station to discuss major political issues including the war, civil rights and women’s liberation. At Yale, I didn’t play an active role, except in the effort to defeat Richard Nixon and in support of women’s rights. But I was alert to big political issues, partly because I had family members and friends who were either serving in Vietnam or at risk of being drafted. And I knew enough to decline a federal student loan that would have required me to sign a form saying I was not then nor ever had been a Communist.

At the time, the first-year job for student workers was always in the dining halls. For me, Branford. So the strike in spring of our freshman year had a direct impact on me. I support workers’ rights and have been in unions for much of my career. But I needed the money, especially because the amount Yale reimbursed for meal plans was too small to buy a meal in town. When friends who wanted to eat out every day offered to cover my costs, that just added to the awkwardness. Luckily, by the time of the dining hall strike in spring of our senior year, I had found a student job that was more fun – as sports secretary for the Saybrook master’s office. Main duty: buying cases of beer for the recruitment events!

Political issues have been front and center in my work first as a journalist and now as a professor of international relations. The experiences of the 1970s give me perspective. When I hear people say that today our country is the most divided it has ever been, I’m not so sure that is the case, although we are still trying to fend off those who would build an imperial presidency. Maybe the turmoil of the past is good preparation for finding a way through the present.
Barbara Borst (SY)