Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Generals March on Indiana

Back from Vietnam in ’64, my brother Jeff Sharlet returned to Indiana University (IU) to resume his education. Coincidentally, the same man under whom he had served in the long military chain of command was now president of the university. Elvis Stahr had been appointed Secretary of the Army by President Kennedy (JFK) in ’61. Stahr acquitted himself well during difficult times for JFK – the Bay of Pigs fiasco of spring ’61 and the Berlin Crisis, which culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall that summer. Stahr held the Pentagon post until his departure for Indiana a year later.
 
His would not be an easy tenure at IU.  As the Vietnam War heated up with President Johnson’s (LBJ) major escalation in early ‘65, a small number of students organized, joining a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) march on Washington DC in April of ’65, and sponsoring a local march in Bloomington in August. At the same time Robin Hunter, Bernella and David Satterfield, Jim Wallihan, Peter and Lucia Montague, and others worked on establishing an IU SDS chapter that Jeff soon joined.  As if providing grist for the antiwar mill during the next two years, President Stahr, who was well-connected in Washington, invited a series of major pro war speakers to campus.
 
It was quite an impressive roster, beginning with former Vice President Nixon, following with Generals Maxwell Taylor and Lewis Hershey, and concluding with Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Stahr invited no counter-balancing antiwar speakers of similar stature; Herbert Aptheker, theoretician of the American Communist Party, and a few other lesser known leaders of the left were all invited by tiny sectarian groups at the university with little following. IU, a sleepy Midwestern campus, was fundamentally a conservative place, and the pro war notables attracted very large audiences, while Aptheker drew only hundreds and was hung in effigy outside the student union.
 
What drew the Washington luminaries to the middle of the Great Plains? Presumably, Stahr had the contacts and the clout to persuade them to visit the campus as his distinguished guests. He clearly seemed to know some of them professionally since he often personally introduced the speaker in the university’s vast auditorium. For Nixon, accepting an invitation in the fall of ’65 was no doubt an easy decision. Out of office and working as a New York lawyer, he had ambitions to get back in the political game.
 
Indiana, long a Republican state, would be a good place to show himself to the thousands of conservatives who would come out to hear the former VP. Not many would have been aware that in ’54 then-Vice President Nixon had tried to persuade President Eisenhower (Ike) to save the beleaguered French colonialist forces, which were about to be overrun by Ho Chi Minh’s communist army at Dien Bien Phu—given Nixon’s anti-communist portfolio, it was a logical recommendation, but one which Ike wisely rejected.  However, the roughly 200 student activists marching in protest outside the auditorium that day were well aware of Nixon’s stance on Indochina.
 
The generals came marching onto campus the following spring of ‘66. General Taylor, a hero of WWII, came in March; he was so closely involved with Vietnam War policy that his arrival was unmistakably a pro war statement. After visiting Vietnam under JFK, Taylor recommended  the introduction of US combat troops and even the idea of ‘liberating’  Communist North Vietnam,  decisions the President declined to take. Subsequently Taylor served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later as Ambassador to South Vietnam. He was an ardent supporter of the war.


President Stahr introducing General Taylor, ‘66
 
Taylor was followed to the rostrum in early May by a fellow flag officer, General Hershey, an avuncular 73-year-old whose military career went back to the Mexican Border War of 1916. He’d been head of the Selective Service System since ‘41. An Indiana native son, he was certainly a welcome guest at the Hoosier state’s largest university; like most schools, IU liked to bask in the glory of those with local connections who went far.  But for IU student activists as well as draft age male students, a protest was called for.  Hershey had recently told draft boards they could draft college men who were not performing well academically; prior to that, young men were automatically exempt from the draft while in college. 
 
Further, Hershey ordered an aptitude test to be resumed after a long hiatus that very month; performance on the test would determine who remained exempt and who did not.  For activists as well as poorly performing male students blindsided by the directive, the general represented the point of the spear marshaling young men to war in faraway South Vietnam.  A year later the general would issue another regulation aimed directly at college-deferred men, subjecting them to the draft immediately for demonstrating against a military recruiter. 
 
The last in the string of pro-war speakers was Rusk, a major hawk, at the end of October ‘67. Like Nixon, he carried personal baggage from the past that no doubt shaped his unremitting advocacy of the US mission in Vietnam. Rusk had been Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in the postwar Truman Administration after the fall of China in ‘49. When the Republicans tarred the Democrats with ‘losing China’ to the ‘Reds’, Rusk made certain that his image as a tough-minded Cold Warrior was clearly visible.
 
Tapped by JFK for Secretary of State a decade later, Rusk had been prepared to throw himself with the zeal of a true believer into the young president’s crusade against international communism. However, it was understood by all that JFK would conduct his own foreign policy with Rusk as his diplomatic place holder, a status to which he accommodated himself without complaint. In Washington circles he was soon considered a mediocrity, a perception he subsequently did little to change.
 
After JFK’s assassination, Rusk continued to go with the flow and fly with the hawks on Vietnam. By ’67, other than LBJ himself and Defense Secretary McNamara, Rusk’s appearance before a student audience was guaranteed to serve as a lightning rod for antiwar protest, and IU was no exception. A special ‘reception’ was prepared by an activist group calling itself the “Dean Rusk Welcoming Committee.”
 
Each of the national advocates of the Vietnam War was met by an escalating level of antiwar protest at IU, albeit very small in scale compared to the size of the student body. At the time of Nixon’s arrival on campus, increased American involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia was barely six months old. The campus protestors’ challenge was not students supporting the war; on the contrary, the war barely registered with the average IU student at the time – the main problem was student apathy.
 
The newly formed SDS chapter and a campus left group, YPSL or the Young People’s Socialist League, managed to mobilize nearly 200 demonstrators to march in protest of Nixon’s fall ’65 appearance. Predictably Nixon praised LBJ’s recent escalation – the start of a bombing campaign against the Communist North and the dispatch of combat troops to South Vietnam.
 
When the generals arrived on campus during the spring of ’66, the student activists were better prepared to mount protests, but as it turned out, a significant part of the campus population was also ready to counter-demonstrate on behalf of the war. Under a newly formed campus umbrella organization, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV), a coalition of groups led by Jim Wallihan, Destiny Kinal Handelman, and brother Jeff for SDS; Professor Jim Dinsmoor, who was hoping to run for Congress as a peace candidate; and others, devised a different strategy for General Taylor’s visit in March.
 
Instead of protesting the general’s appearance on campus, a demonstration was organized in support of Indiana’s junior senator, Vance Hartke, who had come out publically against the war. Signs were made, marchers were urged to wear jackets, ties, skirts; and Taylor was greeted by a neatly dressed, orderly group of young people vocally supporting a Washington opponent of the war.
 
In May, General Hershey was met by a traditional demonstration that unexpectedly provoked a raucous counter-protest. Again, CEWV put out word and had no difficulty in bringing some 350 protestors to demonstrate in front of the auditorium. The general had recently changed the regs, advising draft boards they could begin considering student performance, i.e., those with poor grades could be drafted.
 
 
General Hershey and IU students ‘66
 
The demo, which moved on to Dunn Meadow, also included antiwar speakers who found themselves confronted by a crowd of 1500 to 2000 hecklers – including many fraternity boys -- waving American flags, throwing eggs and water balloons, and calling into question the demonstrators’ patriotism. Jeff, speaking as an ex-Vietnam GI, was hit by an egg, but, unfazed, he  issued the shouters a forceful challenge to put their money where their mouths were  since they were so gung ho for the war. Years later a fellow activist, Russell Block, remembered “the courage of the Vietnam vet and the cowardice of the frat rats who were all for the war as long as someone else had to fight it.”
 
 
Protesting General Hershey ‘66
 
By early ’67, it was evident that the only visiting speakers who were going to grace the podium of the campus auditorium with glowing introductions by President Stahr would be supporters of the war. In an exchange of public letters with the IU president, Jeff, by then doing his turn as SDS president along with vice president Bob Tennyson, challenged Stahr on the university’s one-sided speakers’ policy, but to no avail. Jeff had graduated and moved on to the University of Chicago by the time Rusk was welcomed to campus that fall. As a member of LBJ’s war cabinet, the antiwar students decided his appearance required a different strategy for opposing Vietnam policy.
 
CEWV, SDS, and the campus Progressive Reform Party (PRP), a New Left group led by Guy Loftman victorious in the previous spring’s student body elections, decided that heckling Rusk would be the best way to get the community’s attention, far more so than simply marching in front of the venue with signs, so-called speech on a stick. In an interview in the campus paper the day before, a protest leader made clear their intentions, saying that in view of the magnitude of the war issue, “a breach of good manners seems of rather little consequence.” In effect, he argued, “social nastiness to combat the nastiness of war.”*

The next day some 200 activists donned black armbands, briefly marched around the water fountain in front of the auditorium, then entered the building uneventfully, dispersing themselves among the 3,000+ people in attendance. As the Secretary of State spoke, individual black armbanders in various parts of the room would stand up and yell things like ‘liar’, ‘murderer’ and the like. By that point in the war, Rusk was no doubt accustomed to interruptions, and he continued speaking in spite of the cacophony of shouts. At the end he left by a side door under police escort.**

 
Dean Rusk at IU, a perturbed Elvis Stahr behind him, ‘67
 
The universal embarrassment about the behavior of the protesters was, however, to a degree counteracted by a protest which had occurred the day before Rusk’s arrival. Corporate recruiters from Dow Chemical, manufacturer of deadly napalm, were due at the Business School (B-school) that day, and it was decided by the New Left leaders that the visit should not pass unchallenged. A few weeks earlier the company had attempted to interview job candidates at the University of Wisconsin, a far more actively antiwar campus, where a full-scale melee ensued – complete with tear gas and dozens of demonstrators and police alike sent to the hospital.  Events in Madison made the national news, and the IU security chief laid plans to avoid anything similar on his watch.
 
Secretly, campus security scouted the interview venue, coordinated with local and regional law enforcement, and even reserved a university bus to transport arrestees if necessary. Unaware of the university’s preparations, approximately 40 activists showed up at the B-school to meet the Dow recruiters. Campus cops tried to block their access to the room, but the students pushed their way forward and, led by the newly elected head of SDS, Dan Kaplan, began a sit-in. That triggered phase two of the security plan with city police and deputy sheriffs decked out in riot gear arriving on the scene.
 
The occupiers were ordered to leave peacefully and get on the waiting bus for police processing. Most did so, but four young men refused, and the forces of law and order moved in with swinging riot sticks, putting two of the students, Dwight Worker and George Walker, in the hospital. It was clearly a police over-reaction; as news got around in the papers the next day, the occasion of the Rusk visit, there was outrage at the administration and the cops in some quarters. Thus, for two days in the normally placid heartland, there was uproar over a war thousands of miles away. To some extent the dueling outrages precipitated by the back to back Dow and Rusk visits mitigated each other depending upon one’s politics.
 
However, the cumulative protests were eventually too much for Elvis Stahr, who publically criticized and demonized the campus New Left. A former senior officer in WWII and member of the government, and, above all, a Rhodes Scholar long accustomed to a string of unruffled successes, Stahr couldn’t take the dissonance of university life in the midst of a divisive war and resigned in bitterness at the end of the academic year.
 
*Quoted from the Indiana Daily Student in M A Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (2002), 55.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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