Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On the Right Side of History

Jeff Sharlet, my younger brother, and I both subsequently came to know and respect Professor C. Leonard Lundin at Indiana University (IU) – I as a grad student and Jeff later as a political activist. It was as if we had known two different people – I knew him solely as a scholar of Baltic history, while for Jeff and the activist group in the late ‘60s, he was one of a small number of faculty† who actively supported anti-Vietnam War protest on campus – but all that was still far in the future.

Lundin remembered the first Red Scare. It was the early 1920s, he, a high school kid at the time, was left with the impression of an orgy of extralegality. The Bolshevik Revolution had taken Russia out of World War I, and postwar America was aflame with exaggerated fear of ‘reds’ and anarchists.

The government’s reaction, led by Attorney General Palmer and his right-hand man, young J Edgar Hoover, included illegal search and seizures; warrantless arrests; detentions and wiretaps; and the deportations of hundreds of resident aliens, many of whom were known radicals, as well as other individuals who merely fell under suspicion.

Even the New York State legislature – hardly a frontier institution – expelled its five Socialist members. In other states legislators rushed to enact an array of patently unconstitutional sedition laws as well as so-called ‘red flag’ laws making display of a red flag illegal. In a comic-opera waiver, Minnesota exempted red flags at railroad crossings. No surprise then that a bright and idealistic young Lundin would have been aware of the wholesale transgressions of the Constitution. Upon hearing Norman Thomas speak in Boston, Lundin, a Harvard student, joined the Socialist Party.

A student of early American history, Lundin had the good fortune to serve as research assistant to the doyen of the field, Samuel Eliot Morrison. A post-grad fellowship took him to Germany for a year’s study. Back at Harvard, young Lundin earned an MA before moving on to Princeton where he wrote his PhD under another luminary of the day – Professor Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker. It was the Depression, and academic jobs were scarce, but, as ‘Sam Morrison’s fair-haired boy’* and with the backing of his Princeton mentor, Lundin landed a position at Indiana University in 1937.

IU was then a sleepy campus in the southern Indiana town of Bloomington. It was deeply conservative country. Most of the students were from small town Indiana. Sports, fraternity parties, and the elections of pretty coeds as ‘queens’ for one or another social occasion were the salient events. Political apathy and cultural parochialism were the norm.

Among Lundin’s pre-war students there was no curiosity about the world at large. After the war in Europe broke out in ’39, one student told him that whenever war news came over the dorm radio, someone would call out, Turn that off, and get some swing music. Frivolity reigned.

The Ku Klux Klan (Klan) had a strong presence in the state. A decade earlier a Klansman had been elected Governor of Indiana. Bloomington was racially a Southern town. A man who grew up there remembered seeing Klansmen in full regalia riding into town on horseback in the late ‘40s. Predictably, the town was segregated, although by custom rather than law after pro-integration legislation in ‘49. Restaurants, bars, barber shops, and even most of the university’s main dining room were off-limits to the small number of Negroes enrolled at the university.
 

The KKK in Anderson IN, 1920s
 
When Lundin joined the History Department there were only 10 professors, all WASPs (neither Jews nor Catholics were welcome). With few exceptions they were as conservative as their environs. Curricular emphasis was on American history, the history of the Midwest, and Indiana history. A few of the staff taught Ancient, English, and European history.
 
History at IU was not a research department; only a few colleagues were scholars, Lundin among them, having published his first book in 1940.  There was a contingent of grad students, but the faculty’s ambitions for them were very modest. Even in the mid-‘50s the bar was still set low by the old guard historians. As one said to the new internationally-oriented chairman, the department should mainly be producing instructors for the likes of East Tennessee State Teachers College.
 
For young Professor Lundin who had arrived at Indiana directly from Boston, life in Bloomington initially involved a bit of culture shock. The Spanish Civil War was then raging. While students at Harvard were up in arms in support of the Spanish Republic against General Franco, who was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, few at IU cared or were concerned with events in Europe or even knew where Spain was.
 
Lundin’s first political involvement was with a very small group in support of the beleaguered Spanish Republic. Because he had studied in Europe, he was in demand as a speaker on European politics and occasionally participated on a weekly local radio program on public affairs. After Franco came to power, he carried out a severe policy of retribution against the defeated supporters of the Socialist government. Back in the Midwest, an Indiana statewide Catholic magazine expressed unqualified support for the new fascist regime.
 
A copy of the issue came into Professor Lundin’s hands, and on his next radio broadcast he listed Franco’s draconian acts and rhetorically asked if those actions indeed reflected the Church’s position. The president of the state federation of Catholic women’s clubs promptly wrote the university president, Herman B Wells, complaining that Professor Lundin had slandered the Church and intimating that those responsible were ‘notorious Communists’. President Wells skillfully fended off the attack, ensuring that Lundin survived his first brush with controversy in Middle America.
 
When Japan attacked China in the late ‘30s, the young historian became an officer of a committee to oppose Japanese imperialism. A few years later, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Lundin joined the committee for Russian War Relief, most likely a Communist-front organization; but, even if he had known that, one doubts he would have been deterred. It was all of a piece; he stood up against aggression in Spain, China, and the USSR because it was the right thing to do
 
Returning from WWII a captain, Professor Lundin was back at his teaching post and in fresh controversy not long after. Soon after the end of the war, the Indiana Communist Party (CP) sought a place on the state ballot. Under Indiana law, the party had secured the requisite number of petition signatures, but the political establishment in the capital was stalling and trying to block the move. No surprise in a state with Indiana’s political lineage.
 
The dean of Indiana’s Law School along with a few law professors – politically conservative to a man – and others supported the Indiana CP petition on the principle of free democratic elections. Lundin observed with approval, but then the law school group was vilified, not just in the statewide press, but in the media of other Midwestern states as well.
 
In the resulting furor, the legislature opened an investigation into Communist influence at IU, the state’s flagship institution of higher learning. Furious, Lundin denounced the investigation. President Wells saw it differently and told the legislators, Come ahead, the university has nothing to hide. In the end nothing came of the investigation.
 
A few years later in the early ‘50s, at the height of second great American Red Scare, Leonard Lundin joined others opposing the university’s plan to require all newly hired professors to sign a loyalty oath under state law, which read in part:
 
                    I solemnly swear that I will support the
                    Constitution and the laws of the United
                    States and the Constitution and the laws
                    of the state of Indiana ….**
 
The loyalty oath controversy stirred the statewide American Legion into action. Under pressure from its many posts, the university trustees were induced to hold hearings to detect if any subversive activity was afoot on campus. A wag mocking the Legion suggested that perhaps they should investigate the school’s colors of crimson and cream. In another unintentional light moment, a coed being interviewed by the trustee panel was asked if she was aware of any pro-Communist teaching on campus. She innocently replied, ‘What is Communist teaching’? The trustees were stumped.
 
In ’54, when the US Senate censured Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, the point man of the relentless anticommunist campaign, the pall had it cast over the country gradually began to lift. By then the Civil Rights Movement was underway, and the issue of segregation was being challenged in Bloomington. The Negro population at IU, while still small, had grown, but the same segregationist customs Lundin found on arrival in ’37 were still in place.
 
White barbers claimed they didn’t know how to cut Black hair. A Black woman who matriculated at IU in fall ’55 reported that she and friends could enter restaurants and sit down, but they’d either be refused service or simply ignored. The only place in town where she and students of color could eat, party, and dance, was the Black Elks Club.
 
The owner of one of the most popular student hangouts in Bloomington a block east of campus, Nick’s English Hut, where both I and later my brother spent time, made clear his racist feelings, “We’ll close the place before we serve Negroes.”***
 
Peaceful sit-ins by Blacks and Whites took place in the restaurants. Led by the local NAACP chapter and with the strong support of President Wells, and friends of social justice like Leonard Lundin and the student activist leader Tom Barton††, the town had been gradually desegregated by the time I arrived for grad school in the fall of ’60.   
 
By the ‘60s, IU as an academic institution had changed significantly under Wells’ visionary leadership. No longer the insular, inward-looking university Lundin had first joined, IU become a major center of international education. The History and Government departments now fielded diverse course offerings on nearly all the regions of the world while certain faculty members were in the process of acquiring national and even international scholarly reputations.
 
The university’s rich and diverse curriculum drew grad students from all over the country. I arrived at IU from the East Coast in the fall of ’60 drawn by the noted Russian and East European Institute, arguably second only to Columbia’s program. My classmates included graduates of Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Chicago, and other leading institutions.
 
Professor Lundin, who had retooled as a European historian, was part of the university’s new orientation. His course on Baltic history, cross listed between History and the Institute with the Baltic Sea as the organizing concept, was a unique course. With Russia and Poland among the historical Baltic powers, I found the course fascinating, and it was evident why Leonard Lundin had been one of the first professors honored with the university’s distinguished teaching award. Back then I knew him only as a teacher/scholar and was unaware of his longtime activist stands.
 
I finished up at IU in the summer of ’63 and left for a year’s dissertation research in the USSR at Moscow University on the Soviet-American Exchange. By then, brother Jeff was a Vietnamese linguist in military intelligence serving in Vietnam. Finishing his tour of duty in ’64, Jeff decided to complete his education at IU, which is where he too came to encounter Leonard Lundin in his role as a faculty activist.
 

Professor Lundin, Indiana University, 1962
 
During Jeff’s spring term of ’65, President Johnson (LBJ) escalated the war in Vietnam, igniting the first sparks of protest on a number of campuses across the country, IU included. Jeff became involved with a small band of student activists who began to raise the banner of opposition at IU to LBJ’s war policy.
 
Professor Lundin, who from the beginning opposed US involvement in Vietnam, presided over the first outdoor campus antiwar rally in Dunn Meadow. Reflecting back several years later, he said that attempt to have an open discussion of the war policy was constantly interrupted by rowdy pro-war students. In March ‘65 the first antiwar teach-in was held at the University of Michigan with many other schools, including IU, linked in by telephone hook-up. Lundin participated in that first campus teach-in as well.

 
Nixon arrives for IU appearance, 1965
 
That fall, Richard Nixon, an unabashed supporter of LBJ’s Vietnam policy, was invited to speak at IU. Jeff, his new friends and other students from various campus groups mounted a protest demonstration against the former vice president outside the auditorium. Lundin happened to be walking by, spotted the signs and fell in with the marching demonstrators.
 
Jeff and fellow activists organized the IU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the fast-growing national outfit taking the lead in the embryonic antiwar movement. When the group needed a faculty sponsor to become an official campus organization, Professor Lundin stepped forward to fill the role. Being a rather modest person, it’s doubtful that many of the SDS activists were aware of their faculty adviser’s long activist career on the right side of history.
 
Not long after Jeff finished at IU and went on to found Vietnam GI out of Chicago, Leonard Lundin again displayed the courage of his convictions in what may have been his finest moment as a champion of reason and fairness. It was fall ’67, and SDS and the larger umbrella group, the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV), had grown frustrated with the series of major pro-war speakers brought to campus by the president, Elvis Stahr, a former Secretary of the Army.††† In November, yet another super hawk was due to speak, Secretary of State Rusk.
 
The antiwar coalition decided to escalate its protest tactics. They began with the familiar demonstration outside the speaker’s venue, but this time they then entered the auditorium and carried out a planned heckling campaign against Rusk. The Secretary kept his cool – in the third year of an increasingly unpopular war he was clearly no stranger to protest – but the activists’ behavior was  unpopular with the majority of the audience who had come to hear a major public figure.


 
Secretary of State Rusk at IU
 
Rusk left under police escort, and the next day near universal condemnation from both town and gown rained down upon the protestors. Whether pro or con on the war, the consensus was that calculated rudeness to a visiting speaker had crossed a line. While antiwar protesters had always been a small minority on campus, that had never been more evident than when 14,000 students signed a letter of apology delivered personally by student council members to Secretary Rusk.
 
There was, however, one lone voice that defended the protestors in a not uncritical, but reasoned manner to the effect that the Secretary of State was more than merely a senior officer of the government. He was also a central symbol of the war itself. In an open letter Leonard Lundin conceded that the protestors conduct had been unmannerly, but added the caveat that Rusk had come to campus as a:
 
                    very high official and active director
                    of events, a foremost representative and
                    presumably one of the architects of our
                   war policy, a symbolic figure, a sort of
                   ‘Mr Vietnam War’.

He continued, “It is not easy to be polite to someone who seems determined to make you a corpse, an arsonist, a murderer, or a bully.”

Concluding, Professor Lundin forcefully argued:

                    possibly there are worse things than
                    bad manners toward a public speaker.
                    Possibly one worse thing is a government
                    lying to its people.****

Leonard Lundin certainly did not win all his engagements, but he remained steadfast throughout the years in his intent to bear witness for what was right – a singular man.

*C L Lundin, Indiana University Oral History Interview (1994), 8.

**A W Mommer, “State Loyalty Programs and the Supreme Court,” Indiana Law J, 43:2 (1968), 462, fn 3.

***J C Bell, The Time and Place That Gave Me Life (2007), 211.

****T D Clark, Indiana University, Vol 3 (1977), 598-99.

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