Book Report: Campus Wars

Campus Wars: the peace movement at American state universities in the Vietnam era

In Campus Wars, Kenneth Heineman aims to tell the lesser-known story of anti-war activism at state schools from 1965-70, arguing against the traditional narrative that this activism originated and was centered at elite schools. He does this through a comparison of activism at state and elite universities, as well as case studies of four state schools that played an important role in campus activism of the era: Michigan State University, Kent State University, State University of New York at Buffalo and Pennsylvania State University. Additionally, Heineman is interested in how demographic and cultural qualities of activists affected types and quality of activism, a concern that he addresses through discussion and comparison of demographic statistics across the four campuses and at elite schools.

In the first three chapters, Heineman describes the conditions in which anti-war activism arose, pinpointing the factors working either in favor of or against campus activism. He first discusses this from the perspective of the administrators, describing a Cold War environment in which the government and academic administrators saw higher education and its products as an anti-Communist weapon. To this end, in 1968, a third of the money spent on university research and development had either a military origin or purpose, and university administrators often worked for the government, often in defense-related positions. The academic community expected its members to, at least publicly, support these goals. As a result, free speech was suppressed on campuses and it was customary to discipline activist faculty and students. FBI and police surveillance of activists was also common. Ultimately, these were all factors that often fueled activism; the fact that universities were so intimately involved with the war machine gave students and faculty a stronger sense of obligation. Similarly, when their professors were fired merely for expressing dissenting views, students became more engaged and mobilizations increased. Heineman also proposes that, in comparison to elite schools, activism was more difficult at state schools because administrators were less tolerant. In some cases, though, state schools were ahead of their elite counterparts, such as the early adoption of the teach-in tactic and emergence of an SDS group at Michigan State.

In contrast to the administrators, faculty views were often less homogenous and more polarized in their view of the war in Vietnam. There were, for instance, many scientists whose careers could be advanced by an anti-communist foreign policy and military research. This state of affairs began when academics were called to action in WWI and again in WWII. Whether as a result of patriotism or of reliance on government funding, being an academic became politicized in support of the status quo. Younger faculty, who joined after the World Wars, became disillusioned and were more likely to speak out against the Vietnam War than older academics. Another factor associated with academics’ political views was their area of study: dissent was much more common among faculty in the humanities and social sciences, as opposed to science and business, where research was often related to the war effort. It was not uncommon for faculty to be punished for expressing dissent, and faculty were often victims of McCarthyism.

For students, higher university endowments in the cold-war era meant student activists could benefit from more low-income students could, more students overall, and a more diverse student body. Students were mobilized by moral obligation to oppose military research and recruiting on campus, as well as spillover from civil rights and other movements. Institutions unwittingly created more activists by placing increased emphasis on the study of social sciences, making students more politically aware and engaged than their peers studying business or science. In addition, students were moved to action when they felt alienated by the impersonal quality created by increased enrollment and the in loco parentis administration. Heineman goes into demographic statistics of activists in great detail in order to show their diversity. His most emphasized finding is that, contrary to mass media portrayals, not all anti-war activists were middle- or upper-class and privileged. Different avenues of action were available to privileged students than working-class students: the latter usually attended state schools, while the former were more likely to attend elite schools. Different schools differed in tolerance toward activism; thus, privileged students were more likely to get away with violent tactics and have parental support networks that were unavailable to working-class students.

After describing the conditions in which activism arose, Heineman dedicates the next three chapters to a chronological description of major events on campuses across the country. The account begins with the years 1965-67, when anti-war activism got off to a slow start. Initially, pro-war activists collected more signatures and, in popular conservative media, branded anti-war activists as traitors or communists. Even peaceful protests were poorly attended and often suppressed entirely, yet activists were optimistic at first. They overestimated the power of popular opinion and thought that President Johnson merely needed to be made aware of their dissent for the war to be put on hold. Meanwhile, Johnson increased troop commitments and draft calls, as well as the grade requirements for draft deferment, amplifying discontent among students. In response, mobilizations increased and students formed new groups, such as Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and anti-draft unions. Two factions began to emerge: many students were increasingly radicalized while others continued to advocate for a more moderate movement. some students were alienated by use of violent tactics. Heineman also distinguishes between activists elite and state schools, claiming (without much evidence) that violent forms of protest immediately propagated at elite universities, while students at state schools were forced to engage in less drastic forms.

With the discouraging outcomes of the Tet Offensive, political assassinations of MLK and others, and the increased polarization of American society, the period of 1968-69 was one of increased intensity of activism, causing many activists to turn to radicalization and violence. The main focus of student activism at the time was protesting ROTC and on-campus military research and recruiting. In response, administrators attempted to crackdown on student activism, increasingly involving policing, FBI surveillance and seeking punitive actions. In addition, this was a period of increased activity among Black, gay and women’s groups, which was at times not well received or supported by anti-war activists. The lack of solidarity between anti-war and other movements contributed to divisions among activists, which resulted in the fracturing of the SDS and other student groups. One of the factions of the SDS formed the Weathermen, a violent revolutionary student group, which led a bombing campaign targeted at government buildings and invaded campuses to tell the coming of the revolution.

In 1970, anti-war activism on campus reached its climax with a period of chaos and violence. A number of campuses became combat zones as a result of riots, police occupation of campuses, and firebombing of ROTC buildings. Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of the Kent State shootings. In May, Riots on campus and throughout Kent had caused the National Guard to occupy the Kent State campus. When student activists did not back down and continued rallies, National Guard fired 61 rounds into non-violent crowd gathered for a rally, wounding nine and killing four. In response to these shootings and continued military occupation of Kent State, as well as the invasion of Cambodia, over four million students across the nation mobilized for the largest student strike in American history. Police responded to continued protests with more unprovoked violence.

Ultimately, the anti-war movement declined as a result of ideological and cultural divisions, as well as an increasingly unsupportive academic environment (though supportiveness of environment depended largely on the institution). A majority of Americans despised the campus peace movement and loathed the war; they often viewed against student activists as justified and, in extreme cases, thought more students should have been killed at Kent state. In the face of such intolerance, the price of activism was incredibly high. Additionally, activists groups were fractured from within as radical activists alienated those who wanted to pursue less extreme tactics. This led to the decline and dispersion of SDS and other student groups.

Heineman does not discuss the long-term impact of the movement in much depth. In the end, he emphasizes that the anti-war movement was one of unprecedented diversity, which led to the creation of more diverse social movements. However, the anti-war movement was far from true intersectionality, and diversity was often cause for disputes. It was not uncommon, for instance, for woman and minorities to be alienated in anti-war groups and for movements like women’s liberation to be rejected by anti-war activists. Additionally, Heineman points to the record-breaking size of mobilizations across the country to emphasize its importance and impact for large portions of the population, even in the face of fierce opposition. Finally, Heineman links the extent of student anti-war activism to changes in campus culture, such as the eventual acceptance of the necessity student activism.


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