by Kyla Morgan Young GS
College campuses in the 1960s and early ’70s were bastions of social and political activism. Students across the nation began to discover a renewed sense of political duty that came in the form of critique. Activism swelled around a myriad of issues including civil rights, gender equality, Apartheid, and most notably, America’s involvement in Vietnam. Princeton University was not immune. Student activism was a significant part of campus life in the mid-1960s. The issues of the Vietnam War, in particular, mobilized the masses on Princeton’s campus in new and often unexpected ways.
Princeton student activism was fueled by both larger national politics and University-specific issues. While the draft and the morality of U.S. involvement abroad sparked debate, the actions of the University, from the role of the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to the University’s affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), prompted students to pursue change at the University as well. This new political presence initially did not concern University President Robert F. Goheen. His opening remarks to the class of 1969 that “Only through disturbance comes growth” were not meant as prophecy, but students grew disturbed and sought change (quoted in Richard K. Rein, “The Rise of Student Power,” PAW, May 12, 1972).
In the fall of 1965, the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded and became one of the lead organizations for radical campus activism. Among its many concerns, the SDS was particularly outspoken against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Draft resistance became part of college campus life across the country, especially at Princeton. In April 1967, the Princeton Draft Resistance Union was created and sponsored by SDS, as undergraduates signed under the statement “We won’t go” (later published in the Daily Princetonian). Out of the 100 draft resistance centers across the United States, Princeton had two of the most active: the Princeton Graduate Draft Union and the undergraduate Princeton Draft Resistance Union.
SDS looked for any chance to mobilize. According to one alum, “more Princetonians than ever before were being students first – Princeton students second” (quoted in Rein, “Rise of Student Power, PAW, May 12, 1972). When President Lyndon Johnson came to campus in May 1966 to dedicate Robertson Hall, the new headquarters of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy, hundreds of students picketed the event. But it wasn’t until October 1967 that the University experienced a more visceral disruption. Until October, anti-war protests had remained peaceable. However, when SDS organized a sit-in at the IDA demanding the University sever its ties with the defense contractor, the events escalated and the police were forced to intervene. Thirty-one students were arrested and faculty and students alike began to grow critical of the University support of the Department of Defense. By the spring of 1968, SDS had achieved notoriety with its protests, regularly creating spontaneous disruptions on campus. The antagonism of student activism was not happening in isolation, however. Several other universities, including Columbia, had been enveloped by protest, effectively shutting down the institutions in strike over many similar issues. Princeton administration took note and on May 2 assembled a group of faculty and students to address rising concerns. Ultimately, the meeting resulted in the formation of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC), a group dedicated to “consider and investigate” University policy, governance, and any general issue related to the welfare of the University. Among other things, this committee, in conjunction with President Goheen, led the successful charge for coeducation. Around that same time Princeton faculty overwhelmingly approved proposals that converted the ROTC into a non-credit program in the company of other extra-curricular activities, yet issues of draft counseling and University affiliation with IDA were not resolved.
While many protested America’s involvement in Vietnam, others on campus passionately disagreed with the protesters. A poll of 1,800 students in October 1967 found that 54 percent felt that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was justified. Faculty and administration even approved an IDA resolution in 1967 to continue its relationship with the University. However, as deferments for the draft were limited for students, Princetonians began to grow increasingly more divided. A crescendo of student activism against the war occurred during the 1969-1970 academic year. Beginning on October 14, faculty led a teach-in at Jadwin Gym to educate students and community members alike about the issues of war. The next day, 3,600 students, faculty, and members of the community participated in the Vietnam Moratorium, a national day of protest which culminated with a rally of thousands on the state house capital. The Undergraduates for a Stable America (USA), a conservative student group, capitalized on the spirit of protest and held a counter-protest the same day, though with far less success. Activism, both for and against the war, continued. On November 13, 1969, Princeton held a Vietnam Assembly in Jadwin Gymnasium that was conceived to provide a forum for individuals associated with the University to consider and express a variety of views on American involvement in Vietnam. This mass meeting gathered alumni, faculty, students, and staff and provided them an equal opportunity to voice their opinions concerning political issues. Over three thousand voting participants (members of the University community and their spouses) and about four hundred non-voting guests were present. Five resolutions on the war were considered and voted on.
On November 15, 1969, the activism against the war partially disrupted Princetonian tradition. The March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam fell on the same day as the popular Princeton-Yale football game. Many students, including Princeton’s SDS chapter, ignored Princeton’s typical customs to fight for their cause in the nation’s capital. SDS carried banners that read “EVEN PRINCETON,” breaking stereotypes of Princeton as a home to midcentury conservatism. Students who stayed in Princeton did not remain silent either. During the half-time show the band carried a sign that read “Peace not Politics” as a mark of solidarity with those in Washington.
Resentment over America’s involvement in southeast Asia reached a fever pitch after President Richard Nixon addressed the nation in April 1970 and announced that the United States had attacked a Communist base complex in Cambodia. This appeared to be a major widening of the war. Within an hour after Nixon’s announcement, over 2,500 students and faculty packed the University Chapel to protest the escalation of the war. Over 200 students surrendered their draft cards as a sign of protest. Many believed that Princeton should go on strike rather than continue conducting business as usual. However, an agreement could not be reached on the nature or the objective of the strike action. After a mass meeting of 4,000 student and faculty on May 4, participants agreed to a strike that “committed Princeton as an institution to work against expansion of the war, rather than a strike against the university.” During the anti-war, campus-wide strike, roughly 80 percent of the student body cut classes and 10 eating clubs cancelled house parties until Commencement 1970. Faculty agreed to suspend final examinations for those who did not wish to take them. Students rallied on campus with music and speeches and even stormed IDA once again. Not even Commencement was spared from activism. The class of 1970 marched with signs reading “End the War” and some even went without cap and gown, but instead wore street clothes and white arm bands in protest.
Protests continued as the war dragged on. The CPUC recommended a rearrangement of the fall academic calendar to permit a two-week recess preceding congressional elections in November 1970. The two-week hiatus was meant to enable students and faculty to campaign for political change. Robert Goheen, too, joined the anti-war efforts as one of 37 university presidents who had petitioned for the ending of American military involvement in Indochina. Meanwhile, IDA continued to operate, though continually protested by students throughout the 1970s. U.S troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, but the spirit of activism remained. In total, 24 Princetonians died in the Vietnam War. Their names appear on the war memorial in the entrance of Nassau Hall.
If you are interested in better understanding what Princeton was like during these tumultuous times, be sure to visit Mudd Library’s first collection on HistoryPin. HistoryPin is a new digital platform for communities to share local history globally. Thanks to the site’s location tool you can literally see where history was made, even at Princeton. This first collection focuses on Princeton University student protest during the Vietnam War.
University Archives Sources:
Princeton Alumni Weekly
Office of Communications Records (AC168)
Neuwirth, Lee. Nothing Personal: The Vietnam War in Princeton 1965-1975. Booksurge Llc, 2009.
Oberdorfer, Don. Princeton University: The First 250 Years. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Young, Kyla Morgan. “Even Princeton: Students Protest the Vietnam War.” HistoryPin.org.