By Peter Kranstover '73
Vietnam War defined much of the intellectual atmosphere at
Holy Cross during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
After all, we were the last students to benefit from draft
deferments and the most insecure about joining the “establishment.”
I counted six killed in action from the rural county in Wisconsin
where I grew up, all between my senior year of high school—just
after Tom Hayden and his friends stormed Chicago—and
graduation from Holy Cross in 1973. This contrasted sharply
with the safe, slightly provincial atmosphere, found a thousand
miles away at Holy Cross. The first week of my freshman year,
my roommate from Maine told his friends I was from Wyoming,
not Wisconsin. Close enough. Activism was just becoming fashionable
in the fall of 1969. Clark University, with its more secular
tradition, seemed to be out ahead of us on this score, organizing
a number of buses for what was to be then the largest protest
against the Vietnam War in November 1969.
I decided to go at the suggestion of good friend and fellow
Midwesterner, John Spellman, whose irreverence about most
things—but particularly authority—was very appealing.
John got us our seats through his leftist friends at Clark,
and we departed Carlin Hall early one Saturday, being laughed
at and wished the worst by one of our dorm-mates.
Notable at the Washington march was the middle class—the
teachers, salesmen and housewives who came out to be present
at this historic event, registering their disagreement with
a policy that now held no appeal, even for our allies. It
was this broad cross section of society that began to coalesce
behind an effort to withdraw from Vietnam, providing an almost
respectable cachet to anti-war protest.
This did not prevent the ideologues from trying to break
into the Justice Department after the march had concluded,
being repelled quickly by the police and clouds of tear gas.
The assault was meant to get at the draft files and destroy
them. So much for strategy; so much for reality.
The ideology of some of the more rigid elements within the
anti-war movement, such as the Progressive Labor Party, the
pro-Mao crowd and the Young Socialist Alliance, had all of
what Czeslaw Milosz would later call the “captive mind.” It
was a sobering end to what had been a remarkably peaceful
march. We all returned to the bus for the half-day ride to
Worcester, satisfied nonetheless that the nation moved a
bit to the left and that President Nixon was worried.
The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) group on campus
soon became the RSU (Revolutionary Student Union) to give
it a more activist and threatening moniker. The secret bombings
in Cambodia and the shooting of the students at Kent State
in May 1970 forced the College to forgo exams, actually shutting
down classes for a week before the semester officially ended.
The Black Student Union organized a walkout of its members
that next year, charging the College with racism, if not
pointing the finger at individual whites who had been aggressively
hostile to the new presence of African Americans on campus.
It seemed for a moment that the center could not hold.
Yale, along with hundreds of other universities, announced
an early closing in May 1970. It did, however, allow a number
of groups access to the campus for a teach-in/demonstration
in May, drawing people from all over, including members of
the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. A number
of us traveled to New Haven for that gathering, not entirely
sure of what to expect. A long Saturday spent there, listening
to the existentialist icon Jean Genet, failed to give us
much solace or optimism about our futures. I tried later
to read Sartre’s Saint Genet but happily gave up after
a few pages of turgid maundering on the existentialism of
That next academic year saw a regular practice of passing
out leaflets against our Vietnam presence or doing a three-day
fast as a spiritual action, countering the senseless bombing
that became our government’s favorite military tactic.
This was an interesting but soft approach, according to those
who wanted more radical action. I cannot quite place the
date now, but after a speech in Hogan from the head of the
RSU which failed to engender sufficient rage, a group of
perhaps a hundred students filed out, headed for the ROTC
building, in front of the Jesuit residence, intent on seeing
its fiery destruction.
Someone quickly pitched a rock through one of the windows
of the building. This could have been the signal for a surge
forward, a final attempt to cleanse the campus of this symbol
of the war. As it happened, the sound—made larger and
more sinister by the clear night—stopped everyone,
allowing us to hear the reasoned rejoinder from the window
of a priest’s room high up in Loyola: “Get back
to your rooms. You are a minority and are not supported by
the majority on campus!” he yelled. A moment of dead
air and then a dismissive, locker room, two-word expletive
from someone, so shockingly disrespectful, even to the apostates
among us, that it dissolved the gathering into laughter,
diffusing much of the tension that was close to bursting.
I suppose we had experienced what was meant by “grace.”
As an institution, Holy Cross maintained a position of progressive
interest in the direction of the nation and the condition
of its soul during this time, unapologetically producing
liberally educated military men and liberally educated conscientious
objectors. To its great credit, it continued to bring on
campus the Berrigans, Dorothy Day, Worcester’s Abby
Hoffmann, Sen. Jacob Javits, Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington,
Ambassador Charles Bohlen, Michael Novak, the poets Richard
Wilbur and Robert Bly, and, later, one of the New Left’s
icons, Herbert Marcuse.
For someone who had grown up in a homogenous town peopled
mainly by German-American farmers and a few Irish-American
lawyers, Holy Cross, and all that it provided, was a great
revelation. Now, after living most of my adult life abroad,
I appreciate that it was a very gentle preparation for confronting
the continual mix of success, disappointment and cultural
influences that, hopefully, continue to form us as we age.
This was just as important as the academic discipline and
the rigors of study. My formative “shape of the river” at
Holy Cross was a first contact with urban whites from Boston
and New York; with suburban preppies from Connecticut; with
the few African American students who were only the beginning
of a much needed diversity on campus; and a junior year spent
in Madrid, observing the creaky Franco regime, still fierce
in its reaction to dissenters and dissenting opinion. It
included, too, the wise counsel of roommates and friends
whose youthful questioning made us consider those portentous
issues of loyalty, patriotism and conscience.
By our senior year, protest fatigue seemed to be settling
in. Michael Harrington, with his reasoned, appealing interpretations,
was now more popular among the left than Tom Hayden. Many
of us, I think, shuffled out of Holy Cross, waiting for
brilliance and, perhaps, even success to be thrust upon
Twenty-five years later I found myself in a not-too-deep
cocktail conversation with Hayden, then a State House
representative in California. We were joined by a Navy
vet who served
in Vietnam. He reminded Hayden that they had been on
opposite sides of the barricades in the 1960s. Sensing
Hayden put his arm around him and handed me a camera,
requesting that I take their picture. I happily complied.
Peter F. Kranstover '73 is currently chief of Central American
and Mexican Affairs for the U.S. Agency for International Development
in Washington, D.C. He holds graduate degrees in economic development
and agricultural economics from Oxford University and the University
of Wisconsin, respectively.