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What We Learned in the Days of Rage

By Peter Kranstover '73

Peter Kranstover '73The 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 crime.

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 us.

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 a confrontation, Hayden put his arm around him and handed me a camera, requesting that I take their picture. I happily complied. Disarmament was complete.

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.

 

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