Last fall, Saint Anselm alumnus Dave Witham ’68 contacted Professor Masur after learning about his course on the Vietnam War. Professor Masur asked Mr. Witham if he would be willing to share some recollections about attending Saint Anselm during a very tumultuous time in American history. This is the second part of the interview. The first part can be seen here.
Question: Some campuses had demonstrations and experienced tension between students and administrators. Was that the case at St. Anselm?
Answer: The demonstrations, protests, and seizure of administration buildings that occurred at many college campuses across the country stemmed from young people’s—and a minority of older adults’–increasingly cynical attitude toward official explanations for institutional policies and actions.
Dave Witham a few years after his college days
I remember only one demonstration at St. Anselm, a quiet protest organized by our antiwar group in which we set up a table on the opposite side of the room from a Marine recruiter and his table. We had assembled a variety of literature giving background information on the war and explaining how American involvement was a tragic mistake. It was a totally low-key effort designed primarily to inform our fellow students who hadn’t looked more deeply into the conflict of some dissenting voices (such as Senators McGovern, Morse, McCarthy, and Fulbright) in the government and those (in such magazines as The New Republic and by respected TV reporters like Walter Cronkite) in the mass media. Otherwise I remember student ferment St. Anselm over the war as being generally negligible.
However, one event worth mentioning was the appearance during the second half of my freshman year of a group of pacifists, who had been invited to visit by the Political Science Dept. Struggling to pass my courses and not yet politically engaged, I passed by them as they stood behind tables in the Old Cafe and argued loudly with my fellow Anselmians—whether over pacifist principles and methods as an alternative to war or over their opposition to the war in Vietnam, I didn’t hang around long enough to know.
Later that evening, the group appeared in the Abbey Theater in a presentation followed by a Q & A session moderated by PoliSci Prof. Sampo. Etched in my memory after 54 years is his stepping forward and saying, “Now stop that!,” in a scolding tone to some students in the audience who had interrupted statements from the panelists with catcalls or a pejorative comment. Eventually Prof. Schmidt, who had emigrated from Nazi Germany, from the Economics Dept. stood and delivered a lengthy criticism of the pacifists’ naivete in believing that nonviolent tactics would deter a tyrant intent on leading his nation to world domination. Like many Americans and administration policymakers, he assumed that the North Vietnamese under their leader Ho Chi Minh and their Viet Cong fighters in the South were the latest manifestation of a similar genocidal Communist ideology. After he finished his impassioned monologue, the entire audience leaped to its feet and gave him a thunderous ovation—including me, who wasn’t brave enough to stay seated, especially as I didn’t have enough information about these subjects to justify applauding the professor’s opinion. A long-time friend and classmate (since first grade) of mine from Bangor was sitting next to me, but didn’t stand up as others did. When a fellow student sitting nearby leaned over and asked him why he wasn’t cheering, he replied, “I don’t agree with him.” When I asked him later why he disagreed with Prof. Schmidt’s perspective, he told me that it was a mistake to equate every conflict in the world—even if seemingly Communist inspired—with Hitler’s aggression, whose appeasement led to WWII. Intrigued by his comment, I resolved to become much more knowledgeable about such issues.
Q: One of the most tragic events in the spring of 1968 was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. What do you remember about his death? How did students respond?
A: My main recollection about the reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination was Americans’–at least the majority of them—shock and dismay upon hearing or reading the news. The prevailing emotion among those in my group of campus friends, all of whom were supporters of King’s leadership of the NAACP and its struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, was a strong sense of despair. With the nation’s military bogged down in the intractable conflict in Southeast Asia; high rates of crime and poverty in our major cities; recent riots in reaction to racism in housing, employment, and social status in many of those same cities; and frequent violent protest (including bombings at universities and military facilities) against the war, complemented by police brutality (as would follow shortly at the Democratic Convention in Chicago) against peaceful demonstrators, the overriding perception among citizens of all ages and backgrounds was that violence was consuming our society.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee
Q: When we look back at the spring of 1968, we tend to focus on the chaos and unrest: The Vietnam War was in full swing, American politics were in flux, and one of America’s most prominent leader had been assassinated. Did it feel like a chaotic and portentous time? Did it feel like the country was falling apart, which is how we often depict 1968? Or did it feel more “normal” for you and your classmates?
A: In the spring of my senior year of 1968 as I learned more through research and reading of the scale of the destruction throughout Vietnam, I felt as though the members of the Johnson Administration and our military policymakers and officers had descended into madness. Amid the killing of what ultimately would be more than three-million soldiers and civilians in an impoverished Third-World country, no explanation for such carnage seemed credible. In fact, the reasons for it changed repeatedly over time, so it’s difficult to remember what exactly the official version was in 1968. Was the U. S. presence needed to protect the freedom-loving people of South Vietnam from the Communist invaders from the North? Or was all of Southeast Asia susceptible to worldwide Moscow- and Beijing-driven aggression? Or was the U. S. itself threatened by whoever might eventually govern a small country with no air force and only a torpedo-boat navy 10,000 miles away? Or, in Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s colorful expression, was our client state at the mercy of Chinese Communist soldiers who could cross the border while carrying a nuclear weapon on their back? That ludicrous comment and the visual image that it evoked convinced me that no statement was too dishonest and despicable to reject in justifying what to increasingly more Americans seemed monstrous war crimes.
The Vietnam tragedy was unfolding in the wake of several years of urban riots in the minority neighborhoods of such cities as Detroit, LA, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York City, with staggering loss of life and property. High crime rates also afflicted our society, accompanied by pervasive gun violence and bias toward minorities in the criminal justice system. And the Great Society programs implemented under President Johnson were in 1968 being compromised by the excessive cost of waging war in Vietnam. As for the soldiers forcibly inducted into the armed services, many Americans at this time cringed at the irony of an army of slaves marching off to protect another country’s supposed freedoms under the dictator Diem, who repressed dissent in So. Vietnam and who was later murdered by ARVN officers conspiring with Kennedy administration officials.
Riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention
The culmination of the widespread violence and perceived chaos in the spring and early summer of 1968—especially profoundly felt after Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s assassination—was the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Preceded unfortunately by the destructive “Days of Rage” rampage through city streets by the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the convention degenerated into a perceived undemocratic, smoke-filled backroom selection by the party regulars of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had entered not a single primary but became the nominee. One of the convention’s highlights (or more degrading moments) was the accusation from the dais by CT Senator Abe Ribicoff that Mayor Daley had unleashed his “gestapo” upon peaceful demonstrators in Grant Park. It was a sight to behold as Daley leaped to his feet among the Illinois delegation and hurled curses at Ribicoff, all of the exchange captured on camera. The resulting “police riot,” as judged by a commission that later studied the event, subjected the protestors and even passersby to random beatings and arrest. Television captured it all as the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” It seemed to me as I watched that disorder and lawlessness—most of it created by federal and state authorities, whether in Chicago or in Southeast Asia—had indeed become normalized. Students and others wishing to view the event can access the Youtube website, type in “Chicago police riot 1968,” and link to “Chicago Convention 1968” and other titles.