Photo: Credit Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times.
This article originally appeared at the nytimes.com.
By Nancy Biberman.
It had been a winter of pent-up tension with too much time spent indoors. I was anxious to ditch my pea coat for a tank top and soak up some rays and music on the broad steps outside of Low Library on Columbia University’s campus. But spring wasn’t the only thing on my mind.
In high school, our freedom anthem had been Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But by the time I was in college, in 1968, things no longer felt so free, so open. Country Joe’s cynical “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-die Rag” better captured the mood.
I tried to explain my sullenness to my parents, hoping to damp down their worries about their 19-year-old daughter, who had become an Ivy League antiwar protester. Yes, I went to class and got good grades. But my head and heart were in leaflet writing, dorm organizing, teach-ins and sit-ins. My activism didn’t really surprise them: I was very much my parents’ daughter. Our family was seeing this war in Vietnam through the same eyes. What bound us was what we saw on the evening news every day: women and children running from American aerial chemical bombardment, their flesh burning, mouth’s in silent screams. Still, they were understandably concerned.
They say Vietnam was the first TV war, and we knew it at the time. Television was in its infancy during my own young years. My dad built one for our living room, his electrical engineering skills honed by developing sophisticated weaponry for aerial bombardment fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II.
I was born when the fight against the Nazis was barely in the rear-view mirror, and never out of memory. Kids my age were schooled in violence: a war that included mass genocide and the atomic bomb. Every day we were reminded that another could start any day; in kindergarten we “ducked” under our desks and “covered” the backs of our necks to shield ourselves against a nuclear bomb attack. The mushroom cloud had engulfed Japan only five years earlier; it wasn’t a stretch for our schools to worry, and be prepared.
One Sunday morning in September 1963, four African American girls were murdered by a bomb planted at a church in Birmingham, Ala. I was 15. Two months later, on a November afternoon, my high school’s public address system summoned us to the gym for an assembly. The principal announced that the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in Dallas. We should get our things together and go home. My family sat glued to the TV for days, until the funeral was over; we saw images of a blood-soaked first lady watching the vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, take the oath of office on an airplane en route to Washington.
I demanded that my dad explain why all this was happening, figuring he knew about killing. Maybe because I was old enough, at 15, to understand, maybe because I was insistent and inconsolable about Birmingham and Dallas, but my father told me about his wartime experiences, and showed me his medals and dog tags, along with my parents’ wedding photo taken June 4, 1944, two days before D-Day, my dad looking young and cool in his Army uniform, about to be shipped out.
With one exception, my father answered my questions about the war. First, why? Because we were attacked; the Japanese bombed our ships in Pearl Harbor. They attacked us; we didn’t start the fight. They were fascists, he said. Dictators, tyrants. They ruled by fear, enslaving and incinerating millions of Jews and many others thought to be different by a racist ideology. Racism. I understood that word. “Never again,” he said, would that be allowed to happen. Never would it be forgotten. My father refused to tell me how many people he killed during the war, no matter how many times I asked. No, he said. You know enough.
My parents, as first-generation Americans, were very much the children of their own parents. All four of my grandparents arrived in our country as refugees fleeing religious and political persecution, running for their lives. They were penniless and spoke no English, but were determined to make a better life for their children and children’s children (me). This was the family story, and even though I didn’t speak their language, I got the message.
On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. On hearing this news young people ran into the streets in spontaneous grief and rage against the killing of a beloved leader. A month later thousands of my classmates at Columbia barricaded ourselves inside campus buildings, angry at the university’s decision to build a private gym for students in a small public park separating the campus from Harlem, and protesting the university’s involvement in Vietnam War research for the military. The unending violence of the war, the point-blank murders of civilians that we saw on TV, the murder of an African American hero: With our bodies we said “enough.” I was arrested with about 800 other students in April 1968 for criminal trespass in a campus building.
What we did at Columbia wasn’t the first major student strike of that era; Howard University students deserve credit for being the first. But we were both early to student antiwar activism, which grew into an enormous movement of young people that eventually helped end the Vietnam War.
It took way too long. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers died. Three million Vietnamese were killed. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam than in the entirety of World War II. Why? For what? Who attacked whom? What ever happened to “never again?”
Maybe we students should have done more to end the war sooner. More demonstrations, more sit-ins, more tying up traffic and bringing normal life to a standstill until the war stopped. We were young and idealistic; we said “enough” to the slaughtering of innocents in our name, and raged against the politicians who were too timid or too corrupt, to stand up for what was right. Who refused to learn. Our country was awash in uncontrollable violence, and unable to change.
But it did, eventually. It’s a lesson that student activists today should take to heart. Change will come.