“For the past week, the top officials of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point have been practicing their Military Police in riot control and the use of tear gas,” an ephemeral Vassar publication, Blood & Fire, reported in October 1969. “Their fear: an onsurge of college girls from Vassar with anti-Vietnam War petitions in hand, and armed with facts, reason and charm.”
Far from an aggressive “onsurge,” 200 Vassar students armed with flowers and calls for peace entered the military campus on October 15. Many cadets scoffed at the effort and spread rumors that Vassar girls were there to “offer their bodies in exchange for signatures on anti-war petitions.” Army cheers drowned out Vassar freedom songs as cadets outnumbered the protestors nearly four to one. In the end, Vassar girls managed to discuss the war with some cadets but the event was largely considered to be a failure. No cadets signed antiwar petitions or acknowledged sympathy with anti-Vietnam thoughts, and the front page of the October 17 issue of The Miscellany News declared: “West Point Invasion ‘Fails,’ Cadets Maintain Stronghold.”
The day did have its individual successes, as recounted by Jon Cruz ‘05 almost 40 years later, in The Vassar Chronicle:
The planned invasion touched at least one West Point student. “I was impressed this afternoon,” one cadet wrote in a letter to a Vassar student following the protest. “Not so much by your moratorium as by your personal willingness to listen and speak (and have something to say). I expected only a wild damnation of our ‘warmongering attitudes.’ I hope you learned we are not bloodthirsty, as I learned that you are not unreasonable radicals.”
For all of the sixties stereotypes surrounding anti-Vietnam War protests at Vassar—rumors conjuring images of loose Vassar girls and ill-mannered hippies—demonstrations largely took on a moderate, communal feel at the college. Far from being a leftist-only surge of unrest, they brought a large constituency of the student population together to oppose the war through peaceful protest, individual initiative and educational discourse about Vietnam.
Numerous ad hoc groups fostered student participation in off-campus anti-war protests in the early 1960s, before Congressional action, in August 1964, formalized American involvement in Vietnam. The Poughkeepsie chapter of SANE (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), Women for Peace, and the “informal group,” Vassar for Peace, organized a silent “Peace March” to the Poughkeepsie Court House on April 26, 1962 to protest President Kennedy’s decision to resume atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. On October 19, 1963, members of Vassar’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) contingent, then known as the Organization for Political Awareness (OPA), travelled to the White House to picket President Kennedy’s support of the Diem government along with 1,000 students from around the nation. Throughout 1964 and 1965, a handful of Vassar girls joined antiwar protests sponsored by organizations including the National Students for a Democratic Society and Women’s Strike for Peace in New York City and Washington D.C. Meanwhile in Poughkeepsie, the SDS worked at the forefront of local mobilization efforts and coordinated a march down Main Street with SDS’s national demonstration in the capital on February 17, 1965.
On campus, students engaged in a lively debate about the merits and faults of the U.S. policies in Vietnam. In December 1965, Sarah McMahon ’67 distributed a letter to her peers challenging the SDS’s opposition to the war and arguing: “the United States should stand by the commitments it has established in Vietnam during the past ten years.” She hoped to form a pro-war group on campus, which would sponsor government speakers and organize campus-wide polls about the Vietnam issue. She received over one hundred and fifty responses, evenly divided between support and polite disagreement.
Some students defended the United States' commitment to the government in Vietnam.
McMahon’s proposed group never materialized but the incident stimulated campus-wide debates about the war and the formation of the Vassar Inquiry in early 1965. Moderated by history professor Charles Griffin and attended by Vassar students and faculty alike, Inquiry meetings fostered objective debates about the Vietnam issue in an effort to advocate for free discussion and inclusion on campus. In late April, the Inquiry held its first meeting in the Old Council Room at the Students’ Building. History professor Frederick Heath and political science professor Richard Willey gave brief speeches about the Vietnam issue before opening the floor to a lively student debate. The Miscellany News lauded the group’s efforts in its April 28 issue: “We heartily welcome the Vassar Inquiry, and we applaud its first success. It is our opinion that the college community can only benefit from its continuation.”
The college also invited numerous speakers to lecture about the conflict from 1965 onwards. Speakers such as Columbia’s Robert F. Meagher and anti-war activist Reverend William S. Coffin from Yale came to campus to talk to students about Washington’s foreign policy agendas in Southeast Asia and talk about the moral complications of war in Vietnam. Other events such as the May 1966 “Viet Teach-In” moderated by Vassar history professor Charles Griffin were open to Vassar students and Dutchess County residents. The teach-in featured topical speeches on Vietnam given by Vassar professors and a host of guests from institutions including Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Bryn Mawr, and the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
Despite the popularity and intensity of on campus discussions, Vassar alumnae expressed frustration that the college failed to take decisive anti-war action. In February 1967, nearly 40 alumnae—among them journalists, authors, former and present professors and the wife of the president of Princeton—wrote to the editor of The Miscellany News decrying Vassar’s failure to sign an anti-war statement endorsed by one hundred other colleges. “We are disappointed in this silence,” they wrote. “We agree with Secretary General U Thant that the conflict in Vietnam must be ended and that an essential prerequisite to serious negotiations is to stop the bombing now.”
Three months later, visiting history professor Gary Ostrower held a pop quiz asking students questions such as: “What is the population of North Vietnam? South Vietnam?”; “How many troops does the U.S. have in Vietnam?”; and “Who are the Viet Cong; from where do they come?” Students overwhelmingly failed to answer some of the most basic of these questions, yet when it came to the final question of the quiz: “If you score less than a 50% on this exam, do you feel that you are entitled to an opinion on the war?” the majority of students believed their opinions mattered regardless. The Misc. reported: “opinions were evenly split on whether an opinion was justified, although many girls who answered that they were not ‘entitled’ to an opinion were quick to point out that this would not stop them from holding such opinions.”
By the summer of 1967, these “opinions” turned into anti-war activism. In the vein of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, the Vietnam Summer Committee based in Cambridge, Massachusetts called for a surge of anti-war activity to force U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Many Vassar girls sought involvement. On campus, handouts circulated advising students how to take the anti-war fight home with them over the summer. Once such handout advised:
Those who are going home for the summer have a unique opportunity to “take the strike home” to their communities. Lest you feel lost and movementless, first find others at home with commitments similar to yours. If you are out of touch with old friends, local universities, high schools, etc., try contacting old McCarthy workers, local ministers or rabbis, even people who write pro-peace letters to the newspaper. Those people are there somewhere, if you can only seek them out. If you can make use of existing organizations, that’s best—they have phone lists, acquaintances, sometimes offices. If not, your group should attempt to establish headquarters and a phone number somewhere, at someone’s home if necessary, then try to get free advertising in “community-announcements” on the radio and in newspapers.
In 1967 protests against American invention in Vietnam grew larger, more organized and more frequent.
Vassar students began mobilizing more seriously and in larger numbers.
By 1968, the majority of Vassar students supported U.S. withdrawal and a reevaluation of American agendas in Vietnam. According to the 1968 New England Universities Referendum on the war, only 10.9% of Vassar students believed that the U.S. must stand behind its commitment to defending South Vietnam from communist incursion and only 16.1% of students felt that the U.S. was too involved in Vietnam to back out. Less than 7% thought President Johnson was adequately handling the war.
Concurrent, as it happened, with coeducation, Vassar’s fledgling opposition in the first years of the war transformed into a more systematized and in some senses radicalized anti-war crusade on campus. In 1969, the ad hoc Committee to End the War in Vietnam—headed by students including Carla Duke ’71, Julie Thayer ’71, Carolyn Lyday ’72 and Jon Granoff ’70—intensified its anti-war crusade. On October 1, 1969, they circulated the first issue of their “spontaneous publication,” Blood & Fire, to publicize campus anti-war seminars, vigils, marches and protests. The newsletter drew its title from Stalin’s callous “blood and fire” remark about the Red Army’s reputation for rape and pillage and contained blunt protestations including: “Making war for peace is like fucking for chastity.” This group marked the far left contingent of Vassar politics, yet it garnered significant support from the wider Vassar community by advocating for two issues of central importance on campus.
First, the committee supported opposition to the draft. Draft resistance existed on campus before 1969, but it took on new proportions that fall as the first male students passed through Main gate. Anti-war committee member Ted Lieverman ’71 headed campus-wide draft resistance efforts and worked in conjunction with Vassar history professor David Schalk, a member of the Draft Counseling and Information Service of Dutchess County. The two published messages for conscientious objectors in Blood & Fire:
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On October 15, 1969, Lieverman read a declaration in the name of 23 male students: “In an individual and joint expression of their anger with the War and, for some, with the U.S. Armed Forces itself, 23 Vassar men have pledged to resist the draft. The 23 include some who refuse to serve until all U.S. troops are withdrawn from Vietnam, and others who refuse to serve until all U.S. combat troops are withdrawn.” Female students offered their support, opposing unfair conscription as prejudicially evaluating gender, class and race.
Second, the Committee supported a national anti-war moratorium. The moratorium originated in Washington D.C. as liberals supporting Democratic Senators Robert Kennedy and George McGovern called for a nationwide shutdown, a “Moratorium,” on October 15, 1969. These activists soon garnered the support of national peace organizations and media sympathy, and they gained traction at institutions of higher learning. Over 500 colleges and universities including Vassar joined the initiative, often cancelling classes to signal solidarity with national anti-war campaigns.
In their October 3 issue, the editorial board of The Miscellany News called for students to “support Oct. 15” and declared: “We urge Vassar students, faculty, and administrators to use October fifteenth to work in Poughkeepsie for support against the war. We urge them to go to houses, factories, shops, businesses, high schools, and local clubs, to talk to the citizens and explain the Moratorium to them.” Students sought to stimulate solidarity and open Vassar’s gates to Dutchess County residents.
During the first week of October, President Alan Simpson received petitions in favor of the moratorium from 150 faculty members and over 1000 students. Simpson immediately authorized “the closing of classes by all interested faculty and the absence from classes of all interested students” and, in a speech delivered in the Chapel on October 13, expressed his own opinion on the war: “as an individual citizen of this community, [I] join others in saying to President Nixon that the time has come to announce our unconditional withdrawal. I would say to the President: ‘You don’t have a negotiating problem – you’ve got a scheduling problem.’” Although members of the Committee to End the War expressed frustration that Simpson did not completely shut down the college, this marked an exceptional cooperation and like-minded action among students, faculty, and the administration.
On the day of the moratorium, 700 Vassar students and Poughkeepsie residents attended college anti-war activities. In the morning, students, faculty and local activists held seminars on the war in residential buildings, covering topics from Southeast Asian history to U.S. policy to the role of academia in political decision-making. During the afternoon, a march sponsored and organized by the Mid-Hudson Committee to the end the War in Vietnam wound through Poughkeepsie, culminating at a rally at Riverside Park where Ted Lieverman read the anti-draft declaration of 23 of his fellow Vassar students before a staggering crowd of nearly five thousand, including students from Vassar, Bard, Marist, New Paltz, Bennett, Dutchess Community College, and local secondary schools. Meanwhile, 200 Vassar girls made their way to West Point in their ill-fated attempt to contest the pro-war sentiments of their neighboring cadets. The day concluded with New York Times art and architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s keynote speech: “Is Architecture Obsolete?” in Vassar Chapel.
That day, the Vassar Committee to End the War published a statement about the moratorium’s broader meaning on campus in Blood & Fire:
Today is just a beginning. We have been protesting the war now for years. But now we’re getting together. Together. Together is the only way, but it is not easy. We’ve got to keep believing and keep doing, keep working, until this atrocious war on murder and oppression is ended. Until all our troops are withdrawn. Until Vietnam is freed of foreign occupation forces.
Today is only the beginning of a long, hard, conscientious, and continued effort of non-cooperation with the war machine and oppression. The war will not be over tomorrow. If you think one day of partial striking will do it, wake up tomorrow and read the morning paper. It should be in giant letters in the headline to remind us all:
THE WAR GOES ON STILL!!!!
As the war intensified and expanded in the early 1970s, so did unrest and opposition at Vassar. After President Nixon sent troops into Cambodia without consulting Congress in 1970, student protests continued. At the behest of a Student Senate vote in the Chapel attended by one thousand students, the Vassar community decided to not “shutdown” in league with fellow institutions but to make an “educationally valuable response to the crisis” by resuming seminars about the war and staging protests and vigils. President Simpson released the College Council’s official declaration in May 1970 to “Alumnae, Parents, and Friends” of the college:
Institutions of higher learning in an open society have a mandate to face with candor the realities derived from honest inquiry and thoughtful conscience. To that end, it is incumbent upon the Vassar College community to acknowledge that an overwhelming proportion of its students, faculty and administrators views the current escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, as represented by the invasion of Cambodia and the renewed bombing of North Vietnam, as morally reprehensible. It is also incumbent upon the academic community to call attention to the implications of this consensus. In recent days, it has become abundantly clear that this concern is shared by colleges and universities across the country. Four students at Kent State University have given their lives in valid protest. [CG1] We believe that society can only ignore the challenge posed by such massive anguish at gravest peril to its future.
Organized opposition to the war, without hindering the purposes of the college, characterized Vassar’s anti-war action for the remainder of the U.S.’s involvement in Southeast Asia. It demonstrated the communal effort of the college—cooperation between students, faculty, and the administration—while also delineating academic spaces as integral points of discussion for challenging and reevaluating issues of national importance.
Student mobilization in the 1960s and 1970s has been a touchstone for on-campus activism and Vassar students have continuously held by the placard of the college’s anti-Vietnam Committee: “If you hold your tongue today, nothing will be right tomorrow.”
Cruz, Jon. “Vassar experiences the Vietnam War,” The Vassar Chronicle, 18 Apr. 2003.
“OPA Joins National Picket,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 9 Oct. 1963.
“Saturday Set for Demonstrations; SDS to Sponsor Vietnam March,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 17 Feb. 1965.
“VC Students Protest in Vietnam March,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 23 Apr. 1965.
“Inquiry Welcomed,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 28 April 1965.
“Vietnam War Divides Americans: the Pro, the Con, and the Confused,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 27 Oct. 1965.
James, Shirley. “McMahon Circulates Open Letter; Object’s to Booth’s Statements,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 8 Dec. 1965.
Kirk, Charlotte. “Faculty to Decide on Topics For Viet Teach-In Participation,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 27 Apr. 1966.
“On Viet Nam Alumnae Speak Out,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 15 Feb. 1967.
“In Ostrower’s Class: ‘Pop Quiz’ on Vietnam,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 3 May, 1967.
“Opposition to Escalate in Viet Nam Summer,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 10 May 1967.
“Poll Compares War Ideas,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 31 Jan. 1968.
Peck, Lynne. “West Point Invasion ‘Fails,’ Cadets Maintain Stronghold,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 17 Oct. 1969.
“Support Oct. 15—End the War Now,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 3 Oct. 1969.
Casteras, Susan. “Moratorium and the Town 4000 March to Riverview,” The Vassar Miscellany News, 17 Oct. 1969.
General Material on Vassar and Vietnam, Folder 1.1. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).
Blood & Fire, October 1, 1969; October 8, 1969; October 15, 1969; November 13, 1969. Dated Materials on Strikes and Protests re: Vietnam 1967- Nov. 1969, Folder 1.7. VCSC.
“Peace March sponsored by SANE, WOMEN FOR PEACE, VASSAR FOR PEACE,” April 4, 1962. Dated Materials on Strikes and Protests re: Vietnam 1962-Nov. 1969, Folder 1.7. VCSC.
Simpson, Alan. “Office of the President,” May 11, 1970. Dated Materials on Strikes and Protests re: Vietnam May 1970, Folder 1.9. VCSC.
Simpson, Alan. “Remarks of President Simpson on the Vietnam Moratorium,” October 13, 1969. Dated Materials on Strikes and Protests re: Vietnam 1962-Nov. 1969, Folder 1.7. VCSC.