Saturday, August 8, 2009

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (ix)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (18)

I continued to go to anti-war meetings and attend anti-war campus rallies. From a distance, I watched Dave give anti-war speeches from the sundial of Columbia’s Low Plaza. I also heard him debate the head of the Young Republican Club in Harkness Theater in the basement of Butler Library. He opened his briefcase before the debate and pulled out his notes. Then, during the debate, he demolished, with the facts he possessed, the pro-war speaker’s case for a continued U.S. military presence in Viet Nam.

Paul also began to speak at sundial rallies against the war during Spring 1966. He was a fiery speaker who would condemn U.S. war policy from a Jeffersonian Democratic point of view. A graduate student, Paul was the editor of Gadfly, which was a muckraking newsletter sponsored by the office of Rev. William Starr, who was a religious counselor at Columbia. Gadfly was one of the first publications in the U.S. to expose on campus the CIA’s covert actions around the world which violated international law. It also exposed and criticized Columbia University’s complicity with the U.S. war machine and Rev. Starr was telephoned, at least once, by a Columbia Administration official who unsuccessfully requested that Rev. Starr cease publishing Gadfly.

Both Dave and Paul were quite convincing when they argued that major violations of international law and the Nuremberg Accords were being committed by the U.S. government in Viet Nam. Dave also had written a mimeographed paper on U.S. imperialism in Latin America which convincingly argued that U.S. foreign policy in Latin America was as immoral as U.S. policy in Viet Nam.

In late March 1966, there was a packed anti-war teach-in at Columbia’s McMillan Theatre. Most of the professors who spoke opposed the U.S. war policy. A State Department bureaucrat also spoke at the teach-in. But the audience hissed at him and heckled him because his arguments in favor of U.S. policy were unconvincing.

There was another march against the war down Fifth Avenue to Central Park, which was even more well-attended than the Fall 1965 anti-war march. Norman Mailer gave a comical speech at the rally which followed the march and Judy Collins sang an anti-war folk song. But I now realized that the Viet Nam War was not going to end soon.

I attended Independent Committee on Viet Nam [ICV] meetings. I remember an evening meeting in Fayerweather Hall at which Stanley Aronowitz, representing some committee for independent political action on the Upper West Side, gave a dogmatic, left-sectarian speech in a thick Brooklyn accent. Aronowitz used much Marxist jargon when he spoke and didn’t understand that anti-war students at Columbia in 1966 were solely into working directly to end the war in Viet Nam in the quickest way possible. Most anti-war students at Columbia were not yet into working outside the two-party system for a radical change in society’s structure. Unlike Aronowitz, Columbia anti-war students also accurately perceived that the U.S. industrial working-class in 1966 was still too highly-paid, affluent and anti-communist to be open to a socialist political alternative at that time.

By Spring 1966, anti-war students at Columbia and Barnard were increasingly dressing up like beatniks and, if men, were growing beards and mustaches and getting haircuts less often. Both men and women who were anti-war at Columbia were increasingly just wearing dungarees. And Barnard women were starting to wear much less make-up and no lipstick, and letting their hair grow long in a natural way.

Finals came and went. My freshman year at Columbia was over. Prior to leaving my dormitory room for my parents’ apartment, I went down to the reference room of the 42nd Street New York Public Library. In the reference room, I walked to the college catalogue section and pulled out the catalogue for the University of California at Berkeley. I turned to the pages which described the application procedure to follow for students who wished to transfer to Berkeley. I also checked out what the cost of me transferring to Berkeley in Fall 1966 would be.

I couldn’t swing a transfer to Berkeley, financially. My New York State Regents Scholarship wouldn’t be applicable to attendance at a California college, and tuition for out-of-state students at Berkeley was too high for me to afford. I closed the college catalogue and put it back on the shelf. I realized that, despite my loneliness, restlessness, boredom and dissatisfaction with the whole emotionally dead, impersonal and intellectually dull scene at Columbia, I was still going to be stuck at Columbia.

As I packed up my dorm room possessions and waited for my parents to come with their Pontiac car to pick me up, I felt that the academic year of living alone in Livingston Hall had provided me with the free space I desired.

I had now completed two plays. I was now a political radical who had read Writers On The Left, which was a work on literary leftism and literary communism. I now considered myself a leftist writer, as well as a political activist.

I still intended to teach in a public high school if I couldn’t earn a living as a published writer. I was completely turned off by U.S. foreign policy and corporate capitalism. I assumed that, if I were not drafted and killed in Viet Nam after graduation, my Columbia degree would guarantee me escape from the kind of 9-to-5 clerical job my father had been chained to during his life.

I felt lonely and my heart still ached for Pat. But I realized that, since she was graduating, it was unlikely she would ever fall in love with me. I was friendly with a few guys at Columbia like Tom, with whom I had agreed to share a dorm room in Furnald Hall in Fall 1966, after one of the many friendly philosophical and political discussions or debates we engaged in during our freshman year. But what I really longed for was Pat’s companionship.

I was a man of the left now. But I wasn’t yet personally integrated into Columbia’s counter-cultural leftist student community. My daily activism had been centered more in Columbia Citizenship Council’s P.A.C.T. program than in helping to do the day-to-day work for the ICV’s campus anti-war organizing. When I checked out of Livingston Hall in late May 1966, there was no indication that in less than a year a Columbia Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] chapter would exist as a mass-based organization and that I would be on the steering committee of Columbia SDS.

But back at my parents' apartment a few days later, I suddenly began to feel physically miserable, my eyes started to feel irritated, and I felt like I was going blind. My parents had gone away for a week to some cheap Catskills Mountains hotel resort, so I had to call Doctor Cohen, myself:

"I feel weak and fatigued. And there seems to be something wrong with my eyes."

Dr. Cohen, who was in his late 50s, agreed to stop by the apartment in the afternoon. He arrived, took one look at my arm and noticed red spots. "Measles. Don't use your eyes for 10 days. And rest," he advised. Then he left the apartment.


Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (viii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (17)

During the Spring 1966 term, my strongest feeling was falling madly in love with Pat. Pat was a senior at Barnard, majoring in Sociology, who planned to become a social worker. She was a beauty who I met after Stein re-organized the day care program at Grace Methodist Church.

In the middle of the fall semester, a Columbia student named Juan had become an enthusiastic volunteer in the program. He was a sophomore from Brooklyn who was a very good-natured and friendly guy. When, at the beginning of the 1966 spring semester, Stein renamed the program “P.A.C.T.” and increased the number of student volunteers recruited into the program, he also named Juan as the program’s coordinator. Pat was one of the new student volunteers recruited after Juan began coordinating P.A.C.T. Like me, Pat worked on Tuesday afternoons as a group leader during the Spring 1966 term. Her group consisted of 8 to 10-year-old girls, while my Tuesday group consisted of 8 to 10-year-old boys.

After each day’s activities, all the student volunteer group leaders were required by Stein to meet for an hour in a group discussion that was led by a bohemian-dressed older woman social worker. As a result of hearing Pat speak in these weekly discussions, I fell in love with her. She and I seemed to be the ones most willing to participate in an emotionally open way in these group discussions.

I also began to feel some affection for another Barnard woman named Anne. She was my co-leader in the group of 5 and 6-year-old boys I took care of on Thursday afternoons. Each week, Anne and I would talk on the phone to plan our group’s activities. Anne was friendlier towards me than Pat was, but my obsession with Pat’s beauty caused me to be blind to Anne’s beauty and not adequately respond to Anne’s warm personality. Although both Anne and Pat always wore jeans and dressed in a bohemian way, Pat was more anti-war politically than Anne.

But nothing developed out of my wild longing for Pat—who often wore a scarf on her hair—except some more love poetry, songs and emotional frustration for me. Yet I still found my two afternoons of volunteer work with the children and with other students at the P.A.C.T. daycare center more meaningful than being inside the classrooms of Columbia.

Although my volunteer work in P.A.C.T. did enable me to meet Barnard women more easily, I was not motivated to work in P.A.C.T. primarily to meet Barnard women. Guided by the integrationist Civil Rights Movement’s assertion that non-exploitative education and cultural exchange between white students and ghetto children was progressive, I saw my volunteer work as a daycare group leader as a concrete, tangible way of expressing my commitment to African-American and Puerto Rican liberation. In Spring 1966 I was more committed to working in P.A.C.T. than to my academic studies. Pat also seemed more committed to serving people than to academic careerism, which is one reason why I fell in love with her.

Despite my obsession with Pat, however, I continued to browse in Butler Library. I read books on Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini and fascism because I feared that, under LBJ, fascism was developing in the United States. I also tried to understand why the 6 million Jews were exterminated in Europe in the early 1940s. In the stacks of Butler Library, I also thumbed through 1950s issues of Time magazine, Life magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek and noticed how inaccurate and anti-communist their reporting was in those years.

When I wished to be surrounded by other students while studying, I would sometimes sit in the Burgess Library on the fourth floor of the Butler Library building. I also would sometimes try studying in either the main 2nd floor reading room of Butler Library or in the Columbia College Library within the same building.

My mind wandered whenever I sat in the Butler Library building. I would start to get restless after about a half-hour and start to feel myself drawn to the various women students who might be sitting near me while I was attempting to study. In the library, though, people didn’t generally talk to each other unless they already knew each other from classes or after-class activities. During my freshman year, I didn’t meet anybody new as a result of studying near people in the library.

For the second term of a “Contemporary Civilization” course, I wrote a term paper on the 1848 romantic revolutionaries and read Marx’s Communist Manifesto for the first time. After reading Marx, I felt his view of the world was possibly as accurate as the viewpoint of C.Wright Mills. I began to think of myself as somebody who was carrying on an intellectual tradition of siding with and identifying with the international working-class. But still influenced by Martin Luther King’s ideology, I was too completely a pacifist to be a Marxist.

In doing research for the 1848 romantic revolutionaries’ paper, I examined many books on the subject. Of all the books written about this period, Engels’ book on Germany’s Revolution and Counter-Revolution seemed to provide the clearest explanation for the 1848 historical events. Engels also described the wavering, over pedantic intellectuals and academics of 1848 in a way which reflected my growing disdain for the wavering, over pedantic U.S. academics of my own time, who appeared to me to be insufficiently resisting the U.S. war machine. In my term paper, I compared the romantic revolution of 1848 with the developing youth revolt of the 1960s. I expressed strong identification with the revolutionary democratic sentiments of all historical eras.

My most interesting course was Stade’s English Composition II course. For this course, I spent much time attempting to write the definitive term paper on W.H. Auden. Auden interested me because in an article on Dylan in the New York Times Magazine a Times writer had called Dylan the “Auden of the 1960s.” In studying Auden, I focused primarily on his 1930s poetry of commitment to changing the world and his work around the time he wrote his poem about the Spanish Civil War.

I felt that the Spanish Civil War issue of the 1930s was the intellectual equivalent of the war in Viet Nam issue. I evaluated Auden and his contemporary literary artists by the stand each had taken in relationship to the 1930s rise of fascism. If a poet had been activist against Franco in some way in the 1930s, then I felt his or her poetry was worth spending time reading. If a poet had either sat out the Spanish Civil War controversy or opposed the Spanish Republic, then I felt that he or she was so insensitive that his or her poetry could not be worth reading.

I ended my Auden paper by comparing him with the folksinger protest-song poets of the 1960s like Dylan, and I expressed my confidence that Auden’s dreams of the 1930s would be actualized by the followers of Dylan in the 1960s. I came out strongly in favor of the young politically-oriented Auden, in preference to the older Auden who wrote poetry after he converted to Catholicism and lost faith in the left.

I worked hard on the term paper. But Professor Stade trashed it. He gave me a “D” for the paper because I didn’t reflect his preference for an art for art’s sake aesthetic and for poetry which was “above politics” and beyond any partisan political commitment.

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (vii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (16)

The Thanksgiving break came and I went back to Queens to visit my parents. I felt much more distance between us and felt I had changed as a result of being away from home. My sister had returned from a stay in Berkeley and was spending much time in my parents’ apartment, listening to an Erik Satie album and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. My parents were pressuring her to become less bohemian.

I went to Flushing High School’s annual Thanksgiving football game at Memorial Field. The crowd was large, but I didn’t bump into Rona or anyone else I had known the previous year. Then I returned for the family Thanksgiving dinner and watched a football game on TV.

When Thanksgiving vacation ended, I felt both relieved and a little bit sad. Relieved to get back to my dorm room in Manhattan where I was free of old family constraints and actively living on my own in a whole new scene. But also, I was a bit sad that my parents could never really be as close to me again, now that I was living apart from them and starting to act out a different direction in my life than they wished me to go.

Back in school during the three weeks before the Christmas break, I finished writing my A Ball In A Basket play and mailed it out to one producer. By the time he returned the play and a rejection slip to me by mail a few months later, I was in the middle of writing a new play, with songs that could be sung a cappella, entitled The Barrier. The idea of either re-writing or devoting more time to trying to market A Ball In A Basket didn’t appeal to me.

A Ball In A Basket had been set in a Midwestern setting and reflected feelings of alienation produced by life within an All-American small city atmosphere and an All-American high school within white America. The Barrier was about the difficulty men and women found in communicating and becoming emotionally intimate with each other, in the context of a society moving towards escalated war in Viet Nam. The Barrier reflected some of the feelings my year at Flushing High School and contact with Rona had generated. It contained a folksinger narrator who tied the story together with the songs I had been writing. It also attempted to express a generational point of view.

I still continued to work at Grace Methodist Church in the afternoon. I listened to on-campus speakers in the evening. I began to spend more time trying to catch up on my schoolwork and pump out term papers, in order to avoid failing any courses. I became increasingly obsessed with the immorality of U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam and moved away from left-liberal radicalism to a mixture of anarchism and radical humanism. I read Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd and bought a paperback anthology of anarchist writings. I started to dress more like a radical and took haircuts less frequently. I continued to wear a sweatshirt or a turtleneck and blue jeans everyday.

I began to evaluate people primarily in terms of their attitude towards the escalating war in Viet Nam. I began to feel that U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam might lead to World War III. In The Barrier play, I included the song “Viet Nam,” which contained the following lyrics:

Viet Nam
Viet Nam
Will it end my life?
Viet Nam
Viet Nam
Subtract me in my youth.


During Christmas vacation, I felt like Holden in A Catcher In The Rye by Salinger. I tried to catch up on meaningless academic work, in-between listening to Highway 61 Revisited and a few Joan Baez records. “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles and “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel were two hit records at that time which also reflected my mood.

Away from Columbia’s campus, what especially struck me as hypocritical was the way people could still be into celebrating the Christmas spirit through shopping and ceremony, yet be so passive in terms of resisting the immoral U.S. war effort in Viet Nam. I also felt very lonely since I wasn’t emotionally involved with anyone. The people around me seemed cold and politically passive. The young women my age attracted me sexually but appeared emotionally closed to getting involved romantically with me in a way that I felt would not limit my freedom. I was glad to get back to Columbia in January 1966, where I then prepared for my final examinations.

The January exams were given and I felt the finals didn’t really measure the knowledge I had acquired. I received an “F” in Astronomy, instead of a “Gentleman’s C.” But I passed all my other courses and felt satisfied that I was able to keep up academically with the other Columbia students, without turning myself into an academic grub.

I returned to my parents’ apartment for a few weeks again, watched TV, read anti-war material and more anarchist writings and then began my second semester at Columbia. I still contemplated dropping out or transferring to Berkeley for the last three years of my undergraduate days.

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (vi)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (15)

Around the time I was still being radicalized in relationship to U.S. policy in Viet Nam, I attended my first off-campus anti-war rally.

It was a Saturday morning in late October. I was strolling up Broadway, past the 116th St. entrance to Columbia’s campus, when I noticed about 100 leftists lined up against the wall of Dodge Hall, facing towards Harlem. Some of these leftists I recognized from having hung around the ICV table in Low Plaza.

I was now against the war, but I was hesitant about joining a demonstration which a civil rights group wasn’t sponsoring. I was still anti-communist enough in my conditioning to fear being manipulated by communists, if I went on a demonstration which was organized only by leftists. I was ready to revolt. But I distinguished between “authentic” youth revolt a la Berkeley or led by African-American activists and “inauthentic” or CP-led “left sect” revolt. After walking about five yards past the demonstration, however, I turned around and joined the line of marchers. This was the first time I chose to express my alienation, political discontent and anti-militarist sentiments by joining a collective protest.

While we waited to begin marching, I got into a discussion with a hard-core pacifist woman who argued that “immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam” was a more moral and democratic position than the “stop the bombing and negotiate, but no withdrawal yet” position which I was still halfheartedly clinging to in October 1965. This was probably the last time that I argued against an “immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam” position.

After a long wait, our march finally began. At first, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable chanting the slogans in unison with other anti-war marchers. But, after awhile, I got used to shouting along with everybody else. I began to lose my feeling that marching and chanting slogans was too simplistic a way of summarizing complex issues like the war in Viet Nam.

We marched down Amsterdam Ave. and then across 110th St. to Fifth Ave. We then marched down Fifth Ave. Along Fifth Ave., people were supportive. From windows in the high-rise apartments, white liberal upper-middle-class people stuck their heads out and clapped their hands in support of us. In New York City--even among Manhattan’s wealthy--the U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam didn’t have much support. As we marched downtown, I accumulated many leaflets and free leftist and pacifist newspapers from different young people, who kept shoving their interpretations of the war into my hands.

We met the other anti-war demonstrators at the Upper East Side meeting point and I was surprised to see how many other people were also against the war in Viet Nam. There was another boring long wait, and more leaflets and free newspapers were shoved into my hands. Finally, the main march went down Fifth Ave. to another closed-off street in the lower 60s on the East Side.

As we marched down Fifth Ave. people chanted “End the war in Viet Nam! Bring the troops home!” over and over again. Socialist Workers Party people always added “now” to the chant “Bring the troops home!” There evidently had been much Fifth Ave. Peace Parade Coalition faction-fighting prior to the march as to whether the politically correct slogan to be chanted was “Bring the troops home!” or “Bring the troops home, now!” The latter position implied the more radical demand for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam, instead of the less radical demand of just stop the bombing, negotiate and withdraw only after a negotiated settlement.

At the rally site at the end of the march I was surprised, again, at how many people were actually so against the war that they were willing to rally. Dave Dellinger spoke at length with enthusiasm and moral passion and moderated the street rally. The elderly War Resisters League head, A. J. Muste, also spoke. This October rally marked the first time I heard pacifist speakers like Dellinger and Muste, as well as other anti-imperialist leftist speakers, in an off-campus situation. I felt that these left activists all made more sense than the Democratic and Republican Party politicians I had seen on TV when I was growing up. Dellinger’s enthusiasm and moral passion especially appealed to me, immediately.

After the rally broke up, I took the subway alone back to the Columbia dorms and, in my dorm room, I read through all the free anti-war literature I had accumulated during the day. With so many people opposed to U.S. policy in Viet Nam, I thought the war would soon end. I also felt that what was written in the anti-war literature made more sense than what the New York Times was printing about the war in Viet Nam.

My opposition to U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam intensified as the school year progressed. I planned to attend a November anti-war march in Washington, D.C. But F.B.I. pressure on the bus company that had agreed to take us down to D.C. in chartered buses to demonstrate caused the bus company and its union to refuse, at the last minute, to provide enough buses to transport us. After awakening at 5 a.m., I was one of the people who was stranded in New York and couldn’t go to D.C. to demonstrate. The informal limitations on the right of dissent in the U.S. were being revealed to me.

I wrote a letter to Vice President Hubert Humphrey and used quotations from the then-recently-deceased former liberal Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, to argue against LBJ’s policy of war in Viet Nam. I urged Humphrey to speak out in opposition to LBJ. But Humphrey’s office sent back a form letter which stated that Humphrey had carefully considered the issue and believed LBJ was doing all that he could to secure a just and honorable peace.

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (v)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (14)

I discovered a bookstore on West 114th St. and Broadway. It was owned and operated by this tall, quiet, solitary white man in his late ‘50s who had been politically active in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the old leftist stocked many leftist magazines, newspapers and paperback books that couldn’t be obtained at many other bookstores.

At the 114th St. and Broadway bookstore, I picked up anti-war magazines like Viet Report and Liberation, discovered social-democratic magazines like Dissent and purchased even more politically radical magazines such as Ramparts, A Minority of One and Monthly Review. I also purchased paperbacks which described and analyzed the Berkeley Student Revolt of 1964 in great detail, works by C. Wright Mills such as The Power Elite and White Collar and a paperback anthology on Viet Nam which Marvin Gettleman had edited.

Instead of reading most of my assigned course readings, I spent much of my early freshman year study-time reading the Berkeley Student Revolt books and the works of C. Wright Mills. I read the Gettleman book on Viet Nam during Christmas vacation in December 1965. It provided me with the information which, when combined with what I had picked up from listening to Mel and reading ICV literature and many leftist magazines, enabled me to now convincingly argue against the morality of the U.S. government’s Viet Nam war policy.

On Friday mornings for about one month I went to Charles Evans Hughes High School to tutor history as part of the Citizenship Council program. The teacher in charge of the tutoring program was a personally pleasant guidance counselor, and the student I tutored showed up for the first two 45-minute tutoring sessions. But when the student chose not to appear for the next two scheduled sessions, the teacher in charge of the tutoring program decided it didn’t pay to have me come to Hughes H.S. to tutor anymore. I concluded that it was unrealistic to expect a high school student to give up a free period for a tutoring session, in the absence of some immediate benefit.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, from 3:30 to 6 p.m., I went to the Grace Methodist Church on 104th St. and worked with other Columbia Citizenship Council student volunteers, as a group leader of 8-year-old boys in an after-school daycare center. The program later became known as P.A.C.T.: The Program to Activate Community Talent.

Bob Stein was the originator of the idea of having Citizenship Council set up a daycare center at Grace Methodist Church. He had spoken to the minister at Grace Methodist, Rev. Tatum, and had asked Rev. Tatum what people in the community most needed. Rev. Tatum had told Stein that all the working mothers most felt a need for a center to care for their children after school. Stein then began to organize a day care project to fill this neighborhood need.

Stein was a friendly left-liberal junior from the Boston area who majored in psychology at Columbia. He was a great believer in the value of group therapy and group discussion methods as a method of solving personal problems and work problems.

Around ten of us from Barnard and Columbia were initially involved in Stein’s project. The first few weeks of the fall term we spent cleaning up and repairing those rooms of the church which were to be used as day care facilities. Grace Methodist Church had a small gym and a large recreation room. There was also a small library and a few side rooms. After we had fixed things up, we opened up for recreational business.

I also continued to read as much as I could about Dylan and Woody Guthrie. By the second month of my freshman year, I was considering dropping out of Columbia in order to just write and go out to Berkeley and bum around. Dylan had dropped out of the University of Minnesota during his freshman year and it had not hurt his artistic career.

But I did not yield to my restlessness and immediately drop out. I had rapidly concluded that life in the classrooms of Columbia was not intellectually, emotionally, morally and politically stimulating. Yet living in Manhattan and exploring Manhattan on weekends was still a novelty in Fall 1965, so I stuck it out at Columbia for the time being.

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (iv)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (13)

Mel had black hair and was of medium height. He was in his mid-to-late 20s. He seemed to know Vietnamese history and the history of U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam better than anyone else at Columbia. Mel had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Algeria, and his Peace Corps experience had caused him to first become disillusioned with the reality of U.S. foreign policy.

I had started to get disillusioned with Lyndon Johnson in early 1965, when he started bombing North Viet Nam on a regular basis. I was against militarism, but I was also a left-liberal anti-communist in my politics. I thought that LBJ’s policy of an escalated bombing campaign was motivated by democratic goals. I still believed the U.S. government’s line that communist North Vietnamese leaders were seeking to enslave the South Vietnamese by unjustified force. But I felt LBJ’s decision to bomb North Viet Nam daily was morally questionable.

The first anti-Viet Nam War teach-ins had been organized at colleges like the University of Michigan, shortly after the sustained bombing of North Viet Nam began. The educational TV station in New York City, Channel 13, had televised these early teach-ins. I had watched the teach-ins and had generally agreed with the left-liberal anti-war professors, when they had condemned the U.S. military escalation and had called for a negotiated peace settlement with the North Vietnamese.

But in April 1965 I had not gone to the first anti-Viet Nam War mass march on Washington, D.C. which National Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] had organized. My older sister had been at the demonstration, after having done Civil Rights Movement volunteer work in North Carolina during a college spring break. She was much more anti-war than I was at that time because she had talked to Movement radicals who knew what was actually happening in Viet Nam. I was still dependent on the Establishment mass media for my information about Viet Nam at that time.

My sister had stopped by my parents’ apartment, the day after the April 1965 anti-war march. And she and I had spent much time debating U.S. foreign policy.

“I don’t like the bombing of North Viet Nam, either. But the North Vietnamese don’t want to negotiate. And Johnson has called for unconditional discussions. He really does want peace,” I had argued.

“The North Vietnamese want to negotiate. But as long as Johnson keeps bombing North Viet Nam, there can’t be negotiations. If Johnson really wanted to negotiate, he would stop bombing North Viet Nam. Or work through the United Nations,” my sister had replied. “The U.S. doesn’t have any right to be in Viet Nam, anyway.”

“We can’t just get out and let the Communists take over,” I had said.

My sister had shrugged. “Anything’s better than war.”

I had thought for a moment to myself that maybe she was right. And by the time LBJ had started sending more U.S. troops to South Viet Nam in the summer, I knew that I wasn’t going to let myself get used as cannon fodder, unless I believed the war could be justified morally. In the ‘60s, my sister was bohemian and politically radical, most of the time. Periodically, our paths would cross for a few weeks at our parents’ apartment in Whitestone and we would talk in a deep way about the world and our personal lives.

So Mel’s presence at the Independent Committee on Viet Nam table at Columbia, as the war continued to escalate, reinforced, hardened and deepened my opposition to U.S. government policy in Viet Nam. Students would stop by the table and debate with Mel the morality of U.S. policy. I kept stopping by to listen to Mel discuss the Viet Nam issue whenever I saw a crowd around the table. Mel’s talk seemed more relevant and interesting than any of the classroom discussion that went on inside Columbia’s classrooms.

“We’re committing genocide in Viet Nam. Napalm bombings and carpet bombings are designed to kill civilians. The Geneva Accords of 1954 required an election to unify Viet Nam in 1956. Even Eisenhower admitted Ho Chi Minh would have won the 1956 elections if the U.S. and the Diem dictatorship hadn’t violated the Geneva Accords,” Mel argued passionately, day-after-day.

Sometimes he would be joined by other anti-war students around the table. Every three or four weeks the ICV would hold an anti-war rally around Columbia’s sundial at which Mel and a Columbia College senior with a Boston accent, named Dave, would stand up on the sundial, and patiently explain to other students who gathered there why U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam was an immoral crime against humanity, in violation of the Nuremberg Accords.

Supporters of the war in Viet Nam who came to the ICV table could not justify U.S. policy on moral grounds when confronted with Mel’s knowledge of the facts. Mel influenced me intellectually more than any Columbia professor did in 1965. His moral passion and detailed critique of U.S. foreign policy convinced me that the U.S. military’s role in the Third World was always anti-democratic and always violated the self-determination rights of Third World nations. Mel’s teaching at the ICV table and his personal dedication, at the expense of his career preparation and studying time, to raising consciousness about the war in Viet Nam caused me to completely question the U.S. mass media version of contemporary history. His teaching stimulated me to read more on my own, in order to find out the truth about the nature of U.S. foreign policy between 1945 and 1965.

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (iii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (12)

After Freshman Week ended, the rest of the student body returned to the campus for the fall term. I had to move out of my Freshman Week dorm room and back to my parents’ apartment, temporarily, until dorm room space became available. For about a week, I commuted from Whitestone to Columbia by bus and subway. A few times I commuted from Whitestone by taking a bus over the Whitestone Bridge to the West Farms Square IRT subway station.

Going to Columbia as a commuter made you feel isolated from campus life. It made you feel that you were attending CCNY, not Columbia, and that you were just going to an extension of high school. A single room on the second floor of Livingston Hall, however, became available. So, by the second week of classes, I was living on campus in a room of my own. I again felt that, yes, I was really in college.

It was a novelty and exciting, but also costly, to buy my textbooks at the Columbia University bookstore, which was then located in the basement of the School of Journalism building. I spent money to also buy a Columbia sweatshirt. In Fall 1965 I also used my student pass to travel up to Baker Field on Saturday when Columbia’s football team was playing there, to watch “my team” usually lose. But I didn’t join Columbia’s marching band. I had lost interest in just being a cog in a school marching band. It involved too large a commitment of rehearsal time. I was much more interested in writing, activism, exploring Manhattan and working in the community in support of African-American people and the Civil Rights Movement. I didn’t want to be tied down to a band practice routine like I had been in high school. Too many other things were going on around campus.

On the second floor of Livingston Hall, I didn’t have much more than a nodding contact with the other guys who lived there. None of the other guys on the floor were in any of my classes or turned out to be politically involved or active in Columbia Citizenship Council. A few of my floor mates were eager to get into fraternities. A few others were on the football team and didn’t seem too intellectual. I disliked the “no women in the dorms, except during special hours, with the door open, and after signing-in” policy of the Columbia Administration. It seemed discriminatory, repressive and unnatural.

Yet once I had settled into my Livingston Hall room I still felt more personally free than I had ever been. I was on my own, with my only specific obligations being to make appearances in those classes I was taking and not to exceed the maximum limit of allowable cuts.

Initially, I was a major in government because the courses listed in Columbia’s government department courses offerings list appeared more interesting than the history department’s course offerings. I scheduled early morning classes so that my school day would be over by 2 o’clock on most days of the week. I would then have most afternoons free to do whatever I felt like doing.

At first, I awoke early enough to make my 8:10 or 9 o’clock classes. But by the middle of the semester, I usually preferred to sleep late, instead of attending class. I would cut early morning classes as often as possible and often end up reading what I felt like reading, or browsing around in the local public library or in Columbia’s Butler Library.

I started to listen to WQXR radio, after waking up in the morning or before going to sleep each night. I also began to listen to top 40 hit AM radio on WABC and WMCA. I read the New York Times frequently and bought the Sunday Times each weekend. I went to sleep by midnight, except on Friday and Saturday night. I ate my meals often in the John Jay Hall dormitory cafeteria, but I also ate dinners in restaurants on Broadway and purchased sandwiches from the deli on Broadway, which was called “Take-Home.” I remained thin because I preferred to spend my money on books and magazines, instead of on food. I didn’t have enough money for both books and food.

All my Fall 1965 courses were required. The course which most interested me was my required English Composition course which was taught by Professor Stade. Stade related to his students in a friendly, egalitarian way. He was the only Columbia professor whose office I would bother to visit when classes were not in session, in order to engage in intellectual discussion.

Stade was in his early 30s when I first met him. He had once been a roommate of Amiri Baraka’s in the late 1950s, when Baraka still called himself “Leroi Jones” and hung around with the white upper-middle-class liberal beatniks. As a result of his past friendship with Baraka, perhaps, Stade seemed to be more anti-racist in his consciousness than the other white English Department professors at Columbia.

As Stade aged and his hair became white in the 1970s and 1980s, he became more politically conservative in his ideological views, although he always remained a very friendly person. In the 1960s, however, he was anti-war and anti-racist in both his lecturing and writing. Stade was also one of the earliest Columbia professors who didn’t feel obligated to wear a suit and tie when he came to class. He participated in an anti-Viet Nam War read-in and used his class time to criticize, sarcastically and satirically, LBJ’s foreign policy.

Around lunchtime and in the early afternoon, I found myself habitually hanging around the anti-war Independent Committee on Viet Nam [ICV] table on the plaza in front of Low Library. A Columbia Teachers College graduate student named Mel would generally set up this anti-war table and be there from about 11:30 a.m. until sunset.

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (ii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (11)

During Freshman Week, there was a big meeting in the Low Library administration building rotunda, where a professor told us that we were a “special group of people” and “the nation’s future elite.” A well-dressed “tweed”/preppie, in a suit and tie, who was the student coordinator of Freshman Week, told us to “use New York City as your campus” and he urged us to “look into the faces of people on the subway.” At a student union building reception for freshmen in Ferris Booth Hall’s Hewitt Lounge, punch was served and the friendly Dean of Columbia College, David B. Truman, shook our hands, individually.

A mini-tour of Greenwich Village was offered one evening. A group of us freshmen were escorted on the Broadway IRT local from 116th Street to the Christopher Street station. After leaving the Christopher Street station, we were led around the West Village for a few hours but were not shown any of the gay bars.

Our meals during Freshman Week were eaten together in John Jay Hall cafeteria. I would often find myself spontaneously involved in a conversation with a freshman from some place like Tyler, Texas.

I was interested in getting to know African-American students at Columbia. So I spent some time during Freshman Week looking through my Freshman Directory book, which pictured all the freshmen, and noticed where the small number of African-American students in the class had gone to high school. I hoped that Columbia College would be a place where I could form inter-racial friendships. In 1965 Black nationalism was still not dominant in liberal and left Civil Rights Movement circles. Inter-racial friendships and love relationships were not yet discouraged for political organizing reasons.

The white student left at Columbia was nearly invisible during most of Freshman Week. Prior to one of the Freshman Week events, George tried to sell the freshmen who were lined up to go inside Ferris Booth Hall some kind of leftist newspaper. The newspaper claimed that Columbia University was controlled by Wall Street corporation directors, was nothing more than an instrument of these corporations and was not really an institution concerned about the pursuit of knowledge.

George wasn’t able to interest any of us in buying his newspaper. From the freshmen on the line who bothered to notice him, there was much snickering and some taunting of him for being a “commie.” After glancing at his newspaper’s headlines and listening to his sales pitch, I thought to myself that George’s view of Columbia was intellectually simplistic and inaccurate, and that it was ridiculous to argue that Columbia University was “just another U.S. multiversity like Berkeley.” But the longer I attended Columbia, the more my own views about Columbia began to change.

The highlight of Freshman Week came near the end of the week, when representatives of various student clubs spoke to us in Wollman Auditorium and tried to use sexist humor and sexual innuendo to interest us in joining their clubs. Most of the freshmen cheered and laughed all night, as the junior and senior Columbia College tweed-preppie-types tried to demonstrate how hedonistic and sexually virile and sophisticated they and their clubs were.

But these Columbia student leaders didn’t strike me as being the kind of men I wished to emulate. If they were “Columbia Men,” I was not interested in being a “Columbia Man.” The anti-intellectualism of this student club recruitment night, which was called “King’s Crown Activities Night,” undercut the credibility of the pious words which Columbia administrators and professors had thrown at us during the more solemn previously-held Freshman Week events. Club night seemed to indicate that what the all-male Columbia College student body found most important was the sexual conquest of Barnard women, not the pursuit of knowledge and truth, or the love of other people. Columbia students seemed no more intellectual in their personal priorities than their male counterparts at less selective universities, like Indiana University or the University of Miami in Florida.

The one student speaker at this “King’s Crown Activities Night” who impressed me was the representative of Columbia’s ACTION group. ACTION had organized an anti-war, anti-NROTC demonstration in the spring of 1965, which the Columbia Administration had broken up by calling in New York City cops to arrest the less than 150 demonstrators. The ACTION speaker was the only student who mentioned the need to oppose the war in Viet Nam on campus at this club night. His presentation was interrupted by jeers from right-wing Columbia freshmen and by much heckling.

When it came time to sign up for campus activities, I signed ACTION’s mailing list. ACTION, however, became defunct early in Fall 1965 because most hard-core Columbia and Barnard activists joined the Independent Committee on Viet Nam (ICV).

I also signed up to be a Columbia Citizenship Council volunteer. I volunteered to tutor every week at Charles Evans Hughes High School at West 18th St. and 7th Ave., and to work as a group counselor in an African-American church on 104th St., between Amsterdam Ave. and Columbus Ave. Citizenship Council provided me with a way to make contact with people who lived in the neighborhoods around Harlem.

Because I saw myself as a writer-activist, I went to the freshmen recruiting meeting of Columbia’s literary magazine, The Columbia Review. During the previous academic year, the Columbia Administration had tried to curtail the campus distribution of the magazine because too many of the literary articles contained too many explicit references to sex. But the Columbia Review people seemed more snobbish, less dynamic, more self-centered, less socially concerned and less warm than either the Citizenship Council people or the ACTION recruiters. So I didn’t get involved with the Columbia Review crowd.