Once known as the “Holiday Inn of revolution,” the GW campus continues to play an integral role in Washington demonstrations. From the election of 1968 to the nationwide University strike following the Kent State shootings, the GW campus has been at the center of momentous social change for decades.
Though the “glory days” of war protesting may have ended when Saigon fell in 1975, the spirit of civil disobedience is still evident in events like this weekend’s demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Today’s protests owe much to the legacy of the Vietnam War and the opposition that was voiced, more often than not, through large-scale street demonstrations.
While only a small number of GW students demonstrated this weekend, student anti-war activism once flourished in Foggy Bottom. In those days, the students, though not the faculty, were far more liberal and witnessed the turbulent convergence of diverse social movements on campus. Issues included the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the birth of the environmental movement, a sexual revolution with the advent of “the pill” and the Vietnam War.
At the center of all of these social movements was Washington, D.C., the focus of groups that sought to capture the attention of the government, the country and the world. GW’s central location made it an ideal staging ground for the demonstrations that called for these cultural changes.
The “Holiday Inn of Revolution”
In the mid-1960s, the campus looked far different. Brick row houses lined most streets, the Marvin Center, Rice Hall and dozens of other campus buildings had not been built, and Foggy Bottom was more of a sleepy residential community.
The first student protests against the Vietnam War took place in 1965, with only a few students participating. In 1967, following a teach-in in Lisner Hall, GW students joined with the more than 50,000 who marched on the Pentagon in one of the largest demonstrations against the war.
In 1969, the GW chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, a left-wing anti-war group, seized control of Maury Hall and later Rice Hall in an effort to change University policy.
The SDS saw the school as part of the “war machine” and blockaded themselves inside while ransacking files and offices. They demanded that the University close the Sino-Soviet institute, cut all ties with the military, end ROTC on campus and encourage admission for all black students. Following the building’s occupation and the years of unrest, GW President Lloyd Elliott met all of the students’ demands.
“There is really no comparison between then and now,” said Professor Harry Yeide, who teaches peace studies at GW and was a junior dean during the Vietnam War. Yeide remembered one of his classes when students sat on opposite sides of the room depending on their stance on the war, with a wide gap – ideologically and physically – between them.
“Life was hard for those students who wanted to support the war,” he said
The GW campus was frequently the epicenter for demonstrations, both as a place for protesters to stay while visiting the city and as a refuge when the demonstrations became unruly.
“One of the things we learned later was that students were choosing to come study at GW to avoid having to travel to the protests from other places,” Yeide said. “It was a haven for protesters.”
But location was only a means to an end for students who genuinely opposed the war and felt responsible to affect change.
“GW students felt responsible to be the first responders,” said Charlene Bickford, a University employee during the Vietnam War who now works at the first Federal History Project. “People did burn draft cards and demonstrate and then were back (on campus) in time for class.”
Many professors remember the nearly perpetual conflicts between police and demonstrators on the streets and buildings around campus and the local draft office at 19th and F streets.
“Rousted demonstrators typically flooded onto our campus, often taking refuge in the then-new Marvin Center and later sacking out on the quad behind,” professor Peter Hill said. “At times, the (Marvin) Center was literally surrounded by police.”
“They used to tell (employees) to dress like protesters so as not to seem suspect,” Bickford said.
Police would frequently push protesters back to the campus from sites like the White House and the Mall, and it was not unusual to have tear gas waft into University buildings.
In the past, conventional wisdom said police should allow demonstrations to continue with minimal crowd control and to use tear gas in situations to disperse demonstrators who became unruly. More recent police strategy has involved the use of thousands of officers to strictly monitor and control public demonstrations, with tear gas as a last resort.
Bickford said police’s use of tear gas was so common that buckets of water were frequently kept by the door in University buildings to wash gas from the eyes of afflicted protesters.
“Getting tear gassed then was really a right of passage,” said Yeide, who operated an information center for protesters with the goal of quelling rumors circulating among the demonstrators and providing accurate information.
Students and faculty would take to the streets together in opposition to the war, a situation that fostered a camaraderie between the faculty and the students.
“Faculty often worked the edges of crowds, talking to students they knew in an effort to steer them away from … violence,” Hill said. “More practical and certainly more effective were the GW Law professors, who went down to the city jail to spring our students from custody or at least make sure their civil rights were not violated.”
“I felt closer to students then than now or ever,” Yeide said. “When I talk about the good old days at GW, these are the ones I mean.”
In the shadow of the ’60s
As many as 100,000 people took to the Mall this weekend to “preemptively protest a preemptive war,” as one student protester explained. While students played a critical role in organizing and attending the demonstrations, the crowd was largely made up of middle-aged demonstrators who lived through the Vietnam War and continue to oppose military action.
One man who attended this weekend’s events even brought his Vietnam draft card to burn in protest of a potential war with Iraq.
This weekend’s demonstrators acknowledged the debt they owe to the past, as organizers invoked the legacy and tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. at every opportunity.
But despite efforts by today’s demonstrators to convince Americans to the contrary, Vietnam and Iraq share little in common. Times have changed.
“There was a deep and comprehensive anger about our political system, and now there may be anger against the president, but not toward the system,” Yeide said. “Since 9/11, people in the U.S. really feel attacked, and it wasn’t that way in the 1960s. There was not the reservoir of fear that Americans now feel.”
The appearance of the more recent anti-war demonstrations owes much to the Vietnam-era demonstrations that, in many ways, established what large-scale demonstrations should look like.
“Demonstrating for anything now became more acceptable,” said Leo Ribuffo, a professor of modern American history at GW. Ribuffo said the counter culture’s distinctly different appearance, with long hair and alternative lifestyles, has shaped the way today’s protesters present themselves. Because of the legacy of the Vietnam-era demonstrations, “protests and protesters should look peculiar,”Ribuffo said.