The spirit of political activism that had begun to emerge at GW during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the University earned the nickname the “Holiday Inn of the Revolution.” Located just blocks from the White House, it was impossible for GW to avoid catching the wave of student political activism that swept colleges across the nation during the highly controversial Vietnam conflict.
From the first deployment of American troops to Vietnam, the nation was starkly divided. Some supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to intervene in Vietnam’s political struggles and stop the spread of Communism, but many young people expressed unwillingness about serving abroad. In a GW poll conducted in October 1965, at the start of major military involvement in Vietnam, approximately 49.5 percent of students disapproved of Johnson’s decision to launch a more aggressive offensive, while a close 46.5 percent supported the war. Over the next decade, however, a large majority of students disapproved of intervention.
As the fighting continued, some students became increasingly vocal in their opposition to the war. On Oct. 1, 1968, more than 2,000 students gathered in University Yard to hear speakers at an anti-war rally. Then, on April 23, 1969, tensions escalated when students occupied the Institute for Sino-Soviet Studies during a sit-in at Maury Hall. The protesters demanded that the University symbolically break ties with the military by ending the ROTC program at GW. After five hours, police forcibly evacuated the protesters, but the incident was merely a foreshadowing of the growing political opposition on campus. One month later, Rice Hall was occupied in a similar fashion, only this time, four students were arrested and taken to jail for refusing to disperse.
One of the most prominent organizations participating in the anti-war movement was the Students for a Democratic Society, which boasted more than 35,000 members nationwide. SDS sparked controversy on campus after being associated with several of the student demonstrations. On May 1, 1969, SDS held a May Day Celebration behind Monroe Hall, advertising the slogan, “Music for the Revolution … All Power to the People.”
Anti-war protest peaked in 1970, with the Kent State tragedy. At Kent State University in Ohio, four students were killed and nine injured when the Ohio National Guard fired upon student demonstrators. The students had been protesting President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia. Outrage over the incident spread throughout the United States, and GW was forced to close down for several days as students rallied against the government’s actions. As a result, the spring of 1970 was dubbed the “strike semester” – the most volatile period in campus history.
Some students resorted to violence, such as vandalizing the Hall of Government and burning cars at 21st and I streets. According to The Hatchet, the protests wreaked havoc on campus life. University President Lloyd Elliot said in one issue, “It was a traumatic weekend, filled with marches and sit-ins and everything else.” Elliott, who took a firm stand against student protesters, was quoted as asking, “Why should I let the bastards (students) win?”
In 1978, The Hatchet reported that the CIA had identified GW as a top “hot spot” of political protest, along with Columbia and Harvard universities, and was considered potentially dangerous.
Violence and protest were not the only forms of political participation that shaped GW in the 1960s and ’70s. On Oct. 12, 1969, The Washington Post wrote about 200 students from the GW Law School who volunteered for advocacy programs. Many students saw volunteerism as a way to simultaneously make a difference in the community and make their voices heard by working with veterans and underrepresented minority groups in the D.C. area who were in need of legal assistance or advocacy.
Over the next 20 years, peaceful student opposition continued against war, nuclear weapon programs and racism. Ultimately, the Vietnam era served as the prime catalyst that secured GW its reputation as a politically aware and active university.