Forty-four years ago this spring, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the United States military to bomb North Vietnam, initiating full-scale war. While the war in Iraq is different in several key respects, the parallels with the Vietnam War are striking. Both were thought to be justified and winnable in a brief period, yet both proved bitterly costly in lives, money and America’s moral standing — and both times, we have found ourselves mired in a conflict with no clear end.
There’s another way in which the wars are the same. In both instances, there have been protests at the University, though these were more widespread and intense for the Vietnam War. In March of 1965, three months after I came to the University, Michigan held the nation’s first teach-in against the war. Instead of classes, professors and students planned to hold lectures and discussions. Initially, 45 faculty members were involved, but the number quickly grew to 200, bolstered by huge student interest.
Governor George Romney and the Michigan State Senate were furious about our activities. After a lot of back-and-forth, we decided to hold the teach-in after classes were done for the day. We used Hill Auditorium and Angell Hall, and over 3,000 people debated and discussed the war through the night and into the next morning. At the time, it was one of the largest demonstrations in the University’s history.
As part of the teach-in, I spoke to a packed Hill Auditorium. There were students squeezed into the aisles and anti-war chants shook the huge hall. As a biochemist, I talked about the dangers of chemical and biological warfare being practiced by the Pentagon in Vietnam. Our military was using nerve gas, agents that caused terrible burns and blisters, and other chemical weapons against the North Vietnamese. Never before, I told the crowd, had chemicals been used to destroy crops, and not since 1936 had gas been deployed against military personnel on such a large scale. Fearing that the University might somehow be involved in what was happening, I called for an end to all secret and classified research here.
As we headed home from the teach-in the next day, we felt we had reached a broad consensus: the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and represented a new arrogance and aggression on the part of the United States government. We drew the attention of schools across the country, and Berkeley followed suit with a teach-in that drew an astonishing 30,000 people.
Activism on our campus only grew. On the Diag, we held a huge protest against Dow Chemical, which was responsible for chemical defoliants used by American military aircraft to blanket fields in North Vietnam. In all, the U.S. dumped about 12 million gallons of these deadly herbicides on enemy territory, causing terrible harm not just to the environment but to countless civilians. Our government used these agents because we were one of the only major countries that had refused to ratify the Geneva Protocol against chemical and biological warfare.
A few months after, I came up with the idea for a peace button to raise funds for the protest movement. An artist friend and I worked out the design of a peace symbol wreathed in holly. I sold the buttons on the Diag for 25 cents. They were gone in an hour. I ordered thousands more and wherever I went in Ann Arbor – from the medical campus to the farmer’s market – I sold the buttons, and I never seemed to have enough. We made posters with the same symbol, which local shops and churches put in their windows.
Protest against the war reached an even greater level with the colossal New York City demonstration, and the funds gained from button sales were used to pay railroad fare for dozens of us to go to Manhattan. The current site of the Gandy Dancer restaurant was the train station at that time, and students, professors and townspeople took over the whole place. We rode the New York Central Railroad train via Canada, and the atmosphere on the train was electric. In New York City, hundreds of thousands of us marched, arms locked in a symbol of unity, along with famous protestors from novelist Norman Mailer to Dr. Benjamin Spock.
The Vietnam War was vastly unpopular by the second term of the Nixon administration, and we finally pulled out in 1975. How President Obama handles the complex situation in Iraq remains uncertain, though he still seems dedicated to the change he promised – and I hope we will remain dedicated to holding him to this promise. The University has a long and proud heritage of standing up and dissenting when our political leaders go astray. As is our constitutional right, we assemble and speak freely, we criticize our leaders and we demand change. And now that we have stood up and called for a new direction in Iraq, let us be vigilant in ensuring that our new president takes us there.
Irwin Goldstein is professor emeritus of biological chemistry.