MSU's tradition of activism on campus began during the Vietnam War
Editor’s note: This is part of a three-part series examining important protests in MSU’s history as protests and activism picks up around campus. This first part looks at MSU’s involvement in the Vietnam War and student backlash. Parts two and three will run online on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Protests in the 1960s and 1970s often had life and death at stake. When those protesting the Vietnam War were often at risk of being drafted if they weren’t at college, a bad grade could mean more than just a repeated class on transcripts.
“We called it the death penalty,” Bryan Watson, a student at the newly-formed James Madison College in the late 1960s, said. “If you flunked this class, if this teacher gave you an F, you could die. When you’ve got that kind pressure on you, then you’re willing to do all kinds of things, you’ve been angry about a lot of stuff. That pressure doesn’t exist today.”
Like many American universities, MSU has seen its fair share of activism throughout its history. A multitude of student protests have taken place for a wide breadth of issues, some successfully enforcing change, some wearing down over the force of time. This is a look back to an era of turmoil and the MSU students who stood up and made their thoughts known.
Popular sentiment at American universities was the Vietnam War was not a good thing.
Negative youth opinion of the Vietnam War, occasionally referred to as the Indochina War, sparked civil unrest on many of America’s college campuses, MSU being no exception.
The University on the Make
MSU, however, was exceptional for its role in the war itself.
Wesley Fishel, a political science professor, happened to meet and develop a friendship with Ngo Dinh Diem, future president of the Republic of South Vietnam, in 1950. This relationship led to Diem appointing Fishel his political advisor in 1954, with MSU beginning the Vietnam Project soon after. A group of MSU professors and faculty, known as the Michigan State University Group, or MSUG, played a major role in shaping South Vietnam’s domestic policy. According to a timeline compiled by MSU Archives, MSUG trained the South Vietnamese government on American-style political administration and how to manage the influx of North Vietnamese refugees, as well as played a part in training the country’s police force.
MSU president John Hannah, who was known for his rapid expansion of MSU named Michigan State College when he first assumed the presidency, strongly supported the program, according to information gathered by MSU Archives.
Over time, Diem would lose popular support and catch flak from outside observers. Diem, a Catholic, enacted a number of laws targeting the country’s Buddhist majority, among other decisions that turned public perception against his regime. After nearly a decade of helping build his nation, MSUG came to an end when Diem, angry about criticism coming from MSUG members, did not renew MSU’s contract.
The involvement of MSUG in South Vietnamese politics was resented by many who believed an institution of higher education had no place in international policy. Allegations that the program had become a Central Intelligence Agency front did not assuage fears.
Hannah resigned in 1969 to take a government job as head of the United States Agency for International Development. According to a 1969 Lansing State Journal article in possession of MSU Archives, the speech in which Hannah resigned was surrounded by protesters, and he condemned “extremist student demonstrations” in his speech, but it is unclear whether this was related to Vietnam. He was succeeded by Clifton Wharton Jr., who would lead MSU through the majority of Vietnam-era student dissent.
John Ernst, a historian who wrote about MSUG in “Forging a Fateful Alliance: Michigan State University and the Vietnam War,” declined to comment, writing that he was not sure he could add to what he had published.
Watson said he had semi-regular contact with Fishel in the years following MSUG, as he taught classes at James Madison College once a month.
Watson said he and his peers had coffee with Fishel on occasion and argued with him about the role a university should play in foreign policy and government involvement.
“Some people admired him greatly, as somebody of some prominence ... my friends disagreed with him vigorously,” he said.
Michael Pennock, also a member of the first James Madison College class, said Fishel taught a class on Vietnam, continuing to defend the war.
“He had the ambassador from South Vietnam come to talk to us, the general who was in charge of bombing the north, he pulled out all the stops to get people to (see) ‘There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re winning the war’. The students in that seminar really said ‘uh-huh’ when the Tet Offensive got underway ... but he never backed down an inch.”
Students Rise Up
When he tried to remember how many protests he’d participated in, Pennock exclaimed in amusement. “Geez, how many fingers do I have?”
Two major catalysts stoked the flames of protest at MSU and across the nation in 1970: president Nixon’s decision to send ground troops into Cambodia and the killing of four students at Kent State University by the National Guard during protests of the former.
The killings set off a wave of tension and outrage on campuses across the nation, MSU included. According to a May 3 Kalamazoo Gazette article in the possession of MSU Archives, among other clippings, these two happenings led to MSU students rising up in a destructive manner.
The primary target of protesters at MSU and across the nation was the campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, ROTC, office. Pennock said activists targeted ROTC to deny the army its flow of officers. Watson said they wanted MSU to sever any support to anything involving the Vietnam War.
“(At) universities around the country, there was a move to get the ROTC programs terminated, because... the ROTC was the military, on campus,” Watson said. “Having ROTC on campus was part and parcel of the objection to MSU’s direct involvement in Vietnam.”
On The Banks of the Red Cedar estimates that protesters caused between $40,000 and $50,000 in property damage on the night of May 1, 1970 alone. In a May 2 Benton Harbor News Palladium article at the MSU Archives, a MSU spokesperson “very conservatively” estimates the loss at $35,000 for damage to five buildings, including the administration building, and seven police cars. A May 3 Detroit News article claims damage to 10 buildings. According to said article, a student was arrested for attempted arson after police dispersed a group of protesters trying to burn down the ROTC building on May 1. This student could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.
Later that month, 132 students were arrested at the Union. Pennock said the students were at an anti-war planning meeting, and they were arrested for staying past the building’s closing time. He avoided arrest by leaving at the scheduled time. A 1970 Detroit News article said the Union closed at 11 p.m., and police waited until 1:30 a.m. to move in.
“I was on the phone talking to some of the administrators, trying to assure them that everything was peaceful,” Pennock said. “But once it became closing time at the Student Union, they came in and arrested everyone that was there.”
Pennock recalls two other protests he was heavily involved in 1972: the first, a protest in which hundreds of students blocked Grand River Avenue for almost three days.
The second, a demonstration in which students camped in front of the international relations building, a common hangout of Fishel’s, Pennock said.
“For several days the administration tolerated it, then the word came down that the cops were going to clear it out,” Pennock said. “Somebody had the bright idea to arm everybody with water guns and jump out of their tents and shoot the cops with water guns, and I did manage to convince people that they would be shot to death by the police.”
Pennock said the goal of both protests was to be part of the national voice and show the government that people did not support the Vietnam War.
Watson said most MSU students did not protest. As a student of politics in a left-leaning institution like James Madison College, however, Watson and his peers looked at the public action from an academic lens.
“We were students of public policy, we were political geeks,“ Watson said. “A lot of us looked at this as something to study, as opposed to something to go out and scream about.”
Watson, who once worked at a draft-resistance organization giving legal advice to those attempting to avoid conscription, said the most important thing separating the Vietnam era from the modern day was the draft.
“There were thousands of people who went to college to avoid the draft,” Watson said. “There’s a lot of people, myself included, who turned 18 in their freshman year. I think that’s really hard for people now to understand how impactful, how significant that was, to sit there when you’re 17, going to turn 18 in a week or so, and you’re in college and you know that if you screw up, flunk out, get kicked out, whatever, that your next stop is an induction center, physicals, training.”
Watson said one of his friends who paid his way through college could not spare time to protest because if he stopped working, or lost his job, or flunked out, he would be in Vietnam.
Watson and Pennock were among many objectors to the war who burned their draft cards in defiance, Pennock said. Despite his self-admitted non-participation in protest, Pennock said Watson was the first among their friends to burn his.