For some, it was the land of falling napalm. For others, it was the final resting place of a former student. For still more, it was the freeze-frame moment when a close friend was hit by a fatal bullet.
Vietnam continues to occupy a singular place in modern American culture, even grabbing headlines in the current presidential campaign. It is a war that meets with widespread derision — it was a tragedy, a mistake. At best it was a noble idea that went wrong. It is a war that permanently altered the lives of Yalies who were swept up, voluntarily and involuntarily, by the maelstrom. And it is a war that touched even the placid heights of Harkness Tower, where “You’re in the army now” supposedly tolled after the first draft lottery. The ubiquitous slogan, “For God, For Country, and For Yale” seems never to have fully recovered from Vietnam.
For much of Yale’s history, military service was an integral part of post-graduate life. Beinecke Plaza is dominated by a giant World War I memorial. The Woolsey Rotunda is inscribed with the names of Yalies killed in various wars. According to a history of Yale and the Vietnam War written by history professor Gaddis Smith, Pearl Harbor turned Yale into “a military camp until 1945.”
The concept of the nobility of national service continued well into the 1960s and persisted even after the outbreak of Vietnam. Larry Gwin ’63 was an ambitious student who signed up for Yale’s chapter of the Reserve Officer Training Corps almost as a reflex. He was patriotic and dutifully concerned about the possibility that a communist victory in Vietnam could set into effect the dreaded “Domino Theory” that would soon permit communism to take over much of the world. He was also the son of a soldier who had proven himself in “The Good Fight” — World War II.
“At the time, everything was in the context of the Cold War,” Gwin said. “Fear of the Russians and the A-Bomb was just a part of life.”
A lack of knowledge about the realities of the situation, Gwin said, was pervasive.
“At the time, I saw Vietnam as a great adventure,” Gwin said. “When I graduated, nobody gave a shit about Vietnam … It was a non-event.”
The Yale ROTC program, which was banned on campus in 1969 amid growing anti-war sentiment, was still alive and well in the early 1960s. A quick search through a class book for the class of 1964 reveals that numerous Yalies in that class were in the program, which requires post-graduate military service. By the time one reaches the K’s, there are already about 30 program participants.
The exact tipping point, the date after which campus resentment of the war started mounting, is difficult to define and varies considerably depending on whom one talks to.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the University chaplain during the Vietnam era, who became emblematic of the anti-war movement after he urged students to return their draft cards to the government as an act of civil disobedience, said discontent first became a potent force as early as 1964, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“After Kennedy was killed, [President Lyndon] Johnson came out and said he was not about to send good American boys 8,000 miles away to fight in Vietnam,” Coffin said in an interview this March. “Many of us thought he was serious … But more and more Americans got the call.”
Still, as numbers from Gwin’s generation began dying and the war grew more complicated, the Yale student body did not orchestrate massive protests like those made famous at schools like the University of California at Berkeley.
“I’m struck by how slow Yale was to get terribly excited about the war,” Smith said in an interview. “The general student body did not really become involved until the war reached its extreme state with the Tet Offensive.”
The Tet Offensive, a North Vietnamese attack widely regarded as the turning point in the Vietnam War, occurred in 1968.
Jacques Leslie ’68, who was in Vietnam as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, said there was indifference to the war even toward the end of the decade.
“I remember reading a survey at the time that the top reasons for student protests … were about the quality of food in the dining hall,” Leslie said. “I was struck while I was reading this that most people were just very self-interested.”
The exact reasons for students’ reticence are speculative. Smith suggests the notable diversity of Yale’s student body may have played some role. At the same time, Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster, Jr., who supported the war for much of his tenure, succeeded in diffusing tensions on campus before they reached violent levels.
“The absence of damaging violence was partly a matter of luck, but also the result of a university president who listened and took seriously the anti-war arguments even when he disagreed,” Smith wrote. “Yale’s twelve undergraduate residential colleges may also have inhibited violent demonstrations by bringing faculty and students together in small groups and inhibiting mass organization.”
A philosophical question
On some level, at least, one key factor continually resurfaces: the ease of deferment. Until student deferments were abolished beginning with the class that entered college in 1971, Yalies could defer military service as long as they were enrolled students. The same applied to graduate schools through 1967, and many individuals chose to take advantage of this loophole.
“There were many ways that you could honorably avoid going,” Smith said.
As draft concerns loomed, students explored other creative options to avoid military service. One of Leslie’s friends, notable for being skinny, went on an extensive diet to lose enough weight to flunk the military’s physical.
“I don’t think I personally knew anyone from my class who went to Vietnam,” Leslie said.
Voices of dissent on campus, though less numerous than at other schools, were still present. The radical student group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which campaigned forcefully against the war, had a chapter at Yale.
“There was a significant minority of Yale that was very much involved in the opposing of the war,” Coffin said.
Coffin said some other students supported the war, but were not as vocal.
“The conservatives on campus were more silent and solemn than they were provocative,” Coffin said.
Though most of the Yale faculty leaned against the war, some found that personal political convictions sometimes painfully ran up against professional responsibilities. One chief concern was that any student who failed his classes would lose his student deferment and could be immediately drafted into the military. According to Smith, one professor, as a result, refused to hand out any grade other than an “A.” Another professor, Ell Clark, who was also master of Silliman College, expressed feelings of guilt after a student of his who received a bad grade was drafted into the Marines and was killed in combat.
“The story of the war on Yale is a case study not in radicalism, but in the ways an institution with philosophically conservative leaders and faculty came eventually to see the Vietnam was as morally and politically wrong,” Smith wrote.