These first weeks of May mark events in 1970 unlike any in American history. Along with the most tragic consequence, an almost forgotten document of that time offers an eloquent statement of hope—for then and for now.
On April 30, President Richard Nixon announced the U.S. bombing of Cambodia as an escalation of the Vietnam War. Student protests and strikes swept colleges across the country. On May 4, National Guard troops at Kent State University shot at students, killing four and wounding nine. Protests and demonstrations expanded, and within the week hundreds of campuses were affected or closed down. Then ten days after Kent State, on May14, black students and other demonstrators at Jackson State College in Mississippi engaged with city and state policemen. Two students were killed and at least twelve were wounded.
Only a few weeks later, President Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest on June 13, 1970. The Commission was chaired by William Scranton, former Pennsylvania Governor, and issued its report in October 1970.
Defining events have a half-life. Time passes, people pass, and more immediate crises displace the old. There are round-number anniversaries, and these events did get a boost from the fortieth anniversary a couple of years ago. Even when they are remembered, the visceral actuality and meaning get lost. If the event is at all controversial, it may be better to avoid the reminders completely and not have to deal with still-unsettled topics and themes. An example of this was the virtual silence surrounding last year’s 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That could have been a platform for discussing so many issues—race, state’s rights, etc.—but we were understandably too busy trying to fix a broken national and world economy.
Maybe it is not surprising then that the 1970 report on campus unrest is so little mentioned or sought and so hard to find, even in this age of digital archives. It is worth reading, and not just as an historical artifact. President Nixon and others in his circle believed that colleges had become the breeding ground not just for opposition to the Vietnam War but for virulent and violent un-Americanism/anti-Americanism.
He hoped that the Commission would support this view of America. He got some of that, with conclusions that there were a minority of strident academics and students who, well-meaning or not, had created an environment of intolerance where discord and violence were the inevitable outcomes. This the report called a “Crisis of Violence.”
But the Commission also found what it called a “Crisis of Understanding.” This moderate and idealistic analysis was not what President Nixon had in mind. It is an unbearably eloquent statement of aspiration and progress that could be written today—not in spite of the specifics being so different, but in their being so much of the moment.
From the introduction:
The crisis on American campuses has no parallel in the history of the nation. This crisis has roots in divisions of American society as deep as any since the Civil War. The divisions are reflected in violent acts and harsh rhetoric, and in the enmity of those Americans who see themselves as occupying opposing camps. Campus unrest reflects and increases a more profound crisis in the nation as a whole. This crisis has two components: a crisis of violence and a crisis of understanding.…
Behind the student protest on these issues and the crisis of violence to which they have contributed lies the more basic crisis of understanding. Americans have never shared a single culture, a single philosophy, or a single religion. But in most periods of our history, we have shared many common values, common sympathies, and a common dedication to a system of government which protects our diversity. We are now in danger of losing what is common among us through growing intolerance of opposing views on issues and of diversity itself. A “new” culture is emerging primarily among students. Membership is often manifested by differences in dress and life style. Most of its members have high ideals and great fears. They stress the need for humanity, equality, and the sacredness of life. They fear that nuclear war will make them the last generation in history. They see their elders as entrapped by materialism and competition, and as prisoners of outdated social forms. They believe their own country has lost its sense of human purpose. They see the Indochina war as an onslaught by a technological giant upon the peasant people of a small, harmless, and backward nation. The war is seen as draining resources from the urgent needs of social and racial justice. They argue that we are the first nation with sufficient resources to create not only decent lives for some, but a decent society for all, and that we are failing to do so. They feel they must remake America in its own image….
At the same time, many Americans have reacted to this emerging culture with an intolerance of their own. They reject not only that which is impatient, unrestrained, and intolerant in the new culture of the young, but even that which is good. Worse, they reject the individual members of the student culture themselves. Distinctive dress alone is enough to draw insult and abuse. Increasing numbers of citizens believe that students who dissent or protest, even those who protest peacefully, deserve to be treated harshly. Some even say that when dissenters are killed, they have brought death upon themselves. A nation driven to use the weapons of war upon its youth is a nation on the edge of chaos. A nation that has lost the allegiance of part of its youth is a nation that has lost part of its future.
We urgently call for reconciliation. Tolerance and understanding on all sides must reemerge from the fundamental decency of Americans, from our shared aspirations as Americans, from our traditional tolerance of diversity, and from our common humanity. We must regain our compassion for one another and our mutual respect. There is a deep continuity between all Americans, young and old, a continuity that is being obscured in our growing polarization. Most dissenting youth are striving toward the ultimate values and dreams of their elders and their forefathers. In all Americans there has always been latent respect for the idealism of the young. The whole object of a free government is to allow the nation to redefine its purposes in the light of new needs without sacrificing the accumulated wisdom of its living traditions. We cannot do this without each other. Despite the differences among us, powerful values and sympathies unite us. The very motto of our nation calls for both unity and diversity: from many, one. Out of our divisions, we must now recreate understanding and respect for those different from ourselves. Violence must end. Understanding must be renewed. All Americans must come to see each other not as symbols or stereotypes but as human beings. Reconciliation must begin. We share the impatience of those who call for change. We believe there is still time and opportunity to achieve change. We believe we can still fulfill our shared national commitment to peace, justice, decency, equality, and the celebration of human life. We must start. All of us.