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Disturbing the War

The subtitle describes the book, “The Inside Story of the Movement to Get Stanford University Out of Southeast Asia 1965-1975.” This is a book for those who oppose US imperialist military adventures around the world and for political activists striving to make this a better world. It doesn’t seek to persuade anyone that opposing the Vietnam War was the right thing to do. It describes the how, not the why.

Stanford, of course, is a leading research university. Almost inevitably, that means it provides services to the US military, whether directly or otherwise. Its students are, by and large, either bound for the fiscal elite or already there. The Vietnam “era” (as it is called by Congress) was a bit different. The massive numbers of GI’s sent to Vietnam and the military draft combined to threaten students at the most exclusive universities with the possibility of not only being drafted, but of going to war. Inevitably, may of those (myself included) became anti-war activists because of that threat. Once the draft was gone and the war over, most went back to advancing their careers and starting families. Others, like Lenny, continued their activism throughout their lives. I have this in common with him. His first acknowledgment is to his wife, Jan Rivers, whom he started dating in 1971. They are “one of just a handful of activist couples who connected during our Movementt who are still together.” My wife, Kathy Johnson, and I are another.

The fight to get Stanford out of Southeast Asia went on for a decade and, while there were victories along the way, there was no final triumph.

But, I digress. Much, of course, has changed since the 1960's and 70's. Back then, we produced flyers with mimeograph machines, we had no social media or internet or Zoom. On the other hand, we didn’t have a pandemic. Each generation has its own challenges. Communication was slower and necessarily more one-on-one. Organizers have tools today we lacked. Nevertheless, some things do not change. Political organizing still must be personal to be effective. Techniques for organizing and protesting may be tweaked, but tactics still have to be adapted to the situation one faces to be effective. It is here where Lenny’s book has its value.

It tells of the successful and less successful strategies and tactics used by protesters at Stanford who, even at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, were still a minority of students there. It describes how the work unfolded over years. Amilcar Cabral, the great revolutionary who fought for the liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde, warned to “tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” The fight to get Stanford out of Southeast Asia went on for a decade and, while there were victories along the way, there was no final triumph. As recently as May 2020, the Defense Department announced $30 million dollar contract with Stanford for a research project.

There are many lessons in this book that, regardless of changes in technology, apply today. The combination of study, conversation and direct action Lenny describes is still required today for successful organizing. It is not enough to post memes on Facebook decrying reactionaries. People have to be not only persuaded but moved to action and that requires more than sitting at a computer screen.

Political organizing has always required finding the combination of words and action that will move the needle. That is inevitably more difficult for left-wing radicals who do not have the resources that monopoly capital has. An old saw says that freedom of the press is available to those who own one. While the internet can create more equal access to the public, for better and worse, much of internet argument is reduced to memes rather than serious analysis and informed argument, just confirming the opinions people already have. But there have always been ways to overcome those barriers and, while the specific techniques may evolve, those of the past chart the way. I will note a random few of these lessons that the experience at Stanford teaches, just to whet the appetite of organizers who want to sharpen their skills. You will just have to read the book to get the others.

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We can never know what will spark people to action. Skilled organizers find ways to seize those times when the sparks fly to move the struggle for liberation forward. Vietnam, as the US escalated, was one of those times. The torture and murder of George Floyd was another. At Stanford and other elite universities, the specter of the draft moved many who were otherwise passive, if not and conservative, to action. Stanford radicals successfully leveraged that dynamic to advance their demands. They focused on Stanford’s war contracts at a time when the war threatened the children of the elite. So, we find, that “typical Stanford undergraduates,” white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants on the path of financial success, could become part of “the Movement’s base of support” through meetings in small groups. Absent the war, the bulk of those would likely not have been interested.

On the other hand, absent the small, personal meetings, it is questionable whether they would have been moved to act. Lenny says, “I learned from my WASP friends that you could work with students if you did not look down on them.” That does not mean they will remain involved, or being as committed as you would like, but getting what support you can when you can is of value. Organizers do not win people over by sniping at or attacking them for insufficient valor or dedication. They win them, to the extent they can be won, with patience and respect. And one cannot know how that work affects things. An interesting note is that Bill Graham attended Stanford and was arrested during Stop the Draft week. Katherine Graham, the then-publisher of the Washington Post, was his mother and made the decision for the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers. No one knows for sure how or whether her son’s experience influenced that decision but, like chicken soup, it could not have hurt.

Another factor in the Stanford successes was that radicals did not rely only on slogans. They also did the research necessary to argue persuasively. Too often, we forget or ignore that monopoly capital, in addition to the advantage of wealth, is able to employ very smart people to get its message out. Those advantages cannot be combated just by righteousness. Facts matter and exposing your enemy’s lies can be critical. When the Stanford radicals made claims, they were prepared to back them up. When administrators lied, they were called out. Radicals’ credibility was certainly a factor in various ways.

For instance, one of the demands the radicals made was for more student participation in university policy and decisions and, at least, for the trustees’ decisions to be transparent. They demanded that the trustee meetings be public. When a group of students sought to attend a trustee meeting, the trustees retreated to the faculty lounge, pursued by the protesters, who eventually entered the lounge. For the bulk of students at Stanford, this was a particularly egregious action because it showed disrespect. Parenthetically, one is reminded of Mae West’s response in “My Little Chickadee” when the judge asked, “Young lady, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” to which she said, “No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

Nonetheless, radicals had to regroup to regain credibility. They toned down their actions a bit but their demand for transparency still resonated. The university established an advisory committee composed of equal numbers of students, faculty and trustees. Student members, who were not part of the radical left, arranged a forum to discuss the issue that nearly filled Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium. One of the trustees was William Hewlett who was asked by a student – also not a member of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) – whether a company on which he was a board member, manufactured nerve gas. He falsely denied the allegation. That deception, and the refusal of the trustees to commit to open meetings, transformed the student radicals from a small group to representatives of the majority of the campus.

Lenny spends more time recounting the events than explaining the lessons those events taught, leaving that to the reader. It is a wise choice. We all have to draw our own conclusions and learn lessons for ourselves. No one likes to be lectured to about what they should be doing or how they should do it. Those of us of a certain age should not be telling the youth what to do because we tried something or other and it didn’t work. Telling them our experience is one thing. But we should not tell them what to conclude or what to do because of those experiences. Every generation must make its own mistakes, draw its own conclusions and find its own way. It is important to find the balance between providing useful information and being didactic.

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Lenny finds that balance in “Disturbing the War,” which has the added benefit of notes that provide access to source materials. As I said at the beginning of this review, the book is not for everyone. It is for today’s left-wing political activists who are serious about finding effective ways to change society. I leave it to them to adapt those experiences to today’s challenges and find their own way forward. As Angela Davis points out, they may be standing on the shoulders of those, like Lenny, who have gone before, but standing on those shoulders allows them to see further and therefore take us farther.

David Gespass