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Northwestern Anti-Vietnam War Strike



  • Existence: May 6-12, 1970

As on many university campuses throughout the country, the spring of 1970 proved to be a watershed moment in the history of student activism at Northwestern. Campus reaction to a series of events coalesced to produce a climate of political ferment, culminating in a student-initiated University-wide strike that lasted for seven days, from May 5 through 12, 1970.

Although many factors contributed to the explosive situation on campus at that time, two events may be cited as immediate causes of the May 1970 strike. On April 25, 1970, President Nixon announced that US military operations in South East Asia, already fully engaged in the Vietnam, would expand into Cambodia. This was a direct reversal of Nixon’s campaign pledges to reduce American involvement in the region, and accelerated the rapidly growing anti-war movement on college campuses throughout the country. Then, on Monday, May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, killing four students and seriously injuring nine others. The Kent State shootings sent shock waves throughout the nation. The outrage over the Kent State shootings, and the escalating war in South East Asia, caused hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States—including Northwestern—to join in a loosely organized but highly effective “nationwide strike.”

The events of the Northwestern strike were highly charged but primarily peaceful. On May 5, the day after the Kent State shootings, a groundswell of student outrage prompted student leaders to convene a forum, at which it was decided to strike. Chancellor J. Roscoe Miller responded the same day with a statement that condemned violence, be it in South East Asia, at Kent State, or at Northwestern, and ended by declaring that members of the University community should “show their concern in a manner consistent with the traditions of the academic community.” An emergency session of the University Senate resolved to suspend classes for the remainder of the week in recognition of student concerns and issued a resolution to “join the developing nationwide strike of the entire academic community.”

On the following day, May 6, students initiated the strike with a series of demands: • end the war in South East Asia • bar campus security from carrying guns or other firearms • open the University stock portfolio and eliminate any “war stocks” • remove academic credit from NROTC • convert NROTC facilities on campus into a childcare center

In addition to these demands, students made clear their intention to shut down the normal operations of the University. In their public statements, students were careful to point out—and administrators were anxious to emphasize—that the strike was not against Northwestern, but rather with the institution in opposition to the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings. For the remainder of the week, students leafleted the Evanston community and organized demonstrations and protests on Deering Meadow and at other campus locations.

Several events of the strike merit special mention. First, for several days student activists managed to erect a barricade at Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue, even as Evanston Police re-routed traffic around areas of student congregation. The Sheridan barricade proved to be a point of contention between the students and the Evanston community, as many community members expressed frustration at the inconvenience. Second, although the University Senate initially resolved that the strike would last only through Friday, May 8, students voted on that Friday to extend the strike through the following Wednesday. That evening, a rally at Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field) attracted about 5,000 students and community members. Evanston city officials, fearing violence, requested that the National Guard be called in. However, the Guard was diverted from the stadium at the last minute and conflict was avoided. Third, on Wednesday, May 13, the day the strike was to end and classes resume as normal, a group of about 40 students and other young activists broke into the Northwestern NROTC headquarters in Lunt Hall, where they broke furniture and destroyed files and other organizational material. There were only minor injuries, but despite student protests the administration decided to press charges against the 33 Northwestern students arrested at the site. This incident proved to be the only violent episode of the strike.

One significant product of the strike was the creation of a short-lived “New University” to educate the community about the war in Vietnam as well as other social and political issues of concern during the course of the strike and beyond. The New University involved faculty as well as students, who were successful at designing and implementing courses, art projects, performances and demonstrations. They also produced their own daily newspaper, On Strike! The Official Newspaper of the New University (May 6-17, 1970; see the University Archives’ Serials Collection, call number 31/00/99).

On Tuesday, May 12, students voted to return to class on May 13 under a provisional plan which provided that they could attend their regular classes or go to alternative New University classes designed to further the aims of the strike. Negotiations of various student demands continued over the remaining weeks of the semester; trustees agreed to open the stock portfolio to public scrutiny but administrators declined to disarm University security personnel.

The nation-wide campus protests of May 1970 brought a new level of attention to the anti-war sentiment of the American public; in this way, they were responsible in some part for the eventual withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam in 1973.
Author: Leon Hilton

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Anti-Vietnam-War Strike Materials

Identifier: 31/6/88
Abstract The Anti-Vietnam War Strike Materials Collection comprises a diverse assortment of documents and other materials relating to the University-wide strike that took place over a seven day period in May of 1970. The collection of newspaper clippings, press releases, flyers, and memos records the events of the strike and its aftermath through the summer and fall of 1970.