Madison, third week of May 1966.
As the war in Viet Nam escalates, so too does the monthly draft. When it hits 40,000 in December, 1965, Selective Service director General Lewis B. Hershey warns that “marginal” students — about 10 percent of university freshmen and sophomores — could soon lose their 2-S student deferment and be drafted. To define “marginal,” he brings back the policy from the Korean War, using class rank and a standardized test. The American Council of Educators, and UW Dean of Students Joseph Kauffman, approve.
As do most students; more than 8000 UW men – about three-fourths of the male student body – return the big blue IBM card telling the registrar to send their records to their local draft boards.
But a small activist group objects to university cooperation with the draft, warning that academic integrity – for both student and professor — suffers when grades literally become a matter of life and death.
Some even oppose the entire concept of student deferments; they want the sons of the middle and upper class to have the same risk of being drafted as the poor and non-white, so their politically powerful parents will turn against the war.
Friday, May 13 is the start of alumni weekend. And as two thousand Badger alums gather, a group one-tenth that size is meeting in the Memorial Union to approve a set of demands, issued later that night by the ad hoc Committee on the University and the Draft (CUD). They want the university to denounce the current system, and “refuse to cooperate with it” – to not release academic records or allow the draft exemption tests to be held in university facilities.
Saturday morning, a group of about 2000 young men who hope to become alumni file into the Field House to take the three-hour, 150-question test that could determine their lives and deaths. About two dozen activists from the Students for a Democratic Society picket and hand out literature decrying the draft and the university’s involvement.
On Sunday, a group of several hundred activists votes not to occupy the new administration building on Murray Street, because the administration has agreed to meet with CUD leaders in Bascom Hall the next day. But when the fourteen CUD representatives go up the hill Monday afternoon, May 16, President Fred Harvey Harrington rejects their demands, because it would cause all young men to lose their deferments, whether they wanted to or not. He says each student must retain the individual choice to either accept or decline the university’s services in maintaining their deferment. The current system stays, he says, unless the faculty decides otherwise at its regular meeting on May 25.
While the Bascom Hall conference is going on, a rump group of about 200 is meeting on the law in front of the administration building. A block away, workers start the first day of construction of the massive Humanities building in the modern Brutalist style.
Then word comes down the hill that the talks have failed. Time to act, SDS leaders Hank Haslach and Bob Zwicker say. Elected only a few days earlier, math teaching assistant Haslach and sophomore Zwicker move to occupy the building. The group agrees by acclamation to ignore the vote by the larger group the night before, and they walk in.
At first, it’s just about twenty-five or thirty, but news zooms around campus, and scores of students start showing up, suddenly needing transcripts or a new ID card. The group grows, and by late afternoon more than five hundred are jamming the lobby and hallways, an equal number outside. By midnight, fifteen hundred students are taking part in the peaceful occupation. Among them, history major and WSA Student Senator Paul Soglin.
Philosophy graduate student Bob Cohen, arrested seven months earlier for attempting a citizen’s arrest of the commander at Truax Air Force base, urges active obstruction. But the group collectively rejects disruption, agreeing to only occupy, and not interfere.
Madison police chief Wilbur Emery wants to clear the building, but Chancellor Robben Fleming says the protesters can stay so long as they stay out of the way of office business, which they do. Republican Governor Warren Knowles says it’s an “internal matter” for the university to handle, and it does.
The only disruption inside comes from some troublemakers, not part of the protest; university police clear the main lobby at 11 o’clock to remove them, then let the protesters back in. Outside, counter-protesters hurl insults and eggs; campus police chief Ralph Hanson, protecting the protesters, catches a few—not always with his hands. About 175 students stay overnight, entertained by a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.
As the occupation lasts throughout the whole week, a unique sense of community develops; for many, it’s the highlight of the sit-in.
The leading history professors come by, not for very long. George Mosse is a calming presence, Harvey Goldberg his usual intense self. William Appleman Williams gives a disjointed discourse comparing the sit-in to a baseball game, with the faculty soon coming to bat, to win the day; it’s not his finest moment. The only professor to actually sit in is sociology professor Hans Gerth.
By focusing on the draft rather than the war – which most students still support — the action breaks through to groups long hostile to the entire antiwar movement. Both the WSA Senate and the Inter-Fraternity Council pass resolutions denouncing the draft, calling college deferments bad for education and endorsing the CUD’s demands. For the first time, students from the dorms, Langdon Street and Miffland are all on the same side.
On Wednesday the 18th, an extraordinary gathering on the historic hill – Harrington, Fleming and others at Lincoln Terrace, addressing an afternoon crowd of about 8000. Fleming praises the protester for what he calls their “disciplined behavior and responsible manner,” and announces a special faculty meeting on the draft, as CUD demanded, for Monday the 23rd.
“We have won,” veteran activist leader John Coatsworth says.
The sit-in ends Friday afternoon, and everyone prepares for the faculty meeting on Monday.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, hand washing, physically distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.