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The Yale of My Day
Vietnam On Our Mind

At one end of my Yale experience, in 1965, was an evening teach-in at which an obscure assistant professor of history named Staughton Lynd spoke of the immorality of American involvement in a smoldering Southeast Asian war, and a cantankerous Senator from Oregon, Wayne Morse, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. eventually sent 200,000 soldiers to fight in it. That sounded so unlikely that some people laughed. At the other end was a day in 1968 when I occupied the passenger seat of Vincent Scully’s parked car while Yale College’s most popular professor sat behind the wheel, his face cupped in his hands, crying over the Tet Offensive. In the interim, American troop strength in Vietnam had grown from 23,000 to more than half a million, and hundreds of thousands of combatants on all sides died. By 1968, no matter what book I read, its subtext was the Vietnam War.

Vietnam didn’t just transform our years at Yale; our guilty secret was that it made them better. Temporarily at least, the war steered us away from dreary careerism, and set us on a kind of quest. Although we were mere students, we were part of the nation-wide “student movement”—we acted on an uncharacteristically bright stage, whose backdrop depicted the war’s horrors. Campus visits by dignitaries of the day—cabinet members, New York Times columnists, the head of the Army’s Selective Service System—were inevitably charged, occasionally marked by confrontation. “Light and Truth,” Yale’s motto, resonated eerily, for it took no effort at all to discover that the government lied. When Lady Bird Johnson spoke in the Freshman Commons in October 1967, students outside protested her appearance. The Yale Daily News reported that 1,500 demonstrators appeared; the Washington Post said 800; a wire service said 400; the White House later said all the accounts were wrong and that the real number was 15.

We mastered irony early; the Yale classes before ours struck us as naïve, one-dimensional, impossibly pollyannish. We went to Yale, which made us incipient members of the Establishment, and we stood in danger of being drafted, which was about as un-Establishmentarian as we could imagine. We consequently picked our way with care: like a certain President, another '68er, some of us even wrote anguished letters to our draft boards. The “New Left” was represented at Yale, but not in great numbers; Strobe Talbott, our class’s Mr. Everything, who opposed the war but always respectfully, was described in a press account as a leader of the “New Middle.” (New Middle indeed: the current Deputy Secretary of State wrote a Yale Daily News editorial calling for liberalization of marijuana laws, not only without ever having inhaled but without ever having lit up.) Envisioning headlines, Chaplain William Sloane Coffin asked three of us to turn in our draft cards for the cause, and though sympathetic, we all declined. Instead, tamely, at a march in New York City, I burned my United States Senate visitor’s pass.

Talk about irony: despite our fears, hardly anybody I knew at Yale was drafted. Many classmates got deferments by going to medical or law school. Divinity school enjoyed unaccustomed popularity. One exceptionally thin friend learned that the Army had a weight requirement, so he went on a diet, until he was waking up dizzy; nevertheless, he achieved his goal of becoming cadaverous. I saw him on Elm Street a few hours after he had triumphantly failed his physical. Grinning deliriously, he was leaning against an ice cream truck, have just consumed an inordinate share of its inventory.

A couple of years ago a classmate sent me a ten-minute videotape he'd unearthed depicting a December 1967 confrontation between several Yale students, me included, and Ronald Reagan, who was visiting the University on a week-long fellowship. The session, which was filmed for public television, took place in St. Anthony Hall; the tape showed members playing pool in the background. It didn’t matter that Reagan was then governor of California, and could therefore claim that foreign policy was not his concern—all we wanted to talk about was Vietnam. He, of course, didn’t want to discuss the war, at least not on camera, and certainly not with us. We grew increasingly frustrated, and came just short of yelling at him, while Reagan, merely by maintaining his cool, easily got the better of us. Meanwhile, a few yards behind us, Nancy stood with arms folded tightly, glowering at us through her sunglasses. It wasn’t until I watched the tape, nearly three decades later, that I appreciated the scene’s underlying poignancy, the intensity of the extended drama in which we performed. What struck me was our uncomplicated boldness, the ease with which we challenged Reagan. It wasn’t just that I was older now and more attuned to complexity—I realized that Vietnam was exceptional for the starkness of the choices it offered, and that after it, no public issue would ever inflame us with as much passion, as much certainty that we were right.  the end





The Yale of My Day

Young Lords and Lower Classes

Distant Thunder

New Haven On Stage

From White Shoe to Combat Boot

Defying Dink

Harold Bloom and the “Orc Cycles”

Of Reading, and a Wink

A Confusion of Lures

Chronicling a Cauldron

Surviving “Grim Professionalism”

Diary Daze

A Not Unwelcome Senselessness

When the World Barged In


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