Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Stanford University under siege

by Don Kazak

Student activism in the Vietnam era at Stanford University, as in other places, began as an outgrowth of civil rights activism. In the summer of 1964, known as "Freedom Summer," thousands of college students from all over the country volunteered to travel to Mississippi to register black voters. Stanford had the largest contingent of any university there, according to Bob Beyers, who was head of the Stanford news service at the time.

"It was the experience of a lifetime," he recalled. Out of that newly radicalized group of students came the leaders of the anti-war movement at Stanford.

Among the Stanford contingent was David Harris, who was later talked into running for Stanford student body president in the spring of 1966.

The Vietnam War would change both Harris and Stanford--sending the young man to jail as a nationally prominent draft resister and converting the formerly quiet academic institution into a focal point for demonstrations, building occupations, arson fires and street fights with the police.

"I ran (for student body president) under the guarantee I wouldn't get 500 votes," said Harris in 1991. He won by the largest margin and drew the biggest voter turnout ever at Stanford.

"1966 was a seminal year," Harris remembered. Before then, the vast majority of students had been silent on the issue of the war. But 1966 brought a dramatic escalation in the fighting, an increase in casualties, and perhaps most importantly, an end to automatic student deferrals from the draft.

Stanford made national news on Feb. 20, 1967, when some students shouted at Vice President Hubert Humphrey after he made a speech at the university. According to Beyers, the incident was distorted by a wire story and then picked up by other media.

In the eyes of the nation, however, Stanford was suddenly a hotbed of anti-war radicalism. It was a reputation the university wouldn't truly deserve until a few years later.

In November 1967, a protest was staged against CIA recruiting on campus. Later that month there was an all-night peace vigil at Memorial Church, and more than 2,000 students attended.

As at other universities, the debate within the movement often focused on tactics. Often student groups publicly disagreed. When seven students were suspended for their role in the anti-CIA demonstration, 200 to 300 students occupied the Old Union to protest the suspension. But at the same time more than 1,500 students gathered outside the Old Union and--on a close vote--rejected the sit-in tactics of their fellow students.

That protest led to what former Stanford President Richard Lyman remembered as the largest and most acrimonious meeting ever of the Stanford faculty. Lyman, then provost, listened as a badly divided faculty narrowly voted in favor of amnesty for the seven students, overturning President Wallace Sterling's recommendation for suspension.

Lyman went home that night and wrote a letter of resignation. "The faculty was ungovernable," he recalls thinking at the time. The next morning he tore up the letter because he didn't want to leave Sterling "the ensuing chaos" of his resignation.

As the anti-war protests continued, the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps building burned down in a suspected arson fire. In another incident, Sterling's own office was torched.

By 1969, the protesters began focusing on war research being carried out at Stanford. That spring, the focus narrowed to classified research, which began what observers recall as a tumultuous six weeks.

A large meeting on April 3 served as the birthplace of what was called the April 3 Movement or A3M. It galvanized the students into action against war research. On April 9, several hundred students began a nine-day occupation of Stanford's Applied Electronics Laboratory.

During the occupation, the Faculty Senate voted to consider guidelines that would prohibit classified research. But the occupation of the lab didn't end until the students agreed to attend an all-campus meeting called by student body president Denis Hayes.

Hayes, now best known as founder of Earth Day 1970 and 1990, recalled that the all-campus meeting drew 8,000 people to Frost Amphitheater, where students and faculty almost universally agreed that classified research should end, said Hayes. A few days later, that's how the Faculty Senate voted.

Two weeks later, Stanford trustees voted to sever the university's ties with the Stanford Research Institute. This move actually turned out to be a defeat for the students, who preferred that the university bring SRI under tighter faculty control.

By 1969, campus sentiment against the Vietnam War was nearly unanimous, Hayes recalled. "People were desperately trying to figure out what to do about it," he said. Building occupations, rallies and confrontations with the police continued.

But on May 1, 1969 occupation of Encina Hall did have the potential to turn bloody. When faculty members saw students removing administration files from the building, Lyman felt he had to call in the police. "When I called the police, I thought I could lose my job," he recalled.

Violence was averted when the students voted to leave, just before police began streaming into the building.