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Early morning, April 10, 1969. Police clear University Hall of demonstrators. Weeks of turmoil follow.Photograph by Ted Dully / Boston Globe

It seems only yesterday (or maybe a million years ago) that 300 students walked into that stolid gray administration building with the statue of John Harvard out front, rousted deans and secretaries from their offices, and moved in. "We are holding University Hall to force the Harvard Corporation to yield to our demands," said the statement they issued on that warm afternoon, April 9, 1969. "We intend to stay until we win." But 17 hours later they were gone, rousted themselves by 400 state and local policemen in riot gear that included long batons afternoon, April 9, 1969. "We intend to stay until we win." But 17 hours later they were gone, rousted themselves by 400 state and local policemen in riot gear that included long batons and, memorably, helmets of robin's-egg blue.

I write "memorably," but I wasn't there. My term as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson had ended in December, and I was ostensibly working on my senior thesis. In fact, on April 9, I was in Princeton visiting friends, heard about the takeover of University Hall on the radio, and returned to Harvard the next day, in time to read about it in the paper.

Roger Rosenblatt was much closer. A 28-year-old instructor in English and Allston Burr Senior Tutor of Dunster House, he had just finished teaching a class on poetry in Sever, discussing exactly what Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote about that jar on the hill in Tennessee.

"I walked out of the dark building and stopped and blinked," he writes in his new book, Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969. "There on the opposite side of the Yard, hundreds of people were chanting and shouting. From the windows of University Hall, students leaned out and yelled to other students. The red and black banner of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) hung from a window on the second floor. Someone in a freshman dorm was playing the Beatles' song 'Revolution' at enormous volume. A young man with half his body out of the window above the SDS banner was making announcements through a bullhorn."

Having set the scene, Rosenblatt enters it. For the three months leading to Commencement, and then into 1970, he will become profoundly involved in the aftermath of the brief, traumatic takeover of University Hall: counseling students, sitting on the committee that would decide punishment, teaching African-American literature, and, remarkably, finding himself under consideration as the next president of Harvard.

This book is written as personal history, as memoir, but it has a curious detached quality. While Rosenblatt was in the thick of things and had friends on all sides of the conflict, he can't quite seem to figure out where he stands. The book reveals him (probably more than he knows) to be a chameleonic, ingratiating young man--one is reminded of Bill Clinton or my classmate, Al Gore, or practically any politician, for that matter--and the crisis of 1969 clearly tested those qualities to the limit. Judging from Rosenblatt's subsequent career (as an editor, playwright, TV commentator, and author), they survived intact. In fact, the reader gets an inkling that Rosenblatt's true crisis in those years was over tenure. In 1972, he didn't get it--though, in typically eager-to-please fashion, he writes that he didn't deserve it and wasn't sure he wanted it: "I was trying to get out of Harvard at the same time that Harvard was trying to get rid of me."

Still, as a guide to these events, Rosenblatt will do fine. He wasn't inside University Hall, but he saw practically everything else firsthand. He's interviewed participants and observers, including students at the time like Michael Kazin '70, an SDS leader who's now a professor of history at American University; Michael Kinsley '72, J.D. '77, the writer and editor; Jamie Gorelick '72, J.D. '75, the departing Deputy U.S. Attorney General; and Vice President Gore. Rosenblatt also takes us inside faculty meetings and gatherings of the Committee of Fifteen, the student-faculty group that was set up after the takeover. One of the most moving passages in the book is the statement to that committee delivered dispassionately by Archie Epps, now dean of students at Harvard College, an avuncular man who was then an assistant dean of freshmen and the only African American with an administrative post at Harvard College:

"At approximately 11:50 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9, 1969, I was at a meeting in Dean [of the College Fred] Glimp's office on the first floor of University Hall. While in Dean Glimp's office I heard students coming into Area B [designated on a map that accompanied Epps's testimony]. I then went outside Dean Glimp's office to Area C and saw about 10 persons already in the area. I then went up staircase B and passed about six persons on the first flight of stairs. Some people were saying, 'Get Epps out of here.' Some other people were following me up the stairs. I could hear a tambourine in the background. I proceeded up the second flight of stairs, which was quite crowded. Many persons were shouting at me, 'Get him.' Others said, 'Don't let him get in that room,' apparently meaning the Faculty Room. I was then surrounded by five or six people and pushed down both flights of stairs into Area B, where there were approximately 20 persons standing watching. I was then pushed out door #4.

"Soon thereafter I re-entered the building through door #3....Some persons started shouting at me that I was responsible for killing people in Vietnam and shouting obscenities at me. People were moving all around me very quickly and there was a lot of shouting going on. I was then pushed out door #6...."

In the end, Rosenblatt reports, the Committee of Fifteen identified 135 students as being in the building. Sixteen were asked to leave the University. Of those, only three--cited for manhandling Epps and the other deans--were "dismissed," which meant that they could be readmitted only by a two-thirds vote of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; others were separated for periods ranging from one semester to two years. Of the remaining students, 10 were placed on probation, and the others were "admonished," which meant nothing at all. "No student was expelled permanently," writes Rosenblatt, adding that he "found these decisions to be exactly right." So did the faculty as a whole, which ratified them.

But why such leniency? This was no demonstration. It was an extortive act to achieve a set of demands, many of them silly and overreaching. There were six to start, the most important being to abolish military officer training programs (ROTC), to stop tearing down apartment buildings the University owned in slum areas, and to roll back the rents. "The last demand," writes Rosenblatt, "was part of a general effort of the SDS to ally themselves with blue-collar workers in Cambridge--an alliance that the workers scorned." SDS at the time had two distinct factions: the Progressive Labor Party, originally a separate group, comprising Maoists with crewcuts, and a more benign and sloppy group with an affinity (like many of the rest of us) for marijuana, rock-'n'-roll, and attention. The main focus of SDS, however, was the war in Vietnam--although it was hard to see exactly what the University itself was doing to prolong it. After all, in February, the University had voted to strip ROTC instructors of Corporation appointments and the program of academic credit. But, as Rosenblatt quotes Al Gore: "I always thought that there was something off concerning the students' choice of target. I guess, if the University was the most convenient, then that was the target you chose."

Although the timing of the takeover was a surprise, the University's president, Nathan Pusey, had a plan in reserve--if radicals take over a building, get them out in a hurry. Don't wait, the way they had the year before at Columbia. "To the majority of the liberal faculty," Rosenblatt writes, Pusey was "a patrician pighead." Martin Peretz, then an assistant professor of government and now editor in chief of the New Republic, told the author, "The smug sense of order in Nate Pusey's placid face may have encouraged the kids to think that chaos was more fun." Good point, but the truth is that Pusey was dead right when he referred in his President's Report for 1966-67 to "our self-professed student revolutionaries" as "Walter Mittys of the left."

We were playing at being radicals. Me, too. The year before, I had decided to check out a sit-in in a science building. The aim of that protest was to prevent a recruiter from the Dow Chemical Company, maker of napalm, which we considered an indiscriminate, vicious weapon (symbolic of the war itself), from interviewing students. I went to the sit-in without having made up my mind whether I was a demonstrator or a Crimson reporter. When a dean told us we would be disciplined if we didn't leave and asked me to choose which I was--journalist or obstructive demonstrator--I picked the latter.
Dean of freshman F. Skiddy von Stade Jr. '38 is hustled from his office. MARK SILBER

My punishment was a semester's probation, which meant simply that I could not be an officer in a College organization. That was a hardship, since I was scheduled to become editor of the Crimson in January. Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. '68, J.D. '74, the Crimson president at the time (and now president of the Washington Post, for which I write a column) negotiated a deal with the agreeable Fred Glimp to allow me to edit the paper as long as my name did not appear on the masthead.

That's the way Harvard worked in those days. We could play revolutionary within the playpen, with both sides offering a wink and a nod. And, for many of the occupiers, that's the way it was on April 9: "Mainly, the atmosphere was fun," said Kazin. But not fun for everyone. Burriss Young, one of the assistant deans, told Rosenblatt what happened to him as the protesters streamed into University Hall: "It was really a terrible moment. I recognized one of my former students. He was in tears. I said to him, 'Jamie, Jamie. What are you doing?' He said, 'Burriss, I have to.' He was weeping. Until then, we had never seen any rough stuff at Harvard. You remember. We were so innocent."

Yes, innocent, but the events of April 9, which forced the events of April 10, changed all that. "[N]othing was more important at Harvard," writes Rosenblatt, "than the mutual reassurance that everybody shared the same liberal beliefs about everything,...as long as those opinions did not put the believers in any real jeopardy." Of course, the beliefs of the SDS members who led the takeover of University Hall were not liberal in any sense, but radical and authoritarian. Still, the notion was widespread that everyone knew how far to go, so as not to "put the believers in jeopardy." The true liberals, meaning the rest of the College, were at first appalled by the occupation, then rallied to the side of the demonstrators after the police moved in and bloodied them. The police, agents of the cruel world outside, had penetrated and desecrated the sweet, youthful life of the Yard.

Martin Kaplan, then a junior living in Dunster House and now a screenwriter in Hollywood, was typical. Before the bust, writes Rosenblatt, Kaplan "had not only been opposed to the takeover, he had been generally apolitical." But no more. "After what Pusey did," Kaplan explained, "I never felt the same way about Harvard. The betrayal effected my radicalization." David Hollander '71, J.D. '74, now a New York lawyer, told Rosenblatt, "I still bear a grudge against Harvard for the bust."

It's not easy, from this distance, to understand why. The occupation was a deliberately provocative action which (the SDS leaders must have known) would elicit, eventually, a strong and perhaps even violent reaction. On this essential question, Rosenblatt himself is equivocal. Unconvincingly, he blames Harvard for a kind of hard indifference, which he believes is a historic trait. "What the University called fostering a sense of independence," he writes, "the students called loneliness; in some instances, abandonment." Then, later, "What Harvard did not give [its students, ever], or make the slightest attempt to give them or anyone, was a world of affection."

Others on the faculty had a different view of Harvard's proper role--and that of its students. To this reader, the heroes of Rosenblatt's story were the professors who came to Harvard as refugees from Hitler. Rosenblatt writes that these men "seemed to conflate the mobs they had witnessed and suffered from in Europe with the Harvard students, thus they had less understanding of the psychology and moral texture of the protestors. Yet they also had a much greater understanding of the fragility of institutions." The latter, I'd argue, is far more important to grasp.

Rosenblatt quotes remarks at a faculty meeting by one of these heroes, Alexander Gerschenkron, professor of economics. "I am not Pollyanna," he said. "I know quite well that there are things that are horribly wrong with the United States, but I also know that there are many things that are wonderfully right with the United States. Amongst those things are the great universities, and among them is Harvard. There is nothing comparable, there is no counterpart to it anywhere in the world. And to try to destroy, to disrupt, to attack this University is criminal. They attack the University simply because it is in their proximity, just as a criminal steals something just because it is lying there. And in attacking the University they attack the finest flower of American culture." Does this overstate the case? Is Gerschenkron ignoring the "moral texture" of the SDS kids? I think not.

Another hero, of the non-immigrant sort, was the political scientist James Q. Wilson, who, Rosenblatt writes, was a powerful presence on the Committee of Fifteen: "He was calmly determined to beat down the radical students, and his only error was that he showed it."

When Rosenblatt queried him for the book, Wilson sent back a note: "I am happy to report to you that I have successfully repressed all recollections of the spring of 1969. My last memory of the sixties was of the Red Sox playing in the World Series of 1967; my next recollection is of George McGovern losing to Richard Nixon in 1972. In between, all is lost. Ah, merciful oblivion."

This book forces us to remember, which, overall, is a good thing. I can see now that it was the takeover, the bust, and the frenetic but ultimately fruitless aftermath (the mass meetings in the stadium, the strike, the battle over an Afro-American studies department) that set me on my own oddball political course as a law-and-order libertarian. As for Rosenblatt? I still can't figure him out, but he's done the rest of us a service.

James K. Glassman '69, a member of Harvard Magazine's board of incorporators and a former undergraduate sports columnist, now writes columns for the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report and hosts two television programs, Capital Gang Sunday (CNN) and TechnoPolitics (PBS). He is currently DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fellow in Communications at the American Enterprise Institute.

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