"Turmoil" Gets the Goods, and Other Lessons from Stanford's Vietnam War Days

During the Clinton era politically engaged students identified themselves “activists” and sought policy reforms, often by working with the campus administration. Rarely did they confront the underlying power structures and economic imperatives at play. They were reformers, not radicals.

Through the latter half of Bush II's presidency, however, radical demands have been raised at prestigious institutions of higher education. Students have increasingly begun speaking about racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism. Many more now identify themselves as anti-authoritarians and revolutionaries. Importantly, students have zeroed in again on the university as a site of struggle, contesting it's investments, research priorities, accessibility and representation, confronting its trustees, regents and administrators as agents of wide webs of power.

For example, at the nation's biggest school, the University of California, a reinvigorated labor movement has rattled the administration and successfully struck for dignity and economic justice. Students played key roles in this struggle. A radical anti-war mobilization focusing on the UC's military funded R&D, especially nuclear weapons, has roiled campuses up and down the west coast since 2002. Across the country a student coalition occupied New York's New School for Social Research earlier this year demanding nothing less than democratization of the school, dismissal of the president, and a sweeping reappraisal of the institution's role in society. Other colleges have seen similar political visions articulated. Overall the time seems ripe for a reassessment of anti-authoritarian struggle on college campuses, especially as we enter the presidency of Obama.

Richard Lyman's newly published book about Stanford's heady days, 1966-1972, is a good starting point for a couple of reasons. First, it's a decent chronology of political conflict around the Bay Area's most elite and private university. It's also a unique insider's view of the administration's efforts to thwart fundamental change. Lyman was provost – second in command – during these tumultuous years. From 1970 to 1980 he was Stanford's president; his analysis is indelibly marked by his position in Stanford's hierarchy and his allegiance to the status quo. In this way his book differs little from other professorial classics on student revolts like from Seymour Martin Lipset's centrist Student Politics and The Berkeley Student Revolt to more conservative polemicals like John Coyne's The Kumquat Statement. More so, his views are shaped by his status as a full fledged power elite. After Stanford Lyman took over the presidency of the Rockefeller Foundation and was later a director of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute (more on this below). His official biography lists him as a former director of IBM and Chase Manhattan bank, and notes his membership in the Council on Foreign Relations and Council on Foundations.

Lyman's memoir, Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972 (Stanford University Press, 2009), is essentially a history of the anti-authoritarian uprising against the university from within. As Lyman explain in his introduction, his main objective is to recount the challenge posed by radicals, but to emphasize that even during the "turmoil," the university made “startling progress.” Accordingly, by the 1980s Stanford remained a major multiversity serving up technology and policy to the military, CIA, and corporate sector. Indeed, Stanford in the 1980s supplied more than a few of the Reagan administration's key staff. In other words, this is a self-congratulatory book spliced together with a wishful obituary of radical student movements.

Shortcomings in Lyman's perspective are many. His treatment of the Black freedom movement in relation to college campuses is incredibly brief and parochial given how critical it was in inspiring and transforming disillusioned white youths. Lyman devotes one short chapter to the Black Student Union at Stanford, and because it's Stanford, where the few non-white students in attendance were mostly upper-class “black bourgeoisie,” he mistakenly portrays their conservative nationalism for the wider Black freedom movement which was so critical to teaching and leading young whites at Stanford, Berkeley and beyond. His attempt to understand the interplay (often problematic) between the white antiwar movement and Black radical movement portrays only the divisions between BSU and SDS at Stanford, and offers no insights into wider influences, forms of solidarity, and differences that emerged.

Lyman's chronology of events recounts things from an almost caricatured Liberal, academically insulated, and in the words of many a Stanford student radical, “petit bourgeois” mind set. This is particularly amusing when reading Stanford in Turmoil because he quotes several movement publications referring to him and the school's faculty in precisely these terms. He never entertains the possibility that his perspectives might be rooted in his class and race privileges and experiences, and that the curious types of “nonviolence” and “freedom” he so firmly advocates might be little more than passivity and moral failure, the kinds Gandhi and King were just as quick to condemn as direct physical violence.

Lyman is fond of quoting various Liberal faculty and administrators who denounced radical efforts to put an end to Stanford's role in developing chemical and biological weapons, counter-insurgency technologies, anti-personnel weapons. He channels the great Liberal denial of the age, the bad faith in which so many members of the university machine lived with themselves even though their work was directly killing the people of Vietnam and Cambodia and wreaking ecocide there. His book, like his career, is an extension of the argument that “dialog” and “academic freedom” matter above all in the university. He implies at various points that if only the radicals would have adopted pure nonviolence they would have achieved more positive changes at Stanford. This of course requires forgetting that Stanford's R&D activities directly fed into a chain of violence aimed at colonized peoples in the global south. Compared to the weapons research going on in Stanford's labs, the student's behavior, even when it destroyed windows and burned offices, was nowhere nearly as murderous in the most direct sense.

Much of the “research” happening at American universities can't be approached as a subject of “dialog” as it is a direct and integral part of violence already being committed. Yet like too many university leaders, Lyman values abstracted ideals like academic freedom and communication over very real, concrete activities on campus that directly facilitate war and exploitation. His recollections of the faculty's perspective on these issues is quite useful today as many contemporary student mobilizations must still confront the bad faith of their teachers and fellow students.

Although he reaffirms his triumphant thesis in the conclusion - “Stanford's strength actually increased, despite the fears and turmoil” - by the end of Lyman's book it's clear that student radicals achieved a lot. It's also clear what produced these limited but tangible victories: direct action and disruption. Black and Latino radicals succeeded in transforming Stanford's lily white atmosphere by demanding change from the all-white board of Trustees and administration. These demands were backed up with very real threats to shut the campus down. Unlike state schools which are legally barred from utilizing affirmative action, Stanford today admits more black students than any UC campus, and its intellectual space has been pried open through struggle to include academic programs like Feminist and African American Studies.

The antiwar movement at Stanford succeeded in abolishing ROTC and divesting the university of the Stanford Research Institute, a major R&D organization using the university's name and resources to develop economic and psycho-sociological weapons, as well as chemical and bio-weapons. Classified research was banned following an occupation of the Applied Electronics Lab. Lyman is unequivocal about the administration's fear of tactical disruption: “Besides classes shut down, blocking entrances and thus closing down administrative offices and laboratories resulted in severe financial loss for the university...” Of ROTC's disappearance he concludes that, “the riotous activities of the month of April no doubt had something to do with it....”

One of the biggest movement lessons to be gleaned from Lyman's recollections is the importance of building cultures of opposition out of which political campaigns can grow. Rejection of the American “way of life” by the nation's most privileged youth was a terrifying experience for Lyman and others charged with their “education.” Following the leadership of Black radicals and inspired by anti-imperialist movements abroad, students at the nation's elite schools were creating new value systems and building a social base from which fundamental changes could be made from their positions in society. Lyman quotes one Stanford student who put it this way; “We have shown the ruling class that NO institution is safe from attack, that they will have to deal not only with those they are oppressing but with their own sons and daughters as well.” While he remains contemptuous, it's clear that Lyman also saw this as a real threat to the multiversity's agenda and the wider economic and political structure.

That Lyman would write a book about “turmoil” is a profound clue to the sorts of student politics capable of fundamental change. Disruption works. Preventing business as usual and demanding the impossible works. However, Lyman's memoir is also a cautionary tail for social movements. Without firmly rooted cultures of opposition, disruptive mobilizations can fail miserably. The student rebellions of the late 1960s through the early 1970s made it halfway down the cultural road, but ultimately never sustained very many oppositional institutions and communities.

Elites like Lyman whose job it is to socialize the nation's privileged youth, teach them the means of empire, and hand the reins over to them eventually, rightly understand the cultural side of this rebellion as a most dangerous possibility. The sons and daughters in line to inherit empire were rejecting it. More so, they were disrupting it, throwing their bodies on the proverbial “gears, wheels, and levers.” Here is the greatest fear framing Lyman's memoir.

Largely because of his close contact with the empire's rebellious youthful heirs, Lyman spent his later career shoring up the ideological apparatus of the multiversity. The lesson of the era of “turmoil” for Lyman and his colleagues seems to have been that the US was losing the battle of ideas, not only in the neocolonies, but in the very hearth of empire. Imperialism was, and remains, technocratically rich but humanistically bankrupt, consumptively fulfilling but unimaginably destructive; so the youth mutinied.

In the early 1980s Lyman observed that, "Stanford leads in science and technology, why shouldn't we also lead in politics and policy?" He personally drafted a report which led to the creation of the Institute for International Studies, now the Freeman Spogli Institute, Stanford's primary international studies think tank which provides inordinate influence on foreign, economic and social policy. This was a departure for Stanford at the time as the university had been built largely around Frederick Terman's obsession with practical, worldy engagement in engineering and science to serve industry and military clients. A greater emphasis on ideological work to serve empire was clearly a response of Stanford's elite to the years of "turmoil." By this point in his career Lyman seems to have concluded that the students were rebelling against the techno-scientific machine because it was so clearly morally repulsive and offered no sophisticated justification of itself. Stanford therefore would have to be on the cutting edge of legitimating nuclear, chemical and bio-weapons, counterinsurgency, neoliberal economics, and all the other forms of “progress” coming out of the Silicon Valley. Founding Freeman-Spogli and its subsidiary think thanks like the Center for International Security and Arms Control was a means to two ends: giving some sense of closure to the student's cultural rebellion in Silicon Valley and setting Stanford up to lead another era of universities in service of the warfare state.

This should have been the epilogue to Stanford in Turmoil. Instead, Lyman uses his last chapter to praise his colleagues and downplay the the possibility that the university, as an institution, was facing a radical and powerful demand for change.

SRI today, a major think tank with enduring links to Stanford.

1 comment:

PAZ said...

Thanks a lot for this very insightful analysis. I like how you have taken Lymans negative analysis of the radical student movement and turned it into a positive, successful and necessary historical movement that serves as a model for what is badly needed in todays current society: a "culture of opposition". Indeed, cultural resistence is the greatest threat to the status quo of authoritarian rule. If we try to lobby politicians, re-write legislation, or vote for the right candidate, it is clear that we are still playing by the rules of their game. A complete rejection of their game is needed because if the ethic of "changing the system from within" continues then it will prove to be as futile as a palestinian fighting for justice within the Israeli justice system or for the zapatistas to "work with" the Mexican government for autonomy.
Your review really opens up the history vaults so that we can draw inspiration from the radical, counter cultural movements of the past. We can see that it has been done before and that it works.