Friday, September 22, 2006

Notes of a College Revolutionary

I started at university in 1968. In March of that year American troops killed hundreds of civilians in the My Lai massacre, and in April student protesters at Columbia University in New York City took over administration buildings and shut down the campus, and student protests spread to France, Japan, Britain, Poland, Spain, Italy and Mexico. Also in April Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech in Birmingham, England, took racism on to the streets and into the headlines, and in that black month Martin Luther King was taken by a sniper's bullet in Memphis. In May student and worker strikes and riots in Paris nearly brought down the French Government.

In June 1968 Robert Kennedy was assassinated on the campaign trail, and in August Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to end the "Prague Spring" of political liberalization, while in the same month police clashed with antiwar protesters in Chicago, Illinois outside the Democratic National Convention. The emerging women's liberation movement staged demonstrations at the annual Miss America Beauty pageant held in Atlantic City, NJ in September. Under the pretext of progress with the Paris peace talks, in October US President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he has ordered a complete cessation of "all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam" effective November 1.

I have many memories of those extraordinary times, and buried among them is a film called The Strawberry Statement which captured the zeitgeist with a soundtrack featuring Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, John Lennon, Buffy Sainte Marie, Thunderclap Newman, J.S. Bach and Richard Strauss. The film was based on a novel by James Simon Kunen of the same name. The book is now considered to be one of the earliest examples of 'new journalism', and its diary format predates the blog by more than 30 years. Kunen wrote the novel while a Columbia College sophmore in 1968, and after graduation he worked as a journalist in Vietnam.

Subsequently as a conscientous objector Kunen worked as a counsellor at a group home for young offenders in Lancaster, Mass. He graduated from New York University Law School, and became a public defender in the criminal courts of Washington, DC, an experience retold in his book "How Can You Defend Those People". He then left the practice of law and returned to journalism. James Simon Kunen's book "Reckless Disregard" was an exposé of the Ford Motor Company's role in a Kentucky school bus fire which killed 24 children and three adults .

The Strawberry Statement is out of print, but I located a used copy in the Seashells Books in Clearwater, Florida. The book cost me $1.56, plus $9.79, and it arrived by airmail here in Norfolk, UK today.

*During the Vietnam war seven million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, more than twice the bombs dropped on the whole of Europe and Asia in World War II.
* Almost one five-hundred-pound bomb was dropped for every human being in Vietman
* It is estimated that there were twenty million bomb craters in the country
* Poisonous sprays were dropped to destroy trees and any kind of growth, an area the size of Massachusetts was covered in defoliants
* On March 16, 1968 a company of Ameriacan soldiers killed between 450 and 500 people, most of them women, children, and old men, in the hamlet of My Lai 4, in Quang Ngai province. Initially the army tried to cover up the story, and the American press ignored the early coverage in French Vietnamese newspapers.
* US casualties in the war were 211,471, of which 58,226 were killed in action
* Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged

* Now playing - The Great Mandala, yes I know that Peter, Paul and Mary (right) are about as unfashionable as you can get, but this is one of the great antiwar songs of the era. Composer Peter Yarrow's explanation that the song 'says our lives present us with a choice, in this case, the choice was to either serve in a war that ran counter to basic American principles, or to take the consequences of refusing to do so; for young men called to service, it was the preeminent ethical dilemna of our time' is a stark reminder that relevance never becomes unfashionable.
* For a full timeline for that extraordinary year of dissent, 1968, follow this link.

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
For more on those summers of love, hate, dissent and revolution take An Overgrown Path to I am a camera - St Tropez 1967 and The Year is '72

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Peter, Paul and Mary were pretty unfashionable even then, their style being so old-time folk-singer, but I had the good fortune to see them perform live once in California around that time and the three of them were some of the most accomplished performers I've ever seen. They took a huge "outdoor bowl" audience into their hands and made it feel like an intimate occasion.

1968 was also the year Andy Warhol got shot, we were just reminded this evening, by the latest Ken Burns documentary on American television. He watched Robert Kennedy get assassinated and buried on television while he was delirious in the hospital himself. What an ugly time.

And yes, the Vietnam War was profoundly evil on every level imaginable, as is the Iraq Invasion/Occupation today.