Coming Apart by Roger Rosenblatt
Coming Apart: A Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969
by Roger Rosenblatt
Little, Brown. 234 pp. $24.95
On April 9, 1969, approximately 135 left-wing Harvard students, many of them affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), seized the central administrative office of the college in the heart of Harvard Yard. This protest against America’s intervention in Vietnam and Harvard’s “complicity” in that conflict marked the beginning of what Roger Rosenblatt, in this memoir, calls “the Harvard wars.”
Rosenblatt, now a contributing editor at Time and the New Republic, was back then a young English instructor and something of a golden boy. The only member of his Harvard Ph.D. class to have been offered a teaching position at the college, he was highly popular among students, well regarded by his colleagues, and in the good graces of the administration, which as a sign of favor appointed him to preside over Dunster House, an undergraduate residence.
Harvard itself was at that moment at a peak of post-Kennedy-era prestige and self-satisfaction, not least because it had apparently escaped the protests that had recently rocked Columbia, Berkeley, and other elite schools. At Christmas in 1968, Harvard students were singing carols at president Nathan Pusey’s residence and still wearing coats and ties to dinner each night. By spring, however, the coats and ties were off; along with warm weather, a wave of trouble and violence had arrived.
The main events are easy to recount: the occupation of University Hall on April 9, and the forcible expulsion of the deans and others who worked there; the “bust” that same night, in which the occupiers were ejected, arrested, and a number of heads (including those of curious student bystanders) were cracked by the 400 state and local police whom the administration had called in to do the job; protests against the bust by many more students, including a three-day student strike; and then endless faculty meetings and debate about whom to discipline and how.
In astonishingly short order, a great university found itself torn apart. Who was most at fault? In Rosenblatt’s judgment, the extremists who stormed into University Hall may have been the worst but were not the only offenders. The harm they wreaked was compounded by the administration’s bungled decision to retake the building, greatly inflaming student opinion. The damage was then multiplied tenfold by the craven, “morally careless” attitude of the faculty which failed to defend the university’s integrity in the face of the student assault.
Rosenblatt is undoubtedly right in suggesting that SDS enjoyed little support in the student body at large and that the initial occupation of University Hall had met with widespread disapproval. Only three years earlier, as he reminds us, 2,700 undergraduates had signed a letter of apology to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara after his car was blocked by a few protesters. While opinion at Harvard may have subsequently shifted to the Left, it had not shifted far enough to generate approval for pushing deans down flights of stairs. In this light, the administration’s decision to call in the police was, Rosenblatt concludes, a serious blunder; a student body that would otherwise have turned against the protesters was instead “radicalized.”
Just how radicalized is another question. My own memory as a Harvard undergraduate in those days is of an antic quality in the demonstrations not fully captured in Rosenblatt’s account. He reports, for example, that “so many protests and events were held in the Yard that the grass was beaten into a dust-bowl.” True, but such gatherings were often not very serious. When 1,500 students met in Harvard Stadium to vote on whether to strike (i.e., skip class), there were an amazing number of paper airplanes in the air, soaring across the stadium and eventually covering the playing field. And if 1,500 students showed up, nearly 3,500 did not. (Some students, moreover, actively resisted the SDS; their voices are almost entirely absent here.)
Yet though Rosenblatt’s appraisal of student attitudes is somewhat off-pitch, he is correct in his assessment that the faculty acted reprehensibly. In those days, Harvard’s professors were a predominantly well-intentioned, progressive-minded group whose credo, in Rosenblatt’s words, was
mutual reassurance that everybody shared the same liberal beliefs about everything, even if that were not the case, and as long as those opinions did not put the believers in any real jeopardy.
When faced with students assailing the “liberal” traditions any university must defend—like civility in behavior and intellectual standards—a good many faculty members found the jeopardy too great.
Faculty meetings were filled with endless speeches alternating personal attack with weak-minded blather, as in the feeble contribution of the Nobel Prize-winning chemist James D. Watson: “I believe in trusting the young.” A good many faculty members were just plain scared—of becoming unpopular with their students, of the disapproval of their colleagues (with possible adverse effects on their careers), and no doubt also of the violence.
There were notable exceptions, of course. Those who spoke out tended to be older, European-born professors who had had a brush with fascism. Some native-born Americans were also among the brave; those Rosenblatt names include James Q. Wilson, Samuel Huntington, John Dunlop, and Samuel H. Beer, the last-named of whom came to feel about students
the way I do about Germans. There are some good Germans. Some of my best friends are students. But when I hear the word student I pull back reflexively.
What lasting effects, if any, did the eruption have on Harvard and beyond? Rosenblatt is right to connect the takeover with the faculty vote several months later establishing an Afro-American studies department, and with a general decline in standards thereafter. The faculty, having previously approved a plan to develop black studies at a measured pace, was now propelled by “moral carelessness” and pressure from black students and allied radicals to establish a full department overnight. In their eagerness to avoid giving offense, they broke all precedent and invited students to take part in governing the department, even giving them a say in such decisions as tenure awards. Under these conditions, not surprisingly, no first-rate faculty members could be found, and the Afro-American studies department rapidly degenerated into what Rosenblatt derides as an academic “slum.”
The spring of 1969 was a turning point of sorts not just for Harvard but for Rosenblatt, too, the beginning of what he calls his “slow, evolving exit” from the university. He came to see that his own pose as a “careless charmer” was a false one—“I did not like the students as much as I had pretended to”—and that he was living in a “coward’s ambiguity,” attempting to please everyone of every political hue. When he was appointed to a special disciplinary committee chosen to decide whether and how the students who had taken University Hall were to be punished, he was compelled at last to take a stand. Voting to throw sixteen out of Harvard, place ten on probation, and “admonish” the rest, and volubly defending that decision, were enough to end Rosenblatt’s days as a sympathetic figure to liberal and radical students. Harvard and Rosenblatt were mutually disillusioned; within a few years he left and took up punditry.
Rosenblatt was not alone in his disaffection from the radicals. Coming Apart contains a small but wonderful collection of photographs. One of them shows Martin Peretz—then an instructor at Harvard, now the chairman and editor-in-chief of the New Republic—hiding behind a great deal of hair and peering through 1960′s granny glasses. For Peretz, the takeover was, as he is quoted here, “the beginning of my turn politically from Left to Right.” He came to rue his own modest role in feeding fuel to the radicals’ fire: “I still feel guilty about one of those kids . . . he learned about leftist politics in my class, and then he went to extremes.”
But Peretz’s reevaluation, however symptomatic it may have been of strains within American liberalism to which many others were also responding in those years, was an exception on the Harvard campus; and Rosenblatt’s own conversion was followed by a lapse back into a long journalistic career as a “careless charmer” in which he has rarely taken sharp positions that might offend. Nor did the inmates who took over the asylum for a brief moment ever suffer much of a penalty; many of them are now tenured radicals themselves. As for those on the faculty entrusted with preserving the integrity of the university and the values of a democratic society, their flaccid defense of a fragile institution was likewise a sign of the times, and of the times to come. Today, such behavior can be found under many guises in many realms. In this respect, Coming Apart, Roger Rosenblatt’s elegantly written memoir, is aptly named.