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Vietnam Protest, Oct. 1969: Credit Jay Cassidy

Day of dissent

By James Tobin

The tide turns

The largest of all the antiwar protests of the 1960s in Ann Arbor happened on Oct. 15, 1969. It was part of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, a nationwide event that brought out more than a million Americans, from radical leftists to worried suburbanites accustomed to voting the Republican ticket.

On the campus, with most classes canceled for the day, students spilled into teach-ins and forums. Plans for a massive evening rally outgrew Hill Auditorium, then Crisler Arena (then called the University Activities Center), culminating in a torchlight parade that wound from the Diag to Michigan Stadium, where the crowd swelled to 20,000 or more.

In the days before the Moratorium, President Richard Nixon had stated flatly that “under no circumstances whatever will I be affected by it,” and when it was over, Vice President Spiro Agnew dismissed it as the handiwork of “an effete corps of impudent snobs…hardcore dissidents and professional anarchists.”

But the Moratorium was so massive that Vietnam hawks could no longer make a credible case that opposition to the war was confined to long-haired hippies hoping to avoid the draft. Such a massive demonstration was seen as further proof, if any were needed, that the American mainstream had turned against the war.

An instinct for compromise

President Robben Fleming, September 1969

U-M President Robben Fleming speaks to students shortly before he came out against the war in Vietnam, September 1969. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

The Moratorium was overwhelmingly peaceful — a fact that enhanced its credibility among pundits and the public. That was a victory for the temperate wing of the antiwar movement. For that, a small share of the credit may belong to U-M President Robben Fleming.

Fleming had arrived in Ann Arbor in 1968 after several years as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. A skilled labor negotiator, he brought an instinct for compromise to his new job. This proved helpful as he navigated a tricky passage between student radicals to his left and stern defenders of University prerogatives to his right, from Republican regents to conservative alumni.

Early in his presidency, he made concessions to student protesters on several fronts, a strategy that drew admiration from the left and brickbats from the right. But at the start of the fall semester in 1969, he was taking a tougher line against student activists trying to shut down U-M’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. He was increasingly concerned lest the tide of protest engulf the free exchange of ideas, and he hinted that he would not look kindly on any cancellation of classes on the day of the Moratorium.

In private, Fleming had come to see the war in Vietnam as a tragic blunder, a misguided extension of American power that was bringing deep harm to the nation. But he had no sympathy for radicals who painted the war as a symptom of deeper corruption at the nation’s core, and he was determined to oppose any disruption of the University’s basic business of education.

That view would soon be put to the test, he realized, with plans for an antiwar planning conference, called a “Tactic-In,” on Sept. 19-20, then for U-M’s participation in the national Moratorium set for Oct. 15.

Pros and cons

U-M Campus, late '60s, Bentley Historical Library.

Antiwar rallies were common in the late ’60s, but the October 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam stood out from the rest. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Early in September, in the midst of anti-ROTC protests, an antiwar U-M faculty group asked Fleming if he might be willing to go public with his opposition to the war at the approaching “Tactic-In.”

Fleming weighed his options. In a confidential memo to his vice presidents, he asked for their thoughts and expressed his own:

“There are pros and cons to doing it. If I speak, I have already told them I will talk as a moderate who is opposed to the war and thinks we ought to get out of it, but who will also say unkind things about the fascist left. This will probably draw booing from the audience that can be expected.

“There will be criticism, some of it vigorous, if I speak. On the other hand, the subject is urgent, the gamble that we can take the leadership and place it in the hands of the moderates rather than the extremists is attractive, and I personally feel deeply on the subject.”

Fleming was putting his finger on a key question — whose views would dominate the campaign to end the war? The radicals who had first raised the antiwar cry? Or the liberal and moderate late-comers now joining the fight?

“The issue,” as New York Timescolumnist Anthony Lewis put it, “is whether to try to enlist the mass American public against the war, by moderate techniques, or to go for more militant protest.”

Strange bedfellows

Fleming decided to speak at the Sept. 19 “Tactic-In.” The venue would be Hill Auditorium. He would appear on the stage just before Rennie Davis, a media-star leftist and a member of the “Chicago 7,” then on trial for inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the appointed time, Fleming stepped into Hill’s waiting area behind the stage. He was alone. The auditorium was packed, but his jitters were due not just to the speech. He was also thinking of his encounter with Rennie Davis — with whom, it happened, Fleming was already acquainted, though Fleming didn’t know if Davis would remember.

“This opposition is not simply emotional, it is thoughtful. It does not occur because of ignorance, but only after sober reflection.” – Robben Fleming to President Richard Nixon
More than 20 years earlier, after his Army service in World War II, Fleming had worked in Washington with Davis’ father, John C. Davis, a labor economist who was chief of President Harry Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers. As a little boy, Rennie Davis had played in the Flemings’ Washington apartment.

Now he was a fire-breathing radical at the head of a national movement. What would he say to his father’s old friend?

The door to the waiting room opened and in walked Davis. Instantly the younger man reached out his hand, smiled broadly and said: “Gee, it’s good to see you again! My folks send their warmest greetings!”

“Rennie,” Fleming said, “one of the last times I saw you, you threw up on our floor.”

With that, Fleming walked out on stage and delivered his prepared speech — a deliberate and reasoned summation of the emerging mainstream consensus against the war.

“A matter of personal conscience”

Robben Fleming, late '60s, Bentley Historical Library.

Fleming was a skilled negotiator with an instinct for compromise. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

“I accepted the invitation to be here tonight as a matter of personal conscience,” he told the crowd. “I share the agony of all those who oppose the war in Vietnam. I happen not to agree with the views held by the radical left. Nevertheless, I am not here to criticize others who oppose our Vietnam policy, but to state my own views.”

Immediately after World War II, he said, the Soviet Union had seemed a monolithic force in danger of conquering the world. But time had “taught us the error of this greatly oversimplified analysis of the communist world,” which was as fractured and contentious as the western alliance.

“From this view,” Fleming said, “I draw the conclusion that it is not a disaster for us if Vietnam ultimately becomes an independent communist country.

“To suppose that one can impose the American concept of democracy on countries which have no democratic traditions, no heritage like ours, no organized political parties, too few educated leaders, and strong military traditions defies rationality.”

So, he said, he had concluded “our present involvement in Vietnam is a colossal mistake.”

That did not mean he shared the radical left’s view that “it is all the result of evil and corrupt forces which govern our society. My own life experience is that honest mistakes can be made.” But now, “the economic, human, spiritual costs of continuing the war seem to me unbearable.”

He ended with a promise — that he would make University facilities available for the Moratorium, and if, on Oct. 15, enough students and faculty turned out to fill Crisler Arena to express their opposition to the war, then, “I shall be glad to carry their message to Washington.”

As reaction flowed in — most of it welcoming Fleming’s remarks, some accusing him of being a patsy for Communism — he moved to accommodate plans for the Moratorium.

Speakers of all stripes

The Diag, late '60s, Bentley Historical Library.

The Diag always has been a gathering place for student activists. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

On the question of canceling classes Fleming oversaw a compromise. The University as an institution would not take an antiwar stance by closing down. But individual faculty members, acting on their own, would not be penalized for canceling classes (so long as they were made up later), nor would students who missed class to take part in Moratorium events.

Fleming’s main concern was to avoid the violence that might be sparked if the University dug in its heels against the Moratorium organizers.

“There will unquestionably be speakers of all stripes on the campus that day,” he wrote an outstate colleague. “They will represent everything from left to moderate. I believe the hope is that the day will be completely non-violent and in that way have its maximum effect. If luck is with us, that hope will be realized. We will be wiser on October 16.”

Carrying the message to Washington

Share your memories of Robben Fleming in the comments section below.
The Moratorium in Ann Arbor, as elsewhere, went off without so much as a broken window, and Fleming kept his promise by writing a letter to President Nixon to convey “the mood of our campus with respect to the Vietnam war,” which he reported as a mood of “broad and deep opposition. This opposition is not simply emotional, it is thoughtful. It does not occur because of ignorance, but only after sober reflection.”

When an Ohio industrialist wrote Fleming to suggest his actions had given “aid and comfort to the enemy,” Fleming replied in his cordial style: “There is very strong anti-war sentiment on our campuses. One can deal with it in two ways. One is to try and suppress it, which will almost certainly lead to violence. The other is what we have tried to do. October 15 went off without violence, and with some 20,000 people in the stadium for a final presentation.”

An alumnus expressed a more common reaction to Fleming’s approach: “I am proud of my university and its choice of a president. What a world this would be if all administrators were like you. What a world this would be if we who were so full of idealism as students did not have to grow more narrow-minded, reactionary, and bigoted as we grow older.”
Sources included coverage in the Michigan Daily and the Robben W. Fleming papers at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.

(Top image: Tom Hayden, ’61, on leave from his trial as one of the Chicago Seven, prepares to address antiwar demonstrators at U-M’s observance of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Photo by Jay Cassidy, courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.