In the fall of 1969, in an act of quiet gallantry, a Penn biology professor with a fondness for mountain climbing hoisted himself up the flagpole in front of College Hall and restored its flag to full staff. Its cord had been cut a day earlier in an unauthorized gesture of objection to the Vietnam War.
The flag saga had begun when, as part of the countrywide protest and teach-in known as the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Penn students requested that Penn’s flag be lowered to half-mast in symbolic protest of the war.
The local American Legion threatened to march onto campus and raise it back up again. Smelling the potential for conflict, the administration vetoed the move.
A compromise was reached. The metal peace sign that now floats unassumingly by Van Pelt Library was installed as a concession to student activists, whose indignation at the Vietnam War permeated Penn’s campus in 1969 and through the early 70’s.
Bill Keller (C ’73) chaired the Committee on Open Expression at the time, a university-wide body that included students alongside prominent senior faculty. “Part of the responsibilities for the committee was to maintain peace and the ability for peaceful discourse,” he said.
Keller worked to keep protests nonviolent, ensuring access to classrooms and preventing property damage during a time when unrelenting student activism was a daily reality at Penn.
The Vietnam era was a breathtakingly charged one for the university, according to the accounts of alumni. The sinister shadow of the draft lottery instituted in 1969, combined with ideological outrage at the US’ military maneuverings in Southeast Asia, resulted in an intensity of student engagement like nothing that had been seen before.
Ellen Pries (CW ’71) vividly recalls dramatic demonstrations against what students had labeled “the imperialist intervention.” “There were daily protests; people were very vocal about it,” she said. One time she witnessed a march through campus in which students bore an empty flag-draped coffin on their shoulders.
“It was a terrifying time,” she continued. “A lot of turmoil, a lot of hostility against the government and what should’ve been an exhilarating time of life, there was a dark cloud.”
Jeffrey Rothbard (C ’72) was able to witness the transition to a campus atmosphere of outrage. Before the movement hit its stride, the political environment at Penn that greeted him was a relatively conservative one. “Probably because of the Wharton influence, [Penn was] a little to the right of other schools,” he said. Students over at Columbia had succeeded in shutting down their school in protest as early as 1968.
“When I got to Penn it was really a university kind of split in half,” Rothbard continued. “Essentially there was a big dichotomy between those who were in Wharton and those who were in the college. Wharton guys were generally in favor of the war, Republican, anti-drugs, and doing fraternities. College guys were experimenting with drugs, had long hair, were against the war.”
By the start of Keller’s tenure in 1969, however, antiwar sentiment was integrated into the campus fabric. “There was a lot of discussion - smaller protests, bigger protests,” he said. “Together with the rock music and drugs, the counterculture was alive and well at Penn.”
Student indignation reached new heights in the spring of 1970, when then-President Nixon decided to extend the war and bomb Cambodia.
“Every university in the country exploded,” said Rothbard.
Penn’s campus was a paralyzed, and administrators was forced to cancel final exams. “Teachers were given the alternatives of giving an open-book take-home test, or one a day or two before the fall semester started,” Keller explained.
That same spring, the shootings of students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University occurred, followed by student shootings at Jackson State by city and state police.
“That year more than any other time before was a major time where people were pretty much consumed,” Keller said. “I remember right before we left we prepared a flyer as to how to keep the antiwar movement going at home - things you could do like get involved in political campaigns that petition members of Congress, try to build antiwar activism in your hometowns.”
“The prospect of students being drafted and having to go to Vietnam certainly heightened the interest in the antiwar movement,” he continued.
Indeed, the draft dangled menacingly over undergraduate men beginning in 1969 - as well as women. Draftees were called based upon a lottery system in which their birthdates were assigned numbers, then called in order. Students lived in fear of drawing a low number.
“There were people trying to focus on studies, but brothers, boyfriends, etc. were over in Vietnam,” Pries said. “If [female students] weren’t connected to a college man we all had thoughts about this war, we had thoughts about the government, the president,” she continued. “Anyone you knew was threatened with being drafted.”
“The first draft lottery was in my sophomore year,” Rothbard said. “Essentially I can remember that day like it was yesterday.” He had run to 34th and Walnut to get coffee and bumped into someone from his Latin class; if he drew a bad number, the classmate told him, he would go home straightaway to get stoned.
Rothbard himself drew a dismal number - 32. “Really from winter of sophomore year on, I was worried about getting drafted,” said Rothbard. The only deferments for graduate school at that point were for those planning to go to medical school, and Rothbard wanted to be a lawyer. “I was either gonna get drafted, go to Canada, or find another way,” he said.
Pries knew her husband, Michael, a Penn student three years her senior, had drawn a “really bad number.” They sat around the radio in dread, waiting for the numbers to be called. “It was a terrible night, hearing your fate come over the radio or the TV,” she said. “We all sat glued until the very end.” Fortunately, Michael was eventually posted to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
“In reality it was sometimes like who you knew and whether your family had political power,” Keller explained. Pries concurred. “Unless you had luck getting into the National Guard or reserves,” she said, draftees were “sent to Vietnam with an Ivy League education or not. Your education did not guarantee you anything.”
Rothbard had the luck of being able to pull some strings. He got called in the winter of his senior year. When he went to be examined, “all 60 of my high school classmates were carrying manila envelopes to try to fail the physical. My father paid a psychiatrist to say I was nuts,” he said.
A Jersey lawyer, his father was eventually able to help him get into the reserves. Rothbard enlisted in April of his senior year. All he had to do was attend a meeting one weekend a month.
However, he lived in anticipation of eventually being called to serve. He put off his law school plans, thinking he wouldn’t have the chance to follow through with them.
His father eventually urged him to attend one of the schools that had accepted him, Dickinson, and said he would try to keep him there for at least a year. Rothbard packed a single suitcase, thinking he wouldn’t have long to wait.
To his luck, he wound up being discharged from service in his third year. He attributes this to a minor spinal condition he had, as well as to an unspoken solidarity with the Army medic who evaluated him: one Dr. Schwartz, whom Rothbard suspects noticed the Jewish name emblazoned on his uniform. He managed to complete his law degree without further incident.
Not everyone was as lucky. “I have friends who have served in Vietnam and came back and were suffering,” Keller said. “A lot of them have PTSD now but it wasn’t defined then.”
“We had a neighbor shot down behind enemy lines,” said Pries. “He made the local papers and survived to tell the tale.”
"People were afraid of communism,” she continued. “They painted very ominous pictures in the news.” But, she said, “the college campuses around the US thought, it’s not our war.”
The the resulting intellectual climate was intoxicating; despite her anger at her husband's vulnerability, she said, Penn was “the four most exciting years of my life. I’d say a lot of people felt the same way.”
“We were a thinking community,” she continued. “College campuses are the place where ideas are born. College kids are activists; four years of utopia, and you’re really your own boss for those four years. You’re living with a cohort of just your peers - what could be better?”
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