The Cold War: Activism and alliances

This article is part four in the five-part War at Brown series.


On June 27, 1950, President Truman ordered American troops to enter Korea in a “police action” to help defend the Republic of Korea against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a Soviet ally.

Though a draft had been in place since World War II, Brown students could obtain deferments easily. In contrast to the complete mobilization the earlier war had wrought on College Hill, little changed when the military entered Korea.

Campus concerns over the conflict centered on how best to receive a deferment. The Herald gave daily “off the wire” updates from the New York Times about the developing conflict, but the impacts of the events were felt far from campus.

A crucial exception was the addition of an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program to the campus’ existing Naval ROTC program, which was established during World War II.

A two-page headline in The Herald’s 1953 commencement issue, “1952-1953: In a Year of World Tension, Student Life Improves in an Ivory Tower,” indicated how distanced Brown students felt from the war in Asia.

Though student deferrals were commonplace, many alums fought in Korea, and seven were killed in active duty. The country’s participation in the conflict was the first “hot” period in a Cold War that would escalate to bring greater tension to Brown’s doorstep.

Over the next half century, the University would struggle to define its position in various conflicts, at times playing host to much student activism but also maintaining ties to various military and government agencies throughout.

As a 1970 Herald editorial would later announce, the role of “Brown as Statesman” was soon to become the subject of much debate and disagreement among students, faculty members and administrators alike.

Entering Vietnam

The United States’ involvement in Vietnam began quietly in the early 1960s but increased dramatically under President Johnson, permeating social and political life by the end of the decade.

David Taylor ’66, a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, completed two 13-month tours in Vietnam soon after graduating.

“At that point in time it was mandatory. There was a draft, and if you were of a certain age and a certain physical status you were going to serve,” Taylor said. “(My) father, who had served in World War II, told (me) it was better to be an officer than an enlisted man, because there is a huge differential between how the two live.”

In part for this reason, Taylor said he pursued a military scholarship to help fund his tuition, believing he lived in a post-war era “because of the atomic bomb and nuclear proliferation and stalemate between the two great powers.”

Taylor entered Brown in 1962 as a member of the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps with a full Navy scholarship, committed to four years of service after graduation. He was activated for duty during summers off from school and eventually joined the Marines. Thinking the war would be over soon, he tried to avoid deployment to Vietnam by attending flight school. But the war dragged on, and his squadron was deployed in 1968.

Taylor did not recall any anti-war activism during his years on College Hill but said many students were concerned they would be forced to serve. “As casualties started to mount, they’re saying, ‘Oh my god,’ and they’re scrambling either to get into the service or get into a graduate program to do whatever they need to do to cover themselves.”

But many of Taylor’s friends did end up serving — most people, he said, hadn’t developed a strong anti-war sentiment.

“I lost a couple of my buddies from Brown University who had been Marines,” Taylor said.

In total, 20 former Brown students were killed in Vietnam, and many others seriously injured.

Taylor currently works with Senior Lecturer in English Elizabeth Taylor to build a digitized archive of stories of Vietnam veterans who graduated from the University.

An activist community

Taylor, along with now Professor Emeritus of French Studies and Comparative Literature Edward Ahearn and David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, currently a professor of anthropology and Italian studies, pointed to the draft as the major driving force behind the explosion of campus activism during the Vietnam War,  as it dramatically increased students’ odds of being directly affected by the war.

“The draft made a huge difference,” said Kertzer, who was a student heavily involved in activism at the time. “It was impossible back then to not care about these things.”

In fall 1967, buses of Brown students journeyed to Washington, D.C. for an anti-war march on the Pentagon, Kertzer said. He spent that night locked up in a makeshift jail in an old army barrack with fellow student activist Robert Cohen, Jr. ’68 P’13 and famed writers Norman Mailer and Benjamin Spock.

Student activism continued on campus, sometimes coordinating with other local organizations. When Hubert Humphrey came to speak at the Biltmore Hotel, Kertzer said he helped organize a protest in conjunction with other Providence anti-war groups.

But not all local activists could agree on a mission. For instance, “one guy was insisting on a National Liberation Front sign,” Kertzer said. “That was not helping our curb appeal.”

In 1969, the Corporation invited then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. Angered by the decision, students proposed a range of protest actions, including dousing Kissinger with a bucket of blood, Kertzer said. They instead decided to distribute white arm-bands to graduating seniors, he said, which they wore as hundreds in the audience stood and turned their backs on Kissinger when then-President Ray Heffner read his honorary degree.

‘Kentbodia spurs Brown Action’

In May 1970, just five days following the official American invasion of Cambodia and the day after the infamous Kent State University shooting, Brown halted regular activity to begin a University-wide strike — an event labeled in that year’s Herald Commencement magazine as “the start of a full-time experiment in activism.”

“With the future of the world at stake, Brown as an institution can no longer say it is neutral. Brown itself must oppose the expansion of the war,” student leaders told The Herald, criticizing the University’s neutrality. “Brown University’s long silence can only be considered our approval.’”

Under pressure from students and faculty members alike, acting President Merton Stoltz joined leaders of Rhode Island College, University of Rhode Island and Providence College in sending a telegram to urge Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to “return to Rhode Island to listen to the voice of the students.”

Each day during the strike, The Herald published a schedule of strike activities, which included canvassing, teach-ins and Guerrilla Theater — in which students reenacted the violent suppression of student protestors at Kent State.

Professors join the protest

The day after the student walkout, Ahearn and then-Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Cognitive Sciences Henry Kucera jointly proposed a campus-wide strike, making clear that the faculty stood with students in opposing the war.

Kucera was politically far to the right of Ahearn, and their collaboration illustrated faculty unity, Ahearn said.

On May 5, the faculty announced that, in accord with the strike, all final exams and papers would be optional for students.

“There was a great deal of faculty anger about the war before the killing of the students (at Kent State and Jackson State Universities) and the extension of the war in Cambodia,” Ahearn said. “Those incidents further inflamed the faculty.”

Faculty willingness to join protests is rare today, but Ahearn said the faculty saw its role in campus political debate differently then, recalling a vocal “political activist community.”

Ahearn said a member of the administration later accused him of costing Brown $2 million in alum donations by initiating the strike, but he added that the strike may also have helped limit student radicalism. On other Ivy League campuses, students took over university buildings and engaged in violent conflict with local police.

If such conflict had spread to Brown, Ahearn said, “How much would that have cost on alumni giving?”

The ROTC revolution

Though Taylor and other ROTC graduates at Brown felt participating in the program was their best option, by the late 1960s many students and faculty members on campus began to question its role on campus.

Student activists began regularly protesting ROTC, arguing that allowing the program to stay on campus was an implicit expression of support for American military aggression. In 1972, students voted to ban ROTC on campus.

“We have no illusions that acts of this university’s faculty will throttle the war-making powers of this country or that the university can be cleansed of complicity with the military industrial complex by ending ROTC,” Herald editors wrote at the time in an editorial supporting the student vote. “Yet the university is the social institution that we have at hand. Unlike other forms of university complicity, the ROTC issue presents us with a blatantly specific university-wide yes-or-no decision.”

President Donald Hornig maintained support for the program, but a May faculty vote sided with the students, putting a final nail in the program’s coffin, The Herald reported at the time.

The CIA on College Hill

As the United States attempted to avoid a “hot war” with the Soviet Union — and ensuing nuclear fallout — much of the Cold War was fought through clandestine, non-military activity. The Central Intelligence Agency, founded by the 1947 National Security Act at the Cold War’s onset, was instrumental to such secretive engagements.

Since its founding, the agency maintained a close relationship with Ivy League institutions — Brown included — sending officials to campus each year to recruit “the best and the brightest” to become elite spies.

One such recruit, Duane Clarridge ’53, held a number of senior positions at the CIA, including chief of the Latin American Division. He later came under fire for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Though Clarridge was indicted, he received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush before the case went to trial.

By the 1960s, students began to question whether the organization should be welcome on campus. On Oct. 31, 1967, the Campus Action Council staged a sit-in to block passage to the office on campus where CIA officials were conducting placement interviews, The Herald reported at the time. The protest escalated to a confrontation with the dean of the Graduate School, and 21 students received disciplinary action.

Over the next three decades, students continued sporadically protesting CIA recruitment on campus. Protests escalated in 1984, when students attempted to place CIA recruiters under citizen’s arrest. After the incident, the CIA ceased openly recruiting on College Hill.

Alliances in question

Of the University’s five presidents during the Cold War, two were deeply involved with the same military and foreign policy platforms that elicited  campus-wide protest.

Hornig, who served 1970 to 1976, previously served as science adviser to President Johnson. He was also one of the youngest scientists working on the Manhattan Project. When the bomb was first tested the morning of July 16, 1945, he watched from a bunker. “We’ve really opened a can of worms, haven’t we?’ … Hornig recalled thinking to himself as the sky filled with fire,” the Boston Globe reported in his February 2013 obituary.

President Barnaby Keeney worked for the CIA prior to taking helm at the University and remained on CIA payroll while at Brown. He took a year off during his tenure as president to serve the agency in an undisclosed role, the terms of which remain debated.

In 1965, Keeney brought former CIA colleague Lyman Kirkpatrick to Brown’s political science faculty. At the agency, Kirkpatrick had served as inspector general and executive director. A controversial figure both at the CIA and on College Hill, Kirkpatrick has been criticized for his roles in allowing the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the testing of LSD on military men.


The arms race and academia

The build-up of nuclear arsenals as part of Cold War tensions may have felt distant from Brown’s campus, but as early as 1952 the University built and staffed a laboratory that would become “Brown’s first venture into the field of atomic energy,” The Herald reported at the time.

Throughout the Cold War, faculty members in departments including philosophy, anthropology, physics and political science offered courses about such topics as “Ethics of War, Defense, and Deterrence,” “Nuclear Arms Control” and “The Threat of Nuclear War: Looking for Creative Responses.”

A subset of the faculty signed on to a national petition movement to discourage fellow scientists from accepting funding from Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, known as the “Star Wars” program, The Herald reported at the time. Critics “feared SDI research (would) lead to nuclear technology,” and consequently further the ongoing arms race or called the proposed technology — a missile defense system based in space — an “expensive fantasy.”

But the issue was not black and white — some of the largest grants offered to science researchers at the time, like those for the “Star Wars” project, came from the military.

When a Brown professor was offered $123,000 by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in 1985 to “continue his research on the stress in metal surfaces,” a campus group called Students against Nuclear Suicide began a fundraising campaign to provide the professor alternative means of funding and “raise consciousness about the arms race, Star Wars and our military culture,” The Herald reported at the time.

As the Cold War drew to a close, some professors worked in cooperation with Soviet colleagues. “A U.S.-Soviet anti-nuclear group, co-founded by Dr. David S. Greer, dean of Brown’s Program in Medicine (received) the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize,” The Herald reported at the time. Greer initiated discussions among American and Soviet doctors in 1980 that led to the creation of a group known as the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which became best known for its efforts to end nuclear tests.

Nearing the end

Throughout the 1980s, the campus remained abuzz with anti-nuclear sentiment and discussion on how the University could encourage nuclear proliferation and cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When Jason Salzman ’86 and a few other students asked the student body and the administration whether Health Services should “stock suicide pills in case of a nuclear war” in October 1984, a 1985 Herald commencement issue reported, “The students said yes. The administration said no.”

Though Salzman’s pointed “suicide pill referendum” received much national press coverage, he later said he was unsure about whether it was successful.

“His motive behind the referendum was to force people to confront the issue of nuclear war,” The Herald reported. “People ultimately did not hear the message … that nuclear war is suicide.”

In April 1986, the student body endorsed an Undergraduate Council of Students proposal to make the University a “nuclear-free zone” by divesting from companies actively involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, The Herald reported at the time. The Corporation is not reported to have acted on this proposal.

After returning from a trip to Moscow in 1980, Thomas Watson Jr. ’37, former ambassador to the Soviet Union, proposed creating an institute committed to studying international affairs. In 1986, he donated the funds to establish the Watson Institute of International Relations, an independent research organization specializing in arms control and relationships between the global East and West.

In 1991 former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei Khrushchev became a fellow at the Watson Institute, a position he holds to this day.

The final story in the War at Brown series examines the more recent and continuing conflicts of the past 25 years — the Persian Gulf War, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War at Brown