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An anti-war history of Duke

planting seeds

The Silent Vigil of 1968 and the Allen Building Takeover of 1969 have achieved—rightfully so—an almost canonical status in our institutional memory of Duke student activism during the late 1960s and 1970s. 

Duke students demonstrated for a $1.60 minimum wage and collective bargaining rights for non-academic workers—the majority of whom were Black—the creation of an African American Studies department and increased resources for Black students, among other demands for greater racial, economic and social justice at Duke and in Durham. Similar demonstrations and protests were occurring across the country and all over college campuses, challenging the foundations of university institutions and American society itself. 

However, when talking about the long sixties, it’s impossible to ignore the significance of anti-Vietnam War protests—as well as the connections drawn between it and other contemporary movements. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee condemned the Vietnam War in 1966, arguing that the United States, which had consistently failed to guarantee freedom for Black Americans, was hypocritical in feigning concern for the freedom and democracy of Vietnamese people. Working-class communities opposed the war on the basis that it was another “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” which disproportionately drafted the poor to be “cannon fodder,” and that the military-industrial complex should be dismantled in favor of building social programs instead. 

At Duke, students linked the struggle against the oppression of Black people and exploitation of workers through actions like the Silent Vigil and Allen Building Takeover. But did they make similar connections with the Vietnam War, and if so, what is Duke’s history of anti-war activism? What stories do we tell about student activism and organizing at Duke? What stories do we forget? This column is an attempt to breathe life back into the history of anti-war activism at Duke. 

The Duke Chronicle’s archives from 1968-1974 offer a glimpse into what was no doubt a contentious, impassioned campus climate regarding the Vietnam War. The Chronicle reported on student demonstrations and organization statements. Numerous editorials launched scathing criticisms of the war and Duke’s connections to the military-industrial complex—namely ROTC, the AROD (Army Research Office-Durham), and military-funded university research. 

On January 30, 1969, the Chronicle’s editorial board argued that “by its very inaction, our University has become an insensitive agent of imperialism, racism, and poverty.” In strong terms, the board claimed that “for university credit, students are trained to kill and are indoctrinated with blind patriotism in the ROTC.” They also drew attention to the presence of the Army Research Office in the campus computer center and the fact that an “overly large proportion” of the university’s revenue went towards defense research. 

In April 1969, the Student Liberation Front (SLF) released its position paper on the Vietnam War. The SLF believed that through its participation in ROTC programs and acceptance of Department of Defense (DOD) funding, which supported 14% of all of Duke’s restricted access research, Duke University—and universities in general—became “an apologist for an accomplice to the imperialist policies of the military establishment.” The Duke chapter of Students for a Democratic Society released a similar statement the following year, condemning the US military and calling for the removal of ROTC programs from Duke. 

In May of 1969, 300 students from the SLF also staged a demonstration at Duke’s annual ROTC parade in the Wallace Wade Stadium, carrying signs of “Bring the Troops Home Now” and “End Militarism.” Demanding the removal of ROTC from campus by October 1, 1969, they were met with jeers and death threats from the crowd in the stadium. 

On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were shot and killed and nine more were injured protesting the bombing of Cambodia and the escalation of the Vietnam War, sparking student strikes and protests across the country. 

After 1,000 people gathered in Page Auditorium that night to discuss responses to the escalation of the war, 200 students presented a list of demands the next day to President Sanford calling for “an end to all American involvement in Indochina, the end of all military influence on campus, including the Army Research Office Durham and ROTC, and an end to the repression of all workers, especially the ‘super repression’ of blacks and women at Duke.” Through these demands, Duke students explicitly linked the oppression Black people, workers, and women at Duke with the war in Vietnam. 

Throughout that day, nearly a thousand Duke students participated in anti-war actions such as sit-ins, building takeovers, and flyering downtown Durham. 500 students attended a rally after the Associated Students of Duke University (ASDU), a predecessor to Duke Student Government, called for a 24-hour vigil and peace-fast. Reportedly, 60% of students participated in a boycott of classes to support non-academic workers and their right to unionize. About 400 students barricaded Duke University Road, grinding traffic to a halt for nearly 9 hours to protest the war. 

Actions against the war continued at Duke until at least 1975, with four students staging a die-in at the Navy ROTC parade in 1971 and renewed demonstrations against the Sanford School’s DOD funding in 1975. Despite a restriction placed in 1969 on the number of military courses that could count towards graduation, an Academic Council subcommittee on the ROTC program found it “legitimate.” President Sanford, responding to student demands, agreed to form another University committee investigating ROTC and promised to put a non-academic workers union election on the May 1970 Board of Trustees calendar. In 1971, Duke ended its basic agreement contract with AROD although the office did not move off campus—where it remains to this day—until 1975. 

It is not the place of this column to determine whether or not Duke’s anti-Vietnam War movement was a “success” or “failure.” The work of history is to uncover a usable past that can illuminate possibilities for the present and future world. 

For Duke students today who struggle against what Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called the three evils of society—racism, poverty, and militarism—the anti-war movement at Duke in the late 1960s and early 1970s is proof that fellow Duke students dared to imagine a different society. As we confront the endless wars of our time, may we take both comfort and strength in the tradition we inherit from those who came before us. 

Annie Yang is a Trinity senior and a history major, if you couldn’t tell. Her column, “planting seeds,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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