The 30 Years’ War

Janet Tassel, "The Thirty Years War," Harvard Magazine, September 1999.


Thirty years ago, on a warm April day in 1969, Harvard faced one of the most daunting challenges in its history. Under the leadership of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), about three dozen students and others invaded and occupied University Hall, roughing up and ejecting several deans, while sympathizers and opponents argued outside. The numbers inside and outside the building swelled overnight until President Nathan Marsh Pusey and the administration responded by sending in the police at dawn. Some 50 people, including policemen, were injured, and 145 Harvard and Radcliffe students were taken off and arraigned. Within half an hour, what became known as “the bust” was over.

The University Hall takeover was the most convulsive in a series of uprisings at Harvard in the late sixties. (Other universities, of course, fared even worse.) Principally protesting the war in Vietnam, Harvard’s students were also airing grievances ranging from the presence on campus of ROTC to the lack of a department of black studies.

With the bust, the administration ended the takeover, but in fact the real struggle had just begun. Sit-ins, strikes, and far-from-empty threats against faculty members and buildings–including Widener Library–became routine. Soon enough the students’ complaints mutated into the now-familiar polymorphous Aquarian catalog. Posters proclaimed:

Strike for the eight demands. Strike because you hate cops. Strike because your roommate was clubbed. Strike to stop expansion [of Harvard-owned properties]. Strike to seize control of your life. Strike to become more human. Strike to return Paine Hall scholarships. Strike because there’s no poetry in your lectures. Strike because classes are a bore. Strike for power. Strike to smash the Corporation. Strike to make yourself free. Strike to abolish ROTC. Strike because they are trying to squeeze the life out of you.

These were bitter days for traditionalists at the University. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. ’53, Ph.D. ’61, Kenan professor of government, calls the events “a devastating catastrophe.” Loeb University Professor emeritus Oscar Handlin, Ph.D. ’40, LL.D. ’93, is one of those who think Harvard was permanently scarred: “The passage of time did not lessen the impact of the tragedy; indeed, the unfolding consequences since 1969 have cast a lurid light on the tragic disaster of that year.”

Harvard Magazine