Story by: Javier Simon
Photos provided by: Special Collections
By Hawkins pond, students gather for a vigil to remember 40,000 people who had died during the Vietnam Conflict on October 15, 1969.
During the late ’60s and early ’70s, U.S. soldiers were stationed in the jungles of Vietnam; meanwhile, students in SUNY Plattsburgh and colleges across the nation demonstrated against the war. Their efforts escalated tensions and disagreements on the home front.
As part of the National Moratorium for Peace Day on October 15, 1969, 600 people, including SUNY Plattsburgh students, faculty, and administrators gathered by the Hawkins Pond for an afternoon vigil. One student laid a wreath with a card reading, “In memory of 40,000 unjustified human sacrifices in the Vietnam Conflict.”
Reporters for the student-run newspaper Cardinal Points captured photos of many students wearing black arm bands and carrying solemn looks on their faces. One student told reporters that the vigil “was a chance for us to be with people who feel like we do.” Nonetheless, many students and local residents did not agree with the anti-war protestors.
Some local residents criticized protestors by writing letters to the editor of the Press Republican, Plattsburgh’s local paper. Contempt for the protest movement, however, was not limited to Plattsburgh residents. From behind enemy lines, soldiers wrote about how they were affected by the demonstrations taking place back home. Robert Jacques, who served a tour of duty with the Seabees in Vietnam, wrote a letter published by the paper on May 29, 1970. It read that he was “shocked” and “disgusted” by the attitudes of college students. Wilburt L. Elliot’s letter published on June 5, 1970, read, “The protests give help and comfort to those who would like to kill me.”
“The protests give help and comfort to those who would like to kill me.”
Some SUNY Plattsburgh students refused to identify with the protestors. Judy Earl, a junior at the time, told Cardinal Points during May 1970 that she was outraged at students who banged on dorm-room doors as early as 6 a.m. urging others to take place in marches or skip classes. She also said townspeople would throw muddy water at students and use the demonstrations as an excuse to confirm hate toward them, even though many students stood against the demonstrations or took no side at all.
Gary Peacock, who covered a few demonstrations for Beekman Street, the student newspaper at Chateauguay High School, wrote a 2011 research paper about Plattsburgh’s role in the anti-war movement. “Some kids did not take a stand and they just wanted to go to class,” Peacock says. Nonetheless, Peacock said many locals were outraged at the “small” but “vocal” group of protestors. “A lot of townspeople who had sons in the army thought comfortable college students should just shut up and go to class,” Peacock says.
“It was a very restless time of anxiety, fear and uncertainty.”
Political sentiment, however, spilled into the classroom. John Moravek, a retired geography professor who began working at SUNY Plattsburgh in 1969, said many students and faculty made the classroom the setting for heated debates that would sometimes turn into shouting matches. He also said that some students referred to pro-war faculty as “War Hawks.”
Anti-war protestors take part in candlelight vigil.
On May 4, 1970, however, the student-protest movement in America became deadly. Four students were fatally shot by members of the National Guard after days of escalating protests at Ohio’s Kent State University.
That day, 500 SUNY Plattsburgh students marched from campus to City Hall. Some even blocked off traffic on Broad Street and yelled at police. The Press Republican reported cries of “Pigs! and “To hell with Nixon’s war.” Before the event escalated any further, however, Father Dan Keith of the Newman Center picked up a bullhorn, took to the steps of City Hall, and urged police and demonstrators to treat each other with respect. Peacock, who interviewed Keith regarding the events, said Keith’s speech helped alleviate the tension among demonstrators.
SUNY Plattsburgh sociology professor Stephen Light, who attended high-school at Glens Falls during the Vietnam-war era, said that by the early ‘70s, the anti-war movement increasingly involved people of all ages, races, and demographics.
Two days after the march to City Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh President George Angell joined protestors on a march from campus to the Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Together, students and local residents sang songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Where Have all the Young Men Gone?”
“Young people really did change history.”
Light, who engaged in anti-war demonstrations at SUNY Cortland, said he was delighted to see college administrators join student protestors. “It was interesting to see a college professor walking alongside a hippie with long hair and arm bands,” Light says.
Debates or “Teach-Ins” concerning the Vietnam War took place in the classrooms and residence buildings including Macdonough Hall.
In an editorial, the Press Republican praised SUNY Plattsburgh students’ peaceful demonstrations in response to the Kent State shootings. The editorial read, Plattsburgh students’ “peaceful” movement and their “academic endeavors” would “win the heart of any die-hard conservative.” A letter to the editor dated May 13, 1970, read that Angell’s “ability to understand and work with young people” helped him prevent violence. The authors, MR. and MRS. E. Siegel of 44 Broad Street, called for parents in the community to listen to their kids because they could find “more common ground” with their children than previously thought. Today, a plaque commemorating the four students at Kent State can be found on the lawn near the Kehoe Administration Building.
For the next three years, feelings about Vietnam lingered in the minds of many students and residents.
“By the spring of 1970, many Americans believed the war seemed to drag on forever,” Moravek says. “It was a very restless time of anxiety, fear and uncertainty.”
Finally on March 29, 1973, all remaining U.S. soldiers withdrew from Vietnam after more than 47,000 were killed in action.
“Young people really did change history,” Light says. “The U.S government could not stay in Vietnam because there was no support for it.”
As American forces engage in Afghanistan as part of what today is the nation’s longest war, how is your community responding?