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Prelude To Disorder

May 9, 1969


By 1969, demonstrations against the Vietnam War had become regular occurrences at colleges and universities all across the country. Young people who did not believe that American involvement in the conflict was justifiable and no interest in being drafted had been marching in the streets, organizing antiwar rallies, and sporting peace signs. More violent acts of protest against the war were also not uncommon.

The “hippie” counterculture, which had arrived at KU and Lawrence during the previous three years or so, was by definition against the policies and practices of the “Establishment,” including drug laws, conventional morality, and the military-industrial complex. Like the struggle for civil rights and racial equality, the struggle by white youths for both attention and the ending of the Vietnam War was turning increasingly radical, and would become even more so in the years to come.

The worst incidents of this period in Lawrence were still a year away on May 9, 1969 when the annual Chancellor’s Review of ROTC cadets in Memorial Stadium was stopped by anti-Vietnam War protestors. The demonstrators had first met at the Campanile around noon and marched down the hill to the stadium but were denied entrance by a maintenance worker who told them the gates would open at 3:00 p.m.

They then returned to the Campanile and began reading the names of the 33,379 servicemen and women killed in Vietnam to date. At 2:45 p.m., the protestors, now numbering over 300, moved towards the stadium singing songs and chanting slogans. They carried signs that read “ROTC OFF CAMPUS,” “APATHY IS NOT A VIRTUE,” and “STOP THE WAR” as they approached the still-locked west gate of the stadium.

Rather than wait for the official opening time, they apparently broke down the gate, entered the field, and began a “sit-in” directly in front of the Chancellor’s reviewing stand and began shouting “Hell no, we won’t go.” When the ROTC cadets arrived on the scene the demonstrators formed a circle around the reviewing stand, holding hands and refusing to leave. KU History Professor Ambrose Saricks, chairman pro tem of the Senate Council Executive Committee (SenEx) and emcee of the review, asked the demonstrators to leave the field five times. He also read the guidelines that the Executive Committee had established in anticipation of a demonstration.

The 175-plus protestors ignored Saricks and drowned out his voice with antiwar slogans. The stand off lasted for 45 minutes until KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe decided to cancel the event when the three ROTC commanders told him a “decent review” would be impossible under these conditions. Wescoe also acted to defuse a situation he thought might escalate into a violent confrontation. Immediately afterward, the protestors shouted, “We won!” and walked among the cadets as they marched out of the stadium.

In the aftermath of the incident, KU Dean of Men William Balfour claimed that Students for a Democratic Society, a national left-wing organization involved in mobilizing demonstrations like this one, was behind the protest. Whoever the perpetrators were, their actions left Wescoe, “visibly drained.” The chancellor defended his decision “because we’re not about to have violence on this campus.”

Such an outcome had certainly seemed possible. Some of the protestors had carried baseball bats and other club-like weapons, apparently prepared for a showdown. Meanwhile, approximately 100 local police, sheriff’s deputies, Kansas highway patrolmen, Kansas Turnpike patrolmen, and Kansas Bureau of Investigation officers had been waiting on the outskirts of Lawrence in case they were needed. Many law enforcement officials believed the demonstration offered a perfect opportunity to confront the protestors because they were in an enclosed area and fairly isolated, while bystanders were safely in the stands.

“I think this is the most disappointing thing that’s happened in my 18 years of association with the University,” Wescoe told the press, adding that KU would be “in trouble” if the University Disciplinary Board (UDB) did not act decisively to punish the protesters. He also noted he was concerned about the situation in Vietnam, but if the army was necessary, university-educated men should lead it.

A number of student and faculty ushers present at the ROTC protest were asked to collect names of students on the field that had been recognized. The names were to be turned over to SenEx and the UDB. On May 26, the UDB met to discuss and hear testimonies about the incident. About 30 dissidents showed up wearing Halloween-like costumes and disrupted the proceedings to the point that Chairman Russell N. Bradt, KU professor of mathematics, postponed the hearing. In the interim, University officials obtained a temporary injunction from Kansas Attorney General Kent Frizzell naming seven defendants.

When the hearing resumed on May 28, one of the defendants, Randolph Gould, testified that he represented the executive committee of the Students for a Democratic Society. Gould reminded the UDB that expelling the protestors could be a step in the wrong direction since “expelled students have nothing to lose.” He added that it did not take much to shut down a university and that “the Board should remember it is looking forward to next year.”

The 71 students who were ultimately identified were given a choice as to whether or not they wanted open or closed hearings. The names of the 55 students who chose open hearings were released to the public. On June 2, 1969, the UDB decided to suspend 33 of the 71 protestors for one semester. Thirteen more who would have graduated that May had their credits withheld until the following January. Two other students who had previous offenses were suspended for a longer period of time, and another 15 were found not guilty. (The final eight are unaccounted for.)

Wescoe, who was due to leave office that summer, bemoaned the state of affairs at KU and the relatively light punishment meted out by the UDB. He believed that the University was facing a crisis; American society was increasingly less polite and uncivil, and he was concerned about what lay ahead. Wescoe’s fears were not unfounded.

Radicalism and the tensions associated with it were on the rise in Lawrence. The clubs carried by a few of the antiwar protestors at the 1969 ROTC demonstration would soon transmogrify into rocks, bottles, and eventually, firebombs. Local law enforcement authorities would respond accordingly. The worst was yet to come.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Lawrence Journal-World, 7, 10, 12, 14, 15, 23, 28 May; 2, 3 June 1969. Topeka Daily Capitol, 10 May 1969. Kansas City Star, 11, 12 May 1969. Jayhawker yearbook, Spring 1969. “Student Activities, Chronological Records,” box 13, 1968-1970; box 14, 1969-1971, University of Kansas Archives.]