Originally published by Baylor Line Magazine in Spring 2019
What It Meant to Protest the Vietnam War at Baylor
It was January 1967 – 22 years since Ho Chi Minh’s August Revolution. American boots had officially been on the ground in Vietnam for 12 years. The governmental and societal structures of the war-torn, southeast Asian country were creaking. U.S. troop escalation was underway. And on January 5, almost one year before the Tet Offensive in 1968, when 40,000 North Vietnamese troops conducted surprise attacks against American troops, the Lariat ran the results of a Baylor student government poll.
“Should America continue its commitment in Vietnam?” asked one of the questions. There were 710 student responses. 386 students strongly agreed, 253 expressed general agreement, 49 students disagreed, and only 22 strongly disagreed. In early 1967, these results were generally synchronous across the country. Later in the year, the Johnson administration was briefed by the RAND corporation that as troop escalation rose, public support of US involvement in the conflict was falling. Basically, as the Lariat ran those numbers on the front page, public support had peaked. The Pentagon Papers tell us the latter half of 1967 would be the beginning of outspoken opposition to the war in Southeast Asia. Though images of Berkeley, Kent State, and that great scene in “Forrest Gump” come to mind when speaking of Vietnam protests, hostility toward the war was present at Baylor just as well. Debates filled the editorial pages of the Lariat, and student-led oppositional efforts occurred throughout the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Thankfully, from the efforts of Baylor libraries, all digitally archived copies of each Lariat issue we have available allow us to revisit how students reacted to the Vietnam War.
On Jan. 31, 1967, Lariat editors ran an editorial on page two of the paper. “Deferments remain big problem,” the headline read. The piece set the stage for both what was happening in the world – difficulties in reaching a peace agreement with North Korea, aftermath from the capture of U.S.S. Pueblo, strained relationships continuing with Russia. The piece also expressed the sentiment of what it meant to be a young male in a time of war. The draft was imminent, and this worry was in stark contrast to the sense of assuredness and complacency male students carried weeks before while studying for finals, the editors wrote. With troops being escalated by the Johnson administration and modifications to the draft process, a student had to worry about his GPA status as well as his status as II-S. The editors saw it as “frightening,” and maybe this helps explain why public opinion, especially among youth, was changing on the war.
“I can remember about half of the leisure time that we students had,” said Tom Belden, Class of ’70. “Especially in ’67, ’68, ’69, half of our time was spent talking about the draft and talking about the war, and what were we going to do.”
One year prior to this article about troop escalation, news of an orphaned baby Baylor bear ran across the front page. There was talk of regent votes, new building construction, the Baylor Beauties elections. But then 12 months of increased conflict in Vietnam went by, 12 months of not a week without the Lariat running some headline on Vietnam, fallen soldiers, or alterations to the draft process. There are 503 issues of the Baylor Lariat between 1967 and 1973 that contain articles, editorial commentary, and photographic mention of the Vietnam conflict. That is from Johnson’s escalation to Nixon’s peace agreement. That is also close to 54 percent of articles during that time – a staggering amount.
“Thursday, the Lariat carried a story concerning the closing of the UB Lobby to the Committee to End the War in Vietnam. It seems that people got out of hand — and on the Baylor campus that is unthinkable!” read a letter to the editor from June Freiberger, Class of ’70, which ran on March 1, 1968. Protest, dissent, opposition was “unthinkable” at Baylor at the time, but, yet, it was present.
The events Freiberger mentioned in her letter concerned President Abner McCall’s decision to ban the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, a student resistance group that had been meeting regularly in the SUB Lobby, from using prominent campus space for their future meetings. To be clear: McCall did not order the end of this committee, but decided to no longer have Baylor appear to “endorse” the meetings. The students were provided space on the third floor of the Student Union. Freiberger (and three others in the “Letters” area of the March 1 Lariat) expressed their concern against such an action of censorship by university administrators.
This decision did not come from thin air, though. Days before, a group of counter-protestors had encircled a table for the committee and began taunting. Things grew heated.
“There is a war,” Freiberger’s letter continues, “and young men and women are questioning whether or not it is right. I cannot agree heartily with the committee, but I cannot disagree with their right to be heard. I would rather see a riot involving concerned human beings than a nation of apathetic fools.”
Two days before Freiberger’s letter voicing support for freedom of expression, a different kind of group met. Whereas Freiberger’s letter was published publicly and the Committee to End the War had gathered with an open invitation to all of Baylor, a group of anti-war Baylor students (“and a few onlooking faculty”) gathered in a closed, secret session to discuss appropriate measures to oppose the war in Vietnam.
The Lariat obtained information and a leaked copy of prescribed literature from the meeting. The article read that the members of this group sought to develop “viable means of protesting, on the Baylor campus, the Vietnam War.” The literature called the war “immoral, un-christian, un-American and inhuman.” A “total program” of concerted, “literate [and] effective anti-war protest,” was to come at Baylor, the group claimed.
Quotes from mimeographed copies of the anti-war groups notes ran next to the administration’s decision to curb their endorsement of groups gathered to express dissent against the war. A few inches down, a small clipping from the Associated Press read, “North Vietnamese gunners shot down a big U.S. Marine helicopter Wednesday.”
The article reported that 22 U.S. soldiers were killed in that single altercation. The next Monday, the largest headline on the Lariat’s front page read, “U.S. Death Rate in Vietnam Tripled.” There were 9,353 U.S. deaths in Vietnam in 1967. That’s a staggering figure and one that was not lost on Baylor students.
On April 6, 1967, the first protest of Vietnam was held on Baylor’s campus. In total, there were four protestors, two students and two faculty members. It was a “silent vigil” outside of Waco Hall, by Judge Baylor’s statue. The four stood peacefully, with pamphlets for anyone interested in their stance. The demonstrators included Hope Bronaugh, who was a lecturer of German; Ronald Baker, a graduate assistant in English; Curtis Clogston, a Houston sophomore; and Don Donham, a senior from Rising Star, Texas. As students filed out from chapel, they were dismayed by the small group.
“It was quite a surprise when [the demonstration] happened,” remembers Belden. “I was in required chapel. I came out of chapel with all my fellow students, and I can’t remember now if it was a Monday or a Wednesday, but we came out and here were four people standing silently in front of Judge Baylor’s statue right there on Speight Street, directly across from Waco Hall. I can vividly remember it. Most people were just kind of quietly observed and then went on their way. There were a few cat calls and jeers.”
A counter-protest grew. Hecklers shouted insults. Pennies and crumpled up papers were chucked at them. Eventually, a counter-protestor found the switch for ground sprinklers and the protest was forced to end early.
The administration had been informed prior to the small protest. McCall had even asked for the protestors to be left alone, according to related Lariat coverage of the event. With the stipulations that the vigil not disrupt the academic process and that the material distributed remain factual, McCall gave his blessing.
“Matter of fact, [I] commend them for praying for peace,” McCall said at the time.
Contradictorily, Jan Johnson, Class of ’67, wrote in a letter to the Lariat editors, “I defend the hecklers because we are the ones that will be in Vietnam next.” And Johnson minces no words, calling the protestors “three ‘nice boys’ and one pacifist old lady.” Another student’s letter was published next to Johnson’s. This is “to be expected, but not condoned,” wrote Cody Phillips, concerning Johnson and the other hecklers.
As plans were made for another vigil, Johnson said, “I plan on heckling them [again.]” The chairman of Baylor’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter, Ronnie Smith, however, disagreed with this tactic. When Donham’s groups announced the date of the next anti-war gathering, the Young Americans decided to hold their own.
“Our main purpose is to present a positive program and informative material,” Smith told the Lariat at the time. The group was holding a counter-demonstration as an alternative outlet for student expression, not as a counter-protest. Smith also said a main purpose of the group’s assembly would be to discourage heckling of Donham and other Vietnam protestors because Young Americans “respect the academic freedom of those students.”
However, that is not what happened.
In that pivotal scene of “Forrest Gump,” where Tom Hanks’ character accidentally – in full military uniform – ascends into the spotlight of an anti-war protest, there is “only one thing [he] could say about the war in Vietnam.” If you have seen the movie, you may recall that the camera pans across a sea of people gathered around the National Mall in D.C.
At Baylor, the second protest was comprised of 11 students and faculty, total.
“There was a very large protest in Washington D.C. called Mobilize Against the War,” Belden explained. “I was at that one in Washington. There was in the neighborhood of 300,000 or 400,000 people there. A massive crowd and there were lots of famous speakers. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang. The whole works. Then . . . the same movement called for demonstrations in every city and the demonstration on the Baylor campus was part of that.”
In the “Forrest Gump” scene, there are hundreds of signs at the D.C. protest. Some read, simply, “Peace!” Others say, “Bring our troops back home!” Behind Forrest, a banner implores, “Respect our troops! Bring them home!” Several read, “End the war.” One sign says, “We cry for peace.” At Baylor, the demonstrators had one, single sign. It was tacked into the ground and read, “Silent Vigil.” They stood as statues, silent and collected, again in the stony shadow of Judge Baylor.
Around the corner, a slightly larger group of 16 – made up of Young Americans for Freedom and some former military men – grew antsy and soon moved toward the 11. They too had a sign. “Better Free Than Under Ho Chi,” it read. The Lariat reports a crowd of over 1,000 eventually gathered around the statue to Baylor’s founder. Most, the article says, began as bystanders. (One student milled through the crowd, hollering, “Peanuts! Popcorn! Candy!”)
Pamphlets from the anti-war group were set ablaze by one student. “Burn it, baby. Burn it,” was chanted, according to Lariat reporting. Another student uprooted the “Silent Vigil” sign, although it was soon replaced by an onlooker. Someone lit a cherry bomb and threw it into the group of 11 silent protestors, and, upon its distracting explosion, another student grabbed the remaining pamphlets and papers from the organizers and threw them all into the wind. Another cherry bomb went off.
For a moment, Baylor mirrored the tension throughout the rest of the nation.
If they wanted to discuss the war, they should have requested an auditorium, McCall said of the incident. If the students had wanted safety, “they chose the worst possible setting and situation for administrative protection,” he told the Lariat.
For the group of anti-war protestors, they saw the unfortunate event and McCall’s reactions as a win. Vietnam, they told the Lariat, was now on the forefront of minds at Baylor. In the following days, the paper ran interviews with those involved from both sides and also from many onlookers. Campus was abuzz. This second vigil had been the tipping point.
“The first stated purpose of Baylor defines the purpose of a university as to promote learning in an atmosphere of freedom,” wrote Belden in the Lariat in 1968. He was defending the initial Vietnam protest by Bronaugh, Baker, Clogston, and Donham, but also condemning the counter-protestors.
It was the beginning of a crucial time in Baylor’s history. In retrospect, some actions – made by students and administrators alike – were appropriate, others were not. Ultimately, though, these demonstrations, the acts of censorship, the published articles, columns, and editorials, the public and private decisions by the administration all contributed to what Baylor was then and played a part in shaping who Baylor is today. To remember them is to preserve a valuable piece of Baylor’s history, to honor both the bravery of those who stood against the war and the voices of those who felt doing so was unhealthy. This period, at minimum, demonstrates that respect for all freedoms of expression is crucial.
Because, in the end, it helps to make us who we will be.