A Changing Bubble: Hamilton during the Vietnam War

A Changing Bubble: Hamilton during the Vietnam War

The 1960s were a volatile time for the United States. Anger filled the air, directed at the government, at a racist social structure, at parents, at the forces that pushed the country into a war that killed so many young men. This pervasive anger only percolated to Hamilton in the late 60s, and the class of 1970 felt their college experience split between the “old Hamilton” and the “new Hamilton.” Stephen Rabe ’70, a professor of history and the Arts and Humanities Endowed Chair at the University of Texas in Dallas, presented a lecture about Hamilton during the Vietnam War as an Alumni College event during Reunion Weekend 2010. Although he teaches a course every year on America during the Vietnam War and has even taught this course in Vietnam, the subject matter had added resonance when seen through lens of the common experiences of Hamilton’s class of 1970.

According to Dr. Rabe, 1968 was the truly pivotal year at Hamilton, as it was for so much of the country. Before this year, Hamilton was 97 percent white, completely male (both in its student body and its faculty), and was a self-proclaimed ivory tower with minimal links to the “real world.” After 1968, Hamilton students became increasingly concerned with the outside world and generally became more politically active—a far cry from students’ overall complacency only a few years earlier.

Dr. Rabe described four main reasons for this rapid shift in the student body and administration. First were the demographic and cultural changes that were occurring all throughout the United States during the 1960s. The free speech movement from California and Civil Rights movement finally reached the Hill, causing students to reject many of the traditional collegiate restrictions (such as monitoring female presence, wearing suits to dinner, and even core academic requirements). Grades began to inflate, as students with too low an average were no longer exempt from the draft, which put pressure on professors to give higher grades. Compounded by the advent of commercially available oral contraceptives, American society as a whole was vastly transformed during the 60s.

Next, the leadership of John Chandler, president of Hamilton from 1968-1973, helped integrate more of the outside world. He brought speakers to the Hill bearing a greater social consciousness in mind, featuring great names such as Alex Haley, the author of Roots and the co-author of Malcolm X’s autobiography, and Richie Havens, a black folk musician who had performed at Woodstock. Chandler even spoke at the famous rally on the Clinton green in May 1970. Before this point, most faculty members kept their political views to themselves, maintaining their professionalism with anyone associated with the college. By 1970, faculty members were somewhat more open with students, even driving some of them to a demonstration near the Strategic Air base in nearby Rome, NY. This openness was an ideal that Chandler himself perpetuated and subtly encouraged the rest of the faculty to follow.

Third was the opening of Kirkland College. Besides the presence of female students and faculty on a campus that was previously all male, Kirkland also perpetuated many values that Hamilton lacked as an institution: its faculty was more openly political, the students more vocal, liberal and adventurous, and it focused more on the performing arts. This caused a weakening of the robust fraternity system, making Hamilton a more welcoming place for all students. The addition of Kirkland College, said Rabe, truly saved Hamilton.

Finally, the war was not ending, and graduating seniors would soon be subject to the draft, bringing home the concerns about the war to everyone eligible for the draft. Classmate Whitney Ferguson ’66 was the only Hamilton alumnus to die in Vietnam and brought the war home more than ever; Rabe used the metaphor of waste, judging from the sacrifice that so many people made compounded by the US’s current symbiotic relationship with Vietnam. With dramatic events taking place all over the US in 1968, compounded by the highly influential speaker from Kent State, students began flexing their political muscle. They began organizing demonstrations, from the Strategic Air base in Rome to the Clinton green, even refusing to go to class for the last month of the 1969-1970 academic year. Clearly, the student body was much changed by 1970, and the institution changed with it, more gradually through the 70s and 80s.

As Dr. Rabe shows, the world took a long time to arrive at Hamilton, but, once it did, the Bubble of isolation never existed the same way again.

by: Alexandra Ossola '10
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