A recruiter for Dow Chemical — the maker of napalm — was on the Harvard campus, seeking smart young hires.
This could not stand. Protesters barricaded him inside a lab.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a business school alum and one of the lead architects of a pernicious war, was hustling out of town after a speech to students.
A message had to be sent. His limousine was surrounded and stopped.
And the Shah of Iran — the Shah! — was commencement speaker. What kind of tone-deaf choice was that?
The arc of history was bending toward chaos for the class of 1968, and the university was moving awkwardly with it, one foot still caught in old expectations for the best and brightest, the other kicking back with increasing force.
The seniors who graduated that year are back on campus this week, greeting one another with laughter and hugs, with bittersweet tales of advancing age, and with indelible memories of the tempest that upended their undergraduate idyll.
Nothing about life in America would ever feel quite the same.
“We started college in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, and we left college shattered by horrible events that changed the course of American history,” said Linda Greenhouse, a 1968 graduate of Radcliffe — then Harvard’s sister school — who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize as a New York Times reporter.
“Living on the edge of these great events, I think the subsequent 50 years have been a hard dose of reality for a lot of us, and for the country as well,” Greenhouse added.
The Tet Offensive. The My Lai Massacre. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Riots in the streets of Washington, Chicago, and Baltimore. The year of their graduation was one long stream of shocks and aftershocks.
The class — 1,134 men from Harvard, 292 women from Radcliffe — saw civil rights protests in the South and elsewhere. US casualties mounted in Vietnam, a number that would come to include three of their classmates: Michael Loitz, Christopher Morgens, and Carl Thome-Thomsen. And left-wing groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, turned college campuses such as Harvard’s into bubbling incubators for radicalism.
Many graduates have gone on to great personal and professional success, of course, but many feel disillusioned by the state of the country and regret over what might have been.
They believed their generation had laid the seeds for fundamental change — in politics, race relations, and foreign policy. But five decades later, America’s trajectory has left many of them not only disappointed but shaken.
“I had more hope for rapid and significant change than has come to pass,” said Donald King, one of 30 or so black members of the class.
For King, the Harvard experience was one of gradual awakening. He had left a Brooklyn housing project to enter an alien world awash in privilege and enormous expectations. Then, once at Harvard, King joined SDS and participated in the Dow protest, for which he was placed on probation. Police also forcibly removed him from commencement as he demonstrated against the Shah.
“It was important to do things, to make a statement, and I was going to be a part of it,” said King, who lives in Hyde Park and has been a math professor at Northeastern University for 37 years.
That radicalism grew gradually, and then accelerated at Harvard and on other campuses across the land in the spring of 1968, when King was fatally shot in Memphis and Kennedy was slain after winning the California primary for president.
A few days before graduation, Coretta Scott King — standing in for her husband, who had been killed only two months before — urged the Class Day audience at Sanders Theatre to “speak out with righteous indignation” and “hold high the banner of freedom.”
That call to action already had resonated. In October 1967, students barricaded the Dow Chemical recruiter at the university’s Mallinckrodt Laboratory for seven hours. In the class’s junior year, dozens of shouting students made their stand against Defense Secretary McNamara.
“It was a very tense time,” Greenhouse said.
For Radcliffe women, the years also carried recurring reminders of what Greenhouse called the “sisterhood of the second-class.”
Radcliffe undergraduates, whose commencement was separate, recalled that they were not allowed in Harvard dining halls unless invited. They were heavily outnumbered by men in the class. And they were governed by strict rules designed to limit social interaction with the opposite sex.
“We were the oddities, like giraffes in the Arctic,” said Eva Kampits, a Hungarian refugee who had been shot as a baby by Russian soldiers. “At the beginning, we were told we should not wear slacks in Harvard Square. Four years later, we’re burning our bras.”
While protesters were easy to find, the establishment did have its supporters. Stephen Waters, who joined the Navy rather than be drafted as an infantryman, estimated that only half of the class was opposed to the Vietnam War.
“I felt that, as a citizen, there was an obligation to serve somehow,” recalled Waters, who later came to believe that the war was futile.
Other classmates set the level of antiwar sentiment far higher.
“I wasn’t aware of anybody on the right,” said Greenhouse, who often spent six hours a day reporting for The Harvard Crimson. “I can’t remember any demonstrations that the Vietnam War was going well.”
For many students, the world seemed to be flying off its axis.
Arthur Lipkin delivered the Class Ode only days before commencement in 1968 — a poetic offering, set to the meter of “Fair Harvard,” that envisioned a dark, despairing future.
Lipkin spoke of student laughter turned “stifled and bleak,” of friends killed by war, and of “wise prophets” who had been “silenced by bullets and hate.” He ended the ode with these stark lines:
“The nation that greets us is tortured and sick
“And mouths inarticulate cures.
“We pray for the spirit to cope with a world
“Where so very little assures.”
Before he delivered the ode, Harvard officials challenged his use of the word “sick.” But he did not back down, and the poem was delivered as written while Lipkin sweated under a graduation robe mistakenly shipped in flannel.
“That may have been the first time I had stood up to anyone but my father,” Lipkin said with a slight smile.
He had another recollection of that day. Seated near Coretta Scott King on stage, marveling at her composure, he noticed open windows at the top of the theater and had a distressing thought.
“I was thinking that a sniper could use them,” Lipkin said.
Such a scenario would have been close to inconceivable when the class arrived in 1964, even though President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and the civil rights struggle was intensifying.
Politics that year did not reflexively dominate campus conversation, which was more likely to revolve around classes, sports, music, and social life.
“I was totally fixated on doing my sports and doing my work,” said Boston developer Don Chiofaro, the son of a Belmont traffic cop who captained the football team as a senior. “I was not involved in the political discussion.”
But the climate steadily changed. SDS organized a Harvard-Radcliffe chapter, and the specter of the draft — a peril for those who did not stay in school — brought the war to campus with more urgency than any headline.
When senior year began, students who had arrived as wide-eyed freshmen no longer considered the real world an abstraction to be discussed at bistros and coffeehouses such as The Blue Parrot and Club 47.
“I needed to find some way to understand what was happening, and [the institution of] Harvard was not providing me with the answer,” said Peter Hagerty, a student from Cohasset who, paradoxically, belonged to both Navy ROTC and SDS. “No one had prepared me for what I was seeing except the radical left.”
Hagerty would later be discharged from the Navy after refusing to certify the safety of a gun mount on his destroyer. The 5-inch guns had hairline cracks which, Hagerty said, his commanding officer considered too time-consuming to repair.
Hagerty went to South Vietnam anyway, as a civilian adviser to US service members held in military prison. While he was there, Hagerty recalled, the gun mount on his old destroyer exploded a few dozen miles away, killing or wounding 13 aboard.
“The Navy was possibly the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Hagerty, who now lives on a Maine farm. “Going from Harvard to the other extreme really challenged my belief system.”
For many, that sense of challenge has not waned with time. Chaos and failed expectations seem to them to have taken hold of national politics again.
Kampits, the onetime refugee who saw Radcliffe as a wondrous rebirth, bemoaned the country’s bitter partisanship.
“We’re acting like we’re having fun, but there’s this sense of dejection,” Kampits said of the run-up to the reunion. “We fought these battles before. We had great horizons in the ’60s. What happened to them?”
Chiofaro has a rosier perspective. To his eye, the country has made big strides in a healthy range of areas, such as women’s rights. The country is now engaged in a robust, profound discussion about its direction and principles, he added.
To him, that’s a positive, as is the chance to gather with old classmates to reminisce and reflect.
“It’s emotional. You think back on all the changes that have gone on in your life,” he said. “You learned by watching here, even without a lesson.”
Fifty years ago.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com