Changing Attitudes: 1969


The final year of the 1960s brought increased vigor and visibility to anti-ROTC activity on campus, effectively forcing the administration to acknowledge student protests as a part of a growing, national anti-War movement. The pressure to re-examine the ROTC program came both from Northeastern students, but also from changes happening at other Boston area colleges in response to similar student scrutiny.

In early February 1969, Harvard University faculty voted to strip academic credit for all ROTC courses. By the end of March, both Northeastern’s President’s Advisory Council and the Student Council voted in favor of ending academic credit for the eleven ROTC courses offered. The Boston Globe noted the Student Council vote as "especially significant” given the traditionally more conservative nature of the elected student body ("Opponents Move to Limit ROTC at BU, Northeastern" 1969).
Students continued to protest the chapter throughout the spring. In April, the SDS helped stage several major demonstrations.  During routine drills in the Fens, ROTC members were accompanied by a satire unit calling themselves “American Death Co.” commanded by “Sergeant Pig”. The performance drew about 300 observers. Around 1,000 people attended another SDS rally in the quad the following week, which ended in physical altercations. While the administration and Student Council tried to reconcile conflicts, a deep rift had emerged on campus between those who supported and opposed the War. 


Frustrated with the administration’s silence, students decided to bring the ROTC issue directly to President Knowles in early May. About 100 SDS members and sympathizers demanded immediate abolition of the program entirely and the replacement of ROTC scholarships with University scholarships. Knowles rejected the demands, stating that he would not abolish the program until he was persuaded that this was the majority opinion of all students and faculty.
On May 13, fifty-three students occupied the Interfaith Lounge in the Ell Building for a period of about four to five hours in protest of Knowles’ decision. The event drew hundreds of students to the quadrangle from both sides of the debate, wearing buttons that read “Abolish ROTC” and “Stop SDS." The crowd turned agitated towards noon, with egg pelting and an attempt by several football players to forcibly remove the students from the Lounge. The end of the protest was more peaceful, after centrist participants climbed the Ell Center steps and urged both sides towards moderation.
Following this incident, the Interfraternity Council conducted a referendum vote on whether ROTC should remain at Northeastern with or without academic credit. As half of the upperclassmen were on co-op, only about 39% of full-time day students were represented in the results. About 19% of students voted to abolish ROTC on campus (733 of 3,803). The remaining votes were evenly divided between those who wanted the program to be stripped of academic credit and those who preferred it retain credit. Given these results, President Knowles announced his intention to create an ad hoc committee of students, faculty, and staff to re-evaluate the program’s standing. Meanwhile, the College of Liberal Arts faculty voted unanimously to cancel all ROTC academic credit, and recommended that the organization withdraw from campus.


Campus dynamics in the fall of 1969 were influenced by several student group developments over the summer. In June, a rift at the National SDS Convention resulted in the organization splitting into three factions: the Worker Student Alliance, the Cienfuegos, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement No. 1, also known as the Weathermen or Weather Underground. The Weathermen, arguably the most radical of the three, emerged as the dominant voice of the national SDS and encouraged greater confrontation on campuses for immediate reform. While the SDS pushed for revolution, elected student groups at Northeastern were also becoming more assertive.The Student Court began operation that summer, and in July, the Student Council voted to join the National Vietnam War Moratorium scheduled for October.

Excerpt: Cauldron 1971, p. 140

President Knowles' ROTC committee  voted 9-1 against abolishing the campus’ ROTC chapter, but remained open to academic credit reform.  In the meantime, students re-focused their efforts off-campus. After receiving a petition signed by 4,019 students, President Knowles and the Faculty Senate approved class suspension for the nationwide Moratorium Day on October 15. The SDS attempted to use the Alumni Auditorium to bring members of the Chicago 8 to campus, but were denied use by the administration. Instead, the Student Council held commemorative services, speeches, and workshops on campus, before organizing a march to the Boston Common. The rally at the Common, organized by a city-wide committee of college students, drew over 100,000 people. By comparison, a Nixon support rally held in December at the Common drew about 200.
With little reaction from the White House to the October event, a second Moratorium occurred on November 14 in Washington. Boston students traveled to the capitol, joining about 250,000 people in what the Boston Globe called the “biggest peace demonstration in the nation’s history" (“Washington Cleans Up After March" 1969). Despite growing anti-War sentiments, the government instituted the first draft lottery since World War II on December 1, 1969. For Northeastern students, the next six months would be characterized by on and off campus protests, sit-ins, strikes, and police riots in what was perhaps the most concentrated period of student activism in the University’s history.