Forty-six years ago this month, the nation’s campuses erupted in a series of student strikes, the largest student uprising in American history. Triggering the explosion was President Richard Nixon’s announcement that U.S. military forces were expanding the Vietnam War by invading Cambodia. The 1970 protests were fueled by the shooting deaths of four student demonstrators May 4 at Kent State University in Ohio.
That August, students from across the country gathered at Macalester College in St. Paul for a convention of the National Student Association (NSA). A prime topic was developing a “People’s Peace Treaty” in which students from South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the United States would sign a treaty for ending the war and withdrawing the half million U.S. soldiers from Vietnam.
The treaty was a topic last weekend at a “Vietnam Antiwar Symposium,” sponsored by the American Studies Department at Macalester, held at the college and the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. It brought together a number of figures from the antiwar movement, including Rennie Davis, who nearly 50 years ago was a key antiwar leader and a member of the Chicago Seven, who were put on trial for organizing demonstrations outside the Democratic Party National Convention in 1968.
Davis was at the Macalester confab in 1970 where the peace treaty idea was adopted. “It was really an attempt to say here were the terms that could actually lead to peace,” he said. Students in South Vietnam first broached the idea with their U.S. counterparts at NSA. Davis saw it as a focal point for massive civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., a year later.
Jay Craven, student body president of the liberal arts college at Boston University in 1970, attended the Macalester convention and helped lead the effort. While the U.S. State Department blocked Craven from getting into South Vietnam, he flew into North Vietnam via Laos. Another activist, Doug Hostetter, slipped into South Vietnam and got student leaders’ signatures. The young organizers reconvened in Paris, where they unveiled the treaty at a news conference.
Student bodies at 188 colleges and universities ratified it.
“I spoke at 100 college campuses, working day and night, to advance the idea of the peace treaty and ending the war,” said Craven, now 65 and an award-winning filmmaker from Vermont. “It was a turning point in my life.”
The 1971 protests were huge. A million people descended on Washington, D.C., in a peaceful, legal march on April 24, the largest single protest in U.S. history. A week later, 12,000 were arrested in civil disobedience actions.
Davis, now 75, speaks around the country, encouraging what he believes will be a new wave of mass protest. He draws optimism from the Black Lives Matter movement, the youthful support for Bernie Sanders, and growing concerns over climate change. “We are about to be ignited,” he says. “I am getting ready for it.”
A key organizer of last weekend’s conference was Karin Aguilar-San Juan, an associate professor at Macalester, and co-editor with Frank Joyce of a new book, “The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement.” In it, nine activists write about visiting North Vietnam during the war, and returning there in 2013. She notes that during the Vietnam War, 200 U.S. activists visited North Vietnam to try and end the war. Today a federal law bars people from aiding a “foreign terrorist organization” or FTO. “Everyone in this book would have been prosecuted under that law,” she said.
Randy Furst 612-673-4224