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In the Days of DKE and S.D.S.
When George W. Bush ’68 finally emerged victorious last December from one of the most bizarre national elections in American history, many voters were left wondering what, if any, clues to his future governance of the nation might be found in his history as a Yale undergraduate. Not the least of the questions was how, by his own testimony, he could have spent four years in New Haven in the 1960s and not become involved in the political turmoil on the campus.
The short answer is that the turmoil was only beginning, and it involved only a portion of the student body.
The year 1968 has assumed almost iconic proportions in the American historical imagination. The date may not be in a league with 1929 (the Crash), or 1945 (VE- and VJ-Day), but it’s close. It was a year of widespread and violent student protests in Europe, of civil rights demonstrations all across this country, and what would lead to the “days of rage” and the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius.”
Yet during the wild ride that led to his election as the nation’s 43rd president, Bush said publicly and often that he was barely aware of the social upheavals around him while he was a student. “There wasn’t a lot of protest at Yale in 1968,” he told New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. “I don’t remember that.” His years at Yale were, he said, “a fairly placid period.”
Bush had a point. Colorful as the reputation of 1968 is in the popular lore, much of the color has been applied retrospectively. As several historians have argued, the 1960s really happened in the 1970s. The year 1968 was only the turning point, and those doing the turning were relatively few in number. Indeed, the 1968 Class Book entry on Vietnam noted that “the decision to state publicly a moral position on the war was not made by any large group until this fall.” An essay on politics in the same volume observed that, “No matter how deep the agony is over the war or the cities, the Yale student is still essentially a voyeur.”
John Morton Blum, an Emeritus history professor who was chairman of his department in 1967, recalls that “only about a third of the undergraduates were truly involved then. There was a lot of antiwar sentiment, but it was not well organized, and most of what was happening in civil rights was happening off-campus. The issues that were roiling the country had not yet affected Yale that much.”
Blum’s memory confirms what William Sloane Coffin Jr., the Yale chaplain at the time and the most prominent leader of the antiwar effort on campus, said in an op-ed piece in the New York Times last summer: “In all those activities, only a minority played active roles.” Coffin later told the Los Angeles Times that “the social concerns of the minority were very great in the sixties.” But, referring to Joseph Lieberman ’64, ’67LLB, Al Gore’s unsuccessful running mate who was chairman of the Yale Daily News in his senior year and took part in the Mississippi voter registration drives, Coffin added that “Lieberman was in the minority. George W. Bush was in the majority.” (Vice President Dick Cheney ’63 entered Yale a year before Lieberman, but left as a sophomore, even before civil rights had become a campus- wide issue.)
So while Bush may seem to have “missed the revolution,” he also might be thought of as having occupied a “parallel” Yale, a Yale more like the one of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush ’48, who arrived on campus when the country was still savoring victory in a war that was universally (after Pearl Harbor) considered just.
As Emerson Stone, a classmate of the elder Bush, noted in these pages following the 1988 presidential election, roughly 5,000 of the record 8,500 students who had registered in 1945 were ex-servicemen “direct from the killing grounds of northwest Europe and Pacific places with such odd-sounding names as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Eniwetok.” Their goal, Stone wrote, was “taking part—in society, fraternity, charity, or sport.” It was the Yale of white shoes, khaki trousers, tweed jackets, and fraternity ties. “I wasn’t politically involved,” said the elder Bush in his autobiography, Looking Forward. “It wasn’t that we were really silent or didn’t care what was going on in the world, only that after four years of war we had a lot of catching up to do.”
Two decades later, the campus was much less cohesive. As Charles McGrath ’68, now the editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote during the recent campaign, “There were really two Yales back then—one a more or less serious university, the other a cheerful, undemanding party school—and they didn’t intersect very much.” Adds Gaddis Smith ’54, ’61PhD, an Emeritushistory professor who is writing a book on Yale for the University’s Tercentennial celebration: “For someone to be inactive politically in those days put him in the mainstream.”
Among the less hazardous issues then being debated on campus was coeducation. The Yale administration in 1966 had begun to study the idea of bringing Vassar College to New Haven to “affiliate” with Yale. The initiative was abandoned in the fall of 1967, but the discussion of the issues led directly to the arrival of the first women undergraduates in 1969. (It was a decision about which George W. Bush, among others, apparently felt less than enthusiastic. According to a recent account in Salon, he told an interviewer in 1994 that Yale “went downhill since they admitted women.”)
Marijuana was not yet widespread, and the appearance of a joint at a fraternity party in 1967 was still unnerving to many. Soon, however, it was as common as Budweiser. “The tradition was for the freshmen to get the seniors to buy them liquor,” Bob Wei, a fellow student of Bush’s at Andover and Yale, told Bill Minutaglio for his 1999 biography of Bush, First Son. “By my senior year, the seniors were getting the freshmen to buy them marijuana.”
Ron Rosenbaum ’68, a journalist and author, attempted to sum up the situation in his essay for his 25th reunion book. Graduation found him and his classmates (including this writer) “half in, half out, curious but naïve, still trying to get the hang of the sixties when we were suddenly, in June 1968, thrown in the torrent and forced to surf before we could swim.”
The roughest waves, of course, were generated by the Vietnam War. But their impact had been slow in arriving. The nation’s malaise may have begun in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and campus protests may have begun in earnest in 1964 with the “free speech” movement at Berkeley, but Yale as a whole had remained relatively unmoved. The “Letters to the Editor” column of this magazine in the spring of 1964 featured prominently a recipe for a “Yale Cocktail,” detailing the precise amounts of gin, vermouth, bitters, and Créme de Yvette. At Commencement that year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded an honorary degree, but the event provoked widespread criticism, including a letter to the Yale Alumni Magazine condemning Yale for its “disgusting” behavior in honoring a man who recently had been released from jail. To be sure, there was a vigorous reaction when Richard Bernstein, a popular associate professor of philosophy, was denied tenure in early 1965. But that furor centered on internal academic policy—“publishing vs. perishing”—within the University itself.
The turning outward began in December of 1965, when Staughton Lynd, an assistant professor of history, flew to Hanoi with a group of anti-war activists on a “fact-finding mission.” The trip drew sharp protests from many of Lynd’s faculty colleagues, as well as President Kingman Brewster, and a flood of angry mail from alumni who felt Lynd had exploited his position as a member of the Yale faculty to promote his personal political agenda.
In April of 1967, this magazine published an article on the military draft by Joseph Lieberman, but waited until October to devote a cover story to events in Southeast Asia. Its title—“Vietnam: Reporting the Cool-Medium War”—spoke volumes about the level of involvement.
From then on, however, concern over the war began to accelerate. In January of 1967, Strobe Talbott ’68, chairman of the Yale Daily News (and now director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization), joined a group of 41 other student leaders from around the country for a closed-door, off-the-record conference with then-secretary of state Dean Rusk about the war. Almost exactly a year later, Coffin and Benjamin Spock ’25—the revered author of Baby and Child Care—were arrested and charged with counseling and abetting draft resistance by collecting draft cards that were turned over to the Justice Department. The largest number from any college came from Yale.
By that time, virtually everybody on the campus was wrestling with how to deal with a conflict many felt they could not support. As Rosenbaum wrote from the perspective of 1993, “Look at the kind of choices we faced when we were about to graduate: war, protest, jail, exile, or writing extremely complex soul-searching letters to our draft boards that could later come back to haunt us.”
American combat forces arrived officially in Vietnam in 1965, and by the time the survivors were withdrawn in 1973, some 58,000 of their comrades had been killed. But for most Yale students—however politically engaged—the issues surrounding U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia remained somewhat abstract, at least until the spring of 1968, when the government canceled most deferments for post-graduate study. The military was drafting some 40,000 men a month at that point, and the loss of an educational deferment—whether at the graduate or the undergraduate level—turned a matter of debate into a matter to be resolved with the utmost urgency.
A misstep could be fatal. George Carpenter ’68 was suspended from the College in his freshman year for disciplinary reasons. He was soon faced with the draft, and was later killed near Danang.
The war was not the only issue demanding attention among the politically engaged portion of the Yale College population. Joseph Lieberman was already writing powerful editorials on civil rights in the Yale Daily News as chairman in his senior year. But the impact of the struggle in the South remained remote for most Yale students, even as rioting broke out in New Haven in 1967. Again, it was not until the spring of 1968, which saw the assassination of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, that a growing sense of panic about racial issues began to infiltrate the campus. When the news of King’s death penetrated one of Yale’s fraternities during its regular weekly meeting, all four black members of the delegation rose and left the room as one man. Roland Betts ’68, a close friend of Bush’s and now a member of the Yale Corporation, told the New York Times this past August that, “There were moments when you weren’t sure about the survivability of the country.”
Powerful as the external currents of change were, they hardly engulfed the more traditional Yale of which George W. Bush was so much a part. It was a Yale still more firmly represented by his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), than it was by the Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.), whose Yale chapter was small and struggling. As the editors of an informal publication produced in Davenport College, where Bush lived, described their role: “Our Philistine-like approach is effective in removing plays, recitals, literary anthologies… from meaningful discussions in Davenport life.”
It is evidence of how divisive the issues were that so many students—two-thirds, by John Blum’s measure—could occupy such a separate reality. It was a reality put in place by those who followed Bush’s father to Yale, eager as they were to put World War II behind them and get on with their lives.
And the impulse to extend that calmer time endured for many, even in the late 1960s. Only in the early years of the decade had Yale’s admissions policy begun to move vigorously away from its traditional reliance on well-born preparatory school graduates. (See “When Yale Changed,” Dec. 1999). The College between 1964 and 1968 could still be a comfortable place for those more interested in recreation than in political confrontation. And as a former administrator who had Bush as an advisee said recently, although George W. was an Andover graduate and a multigenerational Yale “legacy,” he seemed to feel that his childhood in Texas had set him apart socially from more polished Easterners with similar résumés.
The members of DKE (of which Bush became president) or the Fence Club, or Beta, or Zeta were justly notorious for their wild parties and peculiar rituals, which in DKE’s case included branding initiates with a hot coat hanger. It was risky for a “mainstream” undergraduate to turn his back on the institutional culture—however superficial—for which he had been groomed. Indeed, there was a sense in some quarters that the “white-shoe” traditions upheld by the fraternities were not only obsolete, but somehow linked to the war and racial discrimination, and should be done away with. Speaking out against those views was not at all “cool,” and those who did so faced ostracism by those who, rightly or wrongly, considered themselves the campus elite. As the Class Book entry on politics put it: “Those who are daring enough to support the Johnson Administration or the War rarely are bold enough to admit it.”
What formed the most lasting image of the 1960s at Yale actually took place two years after the graduation of the Class of 1968. The year 1970 was the time of May Day, when the National Guard was called out in anticipation of what was feared would be rioting provoked by the trial in New Haven of Bobby Seale and eight other black radicals accused of murder. The University narrowly avoided the violent fates of Columbia, Harvard, and Kent State with the help of an administration under Kingman Brewster that opened itself to the protestors, and a student body led by the likes of Kurt Schmoke ’71 of the Black Student Alliance at Yale (now Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation), who chose dialogue over violence. (See “Powerful Persuader,” Nov.)
Among the casualties of the increasing assaults on the old way of doing things were some of Yale’s most entrenched institutions. In 1964, some 400 students had turned out for an organizational meeting at DKE (which had been founded at Yale in 1844); a year later, only half that number showed up. Within a year of Bush’s graduation, the Class Book was referring to fraternities as the “benign irrelevancy.” A few years after that, all of the organizations on Fraternity Row had failed and were forced to turn over their houses to the University. Skull and Bones, the senior society to which Bush’s father had belonged, survived (as did the other “spooks”), but the son’s delegation had already included a black, a Jordanian, and an Orthodox Jew. The Reserve Officers Training Corps, an early target of antiwar protestors, was doomed to exile from the campus.
Of course, for some undergraduates, just standing apart from—or being oblivious to—the changes that were under way is not the whole story. Many of them were actively opposed to those aspects of the upheavals they were aware of. “What I disliked most,” Bush told a reporter last year, “were the snobs who thought that just because they had a Yale education they could tell other people how to run their lives.” It is a theme that has been nurtured since 1968. And during his campaigns for the Texas governor’s mansion and for the White House, the candidate rarely mentioned Yale.
But stump speeches are one thing, personal choice is another. One of Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna, attends the University of Texas. Her sister Barbara is now a Yale freshman affiliated with Davenport, her father’s residential college.
Like many of his generation, George W. Bush, Yale Class of 1968, remains a man in the middle. He is now the chief executive of a country that seems eager to repudiate the excesses of the 1960s, while embracing such advances from those times as greater gender and racial equality. Having reluctantly glimpsed chaos from the security of an earlier era, the new president will need an understanding of both in walking a line in Washington no wider than the margin that elected him.
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