The students at the University of Michigan felt connected to the Vietnam War in a variety of ways. As students, they had a temporary buffer from being drafted, but that did not mean that the military stopped trying to get them involved in the war effort. The ROTC was present on campus, and military recruitment efforts were a common occurrence. The Navy, Air Force, and Marines came to the University of Michigan on multiple occasions to try to recruit students to become officers or researchers in the military. While they did have success, the recruiters did not conduct business on campus without serious protest from the anti-war groups. The protest groups saw them as massive contributors to the war cause and who must be stopped.
Protesting Through Dialogue
During the Vietnam War, active anti-war groups on campuses across the country did not see their university as an appropriate place for the Armed Forces to recruit anymore. At the University of Michigan, many of these protestors used the means of discourse and non-violent protest to try to achieve their goals. In a response to the argument that recruiters should be allowed on campus due to their freedom of speech, VOICE, the Ann Arbor chapter of SDS, argued that the recruiters must then be willing and able to defend the policy of their agency in a public forum at least once a semester. Since military personnel would not be allowed to discuss their policies, “the U.S. government in the case of the Armed Forces, [could] substitute for a recruiter in this role.” Although VOICE proposed this form of active discussion in order to appease university officials and still hold the military recruiters accountable, not all anti-war protestors constrained themselves in their attempts to force recruiters off of campus.
More Assertive Forms of Protest
Many protesters chose to project a more direct and visible opposition to the recruiters on campus. Bill Ayers, who was an activist here during the mid-1960s, describes a story during our interview with him, in which a friend of his attempted to humiliate a Marine recruiter as a warmonger in the fishbowl. Despite the reaction this type of dissent drew, the anti-recruitment protests did eventually go beyond harsh words of criticisms.
Protesting Turns Violent
Violent clashes occurred during visitations by military personnel as protestors tried to disrupt recruitment and research meetings. When these violent protests occurred, members of the University of Michigan were not silent in their response. The Director of the Engineering Placement Service, John G. Young, wrote to the Student Government Council on February 2, 1970 to voice his opinion that SDS should no longer be considered a student organization after its disruptive and violent opposition to Navy and Du Pont recruiters on campus. He describes a particular incident in which “a concerted rush was made [by SDS members] on the interview room with the avowed intention of capturing the representative and taking him against his will to the ‘Fishbowl,’ apparently to make sport of him.”
Repsonses to the Protests
University administration was put in a very precarious position during the military recruitment protests as they attempted to respect the recruiters’ right to be on campus, sustain their possible contracts with the military, and respect the protestors’ rights to speak out against the military recruiting taking place. However, as soon as a protest against the military personnel became violent, the University took a stance against the protestors. A report to the University community on February 18, 1970 described an event in which approximately 100 students protested against representatives from General Electric being at the West Engineering building. Protestors smashed windows, blocked hallways, and then moved to President Robben Fleming’s office to voice their opposition to the recruitment and the use of police to quell the protesting. In the end, three people were sent to University Health Services for injuries sustained at the protest, and Ann Arbor police arrested thirteen people. University of Michigan President Robben Fleming stated to the university community in the same newsletter:
There is and must be dissent on every campus. The University must always be a world of ideas, often in conflict. It ceases to be a University, however, when a group, which is willing to use totalitarian tactics, can impose on the rest of us its views. We have resisted force and violence. We will continue to do so long as I am President. If the police have to be called, they will be, but never to suppress the right to dissent in a peaceful and lawful fashion.
The violent protests against recruiters were successful in disrupting the recruiting taking place on campus, but they also earned the anti-war protestors great opposition off campus to their ways of approaching their movement. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took a strong stance against protestors who chose to use violence to try to silence recruiters on campus:
…Who are moved by conscience or the intensity of their convictions to use means of protest which result in depriving others of the opportunity to speak or be heard, physically obstruct movement or disrupt the educational or institutional process cannot expect support on civil liberties grounds and must be prepared to accept the consequences of their action.
Although the forceful protests against military recruitment lessened the anti-war movement’s support from established institutions, such as the University of Michigan and the ACLU, the protestors continued with these means of resistance for the rest of the war in the hopes of ending the recruitment of their peers by the United States Armed Forces.
Citations for this page (individual document citations are at the full document links).
Voice Proposal Concerning Recruiters, Folder student Discipline Faculty Speeches 1968-1970, Box #9, Collection VP Student Affairs, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Engineering Placement Services Director, Folder Recruitment (1 of 4), Box#9, Collection VP Student Affairs, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Report to University Community, Folder BW Newell Recruitment (2 of 4), Box 9, Collection VP Student Affair, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
ACLU Statement, Folder Recruitment (1 of 4), Box#9, Collection VP Student Affairs, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Interview of Bill Ayers by Chris Haughey and Obadiah Brown, Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 26, 2015.
Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).