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San Francisco State
The Vietnam War started for me long before I attended the Marine Corps Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, in the summer of 1967. Months before I reported for active duty in June 1968, I had more than experienced the sting of battle over that very unpopular war. From the spring of 1966 through the spring of 1968, a second front for the war in Vietnam was fought on the college campuses across the United States. I attended and graduated from San Francisco State, one of the most progressive colleges in the country at that time. That is where Vietnam began for me.
On March 22, 1968, a light breeze rushed across the wide lawn in front of the San Francisco State Commons and chilled the damp March midafternoon air. Beside the walk, seventy-five feet from the near continuous traffic through the Commons entrance, two U.S. Marine recruiters were passing out promotional information and answering occasional questions posed by students interested in Marine officer programs. Captains Dick Hogens and Gary Lawson, officer selection officers for the Marine Corps San Francisco Recruiting Service, had a standing beer bet, whenever they went “body snatching” on State’s notoriously radical campus, concerning how long it would take for the usual confrontations instigated by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to occur. I had positioned myself just inside the Commons, a few feet from Hogens and Lawson, ready to come to their assistance if the protesters got out of hand. The seasoned Marines acknowledged my presence through the glass doors without calling any attention to me.
Hogens, a picture-book, six-foot, 190-pound, jut-jawed infantryman with a high-and-tight haircut and little tolerance for campus radicals, normally bet short-term and won. After a thirteen-month Vietnam tour as a rifle company commander from ’66 to ’67, when the war had heated up, he did not suffer lightly the usual liberal idealistic moralizing about the justness of the war. He was a Marine, he proudly told his assailants: he went to the war, took care of his men, killed when he had to, and came home reassigned to recruiting duty. His focus in Vietnam, he would say, was always his men and doing his job. He was committed to his profession and to his country. Many times he felt more under fire in the frantic antiwar atmosphere of San Francisco then he recalled feeling in combat.
Captain Gary Lawson, a class of ’64 Naval Academy graduate and Huey gunship pilot, also a Vietnam combat vet, in spite of military roots deeply formed during his Annapolis years, was more philosophical about students’ rights to dissent. “Hoge,” he’d frequently say, “these are just idealistic young college kids trying to find themselves. Give them time and a little more experience and they’ll come around.”
Hogens saw it differently. In his view, at least several of the SDS leadership, including Jake McKenney, a chief antiwar, antidraft, antimilitary strategist, were professional students. McKenney was in his late twenties or early thirties, and in the SDS during the chaotic sixties, he had finally found himself a niche with genuine stature. Hogens went nose to nose with McKenney, a philosophy major, several times before being convinced that McKenney planned to make a college career of igniting anarchic fires in the bellies of every naive nineteen-year-old State student in search of a cause. Stealing what he considered a particularly chic term from the Soviet Communist lexicon, McKenney reveled in staging agitprop events to ridicule and undermine his targets. Military recruiters, like Hogens and Lawson, and representatives of agencies and industries associated with supporting the Vietnam War were inevitably besieged by McKenney and his SDS antiwar, antiestablishment activists on campus. Hogens and Lawson wondered when their SDS assailants and their sometimes not-fully-committed followers found time for school.
Hogens found it unthinkable that State’s students would act so radically toward the school’s, and the government’s, authority: they were making such a sham of their college educations and they seemed never to be in class. Lawson, who’d spent his “college years” at Annapolis, taking nineteen to twenty-one hours a semester and enduring all the usual indignities and deprivations that entailed, found student antics entertaining if a bit misguided and irresponsible. To its credit, the SDS did not confine its dissent to the Vietnam War: anything establishment-based was fair game. A week earlier, the Dow Chemical headhunter had been run off campus, in spite of the school administration’s sanctioning his visit. The San Francisco State administration articulated its policies—such as keeping the campus open to recruiters of all kinds—adequately, but it consistently shirked its duty to enforce them, particularly in succumbing to the overbearing pressures of the radical left.
The SDS was taking on a variety of causes under McKenney and his subordinate leaders to bring “equality” to the campus and to give the students a voice in what he commonly referred to as “all spheres of the San Francisco State educational process.” As leader of the San Francisco chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, McKenney took very seriously his role in what the SDS referred to as “preaching and practicing the policies of disruption.” The causes he and his deputies had targeted reached into all vital areas of student and campus activity. The real student issue at State, as it was nationwide throughout the college and university systems, was control, and who was—and should have the right—to call the shots, the traditional agencies within the school administration or the students.
As Hogens watched a wave of about 150 SDS-led students flowing toward him and Larson, he suspected that business was soon going to get brisk. “Hey, Gary,” Hogens said, “take a look down the Commons. You can buy me my first pint of Guinness at O’Toole’s today.”
“Wait a minute, Hoge. Who says I’m buying? If we go another thirty minutes, you buy, Grunt!”
Lawson watched the small sea of students move steadily toward them. He really didn’t expect to win the day’s bet, but he wasn’t ready to roll over to Hogens yet. “My guess, Hoge, is that it’s just coincidence we’re alone on this beautiful lawn in front of the State Commons and the SDSers are in the area politicking again. This speech-making stuff is the daily bill o’ fare around here, bro. As I read today’s campus rag, the SDSers got bigger fish to fry than two lowly Marine recruiters out to catch a couple of young guys who want to serve their country.”
As the SDSers began to close on the recruiters, who stood behind a portable cafeteria table adorned with Marine Corps promotional material, my football teammate, Harry Gualco, Steve Diaz, the former Associated Students treasurer, and I emerged from the front entrance of the Commons. I could see that an SDS confrontation was imminent with the Marines. Hogen and Lawson had signed up Gualco and me a year before. As Gualco and I trotted over to the recruiters, Diaz said he was going to alert the campus police in case things got out of control.
The SDS demonstrators had quickly transited two hundred yards of Commons lawn and closed with the Marine recruiters, enveloping them in a crescent-shaped crowd. Captain Hogens and Captain Lawson stood coolly, prepared for the first volleys as the SDS demonstrators strengthened their verbal assault. Gualco and I took our posts on the flanks of the recruiters.
As an elected member of the student government (Associated Students treasurer), I officially cautioned McKenney not to interrupt an authorized visit by the Marine recruiters. McKenney ignored my appeal; he was intent on driving the recruiters off, just as he had the Dow Chemical representative. McKenney sensed the growing frenzy of his formation of followers. McKenney knew their cause was right—the war was misguided, unjust. He and the officially unrepresented masses had earned their place. They were obligated to change what the establishment would not. Today, McKenney probably thought, we’ll win another firefight in the relentless guerrilla war he and his kind had undertaken for the good of all society. Hogens and Lawson, who’d been repeatedly counseled by the senior Marine recruiter to maintain their composure, even when antagonized on campus, kept their cool. Gualco and I, plus a few friends from the football team, were losing ours.
Once again, I could see that the student sheep were being led by the SDS leadership, McKenney, Tewes, and Stein. That afternoon, McKenney was in the vanguard, demanding that Lawson and Hogens get off the Commons grounds. I was, by then, standing beside Hogens, and intervened. “You know I represent the student government. All of us also know that the military recruiters are permitted to come on campus. They’re entitled to conduct business just as are spokesmen the SDS sponsors.” I directed my comments at McKenney and Tewes, since they were orchestrating the day’s protest. “Why don’t all of you get back to class where you belong?”
But the SDS leaders were not to be turned away that easily, then or in the near future. They believed their continuous agitation was having an effect, and the evidence that they might be right was college president Summerskill and the school administration’s vacillation and indecisiveness in confronting the SDS as it disrupted officially sanctioned campus activity with increasing frequency. Just the night before, McKenney and Tewes had exhorted their disciples in the auditorium that the SDS was winning and that the time to increase the pressure had come.