The Vietnam Day Committee
The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) was the first political organization in which I was involved after my arrest in the Free Speech Movement. I had been greatly relieved when that controversy was over and I was eager to focus my entire attention on becoming, against all odds at that time and maybe even now, a female anthropologist. The VDC was formed to organize the first Vietnam Day, May 21, 1965, an all-day event on campus that included speakers on the war and other events and synchronized with similar events at other universities.6
According to anthropologist Gerald Berreman, teach-ins were invented by Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, who derived the word from the phrase “sit-in.”7 Gerry was the first University of California professor to come out publicly against the war and one of the organizers of the first teach-in.8 He describes them as, “informational and educational demonstrations analyzing and criticizing American policies in Southeast Asia, documenting the hypocrisies and atrocities inherent therein.”9 The first one took place in Berkeley on March 24, 1965, and Gerry, a member of the executive board of the UC Berkeley Faculty Peace Committee, was one of the speakers.
More teach-ins and convocations followed the first one, as did actual demonstrations organized by the VDC. There was, as one might expect, a strong negative reaction to the activities of the VDC, inside and outside the university. I, myself, have always had a strong negative reaction to one of its main organizers, Jerry Rubin. When Rubin showed up on campus after the FSM and began speaking at the noon rallies now, because of us, a fixture on the Sproul Hall steps, everyone I knew was appalled. He had an anti-intellectual tone, lumped the faculty together as all bad–which insulted me, in particular, because I had the deepest respect for some general actions of the faculty and for particular anthro professors–and, in the deepest possible contrast to Mario Savio and most of the FSM leaders, shrieked and dumped on us for NOT BEING ACTIVE ENOUGH. We certainly did not feel that we needed any guidance on that point from the likes of him.
We were especially pissed at him one day when, speaking at a noon rally, he referred to “what we did in the FSM.” In the break room that day we were all saying to each other, “what you mean WE, asshole? You weren’t even here.” That he should imply that he was a participant and then be so embarrassingly unlike our FSM leaders was a hard thing for us to live with. My fellow bustees and I found it quite annoying and presumptuous. I never followed Jerry Rubin anywhere. In the VDC, I was following Jack Weinburg, Frank Bardacke, Steve Weissman and my anthro colleagues. On the other hand, Rubin was only one among several leaders of the VDC and some of them had actually been leaders of the FSM, and the goal of the VDC was much bigger than Jerry and his ego, so I managed to endure him.
In stark contrast were leaders like Gerry Berreman. Many of us, especially anthropology students, took heart in those troubled times from the following letter from Gerry to the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper, which I am quoting in full because it so aptly puts the VDC into the context of its times and provides a colorful description of it. The phrase “tea cup liberalism” from this letter became a catch phrase for peace activists in Berkeley and perhaps elsewhere, for the duration of the war. The letter also reveals much about Gerry personally that explains why I so respected him and was so willing to follow his lead on pretty much anything. Courage, intelligence, humor—he was ever my hero in the 60s:
A group of my colleagues has suddenly seen fit to announce that they are opposed to the war in Vietnam, sort of, but that they are even more opposed to the methods and manners of the Vietnam Day Committee on the Berkeley campus. Accordingly, they have composed a public letter seeking my signature if I “can agree with the general tenor… or accept most of the basic positions.” At the same time, the letter seems to be directed partly to me, since I am a faculty participant in the VDC to the extent of financial contribution. I have refrained from signing the letter not only because I am unaccustomed to writing letters to myself, but also because I am unimpressed with the hand-wringing, tea-cup liberalism which it represents, despite the distinguished names to be found among its signatories.
Actually, I find myself in agreement with some of the major points in that letter, and I find myself unable to agree with every action and slogan of the VDC. But with the fundamental implications of the letter I disagree profoundly, and with the basic premises of the VDC I agree wholly. The letter implies that refuge in an ivory tower is the only right and seemly way for academics to respond to the complex problem of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Such refuge is to be mitigated only by sending “letters to the president, to our congressmen, and to the public.” The basic premise of the VDC seems to be that the United States is involved in a totally immoral military adventure, opposition to which must be expressed as urgently and effectively as possible in the hope that the killing will stop. Letters have proved ineffective over the months and years, so the VDC is trying more direct and dramatic means. I cannot believe that their means are absolutely ineffective nor, most especially, that they are relatively less effective then those of the signatories of the letter opposing them.
In the covering letter seeking my signature, I was told that “in a calmer and slower-moving situation, it would be appropriate for each one of us” (to express our reservations regarding the VDC precisely and presumably, separately). “With the beginning of the semester, however, we find ourselves in a situation where large numbers of idealistic and inexperienced students might be tempted to follow the melodramatic activism of the VDC—to their own detriment and to that of the university—and it is important that the faculty speak up (by signing the letter).”
Concern for the intellectual and behavioral welfare of our students is appropriate and, in this instance, it is well-nigh touching, but I have more faith in the judgment of students than to think that they need preachment on how to be discreetly moral. Did my colleagues concerned for the welfare of the university learn nothing from last year’s experience? Do they think the students learned nothing? Activism, melodramatic or otherwise, is something about which students know a great deal these days and it is rather poignant to think that my colleagues wish to protect them from it.
In a calmer and slower-moving situation (to borrow a phrase) than that represented by U.S. involvement in Vietnam, I would perhaps find it appropriate to remain aloof; to examine each facet of that involvement with dispassionate and loving rationality, to savor fully the implications of every possible alternative and to convey my conclusions (as I often have) in closely reasoned letters to the decision-makers. With the beginning of the semester, however, we find ourselves in a situation where large numbers of idealistic and inexperienced (borrowing, again) young Americans have been killed and will be killed in a war I consider to be utterly immoral and indefensible. In these circumstances, I think it important that those willing to act with the courage of their convictions be encouraged to do so. Those of us who prefer to wring our hands, to bemoan the actions of our government ex post facto, or to submit closely reasoned analyses to our president, should be free to do so (and to ponder the evident impact of our communiqués along with the content of the replies we get from harried State Department PR men.)
The supporters of the letter to which I am responding regret the activist means of the VDC while applauding its ends. I shall await eagerly evidence that they have undertaken—or even suggested—a more effective course of action. Until then, I will support the VDC even though I think it is at times unseemly, at times overenthusiastic and even rash, at times embarrassingly frank, at times melodramatic, at times naïve, and perhaps always quite unacademic in its approach. Maybe opponents of public immorality need to be these ways. If I see fit, I may work from within to achieve greater rationality in their proceedings, but I shall not attempt to destroy the one viable voice in this area crying out against the immorality of our war in Vietnam. Sincerely, Gerald Berreman10
At a convocation held in the Greek Theater on May 27, 1970, a month after the invasion of Cambodia and after the My Lai massacre, Gerry’s address included the following quote, which provides further indication of the atmosphere at the university that generated the VDC and the anti-war movement in general:
Let me close with some words about the reconstitution of the University. The war in Southeast Asia, together with racism at home and abroad, has made it clear to increasing numbers of people that traditional university education has been compatible with domestic and international racism and violence. The faculty, employees and students of the University of California have therefore begun to reconstitute this University. We propose to end business as usual because war and racism are business as usual, and they are incompatible with education in a free society. . . . we will reconstruct our educational functions, not abandon them; …we will bring them out of the ivory tower and out of the war machine (which, to a significant extent, is the ivory tower), into the world. We will work to make that world a more humane one.” 11
Since my memories of my anti-war activities seldom include the kind of information historians like, such as dates and locations, and it was hard for me to get such a general picture from within, I am relying on historian Michael Lowe’s account of the VDC to explain it here. He describes it as:
…an early antiwar organization which sought to build a nationwide consensus against the war, held rallies and supported the quick withdrawal of U.S. military forces in Vietnam. . . .Students and non-students alike joined the Vietnam Day Committee during and after participating in the FSM. Jerry Rubin, a former UCB student, and Stephen Smale, a University math professor, played large roles in the Vietnam Day Committee’s founding and led the planning and implementation of its events. . . .
The group had no official stance on the Vietnam War, but its members and the speakers they invited tended to strongly emphasize facts that supported an antiwar position. The VDC’s participants, with minimal variation, took a radical position: the group opposed not only the war but also the foreign policy guidelines and strict anti-communist rationale justifying it. . .immediate troop withdrawal, physical opposition to the war effort in Vietnam, and mass civil disobedience.12
Increasingly prominent among the many subjects covered by the group I hung out with in the Gifford Room, the anthropology student lounge, was the war and the anthropology professor leading the opposition to it. In the center of those discussions was archaeology student Richard Cowan, a friend of Frank Bardacke, a prominent VDC and FSM leader. I was very impressed by these conversations, not the least because Cowan and his friends were among the leading lights scholastically in the department. I was very open to what they might have to say.
I was drawn into anti-war activities mainly because of these conversations and the ones I had with Gale Bach, my boyfriend in the City Planning Department, with whom I attended peace marches, troop train demonstrations and teach-ins. Gale was drawn into the anti-war movement, I suspect, largely because he greatly feared being drafted. He was not otherwise a very politically active person and actually tried to dissuade me from participating in a symbolic re-enaction of the FSM bust a year later, a Sproul Hall mass walk-through. He cited mob mentality, which I experienced as quite insulting. (We had a big fight later.) He had a 2-S deferment as long as he remained a student, but he was nearing the end of his Master’s work, after which he could expect an immediate reclassification to 1-A. We celebrated wildly when he was declared 4-F for the draft because of a rugby injury he had sustained at Yale. (It was a real injury to his shoulder. I was witness to several occasions when his shoulder painfully ceased to function. He really could not have fired a rifle.)
Although I did some typing and envelope stuffing and phoning for the VDC and attended every teach-in and large march, I was definitely among the followers, as opposed to the leaders, as I was in relation to all the political movements the entire time I was in Berkeley. This is not to say that I was a “blind” follower–I was as skeptical and questioning as anyone, perhaps more so because of my hardship background. It is merely to stipulate that, as usual, I was not a leader.
It was all very confusing to me—the meetings, the various factions, the egos, the jockeying for position. I had no background in activism, aside from the truncated revolt at Norman College, my friendship with civil rights activists at FSU and my minimal involvement in the FSM, and I was far too busy to get myself up to speed on it. I soon realized that, given the cacophony of loud male voices at many large meetings, no one would ever hear me and my only contribution would be if anything came to a vote. So, I generally avoided large organizational meetings and got very active within the anthropology department, instead. I assumed that whatever happened at a VDC meeting would probably be reported to us in detail by Cowan in the Gifford Room and I could then decide if it required any action from me.
Stopping the trains
The first antiwar demonstration I remember participating in was a “troop train” demo. Many of us were surprised to learn that there were train tracks in Berkeley and that they were being used to transport troops on their way to Vietnam. We were called upon by the VDC to go and sit on the tracks in order to stop the trains. I was not quite sure what we were going to do with them when we stopped them, but I knew that we were going to do something, perhaps try to talk to the guys inside. It is my recollection that the first time we attempted to do that, it failed for some reason. I remember just being there and holding signs. But, the second time was deeply memorable to me and, I am willing to say, figured large in my lifetime commitment to the peace movement.
Lowe’s description of that event follows:
In August 1965, a few hundred demonstrators marched from the University of California, Berkeley, campus to a provocative, dangerous antiwar demonstration. Flanked by policemen and flash bulbs, demonstrators stood on a Berkeley train track, carrying signs and chanting. A train carrying troops bound for the Oakland Army Terminal headed straight for them. Suspenseful seconds passed while many stayed put. The train let out an immense rush of steam, confusing demonstrators as a shrill, piercing conductor’s whistle rendered everything else chaotic but silent. One woman was pulled from the tracks moments before a collision, but other activists scrambling to escape the train’s path could not see through clouds of steam; the train to Oakland soon advanced forward, carrying troops closer to war.13
Lowe’s account is the only historical documentation that I have found of something that happened to me that day that changed my life. I believe that I met the woman who was pulled from the tracks. The story requires some flashbacks and flash forwards to fully understand what it has meant to me in my life. The flashback part is the love/hate relationship I have always had with trains. Trains were and are very symbolic in my life and have figured in my worries about my sanity—the train that ruined my childhood by bringing me to Miami from Cleveland; the scary once-a-day train that I used to view alone and from a safe distance as a small child when I visited my grandparents in Ft. Green, Florida; the trains on the tracks we lived beside when I was a baby that so frightened my mother that she moved us because of them; the trains I heard in Tallahassee that turned out to be auditory hallucinations; the train that brought me to California but not to San Francisco; the story of the train my father rode from Detroit with his brother’s corpse. For me to place myself near trains and with the goal in mind of stopping them was a bit of an exercise in self-discipline.
I remember walking, walking, for a very long time beside the tracks. We were going to a different location than we had gone to for the first troop train demo. People were asking each other, are you going to sit on the tracks? The little group that I was with, Gale and his friends, had pretty much decided that we would sit on the tracks, but I was nevertheless reserving the right to play it by ear. Gale was neglecting me in favor of his buddies, so I looked around for someone to talk to. Walking beside me was a woman I remember as shorter than me. I think of her as small and intriguing. She was not talking to anybody, either. We struck up a conversation that lasted for maybe an hour, walking together along the train tracks.
The woman said that she was a Buddhist and that she was interested in stopping the war because of the immolations of the priests. I said that the immolations were also a factor for me. She said that the Vietnamese were Buddhist people and part of what they wanted to do was to have their own Buddhist culture. We talked about that. I said I worked at the Lowie Museum and loved my job. We talked about that. She said she worked with small children. I suggested she bring them to the Lowie Museum on a field trip. I asked her what she was going to do when the train came. We were supposed to get on the tracks and that was all I knew. She said she was going to sit down on the tracks. I asked her, then what? She said, “Maybe the train will stop.” I asked, “What if the train doesn’t stop?” She said, “I’ll sit.” I had a few minutes to ponder that before we were told the train was coming and people began sitting down on the tracks.
Then, here comes the train, off in the distance. Along with many other people, I had stepped onto the tracks and had tentatively sat down, but was ready to jump away in a heartbeat. But, the woman walking beside me went away from me, farther down the tracks in the direction the train was expected to come from, and sat alone and cross-legged on the tracks. As the train came around the bend, I thought, it is going to have to slow down now if it is not to hit the protesters. But, right as I had that thought, it sped up, shot out steam and the whistle began to scream. I was on my feet in a split second. The last thing I saw before I jumped off the tracks was the woman who had been with me, still sitting on the tracks.
It was a long train. It took a long time to go by, the windows full of young male faces, some looking back at us, some studiously ignoring us. The whole time the train was going by, as other people yelled and waved signs, I stood immobile and silent, thinking it possible that my new friend was under it and feeling hysteria trying to bubble up. I could not imagine that she had gotten off the tracks, since she had been so firmly seated, not ready to jump as I had been. I did not know whether to scream or not. The train went by and there was nothing, no sign of her. I half-expected to see a bloody, mangled body on the tracks, but she had simply vanished.
I was frantic. Thinking she must have somehow jumped to the opposite side of the tracks than I did, even though I saw her still sitting when I had jumped, I ran to the other side and looked around at the people on that side. She was not there. Gale, eager to go, would not wait for me to question those witnesses and never did understand how shocking an experience it was for me, although he did take me straight home and try to settle me down and reason with me. “Look,” he said. “Whatever happened she did not get hit by the train. That did not happen. She also did not dematerialize, you are too rational to believe that. So you can eliminate those two possibilities.” Thirty years later, he said he did not remember the story the way I did and even questioned the whole scenario. I pointed out to him that he would not have remembered it, since he was paying no attention to me at all and would not have remembered her or have had any clue what I was feeling as the train went by, though I was surprised he did not remember how upset I was.
Soon after, I just happened to be working at the reception desk at the museum, something I did only occasionally, when, to my great astonishment even though I had mentioned the museum to her, the same woman came in with a bunch of kids, on a field trip to the museum. I had the chance to ask her, “What the hell happened?” She told me some plainclothes policemen (moles) had snatched her off the track at the last minute and whisked her away in a police car. I asked her if she would have stayed on the tracks had they not, even though I had seen how close the train was to her when I had jumped and knew it would have been impossible for her to jump off in time on her own. She only said, “Yes.”
“But now,” she said, fixing me with calming look, “I’m here with the children and we are going to look at the museum.” She turned away, leaving me stunned and staring into space. My life-long interest in Buddhism may have been born in that moment. What kind of person is willing to sacrifice herself to stop an unjust war and then, only days later, has returned to her original mission and has no need to talk about it with the only person who witnessed it from the start? And, it hit me directly in my heart that here was a person who was ready to die to stop the war. I knew from that moment on just exactly how serious an issue it was and that I was committed to stopping it in a way I had not been before.
Flash forward to years after that, when I tell the story as an interviewee in Berkeley in the Sixties. Flash further forward, when I am contacted on Facebook by a woman who saw the documentary and says that her Buddhist teacher lived in Berkeley and taught small children. Could my Buddhist be the same person? I responded that I did not remember that she was a nun, but she could have been and not told me or could have been about to be a nun. I pondered that the woman I met may have been or later became a Buddhist nun. Flash even further forward to years after that reminder of her, when I purchase a calendar, purely on the basis of the art work (I rarely read quotes, if any). On the way home, a woman in a store I go into spots it in my basket and eagerly asks me where I got it. She says she is very into the woman whose picture is on the back. I tell her, the Co-op.
When I went to hang the calendar some days later, I remembered the woman in the store, and looked on the back to see what the all the fuss was about. I got into reading a quote from one of her books and thought, “Well, that sounds about right, sister” then looked at her picture and recognized her immediately. It was her, the woman on the train tracks, Pema Chodron, the world-famous American Buddhist teacher. Hardly believing the line of coincidences that led me to this revelation, I researched Pema Chodron online and found that my eyes were not deceiving me. The woman who had made such an impression on me had become a powerful religious leader. Take that, I thought, all ye who would dismiss us peaceniks as dupes of the atheistic Communists. Hippies have my permission to call the whole story the absolute height of cosmic. For others, zietgeist will work—eddies of time whirling us on to similar paths, no wonder they crossed strangely again in the future. For myself, I’m going to go with cosmic.
© Jentri Anders,2016
Footnotes are located in the blog entry entitled “Footnotes for Chapter Six.”