Seven Days in May

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

“Did you hear that a bunch of students got shot?” a classmate asked as he rushed up to the makeshift stage near the flagpole on the Main Quad. “It just happened at Kent State. Some got killed.”


The news triggered shock and disbelief among those of us milling around in the early afternoon sunshine, waiting for another anti-war rally to begin. Yet even before word spread about the Kent State violence, the demonstration planned here at Notre Dame gave promise of being different from all the earlier ones.


Five days before, on April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon had announced that U.S. troops were involved in an “incursion” — his word — in Cambodia. Instead of keeping his pledge to reduce American participation in the Vietnam War, the president was expanding the fighting that had been dragging on since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.


Campuses across the country erupted after Cambodia as never before or since. ROTC buildings at some 30 schools were burned during the week following the incursion. By May 4, the day of the Kent State shootings, students were striking at a hundred colleges and universities, and nearly 350 schools were soon to follow suit. At Notre Dame, word was out that a call to boycott classes would highlight this afternoon’s rally.


The first speaker, however, told the crowd of almost 2,000 something else. Reading from pages the wind kept lifting from the lectern, he said, “Striking classes as some universities are doing — in the sense of cutting off your education — is the worst thing you could do at this time, since your education and your growth competence are what the world needs most if the leadership of the future is going to be better than the leadership of the past and present.” Then, departing from his prepared remarks, he added, “We are living in an age of midgets. I want you to prepare to be giants.”


The speaker, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, was in his 18th year as president of Notre Dame. Although he argued against a strike, he struck a chord with many students and faculty that day by proposing a six-point “declaration” which called, among other measures, for “the withdrawal of our military forces at the earliest moment” and a commitment “to help work for a better America and a better world in a peaceful and non-violent manner.” Hesburgh told the crowd if others supported his statement, he’d send signed copies to President Nixon.


Next, Student Body President Dave Krashna took the stage to advocate a more extreme course of action: He urged students to “stop, look, and listen — and absolutely to say ‘stop’ to the education we’re getting at this time.” His call to strike had an immediate impact: Attendance was sparse at late Monday classes, and more than half the student body boycotted classes on Tuesday.


From both the composition of the rally’s audience and the response to the two speakers, you could feel the campus climate changing. Many people at Notre Dame who had shown no previous interest in doing anything to oppose the war now looked at Cambodia and Kent State with dismay.


Over the preceding four years, opinion about the Vietnam War at the University had been decidedly mixed. While growing numbers of faculty and students stood against the American involvement in Indochina and wanted a rapid end to the fighting, a large percentage supported U.S. policy and what it was trying to achieve, and a fair number had no strong views either way. The events of May enlarged the ranks of those opposed to the war – in just a few days, many in the mainstream center found common cause with those in the anti-war left.


Earlier that academic year, in the autumn of 1969, there had been a large anti-war march and Mass, but it was a solemn, one-day expression. Later in the fall, 250 protesters demonstrated against the Dow Chemical Company and the Central Intelligence Agency, leading to the suspension of 10 students. But that autumn incident had an “us versus them” quality, whereas in May a spirit of solidarity quickly developed. Enough was enough. From this point on, opposition to the war became the majority point of view among students, faculty and administrators.


The change of climate had repercussions throughout the University. Rev. John E. Walsh, CSC, vice president of academic affairs, formally suspended Wednesday classes. Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, a traditional university holiday at the time. In his statement, Walsh quoted a resolution passed by the Student Life Council, an elected body of students, faculty and administrators, asking the Notre Dame community to “set aside Wednesday and Thursday… as days for speeches, teach-ins and liturgical ceremonies to express the deep feelings and reservations about our government’s recent associations in Indochina.” Sanctioning the resolution, he said, was the university’s response “to a widespread campus consensus.”


As events continued to unfold, work on what became known as the “Hesburgh Declaration” and pressure from the strike activists converged. The passions and actions of those opposed to the war began to flow in the same direction. Yet despite the newfound unity of purpose, those who continued to support the war and those who opposed a strike still had chances to express their views.


I was struck by the seriousness, urgency and intensity that pervaded the campus. Admittedly, my perspective was different from that of most students: I was working as the Notre Dame correspondent for the Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times. I had covered so many demonstrations and acts of student unrest that they tended to blur in my memory, then and now.


But what was taking place now was a far cry from what had been taking place at Notre Dame just prior to Cambodia and Kent State. Three days before the May 4 rally on the quad, 30 to 40 students invaded the Center for Continuing Education, searched out the room where the University’s board of trustees was holding its spring meeting and pounded on the doors, forcing the trustees to cut the meeting short. In late April, about a thousand Notre Dame students held a panty raid at Saint Mary’s College that turned destructive: Property damage and thefts added up to a $3,000 price tag.


Looking back at that time, which he calls his most difficult as president, Hesburgh says his course “was a monumental case of improvisation.” He didn’t know what might occur, and he carried in his billfold a list of college and university presidents he knew personally who were driven from office or who died as a result of physical ailments exacerbated by the turmoil on their campuses. The number approached 200.


Hesburgh identifies the Cambodian incursion as the turning point in his own thinking about the war. “In my mind, I was turning a very wide corner,” he says. “It was time to say, ‘Get out now, tonight before midnight.’” He admits, though, that he had no idea what impact, if any, his rally speech and six-point declaration would have.


“It had been a horrible weekend,” he recalls, describing the shouting and door-pounding at the trustees’ meeting. “I got back to the Main Building about midnight on Sunday. I thought, if I had any brains I’d go to bed; but not having any brains, I went up to my office. A couple of kids came up and said, ‘There’s going to be a real blow-up tomorrow and you better be ready for it.’”


More students stopped by his office – one reporting a rumor that the ROTC building was going to be firebombed. Another told Hesburgh he might be asked to speak at the rally on Monday. “About 3 o’clock, Dave Krashna called to ask if I would talk. I said okay, and I thought I’d better have this one in writing, which I generally don’t do.”


Hesburgh remembers giving the talk “with whatever fervor I had,” then walking to the barbershop in Badin Hall for a haircut. “When I went back to the office, there were a bunch of young people standing and wanting copies of the talk. I said, ‘Sure, how many do you want?’ They said, ‘Thousands.’ I said, ‘What do you want all of the copies for?’ They said ‘We’re going to have students go to every house in town and try to have them sign the program.’ I said ‘I’ll tell you what: You guys do that and when you get all of the signatures I’ll make sure the president gets them.’”


During the next few days there was not only a mood of seriousness but an explosion of energy. Students fanned out through South Bend and Mishawaka seeking signatures for the Hesburgh Declaration. Letter-writing campaigns churned out thousands of anti-war missives to the president, members of Congress, American bishops and newspapers across the country. Discussion groups gathered each morning for what in the ’60s were called “teach-ins” — or, more barbarously, “rap sessions.” Students debated America’s proper role in the world and prayed for an end to violence at home and abroad.


A mimeographed newsletter, the “Notre Dame Daily Striker,” began appearing to compete with The Observer, which in the estimation of some strike leaders was not vigorous enough in supporting the campus turmoil.


Besides these ongoing efforts, special events — speeches, Masses, marches, meetings — brought together large groups of students, faculty, and staff members. New York Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein, the 1970 Senior Class Fellow and an early opponent of the Vietnam War, came to Notre Dame the day after Kent State and told an overflow crowd in Washington Hall, “We are grieved and wounded, but we are tough and ready to fight.” Less than a week later, Indiana Senator Vance Hartke urged a campus audience to “continue to protest the war by all peaceful means.”


May 6 and 7 — the Wednesday of suspended classes and Ascension Thursday — were pivotal days in Notre Dame’s response to the turmoil. On Wednesday, more than a thousand people took part in a Mass on the Main Quad. While this was happening, a special faculty meeting was taking place in Washington Hall. After two and a half hours of robust debate, a resolution supporting the Hesburgh Declaration was passed 217 to 134.


Late that afternoon the largest march in the history of the University took place. Upwards of 5,000 people, by official estimates, wound through the campus, then trekked through city streets to Howard Park near the Saint Joseph River for a community-wide rally.


On Ascension Thursday, 30 priests concelebrated a memorial Mass for the students killed at Kent State. That evening, with Friday classes looming, students supporting a continuation of the strike called an “emergency” meeting at Stepan Center. (The words “emergency” and “meeting” were frequently paired in those days.)


Trying to keep track of the arguments and counter-arguments, the motions and counter-motions at the meeting was almost impossible. The standing-room-only crowd witnessed little more than chaos. Finally, at the end of the session and amid considerable confusion, 1,309 students voted to continue the strike until May 15, another full week: 1,013 wanted to delay a decision until Sunday, May 10; 250 students favored ending the strike right then.


Walking away from Stepan Center, I remember thinking that the unity of the past four days was beginning to evaporate. Although strike activities involved well over a thousand students, some had started to question the ultimate value of a longer interruption of the semester. Classes were scheduled to end May 26.


After calling the Associated Press bureau in Indianapolis with a report of the student meeting, I went to a late-evening discussion about the war and related matters in the chapel of Saint Edward’s Hall, where I lived. (Most halls conducted such sessions during this week.) My mind soon strayed from the speaker’s words and locked on one he hadn’t uttered: compromise. There must be a way, I thought to myself, to work out an agreement so that striking students could carry out their activities without infringing on the education and political views of other students.


Throughout that week the newspapers were full of stories about schools closing their doors and shortening the semester by as much as six weeks — reports many of us found dismaying. Such acts seemed starkly negative responses that, in essence, said “no” to both education and to the anti-war efforts of students.


The notion of trying to create a compromise appealed to other students in Saint Ed’s. Inexperienced as we were — not one of us had any position in campus government or in the strike activities — we set out to draft a statement that would stake out a middle ground. As much as anything, we wanted to avoid identification with either the more radical or the more conservative groups. We sought acceptance, either hearty or grudging, from students, faculty, and administrators.


Writing the proposal took most of the night. As birds began to chirp outside the fourth-floor window, we had a 300-word document modestly titled “Strike – A Consideration.” The statement supported students who wanted to complete their semester courses; for the strikers, we outlined several options, depending on the type of course (required or elective) and the extent of the involvement in, as the sheet put it, “activities in the spirit of the strike.” In addition, we proposed to set up a series of not-for-credit courses to be offered by regular faculty members that in some way addressed the issues of the moment.


Not knowing exactly what to do with this plan, we decided to present it in the form of a petition that students and faculty could sign – everybody else seemed to be doing it; why couldn’t we? Somehow, during the next three days, we collected more than 6,000 names, going dorm room to dorm room and office to office.


During the weekend, we learned that Father Hesburgh had called “an emergency meeting” of the Academic Council, a policy-making body of administrators and faculty, for Monday afternoon. The meeting was prompted by the absence of large numbers of students from classrooms on Friday and the continuing intensity of campus concern. Over 500 students on Friday alone had gone door to door in South Bend soliciting signatures on the Hesburgh Declaration.


Nine students were asked to talk for two to three minutes about strike activities past and planned at the Academic Council meeting. I was allotted four minutes to explain what, now less modestly, we were calling the “Academic Alternative Proposal.”


Standing there in front of the Council in the CCE, I expected butterflies to emerge from my mouth when I opened it. Being a participant instead of an observer felt unnatural. Halting delivery notwithstanding, I summarized the plan, emphasizing such words as “positive,” “reasonable,” “moderate.” The last sentence steered to the middle course of the compromise and tried – however naively – to foster braod appeal.


When the Council went into executive session, students waiting outside the room speculated about the outcome. A week earlier, Hesburgh had spoken out against a strike, and the day before he had reiterated his opposition on a CBS News special report. In the broadcast, though, he acknowledged that many students had just experienced “the most striking week of their lives” – presumably with no pun intended.


Late in the afternoon, the University formally announced measures similar to the compromise proposals. Noting that it would be “academically irresponsible” to suspend more classes, the Council declared that “students participating in organized activities” who were not on scholastic probation could discontinue classes if they wished. Faculty members would determine final grades either by assigning the student’s current grade, giving a pass or fail mark, or assigning a W (for withdrawal) or an I (for incomplete). The Council also voted to excuse all class absences from May 4 to 11.


The compromise had worked. Flushed with success, the students at Saint Ed’s started signing up professors to lead the “informal classes” we had proposed. Scheduling multiple sessions on such short notice quickly turned into a nightmare – as anyone with an ounce of sense should have realized – but individual meetings (“Literary Attitudes Toward War,” “What Can a Physicist Do?” “History of Communist Involvement in Vietnam,” “Successful Withdrawal of De Gaulle from Algeria”) flourished in dormitories and elsewhere. After a week of upheaval, the campus settled into a new rhythm, a new equilibrium, that lasted for the final weeks of the term.


Putting those eight days of May in perspective now, Hesburgh sees the period not only as a personal turning point but as a fulcrum in Notre Dame history. “It was an enormous involvement of students in what was really a social movement,” he says. “That was a unique and new thing.”



So it was. The earliest manifestation of an anti-war effort at the University was a “teach-in” five years earlier, in the fall in 1965. In 1967 and ’68, fewer than 200 students and faculty demonstrated against Dow Chemical, ROTC and the CIA. Those occasions always seemed to involve the same people, a reporter could observe. It was 1969 before Notre Dame began to reflect the mounting opposition to the war that had become so visible across the country.


In March of ’69, the first Senior Class Fellow – an award formerly called “Patriot of the Year” – was Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had run for president in 1968 as a peace candidate. His visit that March was followed in the fall of ’69 by a Mass on the library mall that included the burning of six draft cards — those of four students, one Notre Dame professor and one faculty member from Saint Mary’s — at the Offertory. An estimated 2,500 people took part in that Mass and a march to the ROTC building.


Shortly thereafter, 250 students protested recruitment activities by the CIA and Dow Chemical Company, the maker of napalm used in Vietnam, at the Placement Bureau in the Main Building. This confrontational demonstration resulted in the first and only use of the Hesburgh 15-minute rule, which had been promulgated the previous February, not long after a conference on pornography and censorship that included police confiscation of a film. The 15-minute rule spelled out the consequences of campus disruptions in a 2,500-word letter to students and faculty.


In that letter, which was widely re-printed in newspapers and magazine, he recognized “the validity of protest in our day – sometimes even the necessity.” However, he also did what other academic administrators had been reluctant to do: He established a definite time limit for actions that violated the rights of other people or obstructed the life of the University. As he said in the document’s most often quoted passage, “… anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion, be it violent or nonviolent, will be given 15 minutes of meditation to cease and desist.” Even President Nixon applauded.


At the Dow and CIA demonstration in November, 10 students tested the rule after receiving a warning that suspension or expulsion would result. All were suspended for one semester.


Looking back, Hesburgh sees a connection between May 1970 and his 15-minute rule. “What happened in ’70 was the real turning point, but the letter had laid down the ground rules,” he notes. “People were hungry for someone to stand up to the mob and say, ‘Okay, this is far enough. We don’t go any farther.’


“There had been some pretty rough stuff going on [at other schools]. The one thing that struck me, though, was that our students were different from the others in several aspects. They had an instinctive moral approach; it wasn’t just the revolution for the sake of the revolution. They really knew that there was a moral dimension to America. I think it’s fair to say it’s the first time in the history of this country that the younger people turned around the older people. It’s always been the other way around. They were so convinced, and they were so universally worked up on this.


“The second thing that was important,” he adds, “is that whenever we had a real crisis it was almost always tied to the liturgy. Many of our big moments during that terrible period were punctuated by Masses at midnight out on the Main Quad.


“The third thing, I think, was that our students were never all that devious. We had a devious small group trying to really cause mischief – maybe not in their own minds; I don’t want to judge them. They probably had high motives, as all revolutionaries do. But we also had a good, solid core of people who could be convinced otherwise. You could reason with them. If you gave them a decent program that responded to their idealism, they would pick it up and run with it. I didn’t insist that they go all over town [with the six-point plan]; they did that on their own.”


As it turned out, students collected 23,000 signatures supporting the Hesburgh Declaration. In a letter to President Nixon accompanying the petition Hesburgh, who was then chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, noted, “I have seen a moral rebirth on this campus during the past 10 days of May that is unparalleled in my lifetime, most of which has been spent at universities, mainly this one.”


He received no response from the White House, and to this day doesn’t know if Nixon ever saw his letter or knew about the petition. But the result of the public outcry across the nation, together with strong congressional disapproval, was a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Cambodia by the end of June.


After May 1970, a much different political mood reigned at Notre Dame. Dissent was less divisive. Questioning the war as well as its domestic fallout became more acceptable. Thomas Shaffer, now the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law and from 1971 to 1975 the dean of the Law School, views what happened 20 years ago as the culmination of an evolving opposition to the war.


“The old ‘God, Country and Notre Dame’ patriotism had been in place in the mid-1960s,” Shaffer explains. “Most people around here — at least most faculty members and I suspect most students — reacted as Notre Dame had always reacted to this country’s wars, which was to support them. Then you had a period of that patriotic resolve gradually eroding. After 1970, Notre Dame was, by and large, a place of protest against the war, heavily because of Father Hesburgh’s leadership — but he, too, had changed his mind.”


The new atmosphere at Notre Dame went beyond opposition to the war, according to Shaffer. He subsequently saw more concern for issues related to social justice, to poverty law, and to peace studies across the campus. “There was a kind of maturation,” he says about May 1970. “There then followed a period of heightened social concern.”


Notre Dame was a different institution after what happened that spring. A few days after the rally in the Main Quad, I filed a dispatch to the Associated Press in New York. A statement by one student leaps off the yellowing Western Union page today — not only as a personal comment but as a representative reaction to that time like no other:


“Up until Monday, I was sure I wanted to be a chemistry major. Then I found out that a friend of mine had been one of the ones killed at Kent State. I started attending the discussions and teach-ins, and now I’m pretty much convinced that I’ll switch my major to something where I’ll later have personal contact with people and not science equipment. With everything that’s happened, it’s probably a minor decision, but for me it’s the most important thing I can do.”


Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, where he’s taught since 1980. He’s the author, most recently, of Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record (Notre Dame Press).