Highest Profile Campus Riots During the Vietnam War

University of California, Berkeley student Mario Savio became the voice of a generation.
... Peter Whitney/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Described as the most divisive event in United States history since the Civil War, the Vietnam War cast a long shadow over the 1960s and 1970s. The unpopular draft, harrowing media coverage of wartime atrocities, and outspoken opposition by public figures such as Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Jane Fonda caused rift in American public opinion resulting in nationwide protests in cities and on college campuses.

1 The Politicization of College Campuses

The climate at college campuses became increasingly political during the Vietnam War. Students for a Democratic Society embraced a number of causes including civil rights. SDS became synonymous with anti-war protests at many schools. Students targeted the campus Reserve Officer's Training Corps, and protested the use of university resources to develop chemicals used in warfare. Faculty members also became involved in political protest, staging “teach-ins” to openly discuss the war despite administrative policies prohibiting such discussions. While students felt their schools and government had failed them, many administrators and politicians, including presidents Johnson and Nixon, grappled with how to handle the frequent outbreaks of rioting on campuses.

2 UC Berkeley Students Lead the Way

The University of California at Berkeley was featured in the media as representative of campus protests. Student Mario Savio emerged as the voice of the students, delivering eloquent speeches that expressed their frustration. In early February 1969, conflict between students and police caused Governor Ronald Reagan to declare “a state of extreme emergency” on the campus. A couple of months later, the National Guard dropped tear-gas on a non-violent gathering in Sproul Plaza, and the campus erupted in riots that lasted for several days, resulting in mass arrests and injuries. A year later, 15,000 students rioted over the invasion of Cambodia, causing the administration to shut down for four days in the hopes of quelling student anger. Hundreds of other colleges followed suit with massive campus shut downs.

3 UC Wisconsin Students Protest Dow Chemical

When Dow Chemical, the company responsible for manufacturing napalm, visited the University of Wisconsin at Madison campus in 1967, students responded by occupying the halls in front of their recruiting office. Madison police were called after attempts to negotiate with the students had failed. The police broke the glass doors that enclosed the students and pulled them out by force. Students were beaten with clubs and a riot broke out. Rocks and bricks were thrown and the windows of a police detective's car were broken as students surrounded the Madison police, shouting the Nazi salute. Forty-seven students were taken to the hospital along with 18 policemen.

4 Tragedy at Kent State

The tragic outcome of student protests at Ohio's Kent State University in 1970 made it the most reported campus event of the Vietnam War era. Campus protests that started after President Nixon announced the invasion of U.S. troops in Cambodia turned violent with the burning of the campus ROTC building. The governor called in the National Guard who fired tear gas at protesters. The National Guard then fired live ammunition into the crowd, wounding nine and killing four. The event led to an outbreak of violent protests at campuses across the country, causing nearly 500 campuses to shut down.

5 Occupation by Columbia University Students

At Columbia University in 1968, students united to protest the building of a gym on land being used as a public park in Harlem, and the university's partnership with the Institute for Defense Analysis. Students occupied several university buildings for eight days before law enforcement arrived. Police beat protesters and made nearly 700 arrests, resulting in a strike that closed the university for a month.

6 Students Shut Down SF State University

A highly publicized massive student strike shut down San Francisco State University for six months in 1968, the longest university strike in U.S. history. Administrators called on law enforcement to restore order in a week long battle between students and police that resulted in hundreds of injuries and arrests. Students continued the strike until a School of Ethnic Studies was added to the curriculum, and the Black Studies Department, the first of its kind in the U.S., was expanded.

Lynn Blanch is a writer, translator and educator. She is the co-founder of an educational/cultural nonprofit in Brazil, speaks fluent Portuguese and has published a travel blog. She holds a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College.