Vietnam Protests at New Jersey Universities

Vietnam Protests at New Jersey Universities

Dan Hamlin

For many, Princeton is a place of prestige and cultural and educational exceptionalism that only the best of the Ivy League can offer. A university such as this is on the cutting edge of tomorrow, where great minds assemble to become future presidents and Nobel laureates. Such has been Princeton’s tradition since colonial times. From founders being founding fathers to multiple presidents, Nobel laureates, and world-renowned physicists, one would be remiss to say that Princeton is not one of the most important and influential schools in the United States, let alone the world. One also cannot overstate the importance of tradition at Princeton University. At a university showcasing James Madison as a notable alumnus on its website,[1]It is clear that Princeton is a place of prestige.

The 1960s and 70s are a particular time in American history where education and student activism became particularly important to the American public. Students were the loudest advocates for change during this time and serve as an excellent example of the value of students taking advocacy in their educational careers. Students in this time would protest in many different ways and about many different things. Issues that concerned students in the 1960s and 70s included civil rights campus issues and the war in Vietnam; these protests would look different at each university depending on the culture and the history of it. So, one would likely expect Princeton: a place of deep and rich American tradition, to be where liberal protest dies, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s when such protests were well beyond the norm. However, this is not the case. During the Anti-Vietnam War movement, Princeton University experienced an explosion of support from students and faculty sympathetic to the movement. It even boasted its Students for a Democratic Society chapter, which garnered massive student support. However, as the movement got bigger and bigger, tradition started to derail the movement at Princeton University in favor of more modest ways to protest the War in Vietnam. Princeton University is one of New Jersey’s most influential colleges and will provide enormously valuable insight into the Student protest movement in New Jersey, as it is representative of how long-established universities in New Jersey were impacted by the student protest movement. Whereas Rider University provided insight into how smaller less established universities in New Jersey were impacted by the movements, Princeton will illustrate “Established Universities” coped with the movement, illustrating how colleges impacted the broader movement.

Princeton University, where future leaders begin their journeys, was one of the earliest universities in New Jersey to speak outright against the war in Vietnam. Although the war in Vietnam began much earlier, in 1955, opposition to the war was minimal at best, and no sources spoke critically of the war. It was in 1962 that the evidence of discontent began to show. It was in April of 1962 that the School newspaper, The Daily Princetonian published an opinion piece about the war after the release of images of the conflict in Vietnam that Princeton began to show some opposition to the war. The article argues that “unless we base our policy on a response to the fundamental problems of the country and thus end the discontent on which the Communists thrive, we will see many more pictures of bodies in fields, ending only in an ignominious withdrawal from a country in which we will have forfeited the popular support without which victory is impossible. The article questions the need for American involvement at home; Americans face many more present dangers.”[2]Here, one can see the Princeton students first asking questions about the war and the merit upon which America is involved as time goes on.

However, these questions become action. In the ensuing years, discontent at Princeton will begin to fester, on par with that of other Universities from across the nation.[3]However, on October 8th of 1965, Students for a Democratic society officially arrive at the Princeton campus, signaling a massive upgrade in student support for the Anti-war movement.[4]Despite the step forward, not all campus is united in this mission. Very early on, there were instances of resistance to SDS and increased support against the war in Vietnam. In December of 1965, an SDS banner saying “Even Princeton” was stolen, and at an SDS demonstration, “some came to heckle, some came to argue, some came to support,” said the SDS chairman Johnathan M. Wiener. Wiener also later says how “unprecedented” the support has been, especially considering the “traditional Princeton apathy.”[5]Later in early 1966, a conservative teach-in about American military strategy occurred, led by the Conservative club and directed by conservative faculty on campus.[6]These instances are undoubtedly reactionary to the more significant campus-wide attitudes but merit inclusion as they are evidence of Princeton’s traditional values combatting this liberal movement on campus.

In 1966 the movement began hitting its stride as the protest became a standard fixture on campus. As the movement grew, students’ voices grew. In a march 1966 article polling students about the issues they are most concerned about, the Anti-war protest polled near the top however was outshined by campus-related issues, such as food and living conditions.[7] While this says little about the student protest of the war in Vietnam, it reveals two critical things about Princeton at the time. Firstly, Princeton students were incredibly active on campus at this time, inspired by the enthusiasm caused by the Anti-war protest. Secondly, this shows that the most significant external issue to Princeton students was the war in Vietnam, suggesting growth in support for anti-war protests.

As protests grow and time progresses, and anti-movements grow, so too does student involvement in SDS. By May of 1968, SDS had grown to massive heights,  leading The Daily Princetonian to raise the question, “SDS or UGA?” The UGA is the student government association elected by students and meant to represent the students. As the article reads, “There is no other strong political interest group on campus, and the UGA has proven itself to be an impotent governing body capable only of reacting to events and unable to cause creative change where change is needed. The SDS has easily and naturally taken over the vacuum in student leadership. There is now a genuine danger that relevant student issues and the entire student power concept will be identified with the SDS banner and that as these issues come of age, the SDS will increasingly be taken as the voice of the Princeton student body.” This speaks to the incredible power that SDS had by 1968. This article suggests that SDS was the governing body of Princeton University at the time. As the article states there are “nearly 150 members and well over 200 sympathizers.”8 making it the largest student organization on campus. This article illustrates the effect of the anti-war movement on Princeton university, as the SDS, an organization founded to oppose the war in Vietnam, has committed a quasi-coup of the student government, crippling their effectiveness. Princeton is fully invested, and SDS is at the peak of its power on campus. Nevertheless, this success is short-lived.

As students returned in the fall of ‘68, SDS had a significant setback. At a meeting about protesting the new student government in UGA, SDS had an ideological setback, causing a split into two camps. The “revolutionary” who intended on a walk-out at the UGA meetings, vs. the “Liberal politics” camp who decided for a more moderate course of action. The division “threaten[ed] to cripple the effectiveness of that organization and to interrupt the workings of the student-faculty Committee on the Structure of the University”[8]This ideological the split was the beginning of a slow and unceremonious decline in SDS’s popularity on campus. This ideological split was one typical among SDS chapters as the organization progressed into more radical and less palatable avenues.[9]nevertheless, students at Princeton were still appalled by the War in Vietnam and continued protesting the war. However, with the ideological split, this came in different forms.

By April 1969, the radicals are performing more radical actions, fiercely attacking conservative opponents and blocking marine recruiters. These actions cause SDS to be seen as “not working against “the authorities” alone but against other students. This position cuts much of their sympathetic support.”[10]SDS is losing traction at Princeton University, and campus life is becoming more volatile. What that does not mean, however, is that students’ opinions on the war are changing. It is just saying that they disagree with the extreme methods of one organization. In fact, by this point, Princeton and its faculty are united in a front against the anti-war movement as evidenced by the history department’s united efforts to publish an anti-war resolve and include it into their curriculum.[11][12]The splintered movement is a confusing time for Princeton university, as radical acts persist on campus, yet the anti-war movement continues to grow.

Just as Rider had severe reactions to the Kent State killings, Princeton, too, reeled from the national outcry. Over 900 students marched around campus in protest, eventually ending up at the Institute for Defense Analysis. A peaceful protest broke out, protesting the military presence on campus. At the same time, Faculty endorsed a strike of Princeton’s involvement with the Department of Defense after the “senseless killing of four students at Kent State.” Princeton deciding to cut ties with the military is a significant step for the University, as the government undoubtedly relied on Princeton’s prestige to foster new and innovative military thinkers and ideas; an example of Princeton’s prestige and culture influencing their protests, as very few other colleges can take this kind of meaningful action against the government, nor can students from many other universities find a place on campus to focus their anger.

Over the next few years and despite SDS’s ideological split, the movement does not simmer. As more and more opposition against the Nixon administration occurred, the student body became more and more independent against the war in Vietnam, culminating in massive campus-wide strikes and walkouts in 1972. At this time, the Nixon administration was in the exaggeratedly long process of withdrawing troops, and at Princeton, the anger boiled into legitimate action. The April 20th, 1972 edition of The Daily Princetonian almost entirely talks about the organization of strikes and walkouts due to current events. Peace pamphlets are hung around campus, and important board members resign due to mounting pressure. A “Frivolous spring parade around campus turned into an anti-war protest” that raised around “300 students” marching around campus and breaking into smaller protests late at night. The campus was very active at this time. There are also mentions of a picketing schedule for the upcoming week.[13]after these sporadic instances of protest occurred for the remainder of the war until 1975; This is perhaps because the movement as a whole got bigger and became a national issue, one that was now in the halls of congress.[14]

Princeton is a trailblazing school, one where the undergrads move on to do monumental things post-graduation. This was no different in the late 60s and early 70s; however, the student body had more of a fire lit under them to get motivated—the student body at Princeton University was incredibly active during the Anti-war/social movements around the time of the Vietnam war. However, Princeton, having the tradition and strong minds, never reached the full extent of the protest and demonstrations as a more prominent school. So, as a result, Princeton was greatly affected by these movements, but never to the entirely extreme end that a school like Rutgers experienced.


[1] Princeton University Alumni, ed. “Notable Alumni.” Princeton University.

https://princetoniana.princeton.edu/people/alumni/government-and-public-affairs.

[2] Slocombe, W. B. “The Political Side.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ),  April 27, 1962. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgibin/imageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian19 620427-01&getpdf=true.

[3] Kennedy, Patrick D. “Reactions against the Vietnam War and Military-Related Targets on Campus: The University of Illinois as a Case Study, 1965-1972.” Illinois Historical Journal 84, no. 2 (1991): 101–18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40192359.

[4] The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ). “Liberal Activist Group to Open Local Chapter.” October 4, 1965. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgibin/imageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian19 651004-01&getpdf=true.

[5] The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ). “SDS Banner Tempts Thief, Draws Crowd.” December 3, 1965. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgi-bin/imageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian19 651203-01&getpdf=true.

[6] Durkee, Robert. “Conservatives Stress Military Victory: Teach-ins Urges Vietnam Action.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), January 7, 1966. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgi-bin/imageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian19 660107-01&getpdf=true.

[7] Miller, Damon. “Student Protests: What Are the Issues?” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), March 11, 1966.

[8] Balfor, Richard. “SDS Walk-out Threatens Structure Committee.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), October 2, 1968. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgi-binimageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian196 81002-01&getpdf=true.

[9] Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[10] Buckner, Bruce. “Campus Braces for Upcoming Radical Action.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), April 23, 1969. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgi-bin/imageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian19 690423-01&getpdf=true.

[11] Berkowitz, Ed. “Historians Circulate Anti-War Resolve.” The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), October 2, 1969.

[13] The Daily Princetonian (Princeton, NJ), April 20, 1972. https://papersofprinceton.princeton.edu/princetonperiodicals/cgi-bin/imageserver.pl?oid=Princetonian19 720420-01&getpdf=true.

[14] Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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