For many MU student and faculty activists of the 1960s, recent talk of a possible resurrection of a military draft has illuminated some striking parallels with their experiences in that decade, when protest movements swept college campuses across the nation to demand an end to both the draft and the Vietnam War.
“They thought they could win with a smaller army that wouldn’t have to take in hundreds of thousands of people every month,” said MU sociology professor Clarence Lo, who was a student at Harvard University in the late ’60s. “They thought they could run this war, get it over with and not have huge draft calls.”
Throughout the late ’60s at MU, national student activist groups, such as Students for a Democratic Society, maintained an active presence on campus. The group, which eventually evolved into the Committee of Concerned Students, regularly counseled students on their options within the military draft system.
Those options were often limited, according to Bill Wickersham, who at the time was an MU faculty member and is now an adjunct peace studies professor.
“Some people could be exempted on religious grounds, but you had to have quite a history of pacifist, religious-based opposition (to war),” he said.
The decision whether to register for the draft — or by extension, get involved in war protests — was literally one of life or death, Lo said.
“The options were that unless you actively worked to stop the war, stop the escalation, bring the troops home, unless you make a difference, the penalty is you go and get killed,” Lo said.
“It gives you a big reason to be involved and try to be successful,” Lo said. “This was no armchair kind of thing; people’s lives were on the line.”
Habitual public displays of student anger and disenchantment at MU began in 1965 with small, periodic teach-ins and protests. The protests culminated in a massive strike on May 11, 1970, when several thousand students gathered on the steps of Jesse Hall and brought university operations to a halt.
According to Wickersham’s personal account, by 11 a.m. that day, “some 3,000 protesters had assembled on the north steps of Jesse Hall and out on to the quadrangle,” where they recited a combination of patriotic and peace-oriented songs.
Wickersham, then a leading figure in the local protest movement, was eventually fired by the university without official explanation but presumably for his anti-war activities. He later negotiated a settlement with the university.
Despite the turnout at the protest, however, the scope of student political activity at MU in the Vietnam era paled in comparison to activism on other campuses across the nation, according to veterans of the local protest movement.