Continuing the series of posts written by students in my “History of Emory” course last year, I offer here an excellent brief account of changing student views at Emory during the Vietnam War. The author, Zach Ball, was a sophomore at the time.
The Vietnam War was the preeminent American military conflict of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the central focus of our foreign policy for over a decade. Throughout the course of the war, public confidence regarding its rationale — to stop the spread of Communism — waned drastically, and a nationwide counterculture movement led by young people served to further erode support for the effort. In this way, the war was waged on two fronts: as a military operation in Vietnam and as a battle for the hearts and minds of the US public.
Like many institutions of higher education, Emory University was heavily affected by the Vietnam War, and the views of students, faculty, and administrative figures towards the conflict, as expressed through newspaper articles and public statements, varied and evolved significantly as the war raged on.
As tensions between the United States and North Vietnam began to escalate in 1966, the student body generally seemed to support the increasing American military presence in Vietnam. In February of that year, a prowar student organization named Affirmation Vietnam held a successful rally at the Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium in support of the conflict. The event drew more than 15,000 attendees, including Emory’s president, Sanford Atwood, as well as Georgia’s governor and US Senators and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
At the same time, there was some backlash against the administration for providing student funds to prowar campus organizations. One Emory Wheel article argued that this action constituted a political stance by Emory leaders, and one that many dissenting students would not appreciate, because their tuition money was being used to fund efforts with which they vehemently disagreed.
By the end of the 1960s, student opinion about the war seemed to be changing, as students and faculty opposed to the war continuously pushed the Atwood administration to take steps in an antiwar direction. Atwood joined other university presidents in signing on to an October 1969 letter to President Richard Nixon urging a de-escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, and arguing against the war’s divisive nature and the resources being drained from domestic business and educational institutions.
In the years that followed, students and faculty alike became increasingly disillusioned with the war, failing to discern a sufficient justification for the increasing body count. In October 1971, religion professor Dr. Eugene Bianchi wrote a lengthy, impassioned op-ed in the Wheel criticizing the war on moral grounds, viewing its continuation as a vehicle for defense contractor corruption and unwarranted American exceptionalism abroad. A longtime advocate for peace, Bianchi joined Emory students in the early 1970s in antiwar demonstrations, which increased in number as the war grew more and more unpopular.
By 1972, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that the majority of Emory’s campus was no longer happy about the American presence in Southeast Asia. That year, a demonstration on the Quadrangle drew nearly a thousand students, who demanded action on the second anniversary of the Kent State shootings that had left four students dead. Emory’s student body had grown weary of the war and called for withdrawal of troops from the region.
The Vietnam War challenged the Emory community’s resilience, and the sentiments of students toward the conflict changed greatly over the course of several years. Although the students’ activities stoked division at times, their passion at each stage provides valuable insight into the commitment of Emory students to engage with moral dilemmas of the day and to offer their best judgement in resolving them.
Zach Ball 21C