Web Exclusives: PawPlus

Posted July 7, 2004:

The Senior Dialogue
Princeton University
Commencement, June 9, 1970


Delivered by: Michael Jeffrey Calhoun ’70 and Alvin (Hal) H. Strelnick ’70


Mike: We have been asked the purpose and rational of a strike against America's Policy in Indochina.

Hal: We have been asked why “business-as-usual” and time-calloused traditions are no longer an adequately human or dignified response to these times; time where inaction and silence become complicity with a policy which was misconceived, if not false, justification and has infected every aspect of American life.Mike: We have been asked why we leave the classroom for the demonstration, for door-to-door canvassing rather than remain, and complete our alleged preparation for our place in society; in a society. which pays for its vanity and self-righteousness with its young, not only in Indochina, but in Watts, and in Kent, Ohio, in Augusta and Jackson, and in Harlem.

Hal: We have been asked, further, why we have momentarily suspended the normal functions of the University, reassessed its priorities, so that it might be opened and more responsive to a greater community.Mike: And finally, we have been asked why we must even change the traditions of this 223 year old ceremony, to secure the open gates which, traditionally have remained closed, to cancel regular activities during Houseparty weekend, to replace traditional class day activities with one more appropriate to the times.

Hal: This ceremony embodies our attempt to answer. We ask that you listen, that we move, together, beyond the rhetoric which has reduced human beings on one side to "pigs" and, on the other, to "snobs" and "bums."

Mike: The tradition from which political and economic strikes arose has been forgotten in criticisms that students are forgetting their place and primary purpose in the University. But we the students, have not forgotten. The rise of labor unions and the concurrent entrance of the working classes into the middle class in this country resulted from the effective, though unpopular, use of strikes. These by their very nature were coercive. Similarly, the militant, non-violent resistance of Gandhi became a model for all civil disobedience, particularly for the civil rights movement. Gandhi’s success began with the strike at Ahmedabad.

Hal: Our strike , however, broke from this tradition in two constructive ways: the strike was non-coercive and the strike was not against the University but for committed action. Every strike is simultaneously two types of action. First, it is the suspension of normal activity, be it earning a living or earning a degree; this suspension enables those striking to begin the second, usually unseen action, that of seeking constructive change. The first action shows the willingness of the strikers to sacrifice momentary gains, a few dollars or a few lectures, in order to achieve more fundamental long-term goals. Opposition to strikes does not arise so much from the fact that the strikers have turned from their primary roles to more urgent issues, but that strikes stop the production of steel or scholars and technicians or that they impede the flow of air traffic or mail. The nation is irritated and angered by that

which interferes with the smooth and convenient functioning of society.Mike: Our strike does not pose this kind of threat, nor does it intend this as a

bargaining point; however, further polarization and radicalization of the young could eventually result in just such a situation. The primary purpose of the strike, however, was to express the urgent necessity to reorder the priorities of the entire university community. Following the president’s announcement on April 30, more than 2,500 members of the university community filled the chapel. After almost two hours of debate, an overwhelming majority voted for a proposal which called for a provisional strike until a meeting could be arranged for the entire community, in which further action would be decided.

Hal: The first major casualty of the strike at Princeton was not classes or examinations but the social functions which surround the biggest weekend of the spring, Houseparties. The traditional Saturday party night saw instead a dramatic service in the Chapel where 190 students surrendered their draft cards. On the fourth day of the provisional strike, nearly 4,000 staff members, students, faculty, and administration voted 3,588 to 181 to continue the strike, adopting a proposal that supported a non-coercive strike by the University Community against the war in Indochina.

Mike: In the long, run our strike is no different from any other; it calls for better conditions that create a better society and it frees the time of those individuals who choose to work for such change.

Hal: The mobilization, and unification, of a great number of politically diverse students and faculty developed a solidarity which cut through institutional red-tape and academic politics to generate unified, positive action toward realizing the goals of the strike: to end the war in Indochina and the conception of diplomatic problems in military terms and to end the insidious effects of the war on domestic policy. This is the outstanding characteristic of our strike… E pluribus unum. From many, one. Our Latin salutatory.

Mike: The traditional deliberative and intellectual pursuits which the University followed as its almost exclusive course of education could no longer suffice as justifiable and purposive. Those very pursuits had led to an impasse. Deliberation and thought seek expression; whether that expression be discussion, writing, or direct action. While Universities and the public encourage and credit the first two avenues of expression, direct action, which is equally educational, is discouraged or, at best, considered extracurricular, The strike has made such realization of thought and feeling in action the primary concern of students and faculty alike. It makes no sense whatsoever to hold moral beliefs or political commitments, or for that matter even to think, if these beliefs, commitments, and thoughts do not guide and create action. Our strike embodies this University’s motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service”; this is a fundamental commitment not only to intellectual pursuits but to service and committed action for a greater nation. The wealth of the University Community, the life and vitality of its minds, cannot exist independent of its body, energy, and action. Only when these minds have moved to action can those resources be fully realized.

Hal: Remaining silent and passive in such times is the greatest crime against the nation. We see a strange time, a different time, time and space molded by television -- the media, completely different than our parents’. A time that abhors those who will observe a crime and refuse to help or “get –involved” yet prides itself in its Silent Majority. Bertolt Brecht, a poet who know the human costs of war, wrote, “What times are these when a conversation about a tree is almost a crime because it contains so many silences about so many crimes.” Cambodia has finally shocked the University Community into massive political action.

Mike: Our concern reflects the importance which the governing institutions of this nation have for us. One reason why this concern must be expressed so vigorously lies in the collapse of a dissenting minority party. While Congressmen and Senators may provide dissent, they often follow students rather than lead them. The machines and grass roots base still belong to the party. The party system, independent of issues, can no longer be looked to for meaningful dissent. Since both parties have been responsible for the war while in office, beginning with Truman’s economic support of the French through Nixon’s Cambodian invasion, it has been students who have consistently provided unified opposition to the war.

Hal: We have so far spoken to the most apparent concerns that precipitated and presently sustain our strike. These concerns are of enduring and pressing importance, but they also involve larger and more pervasive problems. As history since World War II has shown, American intervention in Lebanon, in Guatemala, in Cuba, in the Dominican Republic, has been culturally arrogant, narrowly conceived, and not in the best interest of those it sought to serve. Will history say the sane about American intervention in Indochina? The facts presented at yesterday’s Symposium would lead one to say "yes." Will those 50% of Americans presently supporting the Administration’s policy in Indochina and those 14% without opinion be judged by history similarly to those Americans who condoned or avoided opinions on these past interventions?

Mike: Indochina, then, finds its significance not only in the particulars of its own case, but also in what it reveals about our society. The spirit of the strike, which has been referred to as the "Princeton Commitment," goes far beyond the transitory particulars of American Indochina. policy. Much that. lies at the very foundation of our strike and nation-wide dissent is, indeed, the very nature of contemporary American society.

Hal: Perhaps the recent public indignation about the destruction of the environment can clarify the relationship of the war to the University, to misaligned priorities to American society as a whole. From ecology we have learned that nature, with man included, functions as an organic whole, so that a pollutant may not destroy life immediately but may upset delicate balances which eventually cause the deterioration and destruction of the environment as a whole. If you examine the Indochina war within an organic system made up by the constituent parts of our society, you can see that a policy may seem legitimate which, when its full implications are understood, becomes not only a mistake, that is a wrong choice, but a totally erroneous approach, that is a complete misconception of the question itself.

Mike: This has been true of the war in Indochina, dividing the nation, undermining the credibility and viability of institutions of all kinds, and distorting and confusing the priorities of the nation and its people.

Hal: This model is important not just for analogies, but for revealing those underlying assumptions which must be challenged if we are to end the violence done to man-made and natural environments and to human beings both here and in Indochina. This is the implicit direction of the strike. Pollution is not a mistake. Nor is it a series of miscalculations which have led to a crisis situation; it is, rather, the logical consequence of the cultural and economic ethics founded upon continuous and expanding population growth, material and energy consumption. Stop-gap anti-pollution devices, like tokenism of any kind, are cosmetics and not solutions to the real problem.

Mike: But how does this relate to the war?

Hal: The war in Indochina is often described as a series of small mistakes; this is not unlike considering pollution simply as careless inattention. American involvement in Indochina was made upon false assumptions which are the logical consequence, like pollution, of the present and past reality of American goals and motives aid of the means of their execution which have so subverted the .American ideals. We have justified our violent intervention by sustaining the myth of a monolithic communist enemy that in reality is an anti-colonial movement. We have created the fiction of democratic regimes that imprison defeated political candidates. We have decided upon the self-determination of others by our Vietnamizing the Vietnamese. We have destroyed the very peace and freedom, both at home and abroad, that we have sought to secure by means that could only distort and subvert our vision and ideals. American withdrawal from Indochina will be tokenism if it does not have a profound impact on a new containment policy which we must apply to ourselves and our military and economic might. As pollution engages the whole and grows from a fundamental attitude, so the pervasive contradiction and confusion of American policy infects the whole while stemming from a fundamental misconception of American identity and what America should be.

Mike: Just as Indochina and the environmental crisis are only symptomatic of the greater ills of our society, so also are there other symptoms which provide implicit focus for our strike and nation-wide dissent. We need only look to Black America. Through our civil war, two world wars fought in the name of freedom, two decades of vigilant watch over global freedom, we have seen America steadfastly resist granting real freedom to a significant portion of its own population. There are finally laws that promise voting and registration without intimidation; that promise equal opportunity for education and employment -- the most basic rights of American citizens. But promises are not enough, for we must contend with approximately 50% of the population that feels these and other rights are coming too fast. We must contend with a president who asks us to heed his actions, not his words; but he has been advised to follow the course of “benign neglect,” so he has failed to seek law and justice for all Americans. We must contend with an Attorney General who suppresses more civil rights legislation than he pursues, representing the Administration’s concern for the Jackson State massacre by speaking before an all-white group of Mississippi businessmen.

Hal: $79.4 billions is allocated to the military in a nation with 35%, of its Blacks and Puerto Ricans living in official poverty. Their average income is $3,300 a year less than the national median for white Americans. One percent of the population controls three-fourths of the national wealth.

Mike: In all its superficiality and bias, this survey of contemporary American society is valid and says rather distressing things about this country: America has become boorish and self-righteous.Hal: It preaches the democratic character of its government and society, while it encourages, under the aegis of free enterprise, a highly differentiated group of elites and a subtle norm of systematic exploitation.Mike: It condones a de facto system of chauvinism that is defined not only in terms of race, but also national origin, sex, economic standing, religion, length of hair, and political viewpoint.Hal: It has been the realization of these aspects of American society by its marginal members that more than any other single factor accounts for the rising mood of disenchantment and dissent.Mike: We appreciate and value America for what it is, replete with material wealth, technologically superior to any nation., having, great opportunity for individual achievement; we recognize that the United States is the strongest and most powerful of nations. But we also recognize America’s weaknesses. We, members of America’s marginal groups, cannot forget these weaknesses,, for they are an integral part of our past and they are an unavoidable part of our present -- we will not allow them to become our future.

Hal: We cannot permit complacency with the status quo or self-satisfaction with what good has come before. We must and will press for continuous improvement. For those who feel intimidated by or disposed against activism, by the militancy of American marginal groups -- the Blacks, Puerto Ricans, students, the poor, Indians,, and Chicanos. Let us further aggravate your discomfort by placing our society in some historical perspective:

Mike: We are experiencing and living the conclusion, the death of an era. A time when values and social institutions of the past are becoming dysfunctional, declining, and in their place new values, new life styles, new institutions are developing. As this period is one of transition, these are important times. The conclusion is yet unresolved.Hal: Our strike has gathered in those who have in the past never engaged in demonstrations or protest. Many have taken comfort in the notion that so many moderate students have participated in and in some cases, led our strike. But those who dwell upon this point forget the events which turned their fellows to radical beliefs and commitments.Mike: If after a concerted effort by moderate students who have chosen to work for change within the present system, there is no change, if the political system is that inflexible, that unresponsive, that intransigent, that there is no reflection of their efforts in the November elections, if there is no response to youth and disenchantment; these frustrated moderates may follow their fellows in seeing the political system as unresponsive and incapable of change, perhaps fulfilling in the United States, the prophecy John Fitzgerald Kennedy saw in the Third World: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

Hal: If, however, there is response, if hope and trust in the political system can still exist then much energy and vitality can be channeled for peaceful change and re-evaluation. We conceive of our strike, of the re-assessing and reordering of our priorities, of the opening of the university to a wider community, as necessary to facilitate peaceful and meaningful change, so that we might move through these gates together for peace, together toward a committed future, together to seek a greater, united nation, one which remains undeniably true to its people, to its ideals, to itself.

(Note: Poll and government statistics are taken from Gallup polls which followed the Cambodian invasion and government reports on the budget for the fiscal year, ending June 30, 1969. The “benign neglect” comes from David Moynihan’s report to the president. This address is a unique addition to traditional commencement exercises, replacing the Latin Salutatory. In addition to this, for the first time -- and for all time -- the gates before Nassau Hall were opened and the class marched, symbolically, out them following the exercises. Also, this class included the first women to graduate as undergraduates in Princeton’s 223 years.)

(Also: Michael Calhoun is a Black, graduating from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, from Washingtonville, New York. He plans to teach for a year and then go on to Harvard Law School. Alvin (Hal) Strelnick is from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, graduating from the Department of Religion. He is presently writing a novel and will attend the Yale University School of Medicine to major in psychiatry in September.)