The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Kathryn Troyer Spoehr

Interview by Danielle Savastano and Stephanie Wyss. Story by: Danielle Savastano
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968. In addition to the student's edited story below, you can find on this site the electronic transcript of the interview and a quicktime recording of the encounter, as well as a table of cues and contents.

Brown Student Protests the War

"There was always a question about how much the ends justified the means and whether, in fact, you ever achieved the ends if you went overboard on the means."

When I got to Brown, that was the first time I met a Democrat. That must seem weird, but growing up where I grew up, it wasn't. I was born in December of 1947 in Wilmette, a town just north of Chicago, Illinois. The town was a middle class, all white suburb. Most of the citizens were Republicans. My parents were genetic Republicans and were pretty conservative. I remember my father used to yell and scream at the TV set because he always thought the media was too liberal. My parents also objected to people who were Jewish. I had some Jewish friends, and my parents never said that I couldn't have Jewish friends, but it seemed they always wanted me to go to their house instead of having them come over to my house. That bothered me a lot. The way they behaved always made me uncomfortable. I couldn't see any good reason for it. They had grown up during the Depression, so it was more of a generation gap for me then many of my friends. I certainly had a sense that my parents and their friends just didn't get it.

It is impossible to grow up in the 1950's anywhere in this country without worrying about the threat of nuclear war. Even in Chicago, right there in the middle of the country, there were people whose job it was to stand out in the fields around town with binoculars looking for Soviet planes and missiles, as if a Soviet plane or missile could get to Chicago without somebody in Canada or elsewhere in the United States noticing it on the way by. We had drills at least once a month. The air-raid warning would go off in town, and we would all have to duck under our desk, like being underneath a table is going to protect you if there is a nuclear explosion nearby! From my parents point of view, it was the forces of evil over there against the forces of good. That is a lot of the thinking that went behind the Vietnam War. The domino theory, that all these Communist and Socialist governments were gradually creeping across the earth.

When I applied to Brown I got an early decision into the Bachelor of Science program in Applied Mathematics. I found out that that was pretty much of an anomaly; girls just didn't apply to that program. The professors all looked at me like, "Is she all right?" There would have been a lot of other places where I could have gone to college at the time, but Brown had the advantage that it was very far away from home, just what I wanted.

When I came to Brown University in the fall of 1965, I was told that I must bring a hat and white gloves for the Dean's reception. When we went to football games, women wore suits, nylons, and three inch spike heels with pointed toes. That was what was expected of a lady.

As a sophomore, I got heavily involved with politics and the antiwar movement. There were a lot of teach-ins during that time because we were beginning to get really heavily involved in the Vietnamese war. In fact, there was a non-credit course that a number of professors organized. We would go once a week and hear some lectures and there would be readings about the history of Vietnam, and the French involvement, and how the Americans got in. It activated me politically, and I came to the point where it seemed clear that war wasn't right. The sixties really changed who I am, and it's important that people know how we got to where we are so they can go forward.

There were a number of radical campus groups which were heavily involved with political groups at other Ivy League schools, like Columbia and Harvard. Very often graduate students who were politically active at those other campuses would come and talk about the latest indecency perpetrated by the draft boards, or the U.S. Army, or Lyndon Johnson. I know the faculty was always leery of what was going on on campus. They were concerned that there would be riots at Brown. There were riots at Columbia and at Harvard. Students took over the administration buildings and were arrested, and the police bashed their heads, but that never happened at Brown. There was always a question about how much the ends justified the means, and whether in fact you ever achieved the ends if you went overboard on the means.

Rallies and demonstrations occurred frequently off campus. During that period, the military draft was keyed up with a vengeance to try to get enough people to go and serve in Vietnam. I knew a lot of people who got drafted. Some of them successfully avoided it, some of them went and got killed, some of them went and came back. By the time I had graduated from college they had instituted a full court press to get draftable young men. They had a draft lottery, and they put all 365 days of the year in and picked out the first one and saw that all the people whose birthdays were on that day got their draft notices first. From time to time, people that we knew would get letters from their draft boards telling them that they had to report for a physical in preparation for being drafted. Anytime anybody got one of those, a bunch of us would go, and we would carry signs and march around. It was non-violent, but we wanted to express our view that this was not the way to run a country.

In the fall of 1967, when Eugene McCarthy announced his candidacy for the presidency, a lot of us felt that here at last is somebody who is part of the system that is willing to take a stand and change it. A lot of us organized and went up to New Hampshire to campaign for "Clean Gene." I spent a couple of weekends in January and February of 1968 up in Manchester going door-to-door.

I can't point to any one person who's mind was changed by my activities, but I think we certainly made a lot of people ask questions and to think twice about whether it was the right thing to do or not. We were part of the war at home, trying to make it stop, trying to make them think of something better to do, whether within the political system of McCarthy or outside of it.

Civil Rights was also an underlying theme of the sixties and all of us who were concerned about politics were concerned about that. I thought it was really important. I couldn't imagine how by law somebody would discriminate against black people. It was hard not to follow Civil Rights, it was on television every night, the police in Memphis, Mississippi, and Alabama, hosing and clubbing people who were sitting-in and performing other methods of non-violent protest.

In the fall of 1968, all of the black students on campus organized a march and a walk-out. They had a demonstration in front of the administration building, then they walked right out through the gates of Brown and went over to the Congdon Street Baptist Church, which was a black community Baptist church and stayed there until a series of demands that they had were met by the administration -- increasing the number of black students and starting African American studies at Brown. There were a number of campus SNCC leaders and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a lot of those people were part of that rally, and organized that effort.

In 1968 I remember watching Lyndon Johnson make his announcement on TV that he wasn't going to run for President again. My parents were ecstatic because he was a Democrat and they didn't like him. They thought it was great because now a Republican can be President. I remember thinking, this is a great relief because now Eugene McCarthy can be the Democratic nominee.

Martin Luther King was courageous and very effective, but he frightened a lot of people. I know my parents were afraid of what he represented. They thought that he was going to lead all the blacks in this country on some sort of violent revolution. No matter what his rhetoric was, they didn't trust him. What he did was incredible. When he was assassinated, I remember my parents and I had gone into downtown Chicago for dinner. We had driven about twenty miles into Chicago. We knew that he had been assassinated, but what we didn't know was that the entire west and southwest sides of Chicago had flared up into riots. It was the one time I actually saw my dad scared to drive home, because we had to go on the freeway in that area, and [we] just hoped that the car wouldn't break down or something. That was really scary, seeing the west side of Chicago up in smoke, people running around, hearing the crackling of gunfire, it was so incredible.

It was like the whole world order started to crumble. Then Robert Kennedy was assassinated and that was the rest of the world order starting to crumble. It was like chaos in this country, the slums were going up in smoke, and our political leaders were either falling by the wayside or being killed. It wasn't clear who was going to be the Democratic candidate for President. Johnson was out of it, Bobby Kennedy had won a lot of votes and now he was dead. There was always George Wallace, and it was scary to think of him having anything to say about anything in this country. He was running on the state's rights platform, and I sure hated the politics and racism that he represented. He really upset the political process. It wasn't clear that McCarthy could pull it together, and then there was Hubert Humphry. This great gelatinous mass, with no back bone that you could discern.

Then Richard Nixon was elected, which was just so depressing. If you had studied his political background at all, you knew the kind of morals he had, which were none at all, and that became quite clear. He lied and cheated his way through his presidency and nobody was happier than I was when he had to resign.

I think, politically, one of the most important things about the sixties is that the traditional political parties loosened their death-grip on politics in this country. You no longer had to be part of a Democratic or Republican political machine. To some extent, it broke down regularity and orderliness, and that really scared a lot of people, like my parents, who like things predictable, and it wasn't.

We never honored the veterans of the Vietnam War the way we have for other wars that this country has fought. That has probably hurt many of them psychologically. I don't think any of us who objected to the war thought less of them. I was polite [but] not warm to them when they came back. Many of them went because they had to, and a lot of terrible things happened to them.

I was awful glad when the war ended, but it was way too late. At least we did it, I suppose we can give Richard Nixon some credit for that. I can give Henry Kissinger more credit, as much as we all hated Henry Kissinger. He was the commencement speaker at Brown's graduation my graduating year, June 1969. I was so ticked at Henry Kissinger because of the war, many of us were wearing white arm bands tied around our black robes. When he got up, we stood and turned our backs as he spoke. They were afraid we were going to riot. We weren't going to riot, but hopefully it sent him a message.

Glossary Words On This Page
air raid
civil rights
Clean for Gene
domino theory
generation gap
Hubert Humphrey
Lyndon B. Johnson
Robert F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Henry Kissinger
Eugene McCarthy
Richard M. Nixon
George C. Wallace

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