Up Against the Wall: Columbia, 1968

Columbia Crisis, April, 1968

"Why We Strike," a pamphlet printed by the Columbia Strike Committee.

1968 was a year marred by violence, a turning point both nationally and globally that included many highly publicized events that intensified and polarized political debate: the pivotal Tet Offensive in Vietnam; student uprisings in Paris, Tokyo, Prague, Mexico City, and beyond; genocide in Biafra; the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the bloody Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and riots in cities across the United States.

On the individual level, 1968 also transformed the lives of many people. Ideas changed, priorities shifted, new fears arose, and with them, new values and commitments. We can see this shift in the life and work of Richard Hofstadter, whose archived papers include an entire box of materials from that crucial year. After 1968, for reasons that are explained on this page and in the next section ("The Age of Rubbish"), the questions and concerns that Hofstadter brought to his work as a historian and public intellectual changed dramatically. It is clear, both in his correspondence and in his published work, that the violent events of that year shook Hofstadter considerably; like many Americans, he was forced to reevaluate his core principles and his assumptions about the past, present, and future of his country.

Letter concerning campus demonstrations, 1967

Letter to Columbia University President Grayson Kirk regarding the punishment of student protesters, February, 1967. See full document here.

Letter to Irving Kristol, 1967

In this letter, Hofstadter challenged the neoconservative writer Irving Kristol for defending the Vietnam War and demonizing critics of American foreign policy. See the full exchange here.

The central event that affected Hofstadter was a historic student uprising at Columbia University in the spring of 1968. In April, the Columbia campus became the focus of national news when students, led by members of Students For A Democratic Society (SDS), occupied five buildings to protest both the school's financial ties to the defense industry and a proposed gym in nearby Morningside Park that many students and community members saw as perpetuating racial segregation and inequality. The occupation, which lasted one week, began as a nonviolent demonstration and ended in violence: when negotiations with the students failed, the administration ordered in the police, who arrested 712 people and injured 148. In response, students called for a strike, which lasted until the end of the spring semester.

As the Columbia Libraries' highly informative "Columbia in Crisis" online exhibition makes clear, students had been agitating against the war with increasing militancy over the months leading up to April 1968. As early as February 1967, SDS activists staged a sit-in to protest CIA recruitment on campus. Further actions against military recruitment followed. Administrators, concerned that these actions were disruptive to the life of the university as an institution of higher learning, sought to curb political activity and punish demonstrators. The letter pictured at right, written to university president Grayson Kirk in February 1967, following the sit-in, shows that Hofstadter took a different view. While acknowledging that the students "were clearly wrong in resorting to such methods when ordinary procedures of protest were... open to them," Hofstadter encourages leniency. With some condescension, he describes the students as "our wards" and as "sensitive young people whose moral sensibilities have been worked upon by a troubled world." He also warns, presciently, that strict discipline will produce "a general atmosphere of bitterness and confusion" [118].

In his letter to Kirk, Hofstadter suggests that the concerns of the students are valid. (Indeed, a number of documents included here, such as the letter to the neoconservative intellectual Irving Kristol, which appears at right, show that by 1967 he was firmly opposed to the Vietnam War). The problem is the disruptive tactics that student activists have chosen. A measured response on the part of the administration, he argues, will allow them to reflect on the less counterproductive means available for them to express their discontent.

Letter to President Johnson

Letter drafted by Columbia faculty members, including Hofstadter, to President Lyndon B. Johnson expressing concerns about the Vietnam War, 1966. Click here to see the full letter, and click here to read Johnson's reply.

For his part, Hofstadter had used more formal channels to express his views on the war and influence policy. In May 1966, he co-wrote a letter, together with a number of other Columbia historians and social scientists (including Daniel Bell, Fritz Stern, Robert K. Merton, David Truman, and William Leuchtenberg), addressed to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The letter, which appears at left, outlines a number of concerns about the escalating war, along with a number of proposals for halting its acceleration. The tone of the letter is steadfastly moderate: its authors write, "We deplore the fact that men of extreme positions have been the vocal spokesmen of the university world for so long, and we regret that there has been so little contact between the men whose views we believe we represent and your administration" [119]. Johnson responded with a six-page letter less than one month later. That document also appears here, and it shows how little effect these efforts had on his administration's plans to ramp up military confrontation in Southeast Asia.

Correspondence Concerning Eldridge Cleaver

Letter written to the California parole board on behalf of Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver, April 1968.

Correspondence Concerning Eldridge Cleaver

Letter from Hofstadter to Elizabeth Sutherland regarding his contribution to Cleaver's legal defense fund, April 1968.

Still, even though he shared many of its concerns, Hofstadter could not be convinced that the militant approach of the student-led New Left was justified, particularly where it interfered with the functioning of the university (as it often did) and converted spaces of reason and reflection into sites of division, unrest, and even violence. In an increasingly polarized society, Hofstadter made repeated and strenuous efforts to carve out a middle ground where respectful dissent and negotiated agreement might still be possible. Events would continually show that this middle ground was small and getting smaller.

Hofstadter's response to the imprisonment of Black Panther Party spokesman Eldridge Cleaver illustrates his dilemma. In April of 1968 - shortly before the occupation of the Columbia campus - Hofstadter made a contribution to Cleaver's legal fund and wrote a letter to the California Parole Board pleading for leniency after Cleaver had been involved in a shoot-out with Oakland police and stood to have his parole revoked. Hofstadter expresses sympathy for Cleaver in the letter, but in another letter from the same time he refuses to sign a statement condemning the Oakland Police Department because of what he considers to be misleading and melodramatic language describing the Panthers as "political prisoners" and referring to the shoot-out as a "confrontation" [120]. Hofstadter describes his role as "a civil libertarian, and a sympathizer in the struggle for racial justice, as well as one who happens to admire Cleaver's literary gifts," but he condemns the Black Panthers' resort to armed struggle, writing: "It seems to me that those who have a good moral case, as black men do in this country, make a mistake adopting this tactic" [121].

"Academic Freedom in the University," Berkeley, 1967

Hofstadter delivered the commencement address at UC-Berkeley, May 1, 1967. Click here to read full text of the speech, as printed in The Daily Californian.

Well before the pivotal events at Columbia, Hofstadter had weighed in on debates regarding the relationship between free inquiry and democracy. He and Walter Metzger co-authored The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States as early as 1955, and since that time he had again taken up the theme in numerous articles and in books such as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. As college campuses became sites of conflict during the 1960s, he grew increasingly concerned that the politicization of education eroded the forbearance and humility that are necessary to the functioning a free and democratic society.

Hofstadter outlined his thoughts on the matter in May 1967, in a commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley, which he entitled, simply, "Academic Freedom in the University." The address, shown above, was delivered one full year before Hofstadter's historic commencement speech at Columbia University (in the wake of the student occupations). In it, Hofstadter describes the university as a "special community" suspended between "the real world" and "the splendid world of our imagination" [122]. Its essential character "as a center of free inquiry and criticism" requires it to be "dependent on something less precarious than the momentary balance of forces in society" -- namely, "self-criticism and self-restraint" [123]. All of the members of the university community, whether they be students, faculty, or administrators, must exercise their freedom of conscience and expression responsibly in order for it to have meaning and durability.

Forces of Liberation

This note, from unidentified students calling themselves "The Forces of Liberation," was left in Hofstadter's office after the occupation of campus buildings, April 1968. Click here to see the reverse side of the page, which has been creased to make a paper airplane.

Columbia Crisis, April, 1968

Telegram from University President Grayson Kirk announcing an emergency faculty meeting.

This vision of the university would be tested as never before during the crisis that erupted Columbia in April of 1968. Following the university administration's use of police to remove student demonstrators from several buildings on campus, Hofstadter co-authored a resolution (pictured in the image gallery below) supporting that decision and calling for reforms to the university's governing structure. This, however, only earned him the contempt of those who were unwilling to forgive the use of force by the university against its own students, as is evident from the flyers, also pictured in the image gallery below, singling out Hofstadter for condemnation.

SDS activists had already confirmed and documented Columbia's strong ties to the defense industry in March, 1967; the use of the police in April 1968 only pointed to further ways in which the university was connected to the same system that produced genocidal wars abroad and perpetuated racial injustice within the United States. In short, the measures chosen by the administration to stem the conflict had backfired, further radicalizing many students and contributing to a general disaffection with the institution. Hofstadter, who had described the school as a "special community," now proposed to reform it so that it might live up to its potential. But many others now regarded the university as too embedded in corrupt power structures to be capable of reform.

The consequences of that division would play out in the weeks that followed, as President Kirk handed off the task of delivering the commencement address to someone who would be viewed as more impartial and whose selection would deflect controversy. He chose Richard Hofstadter.

Columbia University Commencement, June 1968

A photograph depicting students leaving the Columbia University commencement ceremony just before Hofstadter was set to deliver his remarks (Credit: Edward Hausner, The New York Times). Click here to read the full text of the speech, as printed in the event program, June 4, 1968.

Hofstadter viewed himself as a nonpartisan figure whose credibility would extend to both radical students, administrators, and everyone in between. But his apparent endorsement of Kirk's handling of the occupation had alienated many students. In recordings of the speech, shouts and boos can be heard when Hofstadter asserts that he is not speaking for the university. Before he could begin his address at the ceremony, which was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on June 4th, over 300 graduating seniors exited in protest, re-convening at a "counter-commencement" that was staged nearby.

The speech, nonetheless, was praised in many quarters, and it marks a high point in Hofstadter's career. In his remarks - which are available here as both an audio file and as a full-text document - Hofstadter issued an eloquent plea on behalf of academic freedom. As in his speech at Berkeley, he reminded his audience that democracy relies on the values of mutual respect, tolerance, and the idea of a loyal opposition. While acknowledging that the Vietnam War was a "crucial and misconceived venture" that had convinced students that "violence is the order of the say," Hofstadter warned that "to politicize [campuses] completely" would be to reduce universities to "centers of vocational training, nothing more" [124]. In their rush to accuse universities like Columbia of being complicity with the war effort, students attacked institutions of higher education as proxies for the military state. In so doing, they failed to consider that the university is one of the few benign institutions devoted to dialogue and intellectual freedom -- in his words, it remains a "center of culture and hope." The university, he warns, is a "fragile structure" that can only survive in a context of self-imposed limits and respectful disagreement [125]. By resorting to force rather than "orderly and peaceable discussion," the students failed to consider that their maximalist tactics negated the principles of freedom, and that they would therefore ultimately prove self-defeating [126].