Student demonstrations at the ROTC Military Review, 1968
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Protest in the 1960s

The high idealism, vigor, and youthful hopes that marked the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 ended in disillusion, anger, and finally violence when the 1960s came to an end. College students, our traditional hope for the future, questioned the established values upon which they were raised, and then at least some of them revolted against everything that represented adult authority. Proclaiming their distrust of everyone over thirty, they fled parental authority, wore ragged clothing, used foul language, turned to mind-altering drugs, disdained the work ethic, family and marriage, and more-all to find a new meaning and a new way to live their lives. ... When they wanted to voice their protests, they struck out, of course, at what was nearest to them: the colleges and universities from Berkeley in San Francisco to Columbia in New York City. - Father Hesburgh, God, Country, Notre Dame

Anti-Vietnam War protesters at the annual ROTC military review, May 1968. "Anti-war students disrupt ROTC Military Review." This photo was published in the Notre Dame Alumnus magazine.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


The 1960s were tumultuous years in America. A large part of the country wanted a true democratic society, firmly committed to civil rights for all. The young Baptist minister, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was at the forefront of peaceful protests. John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president of the United States in 1961, promising the nation a new, peaceful, and hopeful future for all. But shortly before reaching three years in office, Kennedy was assassinated, and the shocked nation's general discontent and unrest became more and more widespread.

When Lyndon B. Johnson took office after Kennedy's death, he promised to continue the late president's work and made some remarkable strides in civil rights. But he also forged ahead in Vietnam, drastically increasing the number of troops and therefore losing the support of many people. The Americans were trying to defend the Vietnamese from a growing communist regime, but were increasingly on the offensive. President Johnson heavily increased the deployment of Americans for ground combat. Johnson also initiated a series of bombings that made it clear to the American public that the country was no longer on the defensive. Young men and women, especially those enrolled in colleges and universities across the country, began expressing their general disillusionment. And protests ranged from peaceful to violent.

Biographer Michael O'Brien wrote in Hesburgh: A Biography,

The first major U.S. campus protest had occurred at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1964, when a number of campus groups united under the Free Speech Movement. Mass rallies, the takeover of university buildings, and police raids against demonstrators highlighted the student revolt. The unrest at Berkeley became the scenario that repeated itself on hundreds of campuses during the rest of the 1960s.

In April 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Tennessee. Race riots erupted across the country. Two months later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the popular brother of the late John F. Kennedy, supporter of King, and candidate for the fall presidential election, was shot to death in California.

Richard Nixon was elected president in the fall of 1968. He sought to bring peace in Vietnam and withdraw American troops, but under him, the first draft lottery since World War II was instituted, and more and more young men were sent to fight a losing war. The result was horrific. "More than 3 million people (including 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War; more than half were Vietnamese civilians."

Student demonstrations at the ROTC Military Review, 1968.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


In November of 1968, a large demonstration took place at Notre Dame-the largest in the University's history. Three hundred students lined up in the administration building and took part in a "sit in" to protest recruiters from Dow Chemical and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Father Hesburgh wrote a letter to faculty and students on November 25, 1968. Essentially, he asked the campus community to help determine a peaceful and productive way forward. And students appreciated the open dialogue he promoted through the letter.

Around the country it was apparent that the scene on college campuses was not improving. Things were not getting better, but simply escalating. Father Hesburgh knew he had to act. He recalled, "The fundamental question was where to draw the line." He came up with a stance somewhere in the middle of supporting protest and free speech, and protecting the day-to-day operations of the University. On February 17, 1969, Father Hesburgh garnered support from the colleges within the University and composed an eight-page letter to the students and campus community. In part, he wrote the following:

Youth especially has much to offer-idealism, generosity, dedication, and service. The last thing a shaken society needs is more shaking. The last thing a noisy, turbulent, and disintegrating community needs is more noise, turbulence, and disintegration. ... Compassion has a quiet way of service. ...

The university cannot cure all our ills today, but it can make a valiant beginning by bringing all its intellectual and moral powers to bear upon them: all the idealism and generosity of its own people, all the wisdom and intelligence of its oldsters, all the expertise and competence of those who are in their middle years. But it must do all this as a university does, within its proper style and capability, no longer an ivory tower, but not the Red Cross, either.

... The university could not continue to exist as an open society dedicated to the discussion of all issues of importance if protests were of such a nature that the normal operations of the university were in any way impeded, or if the rights of any member of this community were abrogated, peacefully or nonpeacefully.

Father Hesburgh then laid out his "15-minute" rule, which would give any disruptive demonstrator 15-minutes to "cease and desist." They would be given a chance to do so at that time, but after five more minutes, would be suspended. If they chose to persist, they would be expelled from Notre Dame.

We only insist on the rights of all, minority and majority, the climate of civility and rationality, and a preponderant moral abhorrence of violence on inhumane forms of persuasion that violate our style of life and the nature of the university.

He concluded the letter with a warning.

If I read the signs of the times correctly, this may well lead to a suppression of the liberty and autonomy that are the lifeblood of a university community. It may well lead to a rebirth of fascism, unless we ourselves are ready to take a stand for what is right for us. History is not consoling in this regard. We rule ourselves or others rule us, in a way that destroys the university as we have known and loved it.

Word of the letter spread like wildfire. According to biographer Michael O'Brien, "about 250 newspapers stormed into print, almost all of them praising his tough stand."

Not all took the letter seriously. According to O'Brien, "Senator Eugene McCarthy, who spoke at Notre Dame, was asked about Fr. Ted's hard-line statement on student disorders. With a mischievous smile, McCarthy opined that it was like warning an all-girl band not to chew tobacco." It was certainly true that there seemed to be little risk of great upheaval at a Catholic school like Notre Dame, but Father Hesburgh knew that he couldn't take the risk by being silent on the matter.

Father Hesburgh recalled an unwelcome telegram from President Nixon a week later. He wanted Father Hesburgh to advise Vice President Spiro Agnew about federal legislation to address protests around the country. "My heart sank. Repressive legislation was the last thing colleges wanted or needed. I certainly wanted no part of it." He rushed word to Vice President Agnew before he was to meet with the governors regarding action.

The first thing I did was to prepare a cable opposing any and all kinds of federal action on the campuses. My position was that the universities and colleges should handle their own problems, make their own decisions, without the intervention of the federal government except upon invitation. My objective was to persuade the governors not to go along with any restrictive legislation on this sensitive issue.

Student demonstration inside the Main Building protesting Dow Chemical and CIA recruiting on campus, 1969.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


The following fall, on November 18, 1969, the University had to enforce the fifteen-minute rule. But it was the first and only time. Twelve students were protesting the recruiters from Dow Chemical and the C.I.A. who were to arrive on campus. Father Hesburgh encouraged the dean of students, Father Jim Riehle, to be as lenient as possible while still following the fifteen-minute rule. After twenty minutes, he collected the IDs of the remaining ten and all were either suspended or expelled. Later, the expulsion was changed to a suspension, and all but one student returned to school the next semester.

Over time, Father Hesburgh quietly began to make the sort of changes the students requested, including increasing the enrollment of minorities and creating minority scholarships, loosening restrictions on alcohol on campus, and eliminating the curfew.

Some unwelcome news came from President Nixon the following spring. According to Michael O'Brien, "In a belligerent, provocative television speech on April 30, 1970, President Nixon justified sending troops into Cambodia in order to attack key North Vietnamese military targets."

Students sign the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh Anti-War Petition Declaration in the Memorial Library lobby, May 1970. This photo was published in the Notre Dame Alumnus magazine.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


According to O'Brien, "On Monday, before a crowd of 2,000, Father Hesburgh delivered one of the most important speeches of his life." As Father Hesburgh spoke, word was spreading that four students protesting the recent invasion in Cambodia had been killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. Father Hesburgh was against the war in Vietnam, and against violence anywhere. He also defended the R.O.T.C. program at Notre Dame, saying that the country needed a well-trained army that had a philosophical and ethical education. He suggested that together, they sign a declaration to send to President Nixon, asking for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, as well as other peace-keeping measures. He was met with "thunderous applause."

Immediately following Father Hesburgh, a student named David Krashna spoke, encouraging the students to boycott all classes at Notre Dame and proposing a different education, one that really delved into the present day crises. He was met with the same reaction from the crowd. The students went forward with the signing of Father Hesburgh's declaration, as well as getting the support of 23,000 people within the South Bend community. As promised, he mailed the declaration and signatures to President Nixon. The students proceeded with the boycott, joining students across the country who were doing the same.

But at Notre Dame, this wasn't simply a boycott. This was an opportunity to come together as a Catholic community. According to O'Brien, "On Wednesday of suspended classes a thousand people took part in a Mass on the Main Quad." And the next day,

One of the most impressive events during the seven days was the community liturgy held on Ascension Thursday (May 7) with Fr. Ted as the principal celebrant. Every element of the campus-faculty, students, clerks, secretaries, alumni-crammed into Sacred Heart Church to hear Fr. Ted eulogize the slain students at Kent State and plead for a society in which "ballots replaced bullets" for American youth.

Father Hesburgh recalled, "It seemed that the predominant sentiment on campus switched over from violence to nonviolence in that one single week." Students were back in class shortly after. Classes in nonviolence began and grew every semester. Thousands of students signed up to take the courses. Father Hesburgh reflected on what got him, and certainly the University through these years, "... great good luck, the grace of God, and the very special love, respect, and caring that our people have always had for one another at this very special place called Notre Dame."

R.O.T.C. at Notre Dame

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his defense of the R.O.T.C. program during the Vietnam War


May 7, 1968. The R.O.T.C. review. Do you recall that was picketed?

That's right. That's the last time we had a big review for a while-or we had it indoors. That was, again, typical of the times. It was at that time that most of the Ivy's gradually dropped the R.O.T.C.

Would you like to talk, at this point, about the R.O.T.C. issue?

Well, ours is very simple, Dick. We had a lot of opposition because it was natural at the Vietnam War to make a connection. At one point I felt we just had to have it out. I remember we had some kind of a convocation where faculty and students were involved. And we talked about it, and I tried to defend it by saying the military is part of this nation by the constitution. Part of the nation's basic-the government's-basic job is the common defense, and you can't do it without an Army-Army taken to mean all armed forces. And that-to me it was a simple proposition. Armies tend to be at times brutal and ruthless, and the only way you soften the force of arms is by having good leadership inside of armies. And there have been good and bad generals.

The R.O.T.C. was an attempt to get a wide spectrum of people to be officers and to give leadership within an armed forces environment. If we wanted to turn over all the leadership to little military schools all over the country instead of having some leadership come out of our best institutions where people presumably had a broad world-view and a sense of the use of force that was more sophisticated than just Genghis Khan, and it knew how to deal with people and to create humane circumstances within which confrontation takes place and a willingness to bargain, et cetera. That-we were only going to get that if we had officers with a very broad background: philosophical, theological, humanistic background. It would be a sad day when there were no more officers coming out of our best colleges to give leadership to that. They put it to a vote, and as I recall 86% of the faculty and students voted to keep the R.O.T.C. I also said, "If you want to take a dim view of it and picket, that's your problem, but do it peacefully. But if someone else wants to join it, that's his problem, and let him do it. Freedom comes both ways."

Unrest at Notre Dame

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about unrest at Notre Dame during the 1960s


I had hardly gotten in the office-apparently they didn't lock the main building up in those days-there was a knock on the door. And I went to the door, and there was a student there. He said, "Can I come in? I said, "Sure." And he said, "You know, tomorrow is going to be a rough day. They're going to burn down the R.O.T.C. building, probably, at least try to." And I said, "Do you favor that?" He said, "Hell no. I'm Student Commander of the R.O.T.C. But I thought you ought to know about it." So we talked, and I got a little-a few-details about what was cooking. It was going to be a whole week of activities. Then about an hour later, it's now about two o'clock, some other student comes in. And he said, "Then there's going to be a whole week of activity. It's going to be wild, a march on the town, you know, crosses all over the place." So he said, "I thought I ought to let you know." I said, "Well, it's always nice to know what's coming up," I say with a sinking feeling in my stomach. And then-it's now two-thirty in the morning. And I've heard nothing officially about this. The only way I'd get it is from Student Government, you know.

Dave Krashna was, at this time, visibly or at least ostensibly out in front and trying to keep all things equal. I spent a lot of time with Dave. And he called me up innocently, you know, about 2:30, 3:00 and said, "Oh Father, we're going to have a big thing out on the main mall in front of Alumni Hall at one o'clock"-I think he said-"tomorrow, maybe two, and we thought maybe you'd like to speak." I said, "Of course I'd like to speak." He said, "Okay, see you out there." And I said, "Well, who's going to speak, and what's the order?" "Oh, we're working on that now, but we just wanted to see if you wanted to speak." I said, "Okay." So I thought, oh golly, this is one I'd better write out. I don't like to do it, but I felt this one I really better have down in writing what I did. Beginning then I wrote out a speech, and I thought I'd put an action program at the end of it. I put down seven or eight things at the end of it that could be done or should be done, and it was my advice to the government. And I think I said something to the effect that if they agreed I'd be happy to give that list to the President of the United States, Mr. Nixon. I'm not sure that was in the written speech-but I know I said it. So I left it for Helen. Poor Helen would come in in the morning and have the temperature of what was going on the night before. And I said, "I'm going to be in quite late tomorrow, because it's about 4:30 a.m. and I'm just turning in, and it's been a horrible weekend."

So I went over and got some sleep. When I got back she had it typed up, and I read it over and had a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup and went over to the main quad. When I got there-it was amazing how they would set up the stand and the P.A. system -and the kids started to gather. It was a big mob. And whoever was organizing it-Dave was around there, of course. Anyway, they said, "You're up first." And I said, "Okay." Well, I got up and I gave them what was, I suppose, for the times and what they were expecting, a blockbuster, plus a very practical set of things that might be done. And I gave it and stepped off the platform, went over to Joe's and got a haircut. I got back to my office, and already they were lining up outside the office. I said to Helen, "What's up?" She said, "They all want a copy of your speech. So I sent it down to mimeographing, and they're waiting for it."

I went out and got the guys around and said, "What's up?" They said, "We decided that of all we heard what you said made more sense than anything else. We're going to take copies of your speech to every house in this town and try to get them to sign it. We hope to have for you 80,000 signed statements, even if we have to go to Elkhart and Mishawaka to get them. And then we want you to send them to President Nixon." And I said, "You get them and I'll send them." And they said, "Now there's going to be a lot of things during the week. But there's going to be this big march on the town, but we're trying to work it out now as you say in a civilized and non-violent way. In fact we got the Chief of Police and the others are coming out to talk about it, and they're going to stop traffic at certain points so that we can march through. And they've been very helpful. We were going to just meet in a mob, you know, out where we had the thing on the main quad. They said, 'No if you want to really have an effective march, you've got to have like four or five or six abreast, and they have to start somewhere and feed people into that, so by the time they hit the main drag they're you've got a long orderly line. And then it makes a big effect, because it takes a long time to go by. It isn't just a mob going down with people on the fringes throwing bricks when you don't want them to. That's why the soldiers march in line.' Then they said, 'Can we march with you?'" And of course the kids were amazed at that. They said, "Well, okay, if you don't wear your uniforms." So he said, "Okay, I'll come in civvies."

Well that was going to be Tuesday or Wednesday, I know, and I had a problem, because I think I was chairman of the Civil Rights Commission at that time and had a hearing somewhere. I quick made a call and asked Steve Horn, who was also a college-university- president, at the University of Long Beach State. And I asked him to take my place, because I just had to-I said, "I haven't done this very often, but this is one time I've got to be here and don't want to be off somewhere and have the place go up in smoke."




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