Vietnam War legacy, Al Gore, and more: The first 24 hours of the reunion

Exhausting and overwhelming! That’s what the first day of my 50th Reunion was like. Not so much for the usual reason that exhausts and overwhelms us introverts — too many people — but because of the intensity of the experiences that kept coming at us without a break.

After some opening ceremonies that I skipped (a boring welcome reception and a memorial service), I settled into joining an audience of 700 people listening to a panel discussion called “Coming of Age during a Divisive War.” Nine of my classmates brought us back to the Vietnam War and its effects on campus. As I wrote a month ago, the two intertwined events that shaped our undergraduate years were the war and the student strike. We obviously couldn’t know at the time that one of our classmates would grow up to become Vice President of the U.S., that his roommate would become a famous actor, that one classmate would be a Nobel Prize winner and a fourth would become a respectable newscaster on Fox (sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t). I’ll pass over the one who would become famous for defending right-wing dictatorships. Anyway, to come back to the panel discussion, which was held all too appropriately on Memorial Day, we listened to short but intense presentations by people who had held a variety of views when they were young but now seem to have converged on a lot of agreement. Even those who had enthusiastically supported the war now agree that it was a mistake (“we trusted in the government”). Messages kept resonating today.

There is progress. “It was easier to come out in Vietnam than at Harvard,” observed one speaker. I learned from his talk that my thesis advisor was gay, which I should have known but didn’t. Leslie Krebs, self-described as “careless, self-absorbed, ignorant, and cowardly” as a freshman and sophomore, spoke movingly about the death of the young man she loved when she was a junior: “If you keep silent while your government commits crimes in your name, you can lose everything you hold most dear.” Wesley Profit refused to be inducted and “learned to speak truth to power.” Others served and were scarred by their experience; surprisingly, none of my classmates died in the war. We were reminded of the associated social justice issues — so many of those who served were low-income, relatively uneducated, and non-white. We at Harvard were so privileged and didn’t know it, or at least didn’t grok it fully. The vast majority of us avoided combat, even without claiming bone spurs.

One classmate, Brook Baker, said that he had never even heard of the war in Vietnam when he arrived here from Kentucky as a rural conservative. He ended up spending four years working for SDS after graduating and still works in the anti-war and anti-racism movements. “The fundamental nature of American warmongering has not changed.”

Despite the size of the audience, Frank McNamara didn’t even use the microphone. (He’s a trial lawyer and the father of 12 kids, he explained.) His senior thesis had been on “the conservatism of WIlliam F. Buckley,” but now he has been radicalized. So much for the common view that people become more conservative as they get older. “We’re always missing our moral cues,” he observed.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough for now. Surprisingly little present-day politics popped up explicitly in the talks, but politics permeated everything that everybody said. Final message from one speaker: “Protests work.” Remember that.

(I’ll leave the rest of the day to the next post. I’m tired now. There were still three hours to go…)

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning