It All Started at Columbia

by Jean Stimmell

I need to vent about the college protests. I am beside myself, appalled at my country’s unconditional military support of Israel’s continuing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. I have first-hand knowledge about protest and war during the Vietnam era, first as a hapless bystander, then a direct participant in the war, and afterward, as a protester against the war.

And it all started at Columbia.

When I started at Columbia as a freshman in 1963, it still felt like the 1950s: I had to sign a loyalty oath pledging I was a loyal American, left over from the communist hysteria during the McCarthy era. The campus still fit the image of the 1950s; students wore chinos and had short hair; hairy beatniks were a rarity.

I dropped out after my third semester in 1965, the year we invaded Vietnam. At the time, the conflict seemed like a momentary distraction, like one of our periodic invasions in Central America that only lasted a few weeks. When I was about to be drafted, I enlisted in the Navy, the branch my father had fought in during WW II.

I ended up in the Brown Water Navy, delivering troops and material up the rivers and along the coast of Vietnam. From seeing the massive infrastructure we had built, it was clear this was not going to be a short war. I read up on North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, who helped the U.S. During WW II and was called the George Washington of his country. After the war, he declared his country’s independence from France’s harsh colonial rule and hoped for our support.

By the time I came home in February of 1968, I had become staunchly antiwar. That spring, Columbia students discovered that the administration was complicit in supporting the war in Vietnam⁠, causing all hell to break out. As Frank Da Cruz has written:

“The Columbia building occupations and accompanying demonstrations, in which several thousand people participated, paralyzed the operations of the whole university and became “the most powerful and effective student protest in modern American history.”⁠

What we are witnessing today at Columbia may be a repeat performance. These kids are courageous for standing up for what is morally right. Campus activism for peace and human rights has a long tradition in our country, actions which most often have been vindicated by history.

How these uprisings will be viewed by future generations is still up for grabs:

Republicans have rejected the notion that these demonstrations are about promoting peace and social justice. Instead, for them, it is a golden opportunity to attack their favorite targets: “elite universities, progressive activists, ‘woke’culture and civil rights leaders.”⁠ On top of that, conservatives are accusing protesters of rampant antisemitism, despite the fact that many of the participants are Jewish.

I’ve already noted that Ho Chi Minh helped us defeat the Japanese. After the war, he declared Vietnam’s independence from oppressive French colonial rule, copying our own Declaration of Independence. But we backed the French, claiming he was a communist, in spite of the fact he was first and foremost a nationalist, refusing to be beholden to any foreign power. He defeated the French, but tragically, we took over France’s fight in 1965.

Over the next decade, we dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than we dropped on Germany in all of World War II. According to U.S. General Curtis LeMay, our aim was to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age—a similar strategy, by different means, to what we did to Indigenous Americans.

Now fast forward to Israel, which was founded in 1948 by the forcible removal of 440,000 Palestinians from their homeland. Long-term peace was still possible with a just and fair two-state solution. Instead, Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli control have become like the Indian reservations we herded Native Americans into.

Resentment and violence were bound to follow. Hamas’s excursion into Israel on October 7th, massacring over a thousand innocent civilian men, women, and children, was an unspeakable horror. As a former trauma counselor, I find it totally understandable that Israel—already profoundly traumatized by the Holocaust—would seek revenge.

In this situation, you need good friends to restrain you from making matters worse. I’m talking about Joe Biden. It was obvious that Israel could not achieve peace by dropping 1000-pound bombs on hospitals and residential buildings. While killing some Hamas soldiers in the process, Israel is teaching the whole next generation of Palestinians to hate Israel and plot revenge.

Instead, our president continues to back Israel to the hilt, sending unlimited offensive weapons to facilitate the decimation of Gaza. In the face of this, I’m elated that students are rallying to stop this slaughter. It must be acknowledged that some claim today’s demonstrations are different because of antisemitism.

I agree this curse remains a despicable, deep-rooted reality that undoubtedly plays some role. However, the volcanic anger fueling these demonstrations arises not from prejudice but from the visceral horror of watching nightly on TV as Palestinian civilians are crushed by falling concrete from bombs and rockets fired by the Israeli Army.

In my opinion, the antisemitic angle is being exaggerated by AIPEC, the powerful Israeli lobby, to divert attention from their unlawful actions. Then it is amplified by Republicans looking for an excuse to squash all protest in the name of “law and order.” All of this is but another part of their strategy to elect Trump and usher in a demonstration-free, authoritarian regime.


Jean Stimmell lives in Northwood.

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