We all have a short list of lucky things that happened to us over our lifetime. One of mine is the year I served as editor of the University of Iowa’s daily student newspaper. It was 1969 and 1970—the ultimate year of student anti-war protest. I feel a little bit guilty about linking the word lucky to the horrific events of that time, but it was the year of news, big news—especially for students—and my cohorts and I had ringside seats to much of it.
A few of us from “The Daily Iowan” went to D.C. to cover the events of first anti-Vietnam War moratorium protests in 1969. I remember my experiences there as mostly chaos, but I got close enough to the action to have a canister of tear gas blow up at my feet. I ran faster than it could form its engulfing cloud and thus quickly recovered from its effects. Our little group did some pretty good reporting.
Memories of those days came rushing back to me recently when I opened the spring edition of the Columbia Journalism Review to a page of John Filo’s photograph of young Mary Ann Vecchio crying out over the prostrate body of the unarmed student. He had just been shot dead by a member of the Ohio National Guard, which had been called onto campus to quell student protests. We ran the picture on page one of the DI.
Not long after, Iowa had its own brush with disaster when our own governor mustered the National Guard to settle the campus disturbances on the U of I campus. The weekend warriors were encamped at the local fair grounds outside Iowa City and I sent a couple of student reporters out to see what they were up to. The pair came back with quotes that chilled my blood and could be best described as expressing a trigger-finger itchiness anticipation to create their own version of Kent State on the Iowa campus.
The university’s top brass had essentially gone into hiding but had set up a system where I could call a certain phone number and tell the person who answered the information or person(s) we were seeking. Soon enough interviews with appropriate sources would be arranged. There was no attempt to control the content of our stories or access to the people we wanted to interview. The system actually facilitated the production of timely and accurate news content. I think the administration knew by then that our DI staff was dedicated to producing professional quality journalism, including the accuracy attained by talking with those in highest authority. The paper would later be specially recognized by the Associated Press’s Managing Editors Association for “quality reporting above and beyond the call of duty and of exemplary import.”
Our standard was simple—to report the news rather than rumor and innuendo, which the campus was awash in. We received a bomb threat for one of the main buildings on campus and after a thorough search proved it to be false, I decided not to run with the story. A bomb threat with no bomb was not news, and the DI did not need to serve as bulletin board for posting falsities intended to scare and intimidate. Censorship? Arguably to some, but we didn’t receive any more bomb threats during that tense spring. The DI itself was threatened, however, and steel plates were welded across the windows of our second story newsroom and the press building across the street. Campus security assigned a detail to keep a close eye on our offices and staff.
I had made enemies with the radical left when I wrote an editorial condemning efforts to inflict serious and permanent physical damage to property and buildings and local Iowa City businesses in the name of being against the Vietnam War. It asked the simple question: “Who are the real pigs?”
Still I was not denied my experience with a bomb. We consistently ran beyond the page one deadline, so I would drive staff members home well past midnight. Sitting at a stoplight a block down from our central campus, called the Pentacrest, waiting for a traffic light to change, I gazed down a deserted street into the heart of the city’s business district when a bomb in a trashcan exploded. It turned the trashcan into shrapnel that took out the windows of businesses on both sides of the street. No one was hurt, but I got a nifty conversation piece of shrapnel that landed inches from my car.
Those of us immersed in the horrors of Kent State were in a state of shock that our own government agents would open fire on unarmed protestors. It was about as un-American as you could get. But many thought it was the students who were being un-American. The political dichotomy ran along the same boundary as the anti-war dispute—the government wanted to tell young men they had to go and fight in an undeclared war, and young men didn’t think the concept of national duty should be stretched that far.
Later, as a young lawyer looking back on the events, I recall wishing I had had the opportunity to put some of those politicians under cross-examination. They were aloof and arrogant, and needed to have some of their hot air released into the world of truth. Yet our country is better today for having been taught such painful lessons in honesty and transparency. Though still frequently lacking in transparency, most politicians know they can’t hide the truth for very long. Journalists have sharpened their skills. Citizens tend to be disinclined to allow such factual tomfoolery. You can’t just tell them. You need to present evidence to support your claims.
The picture in the CJR brought memories crashing back to that time when emotions ran so high you could literally taste it. When the DI reporters came back from our own fair grounds back then, they and shared quotes from their notebooks from interviews with our own guard members and went off to write their stories. I called a special phone number that I had been given and shortly thereafter received a call from a top member of the University’s administration. Our conversation was brief. I told him that I was going to read to him some quotes from guardsmen encamped at the fairgrounds. If anything happened on our campus, I advised, the gist of our conversation would become the headline news: Administration Forewarned Before Guardsmen Open Fire was the headline I reserved in the back of my mind.
We didn’t need the headline because then university President Willard Boyd and the governor exercised wisdom and left the guard at the fairgrounds. Soon they were sent home. Instead the governor called in the Iowa Highway Patrol from around the state and deputy sheriffs from surrounding counties. Though spiffily uniformed, the patrolmen lacked the demeanor of soldiers in warfare itching to open fire. One of our student photographers best captured the interaction with a picture of two highway patrolmen, highly polished boots resting upon the low, single-rail perimeter “fence” around the Pentacrest, engaged in conversation with a small gathering of anti-war students.
Our story quickly shifted from one of confrontation and protest to communication and discussion. No one person could take credit for this result, but a lot of people could be proud of their contribution to it and being one of the cooler heads to prevail. The fundamental educational concept of discussion and debate won out over confrontation and loss of control. Someone once called the Iowa campus the Athens of the Midwest. During those critical days, it was.
Taking no chances, the administration did decide to end the school year early—an action that quickly diffused the potential for disaster and interjected the most fundamentally curative reaction to tension—time. But the picture remains far from a benign scene of history. The students in that horrific front-page photo are now elderly and have been cast to the four winds. The family of the dead student has likely, too, passed on. We are left with but a picture that freezes in time the student anti-war protests at their lowest ebb and at one of lower points in our history.
Many years later, the daughter of a friend who ran a bookstore in Iowa City back then, interviewed me for a piece she was working on about “those” days. Even over the phone I could sense that she had teared up and I asked her why.
“I wish I could have been there,” she said.
To me, the ones to tear up over were the 57,000 young American men deprived of so many days of life by the folly of war and politicians who lacked the basic fundamentals of wisdom and compassion.
In the intervening years, it’s become apparent that these young men did not die in vain, like I thought for so many years. They taught us a hard lesson and though sabre-rattlers and tongue flappers reside among us still, a majority with improved common sense has prevailed. The troublemakers have hopefully lost the credibility required to send our youth needlessly into harm’s way. If not, an old tradition should apply—that they show their courage by leading the first charge.