Against the War at Berkeley

Courtesy photo     Alameda resident Mike Roddy celebrated his graduation from the University of California, Berkeley, with his friends and relatives in 1969.

 

Alameda resident pens reflections on anti-war protests half a century later

In the fall of 1967 I enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, partly inspired by the protesters who stopped troop trains passing through Berkeley earlier in the Vietnam War. I had already lost a high school friend in the battle of Ia Drang Valley in 1965 and was enraged by the incessant lies coming out of Washington. It also became apparent, from studying the history of the region, that we were never going to win that war.

The action started right after I arrived: Stop the Draft Week, in October and again in December, was an effort to disrupt the war at the gigantic Oakland Induction Center by yelling, raising placards and getting chased around by cops waving billy clubs. Different versions of that protest became common in the next few years, as we faced off against the Alameda County Sheriff deputies (the infamous Blue Meanies), the National Guard and the California Highway Patrol. Campus and City of Berkeley police were much less aggressive.

Later, in 1969, the Berkeley campus was cordoned off by the National Guard, and we were bombed with tear gas from helicopters, so that Gov. Ronald Reagan — who had dodged the draft in World War II — could look tough. My friend Candy and I were attacked by a California Highway Patrol officer, who filled our backsides with birdshot, sending us to the hospital. 

There was little self-pity. We knew that our soldiers and the Vietnamese people were enduring far worse than our little tussles in Berkeley. Sometimes the protests would become ideological circuses. One night in late 1967, protesters set up an open mic on the steps of Sproul Hall. Someone hung a North Vietnamese flag above the steps and various rabble-rousers, mostly non-students, called on the crowd to make common cause with the National Liberation Front — the Vietcong. I got up and spoke out against that madness and drew a mixed response.

Later that year, I was asked to join a friend at Young Socialist Alliance meetings. To humor her, I attended, but it was obvious that the older-looking leaders were F.B.I. or C.I.A. plants. They kept repeating tired Communist slogans and had neater long hair. I went to only two meetings, but it was enough for someone to come to where I worked, snap a flashbulb camera in my face and walk away. I was probably on file with the F.B.I. for a while.

We took little pride in those protests as the years passed, because we failed. The war did not end until six years later. In retrospect, even though the police were the aggressors just as often as we were, there was little point in declaring moral high ground. Most of us understood that it wasn’t black and white, that we weren’t superior to the men who submitted to the draft.

Meanwhile, my family was nearly shattered by arguments at the dinner table. My father, John Roddy, was a retired, highly decorated Army colonel who fought in three wars: World War II, the Greek Civil War (as artillery adviser to the Greek Army) and Korea. He liberated death camps in Germany and was awarded two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for valor. We had fierce arguments when I came home on holidays. Dad wanted me to do my duty, but a good lottery number in 1969 kept that argument from coming to a head. He was a literate man, and agreed later in the war that it had been a horrible mistake.

Here again, it wasn’t a simple fight, the righteous son against the violent father. In 1959, Dad stood up to a crew of Strangelove-like officers at the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon, where he was a senior staff officer. Some of them wanted to put field-controlled Nike nuclear missiles on the backs of jeeps — in other words, to give officers in the field the authority to start a nuclear war. It didn’t happen, though Barry Goldwater revived the idea a few years later. Maybe Dad, an articulate and persuasive man, helped effect that outcome.

That struggle influenced his early retirement, out of frustration, in 1963, but his stance at the Pentagon was a greater victory than any of his battles. It certainly dwarfed anything I ever did.

My son Malcolm is a Marine lance corporal. He reminds me of Dad. I’m a pacifist, but could not be prouder of him.
 

 

Michael Roddy, a retired river rafting guide and housing developer, now advocates on climate issues. He lives in Alameda. This article also appeared in the New York Times.