Northeastern News Challenges Vietnam War, Status Quo

Northeastern News Challenges Vietnam War, Status Quo

       It was a thrilling time to be a college student. It was even more thrilling to be the editor of a college newspaper. By 1968, the anti-Vietnam War movement had reached Northeastern University. We on the Northeastern News could feel it.       

       As editor/guru, I found myself surrounded by talent as eager as I was to take on the issues of the day and turn the newspaper into something different and relevant. 

       Our merry band of Newsies thought big. To the chagrin of many, we would not be covering inconsequential fraternity parties or rewriting press releases congratulating the administration about something or other. We would not be following the meanderings of the student council. We had more important news to cover than two new trees being planted in the Quadrangle. Not while tens of thousands of young Americans and millions of Vietnamese were dying in a war that had no reason for being. 

       OK, I — we — were not above a touch of self-importance, a smidgen of arrogance about our role in the battle against injustice and war. Yet, we were on the right side much of the time.

This was going to be a different NU News for a different time. New blood had taken over the office: Jon Will Soper, Bob Matorin, Larry Rothstein, Marty Beiser, Nedda Young, Mary Gelinas, Sue Goldwitz — who am I forgetting? 

Let there be peace?

 On our radar were the war and the antiwar movement and the presidential race of 1968, one of the most important in U.S. history; the protest movement promoted in song by the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Phil Ochs, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and in action by numerous politicians, the Berrigan brothers, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Eartha Kitt and millions of others. 

       We Newsies watched and listened well. One of our own, Beiser, wrote a piece many years ago in the Northeastern Alumni magazine saying that the university needed to be woken up and that I was the alarm clock. I’d like to think he was right.

       I remember we covered famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock and the other members of the Boston Five, heretofore respectable academics who were indicted for urging the burning of draft cards to protest the Vietnam War. (Four of the five, including Spock, were subsequently sentenced to prison in 1968; a year later, their convictions were overturned.) They spoke passionately to a packed Ell Center auditorium. That was a seminal event that elevated our school to an important place among Boston-area colleges.

       I saw the emergence of two student organizations invested in bettering the lives of Black citizens. I assigned space to an officer of the Black Student Union for a column that ran on our op-ed page, which elicited a violent reaction from the other, more radical African-American Society. It wasn’t that this latter group disagreed with the substance of the articles: They were separatists who wanted no Black involvement in a “honky” newspaper. 

       As they shouted at us in the office, our adviser Harvey Vetstein, was a great help in handling these intimidators. Even though our brand of journalism must have given Harvey pause, he was always supportive in dealing with us.

       In 1968, a year filled with horror, one of the worst was the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The News dedicated an issue to this prince of peace, and I called upon Robert Feer, a professor in the History Department, who wrote a soaring piece on the meaning of Dr. King that I was proud to see on our pages. 

       The News considered it an obligation to cover the activities of SDS — Students for a Democratic Society — a leftist group with a surprising number of members who did sit-ins and stirred the pot on campus. I probably crossed a few lines in rooting for their antics, but it was all part of the antiwar passion we felt. 

Alternative newspapers — fueled by the so-called New Journalism — had become more personal, more participatory and experimental, blurring the lines that were treated as immovable in earlier days. The Village Voice was a great influence on my editorship, as were the New Republic, Ramparts magazine, the Fort Hill rag Avatar, the BU News and other publications at the forefront of radical journalism. 

       I later found out that new journalist Nat Hentoff — novelist, historian, columnist and music critic — had been editor of the Northeastern News in the ’50s. I wish I had gotten him to write a piece for us.

       Our version of the News reflected the times. Some of our efforts didn’t click; others were met with derision. The latter occurred when I hired Susie Goldwitz to be the “News astrologer” and write columns about that ancient art-science. Astrology had become wildly popular again, and that was good enough for me. That was not good enough for the letter writers, who acted as if an asteroid had destroyed our brains. 

       I believe the astrology columns broke the camel’s back for the student council, which tried to defund us for not writing about its “important” work, as our predecessors had done. As Shakespeare wrote, “The fault lies not in our stars … but in ourselves.” 

       My first editorial as editor was titled “Legalize Pot.” Marijuana is now legal in many states, including Massachusetts. So I’d give us a pat on the back 50-plus years later despite the opinion of my predecessor as News editor, who commented in the 1969 Cauldron yearbook that in his first few years on campus, the News had covered student events, but in his last year it had  “told us how to think and what drugs to smoke.” Ouch!

       Another editorial, “Eugene McCarthy for president,” was all about getting a good man elected so that the U.S. could leave Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection. No, I am not saying that my editorial pushed LBJ to the exit. I’m saying that our newspaper was part of a grand movement that forced him out of office. Can anyone not say the war would have ended sooner and our lives improved if Gene had won the presidency instead of Nixon? 

       In the same vein, do you need to watch Ken Burns’ PBS series “Vietnam” to determine that the war was a tragic waste of human life? 

       Yes, our little newspaper got stuff right.