Reflections on Vietnam and Other Moments of Campus Activism: An Interview With Radical Professor Bertram Strieb

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A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Arlington, Virginia, October 1967.A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Arlington, Virginia, October 1967. (Photo: S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson / DoD)Bertram Strieb, LaSalle University professor emeritus in the Department of Geology, Physics and Environmental Science, and an educator for nearly 50 years, spoke to me about radicalism and campus activism during the Vietnam period. Strieb received a progressive Philadelphia Hebrew School education. His teachers were the parents of Noam Chomsky, MIT institute professor and professor of linguistics (emeritus) and Linguistic Theory. In this interview, Strieb discusses the Chomsky visit to the LaSalle Campus in 1985. Both Strieb and Chomsky attended Central High School in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.

Daniel Falcone for Truthout: What can you tell me about the Vietnam era at La Salle?

Bertram Strieb: The war started in 1962. The United States had sent “advisors.” The election of 1964 was when Johnson and Goldwater ran against one another. Kennedy had been assassinated. Johnson said he was not going to escalate the war. Goldwater was considered dangerous. Johnson won in a landslide and then immediately escalated the war. He sent in large numbers of troops. I was teaching here at the time. In 1965-66, a number of college teachers in the area got together and began to set up draft counseling on their campuses. I got involved in that, and I remember meeting at people’s homes and things. With a number of other faculty members, I was a, sort of, a key person setting up draft counseling here, which ultimately got taken over by some students who were vets, around 1969. These guys took it over and did a much better job. A number of us got trained as draft counselors and did a bunch of draft counseling. So we were prepared to tell people about conscientious objecting. I had a lot of material in my office, to hand out stuff to students and also to inform myself about legal aspects. And, I found out, when I got my FBI files at a later date, that someone had surreptitiously entered my office and had stolen some stuff out of my office. I didn’t know it was gone. I would have been happy to give it to them, if they wanted it.

What did they think they were taking?

I have no idea.

By the time of President Nixon, were you on his enemies list?

Yes. I was involved in three different aspects of anti-war activities. One was stuff at La Salle. Another was associated with a group called “The Resistance” in Philadelphia. And another was associated with, what was called the Catholic Left, with Dan Berrigan and Liz McAllister and John Grady. And these things were, actually, quite different from one another, but they were all antiwar activities. We put up AWOLS in our house, for example, or people who were not yet drafted but were trying to avoid the draft. So we put up a number of people there.

And this house was actually raided by police?

Police and MPs at 3 in the morning to haul off some guys who were staying with us.

Sounds fun.

It was actually one of the great thrills of my life. Some were Methodists and very involved in the First United Methodists Church in Germantown. What these folks were doing was entering draft boards and seizing files and burning the files. They also entered a draft board in Media, Penn., and stole files. I think that the FBI office was in the same building. What they did was steal FBI files and disseminated them very widely. The FBI files had all of this information about illegal stuff that the FBI was doing; spying on people, and setting fires, and they got absolutely furious about this. Powelton Village in Philadelphia is where the FBI thought many of the people lived.

And what happened in 1970-71?

The FBI basically laid siege to Powelton Village for about six months. They were just all over the place. And the resistance people had some kind of party, welcoming the FBI to the village. So, they had a sense of humor about this. But, in regard to La Salle, my main activities were activities of setting up draft counseling and then trying to get students to demonstrations in Washington. There were demonstrations typically twice a year in Washington. So we had whole busloads of students going down. I remember, in 1967, there was a famous demonstration that wound up in the Pentagon. Norman Mailer wrote a book about it. Where there was an attempt to levitate the Pentagon, supposedly. There was a whole bus of La Salle students heading down for these events. People got tear-gassed. It was really quite frightening.

How were the professors treated by the school officials over such activities?

I never received any direct complaints about it, and I actually pushed things pretty hard, probably unwisely. There was a sit-in in 1970, and there may have been two sit-ins thereafter. One of them was in support of the chaplain, of the priest who was head of campus ministry at the time. Who was outspokenly opposed to the Vietnam War and which the Philadelphia Archdiocese did not like. And he was also counseling gays, which they, especially, did not like. War is one thing. But counseling gays was much, much worse at this time in the eyes of the powerful. He has since died. I’ve since learned that he was gay. But that’s neither here nor there. He was counseling gays, so he was fired. Nobody can really tell why because the administration refused to say why. His name was John Cimino from South Philly; really good guy. I think later on he went and worked with Native Americans and did human and civil rights work. Around 1971 or 1972, another LaSallian Brother, Dan Burke, with a group of students, chained themselves to the White House fence in protest against the Vietnam War.

Did LaSalle have visitors speak on behalf of draft resistance?

There were constant petitions, and speakers. In, I believe, 1972, there was something called, “Vietnam Summer.” Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, a couple at the time, were touring nationally in antiwar activities. The person in charge of development at the time, who later became president of LaSalle University and then became president of Catholic University, was not averse to doing underhanded things and really attempted to stop Hayden from appearing here.

He was opposed to the lecture?

Yes. There were a bunch of students who were trained to bring slideshows into classes, if faculty were interested, about the war. Things had reached kind of a desperate point. There didn’t seem to be any way to get the country out of this thing. And millions of people were being killed. I mean, millions of Vietnamese were being killed, in particular. In addition to tens of thousands of American soldiers. Many people were feeling desperate. I mean, that’s one reason we got involved in the Catholic Left and with housing AWOLs.

Did you know any Quakers during this time?

Yes.

Was the Quaker community involved in the La Salle efforts? Or was that separate?

It was separate, because there’s no real Quaker presence here. But, in fact, the Quaker presence in Philadelphia seems to have shaped the antiwar movement in Philadelphia and made it different from other places. And, if you’re interested, there’s a really interesting book by a guy named Paul Lyons, who taught history. Paul died about five years ago. But he taught history in New Jersey, in South Jersey, in Atlantic County (Stockton College). Paul did a history of the antiwar movement in Philadelphia. And there’s a chapter on La Salle in there; on La Salle’s involvement in it. What Paul does is – part of his thesis is – that the shape of the antiwar movement in Philadelphia was very much influenced by the Quaker presence in Philadelphia. It really made it different from what the antiwar movement looked like in other places. So, there’s no blowing up buildings or anything like that. And certainly, the Philadelphia Resistance Movement, which played a key role in working with enlisted men and people who were threatened by the draft and smuggling people to Canada and things of that sort grew out of some students at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of them are constitutional lawyers now. One’s a McArthur Fellowship winner on the faculty at Penn. They were all very influenced by Quakers, I know, and by Friends’ activities. A number of them went to work at American Friends Service Committee, at Friends Center, at 15th and Cherry. Many of them are still involved in socially significant kinds of things. That was separate from the Catholic Left. There didn’t seem to be much interplay between the two. The campus was connected to Vietnam because the nation was connected. There’s a wonderful book by Michael Arlen who wrote for The New Yorker. It’s a series of columns he wrote in The New Yorker. It’s called The Living Room War. And it’s about the influence of television in making the war graphic to people in this country. News was taken much more seriously. It wasn’t personalities in the same kind of way. I mean Walter Cronkite was not like Rush Limbaugh or barely something close as a personality.

You went to Central High School.

Yes.

And you went to Penn.

Yes.

And Professor Noam Chomsky, the famed foreign policy critic, went to the same two schools.

Right.

And his parents were Hebrew schoolteachers.

Right.

And they both taught you.

Yes.

Could you tell me about that?

His parents taught at Gratz College, which is an institution of whose purpose is to train people to teach in congregational Hebrew schools. I had his father as my Hebrew grammar teacher. His father was a philologist. I had a Hebrew grammar course from him and his mother actually. His brother is a physician in Philadelphia, David, who may be retired now. He was, for many years, at Einstein, right up the street here. Noam Chomsky’s sister-in-law, David’s wife Judy, and I were trained as draft counselors around 1967 or so. Then Judy was very active in the Philadelphia resistance and is a lawyer who is doing a lot of work with the Center for Constitutional Rights. She’s doing a lot of work with Guantanamo prisoners. Her and I are friends and so, that’s the sort of direct connection to Chomsky.

Ed Herman, who was a professor; he’s a retired professor of finance, I believe, from the Wharton School, was one of the people who was involved in setting up the draft counseling stuff back in 1966, as well. Ed Herman is still doing a lot of writing, you know, for Z Magazine. I know Ed and had some contact with him about Chomsky. In 1986, in November, probably, a symposium was announced at LaSalle on Middle East issues. And some famous people were being brought in from think tanks, primarily in Washington, who were supposedly Middle East experts and who seemed from their credentials to be, to be conservatives in regard to the issues, establishment figures. The person who was, I think, instrumental in setting this up was a guy named Ed Turzanski, who is on the staff at the university and is in charge of government relations. So, if there are arguments with the community, for example, Turzanski gets involved. And, that’s his job. Ed is a La Salle graduate and I think had been working with the CIA.

And another La Salle graduate whose name I forget was the station chief in Beirut when a whole bunch of American Service people were killed in the Beirut bombing – this is in about 1985 or so; Reagan was president – the guy’s name was Ames; and Turzanski wanted to do a tribute to Ames, and so set up this day-long symposium on the Middle East. We set up – I’m almost certain it was during finals week. So it was a little weird; it was not the sort of thing you would expect students to attend, and the Political Science Department frankly had never been terribly active in setting things like this up before. Turzanski, I think, had set this up. A number of people in the faculty got quite upset about it – and it was a tribute to Ames. So, a bunch of faculty got – when they heard this was going on, said, where’s this coming from, and got particularly concerned about doing a tribute to somebody from the CIA who – where, by the nature of that work you don’t know what they’re doing, so what are you, what are you doing a tribute to? I mean, you don’t know what you’re, what you’re praising.

Right.

And the CIA had a long record of really terrible stuff, and . . .

Still do.

. . . So a bunch of faculty people – probably a dozen or 15 faculty people – got quite upset about this, and I contacted Ed Herman and explained to him what was going on, and he said he could get – he would talk to Chomsky about getting here to talk, as a kind of counter to this or something. Chomsky couldn’t come right away – by now it’s December. Chomsky couldn’t come right away. But something else was going on. In the spring of ’87, Margie Allen, who’s in the English Department, and has training in linguistics, was offered an honors course in linguistics, particularly devoted to Chomsky’s linguistics, although certainly not entirely. I don’t remember the details of this, but I told her that we were arranging for Chomsky to come, and she got in contact with Chomsky. He wound up coming in April – almost certainly April; it was towards the end of the course – and he gave a talk at noon or whenever the open period was – at noon – he gave a talk on Mideast stuff from his point of view, which was quite different from what it had been in the panel in December – and then he met with her class for a couple of hours to talk about linguistic stuff, about his work in linguistics. And it was like having Newton come to your physics class or Einstein come to your physics class or Toynbee come to your history class or something. Chomsky spoke off the cuff, but knew exactly what he was talking about, and very powerful. So, that was a real special experience, being able to bring him here, and there was a good sized audience to hear him.

Was there dissent?

No. I mean, when the symposium was going on, in probably the first week or second week in December when we had the symposium, the faculty said – were handing, handing stuff out at the entrance indicating that – their concerns about the thing. But the Chomsky thing didn’t produce any dissent that I recall.

Yeah. Was it ever publically documented in any formal way that Chomsky had visited the campus?

I assume it’s in the college paper archives, but you may want to ask Chomsky for yourself what he recalls about the day, if anything. Nonetheless, he was an inspiration for all of us and meant a great deal to the radical movements two decades before his visit.