Lock and Load High, Part I:
Marc Jason Gilbert, History Department, North Georgia College
This paper was presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.
While the War in Vietnam left no corner of American society untouched, it is only within the last few years that the war's influence upon the American economy, culture and society has begun to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. 1 Of those domestic issues still awaiting examination, few are more elusive or enigmatic than the effect of the war on American public schools. This essay discusses the war's impact on one California high school campus which served as the scene of events that not only reflect cultural conflicts of that era that continue to plague our own, but ultimately helped define the freedoms enjoyed by millions of young Americans both in that state and across the nation.
In 1924, a secondary school was constructed on the crest of one of the many hills of Westwood, California. It originally carried the name of President Warren Harding, but a name change was deemed warranted by the corruption and malfeasance that came to be associated with his administration, particularly the Teapot Dome scandal, which, despite its Wyoming associations, had a major Californian dimension. 2 In 1929, the Los Angeles School District rechristened the school University High in honor of a new neighbor, the Southern Campus of the University of California, itself ultimately given a new name, the University of California at Los Angeles. 3 As if to distance itself from its original namesake, University High School strove through the years to become entirely worthy of the public's trust. By the 1960s, only one or two high schools in California surpassed it in terms of academic achievement and the probity of its graduates.
University High's academic reputation was, however, less a function of a haunted past than of a culturally burdened student body. Whereas the nearby Palisades and Beverly Hills high schools catered to the most privileged of California's nouveau riche, University High serviced the most professionally driven. Some of its students were children of UCLA faculty and many were second-or third-generation Jewish or Asian Americans striving to live up to their parents' high standards and even higher expectations. As a result, over 85% of its graduates in the 1960s went on to institutions of higher learning. By the mid-1960s, such was the level of academic excellence that even the football team's linemen went to prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard University. It was entirely typical of this program for overachievers that whereas neighboring schools boasted of the number of graduates who became Hollywood actors, University High alone produced a President of the Screen Actors Guild (the current President, Barry Gordon, Class of '66). 4
The highly competitive academic atmosphere of the University High campus was supercharged by a faculty which possessed a disproportionate number of doctorates, by special instructional programs (which included one of America's few Russian language programs), and by unique seminars on such topics as Hinduism and Buddhism. Even standard course offerings were enriched: Instructors of English focused as much on Kenneth Burke as upon Shakespeare, and the drama program was led by professional actors, such as Michael Murphy. Team sports, so much a part of high school life, were overshadowed as literature and the arts flourished. It did not seem to matter much that arch-rival Palisades High won the "big game" so long as University High was ranked near the top of the nation's schools academically.
As the career-oriented mentality of its students suggests, the political atmosphere at University High was conservative. So distant was the school from more liberal standards of political correctness that, until the Vietnam era, no one raised a voice in protest over the University High alma mater, which was set to the music of "Deutschland uber Alles." During the Vietnam War, however, University High was to become more than a place to absorb uncritically the finest the establishment had to offer.
Many of the Class of 1966 recall arriving at University High School in 1963 in a particularly somber mood. 5 At the climax of the Cuban debacle of the previous year, many of these students had been asked to wait at the end of the school day for their parents to come and pick them up. The school authorities explained that nuclear war was expected to begin before they could get home and the school system preferred that they not be incinerated in their school buses. Things did not soon improve for the children of the missile crisis. Their high school experience was not three months old when classes were interrupted by news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Class of '66 was, as a group, too clearheaded to be attracted to conspiracy theories, but they were too bright not to theorize that the Cuban missile crisis and the President's death were a part of a greater social malaise that had earlier gripped Little Rock and Montgomery and was to engulf south central Los Angeles. 6
Like most children of the sixties, the students of University High were thus predisposed to see the Vietnam War as but part of a larger crisis in American civilization that had begun after the Second World War, and had played itself out before their young eyes on television in its coverage of the McCarthy-Army Hearings, the early civil rights battles and long-simmering conflict between right-and left-wing ideologies that boiled over during the 1964 Presidential campaign and the college student-driven Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that same year may have merely seemed to confirm that the center could not hold, and things were falling apart. It unquestionably personalized the crisis. After the passage of the Resolution, University High students began to criticize their elders for involving them in a ideologically driven conflict that was the expression of the older generations' fears, not their own, and the campus mood began to shift from acceptance of the powers that be to a hardening cynicism whose chief avenue of expression was music. Previously tame talent assemblies were electrified by student performances of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Long Time Passing (Where Have All the Flowers Gone)." Students with no prior political interest, other than perhaps sexual politics, chanted The Who's "My Generation" with deep fervor; few would find themselves unable to relate to Jim Morrison's famed expression of his generation's growing anger at its seemly predetermined apocalyptic fate, "I don't know about you, but I intend to have my kicks before the whole fucking shithouse explodes!" 7
At University High, Morrison's rebelliousness and cynicism were expressed in the form of a growing hostility toward traditional high school activities, a sudden increase in anarchical behavior, such as the initiation of false fire alarms, 8 and the display of open contempt for administrative rules. Student interest in recreational drugs also accelerated, though few school officials at the time rightly interpreted the students' strong support for informational assemblies that focused on the nature and use of LSD. 9
The choice of the subject and content of student book reviews published in the campus newspaper, the Warrior, accurately reflected the new mood on campus. The author of a review of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha identified the book's value to her generation as a message of rebellion: that the search for meaning was an individual one that had to be conducted free of the shackles of established thought. 10 The authors of a review of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World interpreted that work as a warning "that if the sacrifice of the spirit of man is what it costs to build a successful society, success and stability are not worth the price." 11
By 1965, the connection between growing campus discontent and the Vietnam War was made explicit by student observers, who noted that if this generation seemed recalcitrant and politically restive, such behavior was to be expected from youngsters who "may be drafted to fight a war that began before [they were] born." They argued that contemporary student impatience, anger and rebellion were not signs of selfishness or even radical political philosophy, but the result of "being asked to grow up too fast" by the threat of that war. 12 In time, students identified the Vietnam War as the catalyst for the disillusionment and social unrest associated with their generation, from the "hippie" movement to the "generation gap." 13
The appearance of open conflict, political or cultural, was delayed for a time by the school's saintly principal, Dr. Eugene Olsen. Olsen managed the school's response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy with great sensitivity. His focus "on people not things" allowed him both to recognize that his brilliant charges were becoming brittle under the pressure of the times, and to create some much needed room to express their as-yet-inchoate fears and desires. 14 Olsen, however, was replaced in the fall of 1964 by a man of quite different sensibilities, Hugh R. Foley.
Foley was a sincere and hardworking administrator whose chief claim to fame had been his status as one of the school district's first athletic coordinators. His faith in athletics reflected his deeply traditional approach to education, which was derived from the example set by his father, a successful high school principal, and his own devoutly Christian upbringing. These influences may have fueled Foley's conviction that a high school principal was a moral guardian whose authority was absolute. This vision served him well enough while heading Los Angeles' Foche Junior High, his previous and only other administrative assignment, to warrant his promotion as principal of University High. Unfortunately, those responsible for this elevation in responsibility failed to take into consideration that Foche was staffed by pliant nontenured faculty whose futures were in Foley's hands, and whose students were of an age that did not test his capacity for diplomacy. The faculty of University High were more outspoken and quickly became critical of his management style. His initial actions as their principal convinced many University High faculty members that Foley's character and administrative philosophy matched those of an ideal principal for the 1890s, not the 1960s. 15 It would seem clear that Foley's authoritarian predilections, his lack of experience as a high school administrator and his deep-seated belief that athletics were at once the panacea for student angst and the most effective means of social control made him particularly unsuited for his new post. Yet, Foley made little effort to acclimatize himself to his new charges and lost no time in asserting himself.
By the beginning of 1965, Foley had several programs in place which employed sports-related activities to galvanize student spirit. 16 As might be expected, they failed. Rather than step back and analyze the source of the apathy or outright antipathy his programs encountered, Foley interpreted his students' lack of response and cooperation as defiance. Foley directly challenged student discontent by focusing upon two issues: the alleged lack of cleanliness of student eating areas and the collar-length hair worn by a few students. In the first weeks of March 1965, he shortened the time between classes and the time allotted for meal breaks whenever the cleanliness of the eating areas failed to pass inspection. He also called for the immediate suspension of students for violations of the dress code. It did not occur to Foley how great a contrast these policies were to those of his predecessor, or that his Operation Clean-Up and dress code enforcement campaign might have been viewed as inflammatory given that they coincided with the landing of the first combat marine detachment in Vietnam.
The impact of Foley's measures was electric. Brewing student anger boiled over into sit-ins and demonstrations that threatened to close down the campus. Foley's administrative fiats and his obduracy in meetings with students seeking to ameliorate his policies earned him a Stalinist image in the student imagination and fueled further resistance. While struggling to cope with the souring of his opportunity to maintain or extend the reputation of a superior institution, Foley misread the students' derisive labeling of the school as "Foley's Folly" as a harmless joke. He had no idea that the more literate of his students saw his Operation Clean-Up as a lost chapter of The Caine Mutiny and that they regarded his choice of a Latino immigrant as the first to be suspended (and criminally charged 17) for excessive hair length as evidence of the kind of racism and paternalism that they believed increasingly characterized American behavior at home and abroad.
Foley had his supporters. There were those among the faculty who favored the strictest enforcement of the dress code, including one teacher, football coach Duane La Rue, who was later to remark that the prohibition against women students wearing pants was validated by the fact he "would rather see girls in skirts. Fifty per cent of them don't look good in slacks anyway." 18 The Student Council, composed largely of officers drawn from the senior class whose eyes were firmly fixed upon their imminent graduation, fully endorsed the administrations policies. More important, the campus newspaper rallied to Foley's defense.
In the 1960s, fully in keeping with the school's own straightlaced reputation and with the then current trend at most Los Angeles area school papers, the Warrior pursued an arch-conservative political agenda. 19 Its editors attacked "big government", excessive public spending, excesses attributed to the civil rights campaign, and the country's growing lack of collective will. 20 This political outlook was so rigid that the staff made fun of those students who favored the lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, despite the latter's complaints that if they were old enough to die in Vietnam, they should be old enough to vote in American elections. 21 The measure of the staff's ideological rigidity may be taken in their contention that even though the melody of the school's alma mater "was used in Germany during World War II," the "needs of tradition" had to outweigh the growing student sentiment against it. Again, they sought to belittle their opposition, here by comparing the dropping of the school song "to the dropping of the national anthem because its melody was English [because] we fought a bitter war with England also." 22 Few students believed that the campaign against Hitler and fascism was the moral equivalent of the American rebellion against King George.
The Warrior's editors and chief columnists not only were insensitive to or dismissive of liberal thought on contemporary issues, but were also determined to limit its appearance, reserving the space for their own assaults upon liberal political ideology. Even though the Warrior was to a certain extent bound to publish student letters and reviews that often were full of angst and political radicalism, its editors routinely altered these contributions or surrounded them with opinion pieces disguised as "news articles" that belittled Foley's student critics and defended conservative national policy. Students grew sufficiently wary of this practice so that at least one complained in a letter to the editor that he was having trouble differentiating "what was news and what was not." Such was the nature of contemporary discourse that this student, while a supporter of Foley's policies and the paper's political philosophy, felt obliged to demand that the editors "not doctor up my letter--print it as is or not at all." 23 However, such complaints had no effect upon the Warrior's editorial policy.
To be sure, the Warrior's editorial staff was shaken by the intense student hatred and distrust of campus authority figures exhibited during the campus Operation Clean-Up and dress code enforcement crises of March 1965. However, while they acknowledged that "many Uni students feel that they are too restricted in their actions and thoughts," the editors dismissed their pleas "for freedom from conformity" as evidence of their lack of "responsibility." 24 The then editor-in-chief, David R. Altshuler, did not credit student concerns regarding Foley's unwillingness to accept criticism of his policies. "Quite on the contrary," Altshuler wrote, "administrators, faculty and student leaders would be only too happy to listen if the criticism or complaint is valid and warrants attention," 25 an assertion challenged by student dissidents. Prevented by their partisanship from engaging in an honest discussion of the causes of the March unrest, the Warrior's editorial staff focused on the protestors' behavior, rather than their arguments. The paper repeatedly ran cartoons that painted opponents of Foley's close enforcement of the school dress code as little more than petulant delinquents.
The summer break brought an abrupt end to this phase of campus turmoil, but could not erase the divisions that had been opened during the past semester. The number of American casualties in Vietnam soared over the summer, and student concerns about the war and about their country were mounting. At the beginning of the fall semester of 1965, the campus remained tense, with students demanding the ability to initiate referendums on policy issues within student purview and questioning even the need for a Student Council given the lack of backbone it displayed in the events of the previous spring.
It was in this volatile atmosphere that the Warrior chose to go on the warpath. In December 1965, the paper ran two article-cum-editorials that were aimed at discrediting antiwar sentiment. The first belittled the behavior of a draft card burner as the actions of a man whose mothers "didn't let him play with matches and gasoline when he was young." 26 The second asserted that Americans who opposed the war in Vietnam lacked "true patriotism." 27 After the Christmas break, the Warrior returned to the attack with its most vitriolic assault yet against student antiwar opinion. This editorial was printed directly below a message from Hugh Foley asserting that the key to student pride and loyalty lay in support for school sport and dance programs. It accused those who criticized the war in Vietnam as being motivated solely by cowardice arising from the fear of death and:
This editorial, authored by David Bell, a longtime Explorer Scout who had became the paper's editor-in-chief in January 1966, concluded with the following assertion:
Bell could not have been more wrong. Before the then entering class of freshmen graduated, the Warrior reported the death of one of the first University High casualties of the Vietnam War. His name was David Gitelson, a campus antiwar protestor whose negative opinion of the Vietnam conflict was confirmed by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army in Germany, where he learned through the testimony of Vietnam veterans of the plight of South Vietnamese peasants caught in the maelstrom of insurgency and counterinsurgency. So horrified was Gitelson by the devastating effects of the war on South Vietnam that, after obtaining the appropriate credentials at the University of California at Davis, he went to Vietnam as an International Voluntary Service agricultural adviser for the United States Agency for International Development. He soon became known as "the poor American" for the selfless service he rendered to Vietnamese peasants among whom he lived as they did. Shortly after winning an award for his humanitarian efforts, Gitelson was shot and killed while walking barefoot and unescorted between the villages in his district. 29 It is contended by his colleagues that, due to his advocacy of Vietnamese villagers' rights and interests, he was terminated with extreme prejudice by allied, not Viet Cong, elements. 30 Gitelson closely approximated Bell's model protestor-turned- soldier who was supposed to find "reality" and "examine his motives" in the rice-paddies of Vietnam, but his experiences there had only confirmed his opposition to the war.