Inside the Lines: The Vietnam War

How the war shaped UCSC, two casualties later

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“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” rang out across the country as over 35,000 men under 21 years old were losing their lives in Vietnam.

At college campuses across the country, the anti-war movement was brewing. UC Santa Cruz was no exception. During the peak years of the Vietnam War from 1969-73, students often met in Quarry Amphitheater to demonstrate; a few even burned their draft cards.

“The war in Vietnam spread student activism over to this campus and got a lot of people very disaffected and disillusioned,” said UCSC pioneer class alumna Ellen Bulf in a 1969 interview. “The hippie movement, if you want to call it that, has taken over.”

Protests surrounding the Vietnam War era were the first rebellious acts by students at UCSC, inspired by UC Berkeley where activism was fiercely supported. The Vietnam War was a factor in sparking UCSC students’ sense of agency, activism and voice.

“There is a lot more political activity than there was before,” Bulf said in the interview. “There was virtually none two years ago … None at all.”

In 1970, over 2,000 students, staff, faculty and community members gathered in Quarry Ampitheater to protest military action in Cambodia. They also protested the recent Kent State shooting, in which unarmed college students were shot by the National Guard while protesting the Vietnam War. Courtesy of UCSC Special Collections.
In 1970, over 2,000 students, staff, faculty and community members gathered in Quarry Ampitheater to protest military action in Cambodia. They also protested the recent Kent State shooting, in which unarmed college students were shot by the National Guard while protesting the Vietnam War. Courtesy of UCSC Special Collections.

The Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975. In 1965, the United States joined South Vietnam in fighting North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. It spanned the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Over 9 million military personnel served on active duty during those years, including 2.7 million Americans.

The war was the first to be widely covered by mainstream media. For the first time, Americans were seeing the brutalities and horrors of war. In response to these images, many young people across the nation mobilized, condemning the violence of the war through active protest.

When California Gov. Ronald Reagan and the UC regents met at UCSC in October 1968, they were confronted by student and community protesters. In 1970, UCSC only had 3,600 students, 2,000 gathered for an anti-war convocation in Quarry Amphitheater to protest the Kent State shooting and military action in Cambodia.

“It’s hard to describe just how much the Vietnam War and protest saturated many college campuses,” said former City on a Hill Press editor-in-chief Alex Bloom. “Both a small and progressive place like UCSC, Santa Cruz was very in touch with the student and youth movement, and it saturated everything.”

In May 1970, when students shut down UC Berkeley. Fearing riots, Reagan closed UC Berkeley, UCSC and all other state universities for a four-day weekend.

The office of the governor sent out a letter stating, “I hope this period will allow time for rational reflection away from the emotional turmoil and encourage all to disavow violence and mob action.” Though the residence halls remained open, UC President Charles Hitch encouraged students to return to their homes to reflect.

At UCSC, many spring classes were cancelled or reorganized to focus on the Vietnam War, and students continued to mobilize by rallying downtown and in Quarry Plaza.

After Nixon resumed the bombing of Vietnam in May 1972, around 600 UCSC students marched to the Santa Cruz County Building, where they delivered a petition to the County Board of Supervisors demanding that the U.S. cease bombing and withdraw the troops. Three supervisors signed the petition, and the board agreed to hold a meeting the following evening to consider whether it had the jurisdiction to adopt the petition condemning the war. Over 2,000 attended the May 10 meeting.

Following the meeting, the crowd held a march down Pacific Avenue with torches and candles, flanked by riot police. Police attempted to clear the protest and officers went down Pacific Avenue, beating protesters and bystanders. Eight people and one officer were treated for injuries at Dominican Hospital.

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While some students protested in Santa Cruz, others were in Vietnam on the front lines.

“A lot of students [felt] guilty about being in school,” said Ellen Bulf in a 1969 interview. “They feel guilty because their friends are getting killed in Vietnam, and they feel guilty because they’re extremely aware of their privilege. And they want to make this school an experience, if they can.”

In July 1966, George Skakel was deployed. He was a 20-year-old first-year philosophy student and part of the 1965 pioneer class. Because he took time off before coming to UCSC and had not made “normal progress” in his education, he was drafted. Skakel was set to finish his tour of duty at the end of April 1968, expected to discharge a few months later in June and return to UCSC in the fall.

Under the pseudonym “Corporal Callibernus,” Skakel became a war correspondent for City on a Hill Press (CHP), writing letters back to Santa Cruz while deployed.

“Someone came up to me and said there is a former UCSC student who wants to write dispatches or letters back from Vietnam,” said former editor-in-chief Alex Bloom. “We were open to anything. [CHP] was new and small … The letters started to come, and they were mostly published as they were written.”

In his letters Skakel described his daily routine, the various combat zones he experienced and his perspective from the battlefield. These letters were his form of protest.

“It’s convenient when you can vote for a war without worrying about your son or brother or father getting murdered,” read his letter from the Oct. 27, 1967 issue of CHP.

Bill Dickinson, Skakel’s friend and fellow philosophy major, described UCSC as a left-leaning school with a few “radicals” dominating the protest scene. He spoke of a Santa Cruz where students rubbed elbows with professors and described his fondness for the UCSC founders’ vision of the university.

The older generation of professors and others on campus had fought in World War II and saw Vietnam as a “war of justice,” while the younger generation became more and more opposed to the war.

Students like Skakel, who Dickinson said were against the war, fought out of obligation rather than patriotism.

“He went because he didn’t see any alternative,” Dickinson said. “My recollection is he went out of his way to try to avoid killing anybody.”

Though Skakel and Dickinson lost contact once Skakel was deployed to Vietnam, they exchanged letters in summer 1966 while Skakel was in Alaska “trying to figure out what to do.” Dickinson later followed his letters in CHP.

Of 58,148 American troops killed in Vietnam, 61 percent of them were under 21 years old, and many young men were scared to go to war.

Dickinson arranged to flunk his physical and avoided being deployed to Vietnam, but Skakel wasn’t so lucky. Two months before his deployment was set to end on March 6, 1968, he was killed in action in Quảng Trịi, South Vietnam. Skakel’s memorandum, issued from UCSC Chancellor Dean McHenry, commemorated his time at UCSC as part of Cowell College and his travels to much of Europe and Southeast Asia.

“I remember feeling stricken,” Dickinson said. He knew Skakel was reading philosophy while deployed, particularly phenomenology, the study that events and phenomena are based purely on the perception of human consciousness rather than outside influence. He spoke to the head of the philosophy department after Skakel died and remembered him saying, “’Odd to think of phenomenology being studied on a battlefield in Vietnam. Odder still to think of it being destroyed there.’ Not one word about a 20-year-old kid who just lost his life.”

Skakel’s death was announced in the March 29, 1968 issue of CHP. “Death comes. In the forests and jungles of Vietnam it comes often. In the quiet of Santa Cruz it comes as a shock.”

Nearly a year later, on Jan. 25, 1969, UCSC alumnus Lt. Jon F. Warmbrodt died in a combat maneuver in Quang Ngãi Province. Warmbrodt was from Santa Monica and earned his undergraduate degree in world history.

“In a way, life is sad. It isn’t only sad, but don’t you think it’s sad that we get to be, and then we’re gone?” Dickinson said. But the two students have not been forgotten. Both of their names appear on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., and UCSC created a memorial in the ’70s to commemorate the two students.

In Cowell College sits a statue made by local artist and Cowell art lecturer Jack Zajac, called the “Sacrificial Goat.” While not originally intended to be a war memorial, Zajac was inspired to create this sculpture after seeing “animals hanging in the street markets during an Easter in Rome,” according to CHP.

“The theme of sacrifice is very broad,” Zajac said to CHP in 2009. “We see that same brutality right now in the Middle East. We’re no better or freer than we were in Vietnam. Still, I am pleased if the piece can turn just a little corner in thinking, or be enough to move someone from war.”

Dickinson said he often visits the “Sacrificial Goat” and watches how students walk past and it “isn’t very long before nobody knows” what the sculpture is, or that much of the Vietnam War protests in the ’60s sparked the future of UCSC’s activism.

Similarly, Alex Bloom said the Vietnam era defined “the form and style” of how students view protests.

“It … legitimated the idea of student activism,” he said, “not just Vietnam but other student [movements] as well.”