UW Law graduates recount pivotal moments from Vietnam War-era protests on campus.
Robert Adolph ’72 started classes at University of Wisconsin Law School in 1969, the year Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th president of the United States.
“He didn’t wind down the Vietnam War, which was always in the back of our minds at that time,” said Adolph. “It was always a presence tangibly affecting your life. Because of that, my class was an interesting one.”
Some students enrolled at UW Law at the time had served in the Vietnam War and were back in the States, taking advantage of opportunities offered by the GI Bill. Others, said Adolph, were like himself, young and making lifestyle decisions such as grad school, “ever mindful of the cloud of the draft.”
Protests on college campuses had been around since the conflict began, but they gained national prominence in 1965, after the United States began bombing North Vietnam. Anti-war marches and other protests attracted a widening base of support over the next several years, peaking in early 1968 after the Tet Offensive by North Vietnamese troops proved war’s end was nowhere in sight. Madison, which was already proving itself a hub for protesting inequality, was no exception.
“I think the Madison campus was maybe second only to University of California, Berkeley, which at the time was the most anti-war campus in terms of protests,” said Adolph. “Madison was a number two going all the way back to the Dow Chemical protests when I was an undergrad.”
The clash involved thousands and injured dozens, hardened campus relationships and became a catalyst for a new wave of emboldened pacifists, like Adolph.
In early spring of 1970, Adolph’s second semester of Law School, the war in Vietnam was “ramping up” and the draft was being extended.
“There were daily protests, meetings with speakers with bull horns. It was pretty activist on campus at that time,” said Adolph. Tensions erupted further following the Cambodian invasion on April 28 and the Kent State shootings on May 4.
“That was a big deal that a student could be shot and killed on their own campus, so that reverberated with all students, who across the nation were sharing this same experience of fear,” said Adolph. There was one experience on Madison’s campus, a marching candlelight vigil in response to the bombing in Cambodia in early May, which Adolph recalls vividly. It started at the Capitol, he said, and was like being in a movie. “There was wind and clouds moving in, there was lightning and rain, and helicopters with spotlights all over Bascom Hill pointing down,” Adolph recalled. “There were police and Dane County Sheriff’s deputies everywhere. The nighttime, the tear gas, the protests; it was something.”
Eventually, the National Guard was called to campus in response to the growing unrest.
“They showed up in combat gear and helmets and rifles with fixed bayonets all over campus,” said Adolph. “Students were taunting this very big military presence.”
There were marches down State Street with tear gas canisters “being thrown everywhere,” he continued.
“You could see it easily on the Law School’s deck and terrace at the time,” he said. “A lot of people sat out on the deck there and watched toward the Capitol to see the activities and marches and sweeps of police cars.”
With tensions mounting, Adolph decided to capture the moments on film.
“I had an 8mm camera with me at Law School,” he explained. “There were so many activities on campus that I decided to sit out in front of the Law School and film one day there was a protest. If you watch the video, you really get a feel for the climate at the time; all the people gathered and protesting, then the tear gas comes in.”
Adolph recalls at least two occasions when tear gas canisters were thrown into Law classes.
“I think the first time I was in a constitutional law class when I heard the doors open to the lecture hall and then heard a tinkling and saw tear gas canisters rolling down the steps toward us,” he said. “We sat there dumbfounded. Why was a tear gas canister being thrown into a law lecture class? And we all had to get out of there, of course.”
Tensions continued to roil and climaxed with the explosion of Sterling Hall at 3:42 a.m. Aug. 24, 1970. The bomb killed Robert Fassnacht, a postdoctoral researcher working there. The hall, located just a 5-minute walk from the Law School, was targeted because it housed the Army Mathematics Research Center on multiple upper floors. Four young men orchestrated the bombing as a protest against the center’s research connections with the U.S. military during the war. Three of the four bombers—David Fine and brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong—eventually served prison time. The fourth, Leo Burt, remains at large.
Adolph, who was going into his second year of Law School at the time, recalls the event.
“I heard a great big boom in the early morning,” he said. “The sound went across Lake Mendota, it was so loud.”
Around 7 a.m., having forgotten the sound he heard in the early morning, Adolph was riding his bike to the Law School from Eagle Heights, where he lived at the time.
“I was on University Avenue near Camp Randall Stadium, and I saw it was closed off with a single police car,” he recalled. “I rode my bike past that enclosure, and there was nobody around, but the sidewalks and the lawn and the street and everything, every square inch of the ground, was covered in broken glass.”
The explosion had blown out every window within a five- or six-square-block area, he said.
Classes resumed shortly after that, “but it was a different vibe on campus,” said Adolph.
“There was wind and clouds moving in, there was lightning and rain, and helicopters with spotlights all over Bascom Hill pointing down,” Adolph recalled. “There were police and Dane County Sheriff’s deputies everywhere. The nighttime, the tear gas, the protests; it was something.”
“It was a bridge too far when a part of the campus was blown up and a researcher was killed and more injured,” he said. “It tamped down the energy of the protests. It was sobering for the people I knew and for myself.”
Adolph said opposition to the draft and Vietnam policies remained, but many of the organized protests on campus halted after the Sterling Hall bombing.
That next year, the draft lottery came into effect, and after drawing a “fairly high lottery number,” Adolph felt less “dread” of being drafted while in Law School.
“I kind of got back to business as a student,” he said.
While organized protests on campus seemed to take a brief hiatus in the wake of the Sterling Hall bombing, opposition to American involvement in Southeast Asia continued. Mounting frustrations regarding the war and the seemingly growing power of law enforcement to “repress dissent,” as witnessed through the charges against the Chicago Seven, revitalized many UW students’ fervor.
The Chicago Seven were Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Lee Weiner, who were charged by the federal government with crimes related to anti-war protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Their trial concluded Feb. 18, 1970. All the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy; Davis, Dellinger, Hayden, Hoffman and Rubin were convicted of crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot; Froines and Weiner were acquitted on charges of teaching demonstrators how to construct incendiary devices.
After the trial, 75-100 UW Law students “walked in bitterly cold winds” from Bascom Hall to Capitol Square, according to a Wisconsin State Journal article from Feb. 20, 1970. They read and handed a paper to U.S. Attorney John Olson. In part, it read: “The Chicago conspiracy trial has compelled us to express a deeply felt shame at our connection with the illegitimate use of the power of the prosecutor and judge to repress dissent.”
The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals panel, composed of Walter Cummings, Thomas Fairchild ’37 and Wilbur Pell, heard the appeals related to the Chicago Seven convictions.
“It was such a tumultuous time,” said Joan Lefkow, who clerked for Judge Fairchild in Milwaukee at the time. Today, Lefkow serves on the Law School’s Thomas E. Fairchild Lecture Committee, which is mostly composed of former Fairchild clerks. “You had parents and grandparents, the older generation, who had fought proudly in World War II, and the youth didn’t want to go to Vietnam to fight in a war they didn’t believe in. There were a lot of protests and a lot of people angry.”
Also clerking for Judge Fairchild was Janet Lindgren ’71, who recalled how meticulously the judge pored through the court documents at the time.
“He deeply believed that appellate judges had an obligation to read the entire record before making a decision,” she said. “That record was 26,000 pages or something like that. Transcript pages are not dense pages, so it was reasonably fast, but Judge Fairchild was known for meticulously reading all the record. While we worked on our parts as clerks, he sat there day after day reading the story and trying to make sense of what all was going on.”
As the Chicago Seven appeals continued to play out in court, back in Madison, on May 10, 1972, (one day before the panel would reverse the contempt convictions on appeal and the government would decline to retry the case) Law students organized a peaceful anti-war protest at the Federal Courthouse, partly in response to the court’s handling of the Chicago Seven trial. One of those students was Bruce Kerr ’72.
“Someone was up by the door demanding to speak to U.S. Attorney John Olson,” recalled Kerr. “That took a while, so we were milling around about half an hour, and suddenly, the sheriff’s deputies and the Madison police, who had lined up in front of us, started walking and then running toward us. Some put their batons out. The line we had scattered.”
“What I saw was essentially a police riot. Students weren’t fighting back, but police were beating up a lot of people.”
William Whitford, now a UW Law professor emeritus, was present as well. Just 32 years old at the time, Whitford had joined the UW Law faculty in 1965.
“I stayed to the side and kind of observed the event,” said Whitford. “The student protesters sat down on the steps of the building leading into the main entrance. I suppose you could say that the students were blocking entrance, though it was possible someone could’ve gotten in through a side door or by going around the students.”
Standing at the top of the landing was a single U.S. marshal, he recalled.
“The students were sitting there quietly,” he said. “Across the way, by the city county building, there was an assembled group of police officers in riot gear.”
At some point, the officers began “rushing across the street,” Whitford recalled, adding that it was later reported that officers claimed to have witnessed an encounter between the U.S. marshal and the students at the top of the steps.
“It could’ve been true, but I didn’t see anything like that from where I was standing,” said Whitford. “What I saw was essentially a police riot. Students weren’t fighting back, but police were beating up a lot of people.”
The confrontation resulted in the arrest of seven activists, six of whom were Law School students. Several witnesses, including Whitford, alleged police misconduct, claiming that the officers’ use of night sticks against the protesters was “brutal and unprovoked.”
Kerr, who was unharmed during the rally, had another altercation with police later that evening.
“I was walking toward State Street on a dimly lit street after the earlier march to the federal building,” recalled Kerr. “I had long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, a beard and was wearing my brother’s Army jacket—all the things one would wear in protest to the war at the time. Approaching me, about 20 yards away, was what I believed was a Madison police officer. He had a helmet on, and he was walking toward me.”
Kerr said he immediately cast his eyes down and intended to walk by without incident.
“As he got next to me, he had his baton out and hit me in the stomach; not hard, but more of an intimidation factor,” he said. “It didn’t hurt, but he got his message across. I couldn’t see any identifiable numbers or names on the officer’s uniform, maybe because it was dimly lit, or maybe because it wasn’t there, so I didn’t think much of it.”
Kerr shared his encounter with the officer when he learned that several of his peers were filing a class action lawsuit against local law enforcement officials for infringing on their constitutional right to peaceful assembly.
In addition to $100,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, students sought an injunction against law enforcement that would immediately prohibit brutal treatment of protesters, unlawful use of riot gas and name calling.
Ted Finman, now a UW Law professor emeritus, argued for the plaintiffs. He presented more than 30 affidavits from students, faculty and other rally onlookers who testified that police used excessive force against the protesters.
Meanwhile, 28 UW Law professors signed a letter to U.S. Attorney John Olson, calling for an investigation into allegations of police misconduct at the rally. It read, in part: “A large number of responsible students and faculty at the Law School have made written statements testifying to numerous unprovoked assaults by federal and local police officials by participants in the demonstration. … Just as battery on a police official by a civilian is a criminal offense, so is unprovoked battery on a civilian by a police official a criminal offense.”
The author of the letter was Whitford.
“I wrote that letter the day after witnessing the altercation between the students and the officers,” said Whitford, who also circulated the letter to the press. “I think it embarrassed the U.S. Attorney because within days, he and two of his assistants came down to the Law School and interviewed every signer of the letter.”
Whitford said he gave his statement about what he witnessed, but, like Kerr and many others, was unable to identify individual officers. While several students had written down the numbers visible on the police helmets, “it turned out they had no record of who had which helmet, so there was no way of identifying the policemen,” said Whitford.
In the end, the U.S. Attorney didn’t charge any officers in the assault, and the student charged with the most serious offense, assaulting a federal officer, was cleared later that month.
Kerr and Whitford believe the event led to efforts to reform the Madison Police Department.
“My recollection is that the remedy from the federal lawsuit was that the sheriff’s deputies, and I believe the Madison Police Department, would need to include identifying numbers or names on their uniforms that would be visible to the public going forward,” said Kerr.
“I think the incident changed a lot of people’s views,” he said. “Locally speaking, the students’ actions that day made a lasting impact on the way we think about how local police should behave during times of opposition.”
Learn about other displays of political activism with the article, “I jumped in with both feet.”