Vietnam War Protests at UW-Madison

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the Vietnam War protests that took place at UW.

By Simran Bedi.

The Vietnam War, fought between 1955-1975, drew attention across the U.S. It was one of the most highly protested wars in history, especially at UW-Madison. A notable protest at UW occurred in April of 1965 with faculty teaching over 1,500 students about the conflict outside of an academic building.[1] Anti-war protests continued, with student-led agitation against the University for agreeing to the draft and cooperating with Dow Chemical Co. and the CIA for trying to recruit students.[2] Dow was responsible for making a flammable gel used by soldiers in the Vietnam war. In October of 1967, the first violent student protest occurred against the company at UW-Madison.

Photographers discuss memories of 1967 Dow protest

From 1966-1968 students pushed back against the mandatory ROTC enrollment at UW. If a male student was enrolled at UW, and able bodied, they were required to enroll in ROTC for credits, as part of a land grant.[3] Students argued that the purpose of ROTC was, “to kill,” and protested heavily during this period. Their peaceful protest efforts paid off because in September of 1968 the University Senate passed a bill ending the mandatory ROTC requirement, making it an individual choice.[4]

Photo of students and Madison residents protesting the Vietnam War draft
Students and Madison residents protesting the Vietnam War draft. Obuljen, Ashley. “’War Is Madison’s Only Determinate between Now and Half a Century Ago,’ Says UW-MADISON Class of 1970 Alumni.” The Daily Cardinal, November 6, 2020.

In October of 1968, the Milwaukee 14, a group who destroyed thousands of draft files, came to speak on UW campus.[5] Later that year, students created a ‘cemetery’ on Bascom Hill in honor of all the UW students who died or suffered because of the war.[6] Not everyone was on board with UW’s status as a hub for protesting US involvement in the war and UW’s complacency. Professors who spoke out were told to move to North Vietnam[7] and student activists were targeted by the government and made to go through army induction exams only to never be let in (presumably just to take time away from them to organize protests).[8] The House of Representatives even went so far as to pass a bill stating that higher academic institutions could deny financial aid to students who, “contribute to the disruption of their institutions in violation of a lawful regulation,” (The Daily Cardinal, 1968).[9]

In May of 1969 a turning point in the peaceful protests occurred. The Mifflin Street Block Party turned into a riot.[10] Many of the student protestors, for the rest of the war, were met with tear gas and police violence. By the 1970s, students were fed up with the outcomes of their protests and were at a loss of what to do and how to stop the war. Even peaceful protests, such as a march that was organized in February of 1971, were met with police intervention and stopped. From 1971-1975, protests at UW were at a high. Students were protesting various bombings and atrocities that they were hearing about overseas, as well as the construction of a new math research center on campus (thought to be associated with military expansion into UW academics).[11] Certain protestors went as far as bombing Sterling Hall (home of the research center) and ended up killing a post-doc fellow, Robert Fassnacht.[12] Protests went back and forth between peaceful and violent, but police continued to interfere and exacerbate conflicts. In early 1973, the Paris agreement was signed and the chaos resulting from the many anti-war protests ceased. However, UW-Madison cemented itself as a place for voices to be heard and to this day remains an area full of activism and protests.

[1] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century,” Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century, UW Archives and Records Management, accessed August 5, 2021.

[2] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century.

[3] The Daily Cardinal, September 18, 1968, 13.

[4] The Daily Cardinal, Sept 20, 1968, 1.

[5] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century.

[6] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century.”.

[7] The Daily Cardinal, September 18, 1968, 13.

[8] The Daily Cardinal, Dec 13, 1968, 7.

[9] The Daily Cardinal, May 14, 1968, 3.

[10] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century.”

[11] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century.”

[12] “Protests & Social Action at UW-Madison during the 20th Century.”