Financial History Issue 121 (Spring 2017) | Page 17

By Benjamin C. Waterhouse In the fall of 1964, students at the Uni- versity of California at Berkeley launched a series of sit-ins, walk-outs and rallies to protest the university’s policy prohibiting political activism on campus grounds. Young people, joined by like-minded allies in the area, clashed with police and chal- lenged the authority of university admin- istrators and the political establishment that ran the university system. Berkeley’s “ free speech movement” rocked the cam- pus and drew national attention. Although university leaders eventually modified their position on campus speech, the firestorm of activism persisted and inspired national protests in the years to come. The critiques that the Free Speech Movement leveled at the University of Cali- fornia extended far beyond specific policies, reflecting instead a fundamental — and gen- erational — challenge to the power structure that defined American society. Specifically, students called out their educational leaders for complicity in an anti-democratic, dehumanizing corporate machine that compelled conformity. At a campus rally, Berkeley student and civil rights activist Mario Savio gave voice to the sense of oppression and helplessness many young people felt in the early 1960s. “We have an autocracy which runs this university,” Savio declared. Student leaders had asked whether Berkeley’s president, Clark Kerr, had convinced the university’s Board of Regents to liberalize the school’s policies on political activism. Savio contin- ued: “And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the follow- ing: He said, ‘Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?’ That’s the answer!” Savio seized on that comparison between higher education and the face- less, bureaucratic corporation. “Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material!” Savio’s analogy — which saw the univer- sity as a corporate machine and students as raw materials who had thrown their Mario Salvo addresses a rally at the University of California at Berkeley, 1965. bodies upon its inner workings — grew from a profound sense of unease over the role of business corporations in American society. Political activists in the 1960s— from civil rights advocates to anti-war protesters to more radical and often vio- lent groups such as the Weather Under- ground — viewed the business corporation as an integral part of the “establishment” that crippled dissent, promoted imperial- ism abroad and injustice at home, and sti- fled free expression. Never removed from issues of war and social justice, business was at the heart of the tumult of the 1960s. Corporate executives came to under- stand the very real threats to their politi- cal power, social standing and economic success that political and social unrest augured. Business leaders responded to what they believed were “anti-business” politics in the 1960s and well into the 1970s with deliberate action to bolster their sup- port and institutionalize their influence with policymakers. Powerful business- people had always played an important role in national affairs, but the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s created a particularly powerful moment of mobilization that, combined with a burgeoning conservative political movement, had long-lasting con- sequences for American politics. Business and Protest in the Late 1960s The social unrest that engulfed the United States had its roots in the civil rights strug- gle, whose “high phase” of in-the-streets activism peaked between the mid-1950s and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By the late 1960s, the country had been rocked by an onslaught of public protests, riots and political assassinations. America’s official military involvement in Vietnam developed over the course of the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1968, half a million American soldiers were fighting in Southeast Asia, where 58,000 would die before the United States withdrew com- pletely in 1973. The escalation of the war prompted a powerful and pointed anti­war movement in the United States, spreading from col- lege campus “teach-ins” to historic protests and marches on the Pentagon and White House. Just as Savio had linked his opposi- tion to Berkeley’s anti-free speech policy to a larger critique of corporate culture, so too did many Vietnam War protesters draw a clear line between a war they decried as murderous and imperialistic and the busi- ness climate that nurtured it. Invoking Eisenhower’s now-famous warning about the “military-industrial complex,” protesters charged that Amer- ica’s most successful capitalists bore responsibility for the carnage in Asia. The nation’s war machine, they argued, gener- ated military contracts for everything from ammunition and aircraft to the napalm that US bombers poured on the Vietnam- ese jungles and the people who lived there. Antiwar demonstrators aimed their pro- tests not only at the military and the gov- ernment, but also at corporations whom they labeled as war profiteers. “Why…do we continue to demonstrate in Washing- ton as if the core of the problem lay there? We need to find ways to lay siege to cor- porations,” one activist wrote late in 1969. On April 28, 1970, thousands of anti- war activists converged on the annual shareholder meeting of the Honeywell Corporation, an energy-oriented con- glomerate that manufactured, among many other products, cluster bombs and other weapons for the Pentagon. Facing the jeers and accusations of murderous complicity from the furious crowd, Hon- eywell’s president adjourned the meet- ing after only 14 minutes. Firms such as Dow Chemical Company, producer of napalm, also confronted angry protesters, especially when their corporate recruiters arrived on college campuses. Perhaps most tellingly, anti-war pro- testers even targeted corporations, such as banks, that lacked any explicit connection to Vietnam but represented the entire sys- tem that put profit before people. In the winter of 1970, protesters near the Univer- sity of California in Santa Barbara burned down a branch of Bank of America, whose very name, at least to the arsonists, evoked the hubris of capitalist imperialism. Corporate and political leaders under- stood that the anti­es tablishment angst was particularly strong among young people. In recent years, historians have shown that plenty of the “baby boomers” who came of age in the 1960s were quite conservative and favored the war, the business estab- lishment and capitalism in general, but many corporate executives at the time were convinced that generational changes were afflicting the nation’s youth en masse. The same types of college students who, in the 1950s, headed to stable careers in middle  |  Spring 2017  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  15