Richard B. Morris and the Columbia Riots of 1968: The Truth Finally Is Out

Mr. Ranlet, adjunct assistant professor of history at Hunter College (CUNY), is the author of Richard B. Morris and American History in the Twentieth Century.

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The riots that rocked Columbia University during the memorable year of 1968 remain the most well known of the student rebellions of that tumultuous time. However, the version of the disturbance that historians know came from the radical students who participated in the riots or those academics sympathetic to them. No doubt surprising to most readers is the fact that many professors at Columbia opposed the student rebellion. One of the most hostile to the agenda of the radicals was Columbia historian Richard B. Morris (1904-1989), the subject of my recently published book Richard B. Morris and American History in the Twentieth Century (University Press of America, 2004).

Morris, a historian of early America, authored many important books including The Peacemakers (1965), which won the coveted Bancroft Prize. Morris taught at Columbia from the 1940s through the 1970s. He had a large number of doctoral students and a reputation that became international in scope. Although he said nothing in public about the Columbia rioting, his rich collection of personal letters and other items give frank details about his disgust over the rioting and demonstrate just how jarring it was to faculty who did not favor violence.

No political conservative, Morris had been a staunch supporter of the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Morris had even worked for one New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration. As a determined Democrat, Morris had opposed the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1952 despite Ike being the president of Columbia University. Not surprisingly, Morris had been thrilled by the election of New Deal liberals such as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. For that matter, practically all of the faculty and administrators of Columbia were liberal Democrats; political conservatism had all but died off there by the late 1950s. It would have been difficult to find faculty at Columbia who were ardent supporters of the Vietnam War. Just about all of them, especially Morris, wanted a quick and peaceful end to that conflict. Morris hoped for serious peace talks. On the other hand, radical students thought violence on American college campuses against those who hoped for peace would end the war. Morris and others could never comprehend such absurd logic.

The supposed reason for the uprising, the projected building of a Columbia gym in a public park, did not concern Morris at all. Even the radical Mark Rudd admitted that “the gym issue is bull.” The radicals were interested in opposing the war; the gym was a pretext. Morris and his colleagues knew that very well.

For Morris and his generation, the law was to be respected. In fact, Morris had started his career as a legal historian. They saw the law as a vehicle to promote equality as had been happening in the civil rights movement. Peaceful protests were acceptable, but violence that trampled on the rights of others was not. And the radicals were violent and sometimes just weird. How could the war be ended by radical students urinating out of windows, as they did, or by their screaming obscenities, or by their very public sexual intercourse on the campus, which disgusted Morris?

Morris surely felt betrayed by the violence perpetrated by Columbia students. Throughout his life, serious danger to the academic world had come inevitably from beyond the confines of American colleges. Politicians sometimes interfered when a school hired a controversial teacher. Congressional committees investigated faculty who seemed to be fascists or communists. Newspapers might print huge headlines attacking colleges for almost any reason. And demagogues such as Senator Joseph McCarthy could always be a threat. But, starting in 1968, it was students pummeling Columbia, not some hunter of reds. Perhaps most upsetting to Morris were some junior faculty members who joined with students to play at revolution. To Morris, Columbia had turned into a zoo.

In Morris’s extensive collection of papers, there is no mention or condemnation of the police action which finally cleared the radicals out of the Columbia buildings they had seized. Apparently, he did not care about what the police did, which figures so prominently in most accounts of the events. But once he got back to his office, which had been appropriated by the occupying students, he exploded when he realized that some of his books had been stolen. The theft of his personal property was the last straw, and Morris immediately sought employment elsewhere. All his efforts to seek greener pastures somewhere else came to nothing. Moving to another school probably would not have been an improvement because rioting seemed to be everywhere (even in West Berlin where he went on sabbatical).

Although Morris stayed at Columbia, he did not change his opinion about disturbances caused by radical students. He made no public statements about the continuing campus problems; he had avoided taking such public stands on controversial school issues throughout his career. It was dangerous being outspoken at times. Instead, Morris, being a historian dedicated to research, made a point of documenting student outrages. Not only did he save his own letters, but those from friends such as Henry Commager. Even some departmental minutes relating to student disruptions entered his papers. The number of historians who save such things has to be tiny indeed. Most amazing of all are some later student handouts, which Morris saw and kept. Such items are truly ephemeral and rarely survive longer than a few minutes after being handed out.

Morris knew, however, that somebody, someday, would go through his papers, extensive though they are. In case that individual was a total dimwit, Morris carefully marked the important sections of the student handouts. The parts he was disturbed by cannot be missed.

So, what will influence the future telling of the story of Columbia in 1968? Pictures of students with clenched fists, yelling 4-letter words, or the documents kept by a historian? Morris must have expected that his story would eventually win out.

A few scholars have tried to write accounts of the Columbia riots but have been frustrated by the reluctance of older academic witnesses to tell their stories. Perhaps they simply do not want to stir up bad memories. More likely, they are reluctant to confront the radical spin put on these violent events by the New Left.

Dissent from a radical interpretation is not rewarded in academic circles. I made inquiries to perhaps two dozen publishers (maybe more – I lost count), a good number of whom looked at my Morris manuscript. The response usually went like this: This is a major book – send it somewhere else. I gathered that if Morris had been yelling “off the pigs” on the Columbia campus in 1968, there would have been a bidding war for the manuscript. Nonetheless, I found one publisher interested in serious scholarship. Hopefully, other historians will look into what really happened at Columbia in those dangerous times. The whole story must be told. Morris did his best to make sure it was.

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Edward Strauss - 6/1/2005

Sorry, I meant to refer to Mark Kurlansky's book "1968: The Year That Rocked the World" (Ballantine, 2003).

Edward Strauss - 6/1/2005

As an Ivy-League-bound high-school senior in the spring of 1968, I watched the dramatic events at Columbia from afar, with keen interest. Now as a resident of Manhattan for more than thirty years, a near-neighbor of Morningside Heights, I am baffled that no one has written a thorough, creditable history of Columbia 1968. It was not long afterward that the staff of the student newspaper, The Spectator, put together a book called "Up Against the Ivy Wall," which remains the authoritative account. I had high hopes for Mark Kurland's recent book on the year 1968, but I was disappointed by his parroting of orthodox cant. (See the effusive thanks to Mark Rudd in his acknowledgements.) Kudos to Mr. Ranlet for taking on this worthy and long-overdue endeavor. I look forward to reading his book.

David L. Waldstreicher - 5/30/2005

I'm glad to know of Philip Ranlet's book on Morris, and look forward to reading it, but the fact is that only smaller university presses publish biographical studies of historians, however broadminded and however good the research the goes into them. (For example, the fine studies of Richard Hoftsadter and C. Vann Woodward,historians of even greater stature.) What else can be expected of academic studies of those many stellar academics whose work may even remain in print but who did not split the atom or invent a better widget in the age of the academy's rapid expansion?
Morris is surely worth a book - but the audience is limited.
Such studies are valuable, but they are after all quintessentially academic - and to expect a large audience for them in the short term and to call any other result left-wing politics, says perhaps more about our moment, in which left-bashing explanatio0ns for any number of phenomena appeals to a certain constituency. If only the left had the powers attributed to it!!! Perhaps Prof. Ranlet's mistakes publisher's well-practiced modes of polite refusal, and even university presses' current tendency to follow the money, with partisanship.

David T. Courtwright - 5/30/2005

Interesting sketch. Any chance of posting excerpts from a few of his or Commager's letters re the 1968 riots? And where are the letters housed?