MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 4
March / April 2019
The Proposed New Review Process
for Outside Funders and MIT's
Governance Problem
A 21st Century Education at MIT
March 4, 1969 Scientists Strike for Peace:
50 Years Later
An Open Letter to the MIT Corporation
FNL Elects Four New and One
Returning Editorial Board Members
Open Access Task Force
Draft Recommendations
The Octopus
Progress Towards an Improved
Undergraduate First-Year Experience
Update on the Academic Climate Survey
Undergraduate Admissions:
A Recommendation
Public Forums at the
Center for International Studies
International Collaborations and
Donations to the Endowment
Faculty Responses to the
2019 Academic Climate Survey
Printable Version

March 4, 1969 Scientists Strike for Peace: 50 Years Later

Jonathan King, Aron Bernstein

Fifty years ago, on March 4, 1969, much research and teaching at MIT came to a halt, as students, faculty, and staff held a “Scientists Strike for Peace.” The strike protested the continuing U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, and university complicity in those policies. Most of the day was spent in intense public debate and analysis of the relationship among universities, scientists, and the prosecution of the war. It is still worth reading Nobel laureate George Wald’s address that day. The MIT Press has republished its account of the events March 4, Scientists Students and Society, which reprints key talks, such as that by Noam Chomsky. Related activities were held at more than 30 other universities. The organizers were distressed, on the one hand, with the low level of political engagement of the scientific community, and more specifically with the role of military research on university campuses.

The previous year, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, one year after his speech at Riverside Church where he made the connection between militarism abroad and poverty and racism at home. Later that year Robert Kennedy was assassinated, ending the Kennedy family’s drive to pull the U.S. out of Vietnam. Up to 1968, more than 36,956 American soldiers had died in the Vietnam conflict. In 1968, 16,988 more Americans died in the war. The national draft yearly continued to pull hundreds of thousands of primarily young men into the military.

Why was MIT the locus of the scientists’ strike? The MIT Physics Department faculty had a long history of opposition to nuclear weapons. The scientific leaders of the Department were also leaders of the nuclear disarmament movement, including Profs. Viki Weisskopf, Herman Feshbach, Philip Morrison, Aron Bernstein (co-author of this article), and Kosta Tsipis.

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Members of the MIT Physics Department 1969
(click on image to enlarge)






Prof. Bernard Feld was editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and future Nobel laureate Prof. Henry Kendall was in the process of founding the Union of Concerned Scientists, which became the faculty group helping organize the March 4 actions. Their presence provided a basis for institutional support. The practical leadership came not only from Physicists, but also from well-known faculty anti-war critics such as Noam Chomsky of Linguistics, James Fay of Civil Engineering, Louis Kampf from Literature, and future Nobel laureate Biologist Salvador Luria, a refugee from Mussolini’s Italy and passionate anti-fascist and Democratic Socialist.

In the years following, other faculty stepped forward: in Biology Ethan Signer joined Yale’s Arthur Galston in visting North Vietnam and their scientific community. David Baltimore was also a leading voice, supported by Luria, Annamaria Torriani-Gorini, and (the other co-author of this article) Jonathan King.

Of course also key, and the initiating force, were a cadre of undergraduate and graduate student leaders, including Undergraduate Association President Michael Albert, Joel Feigenbaum, and Jonathan Kabat, with dozens of others in support. Earlier Pfc. Michael O’Connor, a 19-year-old Army soldier, who had gone absent without leave, was given sanctuary in the MIT student center. Hundreds of MIT students began a six-day around-the-clock vigil, led by Albert, and members of the recently formed Science Action Coordinating Committee.

The March 4th Strike received national press coverage, and led at MIT to the divestment of the Instrumentation Laboratory (now Draper labs), the major on-campus contractor for the Department of Defense. This lowered the barrier to anti-war discussion and analysis on campus in the 1970s, as the Vietnam War continued, and sharply raised awareness of the need to carefully analyze the complicity of university faculty with government policies that should be rejected.

In the years following, opposition to military solutions to international conflicts continued to broaden, as well as in engagement with other issues of social and economic justice. The culmination was probably the widespread calls for universities and other institutions to divest their endowments from investments in corporations doing business with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. 

Today national needs once again call for a Scientists Mobilization for Peace and Justice; we have a national government hostile to science and to democracy. Having invaded and contributed to the continuing disruption of civilian life in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, our government currently enables the Saudi attacks on the people of Yemen. The President even threatens military intervention in our own hemisphere, in Venezuela, hearkening back to the days of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in Latin America. The President has announced pulling the U.S. out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, threatening a new nuclear arms race. The U.S. Congress supports spending $1.7 trillion of our tax dollars on modernizing all three legs of the nuclear weapons triad, which would decrease national security and undermine the desperately needed public investment in our civilian economy. Last year the Congress appropriated more than $700 billion for the Pentagon and weapons procurement, more than half the entire Congressional Discretionary Budget. In a period when five million aging Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, costing about $250 billion of the Medicare budget, the NIH budget for such research is in the range of a completely inadequate $1 billion. The increase in the Pentagon budget was more than double the size of the entire NIH budget – funding research on all disease plaguing our citizenry.

Ironically, MIT is currently engaged in a debate with similarities to the earlier I-lab divestment controversy, over the Institute’s agreement with the amoral Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his regime.

As happened 50 years ago, we need Introductory Physics faculty to include in their teaching of fission and fusion the consequences of the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We need Geology and Earth Science faculty to intensify their lessons on the dangers of nuclear winter, as well as the rate and consequences of global warming. We need Chemistry faculty to make sure their students understand the human toxicity of dioxins and pesticides, and how chlorofluorohydrocarbons damage the ozone layer. We need Political Science faculty to make clear that U.S. military support for the Saudi Monarchy war on Yemen is absolutely at odds with American constitutional and civic values. We need Economics faculty to make clear that a majority of Americans are hurt when housing, healthcare, education, environmental protection, sustainable energy development, and basic and biomedical research are sacrificed to ensure the profits of a limited number of corporations; corporations that profit from the bloated defense budget at home, and profit abroad from the lucrative private contracts to service our hundreds of thousands of troops at more than 800 bases around the world.

Though the tradition of academics as voices in the public interest has eroded, the struggle to press for science for peace, rather than war, is even more pressing today than it was 50 years ago. The Presidential and electoral debates that will penetrate public consciousness leading into 2020 provides an environment to speak out for peace, diplomacy, and civilian economic development.

Editor’s Note: The above article is an expanded version of the Editorial published in the March 1, 2019 Science Magazine, "Mobilize for peace."

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