‘A watershed moment’: Reflecting on the burning of the ROTC Air Force building—50 years later

Elizabeth Phelan | Staff Writer

50 years ago yesterday, Washington University students gathered in protest of the Vietnam War after learning of the shooting at Kent State University. The protest ended in flames.

The ROTC building, previously located southeast of Big Bend Boulevard and Millbrook Boulevard, was burned during the night of Feb. 23, 1970, and the adjacent Air Force building was destroyed at 12:30 a.m. on May 5, 1970, after a day of violent protests.

University Archivist Sonya Rooney at Olin Special Collections shared some of the documents from the time period about students organizing in protest of the war. These documents give students the opportunity to conduct in-depth analysis of the time period 50 years later.

“These primary sources allow us to preserve the history of the event and allow students and researchers to greater understand these events,” Rooney said. “It’s great as an archivist to be able to make them available, especially now that they’re online and the archives are closed.”

Artifacts housed in the Special Collections archive include anti-ROTC posters, pamphlets speaking out against American military action in Vietnam and Cambodia and other organizing materials for causes such as racial justice. One of the flyers reads “ROTC, which trains college students to murder people in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the rest of the world, still exists in St. Louis.” Another simply says “Smash ROTC.”

Courtesy of the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections

Covering the protest

Student Life archives from 1970 show that the paper chronicled the event in a special edition titled “Strike Extra,” including dramatic images of the burning building and mass protests.

“Being able to see how Student Life covered them really gives you a context for the time period, and all the student activism sets the stage for us to look back now when we aren’t able to be in that context,” Rooney said.

Norman Pressman, a former editor of Student Life, noted how the publication changed and grew over the course of the Vietnam War.

“The newspaper office was pretty active at the time,” Pressman said. “There were a lot of people who wrote in…a lot of letters to the editor. There were a few people who didn’t like our attitudes, but not many.”

Pressman noted that Student Life functioned mostly as a “mouthpiece” for the social scene before the war.

“There was the prom queen, and who’s getting pinned to who and stuff like that,” Pressman said. “It started changing to more of a political kind of thing.”

A political campus

During the fall of 1969, the campus climate changed dramatically.

“Things started to get very, very hot on campus,” Pressman said. “Before then, the left-wing people, the activists, people like me…were sort of out on a wing. But then people on the more conservative parts of the campus, the athletes and a lot of the fraternity members started to become anti-war, mainly because a lot of them could be drafted.”

The moment that galvanized the anti-war movement was the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, during which four students were killed and nine others wounded by members of the National Guard. The shooting at Kent State took place one day before Wash. U. students burned the ROTC air force building.

“The Kent State… was a watershed moment, both on campus and in the country,” Pressman said. After news of the massacre reached campus, student organizers held a rally on Brookings Quadrangle.

“I think it was the biggest rally I’d ever seen, I think there may have been 2,000 people,” Pressman said. “Everyone marched down to the ROTC building, and I still remember people chanting and yelling and screaming. I remember a window being broken.”

Pressman recalled being awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call about the burning of a building in the ROTC complex.

“Once the building burned down, things really sort of stopped on campus,” Pressman said. “There still was graduation, but in the time between Kent State and graduation, the campus actually came to a close. There were no final exams, no nothing.”

Legal repercussions

Howard Mechanic, the man who was convicted of throwing the cherry bomb and burning the building, fled to Arizona after his conviction and remained in hiding for 28 years. He was later discovered after attempting to run for Scottsdale City Council and was pardoned by then-President Bill Clinton in 2001.

Mechanic has always denied responsibility for burning the building. “I wasn’t into destroying property myself, I didn’t do that,” Mechanic said.

“Frankly, no one knew who burnt it down,” Pressman said. “There are some conspiracy theories, I think they’re wrong, that maybe it was some right-wing people doing it to embarrass people on the left. It just happened.”

Despite his claims that he didn’t burn the building, Mechanic was the first person tried under the Civil Obedience Act of 1968, a federal act that contained anti-riot measures.

“I felt the full weight of the federal government,” Mechanic said. “There were various people at Washington University being charged with different things based on that night, some including sabotage of the building, but I was the first one of the bunch being charged, so that put a lot of pressure on me.”

Mechanic said that he decided to flee the authorities after serving a six-month sentence for breaking a restraining order that had been issued the morning of the burning.

“The administrators of the prison thought we’d be indoctrinating the predominantly African-American prisoners in some kind of revolutionary tactics or something,” Mechanic said. He described mistreatment from the prison guards, many of whom were ex-military, who threatened and isolated the Wash. U. students.

“They considered us to be traitors, and that’s the way things were back then. It was like black-and-white, as far as people who were against the war were considered traitors, and treated pretty badly,” Mechanic said. “I decided that I wasn’t going to go back into that kind of situation for five years.”

In the aftermath of the building burning, a ‘Smash ROTC’ pamphlet in the University Archives reads, “We believe that a single act of destruction is not sufficient to end ROTC. More importantly, the constellation of corporate interests that make ROTC necessary is still intact. We must move forward to build a mass movement which confronts ROTC as a tool of imperialism.”

A history of activism

The archives at Special Collections reflect a rich history of student activism at Wash. U. There are flyers protesting the police beating of a Black woman in Clayton as well as documents from the late 1960s related to race relations and workers’ pay.

“There was so much student activism on so many different topics in this time,” Rooney said.

Student activism continues today, both at Wash. U. and across the country, with student-led protests being held on a variety of issues from racial justice to fossil fuel divestment.

“The issues are different, but I know a lot of campuses are very active,” Mechanic said. “I know there’s a lot of activity between disinvesting from fossil fuels.”

Looking back, Pressman notes that a common thread among his classmates was the agreement that the Vietnam War was detrimental and immoral.

“Some people may have disagreed with the demonstrations and the oppositions to the war, but every single person I know realizes that the war was a horrendous mistake, a horrendous waste of life, whether they’re left or right,” Pressman said. “Some people wish they had done more to oppose the war. I wish I had done more to oppose it.”

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