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Notre Dame Ten and supporters gather in conversation on anniversary of 1969 protest

| Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the Notre Dame Ten protests, which saw the suspension of 10 Notre Dame students for protesting the Vietnam War on campus in 1969.

Several former Notre Dame students and faculty from the era gathered to reflect on the legacy of the demonstration, as well as Notre Dame’s relationship with the military and corporate interests. 

Five met for an hour of conversation in Notre Dame Studios that afternoon: three of the Ten — John Eckenrode, Chris Cotter and Mark Mahoney — and two former Notre Dame faculty who lobbied on their behalf, Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy and Carl Estabrook.

Maria Luisa Paul | The Observer

Members of the Notre Dame Ten and their supporters gather in the Main Building in remembrance of the 1969 protest 50 years ago.

Other events of the day included an 11 a.m. vigil in the Main Building, a Mass in Holy Cross Chapel and a 7:30 p.m. presentation in Eck Visitor Center.

The 1969 protest began as a stand against on-campus recruiters for the Dow Chemical company and the CIA.

Students were already suspicious of recruiters, often not forthcoming about their companies’ role in wartime efforts, McCarthy said. In a push for greater transparency, student government passed a resolution that year asking on-campus recruiters to open themselves to public Q&A sessions during their visit.

But Dow Chemical and the CIA were particularly emblematic of the Vietnam War, he added — the CIA as a vessel of military interests, and Dow for its role manufacturing infamous wartime chemicals like napalm and Agent Orange.

“Dow and CIA represented the extremes of creating unnecessary human misery in the world … and the University basically was aiding and abetting that,” McCarthy said. “Not only in [the Notre Dame Ten protest], but in the way it sent a continuing flow of ROTC students over to Vietnam to do this killing, this maiming, this causing of human suffering.”

Against students’ wishes, the University refused to accommodate forum discussions between students and Dow Chemical and the CIA. In response, students gathered near the placement office on the third floor of the Main Building to disrupt the recruitment interviews.

By 1969, anti-war sentiment had already roiled college campuses across the country, with many demonstrations escalating to violence. To avoid any such outbreak at Notre Dame, University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh introduced his famous 15-minute rule that February, which promised suspension for any student or group “that substitute[d] force for rational persuasion” and did not “cease or desist” protest 15 minutes after being told to disperse. If the student continued to protest for another five minutes, they would be expelled.

The University was quick to invoke this rule against the Dow and CIA protestors, with 10 ultimately suspended.

It seemed the events of Oct. 18 were a perfect storm for a protest, McCarthy said. He said given campus sentiment against Dow Chemical and the CIA, and Notre Dame’s veto of Q&A sessions, the administration should have anticipated a demonstration.

“It was a setup,” he said.

The University had much to benefit from by cracking down on student protestors, Estabrook added. By 1969, a majority of the American population opposed the Vietnam war — an attitude college demonstrators only amplified.

“Friends of the [Nixon] administration and the president of Notre Dame were dealing with a situation of public dismay, at the least, at what the government is doing,” he said. “The notion of a setup that would criminalize, in some sense, student protest was not far from their thoughts.”

Condemning student protest in support of government and corporate interests promised financial gain for Notre Dame, Mahoney argued. Hesburgh was skilled at attracting corporate investment, planting the seeds for the University’s massive growth over the next half-century, he said.

Eckenrode said the moral implications of these entanglements run deep. As a symbol of the Catholic Church, Notre Dame imparts a kind of moral status to its partner institutions, he said.

“A corollary … that I think is often promoted, and you still hear today, is that by having Notre Dame students go through ROTC, work in the military or work for the military-industrial complex corporations, it would somehow Christianize those organizations,” he said.

Mahoney recalled the words of former a Program of Liberal Studies professor who he said penned an article condemning the University’s corporate ties.

“The ‘we’ in the University was the University, the military and corporations, the Board of Trustees who were with major corporations,” Mahoney said. “The ‘they’ was us, the students.”

According to Mahoney, even in the immediate aftermath of the incident, conflicting narratives of the protest emerged — possibly to shield the administration from criticism. He said Hesburgh downplayed the suspensions in his memoirs.

“He suggested that, ‘Well, boys will be boys. No harm, no foul. Everybody graduated,’ I think even hinting they graduated on time,” he said. “And, of course, this wasn’t true.”

In reality, two of the Notre Dame Ten would never complete their Notre Dame education, Mahoney said.

There is little excuse for these conflicting accounts, McCarthy said — the events of Oct. 18, 1969 and the students’ subsequent suspension are a matter of public record.

“There is nothing hazy about this event. Nothing,” he said. “ … Ted Hesburgh could have had access to it since it’s in the [Notre Dame] archives, if he wanted it. But what he did, and what people in power do, is they obfuscate.”

A handful of the Ten and their supporters have made an effort to reunite on the anniversary of the demonstrations, most recently in 2009. Some of the Ten — perhaps still hurt by the University’s actions — ignore the invitation, Mahoney said.

“They’re so disaffected because of this,” he said. “That’s huge. That’s true pain.”

Though the five said there was no animosity between them and Notre Dame, they said they still struggle to make sense of that day.

“How easy it would have been to say, ‘All right, maybe we should talk about this’?” Mahoney said. “But there was too much to protect, too much to hide.”

Maria Luisa Paul contributed to this story.

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