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Burn down the Dome

| Wednesday, March 4, 2020

My classmates nearly burned the Golden Dome.

My class is the unique anomaly in the Notre Dame annuals. During the chaotic Vietnam War era, not only did we attempt to set the Golden Dome ablaze, but we also initiated a strike from classes, which University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh supported. We wore white t-shirts emblazoned with a Kelly green clenched fist and, “Strike Irish!” across our chests. My class championed a cause greater than simply blindly playing our subservient student roles of hoop jumping upon the Catholic academic stage. So profound our epiphany in 1970, we became like Paul on the road to Damascus.

This spring marks a half-century since my freshman second semester at Notre Dame — a time haunted by the raging Vietnam War with thousands of 20 year-old college students losing their military draft deferments each month nationwide, while overseas others were ultimately losing their lives. The era was scarred by a societal collision between hardhats and hippies, war and peace, idealism and status quo, but most personally for me, between my life and death. The Observer archives are rich with accounts of our strife during that spring. In fact, The Observer published 10 consecutive days in May since it was the social media campus outlet of the time.

In late April, unrest burst across the nation’s campuses. We Lyons Hall residents huddled around our dormitory lounge television while our paranoid president, who ultimately resigned as a liar and crook, announced that he had invaded Cambodia in order to end the Vietnam War. I can still hear my classmates’ angrily swearing at the screen as President Richard Nixon declared that he had ordered more troops into battle. How did it logically follow that expanding our war into a second nation could ever end our war in the first nation?

A mere handful of days later, our fellow American National Guard soldiers cold-bloodedly massacred my fellow American students at Kent State University. For the first time in my life, something was more important than my personal goals or comfort. The effort to stop the government’s insanity was greater than anything I had ever known or felt. I, too, was shot dead in Ohio. I, too, was sent off to uselessly die in Vietnam. With each passing day, anger and tension boiled hotter on campus.

Hundreds of white crosses were planted for the first time at Notre Dame dotting the green area from Lyons to Howard Hall. Each represented a dead Notre Dame student or graduate killed in Vietnam. One of those was mine. Until that moment of awareness, death had always been an existential concept, something so far off in time that I needed not concern myself.

Arts and Letters students seemed most engaged through our all-night intellectual debate sessions and more outraged than the engineers or scientists. I, like many others, hailed from a conservative small town and arrived at Notre Dame supporting the notion that the United States was fighting the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. I, like many of my Arts and Letters classmates, soon converted from that position whenever Americans gunned down Americans on American soil.

A small element affiliated with the national Students for Democratic Society (SDS) movement advocated burning the ROTC building. As a result, professors volunteered to patrol the campus overnight to assist with security and lessen the “Strike” graffiti that disfigured the campus. But one early morning around 3 a.m., a few professors dissuaded a group from setting the iconic Golden Dome on fire as passions exploded throughout May of 1970.

Obviously, the movement did not generate only from my class, as we freshmen were only one-fourth of the campus. Our student body president, who called for the strike, was a senior, and upperclassmen participated as heartedly as we. However, it was we freshmen — who had the least experience on campus — who would carry the trauma, the passion and the commitment the longest during our collegiate existence. We created a “Lord of the Flies” governance norm from which the University could never tame us or change over us.

Once Hesburgh publicly denounced Nixon’s expansion and the students went on strike, Hesburgh relented. Nearly every undergraduate and graduate student, except the College of Engineering, could follow their consciences through public expression or action. Students could drop a class, elect to continue their coursework as usual, or elect a pass-fail grade in each class. I personally boosted a projected 2.2 to a 3.0 grade-point average with my creative a la carte maneuvering.

During our public campus rallies, clean-cut FBI agents — so obvious compared to us shaggy-haired students — photographed us on campus. Local hardhat supporters clashed with us. Yet, anti-war New York Congressman Al Lowenstein inspired us with his Bernie Sanders-like call-to-action while accepting his Senior Class Fellow Award. In fact, afterwards I volunteered with legions of Domers and worked in his unsuccessful re-election campaign. Luckily, I ate dinner with him a decade later while I worked on Capitol Hill. Sadly, shortly afterwards an assassin shot him in his office, seemingly the last casualty of Vietnam.

A half-century can blur and muddy some details of life. But the searing of a conviction that teaches right versus wrong never fades, just like the song lyrics, “Four dead in Ohio.”

Gary J. Caruso, a guest columnist and Notre Dame ’73 American Studies major, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. Contact him on Twitter: @GaryJCaruso or e-mail [email protected]

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