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MIT Marks 50th Anniversary of Protest that Launched Union of Concerned Scientists

Students and faculty organized a research stoppage and teach-in on March 4th, 1969, to protest academic scientists' role in the military-industrial complex.
Courtesy of Florence Haseltine

Fifty years ago, on March 3rd and 4th, 1969, students and faculty at MIT walked out of their labs and gathered to protest the Vietnam war. There were, of course, plenty of anti-war protests on college campuses at that time. But this one was different.

Rather than just holding a sit-in, they organized a two day teach-in with speakers including notables like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Lionel Trilling. Fifty senior faculty members signed a statement that launched the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Alan Chodos was a visiting student from Cornell University who helped organize the event. He recalls the conversation with two fellow physics graduate students that started it all.

"One evening, we were talking amongst ourselves and kind of asking ourselves the question 'What could MIT do to make it clear that scientists, in particular, were very concerned about this,"

Their first idea was a research strike, but faculty members they spoke with suggested something less confrontational. What evolved was a symposium aimed at not only expressing disagreement with government policies, but also probing academic scientists' roles in the military-industrial complex and the Vietnam War.

"We chose March 4th because it has a ring to it," Chodos said. "There was a slogan 'March 4th is a movement, not a day.' [..] On the student side, we really thought this was the beginning of something bigger."

For some, it was. A handful of faculty acted on the Beyond March 4 statement and founded the Union of Concerned Scientists. Some students chose to leave research for careers in activism.

Chodos chose a different path. He continued his academic career, and is currently a research professor of physics at University of Texas at Arlington.

"It's a cliche, but it really was a fork in the road. You had to make a choice," said Chodos. "Which isn't to say I didn't still have the same views and didn't still take whatever opportunities I could to express my opinions."

Chodos says the relationship between academia and the military is very different today, and the political issues of concern to scientists are almost the polar opposite - being estranged from government, rather than complicit.

"The thing I find kind of appalling in today's situation is the extent to which science is ignored, or pushed aside, or just treated as one more interest group," Chodos said.

While the circumstances may be different, Chodos says there is one lesson that still holds true.

"Scientists should not just withdraw into their laboratories and their classrooms," Chodos "They have to be involved."

MIT Press has issued a 50th Anniversary Edition of the March 4th symposium proceedings.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.