Home > Anti-War, Student > Some Notes on Early Anti-War Activity at Iowa State University

Some Notes on Early Anti-War Activity at Iowa State University

Donald B. Siano – June, 1995

This is an account of my activities against the war in Vietnam, based on a few newspaper clippings that I saved, my FBI file, my selective service records, and a few leaflets and notes. My records are pretty sketchy, especially for the first couple of years, and my memories are no doubt biased to reduce embarrassments. I also amplify my own role in events with many actors–this is, after all, a personal account.

In May, 1964, I attended my first anti-war demonstration, which consisted of about 20 of us circling with placards at lunch-time, at Kent state University. I was a senior physics/math major.

In September I started Graduate work at Iowa State in the Physics Department and that Fall I joined the Student Committee on Racial Equality (SCORE, a SNCC for whites). This was the only student organization with any political leanings to speak of, other than the Young Republicans or the student Government. I was looking for some sort of organized activities against the war: there were none, and no prospects. Endless, fruitless meetings on civil rights, little to no discussion of possible anti-war activities. The consensus of the membership was to remain that way and not be distracted.

I remember being particularly impressed by the leadership of the local chapter who were trying to solve profound social issues of the time, while having personal lives that were complete messes. SCORE did serve, however, as a meeting place for the anti-war activists to-be. Perhaps a third of the 25 or so “members” of SCORE later became involved in forming SDS.

On Oct. 15 and 16, during the International Days of Protest, shortly after a vigil outside the ROTC building, Greg Calvert (untenured Assistant Prof. in History), Ernie Mehler (Chem Grad student), a few others, and I formed an SDS chapter. Only four or five of us actually filled out the membership forms from the national office. The anti-war activities began with small (12-20 people) meetings to formulate a constitution, developing a program of action and so on. SDS was viewed at the time as being vaguely seditious by many, and in the depths of the Cold War it took quite a bit of courage to be associated with it in any way.

Eventually I made my first real attempt at some sort of action other than a meeting. I chose to try a blood drive for the war wounded through the International Red Cross, which I (wrongfully, as it turned out) claimed aided the Vietnamese, as well as our boys over there. This was pretty much of a fiasco, but it gave me some experience in working with the press and so on. Right from the start the Iowa State Daily covered all of SDS’s meetings and activities even when they were quite insignificant–the relationship between SDS and the ISD became almost breathlessly symbiotic.

An occasional event that engendered some interest in this period was to find out when the Marine recruiter was going to set up in one of the two booths in the student union, then schedule the opposite one as an SDS literature table. A couple of these were deliberately quite provocative–I’d cover the booth with pictures of wounded Vietnamese kids, Americans burning huts, and so on. I had some really lurid ones. The recruiters and I eventually became pretty friendly but there was never any significant confrontation or problems with the Student Union management that I can recall. Disgust was the dominant reaction, I guess. But some positive response, too.

The one I remember best was one where I set up a display, using news clippings, that lead the reader by connecting several stories of the same event, to infer that a American got the Congressional Medal of Honor for blowing up an underground Viet Cong hospital with 2-300 patients.

Another early effort, presaging the later focus on the selective service system, was a nationwide effort by SDS to leaflet the meetings of registrants at which the lottery was implemented, I think. I don’t have a date on this and can’t recall many details, but I definitely remember passing out lots of leaflets as concerned students filed into the larger lecture halls on campus. We became more visible, and alive.

About this time, several of us took part in the small (20 or so) meeting and demonstration with anti-war activists in Des Moines where it was suggested that black arm bands be worn to signify opposition to the war. This became more interesting when some Quaker high school students (the Tinkers) were forbidden to wear them. This led to a free speech case which was eventually settled (in favor) years later by the US Supreme Court. Political insignia can be worn in high schools as a result–a not insignificant contribution. The Des Moines papers and TV covered the story pretty thoroughly.

SDS in these years (’65 and ’66) remained an ineffectual organization with very slow growth in members and supporters. Support for the war was incredibly strong on the campus, as shown, for example, by a very well-organized petition drive by conservative pro-war activists. Our main activities were petition drives, literature tables, meetings and such. The campus newspaper, however, covered everything in excruciating detail.

There were two regular pieces of literature that we always had on hand for sale. One was the Port Huron Statement, which was a steady seller. The other was a local production, The Liberator. This was a small journal, edited by a student, John White, which published only locally produced articles.

I recall one of our first efforts was a demonstration (Fall ’66, I think) at lunch time in which we burned an effigy of Lyndon Johnson. Much fear and trepidation among the 20 or so articipants, but no arrests and no official notice from the University. Lots of discussion and frustration about the poor “image” that the organization had. To be anti-war then was not much different from being against the Gulf War a few years ago. Kooks…

Another effort about this time involved cooperating with the activists in Des Moines by picketing at the entrance of Fort Des Moines, where inductions were taking place. These demonstrations were quite tiny, generally, and led nowhere.

The style of SDS seemed by this time to have evolved into one of in-your-face, obnoxious, superior moralistic anarchy. No real structure, program or leadership. Things happened. The focus was almost entirely on the war. Discussion of where to focus: war, GSB, the draft, the university, ROTC, or cultural affairs were a constant theme at SDS meetings, however. We decided to focus on everything.

However, the connection to church groups (especially the United Christian Campus Ministry) was made, an office set up in the student union, and recognition as a bona fide campus organization established. I recruited Richard van Iten to be our “faculty advisor” who took much abuse, no doubt. I can’t recall that he did any advising, but it did take some courage to lend one’s name to such an activity at the time. He later became, incredibly, chairman of the Philosophy Department. The organization more or less survived, while SCORE quietly died. The beginnings of a cultural change was beginning to be detectable–the sixties at ISU actually started in 1966, I think.

One early effort (Fall, 1966) to involve GSB and the university in the anti-war activity centered around the issue of the university’s ranking of students, and sending that information off to local draft boards with the permission, or even knowledge, of the student involved. Eventually we harassed the GSB to take up the issue, and they went so far as to formulate an opinion poll on the matter! The administration shortly terminated that practice, cutting the issue off at the knees.

In the meantime, David Metzler, a Biochemistry professor started a new organization for moderate, responsible folks called Ames Town Meeting for Peace. It sponsored some activities, which we also supported, and there was considerable interchange between the two small groups of activists. One important thing was Metzler’s publication of a small monthly newsletter (I can’t, for the life of me. remember the name of it) that collected statewide news of anti-war organizations and was able to increase the awareness and occasional feelings of solidarity, of the various groups across the state. His mailing list grew to be about 2000 people as I recall, so mailing it turned out to require some effort for envelope stuffing and so on, which we helped with at times.

Our organizations became nicely complementary. The town meeting attracted those uncomfortable with our evolving militancy (actually, only rhetoric at this point) and kept SDS relatively unfettered, so that it could be at the same time be a sort of cutting edge with a certain cachet, at least among a tiny sub-population of the largely conservative student body.

In February, 1967 Don Smith, an SDS groupie, ran for student body president. He was bearded, weird and elected. [http://www.jlmc.iastate.edu/newsletter/highlights/donsmith.html] Knowing Don, I supported his hopeless opponent from SDS, John Grassidonio (who was slightly famous for being the victim of some anti-hair vigilantes armed with scissors). My support of John was noted by John, but that was about it. Incredible volumes of publicity and controversy. Don’s presidency began with a hopeful pledge to “Bring ISU, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century.” and ended ignominiously a few months later when he resigned because he got his girl-friend pregnant. My role in Smith’s campaign and short presidency, was one, largely, of irrelevance, but not inactivity. I did organize one very large outdoor meeting on central campus during the pot party/impeachment controversy that supported Don. Then, during one of the SDS meetings that I moderated, where all of this was discussed (some members wanted to disassociate SDS from Smith somehow), I remember vehemently blaming the Life reporters, who had “uncovered” the pot party, for actually encouraging it. This served to take some of the heat off of Smith, as intended.

Not really a win for SDS, but a restless something was definitely in the air…Beards and long hair began to appear. A Hippie element, only vaguely political, colonized the campus. I continued short-haired beardless and beadless, and soon became a minority in a minority.

Another constant reminder of our visibility included that from the FBI, who maintained periodic contact with their informant, Jerry Knight, a reporter for the Ames Daily Tribune. He would tell them all about our activities, then he’d tell me what he’d said and what they were interested in. My FBI file contains material from him, as well as other sources.

About this time (March, 1967), I started(1) “The Free University”. The intent of this was to attract new people to SDS, provide a forum for anti-war, anti-draft propaganda, and try out some schemes for a different mode of learning. This became something of a success–several hundred people signed up for the 20 or so courses. Dope and pornography were particularly popular courses.

Negotiations with the university over the use of campus class-rooms for the courses remain particularly vivid in my memory. I talked to Carl Hamilton, then University Relations Director, who had immediate access to President Parks. Parks was consulted several times during the negotiations, out of my hearing. I was getting nowhere–Hamilton and Parks refused to countenance our using any University facilities because of our name, which included the word “University”. Right! Finally, at an impasse toward the end of the day, I declared that I knew which class-rooms were empty in the evening, and I’d just have the classes meet in some central spot, and proceed to occupy the needed rooms in an organized, publicized seizure. They capitulated immediately, and I got the rooms, gratis. I won, but I must admit to feeling some disappointment–I’d never seized anything before.

It became clear after this (and Smith and the effigy burning) that the University administrators were not about to be stupidly confrontational and were willing to go to some lengths to avoid provocations. Quite a contrast with events at some other campuses, and probably delayed the progression to anti-war resistance by six months, at least.

The Free U persisted for a long time (three or four years, I think), and I successfully transitioned it out of SDS to being an independent entity, with, unbelievably, funding from the university student activity fees. It even got some nice press in the NY Times.

My next try (April 22, ’67) at “broadening our constituency” was to organize a sort of “happening” or “be-in”, Gentle Thursday(2). The idea was to involve a lot of people in a harmless, amusing, strange event. It turned out pretty well–several hundred people participated, a couple of dozen actually worked to bring it off. It was very pretty. I still have an image of the couple of hundred huge brightly colored paper flowers being carried everywhere on a beautiful spring day. Make love, not war… Students were easily convinced of the former, at least.

The next activity(3), was, even in retrospect, incredible. I had been ordered report for induction into the army in Fort Des Moines on May 27. The army provided me with a bus ticket which was to depart from Ames, with me (and several other potential inductees) at 5:30 AM. My dozen SDS colleagues and some other friends decided to see me off with a little demonstration. The plan was for me to make a little speech at the bus. During the distraction, Jack Lasche, whose brother was killed in the war, volunteered to chain the wheel of the bus to the axle, preventing it from moving. He did it, and the bus, containing a number of sleepy elderly travelers from Minneapolis, couldn’t go. Two cars of policemen sat not 30 feet away, but made no move to interfere. After about a half an hour of waiting, the bus driver got out a fire ax and knocked the padlock off. Then, just as he was about to drive off–the bus was already in motion–one of the protesters lay down just in front of the bus. This was totally off the script and incredibly foolhardy. The driver managed to stop the bus and the rest of the group then lay down, again stopping the bus from leaving for another half hour or so. I then “requested” them to leave, which they did, with some relief, I think. No arrests!

When I finally arrived in Fort Des Moines, I learned that all of the buildings were locked and guarded–the base was on “red alert”, one of the guards told me, “because this guy Siano is coming”. After a very strange encounter with army intelligence, three large US Marshals (jack-booted thugs) shoving me around, and the commander of the Base, one Major Grasso, left wondering what to do with, and the significance of, my yellow submarine button that he liberated, I was released in suspense as to my ultimate fate. The Des Moines Register, which was already mad at the Major for other reasons, wrote a very nice editorial about the difference between civilians and military men.

In the summer of 1967 I went to Chicago to be trained in a nation-wide effort called “Vietnam Summer”, in which local organizations were to be strengthened (with activities focused on the ex-university community) during a time when campuses were usually quiet. Using Ernie Mehler’s Income Tax refund and a small grant from the national organization (Kennedys, it was rumored) , I hired Jim Hannah to work full time on it, while I continued my part-time work as a programmer/technician in the biochemistry department. We had two activities that we focused on.

The first was a survey of 20 local draft boards (one per county) to see how well they were complying with the law. Posing as registrants, we would visit each of the offices and ask to see the regulations, see the list of draft board members, ask for forms, and so on. We scored them on how well they complied with each of the laws and compiled a nice report which we released to the press and public officials. Generally, we found that many violations of the law were routinely occurring in most of the boards. Interestingly, the Ames office (which I had gotten to know pretty well because of my struggle with my own case) did the best. We got some good press from this, but perhaps more importantly, became much more familiar with a target for later efforts.

Our other effort of Vietnam Summer was an unusual leafleting campaign targeted at people going to church on Sunday morning. After passing out the (fairly provocative) literature, we would attend the service and later try to talk to the minister. This was carried out by 10 or so of us, with the majority being high school students at Ames high. The local churches became gradually more important–some would support us by very inexpensive printing, meeting rooms, my draft counseling efforts, and so on. The Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians were especially notable for their increasing involvement. The Catholic priests were especially notable by the complete apathetic disconnectedness to anything political, in spite of several desultory attempts on my part.

It was during this summer that John Rundle, son of a prominent ISU Professor of Chemistry, refused induction. A very small contingent only managed to mount a day-long vigil at the local draft board office. Up until this time, no arrests for anti-war activities had occurred at ISU. Then, as I was going to lunch in the student union one day, I spotted three guys sitting in a car way out by Lake Laverne.

I went inside, found John, and told him “John, I think the Feds are outside waiting for you.”

He says, “Oh yeah? Let me take a look.”

We went outside; the guys got out of the car, ran over, and arrested him. The FBI has terrific eyesight, I guess.

In early August of that year, the national SDS organization met in Clear Lake, Iowa. A few of us, including Calvert, Tony Pounds, and Dierdra Peglar, as I recall, spent a week being educated in the mores of the organization, such as it was. Sort of moralistic libertarian/libertine/Jeffersonian/socialist, I think.

Later that same month, we all went to a really large meeting in Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel: The “National Conference for New Politics” which turned out to be a really large fiasco because of the demands of the Black Caucus for at least half of everything. They won the votes, but nothing more was heard from it. Wonderful, fuzzy, articulate speeches, though.

On October 21, a couple of VW vans and several carloads of us took part in the March on the Pentagon. The Ames contingent was near the front at times, got a good view of McNamara watching, but successfully avoided arrest and injury, unlike many present. I was really impressed with the blood I saw on the steps from an earlier confrontation. John Rundle retrieved a broken nightstick from that same area that was tangible evidence of some of the violence that took place. A highlight was when Mark Rutledge, the Ames UCCM minister, addressed the crowd just as the mass arrests at the front began in earnest. In my only violent act against the war, I remember throwing about a dozen rocks at some of these troops. I don’t know if they hit anyone.
[Mark Rutledge MDRutledge@aol.com]

In December, 1967 I, along with two other students, “turned in” our draft cards–another blatantly illegal harmless act. Nothing much came of it except a little burst of publicity, and being ordered for induction again. I don’t know what happened to the others. Can’t even remember who they were. Appalling.

I think it was about this time (I don’t have any date or record of it) that the demonstration took place against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of Napalm, who was recruiting on campus. It was not obstructionist, though I remember some apprehension as to how it would turn out. There were problems with hot-heads (I was one) but the moderates prevailed. No arrests, not much progress. In one of the SDS planning meetings for this, however, is where I clearly recall seeing two new personalities, Richard Bender and Tom Higgins appear on the scene and begin to take an active role. They were both articulate, motivated and were destined to play a larger role in the political arena.

The McCarthy campaign during this period completely overwhelmed the regular democratic organization in Ames, illustrating for the first time the newly gained strength of the anti-war sentiment in the local community. The caucuses, where in other years only a dozen people would attend, were swamped by up to 200 voters in some precincts, much to the consternation of the older, established pols who were still supporting Johnson. Much of the leadership of this peace faction were faculty in the Physics Department faculty: notably, Charles Hammer and Ben Cooper and Tom Weber. SDSers were quite active in this campaign as well, but were not in leadership positions. Bender and Higgins were everywhere. All of the county delegates (I was one) went on to the district and state conventions which turned out well enough to restore one’s faith in the democratic process.

Although I became quite involved in the Democratic Party process, I was about as close to a “single issue” participant as it was possible to be. For me, it was the war. And the Republicans locally were nearly unanimous in their support for the war. In the voting on issues such as the technology and the environment, gun control, drugs, and capital punishment I was nearly always with the minority. I was a libertarian even then, but it hadn’t been invented yet.

A small contingent of us (including John Rundle, Dennis Ryan, Richard Bender, and Jim Hannah) took part in the demonstration/police riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. While we were trapped at one point by the police and gassed rather thoroughly, we got away, thankfully, without any arrests or injuries. We (actually a couple of thousand of us) were invited to visit Dick Gregory’s house, and were on that march as well. We were stopped by some really impressive Jeeps festooned with barbed wire, and tear gas fogger devices, which were recent additions to the crowd control technologies, I think.

By this time I had become convinced that my efforts for SDS had had its day, and the time had come for some new leadership to emerge. I withdrew from the “SDS spokesman” role in the Fall of ’68, though I still attended meetings for a time. I clearly remember being denounced at one of these that Fall by a new young guy, Clyde Brown, who was very concerned with the lack of leadership and advice from the “older hands” as he put it. But he quickly became a leader and it turned out that he didn’t need much advice either.

On Feb. 7. 1968 I started a new group, the United Center, and recruited a new assistant professor, Robert Muehlmann, to co-direct it with me. The idea behind this organization was to establish a cell-like organization with different areas of concentration. One was a center for “radical” activities, (demonstrations and the like), another focused on finance and legal affairs (supporting John Rundle’s draft case), one for radical arts, another for draft counseling, and a political action center for those interested in supporting campaigns for public office. The whole was coordinated by the “Center” (John and I), which would also communicate between the centers. In practice, this worked amazingly well for some time, and all of the centers appeared to function well and growth in the numbers was gratifying. People seemed to be more comfortable with this arrangement than with the rather anarchic SDS non-structure. I was quite proud of it. Unfortunately, it died quietly within less than a year because of a love triangle… Organizations should not depend too heavily on personalities.

But by then I’d found out how useful and easy it was to evolve and create new variants of organizations. More species began to appear on campus as others discovered the same possibilities. We kept and shared the SDS office and telephone in the basement of the Student Union, though.

In the fall of 1968 I started work on a project to get the Ames draft board members to resign and replace them with people chosen by some other means than the craniums then being used.(4) I called the organization “Committee for the Fair Selection of Draft Board Members.” This was a very highly publicized effort and had a lot of support. The churches played a particularly important supportive role–every one of the student church groups, from Hill to Campus Crusade for Christ, endorsed the effort. We had some reasonable expectation that this sort of thing could create a really awkward situation for the selective service, and that the demand could focus attention on just how draft boards functioned. Two of the local clergy, Sam Buffet of the Presbyterian Church, and Jerry Smith of the United Methodist church were actually members of the committee. Others were John Runnel, Ben Cooper, Ruses Mayan, David Metzler, Richard Bender and Tom Richards. A high point of the campaign was the largest demonstration so far–about 90 people marched on October 9, 1968 from campus to the draft office in the rain. The president of the student body, Denny Forsythe even gave a speech. The anti-war sentiment had finally broadened beyond the usual 20 or so “misfits and kooks”. Another notable event happened about this time when Col. Bowles, the State Director of Selective Service, came to campus to give a speech.

As he was being introduced, about a dozen of us walked in, all carrying pies. We sat patiently in the front row of the hall, holding the pies in our laps, while Bowles labored nervously through his talk. At the end, we all rushed the stage with our pies aloft, turned to face the audience and sang Alice’s Restaurant. Then we shared the pies, much to Bowles’ relief. Craziness. But it happened.

One event that looms large in my mind was the Noam Chomsky/State Department Representative debate on the war as part of a teach-in. I think that this was in the Fall of 1969 and may have been part of the Moratorium activities. Actually, I seem to remember that the Fraternity association organized this. At any rate, it was very well attended and Chomsky was incredibly impressive and persuasive. I think this event was something of a turning point in winning broad acceptance for the anti-war position on the campus.

The draft board office in Ames became a target again during the first Moratorium day a year later (Oct. 15, 1969). By this time Clyde Brown had become the recognized leader of the anti-war movement in Ames and contributions from other sectors of the community (GSB, fraternities, and other organizations) were increasing dramatically. This demonstration had about 1500 participants. My contribution, at least as I recall it now, was to suggest that all marchers actually pass through the office, depositing a symbolic penny saying the words “Give him back”. This would, I thought, “radicalize” the otherwise passive marchers and facilitate further actions against the office later on. This turned out later as I had hoped.

The next month led to the “end of symbolism” campaign which was intended to suggest that more militant actions would occur. This was favored by the more veteran organizers, especially me, and turned out to be a bust. The idea was to legally challenge the operation of the local draft board and shut it down for its violations of law. This went nowhere when the authorities refused to go along.

The usual difficulties of getting anything off the ground in months other than March to June were much in evidence for the next few months, as well. There is a real “tempo” to student protests that must be allowed for. The Christmas bombing passed almost unnoticed, while the Cambodia events lit a very large match. Timing is everything.

Various other activities connected with the Moratorium during this time were also broadly based, but tension between moderates and more radical elements continued to occasionally make organizing a challenging proposition for the new leadership. As the “moderate” activities continued to dominate the political scene that winter and spring, I continued my withdrawal from a leadership role in the anti-war activities. I was quite happy to see the new leadership emerge and the anti-war opposition broaden into the majority. I moved away from Ames in March, 1970 and so witnessed the spectacular events after the bombing of Cambodia and Kent State shootings in May only from afar.

Donald B. Siano


1. Iowa State Daily, Feb. 11; Mar. 9; April 14; 1967. 2. Iowa State Daily, April 22; Ames Daily Tribune, April 21; Des Moines Register, April 21. 3. Ames Daily Tribune, May 27, 1967.

Categories: Anti-War, Student
  1. Michael Bodaken
    April 16, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    Do you recall a “Jerry Seis?” I recall him vividly and am wondering whatever happened to Jerry. I was involved in the student movement at the UofI in 1969-1972. Jerry was always somewhat on the fringe. Wondering if he made it out ok.

  2. July 21, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    I wasn’t born for another 11 years after ’72, but I know some folks that might know what happened to him.

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