66. Memorandum for the President’s File1


  • Mid-day meeting in the President’s office with eight university presidents, members of the Association of American Universities

Present at this meeting with the President were eight members of the Association of American Universities and three members of the White House staff. The names of those attending are attached at Tab A.2

After some opening small talk regarding the redecorating of the Oval Office, the President began by stating that in view of the conversation he had had with this group a couple of weeks ago,3 and given the recent developments on college campuses, there were certain questions he would like to consider with them. Namely, what ought to be the Federal role, even the Presidential role, regarding student problems? Should the Federal government step into university administration in some way? And the more sensitive question, What is, or should be, the relationship of state and local governments and the national guard to the university?

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The President noted that the National Guard tends to be thought of as Federal, even though it is not, which probably grew in part out of the federalizing of national guard troops by President Eisenhower in Little Rock.

He stated that there is probably no question that the Cambodian action sparked a considerable amount of the current turmoil. Kent State certainly dramatized it all.4 He further noted that he was not asking the support of the college presidents for his action in Cambodia, an action that he had to take, ironically, for the very reason that the demonstrations are about. He stated that when the Cambodian action is completed in early June, he will have bought at least ten months more time. Our actions in Cambodia avoid either complete capitulation on the one hand or leaving our forces indefensible on the other.

The President then went on to note that he met yesterday with six Kent State students, all of whom were basically against the war in Viet Nam.5 The students had stated to him that their purpose in coming to Washington was not just to protest the war but to try and explain what was happening. The students noted that the origin of the Ohio State disturbances had not been a protest against the war but against the curriculum. The students said that the issue of Black Power had actually started the demonstration at Kent State, although Cambodia and Viet Nam were soon added as issues.

The President then noted that while he has made a difficult decision in Cambodia, he is the one who must take the responsibility and see it through. Nonetheless, he absolutely respects everyone’s right to disagree.

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The President went on to ask the broader question: Once we are out of Cambodia, what happens? He stated that it would be a mistake to consider that solving the war problem would solve the campus problem, and that we must get to the more fundamental roots of the issue of campus turmoil.

The President passed on some more of the observations of the Kent State students: the student body at Kent State is basically apathetic; a well organized group of about 200 has been developing destructive activities; at least 18,000 had not been involved in the disturbance but were spectators. The students further pointed out that the student body generally hates the City of Kent police, who they feel are ill trained; and finally they noted that if the President of the school, or someone with like authority, had stepped up and tried to negotiate the situation, the resulting tragedy might not have occurred. The President indicated that the students might have been naive in this conclusion; however, he indicated that the students said that when the national guard comes on campus, the university administration abdicates. Thus, the President raised the question of “communication” and “control” between the national guard and the university administration.

The President indicated that at Yale we sent troops at the governor’s request, but we had also been working with the situation quietly. He noted that the October and November moratoriums had been handled by regular army troops, who were better trained, and that even though there was $100,000 damage done in the city, no one was killed or injured. At this point the President said that he had personally gotten the Court to waive the thirty (fifteen?) day notice requirement for demonstrations for whatever demonstrations are planned this Saturday.

The President asked what the Federal government can do, if anything, noting that when state and local governments cannot handle situations the question immediately becomes, “What is Washington going to do?” He said that the usual answer is that we will study the problem and it is clear that students would reject just another commission. The question today is, “What can we do now”?

Dr. Nathan Pusey: Stated the group was grateful to be asked to come to see the President and they all wanted to be candid, even though most of them were sleepy as the result of the week’s activities on their respective campuses. He stated that the situation on campus this week seems new, different, and terribly serious. The question has become whether or not we can get through the week. He indicated that no longer are we dealing with a small group of radicals, but rather a broad base of students and faculty who are upset. Even the conservatives are filled with anxiety and he feels that this new unrest springs from three things: [Page 220]

Cambodia. He indicated that none of the men present were there to pass judgment on Cambodia, but it does seem on campus to have been the last straw. The students just don’t see it the same way the President must see it, but rather feel it is an expansion of the war, or sort of a “here we go again.”
Kent State, which needs no elaboration.
Speeches from the administration about campus events. The students feel that the Vice President does not understand the campus community. He apparently doesn’t understand or believe in the freedom of speech and right of dissent.

Pusey feels the next three days may see a “terrible thing.” He noted that students and faculty are now convening numerous meetings, turning away from their academic duties, and a feeling that they want to declare war is increasing.

Pusey stated that he feels we (the college presidents) must speak to the academic community. He indicated the group feels that if the President could find a man (for instance, a university president or even a Senator) who would represent a rallying point for the President it would be very helpful. Such a man should know and appreciate college institutions and be presented as a channel of communication to the President. Perhaps he could be placed temporarily on the White House staff for a month and even have a student assistant.

Allen Wallis: Noted that he was very surprised to learn that the President had been surprised regarding what the Kent State students had said. He further noted that he continues to be surprised that the White House staff is always surprised to learn what is going on. Finally, he was even more surprised that the President would raise the long range question of campus disturbance, which seemed to him analogous to discussing future insurance policies while your building was ablaze. He wonders whether these institutions will even hold together ’til Monday without more people getting killed. Up until now we were gaining a coalescence of people against violence who were willing to work in such things as Congressional elections and were opposing student occupation of buildings, but that may be lost.

Fred Harrington: Stated that Wisconsin does not share the same concern about the national guard that Kent State does, but at Wisconsin the university is in control over the national guard when they move onto campus. He expressed great concern that the moderates are going over to join the radicals.

William Friday: Noted that students and faculty are now beginning to hire busses to come to Washington next week to talk to Congressmen, not the President, about Cambodia and Viet Nam. He stated that there [Page 221] is a real need to stabilize this situation and felt the President is the only person who can do this.

The President: Inquired whether appointing a man to be a listener isn’t somewhat like appointing a commission. Wouldn’t it indicate that we are just trying to push the students off? He further asked if this wouldn’t look like a scholar in residence?

(The group generally felt that such an appointment would be very helpful and would not be analogous to appointing a commission.)

Malcolm Moos: Felt that any repressive moves would be bad. He categorically stated that the Vice President must be muzzled. When the Vice President attacked the president of the University of Michigan, things exploded beyond control. Stated that the President must let the country know that this is not what he (the President) believes. Asked whether the Vice President was going to make the speech at Stone Mountain.

The President: Replied that he was, and indicated that these men should not worry about the speech, since he (the President) wrote the Vice President’s speech himself. The President indicated that it would be a good speech and that it would say the right things.

Mr. Moos further indicated that the students are now going to the Congressmen and not to the President.

Malcolm Levi: Stated that the President must give the impression that he cares and is willing to talk to people. He noted that those who want violence may now have the ability to take over. Stated that he feels the President has been isolating himself and should come out now and say that he welcomes student views. Naturally, one cannot open up this solicitation of student views to questions of whether or not students should be running the universities, making the decisions in Cambodia, or anything like that.

The President: Noted that he was having a press conference on Friday and pointed out to the group that it was he who had arranged for the administration to communicate with people such as Sam Brown during the moratoriums. Naturally, decisions such as Cambodia cannot be made based upon how many people come in and out of the White House.

Levi: Stated that he felt it was unfortunate that the President had gone to the Pentagon after the Cambodia speech, which made the whole thing seem quite military.

The President: Stated that we’re not going to fight in Cambodia or Laos, and that this summer should well bring the best news out of the Viet Nam war.

Alexander Heard: Said that the message he brought was one of attitude being communicated. Feels the students believe that it’s their lives [Page 222] that are at issue and we are facing a fundamental crisis in our political system. The moderate students are saying, “Here we are, working away, wanting to change the system in an orderly fashion (such as by protest or demonstration) and yet we are derided and condemned and our motives impugned by the Vice President and the Attorney General, who lump us together with those who would burn buildings.

He further stated that somehow the President should convey a feeling of sympathy and understanding to those willing to work in outspoken ways short of violence. The students are asking, “Where do I go now, if I’m condemned when I work within the framework of the system?” Feels that the students must sense a warmth and receptivity from the administration or they will join the other side.

Moos then stated that the universities are being separated from the nation and that perhaps this group could meet with the President from time to time to keep some visibility.

Dr. Pusey indicated that they would like to hold a press conference this afternoon and indicate that they had been here, stated their views, and found the President concerned and receptive.

The President said that they should naturally meet with the press and he certainly wouldn’t tell them what to say. The President went on to say that no one believes more strongly in the right to dissent than he does, short, of course, of the right to violence.

Dr. Kissinger: Stated that we are listening and certainly have compassion with their anguish.

The President said the issue is the means.

Kissinger indicated that we get only one guess when we take such actions as Cambodia, and we must often act on things we cannot always prove.

A short discussion followed regarding who such a man might be, if the President appointed one as a “listening post.” Those mentioned were Roben W. Fleming, President of the University of Michigan, and Charles Young of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Pusey noted that the black issue is still smoldering and should not go unnoticed.

Wallis came down rather hard on the Vice President, noting that the Vice President had attacked Cornell when he didn’t even have the facts straight and really meant Connecticut. He stated he feels the Vice President is somewhat like McCarthy, who goes around hitting individuals who can’t defend themselves or possibly recover. He noted that in many cases he agreed with the Vice President regarding the merits of what he is saying, but he nonetheless feels somewhat outraged that the Vice President would attack persons individually and name them. Even [Page 223] if what he’s saying makes sense, does he consider what effect it’s having?

The President stated that of course one must assume the responsibility for any remarks he’s made, even if they are taken out of context.

There was some final discussion regarding the selection of a man to work at the White House for the President. Some suggested possibly Secretary Shultz or Secretary Finch. Mr. Levi felt that it should not be someone from within the administration.

The President noted all this, but did not commit to appointing someone.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 81, Memoranda for the President, May 3, 1970. No classification marking. Drafted and sent to the President by Edward L. Morgan, Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs.
  2. Not printed. The university presidents were William C. Friday of the University of North Carolina, Fred H. Harrington of the University of Wisconsin, G. Alexander Heard, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, Charles C. Hitch of the University of California (Berkeley), Edward Levi of the University of Chicago, Malcolm Moos of the University of Minnesota, Nathan M. Pusey of Harvard University, and W. Allen Wallis of the University of Rochester. Ziegler, Kissinger, and Morgan also attended.
  3. The President met with the same group of university presidents on April 22 from 10:35 to 11:23 a.m. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, Staff Memos and Office Files, Presidential Papers and Archives, Daily Diary)
  4. In a telephone conversation on May 4 at approximately 4:45 p.m., Nixon told Kissinger that: “At Kent State there were 4 or 5 killed today. But that place has been bad for quite some time—it has been rather violent.” Kissinger suggested that they would be blamed for the killings and he noted that 33 university presidents were appealing to the President to leave Vietnam. The President asked about the student strike, observing: “If it is peaceful it doesn’t bother me.” He worried, however, that if the students were “out of classes they’ll be able to raise hell.” Kissinger thought they would hold teach-ins and possibly march on Washington. Nixon hoped “we can get some people of our own to speak out.” (Memorandum of telephone conversation; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 363, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File, 1-5 May 1970)
  5. Nixon met with the students on May 6 from 10:41 to 11:36 a.m. In addition, Congressman William Stanton from Ohio and Thomas Bell of the Kent State University Alumni Association of Washington, D.C. attended. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, Staff Memos and Office Files, Presidential Papers and Archives, Daily Diary) Nixon was still reflecting on the student demonstrations on June 8 when he told Kissinger “we ought to think what we are going to do with our young people. We don’t want to set up opposition.” He would continue to meet with them, he said. (Memorandum of telephone conversation, June 8, 1970, 10:15 p.m.; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 363, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File, 6-10 June 1970)