An Era of Dissent

Moratorium Day. October 15, 1969. 

Thousands of Penn students and staff take to the streets. They march past The Stars and Stripes, which dangles at half-staff, on the way to the Palestra assembly. The mood is somber and aggrieved. On the students’ minds are the tens of thousands of their peers killed in recent years. And with no end to the killing in sight, these college students may be the future martyrs of Vietnam.

Student protest: Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969 (Vietnam War), “guerilla theatre.” Just before march to downtown Philadelphia, a “guerilla theatre” group performed anti-war “play”. | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives Image Collection

The 1960s were (in)famous for the social unrest that rocked the nation. From civil rights marches to feminist movements, Americans across the nation rallied around a plethora of demands for social reforms. Yet by the late sixties, no issue was more contentious than US involvement in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive in ‘68 refuted the claims by the US government of a victory in the near future, thereby sparking demonstrations calling for an immediate end to the conflict.

The anti-war movement was prevalent across many areas, but was the most intense on university campuses. Students throughout the country burned draft cards, started anti-war rallies, and organized teach-ins

Antiwar protestors on College Green after Nixon’s announcement of United States involvement in Cambodia, 1970 | University Archives and Records Center

Penn students were no different. Organizations such as the University Committee to End the War in Vietnam (UPCEWV), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the Student Mobilization Committee grew increasingly popular on Penn’s campus, and frequently protested against US involvement.

Anti-Vietnam War sit-in, College Hall | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives Image Collection

Students used teach-ins and sit-ins to express their grievances, and Penn’s administration began denying accreditation for military science courses. Even the University President, Gaylord Harnwell, worked with seventy-eight other university heads to personally appeal to President Nixon and Congress seeking an end to the war in Vietnam. Anti-war efforts at Penn culminated in “Moratorium Day” on October 15, 1969; a day observed with “speeches, protest marches, resolutions, and the various other things that have come to be associated with the opposition to the Vietnam war.” Around 3,000 students and faculty members attended the assembly at the center of the event.

Vietnam War protest by students focusing on chemical war research at Penn, 1966 | University Archives and Records Center

Coterminous to the anti-war movement at Penn was the protest against chemical weapons warfare. In the mid-sixties, the university admitted to conducting chemical and biological warfare research, which quickly provoked backlash from the student population that would last for years.

However, this paled in comparison to the publicity surrounding Dow Chemical, whose recruitment efforts on Penn’s campus inspired outrage due to the company’s role as the US military’s primary supplier of napalm. Demonstrators repeatedly gathered outside Dow’s recruitment office , eventually prompting Penn’s Placement Service Director to request for Dow to cancel their interviews in 1969. The student body also demanded a representative of the company to visit the campus to discuss the company’s policies.

Vietnam War and Dow Chemical Co.: open discussion on Dow’s role in Vietnam War.
Left to right: Louis Schwartz, Dean Wakefield (representative of Dow Chemical Co.), Richard Lesnik, Dr. Harvey Winston | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives Image Collection

While anti-war protest continued until the fall of Saigon in 1975, by 1970, focus had begun to shift among the majority of activists in the anti-war movement. Indeed, the war issue had been blunted by Nixon’s Vietnamization policy, which entailed the withdrawal of American troops in early 1970.  Meanwhile, the burgeoning environmental movement was on the rise, attracting significant popular support—seemingly at the anti-war movement’s expense. Politicians, astute as they were, recognized that environmentalism might serve as a distraction from the anti-war movement. They willingly leapt onto the environmental bandwagon, hoping to leave pesky anti-war protests in the dust.

Earth Day press release regarding environmental teach-ins | University Archives and Records Center

Meanwhile, as the environmental movement gained momentum, its advocates looked at the strategies chosen by the anti-war movement. Teach-ins, first popularized by anti-war activists, were quickly adopted by the new movement, as Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis) “had seen campus teach-ins help catalyze the 1968 antiwar movement and Eugene McCarthy campaign. Last September, he suggested a nation-wide “environmental teach-in” for this spring.”

But while the environmental movement borrowed from the anti-war movement’s learned repertoire of tactics, it did not take equal interest in its issues. In fact, while the United States’s military-industrial complex provided fertile, napalm-scorched ground for collaboration between anti-war and environmental activism, leaders of each movement often hunkered down in the trenches on either side of no-man’s land. For example, Denis Hayes, national coordinator of the April 22 Earth Day protest, regarded the environmental movement as the ultimate movement—that its cause was more important than war, more important than genocide. Caught in a struggle for the undivided support of the American people, leaders of the environmental movement failed to coordinate an assault on the military-industrial complex. 

The national discourse on environmentalism, for example, did not emphasize the relationship between pollution at home and war abroad. Indeed, there was much to be said about the intersection of war and pollution, and some did say it. Barry Commoner, a founder of the modern environmental movement, explored the relationship between war economics and domestic industrial pollution. He recognized the dependence of the American industrial system on war, and thus the role of war in polluting the environment.

But, the organizers of the first Earth Day settled on pollution—just pollution, divorced from its context of war—as the crux of the movement. Pure, idyllic environmentalism, untainted by the rotting stink of the Vietnam War.

Ruth Molloy’s Letter to the Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Inquirer | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives

Whereas anti-war protest was the purview of hippies and radical students, environmental activism appealed to middle America. “Preserving the Earth is Fine, But Not Peace”—a sentiment shared across the United States. Peace was controversial because it necessitated criticism of the American government’s involvement in Vietnam. But preserving the Earth? People who shied away from the anti-war movement were willing to support that. In fact, it was a cause for which they were willing to don buttons. Environmental degradation was the arm of the establishment that victimized middle-class white Americans in their very own backyards, parks, and lake homes. It brought the war in Vietnam to their Fourth of July barbecues, in the form of insidious smog that sat stagnant in the humid summer air of the Delaware Valley.

“City Needs Help in War on Pollution” by Patricia McBroom, Philadelphia Inquirer | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives

Across the nation, pollution became the favorite issue of the environmental movement. Philadelphia was no exception, where the city’s “War on Pollution” dominated headlines. Even in rhetoric, the environmental movement rebuked the anti-war movement. War could be a just fight. The irony of framing their cause as War on Pollution—of fighting pollution with war, when war contributes to pollution—was apparently lost on environmental activists. In the end, it was only rhetoric. But the rhetoric was revealing in and of itself. Environmental activists did not consider war an environmental problem and instead proposed to wage war in support of the environment.

The Earth Week Committee at Penn was a microcosm of the national environmental movement. The committee borrowed the anti-war movement’s teach-ins for its week of festivities from April 16-22, but otherwise shunned its issues. Indeed, a significant portion of the committee’s Earth Week activities revolved around pollution. One of the few discernible mentions of the intersection of war and environment appeared in the Unanimous Declaration of Interdependence, statement #9: “People have warred upon one another which has brought great sorrow to themselves and vast destruction to the homes and the food supplies of many living things.” This was the extent of their intersection with issues of war. 

But, the EWC was not impervious to criticism. In its Earth Week edition, 34th Street Magazine called the ecology movement, and Penn’s interpretation of it, a cop-out. Pollution was an issue that companies were willing to consider. As Paul Schwartzman writes, “the companies are only too happy to worry about pollution instead of napalm immoralities.” The EWC understood this, accepted this, and tailored its mission accordingly. 

Student protest, sit-in held in Claudia Cohen Hall | University Archives and Records Center

Although the Earth Week Committee considered war very tangentially to its cause, Penn’s anti-war activists brought their intersectional activism to the first Earth Day. Indeed, in April 1970, its leaders refused to retreat to the shadows cast by Earth Day’s eclipsing popularity. Indeed, as the Earth Week Committee planned its teach-ins and rallies, so too did a student group with a legacy of protest reaching into the previous decade convene. The Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC) marked April 13-18 for its Anti-War Week, overlapping with the April 15 start-date for Penn’s Earth Week festivities. 

The centerpiece of the Student Mobilization Committee’s Anti-War Week was its April 15 rally at John F. Kennedy Plaza in Philadelphia. The Fairmount Park Commission, however, refused to issue the committee a permit to hold the rally beyond 5 pm. SMC representative Bruce Marcus identified the Park Commission’s tactics as discriminatory in light of their willingness to accommodate the Earth Week Committee’s April 22 rally. Indeed, the Fairmount Park Commission had agreed to reroute rush-hour traffic in order to permit the Earth Day rally to persist into the evening. This same accommodation was refused the organizers of the Anti-War rally. Whether a preference for environmental activism and a distaste for anti-war protest motivated the Fairmount Park Commission’s decision is uncertain. But, the SMC certainly thought so, and their suppositions were not entirely unwarranted given the circumstances. Indeed, Earth Week sufficiently eclipsed Anti-War Week. Whereas the Daily Pennsylvanian and 34th Street dedicated full spreads to Earth Week, the Anti-War Week of 1970 remained largely unmentioned in university publications.

Ecology and the Anti-War Movement, a statement from the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives

The Student Mobilization Committee and Moratorium Committee, likely accepting the need to preserve the anti-war movement, had pressed for collaboration. In fact, the burgeoning environmental movement spurred a shift in the missions of these anti-war groups. For Larry Cohen, a member of the Vietnam War Moratorium Committee, the environmental movement provided “new ways to attack the war.” Cohen, for example, framed the country’s war effort in Vietnam as a diversion of funding from pressing domestic ecological concerns. The SMC’s statement on ecology and the anti-war movement more completely envisioned the intersection of their cause with environmentalism. The committee recognized that the war in Vietnam was also a war on the environment in the United States, labeling the Department of Defense the number one polluter in the United States. The SMC conflated the domestic production of war materials and their use abroad, thus collapsing pollution in the US and in Vietnam into a single war waged by the DoD. For the SMC, the anti-war and anti-pollution movements were intimately linked. They shared a common enemy and could learn from each other. Their warning: the ecology movement must not let itself be pushed into opposition to the anti-war movement. And vice-versa. 

The SMC’s statement on war and ecology was thus an attempt to prevent the environmental movement from eclipsing the anti-war movement. Indeed, the environmental movement threatened the anti-war movement insofar that it claimed to be the more important cause. The anti-war movement could not afford to be in opposition to the environmental movement in April 1970, when environmentalism proved so popular among the masses. The SMC strategically re-conceived of its mission in response to the growing fervor for Earth Day and the waning interest in Vietnam.

Biologist Attacks US Domestic Imperialism by Maurice Obstfeld, The Daily Pennsylvanian | University of Pennsylvania: University Archives

Yet Earth Week at Penn remained narrowly focused on pollution despite the SMC’s efforts. Mentions of war came in the form of desperate pleas to remember the anti-war movement. Harvard biologist George Wald delivered what was referred to as the most radical speech at Fairmount Park on April 22, charging the American military with domestic imperialism. And yet, Wald did the very thing that the SMC warned against. He placed the anti-war and environmental movements in opposition to each other. Rather than exploring the relationship between the Vietnam War, domestic imperialism, and the environment, he remarked, “[d]on’t allow the environment to become a distraction from other problems.” Like the Vietnam War. Like the draft. Like military spending. Perhaps Wald was reacting to the existing opposition between the anti-war and environmental movements. Perhaps he was trying to prevent the environmental movement from overtaking the anti-war movement. But he reached across the divide with a fist, not an open hand. 

University of Pennsylvania: University Archives

For all the tension between these movements, the intimate relationship between war and environment could not be snuffed out. Denis Hayes described environmental degradation as speciecide. The Penn Earth Week Committee, with the bombast of radical students, called it a domestic ecological holocaust. In what has since become an iconic Earth Day photo, Peter Hallerman donned a striking gas mask at a New York City rally. The mask? A relic from Hallerman’s mother’s World War II Red Cross service. Earth Day organizers and participants used products of war to navigate their relationship with the environment. The Holocaust, for example, presented a standard of annihilation through which the Earth Week Committee understood and emphasized environmental degradation. Hallerman’s terrible mask, with its inhuman snout and its criss-crossed bindings, framed pollution as akin to the poison gas unleashed in war. 

Perhaps unintentionally, these Earth Day pioneers recognized war’s effects on the environment. In their rhetoric and their accoutrements, they internalized war as more than battles and campaigns, more than Rolling Thunder, more than the events of 1939-1945. War was also its domestic industrial output, the militarization of society, the obliteration of the environment. In April 1970, the Student Mobilization Committee was one of the few groups to have externalized such connections. Even today, the environmental movement has yet to sufficiently confront the military-industrial complex. 


Commoner, Barry. “Beyond the Teach-In.” The Saturday Review, April 4, 1970: pg. 50-52.

Elegant, Naomi. “Radical Student Activism and the Appropriation of Teach–Ins at Penn.” 34th Street . The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc., November 14, 2018.

Graham, Alison D. “International Crises: Penn’s Involvement in the Global Conflicts in the 20th Century The War in Vietnam.” University Archives and Records Center, 2007.

Hill, Gladwin. “Young Activists Plan Wide Environmental Protest.” The New York Times, March 2, 1970.

Kander, Joanne. “SMC to Focus on War Machine Here.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 8, 26 March 1970: pg. 5.

Puckett, John L., and Mark Frazier Lloyd. Becoming Penn : The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Russell, Edmund. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Schwartzman, Paul. “Un-politicizing Earth Week.” 34th Street Magazine, Volume 3, Number 4, April 9, 1970: pg. 3-5.

Schwenkel, Christina. “Exhibiting War, Reconciling Pasts: Photographic Representation and Transnational Commemoration in Contemporary Vietnam” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 3 1 (Winter 2008) 36-77.

“SMC Awaits Decision on JFK Plaza Protest.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 21, 14 April 1970: pg. 5.