Born on September 11, 1945, Mr. Bill Gelbart grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. From an early age he was a bit of a skeptic, and refused to join the Boy Scouts due to his uneasiness of having kids in uniforms do what they’re told. He held onto that mistrust as he matured, stating that his number one piece of advice was “never trust anyone over 30.” He protested strongly against the w ar in Vietnam and was a mere few feet away from getting arrested any number of times. He saw first- hand the riot at the University of Wisconsin in 1967 and provides us with insights that only an activist could have.
Q: When were you born and where?
Mr. Gelbart: September 11, 1945 Brooklyn New York.
Q: What was it like growing up there?
Mr. Gelbart: It was fun. It was a different era. A blue-collar neighborhood, half Jewish, half Catholic.
Q: Were your parents very politically active?
Mr. Gelbart: Not politically active, but certainly had political points of view. The landmark event of their lives was the Depression, and they actually didn’t get married for 10 years because my father was out of work for so long. And it really tremendously affected how they lived their lives. But also they viewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt as akin to God. They were adamant Democrats, and there was a lot of discussion of politics in the house, but they had to work hard for a living. Being active in politics was not something they had time for.
Q: Were either involved in World War II?
Mr. Gelbart: My father was a commercial weaver, so he actually worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, because [the navy] needed garments, and that was draft deferrable at that time. Plus he was slightly on the older side. They were drafting people into their forties, and he was just slightly too old.
Q: Your parents aside for the moment, when you were growing up as a teenager, how aware were you of world event.
Mr. Gelbart: Even before being a teenager, growing up right after World War II, I was quite aware. I think I was born 9 days after the war officially ended with the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, so I grew up with all sorts of movies and documentaries about World War II everywhere. A lot of people in my neighborhood had numbers tattooed on their arms from the concentration camps. When I was six years old the Korean War started, and it seems pretty laughable, but they gave every kid in class, at least in New York City, a dog tag to wear in case the Koreans or Chinese attacked. And it was the start of the nuclear age. So we would have bomb practices in class, where we would get under our desks in case of a nuclear explosion. Pretty silly.
Q: Probably wouldn’t work that well.
Mr. Gelbart: There were bomb shelters all over the place.
Q: As a child did you feel more protected by the drills? Did it make you more fearful?
Mr. Gelbart: I don’t know. Sometimes it felt scary. The war seemed remote. I would see right down my street huge numbers of tanks on backs of trucks being taken to shipyards to be shipped to the war cause. After Korea the next event was the paranoia of the McCarthy era. Are you familiar with that?
Q: Yes, The McCarthy Hearings.
Mr. Gelbart: Yep. And I used to come home after school to watch them every day, they were live, and those were pretty amazing. There were a lot of people who had their lives ruined by being labeled during the hearings. (ALEX, SAM, Q: For the most part, there were no trials. This was just persecution by exposure in a very charged political climate. If you want to get a sense of the paranoia then, you might want to watch Woody Allen's movie, THE FRONT or Stanly Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE).
Q: When did you first hear about the Cold War and what were your thoughts on the communists?
Mr. Gelbart: Probably somewhere between 7 or 8. I was all tied up in the Korean War, or at least the general communist threat, more from China than the Soviet Union, but it was always there. Did you ever hear about the Rosenberg’s?
Q: Spies right?
Mr. Gelbart: They were accused of being spies and giving away secrets that lead to the Soviet Union getting the Hydrogen bomb, and I just remember after they were executed, and seeing the funeral procession that went right down my street in Brooklyn, and so I became aware of those things.
Q: How did seeing that make you feel? What was your initial reaction?
Mr. Gelbart: I was just a little kid, it was just a thing.
Q: Sounds like a pretty active street in Brooklyn.
Mr. Gelbart: Yeah, it was a big street. In terms of Communists I’m not sure what my initial reaction was. The whole witch-hunt for Communists seemed crazy to me. The people were being hunted down were people who were looking at other options when it really seemed like this country was going to crumble during the Depression. There were a lot of people who thought democracy had failed. 25% unemployment was huge. There were people who kind of signed up for things, but it just became paranoia. I always liked history, always liked understanding current events. But the thing is, if you look back on the western propaganda movies from World War II, those patriotic movies, there is was a real underappreciation that the Soviet Union took the biggest hit in World War II. There is no way that the allies would have won without what had happened on the eastern front. I always felt that if you understood that and understood Napoleon's invasion of Russia, you would understand why they would want to have a bunch of countries that were essentially a buffer zone, between potential invaders. Of course - at that time was the repercussion of the genocide, and being Jewish, I understand why the Soviets don’t trust the Germans.
Q: How did you view JFK, and where were you and what do you remember of his assassination.
Mr. Gelbart: When he ran for office, I was just graduating high school. It was pretty exhilarating. There was a lot of good stuff that was happening in the late 50s and the 60s in terms of the freedom rides to the south, integration of busses, restaurants and schools. Kennedy started the Peace Corps, and had a lot of charisma. It was a time where you felt like you ought to be involved, and that young people could change things. That was a good feeling. A few years later Robert F. Kennedy, followed by MLK were assassinated, shifting the world view, and that really made you wonder if things could ever change.
Q: When you heard of all these assassinations, do you recall them very vividly? How did it strike you?
Mr. Gelbart: With JFK it was just disbelief. I was in college, and we hear about that, and it was just unbelievable, and because of JFK there was slightly less of a shock when Robert Kennedy and MLK were assassinated.
Q: What do you recall about the general state of the country as you came of age? Was life good for you? Did you enjoy the more consumerist values that were starting to blossom?
Mr. Gelbart: I didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t feel like I needed anything either. I didn’t become consumerist until college.
Mr. Gelbart: You know about Sputnik?
Mr. Gelbart: I always had an inclination towards science, and suddenly there was this great need for scientists in the U.S. I had confidence knowing that my life was going to be a lot better than my parents' was ever going to be, just because of the circumstances of the times, and there was also a feeling that you could do things, and you could make a difference. That was a very positive part of going into the sixties, from the Ozzie and Harriet fifties, which was completely alien to me. Families where the father worked and wore a tie, and my father wore an undershirt. You sat on the stoop and talked to the neighbors, so I had no concept of suburban life as a city kid.
Q: What did you make of the increase of the Black radicals as the 60’s progressed, such as Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, etc? How did you feel about the whole movement?
Mr. Gelbart: Just totally in favor. It was about time.
Q: Any involvement?
Mr. Gelbart: Civil rights? Not at that time. There’s some stuff I would do now, other than just being favorable toward it.
Q: When did you first hear about the conflict in Vietnam? What was your initial reaction like?
Mr. Gelbart: It was very incremental. It started with so-called “advisors” that Kennedy sent in to help train the Vietnamese troops. Some of the advisors got killed, so now we have to protect the advisors, and more troops came in, and it gradually started building up, and I was just against it from the beginning because it didn’t seem like it was a vital interest to the U.S. I should say I grew up in the aftermath of World War II, and I really view that as close to a just war as you can imagine. The threats were real, we were attacked, the parties, not the Italians so much, but the Germans and Japanese were obviously committing major genocides. The justification was there and that’s a war I would have served in had I been the right age … or alive for that matter. But it was not that sort of feeling for Vietnam. In the 50’s there were a number of military maneuvers by the U.S., in Central America, that from my point of view, seemed to be protecting corporate America. The U.S. went in and there was no opposition. The countries couldn’t oppose the U.S. militarily, and it was purely economic imperialism, and it seemed to follow along that basis, and I was very concerned. Particularly when the draft was still on, and at that time, I don’t think they were drafting people to Vietnam, but it was clearly on a trajectory. I was opposed to it at an early point.
Q: Where you worried that it would impact your future in a negative way?
Mr. Gelbart: You mean like getting killed? I’d view that as a negative. I wasn’t worried about getting drafted at that point, and the draft system was very complicated. You had deferments. There was thing called the 2-S deferment. So when people get drafted they’re listed as 1-A, and at that moment being an undergraduate in college, withstanding was deferment, and you would get a 2-S, (student deferment). Basically those sorts of things would change, even during World War II, but it really depended on the needs of the country. They would change the rules and the ages according to so that they could keep drafting people and keep populating the Armed forces, so at that point in college there wasn’t a big demand. It really started to escalate under Johnson. When Johnson came in, I really think he had to follow the policies of JFK while he was getting grounded, with sympathy to the Kennedy’s want for a just society. He ran as the peace candidate in '64 against Barry Goldwater, who basically wanted to nuke the North Vietnamese back into the Stone Age. He didn’t say that but his vice presidential candidate literally said that.
Q: Who was his vice president?
Mr. Gelbart: Maxwell (BRAD, ALEX, Q: Actually, this is a complex set of memory mutations on my part and I'd suggest deleting it. First, I was mixing up two ex-Air Force generals: Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay. Curtis LeMay was the "Nuke the North Vietnamese back into the Stone Age" guy. See the URL <http://www.geocities.com/lem aycurtis/> if you're interested. Second, LeMay didn't run for Vice President with Barry Goldwater in 1964 but with George Wallace in 1968. What I said about Johnson running as the peace candidate against Goldwater is historically correct.) .... he was an air force general during World War II. His first name I’m pretty sure was Maxwell, I’m just blocking out on his last name. [Editor’s Note: William E. Miller, NY, chairman of Republican National Committee, was the vice-presidential candidate in 1964] They were both ready to go toe-to-toe, and they used nuclear weapons. And so Johnson won overwhelmingly, and it's because Goldwater was so far out to the right at that time, and he was saying that he would bring peace to Vietnam. And after he was [elected], don't hold me to this, I think the Gulf of Tonkin resolution [was passed], which gave Congress essentially carte blanche to the administration to bomb north Vietnam in retaliation for bombing some ships in the gulf of Tonkin, which probably was sort of like the bombing and the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. It’s not even clear if it was a real incident. But that was used as a pretext to really start expanding. And then things just escalated like mad in terms of drafting soldiers and other events, and the opposition.
Q: When you were in college, did anyone impact you in particular on the war? Did your consciousness change?
Mr. Gelbart: No. I don't know why, I just refused when I was a little kid to join the Boy Scouts. I thought there was just something bad about little kids in uniforms and just mentally sort of have this, well, it seemed like it would get you in a mindset to control youth, which is a lot of what happens in armed forces because you're given a weapon and you have to do what you're told. I just always had a mistrust of that, and actually Eisenhower, when he was leaving office, you know he was the head of all military operations for the allies in Europe, and when he was retiring for presidency, he said that the thing you have to be most careful about in the country is the military-industrial complex, and he was right on. So I just had a general mistrust of that, it wasn't that anyone told me that, it just seemed natural to me.
Q: Well, I’ve got a bit of a two part question. First how did you feel about Lyndon B. Johnson in the presidency and then what were your feelings about the draft and did you think that it was fair.
Mr. Gelbart: LBJ then, I couldn't stand the man. You know he was doing something that seemed evil. When he went on TV in '68, and announced that he was not going to run for office again, he seemed sad then, and I actually had some sympathy. That was the first time that I realized that he was victim of getting trapped into circumstances and getting bad advice from generals and from his civilian advisors. One of the things, many of whom were from JFK, one of the things that came along with this sort of feeling of the JFK era was that he brought in extremely qualified but ex-former industrial executives, former academics, but people who were, in retrospect, pretty arrogant about their opinion. People like McNamara who was secretary of state. During that era and I think they probably believed in the advice that they were giving and they swore it was necessary. It seemed kind of odd, particularly given that the Vietnamese, it was very much like Afghanistan where various countries that have tried to take over Afghanistan for centuries and it always fails. The Russians didn't learn from that and maybe we're not learning from that. It's the same in Vietnam, where the French essentially were the colonial power in south East Asia. Basically they got their butts kick by Ho Chi Min in what they then called Indochina and after a few years we decided that we could do it better than they could. Okay, so that was part one, and part two was?
Q: About the draft…
Mr. Gelbart: I don't think that the draft has ever been fair. The only fair draft would be one that had no loopholes. So you know during the Civil War, people could buy their way out of being drafted. I was happy I wasn't drafted on a personal level, but I also knew that it was unfair that because I was getting higher education, I had opportunities to avoid that draft that I knew a lot of poor people didn't have. So I thought it were an unfair process and an unfair war. I didn't have to decide, but if I were drafted to this day, I wouldn't know if I had gone to Canada. I just don't know. I just can't imagine myself serving. It’s one of those things that you don't know what you would actually do until it happens.
Q: Would you have been all right being employed for the war but not necessarily serving as a weapon?
Mr. Gelbart: No.
Q: Okay, how did you view the media and what are your thoughts as far as it being a watchdog and keeping civilians updated on the war? How did you feel they were doing with presenting the whole conflict to the public, and keeping to the real facts rather than what they wanted it to be?
Mr. Gelbart: You can't believe that it's the whole truth. It was the first televised war, so they were learning as they were going as well. A lot of the people who were covering Vietnam War were correspondents who had gained a lot of public trust from (coverage of) World War II and the Korean War. All of the people really grew up in the WWII era, so they were among the mostly trusted people in society at that point. On the other hand, the press and particularly TV are set up to bringing you that which was sensational, so it was hard to know. There were lots of things that were going on, including some successes, but things like the Tet Offensive, which was a disaster, and the My Lai massacre which got a lot of attention. Since people believed that most U.S. troops didn't commit atrocities, these things get attention. Most people don't know that the press is only partially about the truth, and clearly different groups within the press had different viewpoints, which were being reflected.
Q: What were you feelings at the time when you found out about My Lai?
Mr. Gelbart: It wasn't a surprise. You teach people to kill and you put them in very difficult circumstances, and it's where you’re selecting people, some of whom under very difficult circumstances. (ALEX, SAM, Q: The preceding sentence doesn't completely make sense, but I can't figure out what was really said.). It's tragic, but you put people in war and that's what going to happen.
Q: Before, when you were talking about how LBJ dropped out of the presidency, how did you feel about that and about the Democratic Primary after that, and who did you support?
Mr. Gelbart: Eugene McCarthy. I felt sad for him [LBJ] as a person, but Vietnam was his tragic flaw. His policies domestically were probably better than Kennedy’s, and if it weren't for Vietnam, he could've gone down as one of the greatest President, and there was a certain sadness for him that he just missed the boat on this. But on the other hand, I feel that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 50.000 young Americans and who knows how many Vietnamese. There’s a limit to sadness, but I was very happy he was out of the race. At that time I was idealistic enough to hope that somebody like McCarthy could actually get it (the Presidency).
Q: Lets say that theoretically speaking, LBJ hadn't dropped out. What do you think would have happened?
Mr. Gelbart: I think things were too terrible for that to happen. So it's during the primary so that's when RFK was assassinated, so McCarthy… There was a lot of momentum for RFK at that point. He had just won the California primary. McCarthy was probably who I had all the respect for in the world because he really brought the anti-war movement to the mainstream, and he was one of the first politicians to really put his money where his mouth was and run on an anti-war platform. And RFK, he had kept quiet at that point. And then his advisors finally told him that he stood a chance, so he got in (the race). I would not have had a problem voting for RFK. In fact I wouldn't have had a problem voting for anyone other than Nixon. But it would have been very interesting,. I don't think Johnson would have gotten the nomination. Maybe not necessarily, because there were such divisions at that time, but he would've kept Humphrey from getting it. In fact, Humphrey almost didn't get the nomination anyway because he was so close to him (LBJ) he associated with, and really it was very late in the campaign that he actually separated himself from administration policies. I'm not sure if I can say that Johnson's running would have ensured that RFK would have gotten the nomination. Or alternatively, there would have been a very strong third party campaign like there was for McCarthy, but it was ineffective, making no difference.
Q: The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Riots, police brutality, how did you feel about that?
Mr. Gelbart: Well I was on the side of the rioters. But you have to understand that I was at the University of Wisconsin as a grad student then, and what was going on there was the same.
Q: I guess we can talk more about Wisconsin now. Nice segue. What was going on at Wisconsin?
Mr. Gelbart: Okay, so I’ve given Mr. Delaney a couple of URLs about one of the first events in the antiwar movement at Wisconsin, which was riots. Well, protest that turned into a riot against the recruiting Dow Chemical Company, who were lead manufacturers of napalm, and what turned into a sit in and an obstruction, I was on the hillside watching this. It turned into an accordance of police and riot gear, and it was unclear what precipitated it, but police started beating up on people. There were people scattering everywhere, and there were rocks thrown at the cops. And that was October '67. And there's actually been some movies made about that. There was a PBS documentary, and then more popular there was a film called "Two Days in October" that showed what was going on in Vietnam at that time and then what was going on at home. I think this was the first riot, well, violent protest that was associated with the Vietnam War at a college campus. The other URL is about the bombing of the physics building which was called Sterling Hall, and which killed a graduate student. And which actually shut down the very active anti-war movement on campus because of the death.
Q: When the ROTC building started to burn, what were your thoughts on that?
Mr. Gelbart: Well, it didn't burn.
Q: It didn't?
Mr. Gelbart: I'm sorry, when was that?
Q: Yeah, there was a mysterious fire.
Mr. Gelbart: I honestly don't remember that.
Q: Well, was there a lot of tension between the students and different governmental officials, etc?
Mr. Gelbart: Well, have you heard of the expression "Town Gown" conflicts?
Q: No, I’m not familiar with that.
Mr. Gelbart: So basically the town of Madison, which was the capital, vs. the university, graduation gowns. So there was a lot of hostility between the locals and the university. And my wife was working for the state while I was in grad school and we lived off campus, so I kind of got to see a little bit of both sides. Other than the university, which [had] very diverse people from all over the place, at that time Madison in terms of the local residents was pretty parochial. So there were about 150,000 people there, but it felt like a little town outside of the university. The 2nd or 3rd day I got there I was registering for summer school, and the guy in front on me, this big strapping Wisconsin farmer type said "Where are you from, son?" and I said "New York" and he said, "Hmm, another outside Eastern agitator". Which essentially was a code word for Jew. So I thought, “Oh, so this is how it's going to be.” Anyway, so there was a lot of tension. The State University was well thought of in the state for educating people in the state, but there were obviously a lot of people at the graduate school who had came from out of state. So there was a lot of tension, some tension more on the social level before the antiwar movement began. But once that movement began, well, there were 30,000 students and I’d say that 29,000 of them were radicalized. It was a very strong movement there, and there were a number of other universities that were in the forefront of this. The university of Michigan, Columbia University, Berkley, basically every other night one of those universities was on the national news for some anti-war protest. Certainly started by ’67, ’68.
Q: Did you feel safe within your surroundings?
Mr. Gelbart: Yeah, I felt immortal. In terms of things going on, I was 5 feet from getting arrested any number of times. I never rioted, I never did anything violent, but I marched a lot. And a lot of those marches ended up getting disrupted by the police, and so it felt like a war zone. I was pepper-gassed a lot. When I was going to my lab, a lot of times there were many months where we were going through the National Guard with fixed bayonet’s and live rounds, so it felt like a war zone. There were burning barricades in the streets over somebody’s protest, but sometimes it was also for things like somebody not getting permits for block parties. So it was a combination of things, but the hostility level was very high.
Q: What side did the faculty fall on? Were they pro-students, at least protecting the students, if not anti-Vietnam? Or were they working with the authorities and interrupting the protests?
Mr. Gelbart: So I would say that like anything, the faculty was mixed. Most of the faculty that I was aware of was very much against the war. And the administration, which were state appointees, was a mix. And I think one of the mistakes that was made for Dow recruiting was [that it was] the first time that the university let the county sheriffs onto campus in an official capacity, as opposed than the university police. And I just don’t think that it would have escalated if it had been university police. They’re much more prone to let young people sort of do their thing, whereas the county sheriff came in really opposed to the behavior and the political point of view of the students and vice versa. So that was probably a bad administrative decision. In some of these things, once they start they just snowball until you’re captive, and then I don’t think anyone’s capable of stopping it.
Q: Do you think that your school's anti-war protest helped to end the war in Vietnam in any way or really make an impact?
Mr. Gelbart: It certainly helped, it along with all these other campuses. It was such a broad movement that it helped. Well there was a lot of anger that went from other Americans towards the students that were protesting, again because I think a lot of people just weren’t prepared to think that the US could get into an unjust war. It depends on how you feel about the people who you elect to run the country. If you have great faith in them, then the feeling is that if I’m asked to serve I should serve, if they’re asked to serve they should serve. So it was not as if the country was united against the war, but it still kept it in the forefront. And as events in Vietnam kept getting worse and worse, it got more and more people. It’s very much like Iraq now.
Q: When you heard about the massacre at Kent State, how did that hit you?
Mr. Gelbart: It was pretty shocking.
Q: Did that make you want to increase or decrease your efforts with protesting the war?
Mr. Gelbart: Increase, and it led to riots around campus.
Q: Do you remember those riots specifically, those Kent State riots?
Mr. Gelbart: I remember Kent State very well. But again it was just some National Guard troops and one or two people who just panicked and then it led to a bunch of National Guard[s] shooting. If you’re in that situation then there’s always a potential for that. But yeah, that led to a lot of anger all across the country in terms of college campuses.
Q: Do you see an anti-war movement equal to that of Vietnam on college campuses or just American public in general possible in the near future?
Mr. Gelbart: Unfortunately not. The reason is that there’s no draft. And I think that the military wanted to do away with the draft after Vietnam because I think they realized that it tied their hands a lot. They were required to take people that would serve as the most trainable into war, and they wanted a more professional army. However, I think it makes it easier to go to war, however it’s someone else’s war, and someone else’s death. And I’m in favor of the draft, because it should keep us out of the war. If there was a draft, this war would end in 2 weeks.
Mr. Gelbart: That’s my belief. Because suddenly it’s everyone's kids who are vulnerable, and you’re vulnerable (Alex, Sam, Brad). It’s your interview, but I’ll ask you. How would you feel if you’re graduating, you’re 18, and they start needing more and more people, and you’re 1A?
Q: I’d certainly riot and protest, especially being that I believe that the war in general is wrong. And I feel like it’s immoral and there’s no just reason for it, so I wouldn’t go and fight for something that I wouldn’t believe it. I would definitely go against that.
Q: Yeah. Initially, I am definitely for the whole serving your country thing. I would call myself a patriot. But you know, I’m definitely a liberal when it comes down to the war, and I definitely agree with what you said about the whole World War II thing. That’s about as close as we’ll get, so as far as Iraq you know… The draft never happened to me so I don’t know what I would do. My parents would probably tell me to go to Canada. I might’ve stayed, you know?
Mr. Gelbart: A lot of people do.
Q: Do you believe that America has any debts to Vietnam?
Mr. Gelbart: Yeah, but I don’t know how you pay them.
Q: Fair enough.
Mr. Gelbart: Well, there’s debts to the Vietnamese. There’s a lot of children who had Army parents. Army father’s and Vietnamese mothers, kids who were essentially abandoned by both sides.
Q: Then also the aftereffectsof Agent Orange, and the mutations that have been coming up in recent years.
Mr. Gelbart: I’m a geneticist, so I’m not aware of mutations. It’s one of those difficult things. It really seems like Agent Orange, and it’s not actually Agent Orange itself but it’s actually some of the dioxin contaminants within it that produced all sorts of illnesses. And that’s really, really hard to 100% document it, but there are a lot of people who came back with bad stuff from Vietnam. Even without Agent Orange, a lot of the people I knew came back as drug addicts, or just psychological issues. Any war that’s true, but a lot of people get shell-shocked in the trenches of Vietnam. War is just not pleasant and the technology in the 20th century has made it that much more devastating.
Q: What were your feelings toward the vets when they started to come home? Were you supportive or did you perceive them as also the instigators?
Mr. Gelbart: I saw them as victims. I didn’t have a lot of personal contact immediately after the war with people who were Vietnam vets. Since then I’ve had a lot more. But at that time, just because of the environment, at the university, you didn’t see a lot of vets there. But they were largely victims, there were all sorts of issues. The mistrust of one soldier by their superiors was huge. No one knew what was going on, just on so many levels. In terms of nowadays, from the moment we’ve gone into Iraq, even before, it was obvious we were going to go in, and we were lied to just like we’d been lied to in Vietnam. And that seemed perfectly obvious that it was going to end up like Vietnam, that we’d go in there and we’d be viewed very quickly as invaders. We were welcomed for a while. But history says that if you’re in a military and you have an army in a country that’s not yours, sooner or later you’re going to be viewed as an enemy.
Q: Do you think the American population is too apathetic or distracted to take a firmer stance against the war?
Mr. Gelbart: Yes. Even though I don’t think I’m supposed to, I can’t give a class, even a Biology class, without saying some things, and I’m amazed at how hard it is to provoke responses from students. This is not an era where people feel comfortable taking a position.
Q: I feel like, just my personal opinion based off of having gone to school with all the kids around me, I feel like people are apt to tune out the things that they don’t want to hear and just close themselves away from reality, which really is difficult. Why do you believe that is? Do you believe it’s only the draft, or do you believe that there are other reasons for such hiding?
Mr. Gelbart: Number one I believe that Bush is a jerk. I think that he’s one of scariest presidents we’ve ever had, maybe the scariest. He has tried in a whole variety of institutions. He has tried to introduce orthodoxy and this would create a fear to suppress potential opposition. You know, if 9/11 didn’t happen, well the guy was completely lost as a president. He was reading books to elementary school classes upside-down. You know he was going nowhere. And he took advantage of 9/11 to create an atmosphere of fear, and I think that it was a horrible event. I’m from New York, and I was actually on federal property in Washington on 9/11, but I was stunned, appalled by it. But to react with the ultimate military reaction to that… Afghanistan, I can understand, but we’ve really undercut our troops there.
Q: We’ve lost sight of it.
Mr. Gelbart: Because we don’t have enough resources to fight 2 battles. It’s really clear, and in Afghanistan, our troops are being underserved because we don’t have enough troops to send in and do the job. And then they just pushed to go into Iraq. I’m not even sure why, maybe to make himself look good to his father who didn’t finish the job in the first Gulf War. But we had so much sympathy of the world after 9/11 and we've completely squandered it. I go to Europe all the time and there’s no one in Europe who understands how America could have gotten into this, and there’s just tremendous resentment to the American Government. Fortunately people distinguish Americans from the government but they largely view Bush as a war criminal. We’ve made things so much worse in Iraq now. The number of terrorists has gone up a hundredfold. We’ve just destroyed our economy. I think in regards to the draft, you guys are going to be paying the bills for this for a long time to come And there are far more important things to be worrying about that need international cooperation, like global warming, which Bush has just stuck his head in the ground like an ostrich about. And so I’d be rioting right now. Well, not rioting, I don’t know if rioting serves a purpose, but certainly protesting. Even if an administration comes in that’s better to end the war, there’s a lot of bills to pay and exactly how much we’re going to be able to do ... we're in such a mess in Iraq now, … just exactly how one extricates oneself is unclear. Like you said about Vietnam, we owe a debt to the Iraqis that we promised to help and give a democratic society. There’s just a lot of carnage right now.
Q: I feel like a lot of people who really would like to change the way that things are being run, but I think that the problem is a lot of people don’t really know what they can actually do to change it.
Mr. Gelbart: Young people felt empowered in the 60’s. There was the Peace Corps movement, people were doing things in small groups, the Freedom Fighters, and there were pretty inspirational people like JFK, Martin Luther King, so there was a lot of optimism that was pretty much gone by the end of the 60’s. I started teaching at Harvard in ’76, and I was amazed then as I am now with the apathy of young people. That they as a group are focused on their careers is the other side of it. And no matter what, if I protest or don’t protest, I was getting F’s in classes and I said “I know I’ll end up okay”. And I understand that people might not necessarily feel quite so confident, but I think that can be achieved.
Q: As a generation kind of marked by apathy, it’s kind of difficult these days, especially in such a liberal and solid place in the country.
Mr. Gelbart: I’m ready for the United States of Canada.
Q: Yeah, we’ve heard of that. How many if any similarities could your draw between LBJ and President Bush?
Mr. Gelbart: They’re from Texas. LBJ was extremely smart, extremely politically shrewd, and Bush… I used to revile Nixon, now I miss Nixon. By comparison, Nixon had a brain. This administration is so repulsive. In Vietnam, Nixon was awful, he was awful in some other ways, but you point to some things that he did well and you can tell he had moral limits, [like] the fact that he didn’t demand a recount even though there was great suspicion that he actually won the election (against JFK in 1960). In some ways I had some of the respect for the things that Nixon did. I have no respect for anything that Bush has done. I think there are chimpanzees that could have been better presidents than this guy.
Q: As for your entire Vietnam War experience, would you say it’s shaped you life, all the protesting? Has it shaped the person you are today?
Mr. Gelbart: Yep. I think it did. Number one, never trust anyone over 30,. That tells you that shouldn’t believe a word I said.
Mr. Gelbart: But that created a certain combination of optimism and idealism, but also it’s what taught us to be really skeptical about people and authority.
Q: Would you say that you’re as politically active now as you were back during the Vietnam War?
Mr. Gelbart: No.
Q: Would you like to be?
Mr. Gelbart: It’s different. I’ve tried to do things, community things. I’m much more focused on contributing to the community of science, so it’s a different kind of thing and it’s probably more along where I’d like to be in life. And I’m kind of turned off to the current conflict. I think once in my whole life, I voted for president because I was excited about them, rather than for the sake of voting against someone.
Q: May I ask whom?
Mr. Gelbart: Carter.
Q: Do you have any advice to our generation?
Mr. Gelbart: Get out on the streets.
Q: Fair enough.