One of the “stupidest” decisions Barney Frank ever made, he says in his new memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics, was bringing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Harvard in the fall of 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War. I agree; I was there. But the story Frank tells in his book is, to put it generously, incomplete. What he did was even stupider than he acknowledges.
McNamara, Frank says, was “temporarily captured by a mob of Harvard students.” That was Frank’s fault, he acknowledges. At the time he was director of student affairs at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. In bringing the secretary of defense to Harvard, Frank says, he was only trying to “facilitate genuine conversation” between Harvard students and “important people.” What could be wrong with that? Everyone understands that Harvard students need to converse with important people, and of course these would be “private sessions that were closed to the media.” But, Frank concedes, by the fall of 1966, “the government’s conduct of the Vietnam War had become emblematic of antidemocratic secrecy and a lack of public accountability.” So it was stupid to think some people wouldn’t object to McNamara and the war he was running.
But there was a lot more to it. To Frank’s credit, he doesn’t make the same mistake many have made—describing that demonstration as an effort to prevent McNamara from speaking on campus. Many have written that he was “shouted down” at a “speech.” That’s completely wrong. Antiwar students were demanding not that McNamara be silenced, but precisely the opposite: that he speak to the public, that he agree to a public debate about the war. Barney Frank left that part out of his book. Harvard-Radcliffe SDS proposed that McNamara debate a young editor of Ramparts magazine named Robert Scheer. Sixteen hundred people signed a petition demanding a debate. That’s what Barney Frank refused to agree to. He insisted that all McNamara’s “conversations” be scheduled at closed, invitation-only events—with Barney Frank in charge of the invitation list. Of course none of the anti-war students were invited. Nevertheless SDS promised not to disrupt McNamara’s private meetings with students.
SDS also promised we would “physically confront” the secretary when he left his private meeting in Quincy House, “asking him either to agree to debate Scheer or answer questions right there” (the quotes are from the SDS newspaper New Left Notes). Quincy House residents hung sheets out their windows that declared “Kill the Cong,” “Back Mac,” and “Napalm SDS” (along with another that read “Black Day for Gordon Linen,” which had unwittingly provided the sheets). Loudspeakers blared “Mack the Knife” across the courtyard.