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Fifty years after MIT’s memorable protest, a key question remains: Should scientists ask for change or should they demand it?

March 4 Scientists, Students, and Society

Jonathan Allen, Ed.
MIT Press
200 pp.
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Before there was the March for Science, there was March 4. On that date 50 years ago, at more than 30 campuses across the United States, students and faculty debated scientists’ responsibility in the Vietnam War. Some held teach-ins; some staged protests; others simply walked out of their labs for the day in quiet acts of refusal. Others pointedly stayed at their desks.

In honor of the anniversary, MIT Press has rereleased an edition of the speeches delivered at the most famous of the teach-ins, those hosted by MIT. The volume, titled simply March 4, is timely and thought provoking, both for what it says and what it doesn’t. Featuring the perspectives of 25 white men, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, George Wald, Victor Weisskopf, and Eugene Rabinowitch, the volume serves as a time capsule of how faculty opposition to the Vietnam War played out on university campuses. But even more notable than its demographics is the volume’s tidy repackaging of acceptable forms of scientific dissent.

In the fall of 1968, a group of MIT students and Boston-area war resistance groups offered sanctuary to a soldier who had walked away from his post. The soldier was arrested after about a month, but the experience of sitting in solidarity sparked a desire for action among MIT’s previously quiescent student body.

A new group, the Science Action Coordinating Committee (SACC), drew up a petition urging MIT students and faculty alike to abandon weapons research and instead direct their energies toward solving social problems. But when Science, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times began reporting on the students’ plans for a 1-day “research strike,” faculty support waned. Mainstream faculty balked at what they deemed a counterproductive and naïve form of protest that seemed aimed as much at their employer—the university—as at the state itself.

The students and faculty reached a truce through division of labor. The event we remember as “March 4” at MIT would be organized by two separate groups: the SACC, mainly composed of students, and a new organization, the Union of Concerned


Individuals gather in the offices of the MIT Science Action Coordinating Committee in 1969.

Scientists (UCS), consisting of faculty. The faculty group convinced the university administration to endorse a campus-wide day of reflection on science and its responsibilities to society, defanging the potential impact of a research strike. Students, meanwhile, could decide to attend the sanctioned convocation or strike on their own terms. The talks delivered at Kresge Auditorium on 3 and 4 March 1969, and reprinted in March 4, represented the most palatable form of protest MIT faculty could think of.

Barely a year after the March 4 protests, MIT announced that it would divest its interest in the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a flashpoint of student criticism. Because many of the faculty speakers at the convocation spoke about their desire for MIT to either divest from military research or convert military research to civilian projects, it is naturally tempting to draw a causal link between these two events. In reality, however, the administration only began to seriously consider forcing the Draper Laboratory off campus once students began attempting to storm the building later that spring (1).

It bears repeating that all of this was taking place at MIT in the spring of 1969, not 1965. March 4 wasn’t the beginning of campus opposition to military research on campus, and it wouldn’t be the end. In 1967, police arrested 31 students at Princeton University in a sit-in protesting the university’s relationship with the Institute for Defense Analysis. In the spring of 1968, students at Columbia University disrupted the campus for weeks, occupying buildings and staging demonstrations, in part to protest defense contracts. In 1970, militant radicals at the University of Wisconsin loaded a van full of explosives in a plan to blow up the Army Mathematics Research Center, killing one and injuring three others. MIT’s day of protest was late in coming and, in the context of 1969, remarkably mild.

And yet, March 4 holds a special place in scientists’ collective memory of political action because it produced lasting institutional effects. The UCS, which represented the MIT faculty position in 1969, remains to this day a powerful voice for promoting social responsibility in science in the United States.

The speeches reprinted in March 4 challenge contemporary readers to grapple with the limits of sanctioned protests, even when those protests are staged at the symbolic heart of the military-industrial-academic complex. The text of the volume itself is a stark reminder of this dynamic, including two essays defending campus-based research on land mines, electronic surveillance, and missile guidance systems in a volume ostensibly commemorating a war protest. Even faculty who signed the UCS petition downplayed the importance of their actions. Professor of Astronautics and Aeronautics Leon Trilling, for example, reassured listeners that the work stoppage “was not conceived as a confrontation with anyone.”

Fortunately, historians have produced several studies of the 1960s and 1970s that provide a wider set of models for scientists hoping to speak truth to power. Their scholarship reveals how scientists and physicians partnered with the Black Panther Party (2), staged sit-ins and protest theater at academic conferences (3), and issued manifestoes against the system (4) and how groups with names such as “Computer People for Peace” leveraged their expertise as technical workers to lobby corporate shareholders to oppose investments in surveillance technologies (3). Key documents from one of the most influential organizations to emerge from this period of political ferment, Science for the People, have recently been published as an edited volume (5), and organizers are in the process of making a complete run of the organization’s eponymous magazine available online (6).

Surveying the contemporary landscape of scientists’ political activism through historians’ eyes, it seems that established scientists are still at pains to distinguish their own political engagement from more “disruptive” forms of protest. When discussions for the 2017 March for Science first started, for example, many observers assumed that the march would draw attention to how the policies of the new Trump administration would harm federal scientific institutions and, by extension, all Americans who count on evidence-based politics to protect the environment and their health.

Valerie Thompson

The 2017 March for Science placed as much emphasis on fun as on confrontation.

The organizers quickly distanced themselves from this interpretation, even claiming, at one point, that the march wasn’t “political.” They eventually settled on “political but nonpartisan,” putting together an event described on the original website as a “celebration of science.” Attendees brought pun-filled signs, and entire labs marched together, holding banners naming their employers. Most of the events were fun, some were backed by corporate sponsors, and no one got arrested.

A week after the 2017 march, a different crowd assembled for the People’s Climate March. This time, scientists participated as members of the public, marching alongside longtime environmental justice activists, indigenous leaders, and labor leaders calling for a green economy. Instead of calls to increase funding for scientists, speakers demanded racial and economic justice and castigated the Trump administration’s climate policies. No one could mistake the People’s Climate March for a nonpartisan event.

Climate justice organizers, with their historical connections to environmental and antinuclear activism, are drawing on deeper wells of political engagement than the contemporary crop of “science advocates.” Political lobbying and mass mobilization are on the table, certainly, but so is civil disobedience, as witnessed by the Sunrise Movement’s recent sit-ins outside House Speaker (then Representative) Nancy Pelosi’s office. Not surprisingly, many of those most willing to put themselves at risk of arrest on behalf of climate activism are young people less bound by institutional expectations.

Organizers and activists have been arguing over the effectiveness of change within the system for as long as activists and organizers have been trying to change the system. In that regard, scientists are no different from any other group of citizens making claims on political life. In 1969, as now, those scientists who preferred to work within the system justified their approach on their expertise: If scientists alienate the powers that be, the argument went, those in charge would simply ignore them. And in 1969, as now, those scientists and citizens who advocated for more confrontational politics dismissed the possibility of changing a system they deemed hopelessly corrupt.

After 50 years, first-person memories of campus protest have inevitably begun to fade. But make no mistake: In the late 1960s, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty enacted both confrontational and conciliatory forms of protest. This March 4, scientists should remember the students willing to wage a strike as well as the faculty willing to take the stage.


  1. 1. S. W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (Columbia Univ. Press, 1993).

  2. 2. A. Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Univ. Minnesota Press, 2011).

  3. 3. K. Moore, Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945–1975 (Princeton Univ. Press, 2008).

  4. 4. M. Wisnioski, Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America (MIT Press, 2012).

  5. 5. S. Schmalzer, D. S. Chard, A. Botelho, Eds., Science for the People: Documents from America’s Movement of Radical Scientists (Univ. Massachusetts Press, 2018).

  6. 6.

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance writer and the author of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2018).