The Chatham University Archives & Special Collections is pleased to share a selection from the Historical Film Collection featuring footage of the 1966 Commencement ceremony, the address given by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the protest that occurred outside the event venue. Captured by WTEA News, a portion of this footage is currently on view through September 22 at the Heinz History Center as part of their engaging and thought-provoking exhibit, Vietnam War: 1945 – 1975. The complete footage, including shots of an airport welcome by Chatham President Edward Eddy and extended views of the protests, is on view in the lobby of the Jennie King Mellon Library. Stop by, use the headphones (or read the captions!), and take a few moments to consider this moment in history.
So, why was the Secretary of Defense speaking at the Chatham commencement? Keep reading…
But first, a little background on McNamara. Born in 1916, McNamara received degrees from the University of California and from Harvard Business School. Disqualified from combat during WWII due to poor vision, he served in the Army Air Force developing logistical and statistical systems for a variety of war activities. Following the war, McNamara rose through the ranks of the Ford Motor Company, serving as company president for one month before accepting an appointment in the Kennedy administration as Secretary of Defense in 1961.
McNamara is known for the controversial role he played in escalating US involvement in the Vietnam War. Under McNamara’s leadership, the number of American troops—originally sent to Vietnam to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—increased rapidly. A fabricated “attack” on the American military in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 allowed the US military to justify increased engagement in the region and McNamara led President Johnson, Congress, and the American public to believe that this further escalation was necessary to prevent the expansion of communism. McNamara is believed to have privately questioned US military involvement as early as 1965 and he launched a secret investigation of the US commitment to the war. Records of this investigation were leaked to the public in 1971 and are known today as the Pentagon Papers. Having recommended, in a memo to President Johnson, that US involvement should be scaled back, McNamara resigned and became President of the World Bank.
US involvement in Vietnam continued and the sentiment of the American public soured. In 1965, 64% of the American public approved of US involvement in Vietnam. Four years later, approval numbers had sunk to 39%, with 52% considering the war to be a mistake. Months and months of regular US troop deployments turned into years, while news broadcasts delivered a gruesome reality of war casualties and wounded soldiers into living rooms across the country. Television broadcasts also presented the war’s impact on the Vietnamese population, many of whom became refugees after their homes were destroyed.
In this video, captured by WTAE Channel four, you’ll see the anti-war protesters picketing in front of Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, where Robert McNamara was gave the commencement address for Chatham College’s Class of 1966. Kathleen McNamara, his daughter, was a member of the graduating class. The video begins with McNamara’s arrival to Pittsburgh, where he was greeted by a crowd of cheerful people, including Chatham President Edward Eddy. There is a stark contrast between the airport greeting and the footage of the protesters, who marched outside the commencement venue carrying signs decrying the military activity in Vietnam. Protest signs were written in both English and Vietnamese.
The speech given by Sec. McNamara, titled “The Age of Protest,” acknowledges the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War. McNamara’s speech discusses freedom of dissent as a “privilege” available to the American public, but only an aspiration for the citizens of Vietnam. In his speech, McNamara presents the victimization of both the East and the West through the “bureaucratic tyranny of technology and autocracy that’s gradually depersonalizing and aliening modern man himself.”
The Chatham University Archives is honored to loan material to the Senator John Heinz History Center for their exhibition on the Vietnam War. Combining material from the New York Historical Society and the Detre Library & Archives’ rich collection, the exhibit presents this tumultuous period in world history with both a global and a local perspective. In connection with the exhibit, the Heinz History is presenting a series of lectures by journalists, academics, and writers offering a variety of perspectives on the war and its aftermath. The complete footage of the 1966 commencement address by Sec. Robert McNamara is on view in the library of the JKM Library, Chatham University, and the text of the speech is available through the Chatham University Archives.