If you are of a certain age, you have a vivid memory of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the days of student unrest on America’s college campuses. I am of that age, and my memories are based not just on living through those times but also on reporting on some of the key events. I was in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1970 when Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers were on trial for killing a government informant. In the summer of 1968 I was following the cops who were trying to chase the protesters from Lincoln Park in Chicago. And in the fall of 1967, when the first physically disruptive protests occurred at Princeton University, students blocking the entrance to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), I was there as a reporter for the Daily Princetonian.
“This isn’t Princeton,” President Robert Goheen was quoted as saying at that demonstration. It was an off-hand remark that would be used against Goheen for years afterward. I remember it vividly — I was the one who overheard it and reported it in the next day’s paper.
So this year, more than four decades later, my summer reading list had to include Lee Neuwirth’s new book, “Nothing Personal — The Vietnam War in Princeton 1965-1975.” Neuwirth, a mathematician, was the deputy director of the IDA during those tumultuous days. I never encountered Neuwirth as a reporter for the Princetonian. But when I came back to town a few years later as a freelance writer I met his wife, Sydney, who was working part-time at the Town Topics newspaper (and since then has established herself as an artist).
Lee Neuwirth, I quickly discovered, was no ordinary spokesman for the military-industrial complex. He was personable, engaging, and willing both to listen and respond to the angry protesters on the other side of the barricades. Neuwirth took center stage, literally, in September of 1972 when Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, appeared before an SRO audience of about 1,200 at Princeton’s Alexander Hall. Neuwirth asked a question from the floor that led to an invitation from Ellsberg to join him onstage for an impromptu debate. Twenty minutes later a gracious Ellsberg conceded that the man from IDA had scored some points. Neuwirth left the stage to a rousing ovation from what had previously been a hostile crowd.
Neuwirth revealed the principles behind his stand in a letter to a resident who applauded his performance at the Ellsberg debate but who still hoped that the IDA would justify its presence in Princeton. “I seriously question the concept of justifying what I am doing and establishing its legitimacy to some group,” Neuwirth responded in a letter. “In this country, under our laws, a man does not have to prove he is engaged in a legitimate activity. Indeed, quite the reverse is true. Elaborate provisions are made for proving someone’s guilt in the courtroom.
“If you believe that IDA is breaking some law or doing something illegal, then I would encourage you to seek prosecution under the law. If you believe that IDA is not doing anything illegal but simply behaving immorally, then you are faced with the same problem as an individual who sees his neighbor or his grown-up child or his parent behaving in what he personally regards as an immoral manner. I have never found it fruitful to engage another individual in a debate or his/her moral behavior and I can only say that the individuals at IDA have been subjected to an inordinate amount of pressure and all have surely examined their consciences and have concluded that they are not behaving in an immoral fashion — and this must be sufficient in our society.”
My memories of these years are vivid, but not always accurate. Neuwirth’s book surprised me with details that I had somehow missed in my reporting more than 40 years ago. The book also reveals the complexity of the issues. As Neuwirth demonstrates in several telling anecdotes, the IDA controversy for him was “personal,” despite neighbors and colleagues who objected to his work at IDA but assured him there was “nothing personal” in their positions.
“Nothing Personal” is steeped in Princeton town and gown politics and personalities. In the harsh world of book publishing that’s strike one against a book such as this one ever getting into print. Strike two and three would be a first-time author who is a mathematician, not a breezy novelist. (Neuwirth’s daughter, actress Bebe, would have better luck if she wrote a gossip-y backstage memoir of her days on television’s “Cheers” and “Frasier.”)
Memoirs like Neuwirth’s usually end up in someone’s attic. Eventually they may fall into the hands of the next generation, which may try to get them into print but rarely succeeds.
But thanks to desktop publishing and on-demand printing, Neuwirth’s 173-page book is in print (www.booksurge.com). It may not end up on any bestseller list, but historians and students of the anti-war movement will appreciate this trove of primary material.
And there’s one other positive off-shoot to Neuwirth’s effort. During the course of his research Neuwirth frequently consulted back issues of the Daily Princetonian. The yellowed newsprint was literally falling apart in his hands. Neuwirth sounded the alarm and it was heard. Princetonian alumni have raised three quarters of the money needed to digitize all issues of the paper dating back to 1876.
It’s another slice of Princetoniana that is being saved for posterity. And another irony: Lee Neuwirth, whose professional life deals with the encryption of communications for the national security, finds a way in his personal life to make a part of our collective past far more accessible than it would be otherwise.