The New Trier Protests of May 1970

By Duff Peterson

New Trier East students gather near the flagpole to protest the Vietnam War’s extension into Cambodia. Winnetka Talk, May 7, 1970

For two weeks in May 1970, both campuses of New Trier High School erupted in protests against the Vietnam War.[1]  The protests were part of a nationwide uprising of at least four million young people who were reacting first to President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, and then to the shooting of 13 students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio.  The New Trier protests included lowering the American flag, on-campus speeches and memorial services, a march through Winnetka involving about 400 students, a rally on the Winnetka Village Green, and a petition against the war that students took to Washington to present to elected officials.

Large-scale American involvement in the war had begun in 1965 when the first American ground troops were sent to Vietnam to join the South Vietnamese in their ongoing battle against Communist North Vietnamese forces and their allies in the south, the Viet Cong.[2] Over time, as more and more young Americans were summoned to fight, and American casualties mounted, the country turned against the war, which to many seemed endless and unwinnable.

Although as many as 75% of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers[3], all young men were subject to conscription, and it was above all the possibility of being drafted that turned young people against the war.[4]  Men were required to register for the draft on turning 18, and could do so at New Trier.  The school made clear that it provided draft registration only as a convenience, saving students a trip to the Selective Service office in Evanston, but would not require students to register.  New Trier also offered “draft counseling” that advised young men of alternatives to military service and the risks of refusing to register.[5]

The first major protests against the Vietnam War occurred at the University of Michigan in 1965,[6] and many New Trier students began to criticize the war openly by 1967.[7]  By 1970, protests against the war were a feature of colleges and high schools all over the country.

History teacher Paul Knupfer urges support for U.S. policy in Vietnam during a pro-Nixon rally at New Trier West in May 1970. Winnetka Talk May 18, 1970

Richard Nixon had won the close 1968 presidential election partly on a promise to scale back the American presence in Vietnam.  He made good on this promise: American deployments as well as American casualties peaked in 1968 and fell off dramatically with each year of his presidency.  However, Nixon was unwilling to pull out of Vietnam right away as many people urged; instead, he pursued a policy of phased withdrawal with the goal of increasingly turning over the war effort to South Vietnam.[8]

On April 30, 1970, Nixon appeared on national television to announce his decision to invade neighboring Cambodia for the purpose of destroying “sanctuaries” from which Communist forces were staging operations across the border into Vietnam.[9]  He ordered the invasion against the advice of his key cabinet members, who warned of a backlash.[10]  Their prediction proved correct: within hours, protests erupted throughout the country, especially on college campuses.  To many Americans, the Cambodian incursion represented an expansion of the war at a time when it was supposed to be ending, and a betrayal of Nixon’s campaign promise to reduce American military commitments in Southeast Asia.

The next day, Friday, May 1, protests turned violent at Kent State University in Ohio as enraged students attacked police and vandalized buildings both on campus and in town.  The university’s president and the city’s mayor, believing with considerable justification that they had not a student demonstration but a riot on their hands, asked for help from Ohio governor James Rhodes, who sent in units of the state’s National Guard.[11]  The guardsmen arrived in a convoy of jeeps on the night of Saturday, May 2 to find the university’s ROTC building in flames after being torched by students.  The city’s fire department had difficulty extinguishing the fire, in part because a handful of students hindered their efforts, and the building burned to the ground.[12]

Many Kent State students bitterly resented the sudden military presence on campus, and the protests escalated over the weekend.  When the guardsmen attempted to disperse the crowds with tear gas, the students responded by shouting obscenities, throwing back exploding gas canisters and hurling rocks and bottles.  The guardsmen had no experience in riot control but were armed with M-1 rifles with a range of two miles.  On the afternoon of Monday, May 4, they opened fire on a crowd of students, killing four and injuring nine.  Of the four students killed that day, only two were taking part in the protest; the other two were walking to class.  Exactly why the guardsmen fired on the students, and who gave the order to do so, remains unclear to this day.[13]

The reaction to Kent State was swift and overwhelming.  American higher education came to a virtual standstill as protests involving over four million students engulfed more than half the nation’s colleges.  At least 500 colleges canceled classes, and 51 would close for the rest of the semester.[14]

At New Trier East the next day, two students attempted to lower the school’s American flag to half-mast in protest, but other students forcibly stopped them.  The principal, Ralph McGee (1930-2005), saw the hubbub from his office and headed outside to talk to the students.  The son of a General Motors plant manager from Flint, Michigan and New Trier’s long-time debate coach, McGee knew something about seeing both sides of an issue.  One witness, describing the atmosphere at the flagpole as “incendiary,” said that McGee’s presence there had a “calming effect” and likely averted a violent confrontation.[15]  Later in the week, a vote took place among the students, faculty and staff at NTE that came out nearly 2-to-1 in favor of lowering the flag, and it remained at half-mast for two weeks.[16]

Over at New Trier West, a slightly different scenario played out.  On the morning of May 5, a delegation from the Student Cabinet entered the office of the school’s 34-year-old principal, David Cox, and asked if the American flag could be lowered.  Cox recalls that a few of the students were in tears.  Seeing their distress, Cox decided that the flag would be lowered “as a sign of mourning” and went on the school’s PA system to announce his decision.  Once the flag was at half-mast, Cox headed outside and stood near the flagpole.  Howard Clark, the senior boys’ advisor chair and an Army veteran who had survived the Anzio landing in 1944, joined Cox in keeping order.  Several students either did not want the flag lowered or wanted it ripped down altogether, and a few approached menacingly; a witness describes it as “not a good scene.”[17]  At one point, a student wielding what looked like a huge pair of bolt-cutters moved in with the intention of cutting the clamp and allowing the flag to return to full staff, but when Clark pointed out to the boy that he was trampling the evergreens near the pole, he backed off.[18]

The following day, May 6, responding to an invitation from Cox for a public discussion, students began to gather in NTW’s large courtyards.  A PA system was installed, and several students, Cox and a 28-year-old Social Studies teacher named Jack Mattox addressed the crowd.[19]  A counter-demonstration supporting Nixon also took place in the building now called Cornog Auditorium.[20]   NTW also voted nearly 2-to-1 to keep its flag at half-mast.  During the lunch periods, a local rabbi and minister conducted an open-air memorial service that hundreds of students attended, sitting cross-legged in the south courtyard.  James Marran, the chair of NTW’s Social Studies department, organized students to read the names of all Americans killed so far in Vietnam.[21]  Students outlined plans for a student strike and an anti-war rally on the Winnetka Village Green.  Mattox announced that a petition opposing the Cambodian incursion would be circulated in the community over the weekend and taken to Washington the following week.[22]

Starting about noon on Friday, May 8, approximately 400 students, many skipping classes, marched from both New Trier campuses down Wilson Street to participate in the rally on the Village Green.  Marran accompanied the students to provide security and encourage a peaceful protest.  At the rally, student and adult speakers further condemned the expansion of the war and the shootings at Kent State.[23]  Meanwhile, more than 1,000 student volunteers began to go door-to-door across the North Shore with a petition calling for an end to the war.  Over the weekend, the students would collect as many as 20,000 signatures.[24]  A few student canvassers reported hostile reactions from residents, including one Wilmette girl who was hit by a man calling her a “God damn hippie radical.”[25]

On the evening of Monday, May 11, the New Trier Board of Education met in a room packed with at least 200 spectators, many of them spoiling for a fight.  Superintendent William Cornog (1909-2002) opened the meeting by saying that he was proud of New Trier’s students and faculty, calling the past few days “some of the most rewarding” of his career.  McGee and Cox then gave reports, praising students for their peaceful protests on both campuses.[26]  McGee faced down attacks at the meeting both from radical students and from townspeople eager to see the protesters punished, calmly saying to the mostly adult crowd, “I urge you to compliment the young people of this community.”  Both the board and the administrators rebuffed any suggestion that students should be disciplined for their activities the previous week.[27]

The next day, May 12, Mattox escorted 26 students to Washington to present the anti-war petition to three members of Illinois’ Congressional delegation.  Their first appointment was with Senator Ralph Smith, but at the last minute, Smith found himself too busy.[28]  Next came Senator Charles Percy, a New Trier graduate and Navy veteran, who welcomed the students.[29]  Mattox remembers Percy’s manner that day as “gracious” as he listened attentively to the young people from his state and examined their petition.  The students’ last stop was at the office of Representative Philip Crane, who callously told them that issues other than Vietnam were more important to his constituents, and in what Mattox calls “the worst part of the day,” dismissed the group, refusing to keep his appointment.[30]  Many of the students returned to the North Shore disillusioned after two members of Congress from their home districts would have nothing to do with them, even though the students had come to Washington at their own expense to present the views of thousands of constituents.[31]

In an open letter published in the next issue of the school newspaper, NTW principal David Cox reflected on the events of the previous two weeks. “It is imperative for our survival as an educational community (and the survival of our country) that we remain free to think, free to exchange ideas, and to dissent,” he wrote, concluding the letter by calling his students “the finest people anywhere.”[32]

*     *     *     *     *

About 2.7 million Americans, including several New Trier graduates, served in uniform in the Vietnam War.[33]  Over 58,000 Americans were killed, including six young men whose names are permanently attached to the Cenotaph on the Winnetka Village Green.  The youngest of Winnetka’s fallen warriors was only 19 when he died.  These young men did only what their country asked them to do, making the ultimate sacrifice in a war effort that by May 1970 a majority of Americans did not support.[34]

On June 17, 1972, burglars connected to Nixon’s reelection campaign were caught attempting to install wiretaps at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington.  Starting the next day with an article about the burglary, two young reporters from the Washington Post began to expose the corruption and criminality at the heart of the Nixon administration, leading to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency two years later in the face of almost certain impeachment.[35]  A total of 69 members of his administration were indicted, and many were sentenced to prison.  At roughly the same time as Nixon’s top men were heading off to jail, Communist forces overran the weak and corrupt South Vietnamese military in which the U.S. had earlier placed its faith, capturing Saigon on April 30, 1975 and reuniting the country under Communist rule after nearly 30 years of war.[36]

The New Trier protests of May 1970 occurred only a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of public school students to engage in non-disruptive political protest on school grounds in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, a landmark free-speech case from late 1969.[37]  The New Trier protests were part of a massive national movement of young people that ended U.S. involvement in a major war and contributed to bringing down a president.[38]  In the words of long-time NT English teacher Julie Johnson, “Never before had youth rebelled in this way, or wielded so much power.”[39]  Unlike at many colleges, however, there was no violence at New Trier in May 1970, no damage to property and no cause to discipline students.[40]  Classes soon resumed and seniors graduated on time (a few wearing black armbands at graduation with their elegant white dresses and tuxes).  During those tense two weeks in May 1970, New Trier’s students, faculty and administration honored New Trier’s long tradition of rational debate and student engagement.  Above all, our community was well served by New Trier’s teachers and administrators, including the three enlightened and compassionate men — William Cornog, Ralph McGee and David Cox – who led New Trier through this difficult period.


The author, NTE ’77, would like to thank the following present and former New Trier teachers and administrators for their assistance with this article: David Cox, Kerry Hall NTE’77, Susan Holderread, Julie Johnson, Andrea Levin, James Marran and Jack Mattox.  

-April 27, 2017


[1] The West campus of New Trier had opened in 1965 to accommodate the township’s growing population of high school students resulting from the Baby Boom lasting from roughly 1945 to 1961.  Although the two campuses had a common administration and shared a few other resources, they were for all practical purposes separate four-year high schools from 1967 until 1981, when upper class students were consolidated at East and West became the freshman campus.  For a more detailed discussion of the opening of NTW, see Johnson, Julie W., New Trier:  Portrait of an American High School.  Winnetka: New Trier Township high School District 203, 2006, p. 76-79.

[2] Gaddis, John Lewis, The Cold War:  A New History.  New York:  The Penguin Press, 2005, p. 133.

[3] See, e.g., http://history-world.org/vietnam_war_statistics.htm.

[4] Wiest, Andrew, The Vietnam War, 1956-1973.  Essential Histories, 2002, p. 64.

[5] Wilmette Life, May 1970 (exact date clipped).  In the article, NTE Dean of Students Erwin Weingartner is quoted as saying that the school did not have a policy for reporting students who failed to register, and that it would “not serve as a policeman for the draft board.”

[6] O’Neill, William L., Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971, p.141.

[7] See, e.g., New Trier News, September 15, 1967, p. 6.

[8] Wiest, p. 50-51.

[9] Nixon’s televised speech on April 30, 1970 is available on YouTube.

[10] Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and Secretary of State William Rogers had opposed the Cambodian incursion, while National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger supported it.  Nixon claimed in the April 30 speech that the U.S. had so far done nothing to stop the Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia; in fact, the U.S. had been bombing them for over a year.  Isaacson, Walter, Kissinger:  A Biography.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 268.

[11] Rhodes (1909-2001), a Republican, was a popular four-term governor who is still credited with bringing prosperity to Ohio in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  See, e.g., obituary in Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2001 or Toledo Blade, March 5, 2001.  Rhodes often took a hard line against political protests, referring before Kent State to protesting students as “the worst type of people that we harbor in America,” a line he came to regret. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/James_A._Rhodes.  It’s also worth noting that Rhodes was facing a close Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate that very week in May 1970 against Ohio favorite son Robert Taft, Jr., which Taft won.

[12] ROTC building arson May 2, 1970: Witness statements taken August 6, 1970, Kent State University Libraries, http://www.library.kent.edu/special-collections-and-archives.


[13] Zaroulis, Nancy, and Sullivan, Gerald, Who Spoke Up?  American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975.  New York: Doubleday & Company, 1984, p. 319-321.

[14] Zaroulis and Sullivan, p. 320.

[15] Comment by NT English teacher Norman Frey in obituary of Ralph McGee, Chicago Tribune, May 31, 2005; Winnetka Talk, May 7, 1970, p. 1.

[16] Winnetka Talk, May 11, 1970, p. 1.

[17] Telephone interview with Jack Mattox, former NT Social Studies teacher, January 19, 2017.

[18] Most of this paragraph is based on an interview with David Cox, February 7, 2017.

[19] New Trier West News, May 15, 1970.

[20] Winnetka Talk, May 18, 1970, p. 1.

[21] Marran joined the NT faculty in 1956 after a stint in the Army, teaching at both NT campuses until he retired in 1994.  During the week of May 4, 1970, another NTW teacher verbally attacked him for his anti-war views in an NTW classroom between classes, and the two teachers never spoke to each other again.  Telephone interview with James Marran, April 26, 2017.

[22] Winnetka Talk, May 7, 1970, p. 1.  Cox remembers that at one point, a handful of recent NTW alumni who had been released from classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the wake of Kent State showed up at NTW, commandeered the PA system, shouted obscenities at the gathered students and yelled “Do you want to see this place burn?”  The NTW students responded by shouting “NO!” in unison, and the alumni eventually left the stage.  Email from David Cox, April 19, 2017.

[23] Winnetka Talk, May 11, 1970, p. 1.

[24] This figure comes from Jack Mattox, interview on January 19, 2017.  The Winnetka Talk variously put the number of signatures at 12,300 (May 14, 1970 issue) and 14,000 (May 25, 1970 issue).  Whatever the correct number, the response from the surrounding community to a group of teenagers circulating a petition over a single weekend was impressive.

[25] Winnetka Talk, May 14, 1970, page number clipped.

[26] Interview with David Cox, February 7, 2017; Winnetka Talk, May 14, 1970.

[27] Winnetka Talk, May 14, 1970.

[28] Smith (1915-1972), a Republican, served just over a year in the U.S. Senate.  Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie had appointed him in September 1969 following the death of Everett Dirksen.  He ran for re-election in November 1970, but was defeated by Adlai Stevenson.  http://bioguide.congress.gov.

[29] Percy (1919-2011), a Republican, would serve in the Senate for 18 years until defeated by Paul Simon in 1984.  Percy was a critic of the Vietnam War from the time he took office in 1967, regularly clashing with Nixon and other Republicans.  He explored the possibility of running for president more than once, but never actually ran.  During the same week that he met with the New Trier delegation, Percy was engaged in debate over legislation known as the Cooper-Church Amendment, of which he was a co-sponsor.  The amendment would have cut off all funding for the Cambodian incursion effective as of July 1, 1970.  It failed in the House, but a revised version passed at the end of the year, though by that time the U.S. had officially withdrawn from Cambodia.  The amendment also repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which in 1964 had given the president broad authority to conduct a war against the Vietnamese Communists, and was the legal basis for the war’s escalation in subsequent years.  Percy expressed the view on numerous occasions that the president should have no power to wage war without Congressional approval.  See, for example, “Doves Win Key Vote in Senate,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1970, p.1; https://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.

[30] Crane (1930-2014) had come to Washington in November 1969 after winning a special election to fill the House seat vacated by Donald Rumsfeld, a New Trier graduate, whom Nixon had appointed to the first of his several jobs in the executive branch.  Serving in the House from 1969-2005, Crane was the longest-serving Republican in the House by the end of his tenure.  He is remembered as an outspoken conservative with national ambitions, entering the presidential race in 1980 only to withdraw after Ronald Reagan’s campaign gathered steam.  Obituary of Philip Crane in the Washington Post, November 10, 2014.  Crane lived in Winnetka for a time at the beginning of his Congressional career.

[31] Interview with Jack Mattox, January 19, 2017.  In 1970, the voting age for Federal elections was 21; the 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowering the voting age to 18 did not become law until July 1, 1971.  The Winnetka Talk had nothing but praise for the group who went to Washington, noting that Smith and Crane were both up for re-election in November and that if the students were dissatisfied, they could work to replace them.  Winnetka Talk, May 25, 1970.

[32] Open letter from David Cox in the New Trier West News, May 15, 1970, p. 1.

[33] “Vietnam War: Facts, Stats & Myths,” http://www.uswings.com/about-us-wings/vietnam-war-facts.

[34] http://www.gallup.com/vault/191828/gallup-vault-hawks-doves-vietnam.aspx

[35] See, e.g., Bernstein, Carl and Woodward, Bob, All The President’s Men.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974; Emery, Fred, Watergate: The Corruption & Fall of Richard Nixon.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.

[36] As the Communists closed in on Saigon, Americans were treated to gut-wrenching scenes on the evening news of people trying to flee the city.  Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lost their lives in either the military assault or the ensuing purges and executions.  During the remainder of the decade, about 1.5 million people attempted to escape the country, usually by boat, many eventually coming to the United States.  For years, Vietnam remained one of the world’s poorest nations, and relations with the U.S. only began to thaw around 1994.  In neighboring Cambodia, the murderous Khmer Rouge regime took over in 1975 and unleashed an orgy of slaughter that eliminated perhaps 30% of the country’s population, including nearly all teachers and other “intellectuals.”  Money and religion were abolished and books were burned.  Wiest, p. 85-88.

[37] Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).  In the case, four members of the Tinker family ranging in age from 8 to 16, along with a 16-year old friend, wore black armbands to three different schools in the Des Moines public school system in December 1965 to protest the Vietnam War.  After they refused to remove the armbands, all were suspended from school.  The American Civil Liberties Union represented the Tinkers, as noted in https://www.aclu.org/other/tinker-v-des-moines-landmark-supreme-court-ruling-behalf-student-expression, eventually taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Tinkers’ protest was silent, and the school system failed to show that any disruption, or even an expectation of disruption, had occurred to justify its disciplinary action against the students. http://www.americanbar.org/publications/communications_lawyer/2014/september14/tinker.html.

In his opinion for the Court’s 7-2 majority, Justice Abe Fortas famously said, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  Mary Beth Tinker, then 13 years old and now in her 60’s, for many years a pediatric nurse, continues to speak publicly about her experiences.  See https://tinkertourusa.org/about/tinkertour.

[38] Historians of Watergate, journalists and many of Nixon’s closest associates all agree that Nixon’s need to monitor and suppress dissent often led his administration to cross the line between political activity and criminal activity.  See, for example, Woodward and Bernstein; Emery; Isaacson; Rosen, James, The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, New York: Doubleday, 2008; Dean, John, Blind Ambition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.

[39] Johnson, p. 91.

[40] Several excellent books have been written in recent years about student protests during the years 1967-1970 that turned violent, caused destruction of property, resulted in disciplinary action against students and brought police crackdowns.  See, for example, Bates, Tom, Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and its Aftermath, New York: HarperCollins, 1992 and Maraniss, David, They Marched Into Sunlight, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003 (University of Wisconsin); Kabaservice, Geoffrey, The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, New York: Henry Holt, 2004 (Yale); Rosenblatt, Roger, Coming Apart: a Memoir of the Harvard Wars of 1969, Boston:  Little Brown & Co., 1997 (Harvard); Kurlansky, Mark, 1968, The Year that Rocked the World, London: Jonathan Cape 2004, and Cannato, Vincent, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, New York: Basic Books, 2001 (Columbia).

2 Responses to “The New Trier Protests of May 1970”

  1. October 23, 2019 at 3:41 PM #

    Jack Sustman, NTE ’73 here, hello.
    Coming in from track practice through the doors at the northwest corner of the Gates gym, probably toward 5:30 in the afternoon, I saw on the very day of Kent State, spray-painted on the step where it remained for years: “5/4/70”. I think this might belong in your chronology; I know it became, when I learned what it meant, the moment I turned against the war in Vietnam.
    Thank you for your fine service!

  2. August 18, 2023 at 2:57 PM #

    I was Class of ’70 at NTE. A young ignorant inexperienced person whose idealism blinded him to the reality of human nature and yes I protested against the War in Vietnam and looked up to the Yippies, Weathermen SDS and all you can name from that time including Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver. Fast forward it’s 2023 and my youngest Son was just posted to his first Duty as an MP in the USMC. If you aren’t a liberal before the age of 25 you have no heart and if you are a liberal after the age of 30 you have no brain: or you’re a communist. I would still oppose the War in Vietnam but for totally different reasons than in 1970: the Government did not have the Soldiers Sailors and Airmen’s Six. And to all the men and women who served in Viet Nam; thank you for your Service.

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