Interview with Stephen Bisker

November 4, 1999

Conducted by Russell Bisker, David Hechtman, and Leilei Ni

Mr. Bisker was 9 years old when the 60's began; he grew up in New York. He later attended the State University of New York in Binghamton, N.Y., and Georgetown Law School, in Washington, D.C.

Could you please state your name, where you were born, and also where you grew up?

My name is Stephen Bisker; I was born in New York City in June of 1951.

Could you tell me about how the civil rights movement affected you in New York, or had any influence in New York at all?

Well, New York wasn't particularly affected the same way that the South was. It was more, I guess, observing what was going on in other parts of the country--the same sort of blatant discrimination didn't exist in cities such as New York City.

Did you--on TV, were there reports of the Birmingham incident, the violence, and what was your [reaction]?

A lot of that activity in the early years of civil rights ... I was relatively young, and my experiences in terms of major events going on in this country really revolved around the Vietnamese War in the later 60's. That was the time, between '68 and '72, that I was in college ... as a college student I was pretty active in terms of feelings about the war and demonstrations and marches and so forth.

Where did you go to college?

I went to school at the State University of New York in Binghamton, New York.

Would you say they had [an] especially strong antiwar opinion on campus there?

It was a pretty liberal campus; it was referred to in Newsweek as the Berkeley of the East. So ... the students were pretty active; we didn't have an ROTC on campus. Those college campuses around the country that had ROTC had lots of demonstrations, some of whom burned the ROTC offices. [We] didn't have anything like that, although we did have a lot of activity and demonstrations.

Were there any particularly violent or notable protests on your campus itself?

[There] was no violence; the undergraduate school wasn't that large, and the total student population, including the graduate school, at that time was less than 10,000 students. In terms of activities on campus, I think that at one point there was a demonstration, like a sit-in, at the administrations building. It was a recruiting office that was located there and that was part of that demonstration. But there was support for anti-war movements that was coordinated by the student council, and a good part of the student population participated in that.

What would you say was the height of protest against the war?

Well, for me personally, I went down on the march on Washington--I believe it was in around 1970, it was right after the bombing in Cambodia. That was a big protest and march on Washington, and college students and others came in from all parts of the country. In fact, we came down to Washington and it was so crowded that we couldn't even march. It was very, very cold and I just remembered ... sleeping overnight at Union Station in Baltimore. We drove down to Baltimore and then took the train down from Baltimore and then we wound up just standing inside one of the museums just to keep war because there was no room--the entire Mall was just packed with protesters.

Did you see anything of particular interest during the march on Washington? ...

Just the number of people--it was really amazing how many people showed up. It was way before the Internet and getting information around quickly and ... there was an awful lot of people that came down to express their dismay as far as what was believed to be an acceleration rather than a deceleration of the war effort. And resulted, I think in an increase in the negative sentiment towards President Nixon.

What was the college's, your campus's reaction--or your reaction, personally--to some of the more violent, well-known protests such as at Kent State in 1970?

Well, I don't think anyone condoned the killing or shooting of students at Kent State, but it wasn't like that was totally unforeseen given the fact that whenever you have confrontations and emotion thrown high with young people on both sides of the line--those holding the guns, and those protesting--that there is always a chance of something happening. Obviously it did at Kent State. In addition, I think both with respect to my school and other schools around the country--as part of the protest and feelings with respect to what happened at Kent State--a number of the University's colleges closed early and so we basically got a short semester, which I guess we appreciated not having to take finals and being able to get out of school early. But I guess it was felt that rather than having more problems and other similar incidents on campus that it was best just to shut down and send the students home.

Did you know anybody that was personally drafted in the war?

That was a concern while the war was supposedly winding down, I guess, starting in '68 or '69, I mean the troops started being pulled out of Vietnam, although there was an escalation of bombing and obviously somewhat of an expansion going into Cambodian involvement. ... [T]here was concern--I had a student deferment--but I didn't know what was going to happen after I graduated. And at that point there was a lottery for the draft, and I remembered that summer when they were calling the numbers--the numbers that would be applicable to me. I had a summer job--I was in Manhattan and was walking by the store and they had the radio or TV on ... and I heard them call my birth date. They assigned numbers consecutively to birthdays, and I got 267, and they started drafting based upon number one and then going forward. And [with] 267, they were never going to get to me. And so I felt relieved, and knew that I could go on, in this case to law school, uninterrupted. My roommate, however, wasn't as fortunate, and his number was thirteen, and he knew that he was definitely going to be drafted. And so what he did, since he really didn't want to go or wind up in Vietnam, he actually enlisted before he was drafted and in that way had more of an ability to choose where he was going to go ... [H]e wound up going to Germany, and got involved in a tank brigade that we had there, and spent his time in the Army in Germany, and never went to Vietnam. I personally, at least as far as college friends, did not know of anyone that ended up going to Vietnam.

So you didn't really know any childhood friends ... or anyone else ... who went?

No, I mean I have friends now who went to Vietnam and suffered injuries while they were there, but as far as close college friends, I guess we were fairly lucky that we got high numbers or had been able to avoid going. There [were] some people I know that were prepared to leave the country and go up to Canada if necessary, but it never came to that. Things really started winding down just about the time that I graduated college in '72. There was continual pullout, we were still actively involved, and given that we had ... fewer troops there and turned over more of the war effort to the South Vietnamese--we had that big buildup by the North Vietnamese, [who] as you know ... overran the South Vietnamese ... that took care the war and for the most part ended it, with South Vietnam losing, as well as this country.

What [were] your feelings? There [was] a lot of famous media coverage from the Vietnam War, some notable things such as ... photographs, My Lai, the photograph of the ... little girl running down the street, the [issue of] Life magazine that printed pictures of all the people that were killed in one week. Do you remember any of those things?

That was almost sort of a pastime of a lot of college students. ... I lived in the dorms the whole time that was in college, and on our floor we had a lounge and ... for a while, until we broke it--there was a TV, and we ... watched the news. It was almost sort of comical because you would listen to the numbers that were presented by the government as far as the number of enemy troops, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, were killed, versus the number of Americans and South Vietnamese that were killed. If you tallied up the numbers of the North Vietnamese that were killed, it probably exceeded the population of North Vietnam. And so we always wondered how they came up with the numbers, because they were grossly out of proportion to what you would expect. I recall students really getting riled up any time that President Nixon would come on and give some talks, and I think that was how the television set ultimately died, people throwing stuff at it, and getting upset. There were a lot of ... high emotions ... the fact that this was a serious business, people were getting killed, innocent people got caught up in it, and as evidenced by the My Lai massacre and the incidents there and as well as in other areas, it was disturbing to see women and children killed and maimed, and then with the thought in the back of your mind that you may have to go there and participate in that. It was a little bit different than the kids today have, and what they're thinking about. And it's certainly made a difference--we perhaps were a lot more carefree, probably, less driven, than college students today, and with the whole cultural revolution going on ... in the late 60's and the early 70's, and when you add the Vietnam War to it, they just made for some interesting times.

So would you say ... in general that you were pretty strongly against the war?

I never fully understood why we were there. I guess there was always doubt as to the validity of us being there. I don't fully remember the whole business with the Pentagon Papers, but that caused a whole brouhaha because that provided some further insight--I mean there were talks and concerns about the Communist conspiracy and China--Red China moving in and taking over that whole part of the world. But that was never really established--this was a dispute that was going on for many years before the U.S. got involved. And a lot of people were dying, and we weren't making any headway. We weren't doing enough to really win the war, and especially pulling out we tried to win it just by bombing. We had a lot of people getting killed, so it didn't make sense. My feeling was that [if] we were going to do it, then put the effort into it and win--although I wasn't convinced that that was the right thing--but certainly doing it halfway and having it prolonged and having people continue to get killed didn't make much sense either. And since it was so far away, it was hard to understand how it really affected our national interest to be there. There weren't any real significant [reasons]--from a strategic point of view--that we [needed] that land area to be present. There were other areas [where] we had our bases ... and [there] wasn't anything of particular value as far as natural resources that we needed to protect for our national interest ... like we do in the Middle East as far as oil. So it just didn't make a whole lot of sense as to why we were sending young men there be be killed and maimed. And to kill others.

Were you familiar with things like the "domino effect" that people talked about ...?

Well, that was what was being pushed, but the Communism from China wasn't necessarily the same the Communism from the Soviet Union. And even Communism amongst the various nations of Southeast Asia was not uniform--so this idea of this monolithic Communist threat was perhaps a lot of paranoia on akin with the paranoia created during the McCarthy era. That was one of the theories or arguments as to why we needed to be there but I don't believe it was ever proven to be the case.

You had mentioned the kind of cultural revolution going on. What was your opinion on that kind of [thing], like the "Summer of Love" of 1969 or Woodstock ...?

Well, it was an interesting time--hippies were in their full bloom, and my college was in that regard was ... pretty radical, and we were in a fairly conservative area. The townspeople didn't know what to make of us. There was a time when obviously there was lots of drugs and craziness going on. I guess our parents just couldn't understand--hair was really long, my hair was long in comparison but nothing as compared to the typical individual who had shoulder length or longer [hair]. I guess you're seeing a lot of those things--not necessarily long hair--that had been around for a while, but we had our lava lamps and tye-dye and bell bottoms, and [the] Beatles were really popular at that point in time, and the Rolling Stones. ... A lot of that that music has continued on ... Led Zeppelin, Cream, Eric Clapton, that's still around. So I think today's youth still [have] a taste of some of the music and some of the cultural aspects. It was different because unlike kids today in college, whose parents for the most part ... have graduated college or at least attended college, ... I think ... there was more, perhaps, expected of us. Many kids [were of the] first generation to get that far educationally, yet there [were] a lot of things going on in terms of distractions from ... going to school and learning. So it was interesting, to say the least.

You mentioned Nixon earlier. What was the general feeling about the elections of '68 and '72?

Nixon was not particularly loved by college students, certainly not those that were active. He just didn't have the same sort of charisma that some other presidents had. When Nixon ... was first elected, things--in terms of the troops--they started winding down, but buildup in Vietnam was during Johnson's tenure. I think that there was somewhat less resentment against Johnson--I mean, [he] seemed like a warmer, more caring individual than Nixon, especially with his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who was particularly disliked by college students. In terms of Nixon's reelection in '72, that was an interesting time for me. I had graduated in '72 and I came down to Washington to begin my first year of law school at Georgetown. It just so happened that my criminal law professor, Sam Dash, was called to [be]--probably after about a month ... after I started--the chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. So I sort of felt like I was real close to the action of what's going on, having this individual as a professor, and during that time was invited to his home and so ... we got fairly close, and he was one of the chief individuals who was going after the President of the United States, who I didn't particularly care for, and after the whole incident with Watergate and what went on with Nixon and his activities, I sort of felt tied in. John Dean, Nixon's White House counsel, was also ... as I recall, a Georgetown graduate, so I felt like I was really tied in to this part of history.

Would you say that you think that college-aged students didn't agree with [President Nixon's reelection, in light of President Johnson's refusal to serve a second term]?

Nixon certainly didn't win because he was supported by college students. This country certainly backed in and to a great extent today is more conservative than it is liberal. You could go around to big cities and college campuses--or at least back then, and it would probably be the same now--and if you were just surrounded by those individuals you would think that this is a liberal country. But it's not--you get away from the cities, and you see that it's relatively conservative. So there were people supporting Nixon, those who felt that--don't forget, when he was first elected, that's when the withdrawal of troops began. It was under Johnson's reign that there was this tremendous buildup of troops in Vietnam. And so that's why ... he was not particularly popular. Even those that supported the war didn't feel that he had did enough to really win it, and I believe ... that there was a certain amount of resistance on his part to escalate any sort of bombing ... and that really took place during Nixon's term of office. Plus it's a matter of the candidates that were put up against Nixon. ... McGovern, as a peacenik, and closely aligned with college students, didn't really stand a chance. He only had so many college students that were able to vote, and again, given that the country was fairly conservative, he didn't really stand a chance.

What was your feeling about Watergate? How was [it] covered and how did that affect people? ... Recently Bill Clinton was impeached and it was this huge deal [that] remained in the news for a long time. [How did Watergate compare?]

It basically took over the news. Again, I was particularly sort of involved in it because of my closeness to it, not only in terms of proximity--I was down here in Washington--but in terms of personally knowing some of the people involved in it. But it was a lot more serious than the situation with Clinton--not that I condone Clinton's activities, but the two were not really comparable. You had Nixon involved in many instances, truly violating the law, in terms of being behind and associating with the break-in to the Democratic headquarters, to his involvement in the cover-up, and a whole host of activities that ... potentially undermine[d] the democratic process. Clinton, on the other hand, his escapades in office--while, from a moral point of view, people could be upset with it--[did not undermine] the fabric of democracy and what this country's all about. ... The closest that it came to was his being evasive with respect to answering certain questions during the course of his deposition and testimony. You've got to understand how that whole thing began, in terms of a very conservative element helping to sponsor and get Jones to come forward and press her case against Clinton. The two, as far as I'm concerned, though, don't stand on the same plane as far as rising to the level of satisfying what I believe [are] the requirements for impeachment of the President.

Did you read or ... remember seeing the original Woodward and Bernstein article in the Post?

That was--Deep Throat and the whole business there--the lead article [and] most of the articles about Nixon and what was going on at the time were written by those individuals. They were the key players [in Watergate].

Do you remember anything specifically about 1968, with the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as ... the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago and just ... general turmoil, as that was one of the biggest years in Vietnam as far as fighting?

In '68, I was just 17--I was basically getting ready to go off to college, and not too much older than you are. And I remember all of those things going on, and it was obviously a tumultuous time. I probably would have been affected more by what was going on if the same thing went on right now, given my age, as compared to being 17 years old and perhaps being somewhat distracted ... and more involved with what I was going through than what was going on around me. ... It was significant, with Robert Kennedy being shot--I remember John Kennedy being shot, and Martin Luther King, and with the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the buildup of the war there--there were a lot of things going on, almost to the point of overload. Any one of those things by itself would probably stand out, but having all those events taking place within a short span of time--each one being significant in and of itself--it was almost sort of like overload, it almost sort of numbed you. Nothing was significant, if you have so many big things happening within such a short time span. It's sort of like if you were to keep knocking your head against, the wall, after a while it stops hurting. And it's the same sort of thing. You basically become numb to what's going on, and again, at that age, you're not as sort of tuned in to these things as you would be as you get older. But it certainly makes for interesting reading and reflection back in history, but living through it is probably more significant to you reading about it than for me living through it.

In both 1968 and 1972, you weren't able to vote in either of those elections because ... the voting age was still 21 at that point. What was the feeling about that, because ... that was changed ... in response to the Vietnam war, [because of] people complaining that they were being sent to war without the right to vote. Was that a big thing; that people wanted the right to vote, 18- to 21-year-olds, [people that were] in college?

If you were old enough to drink (it was 18), you were old enough to drive, you were old enough to get drafted and get your head blown off, but yet not old enough to vote ... it didn't make a whole lot of sense; there were a whole lot of things that you could do at 18 and by law 18 is also the age of majority--18 or 21--it just didn't make much sense. And yeah, there was a lot of resentment that you didn't have a say to the extent that it made a difference. But at least you should have to opportunity to vote, and we didn't.

Do you have any other information about anything we talked about?

Well, there was another thought about what was going on in terms of [culture] ... There was a group of probably the more radical students--there [were] the Weathermen and the SDS--Students for a Democratic Society--they were, I guess, the socialist type; pretty much anti-establishment. And although I felt that I was liberal in comparison with a lot of the kids at the time, I probably was viewed as somewhat conservative, being an economics major, believing in capitalism, and these kids who were against that ... What troubled me was the hypocrisy, because it turned out that some of these individuals that were so radical and believed in socialism were in their own way the biggest capitalists that I knew. These were the guys who were busy selling drugs for a profit, making money, and buying expensive stereo systems, and that, to me, seemed a bit hypocritical, if they're condemning capitalist society yet doing just that. But then again, I guess that was sort of the nature of the beast. There wasn't really consistency, and there were a lot of emotions that took hold. I guess, to sum it up, it was obviously an interesting and historic period of time, obviously significant enough for you to spend time in school exploring the ins and outs of thereof. A lot of things happened in a short span of time that have had a fairly significant and long-lasting effect on this country. I'm just grateful that you all don't have to live through the same things that we did. I guess we were lucky that we didn't have to live through the same things that our parents lived through, and being involved in World War II and the Korean War, which in the end, it was obviously a lot more significant and ... hostile in terms of the loss of life than the Vietnamese War. Now we conduct our wars by push-button; we watch it on TV. We used to watch it on TV, but then we saw a lot of American soldiers getting killed.

Russell Bisker /
David Hechtman /
Leilei Ni /