USF invited its most famous speaker to campus in 1984 — but some thought “infamous” was a more apt description. The Sun Dome prepared for an expected 10,000 guests, but many students and faculty members did not show much enthusiasm for Henry Kissinger or his politics.
Known as a conservative political adviser to several presidents, Kissinger served as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and then as secretary of state, a position he retained under Gerald Ford. He played a prominent role in Nixon’s controversial invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and supported a bloody Chilean coup in 1973 (anyone remember Pinochet?).
Reagan appointed Kissinger as an adviser on Central American affairs and served on the administration’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He made news in the early 1980s by recommending that the Reagan administration pump $8 trillion into Nicaragua’s “Contra” movement. The Contras resisted Nicaragua’s socialist Sandanista regime, in part by deploying death squads to destroy the nation’s schools and hospitals.
USF planned to pay Kissinger’s $20,000 fee out of student funds, the highest ever paid until that time.
A movement to boycott the lecture began. Protesters scheduled a series of events to criticize Kissinger, including lectures and discussions. Several faculty members involved in the protests planned a teach-in on the day of the event. Harry E. Vanden, a political science professor, said Kissinger “has sold himself for the destruction of human lives.” The opposition surprised USF officials, as there had been few protests against Kissinger elsewhere.
An outraged Tampa Tribune editorial condemned the protesters for being “close-minded.” The editorial called Kissinger a “master diplomat” and said “(The) simple-minded protest (is) aimed at denying his right of free speech and at protecting the area’s innocents from intellectual contamination. The protest, which will probably boost attendance measurably, is more than an ugly anachronism. The USF protesters show themselves to be oddly wanting in sophistication, tolerance, and courtesy. And, worst of all, in curiosity.”
A flurry of letters from pro and anti-Kissinger readers followed. Vanden defended the protests, writing, “Mention was never made of disrupting his speech nor of preventing any who wish to attend from doing so. (Kissinger’s policies) lead to increased antipathy to America and … a further erosion of morality and decency at home. No, we do not think Kissinger is worth the price. Neither the $20,000 nor the terrible cost in lives and suffering that his policies have caused.”
The protesters’ program began on March 12, the day before the lecture. As part of the “teach-in” planned to precede the event, Saul Landau, a senior fellow at the Institute For Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., denounced Kissinger’s brutal Central American policies. Students and faculty prepared to picket the Sun Dome.
A well-tanned Kissinger spoke to a small crowd at Eckerd College that day. At the end of the lecture, he announced that he would not speak at USF the next night. In order to avoid a discussion about his cancellation, he refused to phone USF officials. His agent called instead. It was the first time a lecturer had canceled the day before an event at USF.
Kissinger said there was no point speaking on a campus with so much “opposition.” While Kissinger did not object to criticism of his policies, he said he would not visit USF because of the “level” of the protests. He read several newspaper articles and a handbill protesting his appearance.
So America’s “master diplomat” packed his bags, headed back to Washington, and peace resumed on campus.
Want to share a memory or suggest an idea for a column? Send an e-mail to Andrew Huse at email@example.com or call 974-7622. Check out USF History again on Feb. 26.
Want to know more? Check out the Florida Studies Center’s Web site at www.lib.usf.edu/flasc or call Director Mark I. Greenberg at 974-4141.