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Thursday, July 10, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Cold War University is a riveting account of Madison's New Left
How the '60s happened


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Just when you thought Madison might finally be getting over the 1960s comes another volume on the subject. But before you dismiss Matthew Levin's Cold War University as something you've read before, take another look.

Levin, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches high school social studies, has written a thorough and refreshingly objective history of the left in Madison.

Levin traces the foundation of the 1960s New Left here back to the late 19th century. In 1894 economics professor Richard T. Ely was accused of supporting strikes and boycotts for fair wages and safe working conditions. At the time that kind of thing amounted to an "incendiary charge." State legislators called for his head. (Little has changed.)

But before Ely was exonerated the Board of Regents seized the opportunity to make a statement that has set the tone for freedom of speech at the UW ever since.

"Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found," the regents wrote.

That statement was not just chiseled into a plaque on Bascom Hall in 1910; it was implanted into the DNA of the UW for a century to come.

Levin's central theme is that by the 1960s the federal government had made heavy investments in universities, which they saw as keys to fighting the Cold War. The irony, he says, is that it was these same institutions that gave birth to a New Left movement that sought to bring down U.S. Cold War policies, if not the government itself.

The practical effect of the 1894 regents' statement was a tolerance of dissent even during the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. But by the 1960s intellectual arguments had turned to "direct action" like disruptions of speeches by policymakers, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, with whom the New Left disagreed.

This activity caused a rift between students and many faculty and administrators, who, while they sympathized with the cause, found the disruptions to be out of keeping with an open-minded university.

Things came to a head in October 1967, when 400 students packed into the Commerce Building to block Dow Chemical representatives, the makers of napalm, from interviewing students for jobs with the company. Even if you know the story of how the building was cleared by nightstick-wielding Madison police, Levin's account of the planning leading up to the event and the decisions made by administrators and protesters during the confrontation makes for riveting reading.

After Dow, events spiraled out of control, culminating in the tragic August 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall, which killed a Ph.D. student who was unaffiliated with the target, Army Math Research Center.

For what is a painstakingly researched and scholarly work, Levin's book is very accessible, even to those without a background in the era. While it ends with the Sterling Hall bombing, Levin's work will give Madisonians of any age insight into the struggles that still echo in our community.

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