The Sticking Place

The Night They Burned Ranum’s Papers

John Castellucci
Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14, 2010

At about 2:30 a.m. on May 22, 1968, as New York City police entered Hamilton Hall, on Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus, to clear it of demonstrators, files belonging to Orest A. Ranum, an associate professor of history, were ransacked, and papers documenting more than 10 years of research were burned. The fire came at the tail end of a month of protests that had roiled Columbia, paralyzing the university and provoking the biggest police bust ever undertaken on an American campus. Members of Students for a Democratic Society, which led the protests, denied responsibility for the arson, claiming that if anyone had set fire to Ranum’s papers, it was the police.

Now a key participant in the Columbia rebellion has made a startling confession. Mark Rudd, who was chairman of the SDS chapter during the disturbances, acknowledges that a fellow radical, John “J.J.” Jacobs, set the fire in Hamilton Hall, and that he, Rudd, went along with the plan. The confession, a depressing postscript to the 1960s, solves a four-decade-long mystery. It offers a grim testament to just how mean things got at Columbia, and a sobering reminder that not all student radicals were starry-eyed idealists. In more than a couple of cases, they were power-hungry extremists jostling for control of the student-protest movement. And Ranum had the audacity to get in their way.

“I was in the center, and the people in the center were the people who got clobbered,” Ranum said over the telephone this summer from Villefranche-de-Panat, the hilltop village in south-central France where he and his wife, Patricia, have restored a 16th-century house.

The papers were irreplaceable. They dated back to Ranum’s time as a student at the University of Minnesota, where he got his Ph.D. in history. The notes were going to lay the basis for a textbook on early modern European history that he had been commissioned to write for a series edited by the British historian Sir John Plumb.

After the papers were burned, Ranum withdrew from the book project and returned the small advance he had received from the publisher. He left Columbia for the Johns Hopkins University, where, now 76, he is an emeritus professor of history and one of the country’s best-known experts on 17th-century France.

Ranum had been at Columbia for only six years when the rebellion broke out. Just 35 years old at the time, an earnest man with a keen sense of collegiality, he appeared poised for a bright future there. Paris in the Age of Absolutism, his social and political history of France in the 17th century, had just been published. He had been granted tenure and led the Contemporary Civilization program, a rotating assignment that put him in charge of the courses that all Columbia College students take during their freshman year.

Ranum was curious about the protesters and initially sympathetic. He supported their demand that Columbia cut its ties to the Institute for Defense Analyses because the think tank was involved in Vietnam War research. He also shared the protesters’ opposition to the university’s plan to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, in Harlem, a plan widely regarded as racially insensitive.

But Ranum strongly believed that scholars should be able to teach and pursue research free of harassment by political activists. He made it clear to the leaders of SDS that, while he shared their goals, he didn’t support their tactics, which had become so disruptive that university officials had moved to discipline six students for violating a ban on indoor demonstrations. Rudd, a 20-year-old college junior from Maplewood, N.J., was among the six activists, who had been placed on probation and were facing suspension for refusing to discuss their participation in the demonstration that had violated the ban.

On April 23, 1968, Rudd led a noontime rally to protest the planned punishment. At first the protest faltered. To many observers, it seemed that the SDS leaders were making a self-serving pitch for support. But then members of the Student Afro-American Society, the main black student organization on the campus, joined the protest. Their takeover of Hamilton Hall, which housed classrooms and faculty and administrative offices, lent the demonstration an air of legitimacy. Within 72 hours, 1,100 students had poured into five campus buildings, and Columbia’s SDS chapter had the numbers it needed to bring the university’s business to a halt.

Like other faculty members, Ranum scrambled to stop the sit-ins. Unlike any of them, he did so in full academic regalia, climbing through the window of President Grayson Kirk’s office, in Low Memorial Library, wearing, as usual, a flowing black gown.

“I did that as dramatically as I could,” Ranum said. “I was in fine shape, and I was interested in the demonstrators as a political historian. To me the world is a laboratory to understand the past.” Once inside Low, he concluded that Rudd, although a strong leader and a superb tactician, had only a limited grasp of issues, including the issue of whether it was legitimate to use violence to advance the radical cause.

“I explained that they should get out of there, that the possibility for their punishment would go up the longer they stayed, and, if they did get out now, this might be treated more as a prank than as a political act,” Ranum told the university’s oral-history project about a month later. “I held over their heads, as dramatically and forcefully as I could, the possibility of a counterrevolution at Columbia, and I said that the United States is a fundamentally liberal society but with politically conservative, authoritarian elements, and that, rather than accept a radicalized university, the society would snuff out the university—and that I for one would prefer the existing state to the totalitarian state which a counterrevolution would bring about.”

Neither argument had any effect on the protesters, who believed that the people of Harlem were going to rise up and join the demonstration, turning a campus rebellion into a biracial revolt. To Ranum, that was fanciful thinking. The radicals, most of them upper-middle-class white kids, spoke a language most Harlem residents would find incomprehensible: the language of Marxism. They regarded the university as the “soft underbelly” of capitalism and believed shutting it down would provoke change. “They did not want to come out, I believe, except by the police,” Ranum told the oral-history project. “They needed the issue of the police. They needed the issue of police brutality, further to radicalize the campus.”

David B. Truman, the popular, energetic dean whom Kirk put in charge of handling the crisis, had come to the same conclusion. “Calling the police would have given the SDS the confrontation that for months and longer they had been seeking. It would also have activated the strong faculty aversion to having the police on campus,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs. When the police were finally called in, a week after the building occupations began, things went as disastrously as Truman had expected. More than 700 people were arrested, and nearly 150 were injured in the violence that accompanied the raid.

The raid produced an angry backlash against the university and generated enormous sympathy for the protesters. Rudd and the SDS chapter were propelled to national prominence, making them de facto leaders of the New Left. But the student members still faced suspension or expulsion for their role in the rebellion, and they had it in for Ranum, who, after meeting with them in Low Library, had put out a mimeographed statement saying that the only alternative to police action would be for the students occupying the buildings to seize control of the demonstration from SDS.

On May 21, there were renewed protests, set off by the university’s decision to suspend Rudd and three other SDS leaders. As police entered Hamilton Hall for the second time in a month to clear it of demonstrators, Jacobs took Rudd aside. “I want to set a fire upstairs. These [expletive] have got to fall,” Rudd says Jacobs told him. “OK, go ahead,” Rudd says he replied. Jacobs went to Ranum’s office, on the sixth floor, removed piles of personal papers from the professor’s file cabinets, and set them on fire.

“It was a real mess,” Ranum said, describing the scene in his office the next day. “The file drawers were all torn open, there were files all over the place and furniture turned upside down.” The papers had been taken to a nearby lecture hall, where they had been crumpled up, spread on 15 to 20 desktops, and burned. “I was very subdued. I wasn’t really angry. I’m not a person who gets angry easily. I don’t even think I was profoundly hurt.”

But he does acknowledge that he was upset. Ranum hadn’t believed it when the radicals had threatened to burn down the university. He couldn’t understand at first why they had singled him out. “Why me?” he recalls asking himself. Then he remembered the mimeographed statement: “That was the most public thing I did.”

The fire should have turned public opinion against the protesters, but some liberals were so awed by the radicals, and guilt-ridden about their own inaction, that they went into denial. The literary critic Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New York Review of Books, said that while he found the arson “base and disgusting,” he doubted that SDS was responsible. He went on raising money for the organization, from which, within a year and a half, the violent Weathermen faction would emerge. On March 6, 1970, three members of that group, making bombs in a town house in Greenwich Village, accidentally blew themselves up.

Ranum was touched when experts working on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to try to restore his papers, but he declined the offer. “I just felt my stuff wasn’t important enough,” he said.

In the months that followed the fire, Ranum felt increasingly ill at ease at Columbia. The atmosphere had changed. One professor stopped asking Ph.D. candidates questions during dissertation defenses; he didn’t feel he had the moral authority. Other faculty members stopped speaking to Ranum, furious at him for opposing their call for Kirk’s resignation and for supporting the decision to empty the buildings by force. “You did it. You brought the police!” Ranum recalled two instructors screaming at him as police officers led away students arrested in the raid. “I never had any problem forgiving the students,” he said, “because they were young and full of vinegar. But some of my colleagues were really outrageous. And some of those relationships could never be repaired.” In March 1969, Ranum announced that he had accepted a better-paying position at Johns Hopkins.

SDS has always denied responsibility for burning Ranum’s papers. For more than 38 years, Rudd didn’t correct the record. Then, suddenly, he confessed, saying that only he and Jacobs — who died of skin cancer 12 years ago — knew who burned Ranum’s papers, and that both had kept it a secret from the rest of SDS. In a 2006 speech at Drew University, Rudd issued a lengthy apologia, not only acknowledging complicity in the arson but also taking the blame for the strategy that he believes destroyed the New Left.

“As I make this disclosure to you, I find it quite shocking, as I’m sure you do. Setting a fire in an occupied building is a very ugly deed. Continuing to hide this crime, for it is that, serves no end other than obscuring the complicated fact that the roots of Weathermen ran all the way back to Columbia. At Columbia we felt ourselves at war, and once war is declared, the limit on tactics and weapons gets blurred very quickly. So does the definition of participatory democracy, on which SDS prided itself, since it was J.J. and I who made this decision alone, without democratic consultation of any sort.”

Rudd’s speech went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until his memoir, Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen, was published last year by HarperCollins that it became widely known that Rudd had given Jacobs the OK to set the fire.

“I didn’t know that he was going to target Professor Ranum, but I suspect that he knew exactly whose office he was breaking into,” Rudd writes. “J.J. hated hypocritical liberals, and the professor, who had tried to stop the original occupation of Low by saying he was sympathetic to our ends but not our means, had become an opponent of the strike.”

In an e-mail message, Rudd expressed remorse for the fire as well as for the Greenwich Village explosion, connecting both to the strategy of “armed struggle” that arose during the Columbia rebellion. It was partly because he wanted to repudiate that strategy, and partly because he felt guilty, he said, that he admitted complicity in the fire.

“I have never, alas, apologized directly to Prof. Ranum or to the families of the three people killed at the town house. I did not want to reraise painful memories for those individuals, especially because to do so would be mostly self-serving,” he said.

Ranum has been a prolific scholar since he left Columbia, producing numerous works on 17th-century French history, including The Fronde: a French Revolution, 1648-1652 (W.W. Norton, 1993), an account of the instability, violence, and war that swept France before the reign of Louis XIV. But the textbook on early modern European history that he had been commissioned to produce was never written. It went up in flames on the night the notes he had accumulated since graduate school were set on fire.

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© John Castellucci/Chronicle of Higher Education
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