Recently, we heard a claim that Pete Seeger’s famous song “Bring Them Home” was inspired by the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), specifically when a mob of students at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) confronted and threw rotten eggs at CNVA members Marge Swann, Bob Swann, and 23 others in 1966. Seeger had already been acquainted with the CNVA for at least 6 years, having participated in the Polaris Action in New London, Connecticut in the summer of 1960. Seeger first started playing the song “Bring Them Home” in 1966, not long after the CNVA-UNH incident. In the song, Seeger argues that supporting the troops means demanding that they be brought back to their own communities that need them, not encouraging them to go kill people halfway across the world. The lyrics contain a few lines that strongly resemble CNVA antiwar concepts (“Show those generals their fallacy… / They don't have the right weaponry… / For defense, you need common sense… / They don't have the right armaments”). But what actually happened at UNH in 1966, and why might it have inspired Pete Seeger to write this popular song?
On April 21, 1966, twenty members of the New England and Boston chapters of the CNVA led by Marjorie Swann and Bob Swann attempted to hold a peace vigil for “the war dead of all participants in the Vietnam war” outside the Memorial Union Building at the University of New Hampshire. According to a 2012 post from UNH Today, when the CNVA members attempted to approach the building, they were met by a hostile mob of 2000 students. The CNVA members withstood eggs thrown at them for a while, but were eventually turned away by the mob.
This incident evidently caused a great spiritual examination within the faculty, staff, and students of UNH. Starting almost immediately after the incident, members of the UNH community grappled with the meaning of what had happened. They were still talking about it when famous folk musician Pete Seeger came to the university to play a concert a couple weeks later. When Seeger arrived, he found that a petition had been circulating the school since the day after the incident, demanding the administration denounce the acts of the student-mob and to invite the CNVA back. By the end, the petition had over 700 names attached to it. After learning about what happened, Seeger penned his name to it, too.
The UNH administration did invite the CNVA back for May 10, to which the activist group agreed. Before they arrived, however, the Durham Board of Selectmen banned all demonstrations by protesters who had previously been arrested for nontraffic-related incidents. This stipulation clearly targeted many CNVA members, several of whom had been arrested multiple times for nonviolent antiwar actions. In reaction to the arbitrary ban, several professors decided to lead the protest in the CNVA’s stead, marching ahead of about 120 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members and sympathizers, turning the demonstration into a protest both of the war in Vietnam and what the professors considered an unconstitutional restriction of freedom of speech.
Meanwhile, 23 members of the New England and Boston CNVA chapters marched separately from the rest of the demonstrators, in defiance of the ban against them. In the official CNVA statement about the targeted restriction, the organization asserted: “To say that no person can participate in this parade who has been convicted by a court for other than traffic violations would ban from the streets of Durham many of mankind’s finest leaders, among them Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Socrates, Voltaire, Robert Browning, Thoreau, Dostoyevsky, Gandhi, Nehru, Martin Luther King—and a veritable army of others.” The statement then went on to mention other cities in both “democractic” and “communist” countries that have variously permitted CNVA demonstrations. “On the other hand,” the statement continued, “CNVA demonstrations have been prevented in some cities. Noteworthy is East Berlin, under the Ulbricht government; and Albany, Georgia, a notorious hard-core segregationist city. Just a few weeks ago it happened in Saigon, under the leadership of Premier Ky, who has avowed himself an admirer of Hitler… It is the policy of opponents of liberty everywhere to deny the right to demonstrate.” Several of the CNVA members would subsequently get arrested for violating the ban, but the rest ultimately made it to the Memorial Union Building and successfully held an hour-long silent vigil there. The arrested CNVA members were released after 11 days and all charges dropped for lack of evidence.
Whether the CNVA-UNH egging incident really inspired Pete Seeger’s “Bring Them Home” or not, the story itself became a popular one told within many antiwar circles; the story has stuck in the minds of many older members of the antiwar movement to this day, as evidenced by the Seeger connection claim that was recently shared with us. The drama of the incident, which was the subject of many articles in The New Hampshire for weeks, did exactly what the CNVA wanted: to heighten the unjust contradictions in society and force people to reconsider the values that they had been conditioned to accept. “Success” for the antiwar activist may sometimes look like the opposite to the outsider, but the massive attention and targeted restrictions that the CNVA attracted all over, not least of all at the University of New Hampshire in 1966, demonstrated just how much of a threat to the status quo groups like the CNVA had come to be.
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Gregonis, Peter. “PEACE WALKERS JAILED, BEATEN.” Direct Action for a Nonviolent World, 15 May 1966, pp. 2-3.
Mayberry, David T. “Seven Pacifists To Be Arraigned For Parade Violations Tomorrow.” The New Hampshire, 12 May 1966, pp. 1-9. https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3040&context=tnh_archive
Salstrom, Paul. “CNVA’ers ARRESTED.” Direct Action for a Nonviolent World, 15 May 1966, pp. 1-2.
Swann, Marj. Prospectus For a History of New England CNVA (unpublished), pp. 124-143.
Vreeland, Peg. “Pacifists Invited Back to UNH.” The New Hampshire, 28 Apr. 1966, pp. 1–8. https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3038&context=tnh_archive
Woodward, Mylinda. “The Way We Were: In 1966 a Mob Tried to Stop a Peaceful Protest.” UNH Today, 12 April 2012 (accessed 16 June 2021). https://www.unh.edu/unhtoday/2012/04/way-we-were-1966-mob-tried-stop-peaceful-protest
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