John Castellucci: The Night SDS Burned Orest Ranum's Papers

Historians in the News

[John Castellucci, a former reporter at The Providence Journal, was a student of Orest Ranum.]

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....

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....

"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."...

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."...

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 IV. 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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