In December 1967, Ronald Reagan was in the middle of his first campaign for the presidency, hoping to prevent a first-ballot Nixon victory at the August 1968 GOP convention. He had been delivering campaign and Republican-party fundraising speeches in states critical to his campaign: Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Oregon. His speeches centered on individual freedom and bringing small-government solutions, which he’d been successfully implementing in Sacramento, to the nation’s capital come January 1969.
But early that month, Governor Reagan switched gears as he arrived from California for five days at Yale University as a visiting Chubb Fellow. He was entering “enemy” territory: a bastion of elite, East Coast liberalism. His visit had ignited a major campus controversy ever since Yale had extended the invitation, in the summer of 1967. Left-wing professors and students had created a swarm of outrage on campus, indignant that Yale had dared to invite a conservative, one who also was pushing policies to win the Vietnam War. Reagan critics wrote angry letters to the Yale Daily News. One professor claimed that by inviting Reagan, Yale was aiding in his presidential campaign. Petitions were circulated demanding that the school revoke Reagan’s invitation. Liberal intolerance to free speech was on full display.
When Governor Reagan and Nancy Reagan arrived, events took a turn for the worse. The Reagans were housed at Yale’s Timothy Dwight College, and the liberal host and hostess placed anti-Reagan newspapers and magazines all over the room in which the Reagans were staying. Nancy Reagan was made to feel so uncomfortable that she left Yale for a day and went to visit her alma mater in nearby Massachusetts, Smith College.
Reagan took it all in stride. He viewed the controversy as an opportunity to inject traditional American values into young minds. Reagan taught a number of classes during the week and met with several hundred students.
While playing billiards with a small group of students, Reagan discussed minorities, small government, and how to win in Vietnam. Reagan succeeded in opening the minds of some of them to other points of view: When the all-white male students in the billiards room complained to Reagan about how society was treating blacks, Reagan pointed out that in California, there was a different minority group, Americans of Mexican descent, that had far worse problems; he said that he was trying to help them. When the students wondered where Reagan was getting his Vietnam advice and why had he not sought out elite thinkers from the Ivy League, Reagan answered that he had been discussing the war — with leaders from Cal Tech, California’s aerospace and defense leaders, and Stanford. The students seemed shocked that there might be other points of view besides those originating from within liberal eastern academia.
The high point of Reagan’s weeklong visit was his final speech, at the Yale Political Union, where there was an overflow crowd. Reagan did not deliver his usual campaign and fundraising speech about bringing small government to Washington, D.C. Instead, he analyzed the entire controversy of his visit and the intolerance of the Left. Reagan addressed the issue head-on. He looked directly at the few professors in the audience and forcefully told them and all the students that their job was not to indoctrinate. Their job, and the mission of the university, was to expose their students to many different points of view and to let the students decide for themselves.
Reagan clearly saw that if conservatism were allowed the chance to compete freely in the arena of ideas, its major tenets of individual freedom and small government would almost always win. But if young minds were exposed only to leftist ideology, then conservatism wouldn’t have much chance. At the end of his speech, Ronald Reagan indeed had succeeded in changing minds: He received a standing ovation. Shortly thereafter, a new conservative magazine was launched on campus.
In 1968, at a number of universities across the nation while he campaigned, Reagan would deliver additional speeches on liberal academia’s intolerance of conservatism. But his Yale visit would reverberate in history. In later years, professors and alumni castigated those intolerant liberals who in 1967 had mistreated the Reagans and nearly derailed his visit. Indeed, a film of Reagan’s triumphant visit still is shown at Yale.
Ronald Reagan never lived to see the extreme liberal intolerance of the 21st century. Conservative Republicans and pro-Israel speakers are not permitted to speak on campus. Protests have become violent, sadly recalling the violent anti–Vietnam War protests of an earlier era. Clearly, what’s missing is a firm response by universities. Yale’s response in December 1967 should serve as a model. Yale did not bow to the pressures of the Left; it honored its invitation to Governor Reagan. Even a few liberal professors urged that Reagan be permitted to visit. A later 1974 report by history professor C. Vann Woodward reiterated that at Yale, free speech was paramount.
During that first campaign, Ronald Reagan looked ahead and urged American universities to stand up to liberal intolerance. Reagan’s vision of respect for free speech and for all points of view remains to be achieved here in the second decade of the 21st century.
— Gene Kopelson is a Reagan and Eisenhower historian and the author of Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman.