Jeff Schnader: Revisiting Columbia’s Vietnam War Protests In A New Novel

The book I wrote, which has just been published, The Serpent Papers, is a historical novel about J-Bee, a Southern boy from a military family. He arrives at Columbia University in 1971 and is immediately thrust into its anti-war atmosphere, becoming ideologically trapped between supporting his best friend, who is fighting overseas in Vietnam, and the anti-war cauldron of culture and protest at Columbia. In this way, J-Bee straddles both sides of the Vietnam question, enabling The Serpent Papers to address the healing of this one young man as a paradigm for the healing his generation, my generation. In the book, as the moral quandary of the escalating Vietnam War comes to a head, ratcheting tensions and bullhorns incite students to protest, and pro-war and anti-war factions collide in campus riots, forcing J-Bee to make the decision that defines his life.

For the Vietnam War generation (the Baby Boomers), the Vietnam War is still the defining event of their lives; it created a generational rift between those who fought and supported the war on the one hand and those who protested against it on the other. The American political atmosphere was polarized in the extreme, much like it is today over different issues.

Yet the rift within the Vietnam War generation persists and is still as evident and intense today as it ever was. My Facebook author page is an example of the passions which still run high over Vietnam: the page features a posting with a photo of the Columbia student demonstrations of 1972, and it has reached over 245,000 people, has engaged 74,000 and has been liked and shared thousands of times. It has also stirred a debate with over 1300 comments for and against the Vietnam War, many of which are vitriolic, filled with enmity, aimed either at those who protested or at those who fought the Vietnam War, depending upon which side the commentor favors. This Facebook posting is a battlefield, and I have had to ban those with the most hateful comments while contributing to the most constructive points on both sides.

I have been haunted by the Vietnam War for fifty years. As a teenager, I marched and demonstrated against the war, especially against its escalation by then President Nixon. In 1972, he increased the draft of young men sent to fight, reinitiated the bombing of Hanoi after promising never to do that and widened the theatre of war into the officially non-combatant nations of Cambodia and Laos.

As an eighteen-year-old freshman college student at Columbia, I was present at the protest-turned-riot, fifty years ago on April 25th, in front of Hamilton Hall on Columbia’s campus. The university president called in the New York Tactical Patrol Force (the TPF, the riot police) to disperse a crowd of a thousand peaceable—but vociferous—protesting students on the grassy Van Am Quad. Hundreds of police, with jackboots, helmets and some with plastic battle shields, surrounded us on three sides, trapping us against buildings on the fourth side, and charged us down, swinging nightsticks and dragging some of us, bloodied, to the paddy wagons. It was a riot on campus, an event that was hushed up and played down in the New York press, but it was a day neither I nor my fellow protestors will ever forget.

Yet in spite of the fact that I actively protested the war, I have always felt that the boys my age, who fought the war, were patriots, and I was horrified and have been haunted for my entire life by the vilification of those boy-veterans by some of my fellow protestors. In those days, the entire nation watched live on television as teenagers fought in jungle fire-fights against the Vietcong. We watched as American boys killed and were killed themselves, shot to death and dragged away by their compatriots, limp-bodied, from the line of fire. It was heartbreaking.

Perhaps what haunted me the most was that some of those boys, who were sent 12,000 miles overseas to a strange land to sacrifice their lives, were—if they survived to return—spat upon by those who protested against the war. My feelings have always been that this war was a complex political problem and could not be simplified into black and white. Yes, I protested against the war, but there was a history behind this war which made it complex.

To be specific about the backdrop behind Vietnam, there had been World War II, in which America had fought monsters who were bent on world domination and genocide. World War II was an unquestionably righteous war (I hesitate to call it “good;” it is hard to call any war “good”), and Americans felt morally superior in their world position because of this righteousness. It was a pervasive feeling at the time; patriotism ran high.

Then came the Cold War in which there was an active competition between the US and the Soviet Union over global economic and political spheres of influence, one sphere of which was Southeast Asia. There was also a space race and a terrifying arms race, including a competition over the stockpiling and deadliness of nuclear arms. After the atomic bomb came the hydrogen bomb. This backdrop to the Vietnam War led to a game of high stakes brinksmanship in the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, an example of which was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in which President Kennedy threatened war with the Soviets, causing Soviet Chairman Khrushchev to back down. Americans spent millions of dollars—out of fear—on bomb shelters, none of which would have worked in the event of nuclear war. I remember descending a hundred steps into a bunker below my grade school, practicing drills in the event of nuclear war. We were all affected; it was terrifying.

In sum, a series of US presidents toed the line in the Cold War, and Southeast Asia was part of their agenda. When the French left in 1954 and North Vietnam chose communism, the Americans increased their presence in South Vietnam, beginning under Eisenhower and continuing with Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon. All four presidents, democrats and republicans alike, supported the Domino Theory, originally espoused by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. These were the underpinnings which mapped our involvement in Vietnam for close to 20 years. The Cold War fueled America’s Domino Theory philosophy in that region. In conclusion, there was both an overarching rationale and support from our elected leaders to fight in Vietnam, and the American people were generally supportive, especially early on.

However, by the time 1972 arrived, we had lost over 50,000 boys and were losing the war. Nixon had promised peace, and our perspectives changed. The nation now waited in expectation of this promised peace, but instead Nixon began escalating the war in order to win concessions from North Vietnam at the Paris Peace Talks. More boys were going to die. I realized that the war and its escalation were not the fault of the soldiers who were fighting the war, and so, as I protested, I was simultaneously haunted by a nation which would not uniformly honor its veterans.

I eventually became an ICU physician and a professor of medicine. My own path led me to serve the veterans in the US Veterans Hospital system for twenty-two years, giving back to veterans in the way I was able, saving lives. I was honored to serve them. And the passion that I have always felt about the Vietnam War, along with the painful rift that I have witnessed in my generation over this war, has driven me to write the novel, The Serpent Papers. In the book, I have set about to confront the complex issues surrounding the war and to make sense of how I, and many others, remember the stateside issues of the times.

In the end, I have discovered that my personality is one of peacemaker. In The Serpent Papers, I have written a story of one man’s struggle with the issues surrounding the Vietnam War, all on a backdrop of 1970s New York City, portraying the culture of the times: drugs, sexual revolution and murder. The book is my plea to America to find tolerance and peaceful coexistence over the divisive issue of Vietnam that, like so many problems causing division and intolerance today, still faces American society.


Jeff Schnader was at Columbia University in 1972 where he participated in sit-ins, marches and protests against the Vietnam War. He took part in marches and demonstrations, including a protest in front of Hamilton Hall where students were beaten by the New York Tactical Police in full battle regalia. Scenes in his novel are authentic because he was there. His short story, “The Champion,” won first prize in the 2020 Annual Quills Contest, and he was a short- listed finalist in the 2021 Blue Moon Novel Competition for his novel, The Serpent Papers. After graduating from Columbia with a BA in physics, he received his medical degree (MD, CM) from McGill University with further work at Johns Hopkins. He recently retired as full Professor of Medicine after authoring over 50 scientific publications and chairing & speaking at over 130 national medical conferences. He was a frequent guest on NPR’s “Sound Health” and has been awarded for teaching and for editing a medical journal. He worked full-time in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for 22 years, serving American war veterans, including those who served in The Vietnam War. See his author webpage; or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.  

Book cover photo: Columbia Daily Spectator/John Taylor Lewis and Andrew Farber. Photo above: Columbia Daily Spectator/Bob Friedman.