The war had always been there, since their freshman year, waiting for them outside Cambridge. How they would deal with it was a decision that seemed a long way off for most of the young men, though reality occasionally intruded into their sheltered lives.

They had been at Harvard less than a year when Denmark Groover III dropped out in April 1966 and joined the Army and went off to Vietnam. Some of Denny's classmates called him "a fool," Al Gore wrote in a letter to his girlfriend, Tipper Aitcheson. "They're running him down all the time. They just can't understand." Gore was against the war, but he also considered himself a southerner, like the Georgian Groover, and he thought he understood. "I admire him a great deal," he confided. "I admire his courage and rashness. I'm not sure at all that he didn't do the right thing."

The next year at Dunster House there were more acts of rashness and courage, and the stakes seemed higher. Carl Thorne-Thomsen from Illinois withdrew from school in April 1967 and enlisted in the Army. Five months later he was in Vietnam, pulling duty as a radioman. One morning that October, while the Harvard boys ate breakfast in their wood-paneled dining hall, the news swept through the room like a shock wave: Carl was dead, killed in an ambush near the Cambodian border.

That same autumn, Robert Shetterly Jr., who had sat next to Gore as a bench warmer on Harvard's freshman basketball team, became Dunster House's first resister. He went down to a rally at Yale, dropped his draft card into a box and had it sent back to his draft board in Cincinnati. He was immediately reclassified 1-A delinquent and called to a preinduction center in Boston, where he refused to sign a loyalty oath and was grilled by Army intelligence officers who told him that he was acting out of shallow romantic ideals and hurting his country and his parents.

Two FBI agents later appeared at H Entry on Dunster's third floor and interviewed Shetterly. "They seemed to think I was a dupe of some larger conspiracy and kept asking me who put me up to it," he recalled. "I kept trying to say it was a personal decision."

Year by year the war closed in on them, and now in their final senior semester, it sometimes seemed as if it was the only thing. The counterculture was in full bloom in the spring of 1969, dope abundant, long hair and beards, exclusive clubs on the decline, the New Left teeming with factions and contentiousness, women sleeping in men's houses, officials halfheartedly struggling to maintain some measure of decorum, students wearing flannel shirts and jeans to dinner, or ties and undershorts, or ties made of toilet paper, anything to challenge authority. But most of it, in the end, came back to the war and the decision that awaited them, the beginning and end of every conversation.

"This is what we were talking about. This is what everyone was talking about," Tipper Gore recalled decades later of that time when she was a psychology major at Boston University and her boyfriend was about to graduate from Harvard and they and their friends were consumed by passion and fear. "It was on everyone's mind. I try to explain it to my children, but it is hard to understand now because the times were so different. The feelings, the climate, the intensity, the consequences, what was happening, what our country was standing for or not standing for. How you felt about that. Bumper stickers: America Love It or Leave It. Neighbors not talking to neighbors. It was a very intense, very hate-filled and idealistic time."

Few places were more intense than Dunster House, where Gore lived that final year in the A Entry wing with his pals Mike Kapetan and J.G. Landau, down the hall from their friends Tommy Lee Jones and Bart Day and Bob Somerby. Only a few years earlier, Dunster was known for its poker games and motorcycles. Now it housed many of Harvard's leading young radicals, and debates over the war and the draft, and over the university's relationship with the military and "the system," raged from the breakfast table in the morning to the basement lounge at night. Left against left, left against center, center against right, the arguments were incessant, said John Tyson, Gore's roommate from the year before, who by now had an Afro and a beard and a bum-knee limp, the former star defensive back having denounced football as a gladiator sport for rich white alumni.

It was not uncommon at Dunster to hear Robert Shetterly, hoopster-turned- draft resister, getting into a fierce argument about antiwar protest tactics with Jamie Kilbreth, old boy conservative-turned-radical firebrand, leader of the Maoist faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Or to hear another leftist, Richard Hyland, comparing young Dunster House history tutor Doris Kearns to a war criminal, turned off by the fact that she had once worked for LBJ, dismissing of her outspoken opposition to the war as being "too respectable." The New Left was by no means a majority at Dunster, but its adherents dominated the debate, overpowering some classmates, challenging them all. "In the system or not--what are you going to do? That was the first question," Tyson recalled.

"It was complicated for everybody. We were all idealists," Mike Kapetan said later, speaking in the plural of Gore and his friends, the self-described motley crew. "I did not like SDS. I would go to meetings and I didn't like the rhetoric." Gore stayed away from those meetings but had a few heated discussions in the dining hall with Kilbreth, a classmate he had been debating from both sides of the ideological spectrum since they sat together in Marty Peretz's freshman seminar, when Kilbreth was the token conservative. "I'm just frustrated talking to this guy!" Gore now lamented one afternoon after hearing his classmate ridicule the system as a fraud and belittle the university and Congress as puppets of the capitalist elite. The democratic system still worked, Gore insisted, it had just been contorted by the war. As his government tutor Richard Neustadt described him, with a measure of sarcasm, Gore was then the essence of the "wimpy moderate."

Some of Gore's friends believed that the radicals tried to engage him in hopes that recruiting a senator's son would enhance their cause. Kilbreth said that notion never crossed his mind. "Recruiting anybody was useful, but I don't think any of us at the time thought Gore was that interesting. We were much more interested in the people who were activists and intellectuals, and Gore was none of those."

Taking University Hall

The war story played out on two levels at Harvard that spring. One was deeply personal: what each man would do when the time came to face the military draft. Among the motley crew, Kapetan figured he would flunk the physical for being too tall. He was 6-foot-10. Day and Somerby had no idea what they were going to do. Day was thinking about the Peace Corps, Somerby about teaching in the inner city. Tommy Lee Jones, John Tyson and J.G. Landau had sports injuries that might get them out. None of them seemed worried about how their decision would be viewed by strangers, or how it would be regarded sometime in the future. Only Al Gore was burdened with those concerns. And he was the only one who talked about enlisting.

The other question was how they should express themselves until the moment of decision arrived. Some buried their anxiety in books, sex, drugs. For other students, much of their frustration and anger was being directed at the closest target, the Harvard administration, and especially at its most obvious connection to the military, the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The hostility toward the ROTC had already forced its instructors to move their weekly drills, held every Monday at 4 p.m. sharp, from an outdoor field to a large room inside its headquarters on Francis Avenue several blocks north of Harvard Yard. But in February and March, the mood on campus grew more hostile and demands more strident. When the faculty voted to diminish the ROTC by removing its academic credit, even that decision was decried as too little too late, a token gesture that did little to absolve the university's complicity in the war.

During spring break it became an open secret along the student grapevine that some SDS leaders were pushing for bold action against the school, comparable to what their Ivy League counterparts at Columbia had done a year earlier when they had seized an administration building. After the break, something would happen. Neustadt heard it from his son, who was also in the senior class and worked at the campus radio station. Richard Hyland and a few other Dunster radicals issued a warning to Marty Peretz. Do you realize, they said, that this university is about to blow?

Peretz stood in the middle, or what he described as "no man's land." He had once served as a mentor to many of these angry young men, a behind-the-scenes sponsor of the early SDS. But they had moved the other way while he was turning rightward, a process that began for him with the Six-Day War in 1967, when he had been disturbed by the level of anti-Israeli sentiment on the left. After the McCarthy campaign in 1968, he had continued in the antiwar movement through the fall of 1968, helping to organize the October moratorium rally in Boston. But that was his last. The next big antiwar rally in November, known as the Mobilization, or Mobe, had a more confrontational edge and was too much for him. "I've done my bit," he said to himself, according to his later recollection. "Let someone else end the war."

Now, in the spring of 1969, Peretz was alarmed to see his students turning on the very institution that he thought had lit the political and intellectual spark in so many of them. "I felt how strange it was that universities had become the anointed enemies," he said. Where once he had loved nothing more than to spend hours engaging radical students in debate, enthralled by their facile young minds, he now found their rhetoric tiresome. They, in turn, rejected him as all talk and no action, a dilettante more interested in maintaining his stature at the university than in changing the world. He now felt more comfortable dealing with moderate students like Al Gore. While Gore had not been one of his closest disciples, their friendship deepened that spring, and Gore's suitemates noticed the bearded teacher coming around more often, looking for the senator's son, who shared his discomfort with "this highly fraught radical culture."

At the lunch hour of April 9, Gore came down the hallway toward his suite and announced to his roommates Kapetan and Landau that the inevitable had happened. Some of the SDSers had seized University Hall and were now surrounded by police, who had closed off the Yard.

"We all walked over," Kapetan recalled, "Al and J.G. and I. There was electricity in the air. Dunster was about 10 blocks away, so walking up there, every person we met had a different rumor to report."

The takeover had been carried out by the most confrontational wing of SDS, a group of about 50 students at first, including Kilbreth and several Dunster radicals, who marched in, searched the building room by room for administrators and kicked them out. "It was totally amateur hour," Kilbreth recalled decades later. "A bunch of kids in there who didn't know where anything was, wandering around saying, 'Get out of here now! We're taking over the building!' " A few deans resisted, and there was some unfortunate pushing and jostling down the stairs as they were forcibly removed. Over the next hour, more students joined the protest, so that by the time Gore and his friends arrived, hundreds were inside and even more were out on the Yard, milling around, talking, arguing, wondering what would happen next.

As Gore and his pals observed the scene, Kapetan realized that he knew one of the police officers outside, an old Irish cop he had met four years earlier when he worked on a freshman dorm cleaning crew. Now the officer looked saddened by this "unthinkable" turn of events, Kapetan thought. Would he end up struggling with some of the students he had once known? The concern was not really with these campus police, who were familiar to the students, but there were rumblings that a larger squadron of state police was on the way.

Gore agreed with Peretz that the protesters had picked the wrong target. The university was a "convenient" scapegoat, he said, but not the source of the problem. He had sympathy for the cause, "but not the tactics." He soon grew tired of the scene, told his roommates that he had an appointment and headed back to Dunster House before nightfall. Kapetan and Landau decided to stay with a group of sympathizers who would spend the night on the steps of each entrance to University Hall, hoping to serve as a protective buffer between police and the occupying students. The mood alternated between tension and giddiness. At one point Robert Edgar, a suitemate of Jamie Kilbreth at Dunster, but more theatrical than political, stopped by with members of his finals club. They were carrying a case of champagne, which they wanted to deliver inside.

Dunster men were everywhere inside University Hall. Kilbreth had been there from the beginning. Robert Shetterly joined in, believing "it was important to take this kind of step because the university was refusing to take any positions." But he was a peaceful resister and did not participate in the ouster of the deans. Terrence McNally came along later and met up with a group of the house's underclassmen, led by Michael Kazin. Richard Hyland entered the building at midday and was asked to chair a strategy session because he was not aligned with any of the three contending factions inside.

Busloads of police reinforcements arrived in the middle of the night, a large contingent of Cambridge cops and state troopers. Student runners were sent off to the houses to pull fire alarms and spread the word: The cops were ready to move in. There was to be no negotiating. At a silent signal, the police marched forward to clear the building, their boots clicking in the darkness as they strode toward the students on the stairs, who were singing, "We shall not be moved."

As Kapetan confessed later, "never was a more inappropriate song ever sung--because we moved. We broke before them like water before the plow of an icebreaker. We scattered from those steps and that was that."

The Cops Are Coming

Many of the people inside had been asleep. Organizers moved through the drowsy crowd: Get up, the cops are coming! The two main doors were chained shut. There was a debate over what to do: flee or resist, and if resist, how? They gathered in two main halls on the first floor, which was up the stairs and about twelve feet above the ground. It was "eerie to the point of being surreal. And frightening," said Shetterly. "Just at dawn. A kind of steely blue color in the air. Everybody packed against each other in a solid block, all linked arms, ready for the charge."

Student photographers were inside the building, and one took a picture of a row of students, arm-in-arm, the instant before the confrontation. Terrence McNally looked at that picture decades later and saw himself "dead center in the photo with long hair tied back and scared witless." The police "came with battering rams to the door on my side, but they couldn't get the chains to break, so they went to the other door," McNally recalled. "I will never forget turning and looking at them as they came in. I expected it to be 'Okay, that's it, kids, march out.' They didn't say anything. They opened the doors and started swinging. Billy clubs on head. You could hear it."

McNally escaped by jumping out a window. Kilbreth and Hyland were clubbed and arrested, among 250 students hauled off in paddy wagons. The riot spilled into the Yard, where hundreds more students had gathered to watch the debacle. Mike Kapetan saw a policeman clubbing a young woman on the sidewalk and responded instinctively.

"I grabbed the gentleman and threw him to the ground," Gore's lanky roommate said. "The next thing I remember is being clubbed like a watermelon on both sides of my head. I remember falling, not hitting the ground. A couple of guys I knew were carrying me by the arms, dragging me out of the way. I was dazed and smiling. And a young woman emerged from the darkness and slapped me across the face and said this is not funny. She thought I was not taking things in the proper spirit. The guys who were helping me explained and she apologized profusely. J.G. Landau found me--we had been split up--and he had some experience with being knocked woozy in athletics, so he asked me, 'How many fingers? What day of the week is it?' "

An Uncertain End

That chaotic morning of April 10 for all practical purposes ended the Harvard school days of Al Gore and the seniors in the class of 1969. If the tactics of the SDS turned off many students, the response of the university and the brute force of the Cambridge police disturbed them more. "I had been living in a wonderful fool's paradise," said Robert Edgar of Dunster House, reflecting a commonly held view. "It was suddenly shattered by Mr. Pusey's decision to invade," he added, referring to Harvard President Nathan Pusey. "It was very disheartening."

The cause became at once more urgent and diffuse. The students did what came naturally to them during that era. They called a strike. There were meetings day and night, teach-ins, alternative classes. The campus was flooded with banners, broadsides, posters, buttons, armbands. At the student production of "Mother Courage," members of the cast wore different colored armbands representing various new non-negotiable demands. The Harvard Crimson put out a strike paper with articles on strike literature, strike music, strike rhetoric, strike graphics, even strike games (a column written by future New York Timesman Frank Rich detailed three types of games: political, escapist and liberation).

Joe McGrath sat in the balcony at Memorial Hall that afternoon and listened to speaker after speaker rail against the military and the ROTC. McGrath was an ROTC student, wearing his green uniform, and after an hour of denunciations he rose and asked to speak, but his request was muffled in a chorus of boos and hisses. He got up to leave, and looked over at the government professor, Richard Neustadt, sitting nearby. Neustadt shook his head, McGrath recalled, and said, "This is a sad day for the university." McGrath was not the only one drummed into silence. Marty Peretz, rising to address a gathering of protesters at Memorial Church, got no further than a collegial "Brothers and sisters . . ." when he was hooted down by students who no longer considered him a brother.

The exhilaration of a common purpose began to fade after a few days, but not before one last mass meeting, a campuswide plebiscite at the stadium that filled the seats from the end zone out to the 30-yard line with undergrads, law students, medical students in their white jackets and some faculty members. Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones and Mike Kapetan and the whole motley crew walked over to the stadium together. Jones was the most conservative of the friends, but even he was distraught by the university's police action. Gore also thought both sides had acted foolishly. He said it was another episode that deepened his disillusionment with the political process.

The mass gathering at the stadium seemed more encouraging to them than anything that preceded it. Kapetan was struck by a "kind of reasonableness about it--10,000 people sitting in one place conducting business." Neustadt, who observed the gathering from a perch high atop the stadium, noticed that rather than strident radical voices, "the wimpy moderates had pretty firm control by then."

It was within that turbulent environment that Al Gore struggled with the most difficult questions of his young life. What should he do about his military obligations after graduation? Should he enlist? Should he wait to get drafted? Should he try to avoid service altogether through a medical deferment? Should he apply for an ROTC graduate program or Officer Candidate School?

One day that spring, as he was walking along a side street between Dunster and Leverett houses, Gore came across Phil Rosenbaum, another senior. Their lives had followed the same academic path since childhood, first St. Albans and then Harvard, though they had never been close friends. Rosenbaum spent his college years seeking new experiences outside the certitudes of his prep school days, and while he felt no hostility toward Gore, he had always thought of him as too preppy and predictable. But now, in this chance encounter, Rosenbaum suddenly felt a deep kinship with Gore, who for once seemed as uncertain about life as he was.

Rosenbaum said he had not decided what to do about the draft, and Gore seemed equally unsure. "It was interesting to me that he was at loose ends, too," Rosenbaum recalled. That "was different for Al. He wasn't usually like that. . . . I did feel that kinship which I don't remember any other time. He made it clear that he didn't know what he was going to do. There was a quality of bewilderment."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Takeover: Students who occupied Harvard's administration building clashed with police.

CAPTION: Violence: Baton-swinging police ended the takeover of University Hall by students, many of Al Gore's friends among them. Gore witnessed it all from a distance, frustrated by the growing polarization of the campus.