In the late 1960s many Americans were rebelling against US troops being sent to Vietnam. But did you know the protests spread to Sussex? Edwin Gilson speaks to the protagonists 

IT WAS all over in a few seconds and a flash of red paint.

But one moment in Robert Beers’ ill-fated visit to the University Of Sussex in 1968 has gone down in folklore.

When the spokesman for the US embassy arrived at the university to give a talk entitled “Vietnam in depth”, he might have expected a little opposition.

Sussex had a reputation for being one of the more politically aware campuses in the UK, taking its lead from US establishments like Columbia and Berkeley whose students were passionately protesting against their country’s decision to go to war in Vietnam.

Mr Beers may have anticipated some heckling, perhaps, or a few slurs from left-leaning students from a distance.

But as he made his way out of Falmer House after the talk, he was confronted by an anarchist with other ideas. Sean Linehan, an English undergraduate, was waiting with his now-famous bucket of paint.

His friend Merfyn Jones made sure the door to the foyer was closed so that Mr Beers couldn’t get back in and Sean “did the deed”, as he calls it today.

Sean, Merfyn and Phil Bowyer made the journey to Sussex from their respective homes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the colourful protest act.

“I just felt very, very angry,” says Sean. “It wasn’t so much anti-American, it was anti-American government and its policy.”

According to Sean, Mr Beers told a number of lies in his speech, including denying that American soldiers were using a particularly destructive type of explosive, CDUs, in the Vietnam conflict.

It didn’t really matter what the spokesman said at the university, though – his very appearance was enough to stir the ire of Sean and his fellow student activists.

“To be honest, whatever Mr Beers was going to say, we were going to attack it anyway,” says Merfyn, who went on to become vice-chancellor at Bangor university.

The liquid thrown over Mr Beers was originally intended to be pig’s blood – symbolising the blood America supposedly had on its hands – but a problem obtaining it at the abattoir meant paint had to suffice.

“He was coming out of the building looking all pompous, being guided back to his limousine by his bodyguards,” remembers Sean. “Suddenly he saw the paint hanging in mid-air and I’ve never seen someone’s face change so quickly.

“He had a look of sheer terror and he was completely covered in the paint.”

Some of the paint landed on Merfyn’s beloved denim jacket, which he wears like a badge of honour today. A fleck of red can be seen on Merfyn’s shoulder in the picture above.

Understandably, some onlookers read the episode as an act of socialist revolt, but Merfyn says the group of anarchists to which he, Sean and Phil belonged was more disparate than that.

“There were a lot of Americans in the group, South Africans too – it was a curious movement and we were outside of the formal left,” says Merfyn. “We were more spontaneitists. We were in a very small minority that carried out direct action.”

The Sussex students had seen images of their US counterparts protesting on television – as well as the conflict unfolding in Vietnam – and felt unity with them.

“There were so many protests against it all here and all over the world,” says Merfyn. “We were angry and very serious about it. The war had extended to our campus. It was all part of a wider story.”

On the same day as the paint incident, Phil burned an American flag on campus, an act that would make it to the front page of The Daily Telegraph.

For his central role in the rebellion Sean was “rusticated from the university” – meaning he was banned from campus but still allowed to take his final exams.

Somehow, Merfyn’s role went under the radar. “I’m not quite sure how I got away with it – I still don’t understand it,” he says. “I think my career path would have been different if I’d been caught.”

For all three of the men, it is difficult not to be nostalgic about the swinging Sixties, a time of activism and artistic expression (Sean has another great anecdote about feeding “hash cookies” to Jimi Hendrix when he played a gig at the university).

“It’s hard to imagine now, but we thought we could change the world,” says Phil. “We thought we could make a difference.”

Sean has a mischievous glint in his eye as he adds to Phil’s point. “We thought the revolution was coming.”