Today is the second day of the 2012 National Student Congress of the United States Student Association. In this excerpt from my dissertation I describe the 1966 Congress of USSA’s predecessor the United States National Student Association, a meeting that took place in a watershed moment in American student history.
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NSA’s health improved substantially in 1965-66 — attendance at the 1965 Congress had been among the lowest in NSA history, but in 1966 it rose above 250 schools. In the wake of Berkeley and the Vietnam escalation, student activism acquired a cultural resonance that it had not previously possessed. As protest became more pervasive — and as it became a mass-media phenomenon — the task of political organizers changed. At the very moment when campus activists had given up on organizing student governments, they discovered that student governments were beginning to organize themselves.
After Berkeley, an activist self-presentation was increasingly an electoral advantage for a student government candidate, whether that candidate was backed by an organized campaign or not. Across the country, activists were swept into office almost inadvertently by student bodies whose attitudes toward political organizing were undergoing a dramatic and rapid transformation.
In the summer of 1966 the new president of the Stanford student government, David Harris, was one such activist. A leader in campus protests, he had been approached by a leader of the small activist faction in the campus student legislature, and asked to run as a protest candidate for student government president. He would lose, he was told, but in running he would have a platform from which to publicize an activist agenda.
In a field of seven candidates that year, Harris stood out. Fraternities had long dominated the Stanford student government, and while Harris strolled the campus in jeans and what the campus newspaper called a “beatnik-style” haircut, the others campaigned in suits and ties. He ran on a platform that he described later as elimination of the Board of Trustees, student control of student regulations, equal policies for men and women, the option to take classes on a pass-or-fail basis, legalization of marijuana, and the end of all university co-operation with the conduct of the War in Vietnam, and he was a sensation. He led the field in the first round of voting, and a week later beat a fraternity candidate in the runoff, an election that saw the highest turnout in Stanford history. At the NSA Congress that summer he emerged as one of the strongest radical voices in the Association, and soon he would be a movement celebrity — co-founder of the draft-resistance group The Resistance, subject of an Esquire feature on “The New Student President,” and husband of folksinger Joan Baez, whom he met while both were jailed for their participation in a draft protest.
In a 1965 article in the Congress News, Hendrik Hertzberg had described that Congress as “in some indefinable way hipper, more aware that life does not begin and end with resolutions and caucuses, than the one that preceded it.” For all the upheavals of the previous year, though, the 1965 Congress had been a meeting whose most significant speech had been given by Hubert Humphrey, one which had closed with a mass singing of “We Shall Overcome” and the national anthem. The 1965 Congress was certainly hipper than 1964’s, but “hipper” is not the same as “hip.”
The 1966 Congress, at the University of Illinois, would require less equivocation. That year Allen Ginsberg appeared on a panel on drug policy reform, and stayed to give a poetry reading afterwards. (“Language, language … you pour it forth like napalm,” he intoned, in an apparent reference to the plenary.) One delegate put forward a resolution advocating the legalization of homosexuality, and another introduced a proposal to remove the word “God” from the NSA constitution. Longtime Conservative Caucus stalwart Danny Boggs put forward a libertarian argument for the regulation of LSD on the same basis as alcohol, and the plenary itself endorsed the repeal of the nation’s marijuana possession laws.
The center of gravity of the Congress was shifting rapidly. In 1966 each of the political caucuses at the Congress repositioned itself to the left — the Conservative Caucus renamed itself the Moderate Caucus, the Radical Middle Caucus renamed itself the Progressive Caucus, and the Liberal Caucus faced a schism between its liberals and its radicals.
The Liberal Caucus had been formed as an oppositional force, but it now stood at the Association’s heart. In 1966 the caucus didn’t merely debate the merits of pending legislation, it drafted and voted on resolutions of its own, and possessed the delegate strength to bring its proposals to the floor outside of the Congress’s formal legislative process. On Vietnam and the draft its majority position was by now essentially that of the Congress as a whole. This convergence of identity between the caucus and the larger delegate pool left the Congress’s most radical delegates with little incentive to continue to subsume their identity into that of the caucus — as the caucus mainstream gained power in the national office and influence with other delegates, it fell to the radical faction to take up the oppositional role that the caucus itself had previously played.
The radicals proposed their own Vietnam resolution in 1966, one that described the war as an attempt to advance “the American empire … in a calculated barbaric fashion.” The caucus balked — both at the analysis and at the way in which it was expressed — but the plenary majority went much farther in their own resolution than they had at any previous Congress. They declared, by a vote of 181-83 with only ten abstentions, that the United States had ignored the “legitimate aspirations for social revolution” of the Vietnamese people, and that the escalation of the conflict had alienated the Vietnamese, made the establishment of democracy there “virtually impossible,” and brought the world closer to nuclear war. They called for an immediate halt to American bombing and other offensive operations, and for the opening of multilateral negotiations.
On the draft as well as on Vietnam, attitudes were evolving. There was broad opposition among the delegates to the draft as it stood but disagreement about whether to call for immediate abolition or a gradual phase-out, whether to concede the government’s authority to institute a draft under any circumstances, and whether to propose the expansion of conscientious objector status and alternative service as interim reforms while the draft still existed.
The question of tactics divided the liberals from the radicals as much as that of goals, and on the question of tactics an NSA alumnus — 1950-51 president Allard Lowenstein — was a formidable voice at the Congress. Lowenstein argued that opposition to the war should present itself moderately and reasonably. “This country is not as sick as some people think it is,” he said, in a debate with David Harris. “There is a tremendous reservoir of American conscience which can be tapped if we approach it in the right way.” As an example of such a tactic he proposed sending an open letter to Lyndon Johnson from the nation’s student body presidents on the subject of the war. The suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm, $83 was raised from Liberal Caucus members to pay for an outreach mailing, and Lowenstein set to work on the text.
Gene Groves was Phil Sherburne’s chosen successor as NSA president, and he had a long history in NSA. He had been the chair of the Liberal Caucus in 1964, and a member of the NSB the following year. But he had spent the 1965-66 academic year at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and so he had no immediate ties to any American university. To run for office he would need credentials from a member campus.
Groves had arranged with the student government at the University of Chicago, his alma mater, to be seated as an alternate in their delegation. But that placement had been challenged by longtime NSA conservative Danny Boggs — at the time a University of Chicago law student — and overturned by a campus judiciary committee. A few weeks before the Congress Groves approached Roosevelt College, which proved to have fewer compunctions. He applied for admission to their graduate school, and their student government credentialed him while that application was still pending.
Such credentials had in past years been provided to establishment candidates with little fuss, but by 1966 NSA’s membership was growing more restive. Groves’ Roosevelt credentials were challenged, and the issue became one of the consuming debates of the Congress. Ultimately the CSC supported Groves by a vote of 16-7 and the plenary upheld his credentials in a 278-95 vote, but after doing so they closed the loophole that he had used to secure his eligibility for office. They passed a constitutional amendment that restricted campus delegate and alternate seats to individuals who had been “registered and in attendance” at the school in question within the past two and a half years. A student government could, in other words, extend credentials to a recent alum if it chose, but not to a supplicant with no connection to that campus, or to one who, like Groves, merely pledged to enroll in the future. In the Groves battle, as in the ISC election dispute the previous year, the establishment prevailed, but the dispute left them diminished. This is how reform came to NSA — not through the overthrow of the establishment, but through insurgencies forcing insiders to make concessions, and through the leadership clique weakening from within as a result.
At the end of the Congress, Groves faced Danny Boggs in the presidential race. Boggs, running as an anti-establishment candidate at least as much as a candidate of the right, won one-third of the total vote. Significantly, Groves had won more support in the credentials battle than he did in the presidential race — a significant number of delegates appear to have voted to put him on the ballot, and then voted against him.