This is the second part of a three-part essay comparing USNSA in 1966 with its successor, the United States Student Association, fifty years later. You can read the first part here.
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As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Hendrik Hertzberg of the Harvard Crimson described the 1965 National Student Congress of the United States National Student Association (USNSA) 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.”
The 1966 Congress would need less equivocation.
Where the big speaker of the 1965 Congress was pro-war US vice president Hubert Humphrey, in 1966 the gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg appeared on the scene. He participated in a panel on drug policy reform, and then stayed to give a poetry reading afterwards. (“Language, language … you pour it forth like napalm,” he recited, in an apparent reference to the convention’s plenary.) When the business of the meeting got underway, one delegate put forward a resolution advocating the legalization of homosexuality, and another introduced a proposal to remove the word “God” from the USNSA constitution. Danny Boggs, a conservative Congress attendee (and now a federal appeals court judge) 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. For years, the various political factions in USNSA had organized themselves as caucuses at the annual Congress, and 1966 each of those caucuses 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, for years the voice of the New Left in USNSA faced a schism between its liberals and its radicals.
The Liberal Caucus, which had been created by dissenters from the moderate liberal leadership of USNSA, was now the dominant faction in the Association. On Vietnam and the draft, along with several other issues, its position was by now essentially that of the Congress as a whole. But with the Liberal Caucus now dominant in the plenary, the Congress’s most radical delegates had little reason to continue to identify with that faction — as the Liberal Caucus gained power and influence, the radicals took up the oppositional role that the caucus itself had previously played.
With the Liberal Caucus’ view on Vietnam ascendant, the radicals proposed a new Vietnam resolution in 1966, one that described the war as an attempt to advance “the American empire … in a calculated barbaric fashion.” They didn’t win adoption of their stance by the plenary, but the delegates went much farther in the resolution that eventually passed own resolution any previous Congress had. 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. USNSA called for an immediate halt to American bombing and other offensive operations, and for the opening of multilateral negotiations.
A shift in USNSA was also seen that year in the delegates’ growing willingness to challenge the inner circle. Outgoing president Phil Sherburne picked Gene Groves as his successor, but while Groves had a long history in the Association — he had been the chair of the Liberal Caucus in 1964 and a member of the USNSA board of directors the following year — he had been out of the country on a Rhodes scholarship in 1965–66. As a result, he had no direct ties to any American campus, and no obvious way to obtain the delegate credentials he’d need to run for office.
In the past, this wouldn’t have been a problem. USNSA leadership regularly finessed such issues for their preferred candidates, and in the run-up to the 1966 Congress 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 Danny Boggs — himself a University of Chicago law student — and overturned by a campus judiciary committee. A few weeks before the Congress Groves approached Roosevelt College, which was less finicky. When he applied for admission to Roosevelt’s graduate school, their student government credentialed him while his application was still pending.
Although credentials had in past years been approved with little fuss, by 1966 NSA’s membership was growing more restive. Groves’ Roosevelt credentials were challenged, and the issue became one of the major debates of the Congress. Ultimately the Congress Steering Committee 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, grant delegate to a recent alum, but not to a candidate with no connection to that campus or one who, like Groves, merely pledged to enroll in the future.
In the battle over credentials, as in so many struggles within USNSA before, the leadership of the Association came out on top. But each victory forced them to shift course, and each challenge left them with less power to dictate the direction of the organization in the future. 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 Association’s 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 — in a classic show of the membership’s belief in fair play and procedural evenhandedness, a large group of delegates voted to put Groves on the ballot … and then voted against him when he ran.