This Monday, the Student Council's Committee on NSA will present a report "to the students of Harvard College with the hope that the observations we make will provide a basis for a decision to rejoin the National Student Association."
The report frankly admits the lack of concern for student problems at many colleges, and the lack of awareness on the part of many students of NSA issues. Apathy at Harvard was manifested last year by the referendum which permitted the Council to withdraw from NSA. This year it can be said at best that most undergraduates are uninformed about the structure and philosophy of NSA. The Council's report seeks to bridge this gap, in anticipation of another decision by the student body.
Membership in NSA, or concern for NSA activities, will probably never become a burning issue around the Yard. American students simply lack the sharp class identity retained by students of colonial and underdeveloped areas. College students in the United States no not rest as far above the general population in ability to decide political issues from an "enlightened" point of view as their foreign counterparts. While many Latin American and African student unions are important political factors in their own countries, NSA is only one of a number of "pressure groups," drawing its strength from the prestige of the individual student governments in the Association.
However, NSA is a complex organization with as many potentialities for improvement as it has accomplishments. It is undergoing a period of transition--rethinking its own philosophy of student concerns and reorganizing its structure. It would be foolish to pass it by without taking the time to find out what it is.
The National Student Association had a strange birth indeed, for after two years of existence it had turned upon and denounced its generating organization, the International Union of Students. The need for an American student organization was conveyed to colleges and universities chiefly by the enthusiasm of the "Prague twenty-four," a group of students who had been in Czechoslovakia during the formation of the IUS.
An NSA report noted that the group was "inevitably caught up in the exuberent spirit of cooperation among nations which had joined in the successful struggle against the Aixs powers." The Prague twenty-four returned to the United States convinced that America must be represented.
There is no doubt that there were several Communist party members and fellow travellers among the twenty-four, but most were simply swept up by the energy of the European student groups. Most were unaware of the Russian Communist plot to create the organization, then subvert it and turn it into a front for Communist propaganda. The existence of that plot was confirmed several years later by a man who had been working with Allied intelligence in Austria. He told an NSA national officer that he had found out plans of the Communist group, which urged the formation of the ISU and then gained control of its secretariat at the Prague meeting.
A year after the IUS was formed, 1947, delegates from student governments met at Madison, Wisconsin to draft the constitution of the USNSA. The student organization that was to emerge was new in name and structure, but in spirit a descendent of the student organization of the thirties, the National Student Federation of America. The President of NSFA in 1932 had been a young man named Edward R. Murrow; its last congress in 1940 had been organized by Orville Freeman, now Governor of Minnesota.
There were two basic conflicts at the Madison meeting. The first dealt with the issue of whether NSA should speak out on purely political questions. The Communist and left-wing delegates desperately needed the freedom to leave the realm of student problems in order to become an effective propaganda instrument. It is difficult to imagine today, but the threat of subversion posed by Communist Party and fellow-traveller members was quite real.
More moderate elements carried the day, however, and the Constitution was written to read:
... No body acting on behalf of USNSA shall participate in secretarian religious activities or partisan political activities; they shall not take part in any activity which does not affect students in their role as students...
The phrase "students as students" is still probably the phrase most nearly defining the nature of NSA.
Once the Communists were repulsed on the first issue, they sought to gain control of NSA with another tactic, giving representation in NSA to "organizations other than student governments." They had hoped to bring front organizations into NSA which could be used to control the congress. Again the moderates prevailed, and the proposal was voted down.
Once the Association began to function, a third issue split the membership: whether to join the IUS. NSA sent a representative, William Ellis '46, to Prague, charged with 13 conditions under which NSA would join IUS. While the negotiations were going on the Communist coup d'etat took place, and the IUS refused to take a stand against the new government for jailing anti-Communist student leaders and professors. Ellis broke off negotiations, resigned from the Prague Secretariat, and denounced IUS's betrayal of student liberties.
A report noted that "few NSA leaders doubted that the IUS was controlled by an outside political force which disregarded the interests of "students as students," but for the next few years members still clutched at what they considered the last straw for international student relations. The issue was not laid to rest until the early fifties.