A thousand people--delegates, alternates, hangers-on, foreign students of every size and color--spent the last two weeks in August here immersing themselves in that holy Ganges of student politics, the National Student Congress.
At the end of it they went home exhausted, having written, debated and amended 107 resolutions on every subject under the sun. The resolutions comprise an intermittently coherent body of thought which, though probably to the left of the average, reflects fairly accurately the consensus among politically active and aware college students.
The congress sets policy for the United States National Student Association, a confederation of 300 student governments, including those of Harvard and Radcliffe. NSA was founded here at the University of Wisconsin in 1946.
The delegates met in the university's Stock Pavilion, a cavernous arena with grey grandstands and an inch of coarse sawdust on the floor. It is usually used for livestock exhibitions, though Wisconsin's old Progressive Party used to convene there occasionally.
Living in the cellar of the building, directly under the delegates' feet, were six hogs and four cows. The cows were equipped with windows through which scientists peered into their stomachs. And upstairs, on the wall directly opposite the speakers' platform, was a six-foot-high, full-color portrait of a prize bull.
Despite such surroundings, the delegates worked hard and wrote a record which, according to veterans, was more liberal than those of any of the preceding congresses.
Vietnam, the biggest issue at most colleges last year, dominated the congress. NSA's national staff, which must make explanations to an often critical constituency, was afraid of a bitter fight followed by a resolution calling for immediate unilateral American withdrawal from Vietnam.
From the start it was clear their fears were unfounded. When Vice-President Hubert Humphrey told the opening session of the congress that the United States will stay in Vietnam until some honorable settlement can be arranged, he got a standing ovation. Not one of the 50 or so people who picketed Humphrey's speech was a congress delegate, and a plan to stage a walkout from the auditorium failed utterly.
Long But Not Bitter
The debate on Vietnam was long--it ended shortly before daybreak--but not bitter. No one, not even the tiny handful of pro-Viet Cong delegates, even bothered to argue for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
The final resolution asked President Johnson to suspend the bombings of North Vietnam and "all other offensive action" and to negotiate directly with the Viet Cong. But it stipulated that these moves should be conditional on a Communist response.
Assaults on the resolution from left and right met with little success.
In one crucial fight, the delegates voted 185-119 to keep the statement, "The U.S. presence in South Vietnam is one of the elements necessary until guarantees can be found to assure self-determination for the South Vietnamese people."
The normally cautious Stephen J. M. Robbins of UCLA, the outgoing president of NSA, led the other main attack from the left. His proposal that NSA back a halt in the bombings regardless of the outcome of negotiations lost by a narrow margin.
There was something in the resolution for everyone: for the liberals, the call for suspension of the bombings; for the moderates, the proviso that Hanoi and Peking would have to make concessions too; for the conservatives, the support for American presence in South Vietnam. In the end it passed almost unanimously.