Wisconsin Congress Most Liberal in History of NSA
Rick Hertzberg, a former Managing Editor of the CRIMSON, now edits an NSA publication in Washington.
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.
If the congress was cautious on Vietnam, it was daring on other foreign policy issues. The delegates unreservedly condemned the American intervention in the Dominican Republic and asked the U.S. to "initiate and support any action authorized by international law to bring an end to the policy of apartheid in South Africa and South West Africa, not excluding collective military action."
In a move that surprised many observers, the congress voted to ask the U.S. to propose Communist China's admission to the United Nations.
The proposal was introduced as a substitute for the original resolution on China, which called for greater communication between the U.S. and China.
U.S. Could Set Terms
Proponents of the substitute argued that Communist China's admission was inevitable and that an American initiative would mean the U.S. could set the terms of her admission. They added that China's involvement in Vietnam and her possession of nuclear weapons made it imperative to deal with her.
"I do not favor this because Communist China is somehow progressive--she isn't--or because she deserves to be admitted--she doesn't," declared one backer of the substitution. "I favor it because such an action would serve the cause of world peace and the national interests of the United States."
The substitution was opposed by conservatives and many NSA officials, who feared it might cause some schools to disaffiliate. Their attempt to change "propose Communist China's admission to the United Nations" to "not to oppose" failed by two votes in a dramatic rollcall.
Except for Vietnam, the issue of Berkeley touched off the longest debate of the congress--five hours. The resolution that emerged gave virtually complete support to the Free Speech Movement, which organized the mas- sive demonstrations against allegedly unjust abridgements of political advocacy at the University of California at Berkeley last year.
The delegates resolved that the "non-violent protests" at Berkeley were "legitimate and responsible" because "institutional channels for redress were blocked."
'All Possible Support'
In addition, the congress directed the NSA staff to raise money for the legal defense of the Berkeley sit-ins and to provide "all possible support" to similar movements in the future.
The decisive speech was made by Ed Schwartz of Oberlin, who resembles a hulking, good-natured mole and who as chairman of the powerful Liberal Caucus was one of the most influential delegates to the congress.
"We're tired of hearing the drone of college presidents and regents who look upon a student as some sort of marionette who can be dangled through an education," said Schwartz. "We're fed up with being put off year after year, of getting promises every spring and retractions every fall."
Schwartz reviewed NSA's role as "the unheeded prophet of higher education" and received a deafening ovation when he declared:
"If ours was the prophesy, theirs was the message come true. For us now to turn our backs on their achievement, to dilute our applause with sanctimonious reprimands, to become a stern father to our own abused child would be to cry sour grapes at the success of our ends, but the failure of our means."
The conservative opponents of the resolution agreed that the Berkeley students had had legitimate grievances. They based their case on the contention that the means the Free Speech Movement employed were completely unrelated to those grievancces.
Evidently the delegates did not agree. They passed the Berkeley resolution by a vote of 274 to 19.
Though the congress was the most liberal one ever, the far left was noticeable by its absence. Leaders such as Clark Kissenger of Students for a Democratic Society and Robert Parris of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee put in only the briefest of appearances.
The far left has increasingly shifted its emphasis away from university life and toward direct community action. As Ed Schwartz put it, "The left thinks of NSA as the Urban League of student organizations."
According to some observers, what has happened is that thanks to Berkeley, the civil rights movement and five years of a liberal national administration, the whole student political spectrum has shifted to the left.
At last year's congress the biggest fight came on whether NSA should refrain from taking any stands at all