Vietnam Summer Evolves From Phone Call To Nation-Wide Organizing Project
Copyright 1967, by the Harvard Crimson, Inc.
Vietnam Summer did not start in a jammed, smoke-filled Christ Church Parish House when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for everyone to organize his neighbors against the war in Vietnam. Nor did it start later that Sunday afternoon at 43 Martin Street when King rang Frederick Wiseman's doorbell. Vietnam Summer began seven weeks ago with a telephone call to Gar Alperovitz, fellow of the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics.
Vietnam Summer is Alperovitz's brainchild: a fact he will rarely acknowledge in private and never in public. But when King, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and the controversial managing editor of Ramparts, Robert Scheer, got together for a press conference, the New York Times did not mention the 29-year-old peace organizer. Even if he did start the whole thing.
What he started has become a nation-wide project to organize Americans into a peace bloc opposed to the war. Alperovitz has been deeply troubled about the war for a long time. In October 1965, he resigned his post as legislative assistant to Senator Gaylord Nelson (D.-Wisc.) to work for the State Department. Hoping he could bring about small changes in U.S. war policy, he took the post of special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for the United Nations.
After ten months, he quite the State Department in protest against the war. By this time, he was already considering the possibilities for using the vast manpower resources available at colleges to build a local, political base.
This idea had been tested four years earlier at Harvard by members of a radical political organization called "Tocsin." Some Tocsin members were very concerned about Congressional inactivity on the Berlin Crisis and contacted Alperovitz, then a legislative assistant for Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D.-Wisc.), for advice.
Alperovitz told the students that the only way to translate their ideas into political action was to educate the voters in the district about the problem. Without constituents educated to their position, he reasoned, the Congressmen could never be expected to respond politically.
Taking his advice, Tocsin members addressed various church and fraternal organizations about the issues involved in Berlin. Lacking a word for what they were doing, the group's members coined the term "Alperovitzing." Soon Tocsin people were walking down Cambridge streets talking about how they "Alperovitzed" the Methodist Church the day before.
What they were doing, Alperovitz now calls "teaching out," a concept that was to be the father of Vietnam Summer. But Tocsin's teach outs met with little success. Something was missing, and only six years later did Alperovitz find out what it was.
On March 12, Alperovitz received a phone call from an old friend, Dr. Irwin H. Rosenberg, instructor in Medicine. Rosenberg was concerned about the Vietnam war and called to ask Alperovitz what could be done about it. With pessimism that has since disappeared, he replied, "Write your Congressman!"
"No really," Rosenberg said, "I'm ready to go out and ring doorbells."
That was the answer: canvassing, talking to people in their homes. Ten thousand people ringing millions of doorbells across the country could accomplish more than 10,000 public speeches. He had found what was missing from his ideas for utilizing college manpower -- from Tocsin's "Alperovitzing."
He could talk about nothing else during the next week. What impressed Alperovitz most was that his friend, a decidedly non-political person, was willing to devote so much of his time to opposing the war. With this in mind, he worked out a concept he called "Teach Out."
It is a three-phase plan. First, peo- ple opposed to the war or with doubts about it are found through extensive canvassing. Second, once the people are found, they form discussion groups to deepen their understanding of the issues involved in the war. Third, with their studies complete, they undertake "basic political action." Alperovitz is still uncertain of the exact form action should take, but he has suggested pressing Congressmen to hold open hearings on the war in the community or petitioning to place a statement opposing the war on the ballot in local elections.
A week after the phone call, an informal discussion group of young faculty members from several Massachusetts colleges held its regular meeting at the home of Michael L. Walzer, associate professor of Government. Before the talk turned to Vietnam, Alperovitz and Martin H. Perctz, instructor in Social Studies, presented their views on the origins of the cold war. According to Peretz, Alperovitz is "a major figure in the revision of the history of the cold war." His first book, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, was his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge University and took first prize in the King's College and Peter House College competitions. He has been working on a second book concerning the future of politics since he was appointed an Institute fellow in August, 1966.
When the group at Walzer's house asked what they could do about ending the war, Alperovitz shot back with "ring doorbells." He talked a great deal about the political inactivity of American middle cdlass and discussed how they might be prodded to undertake political action. He outlined Teach Out to the group, but placed little or no emphasis on his summer plan. He hoped then that the Teach Out concept would spread spontaneously and rapidly.
Reaction to his idea was not unanimously enthusiastic. Many thought his goal of influencing the Republican party to choose a liberal presidential candidate in 1968 unrealistic. Chester W. Hartman '57, assistant professor of City Planning who has since become the acting executive director of the Vietnam Summer Committee, was skeptical, considering the plan "very fuzzy." He objected to its "classroom" orientation and its university base.
The project members saw right away that the experienced student activists from such organizations as SDS were desperately needed to get the program off the ground. But when several prominent SDS members--including Michael S. Ansara '68, Harold B. Benenson '67, and David O. Loud '68--came to a meeting to help draw up a list of political actions, dissension was apparent.
Alperovitz's organizing plan focuses on the middle class, which tends to look to electoral politics for social change. The SDS members contended that the Teach Out approach should be aimed at students and people living in ghettoes. They objected to the emphasis on electoral politics because they believe that people must learn to take much more responsibility for making the decisions that affect their lives through new forms of political action, such as draft resistance. Without a "radical transformation" in America that would bring about a new distribution of political power to the people, they foresaw many more Vietnams.
After many lengthy discussions, the SDS people decided that the central issue of the war could be their most effective organizing tool. So long as SDS was organizing around the war and then going on to more fundamental issues, the project's aim of ending the war was not endangered. And since each local organizing group would be autonomous, ghetto and student organizing efforts could certainly be included in the project.
Publicly, few project people will admit to seeing any possible conflict between the two groups' objectives. Whether one arises is something that some of the original project people are very much worried about. Alperovitz freely admits that the concept of the two groups working side by side is yet to be tested. Whether it will work is one of the important questions in the project.
To emphasize the program's immediate organizational thrust, the directors rechristened it "Vietnam Summer." The idea of a summer doorbell ringing campaign was always part of Teach Out, and the shift was merely from one catchy phrase to another.
Recruiting began the weekend before the anti-war marches with a meeting in Winthrop House. Nearly 75 people attended, and although it was clear that the group hadn't thought out a concrete set of activities that could end the war, many promised to help. About 30,000 pamphlets describing the project were distributed at the marches.
Alperovitz contacted King's aides about Vietnam Summer two weeks before the march, and King was immediately receptive to the idea. King was a logical person to enlist for support and publicity because of his highly-publicized switch from civil rights to the peace movement. The Negro leader agreed to issue a call for summer volunteers at the New York rally. His aides offered King's services on the weekend after the rally, when he would be in Boston for a speech at the Ford Hall Forum.
King, then, did not in any way "launch" Vietnam Summer at his press conference in Cambridge on April 22. He was not there at its genesis, and he is still not involved in any of the project's programs. Officially, he is a "sponsor," but the extent of his personal participation is yet to be determined and will probably be slight. However, he does make headlines -- perhaps one too many.
That one extra headline appeared in the New York Times on the Saturday before the press conference. The story reported that William F. Pepper, executive director of the National Conference for New Politics (a new leftist group established to bring opponents of the war into politics) and Sheer were urging King to run for president on a peace ticket in 1968.
The link between King-for-president and Vietnam Summer could have proven disastrous. Vietnam Summer is not aimed at promoting King's candidacy and for the public to think so would obscure one of the project's aims--to get people to devise other means than candidates for political action.
The Times story caused bitter disputes between the project members who supported Scheer's move and those who thought it would destroy the project. At one point, Scheer was cancelled from the press conference in an attempt to avoid linking the two issues. With Scheer out of the conference, Carl Oglesby, former national president of SDS was brought in to replace his appeal to radical students.