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.

Phone Call

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.