Political Activism in a Progressive Decade

Harvard Students Today Reflect 60's New Mood

The fall of 1960 was an exciting season for American politics. Senator Kennedy and vice-President Nixon three times played verbal fisticuffs, inaugurating a new era in American politics with their televised debates. Kennedy claimed that a new generation was about to take control of the country. For American college students, Kennedy represented a new political phenomenon: he seemed to promise that politics could be idealistic. Most impressive, he promised something called the Peace Corps--a modern version of William James' "Moral Equivalent to War."

From all around the country, students enthusiastically responded to Kennedy's Peace Corps proposal. Individual projects started at Columbia, at Dartmouth, at Wesleyan, at Michigan, at Stanford: virtually everywhere. Multi-college conferences were held at Princeton, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Throughout the nation, students began to take an active interest in politics.

It was that political fall that the present senior class came to Harvard. Student political concern was in transition. The 1950's had been notoriously sterile--at Harvard, only a food drive for India and a movement in sympathy with the Hungarian Freedom Fighters had aroused much student concern. It was common knowledge that college campuses cared more about stuffing telephone boothes than ballot boxes.

But by the Spring of 1960 a new mood had pervaded the Harvard campus. Political activity that spring was scattered but distinct. A number of small political organizations had been formed, each for a specific purpose. A civil rights group formed in sympathy with the Woolworth sit-ins in Montgomery, Alabama. A disarmament group was encouraged by the Spirit of Camp David. Another organization sympathized with Caryl Chessman's plea for clemency. In all, five such organizations had formed in the spring of 1960. They were collectively known as "single issue clubs." A few observers, including professors David Reisman and Stuart Hughes, guessed that politics at Harvard were about to be reborn.

Not Since the 1930's


Not since the 1930's had Harvard politics truly thrived. Now, in the 1960's, they seemed about to rise again. Indeed, in January 1960 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., predicted the reawakening of political concern throughout the nation. In an Esquire article entitled "The New Mood in Politics," Schlesinger drew on his cyclical view of history. Heightened political activity in the 1930's and early 40's had exhausted the nation, he explained. Now, rested by the political apathy of the 50's, Americans were ready for a new era of activism.

"The beginning of a new political epoch is like the breaking of a dam," Schlesinger wrote. "The chaos of the breakthrough offends those who like everything neatly ordered and controlled; but it is likely to be a creative confusion, bringing a ferment of ideas and innovations into the national life. Thus the 60's will probably be spirited, articulate, inventive, incoherent, turbulent, with energy shooting off wildly in all directions."

The Peace Corps was one direction. Like other colleges, Harvard started its own project. "Project Tanganyika," as it was called, was patterned after Crossroads Africa. For the last three years it has sent about 20 student teachers each year to the newly independent African state.

Tocsin vs. the Cold War

A more spectacular direction was suggested by a moderate peace group called Tocsin. Named after the warning bell in the French Revolution, Tocsin was founded in the summer of 1960. It was conceived as a small, Harvard-oriented study group which would discuss issues of the cold war. Shortly it turned from theory to action. In the upsurge of student political interest, Tocsin membership multiplied and its activities expanded.

Tocsin wanted to explore the issues of the cold war and disarmament, but it also wanted to influence the community. For their studies to have an effect, Tocsin members would have to present their conclusions and share their research with the community at large.

During the winter of 1961-62, a march on Washington seemed an effective way to achieve this goal. Along with peace groups on other campuses, Tocsin planned a march: thousands of college students from around the nation would, after considerable study, travel to Washington to participate in a march and rally, and to talk with congressmen, members of the military, and Administration officials.

On February 16, 1692, 6,000 students descended on the Capital. By and large they were well dressed and well informed. The press treated them fairly kindly: the President's gift of hot coffee for all on a cold February day got front page play in many cities. March leaders were offended by officials at the Department of State who delivered them a lecture rather than offering to discuss United States policy. But McGeorge Bundy assured the leaders that the President was glad the students had come. They helped to offset the vocal right wing, Bundy said.

After the march, Tocsin faced a crucial question. Tocsin called it the February 17th question. What to do after the march.

One suggestion was to train a core of speakers to go out and address groups of all kinds: ladies clubs, church groups, schools, colleges, and labor unions. Ideally, the plan would have been fine training for the students who participated; and it might well have made a slight impact on the community. But the program was organized late in the year and it proved difficult to set up appointments. On balance, it was something of a failure.

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