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Political Activism in a Progressive Decade

Harvard Students Today Reflect 60's New Mood

By Geoffrey Cowan

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.

Yet in one sense the program was not a failure. Alpervitzing, as it was called, seemed an ideal activity for idealistic students. It was an imaginative way to expose the community to Tocsin's point of view. And it led perfectly into the most widespread educational campaign students had yet devised: a political campaign. During the spring of 1962, Professor H. Stuart Hughes had been persuaded to run for the United States Senate.

Organizing a precinct, writing speeches, talking to voters, doing research, Harvard students virtually ran the Hughes campaign. Some felt close to the voters--they practically lived out at the Columbia Point Housing Project. Going to meetings, on the campaign trail, knocking on doors, hundreds of students got to know some form of politics. In the fullest sense of the word, this was a liberal education.

The campaign was Alpervitzing writ large. Its genuine purpose was to stimulate and challenge the voters of Massachusetts. During the fall, Hughes tried continually to present and explain a new program. Some critics called him silly or quixotic. But Hughes, and hundreds of students with him, were determined to dispell the illusion--and fact--of American political homogeneity. Teddy Kennedy or Stuart Hughes: it made a difference.

For a while, Hughes workers were optimistic. They had stunned the state by getting twice the required 73,000 signatures needed to put Hughes on the ballot. Gradually Hughes gained acceptance as a legitimate candidate: Republican candidate George Lodge even agreed to debates him on television.

Winner Take All

But then came Cuba. In mid-October President Kennedy was challenged by reports of Russian missiles in Cubs. At first he denied the reports; then, dramatically, he acted.

It was a curious week. On Monday it was announced that the President would that night address the nation on television. Students were frightened but strangely excited. In inflammatory language Kennedy announced plans to blockade the island.

In the vacuum of moral leadership, Tocsin felt obliged to act. At the Tocsin membership meeting on Tuesday night, radical ideas were popped from all corners of the room. One member, however, injected a sobering note. "This discussion sounds like Tocsin versus the United States," he said. "And form some of the suggestions, you'd think our forces were about equal."

It is history that Cuba and Russia and Castro and Khrushchev backed down. Kennedy played it tough and got his way. He gambled and won. In terms of practical politics, student radicals wouldn't go down for the count, but they were given a T.K.O. When Hughes was clobbered in the election two weeks later, it was anticlimactic.

Momentarily, student activists wondered what to do next. There was talk of starting a magazine or an activist college or taking a series of full page advertisements in the New York Times. They wanted a vehicle to criticize, or suggest, United States policy in South Viet Nam, the Union of South Africa, Iran, Chile, and sundry other nations.

Enter CRCC

But Birmingham made the direction clear.

For several years, college students had been involved in Civil Rights activity. Students had led the sit-ins, joined the freedom rides, sought to register southern Negro voters. However, organized Civil Rights activity at Harvard had been slow in coming. Except for a flurry of organization during the Woolworth sit-ins in the spring of 1960, the University had created no formal organization.

In the winter of 1962-63, as civil rights work gained impetus around the country, a half dozen students formed the Harvard Civil Rights Co-ordating Committee (CRCC). The group helped civil rights leaders in Boston to organize selective patronage campaigns. But its work was marginal.

Then came Birmingham and the momentous response. Boston leaders made the connection obvious by organizing a Birmingham to Boston march.

At a huge rally in Boston Commons, Negro leaders urged citizens to work to overcome problems at home. Some 200 Harvard and Radcliffe students joined the march.

This fall, almost 1000 students have signed up to work for CRCC--that number included almost one third of the freshman class. The only problem was finding enough for them to do. A new phase of Harvard liberal political action in the 1960's has been born

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