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By Fatima Mirza and Eliza M. Nguyen, Crimson Staff Writers

On a December afternoon in 1960, 40 students stood in the courtyard of Quincy House armed with a banner that read, “I’d rather crawl to Moscow on my knees than die in nuclear war.” They were gathered at the inaugural event for Tocsin—a student organization that would become active in the radical call for nuclear disarmament in the early 1960s.

“We called it a walk, not a march,” recalled Todd A. Gitlin ’63, who served as one of Tocsin’s chairs.

Gitlin said the students involved hoped to reach their peers through intellectual appeals rather than through a large protest, and planned to disperse across campus engaging their classmates in conversation about current affairs in Washington.

Fifteen years into the Cold War, in the midst of heightened nuclear testing, these early student activists were taking a controversial stance on nuclear weapons policy, which they hoped would awaken students and faculty in the Harvard community.

Though Tocsin dissolved only four years after its founding, the organization’s efforts marked the beginning of student activism at Harvard, eventually giving rise to a strong chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and paving the way for other activist organizations.

The group’s name, Tocsin, signifies a warning or alarm bell. Founded a decade before activism on campus peaked with the 1969 takeover of University Hall, Tocsin signaled of the start of Harvard’s student movement.


Barbara R. Du Bois ’62, one of Tocsin’s founders, recalled that an apolitical climate motivated her and three of her classmates to create the organization.

“What I was struck by was the general movement of apathy of the country towards the issue of disarmament,” she said. “There was serious threat of nuclear annihilation with the proliferation of nuclear war.”

Carrying handmade signs and a vision to awaken the Harvard community, Du Bois and other members of Tocsin marched down Mass Ave. during their first official protest. What she remembered from that day is not a shift in campus sentiments but rather the admonishing words of a woman who confronted her in the street, arguing against a movement that criticized the government.

“This is a democracy,” Du Bois remembered her opponent shouting. “People shouldn’t be allowed to do this.”


During its active years, Tocsin carried out its mission to promote awareness about nuclear disarmament through protests, marches, and intellectual conversation in and around Harvard’s campus.

“Countering the political and moral apathy required that people not only see their relationship but also the possibility that they could have an effect,” Du Bois said. “That principle animated our efforts in the early years.”

According to Tocsin leaders, events they held were well attended by students and faculty with a range of opinions on the issue.

John H. Ehrenreich ’63, who served as Tocsin’s secretary, recalled an early Tocsin event during which organization leaders asked students to show their support for nuclear disarmament by donning blue armbands.

“On the one hand we got things like ‘go back to Russia,’ and on the other hand we got about 1,000 students wearing blue armbands,” he said.

Former Vice-Chairman of Tocsin Christopher A. Sims ’63, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economics, said that government professors Stanley H. Hoffmann and Henry A. Kissinger ’50 regularly met Tocsin members for lunch to talk about politics.

“They thought we were a little naive or radical. In particular, Kissinger enjoyed provoking us,” Sims said, highlighting the intellectual discourse that Tocsin emphasized.


February 1962 saw Tocsin’s largest protest effort. According to The Crimson, Tocsin helped plan and joined “Project Washington,” which brought hundreds of Harvard and Radcliffe students and many more from universities across the country to the capital to protest and meet with political leaders, including National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy.

Promoting an agenda for nuclear disarmament, Tocsin’s leaders drafted an eight-page policy paper to present to congressmen.

The protesters received little support from officials in Washington—one representative called them, “full of baloney” while another criticized the students’ “emotional outbursts,” The Crimson reported. But Sims said Tocsin’s efforts were successful in bringing attention to the need for policy change.

“We thought there was a significant risk of nuclear war and people weren’t doing enough about it,” he said. “It seemed like an important issue where pushing an out-of-the-box agenda seemed to make a difference.”


At the time of Tocsin’s founding, few student-run activist organizations existed. Through its affiliation with the Student Peace Union, a national coalition of organizations like Tocsin, its members helped pioneer an era of activism on college campuses.

“I think we were very ahead of the curve,” said Du Bois. “This was an elite university in the country and we were right there in the front.”

According to the Tocsin leaders, their role as a pioneer of student protest necessitated less extreme demands and methods.

But Gitlin said that the path that Tocsin blazed empowered later student movements. After serving as Tocsin’s chairman, Gitlin became president of the growing national organization Students for a Democratic Society.

“Tocsin was a very modest and well behaved organization,” he said. “It was much more careful and cautious than the Occupy movement,” about which he recently published a book.

Sims said similarities still exist between student movements in 1962 and those that are happening today, 50 years later.

“It’s students thinking about issues that matter for their future and getting angry,” he said.

—Staff writer Fatima Mirza can be reached at

—Staff writer Eliza M. Nguyen can be reached at

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