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50th and 25 National Reunion--ASU and SDS--1986
I entered the college of the City of New York in September, 1932, not yet quite 16 years old, at the depth of the great depression. I was naive enough when I started college to allow my neighbor to pledge me to his fraternity. I never became a member because the dues were more than the total sum of money I had for all my expenses.
But oddly, the fraternity led me to the radical movement. One of its older members was made advertising manager of the unofficial newspaper The Student, founded by the staff of the official Campus in protest against an effort at faculty censorship. He asked me to become one of his ad solicitors. I never sold any space, but this drew me into the fringes of the radical movement.
Late in my freshman year they organized a protest meeting, with Heywood Broun as speaker, against the annual awards ceremony and parade of the campus ROTC. The meeting was, of course, not sanctioned and participants risked suspension or expulsion. I was a fan of Broun's newspaper column so I attended. Broun didn't show up, but President Frederick B. Robinson did. Passing the meeting he chose not to walk on in silent dignity but charged into the crowd swinging his umbrella. After he had left the scene we reconvened and decided to infiltrate the stadium and boo the proceedings.
Many students were expelled for participating in that anti-ROTC demonstration. President Robinson referred to us as guttersnipes, and soon many students were sporting buttons that said, "l am a Guttersnipe."
My father, the rabbi of a Conservative congregation in the Bronx, feared that to have a son who was known to be a radical would endanger his job. He made me promise not to do anything that would get me into trouble. (This was about as effective as his later effort to keep me from marrying the non-Jewish Mary Felton.)
Morris Milgram, later a pioneer in building housing available to all regardless of race, became our leader. The 1934 Student Strike Against War got Milgram expelled and I succeeded him. When my father expostulated with me, warning that I might be expelled too, I gave him the smart-ass answer that if I were I might get a trip to a socialist youth conference in Europe as Morris had.
For student radicals the fight against war came to center on the Student Strike Against War which featured the Oxford Pledge not to support the government in any war it might undertake. The first strike in 1934 was small and limited in reach, but the united efforts bore fruit in 1935 with a very substantial participation by students in almost every region and in all kinds of institutions. In the flush of this success the leadership of the SLID agreed to merge with the communist-led National Student League, to form the American Student Union to unify the anti-war struggle.
The decision to merge was not reached unanimously by the socialists. Some SLID leaders and the adults in the parent LID were not in favor. But the LID believed it needed to defer to the student leaders in their own arena. Just as would happen when the Students for a Democratic Society left the LID to make its own way, the SLID was let go with regrets and best wishes.
The founding convention of the ASU was held in Columbus, Ohio during the 1935 Christmas school vacation. Since I was an observant Jew I did not think I could go, given the problems of Sabbath observance and the dietary laws, but I took the precaution of getting myself elected as a delegate. When I told my father my decision he surprised me by urging that I go. I needed some cash, and I got $10 from one of the more colorful City College professors, a Boer named John Hastings, who taught me economic geography. His contribution was conditioned on my noting carefully the rivers I crossed en route.
A few disturbing things happened at the convention. Reinhold Neibuhr, socialist and social actionist theologian, delivered a major speech in which he opposed the established anti-war policy and advocated collective security instead. In our socialist caucus one of the SLID leaders slated to go onto the ASU national board backed away because he no longer agreed with the anti-war position. There were rumors about that the communists might be changing their line, and that paradoxically, Joe Lash, SLID leader slated to head the ASU, agreed with the communists, while Jimmy Wechsler, NSL leader slated to be editor of the ASU magazine, was holding fast to the old anti-war line. But the convention went off as planned and scheduled the third Student Strike Against War for the spring of 1936.
Indeed the eternal verities were not holding their own, and the ground of shared belief was shifting. By the second ASU convention, held in 1936 in Chicago, the socialist anti-war position had lost out in ASU, and we soon left ASU to form the Youth Committee Against War, in alliance with religious and pacifist groups.
After several years of making hay as a part of the FDR coalition, the communists were back to the anti-war position in 1939 when Stalin made his infamous pact with Hitler. And then again, in 1941 when Hitler turned on the unsuspecting Stalin, they were pulled back into the pro-war camp. The socialists were undoubtedly killing their hopes of wide influence by their intransigence in holding on to an unrealistic orthodoxy, and the communists were accomplishing the same result for themselves by their slavish following of the zigs and zags dictated by Stalin's strictly Soviet foreign policy needs. Thus both the groups that merged to form the ASU consigned themselves to the futile existence of tiny sects and left the field open for the emergence in the 60s of a new left, whose anniversary we are also marking at this meeting.
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