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Joseph P. Lash, Interview
The way to approach the student movement of the 30's is as a phase of the left-wing movement of the 30's, because that's actually what it was. And so I think I'm going to immerse you into, in a sense, a history of what happened to the left wing in the 30's as reflected through the student groups. Because while there undoubtedly would have been a student movement even if there had been no Socialist and Communist parties, it would not have assumed the dimensions that it did in the 30's nor the character that it did because of those parties and their relationships to one another.
There was student activity of a political character in the universities and colleges in the 20's; it revolved chiefly around efforts to get U.S. support for the League of Nations and for the World Court. It was mostly a movement of inquiry and study rather than a movement of action, but that was about it. Toward the end of the 20's you had beginning to develop on the campus groups that were known as League for Industrial Democracy groups. The League for Industrial Democracy was an Organization created by Socialists, it was headed by Norman Thomas and Harry Laidler. Harry Laidler had been one of the organizers of the pre-World War Intercollegiate Social Society, which had been destroyed in World War I; and it was an organization that was dedicated to the creation of a society based on use and not on profit. It was not controled by the Socialist Party but it was sympathetic to the Socialist Party. Norman Thomas, as you all know, is a very dramatic personality, a very moving personality. He had become a Socialist as a form of protest against World War I and had given up the ministry to carry on his Socialism. And when he appeared on a campus, it had a great effect on undergraduates. And so you had the development of LID groups on some of the Eastern campuses because of the visits of Thomas and Laidler.
These Socialist groups were primarily groups of study and inquiry into Socialism rather than action groups. In that respect they were com parable to the groups that were interested in the League of Nations and international relations primarily. Toward the end of the 20's some of these groups became involved in the Sacco-Venzetti fight and also in some of the strikes that took place on a very sporadic basis. Some of the LID groupsI think, the Swarthmore groupwent into a hosiery strike in the area near Philadelphia and published a pamphlet on the situation in the industry, which had a very useful impact on public understanding of the case for the hosiery workers. It was all rather localized, very sporadic, until the Depression came along. But I want to say something about the Socialism of the late 20's. It was primarily ethical in content. I was in college at that timeI went to City College. It stemmed from conscience rather than from any notion of class struggle or class alignment. It was a form of intellectual inquiry that in a sense brought you closer to intellectual realities than you got in the classroom otherwise. Because the economic textbooks of that period were the traditional texts whose object was to portray American society as it existed under Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover as the best of all societies and the best of all possible worlds, And that was the way economics was taught at that time, the way social sciences in general were taught.
And so, by becoming a Socialist, you in a sense were manifesting a skepticism and were able to express your skepticism. This was a movement that was motivated by a revolt against the vanity of the 20's. In a sense, H. L. Mencken, although I know he would die to have it said about him again, was the father of a great many Socialists with his attacks on the sterile cultural outlook of America in the 20's. One of the people that had a great influence on my generation of Socialists was Bertrand Russell; and I was going through, in preparation for coming up here, one of the books that we read, Why Men Fight; and in it he says, it is not only more material goods that men need but more freedom, more self-direction, more outlet for creativeness, more opportunity for the joy of life, more voluntary cooperation, and less involuntary subservience to purposes not their own. There was very little in there about historical determinism, about class conflict; it's really emancipation of spirit. And it is this sort of thing that Socialism meant to a great many of us at that particular timeparticularly those of us who were coming in through the colleges.
Now this sort of ethical approach to Socialism was really forced by the strong Christian Socialist movement that existed at the time. In the Protestant churches you had a strong Socialist tendency of which Norman Thomas was one of the representatives. Paul Blanchard was a man who had studied for the ministry and who ended up a student secretary of LID; and he also was a very eloquent man who went around the colleges.
Now, Marxismour attitude toward Marxism was a very skeptical one. It was a useful tool of analysis, of intellectual analysis, but one that one used very sparingly like seasoning or a drugif it was in the hands of an expert as a tool of intellectual analysis, it was helpful. If you used it overly much, why, it gave you a distorted view of reality. I know that the most popular meeting of the year at City College was organized by the Social Problems Club, which was a Socialist club at City College at that time. Later on, it was taken over by the Communists. It was run by Morris Raphael Cohen, whom some of you may know as one of America's greatest critical philosophers, in which Cohen went after Karl Marx, much to the great delight of all of us except a few of the really dogmatic Socialists that we had among us. I want to sketch in this background, because I think you will see its significance in terms of later developments.
Another thing I perhaps ought to say about our approach to Socialism was that there was no fear as to where inquiry might lead. The notion that one should stay away from activities or ideas because it might get one into trouble later on never even occurred to us. And if it occurred to us that this might be dangerous, why, the more welcome it would be, because that was our mood.
And also I was reading Stevenson's report on his tour around the world, Call to Greatness; and again to prepare myself for this meeting with you, I read a collection of essays by John Dewey that was published in the 20's, when he had gone around the worldhe had been to the Soviet Union and he had been to China and he had been to Mexico and Turkey. Wherever revolutions were, there was Tom Dewey. And his approach was, these were all wonderful things that were happening, here were new educational techniques being tried out, here were things that America might learn from societies in transition. And in Stevenson's book, and I have the greatest admiration for Adlai StevensonI voted for him, what impressed me was that he talked about the affinity of troubles that one found around the world and the headaches that existed in every country for the U.S. It seem to me that was the difference between the 20's and the 50's. The social change going on represented a challenge, represented something that we might study that might teach us something. Today the social change that is going on around the world is a headache, represents a sea of troubles, represents something that we should be afraid ofwell, not so much afraid of, we should have to worry about it.
Now, one final word about the end of the 20's, and that is, the Communist students. There were very few of them. They were mostly Communist students by virtue of the fact that their parents may have been in the Communist movement. They existed as sectarians who were regarded not quite as crackpots, but almost in such terms; because their language and idiom was the language and idiom of the Comintern. Everybody else who was not a Communist was a Social Fascist, somebody who was paving the way to Fascism. And they and the old-time Young SocialistsYPSL'swere constantly arguing the internecine fights that had taken place in the Socialist movement when it split and the creation of the Communist International. But that was not of much interest to us.
Now, that was the situation on the campus at the time that the Depression started. I can remember sitting with my best friend in the park near City College, and we were discussing the elections of the McDonald government, the Labor government, in 1929 I think it was. We thought that this was going to be the millennium, in terms of the creation of a society where men would realize their best potentialities. Little did we know the course that these things were going to take.
Well, then came the Depression and the rise of Fascism in Germany, it was becoming an ugly force in Italy, and the increase of the danger of war. And the mood on the campus changed, as it changed in the country. All of you have no doubt had a course and studied that period, and you know the stories of the marches, the unemployed for which the government refused to take any responsibility, the farm holidays, and the closing of the banks when Roosevelt came into office. And as the mood of the country changed, the mood on the campus changed. The emphasis was less on ethics and the emancipation of the spirit and more on the politics of doing something about the problems immediately in front of us. There was a greater readiness on the part of students to take to militant activity. If you got into a fight with the Administration, you organized a picket line outside of the Dean's office you almost looked for trouble, because you felt that the Administration represented the Boards of Trustees and the Boards of Trustees represented corporate wealth, and corporate wealth was responsible for the fix in which the country was found, and therefore it didn't matter the issue on which you picked a fight with the Administration, in the end that fight was justified. Perhaps I am almost caricaturing it, but that gives you something of the flavor of it, of the thing. Naturally, you found this thing reflecting itself most sharply in the city colleges, where students came from homes that were immediately affected by the Depression. A lot of the students had families who had sort of begun to rise n the economic scale and had invested their savings in Wall Street and overnight they were out. And it was a hard job for them to remain even in a free city college. And so that tended to increase, strengthened the radical temper on the campus. The breakdown of the Disarmament Conference, the feeling the League of Nations was getting nowhere, sort of created a feeling that we were heading toward another war, not as sharp as one had later on, but it was already there.
Now, the most significant event in terms of the left wing was Hitler's coming to power. This had a twofold effect. For one thing it sort of ended Socialist hopes that you could by gradualism and parliamentary democracy accomplish basic social reforms, and therefore seemed to strengthen the Communist position, that once you got into a position where you could take power, take power and to hell with democratic liberties.
And on the other hand, it had a very sobering effect on the Communist International, because there is no doubt that one of the basic reasons why Hitler was able to come to power in Germany was the fact that the German Communist Party, which was a very powerful party, regarded the German Social Democrats, which was the most powerful party in Germany, as the precursors of Fascism. And they refused to have any kind of united action on a fair basis in order to prevent Hitler from coming to power. Well, the impact in this country among younger people was to sort of begin to blur lines between the Young Socialists and Young Communists, between student socialists and student Communists. Now to you this will seem strange, because FDR was coming to Washington and in a hundred days was transforming the mood, really, of the country, and accomplishing social reforms beyond the dreams of most of the Socialists of Europe. And yet somehow, I've never quite been able to understand why, FDR had so little impact on the students at that time. Now, I'm talking, perhaps, of a very limited group of students, but they were the ones that made the history of the student movement in the 30's. Perhaps it was because we accepted Walter Lippman's idea that FDR was an ineffective figure who had managed to get the Democratic nomination for the Presidency by straddling issues rather than facing the issuesa weak man, and a gentleman, but not a man who could do for the country what had to be done in 1932. No one could have been more wrong than Walter Lippman and no one could have been more wrong than the rest of us, including people like Norman Thomas who in a sense went along with that although we had a left-wing explanation of it. But it amounted to the same thing. The best reflection of this was that in the 1932 Presidential campaign, in all the straw votes that were taken on the campus, on a great many campuses Thomas ran ahead of Roosevelt and Hoover. And I can remember the Madison Square Garden meeting at which the Socialist campaign for President ended in 1932, when thousands of studentswell, that's exaggeratingbut a few thousand students streamed into the Garden, carrying placards saying that Columbia professors may write Roosevelt's speeches, but Columbia students vote for Norman Thomas. And it was almost like a student rally in the Garden. Thomas had caught the imagination of the campus, and I think there were 300 Thomas for President Clubs on the campus.
Well, after the campaign ended, the LID, which was the campus organization of the Socialists, although it carried on adult activities, immediately had secretaries going out to try to bring these people who voted for Thomas into permanent LID chapters. And with a good deal of success. In the meantime there had been a growth in Communist student activity; partly, it was a feeling on the part of students that the Socialists had failed in Europe, partly it was a feeling that the Soviet Union was something that was working. For whatever the reasons may have been, you had a growth of Communist student activity, particularly in the Eastern colleges. The Communists carried off their greatest coup in terms of the student campuses when they organized a student expedition down to Harlan, Kentucky. At that time the coal miners in Harlan, Kentucky were on strike, it was a strike that was called by the National Miners Union, which was a Communist-led union. Of course, John L. Lewis was a... there were certain areas of the country that he wouldn't have anything to do with, and Kentucky was one of the hard nuts to crack. And so the Communists went in and they organized a strike. There was a great deal of Vigilante violence. Kempton talks about this in his book. Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos and others went down there, and were given a Vigilante reception, and that focused the attention of the country upon it, and then we went down. It was a thing that was organized by the Communists but there were a lot of us who were not Communists who were on that expedition. It received enormous attention nationally. We went from one state capitol to another protesting the treatment that was received, and we ended up in Washington, D. C. testifying before a Senate committee that was headed by Senator Costigan, a liberal Senator from Colorado. And as a result, the student league groupsa few Communist student groups then were known as the New York Student Leaguewhich had organized this thing, had an immense success, and they subsequently formed the National Student League, which was the Communist student group on the campus, a national student organization.
Now, what did the student groups dowhat did a student LID group do, or a National Student League group do? What was its program? It is fashionable now to say, I was a Communist, or I was a Socialist in the 30's, because I was interested in the protection of minority rights, or I was interested in the protection of civil liberties, or I wanted to fight against the threat of war, against Fascism. But you know, that isn't the way it really worked. One shouldn't say it, perhaps, but I became a full-time organizer of the Student League for Industrial DemocracyI was a graduate student at Columbia. And I felt that this was not a time in which one could go on studying at the campus, that one had to commit oneself fully to bringing about Socialist society. And that only under Socialism would you get full employment and only under Socialism would you remove the threat of war, and only under Socialism would you end the threat of Fascism and create a situation in which there would be full rights given to minorities. And therefore I went to work full time for the Student League for Industrial Democracy. And my approach to all these issues was, if you interest somebody in fighting war effectively, he will inevitably see that the only way to do it is to become a Socialist. In other words, what I'm trying to say is, it was because I was a Socialist who wanted to see society transformed completely that I became active on these other issues. And it was my hope that through activity these other issues I would be able to bring in students and convert them to Socialism. We weren't afraid to be know as revolutionists. I was editor of the LID Magazine, and I must confess that the first two issues we called Revolt. But even for the radical temper of the times, in the depths of the Depression, that seemed to be a rather sort of immature way of expressing one's Socialism, so we changed it to the more sedate title, Student Outlook. But I couldn't now say, well, it was because I was interested in all these things that everybody's interested in civil liberties, etc.that I got involved with Reds and thatI was a Red... of the Socialist sort, at that particular time. And therefore I was interested in these things. I am saying these things because I want you to get the real flavor of what the situation was at that time and not the way some of us would wish history had been, perhaps. Take a fellow like John Chamberlain. You all know that John Chamberlain now is way over on the right. Well, John Chamberlain then was a young man who was book review editor of the New York Times, and he wrote a book called Farewell to Reform, which was one of the books that all of us were reading at that time on the campuses in the student movement. In other words, that you couldn't do it through gradualism. Another popular book with all of us that we carried under our arms was a book by Curzio Malaparte called Coup d'Etat, and Malaparte was one of Mussolini's men. This book was a technical description of how a small groupa dissident groupcould capture the strategic points of a society and organize a revolution. That's the sort of thing we were interested in. It was immature, jejune, but nevertheless it reflected our attitude at that particular time. And we were interested in campus issueslowering student fees, academic freedom, making the student government a more useful instrument to the student body, campus athleticswe were interested in all these things. Because by interesting ourselves in all these things and organizing campaigns around these issues, we could turn our fellow students into Socialists and Communists. These were immediate issues that a good radical had to be interested in as a way of educating other of his fellows, that they would see the importance or see the fact that only through Socialism could you achieve the ends that you wished. Of course, it was a time in which there were all sorts of fads. I mean there was technocracy for a couple of years, and all the technocrats had their schemes for reorganizing our society overnight; Upton Sinclair had "End Poverty in California" and almost became governor of California; Huey Long with his "Every Man a King" plan. There were these revolutionary nostrums all over; and, as I was active at that time, to me the thing that was so impressive is that perhaps not since the Civil War had American society been as vulnerable to a revolutionary movement as at the depths of the Depression, and here were all of us parading around, calling our magazine Revolt and organizing strikes, proclaiming the fact that we were revolutionariesit didn't occur to anyone that these people should be suppressed, that these ideas were dangerous to American society, that you had to control the thinking of these people. I mean, never in all my... I was looking for some suggestion even from a right-wing groupwe had a few extremely right-wing groups in those daysbut it didn't occur to anyone that the way to deal with these madcap revolutionaries was to outlaw them, to get up an attorney general's list, make it dangerous for them. The whole notion was that, as I learned later, I mean, the approach of FDR and the people around him was that if American society provided outlets for these young people in terms of professional opportunities and provided employment and eradicated some of the economic abuses that brought us to this point, that that would be the answernot the answer to depression...
Now, I want to mention one other phase of student activity, because it became very important later on. I mentioned the growing fear of war, and particularly after Hitler came to power. And this became symbolized on the campus in a curious sort of way. Oxford Union had a meeting, and I don't know who it was that the Oxford Union got up and proposed... They had some sort of debate on war expenditures and somebody got up and propose that this house take a pledge not to fight for king or country. This, of course, appalled the British press. And immediately it was taken up in a lot of other British universities. And then it got transplanted across the Atlantic and we immediately developed our own form of the Oxford pledge not to support our government in any war it might undertake.
And you had all sorts of peace conferences this was one of the things that Socialist and Communist student groups are always organizing. And the Oxford pledge became the thing that you did at a peace conference. It was a good way of expressing your feeling about war, and it almost inevitably meant you would get a headline in the press, and that would start controversy, an d then you could write letters to the editor explaining your point of view and you could have debates in the student bodyit was a way of keeping your program going. Our attitude toward waryou see, each of these things opens up a whole aspect of... chapter of history. It was conditioned by the fact that we all felt that neither side had been right in World War I, that there was no such thing as war guilt. We were very much influenced by the revelations that finally led to the Nye Committee investigation, the belief that it was the munitions makers who had gotten the United States into World War I, and that it was to save the House of Morgan. We had a very simple view of World War I. We were very much influenced by pictures like "All Quiet on the Western Front." You reacted to the thing emotionally. The R.O.T.C. on the campus, instead of having the effect on us of making us see that this was a way of having a citizen armyseeing to it that we didn't develop an officer classwas to us the War Department's insidious plot to capture the youth. And this was an aspect of preparations for war by American Capitalists. And you had this tremendous campaign going on against compulsory R.O.T.C. on the campus. And behind it was the sort of vague myth, I guess is the best thing to call itthe vague idea that if when the Capitalists sat down to declare war on one another, all of us young people who had to fight the war would say, no, we won't go, that then there couldn't be any war. I can only say in extenuation of this notion that it enlisted the support of very intelligent people, including people like Alfred Einstein, who belonged to a thing called the War Resistance League. And this idea was that if two percent of the able-bodied men in all countries were to pledge not to fight under any circumstances, there could be no more wars. Again, this was based on the notion that there was no justice in the marginwar on one side as against the other side. But it was something that the fear of war and the revulsion against war had a very great impact on the campus. Greater, perhaps, than ever we to whom the concern about war was part of our socialist creed, we were always talking about the danger of war. We organized the first student strike against war in 1934. It was organized jointly by the National Student League and the Student League for Industrial Democracy. And we were simply amazed at the response it got on the campus. Well, our statistics aren't any good because we always inflate them, not out of maliciousness but everybody always inflates statistics. But it was a thing that rated a lead story in the New York Times. And it was representative of the mood of young people. Now, of course. we were running into a very violent contradiction in our positionwe were being anti-Fascist and we were being anti-war, and that was something we were going to have to deal with later on. You had to decide which you were going to be, you couldn't be both.
Well, under this threat of war, the spread of Hitlerism, the weakening of the lines between social democracy and communism, the Communists launched a big campaign for a united front. This was worldwide tactic, it had its echo on the campus, where the National Student League came to the Student LID and said, in view of this great danger we have to work together. And if we work together, our forces not only will be multiplied by the addition of our members but there will be so many others who are weary of our bickerings and fights who will come into a united organization. And we in the Socialist student movement, the LID, fought off the united front for a long time because we didn't trust the Communists. And because we felt that their change was only a tactical one and that their object was really to destroy our movement rather than one of genuine cooperation. But you had a situation developing where on a local campus both the Socialist and the Communist student groups were involved in an academic freedom fight or an R.O.T.C. fight and they worked together. And the impact of the general world situation was such that we felt that these quarrels between the NSL and the Student LID were parochial in terms of the dangers that were confronting us, and as a result, the Student LID finally gave up its opposition to working together with the National Student League. At first they were a united front, and then finally we agreed to set up an amalgamated student organization. Which we did at the end of 1935. And this amalgamated student organization became the American Student Union.
But the amalgamated student organization, it is true, consisted of more than the Student LID and the National Student League. A great many unaffiliated liberal clubs came into the organization. And, if I remember correctly, the ratios on our National Executive Committee consisted of twelve people from the Student LID, eight people from the National Student League, and ten people from these independent groups. Now, assuming for a minute that some of those in independents were only so-called independents, that they were either sympathetic to the National Student League or to Student LID, there still was a sizable group of people who were independents and who came into the American Student Union. Creation of the American Student Union also coincided with the development of the Popular Front line on the part of the Communist International. The Soviet Union, faced by the growing menace of Hitlerite Germany, made an about face and came into the League of Nations, as you will remember, and instructed all its Communists to organize Popular Fronts. The widest possible support in each country for the purpose of influencing that country's policy in the direction of collective security. And we were the beneficiaries of that in the student movement, in that the National Student League, when it came into the American Student Union, was interested in having it generally as broad a student organization as possible and was trying toat the time of this movement in general in the United Stateswas trying to move out of its earlier sectarianism.
I don't want to exaggerate the influence of the American Student Union. We always said to ourselves our membership was around 20,000, with chapters on about 125 to 150 campuses. Kempton says in his book that of those 12,000 were dues-paying members and 8,000 never paid any dues. I don't know where he got that statistic, that may have been some statistic that the Young People's Socialist League hadI'm willing to concede it. I think that our active membership was about between 15 and 20,000. But that does not measure the influence of the American Student Union. I don't want to over-exaggerate the influence of the American Student Union, yet I think that the left-wing student groups had an influence on the campus that was larger than thecertainly much largerthan the influence of the Communist and Socialist Parties in our American society as a whole. That's understandable. The young people are more generous, when they turn to the idea of reform, they are not restrained by feeling that this might be dangerous for their jobs, that their families might suffer. You went whole-hog, in a way which when you are older you don't do. When you are older you also have had some experience with the tricks that history plays on all absolutist movements and so you are more cautious about joining them. And so, while as a whole I think that the 50's exaggerate greatly the role that the left-wing played in the New Deal, I don't think that they exaggerate the role that the left wing had on the campus. This is not to say that there were not large numbers of students who were outside our organizationof course, there were. I only mentioned the figure 20,000 membersthat already indicates the story. And yet, given the problems of the times, the Depression, and even with the New Deal reforms, you still had between five and ten million unemployed up until we got into the war period. And, of course, the Fascism and the war in Spain, which had an enormous impact on campus. You can understand why the campus was vitally concerned in a way that I don't think it has ever been since or was before. And since we were the people that regarded ourselves as missionaries in this field, naturally people who wanted to be active became members of the American Student Union. Just as members of the American Student Union who wanted to dedicate themselves completely became members of the Socialist Party or members of the Communist Party. This is the way it worked on the campus.
Now, in addition to the American Student Union, there were other reflections of this. There was a thing called the United Student Peace Committee on a national scale. The United Student Peace Committee consisted of the national student organizations that had also had campus groupsfor example, National Student Federation of America, which was the organization of student governing bodiesthis was on the United Student Peace Committee. The Intercollegiate Christian Council, which consisted of representatives of the student Christian movement, was on the United Student Peace Committee. And after the first student strike, it was the United Student Peace Committee that organized the subsequent student strikes against war and other types of peace activity on the campus. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the American Student Union was the dynamo in this activity.
Now, because the Communists were now Popular Fronters and were trying to have an influence on government policy so as to turn the American toward international cooperation, because that was the interest of the Soviet Union, there was a change in the evaluation of FDR among the Communists which was reflected in the American Student Union. Whereas in the Student LID and NSL you had hostility toward FDR and the New Deal as a sort of Kerensky type movement, which is what, of course, also the right wing considered it; now the evaluation changed and you found that the Communists were becoming militant exponents of the deal. Supporting its objectives but saying it was not going far enough and fast enough. And at the same time you had a lot of, as I mentioned before, independent students who had come into the American Student Union who were basically New Dealers rather than Socialists or Communists. And this had a very great effect on the American Student Union.
Meanwhile, as the Communists were moving toward the New Deal, the Socialists were moving in the opposite direction. The Socialist Party, as the danger of war proved greater, became more isolationist. This partly the reflection of Norman Thomas' leadership. Norman Thomas had been a pacifist in World War I and he was basically a pacifist in the 30's. It was also a reaction to the Communists. It was great fun to be able to taunt the Communists with becoming reformists and taunt them with all the taunts that they had taunted the Social Democrats. And to say we were now the true militant Socialists, the true militant revolutionaries. You found this particularly among the young Socialists.
And then in addition there was aI don't want to go too much into the splintered politics of the left wing, but there was a Trotskyite movement, and the Trotskyites were split off from the official Stalinist movement. I don't know how many Trotskyists there were on the campusmaybe a couple of hundred. But they came into the Young People's Socialist League, and that made the Young Socialists even more sectarian than they would otherwise have been. Well, this created tough going in the American Student Union. I was a Socialist, but I was moving over in the direction of FDR and the New Deal and in the direction of collective security and away from the earlier notions, as were a lot of us who were active in the American Student Union and had come in as Socialists. The Communists were moving in that direction. And here were the Socialists moving in the other direction. It came to a head at the Vassar convention of the American Student Union in 1937. It came over the issue of the Oxford pledge. A great many of us felt, due to the increase in Hitler's strength, that in light of what had happened in Spain, that the Fascists had given aid to Francothat the Oxford pledge, based on the notion that all sides were equally responsible for any war that might break out and that if war broke out between Fascism and Democracy that we would have no stake in the victory of Democracy, and that we should... that any effort on the part of this country to collaborate with other democracies to prevent the strengthening of Fascism, that the notion that this meant a way of involving us in war that all this was wrong. And the showdown came at Vassar. And the Socialists lost out. I had by that time resigned from the Socialist Party and was moving in the direction of the Communists. Some of the others, Maury George, had resigned from the Socialist Partyno, I think Maury still remained in the Socialist Party. Anyway, the Vassar convention, since a large part of the press felt that collective security was the right thing, got a great deal of publicity. It attracted the attention of the Administration, which was looking for support in its efforts to break America from its isolationist position. We were good organizerswhen we put on a show, we put or a good show. You know that 1937 was the second year of the Japanese attack on China, and there was a big movement on to boycott Japanese silk. Well, we organized a bonfire in which all the girls threw their silk panties. It took other forms at this time, but it was a good start, if you were trying to attract attention to a political position.
Well, the result of the Vassar convention was that the Socialists became pretty much an opposition force in the American Student Union and began to drop out of the American Student Union. Meanwhile, the Communists...
Well, after the Vassar convention, the American Student Union, I think by self-appointment, certainly nobody in the Administration ever dubbed us so, became a sort of a student brain of the New Deal. We didn't have any exclusive right to consider ourselves the student brain of the New Deal, there were Democratic clubs on the campus, but they were not too active. And, as the struggle in Washington intensified and the Democratic Party split over the Court Reform Bill, the New Deal began to look around for allies, and some of the New Deal people, like Harold Ickes, and... Mrs. Rooseveltnot with the American Student Union, with the American Youth Congressand her interest was not primarily a political interest, it was concerned with young people and what was happening to them in the Depression. But Audrey Williams and othersFiorello LaGuardia in New Yorkthey looked at the American Student Union as a useful ally in the effort to carry the New Deal forward after 1937.
This was pretty much the situation. We had a strong movement, a movement that was respected on the campus. The Popular Front line went to the point that our 1938 convention was organized around the theme of making the university a more effective instrument of democracy, and at that point we even called off our war on the Administration. We were sufficiently generous to say that even college presidents felt with us the threat to which democracy... the threat to democracyand were allies in this struggle, and that we should cooperate with the college administrations.
The 1938 convention, the emphasis was on curriculum reform, making the student government a more effective instrument of student democracy, on improving relationships between student and professor and between student, professor and administrator. We couldn't quite yet accept the boards of trustees. It was a little difficult for us, and so we had sort of mixed feelings about them. Well, at the 1938 convention, which was a year after Vassar, and it was after Munich, we ended our opposition to R.O.T.C. And we said that students should get military training if they could for it might be necessary.
And in general, we were sort of being domesticated into American society by the impact of history and by the fact that a great many administration figures were flexible, hospitable people who understood some of the problems that younger people were facing and didn't hold against us some of the revolutionary slogans that we had used in the past, and saw that groups such as ours were evolving into constructive groups.
Of course, the key thing was the growth of Fascism, which was a terrible thing, particularly after Munich, and the feeling that this was an Iron Age, especially lf Spain went down, and the necessity to organize all forces in the struggle against Fascism. And, of course, it then came just like a complete thunderclap to have the Russians turn around and make a pact with the Nazis. That happened in the fall of 1939. Immediately some of us who had practically regarded ourselves as Communists, because the Communists we felt were the most potent expressers of some of these things, said that we couldn't go along. And in the top leadership of the American Student Union, as in every campus organization, you had this split taking place between those who were prepared to swallow this and those who were not prepared to swallow this.
The issue was fought out at the Wisconsin convention of the American Student Union in December, 1939, and those of us who were opposed to... As soon as the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, the Communists turned around and recalled the war... the previous war that had broken out and became great isolationists and instead of urging American help to the democracies, resumed their old line of American help to the democracies was a way of involving us in an imperialist war. And at the Madison convention that was the basic issue, the resolution on peace policy. And those of us who were for collective security and for continued support of the New Deal lost by a vote of approximately 250. I refused to run again as National Secretary of the American Student Union. Some of the chapters that were under the control of the liberals as distinguished from the Communists, such as Harvard, Swarthmore, Vassar, decided they would stay in for a while just to see where the vote of the convention was reflected in the vote on the campus. And so Maury George and Agnes Reynolds in the national office stayed in the national office, although they were in violent disagreement with the Communist position. But the thing couldn't go on, and the liberal groups split off from the American Student Union within another half year and set up a thing called the Student League for Liberal Action
Well, I'm going to run through this very hastily, because I want to go onto some other problems The course of events then was that some of us went to work in International Student Services were invited by the board of ISS, which had a Communist problem of its own, to come in and help, and ISS became the center of organizing... training leadership capable of coping with the Communist groups on the campus. We had a summer student leadership institute somewhat comparable to those up at Campobello, the summer home of the President.
We had conferences going onregional conferences and local campus conferences on the problems connected with the war. Since ISS was not a political action group, some more politically-minded people set up a thing called Student Defenders of Democracy which urged aid to the allies and was internationalist in its position. And then, of course, when the Germans attacked the Russians, our erstwhile Communist friends came around to us and said, let bygones be bygones, let's cooperate. And we said never again. I will go into the reasons for that decision in a moment.
At this point, this story so far as I am concerned, no longer become a personal one. I went into the Army, the ISS organized an International Student Assembly, which with the help of Mrs. Roosevelt became a very important event to which the British, the French in exile... well, all the nations on the U.S. side sent delegations in Washington, including the Russians. The feeling of those of us who had planned that conference was that, particularly any connections by the student groups in a great many countries, would play an important political role, and that the best channel this country would have toward talking with those students and having an influence on them would be through an international student organization.
Well, as I say, I went into the Army and the group flounderedthat is, the U.S. groupin a quarrel between those who felt that the role of students should be just to study and those who felt that the role of students also should be to take a part and to play a political part, in their life and times. And so, the ISS again became a relief and study organization. But in any case, the men were off to war, there wasn't anybody left to carry on...
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