A Brief History of NSA and USSA
By Angus Johnston, historian of American student activism
Although discussions of the student movement frequently begin and end with the radical activism of the 1960s, the real history of the movement in the United States begins far earlier. American students have been organizing on a national level for more than a century, and USSA has been an important part of that organizing since the end of the Second World War—as a nascent national student union in the late forties, as a cautiously liberal group in the fifties, as an increasingly activist federation of student governments in the sixties, as a radical antiwar outfit in the early seventies, and as a broad-based progressive advocacy organization in the eighties and nineties. Today USSA remains the largest, most inclusive national student association in the United States.
In 1946 students from the United States and 37 other countries met in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to launch the International Union of Students, a confederation of national student unions. Although strong national student organizations had flourished in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, each had disbanded by the end of the war, and the Americans returned from Prague convinced of the need for a fresh start. Hundreds of students attended a planning meeting in Chicago that December, and the Constitutional Convention of the United States National Student Association (NSA) was held at the University of Wisconsin at Madison the following summer.
NSA was oriented around campus concerns from its earliest days, working to strengthen student government, enhance civil liberties on the American campus, and expand access to higher education. NSA’s 1947 Student Bill of Rights was a milestone in American student history—one of the nation’s earliest and most comprehensive articulations of the principle that students were deserving of adult respect within the university.
From the beginning, some NSA members argued that the association should avoid taking on political causes, but others contended that the membership had a right to address any problem that affected students and a responsibility to consider issues of national concern. NSA discovered early on that there was no easy way to make the distinction between ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ actions—the association alienated some of its members when it went on the record in opposition to educational segregation at its first meeting, and again when it elected Ted Harris, an African American from Pennsylvania, to its presidency in 1948.
In 1951 NSA condemned “mccarthyism” after a lengthy debate on whether capitalizing the term would be too personal an attack on Senator McCarthy himself, and in 1953 the association condemned South African apartheid, but only as it affected higher education. Such cautious liberalism drew harsh criticism from both the right and the left, with conservatives accusing NSA of being a Communist front while the Communist Party denounced it as fascist.
The Cold War and the Fifties
The 1950s brought financial difficulties, and in 1951 three of NSA’s five staff positions were eliminated. The US government had taken a new interest in student politics as the cold war got underway, particularly once it became obvious that IUS was permanently aligned with the Communist bloc. Although NSA embraced a range of student voices, the group’s leadership was generally moderate, and NSA’s relationship with the government was a comfortable one.
It was in this context that the Central Intelligence Agency began secretly funding NSA’s international office in the early 1950s. For more than a decade, a small clique of NSA officers and staff worked closely with CIA officials, while others in NSA leadership, particularly those who worked solely on domestic issues, were kept in the dark. Although a few students later claimed that their co-operation had been coerced, for the most part they were motivated by self-interest and a sincere belief in the rightness of the government’s cause.
The Movements of the Sixties
By the end of the 1950s NSA was becoming more politically active, and in 1959 the group hired an alumna named Constance Curry to open a civil rights office in Atlanta. When student sit-ins against segregation began to spread throughout the South in early 1960, Curry provided funds and logistical support to the activists, and when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was organized that spring, she was made a member of its executive committee.
NSA played a vital role in the wave of student activism that rose in the early 1960s, doing much to advance a student-centered vision for the American university. Many of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) became involved in national activism through NSA, and thousands of students got their first glimpse of the civil rights and antiwar movements through NSA events. Although SNCC and SDS were often critical of NSA’s national leadership’s moderation, they relied on the association for volunteers, publicity, and national networking.
At the same time, right-wing criticism of NSA grew sharper. At the 1961 Congress the newly formed Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) attempted to seize power in NSA, charging that it was controlled by the “far left.” In 1966 a California Congressman attacked NSA on the floor of the House, citing a State Department grant that had funded a trip to Vietnam by the NSA president, and urging Congress to “consider requiring the Department to cease its support of this radical organization which is subverting American foreign policy.”
By the mid-sixties, many of NSA’s incoming officers were perturbed by the group’s CIA ties, and the association began taking steps to disentangle itself from the agency. By late 1966 CIA funding had slowed to a trickle, and the relationship was on the verge of disintegration.
Eventually the question of how to resolve the dilemma was taken out of NSA’s hands. Michael Wood, a former staffer who had been informed of the arrangement, told a reporter from Ramparts magazine, which broke the story in February 1967. The Ramparts article exposed the CIA’s links to NSA and a long list of other supposedly independent organizations, sparking a national scandal.
In the wake of the revelations, however, NSA thrived. The 1967 Congress passed a resolution endorsing the Black Power movement’s struggle “by any means necessary,” and withdrew NSA from membership in the cold war international group it had founded. Delegates renewed the association’s commitment to student power and university reform, and cheered when a network television commentator called NSA “a left-wing radical outfit.”
That same Congress launched one of the most extraordinary campaigns in American political history. Allard Lowenstein, a former NSA president and Democratic activist, persuaded the group to initiate a task force to attempt to deny Lyndon Johnson renomination for President in 1968, replacing him with a candidate who was committed to ending the war in Vietnam. This “Dump Johnson” movement led directly to Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy’s antiwar candidacies for President of the United States, and culminated in LBJ’s stunning early 1968 announcement that he would not seek re-election.
NSA, the National Student Lobby, and USSA
NSA now reached out to constituencies it had slighted in the past. The 1969 Congress featured workshops on gay rights and a new pledge of support to activists of color, and two years later the association elected its first ever woman president, Marge Tabankin. At the same time, however, the ideal of liberal-left coalition that had guided NSA through the previous decade came under strain as the association’s membership was further radicalized by assassinations, government brutality, and the continuing war. As the sixties closed and the seventies began SNCC faded away, SDS shattered, and NSA turned toward more radical attempts to achieve social change.
In 1972 NSA’s president traveled to North Vietnam to gather evidence of US violations of international law, hoping to lay groundwork for a war crimes trial. Actions like these earned NSA a place on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” and caused division among activists as well.
In 1971 a group of California students had broken away, dissatisfied with NSA’s lack of focus on legislative organizing. They soon formed a new group, the National Student Lobby (NSL), to lobby the states and the federal government on issues such as economic access to higher education.
But the pendulum was already swinging back. In 1974 NSA created a separate foundation to carry out non-political work. This move allowed the association to become more involved in lobbying, and encouraged cooperation with NSL. In August 1978 a joint meeting of the two groups overwhelmingly approved a merger, naming the new group the United States Student Association. Leadership was chosen from the ranks of both, and at the prodding of the National Third World Student Coalition, today known as the National People of Color Student Coalition (NPCSC), new guidelines were put in place to ensure the diversity of campus delegations.
Grassroots Legislative Work and Student Activism
USSA won legislative victories on a variety of issues in the years that followed. Direct funding referenda and other new income sources provided financial stability, and made it possible for the organization to provide new services. In the early 1980s USSA began to provide organized assistance to state student associations, and in 1985 the group co-sponsored the first Grass Roots Organizing Weekend (GROW) for campus leaders. In 1991 USSA entered a new era of activism with the hiring of its first regional field organizer, and in 1999 the association partnered with Jobs With Justice to create the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), an effort to connect students with their surrounding communities and help them form new relationships with on-campus workers.
USSA took a bold step toward multicultural leadership in 1989 when the Congress mandated that people of color fill half the seats on association’s Board of Directors. The diversity of the NPCSC delegation guaranteed that no racial group would gain a majority of seats, and ensured communication and organizing across racial lines at the highest levels of the organization. In succeeding years similar amendments ensured the representation of women and LGBT students on the board, and USSA entered its second half-century with a model of multiculturalism that was based on coalition and commonality of interest.
The last few years have presented new challenges and new opportunities to USSA and its members, as students across the country have met rising tuition and student debt, decreased higher education funding, and administrative and police crackdowns on dissent with a new wave of student activism. USSA’s place in the new student movement is one of the major questions of the current moment.
In 1949 an educational journal declared that NSA was charting a course “between the extremes” of American political thought, and two decades later Newsweek reported that NSA’s membership extended “to the right of [YAF founder] Bill Buckley and to the left of [SDS founder] Tom Hayden.” That both of these statements remain true today is a testament to USSA’s strength, and indicates the unique position that the United States Student Association occupies in American history.
USSA is the oldest and largest student group in the country, and in many ways its story is the story of the last six decades of the American student movement. Few advocacy organizations have been as successful in adapting to changing times, and no group has ever educated and inspired to action as many students. As American higher education moves into the future, USSA remains a significant force on the American campus and beyond.
©2012 Angus Johnston.
Angus Johnston is a historian of American student activism and the founder of the website studentactivism.net. He served as USSA’s National Corporate Secretary from 1990 to 1992, and later wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of the National Student Association. He lives in New York City, travels frequently to speak and consult with student governments and activist groups, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @studentactivism.