“The Movement” Gives Birth to NACLA

September 25, 2007

The first issue of NACLA Newsletter, the magazine that was to become NACLA Report on the Americas, rolled off a mimeograph machine in New York in February 1967. The North American Congress on Latin America, its fledgling publisher, had just come together as a coalition of “New Left” student activists. The new group was very much a creature of what was simply called “the movement” in the United States of the mid 1960s: the loose grouping of forces opposed to the war in Vietnam, actively supportive of civil rights and liberation movements, attracted by alternative lifestyles and cultures, and increasingly distrustful of the U.S. role in the world. When the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in April 1965, the “movement” reacted quickly and strongly. It was out of that reaction that NACLA was formed.

In this context, NACLA’s understanding of U.S. policies and power was formed by looking at the United States from a Latin American perspective, through a Latin American lens. The United States and Latin America were seen as operating within the same system. Contradictions in the system were seen as frequently bubbling up and becoming visible in Latin America first. And the contradictions that most caught the attention of the early Naclistas were questions involving U.S. interventions that violated Washington’s self-declared democratic principles: the 1954 CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the reformist Arbenz regime in Guatemala; the 1961 invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs by a Florida-based anti-Castro mercenary force; the 1965 invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic. Later, the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s elected government in Chile and the U.S. role in the Central American wars of the 1980s would dominate NACLA’s agenda.

NACLA was born in a series of meetings in conference rooms, kitchens and living rooms around campuses in the Midwest and East Coast. The new group, announced its organizers, would be a source of reliable information and analysis on Latin America that could be of use to activists. It would focus on systemic analyses of wealth and power in the Americas rather than on scandals or policy “mistakes.” It would be informed by a belief that what happened in the United States was integrally related to what happened in the rest of the world.

The New Left never marched to the beat of a single drummer—nor even to the beats of a few easily identifiable drummers—and this was to be reflected in NACLA’s own development. Within New Left ranks were groups and collections of individuals that spawned, inspired and incorporated a plethora of liberation movements and alternative lifestyles; it included groups who declared themselves in solidarity with the militant struggles of peoples of color in the United States and with a broad spectrum of Third World liberation movements; it included groups that gave birth to the modern women’s and gay movements. If the New Left as a whole had an organizational presence on U.S. campuses, it was in a loose knit group called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). For the most part, SDS members of the mid 1960s declared themselves “non-Communist” but not “anti-Communist,” seeking to separate themselves from the official “anti-Communism” that was the chief justification for the suppression of dissent and social equality in what was then called the “free world.” Later, in the rapid radicalization and fragmentation of the movement, some “new” new leftists would indeed declare themselves communists, but at the moment of NACLA’s founding, the goals New Leftists saw themselves fighting for were “participatory democracy,” social inclusion and an end to the global hegemony of the then-superpowers.

Looking toward Latin America (for many North Americans, discovering Latin America for the first time), the student movement developed strong sympathies for groups seeking to liberate themselves from dictatorship, underdevelopment and “Yanqui” imperialism. These sympathies were activated when the United States invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in April 1965. They remained strong as Washington played an ambiguous role in the Dominican presidential election one year later.

Two of NACLA’s founders, Fred Goff and Procter Lippincott had served as election monitors. Dismayed by this experience and frustrated by the lack of any independent sources of information on the Dominican Republic, [See “U.S. Role in D.R.”], they discussed the formation of an independent research center that might play a critical role in the transformation of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Latin America.

Goff spent the summer of 1966 touring eastern and midwestern campuses in search of recruits for the project. In Ann Arbor he came across the work of an SDS activist and graduate student named Mike Locker who was researching the structure of the Dominican sugar industry. Locker, today an independent trade union consultant, remembers Goff’s first call: “I’m a suspicious type of guy so I said ‘What’s your background?’ He said ‘I’m from a missionary family. I speak fluent Spanish. I was down there for the Free Election Committee.’ So I said come up,” even though at first, “I was suspicious of Fred.” This was because of Goff’s personal history and because “the Free Election Committee was, in my opinion, a highly suspect organization. I don’t know how you hold a free election in an occupied country.” When Goff came to Ann Arbor, Locker recalls “he comes to the house where I had been living, walks into the living room and—remember this is the sixties—looks as straight as an arrow.” Despite this, says Locker, “we hit it off. I trusted him and I think he trusted me. Both of us were interested in good research, in solid information that was documented and not rhetorical. And that became a very important feature among the founding principles of NACLA: Knock out the rhetoric and go straight to the facts. I would call it ‘scholarly propaganda,’ persuading people through facts and information that what you feel is true and correct, not through rhetorical flourish and ideological citations.”

Locker agreed with Goff and Lippincott’s vision of creating an institute or a study center that would focus specifically on Latin America. They were concerned with creating “alternative lifestyles” within alternative institutions: An independent, unaffiliated, unencumbered base was one of their objectives, along with collective decision making, equality of tasks, clear political purpose, non-exclusion, openness to people of very different points of view. By the fall, Goff, Lippincott and Locker had become the working core of the new project.

Meanwhile, a campus religious group called the University Christian Movement (UCM) had formed a Latin American Concerns Committee with a mandate to work for changes in U.S. Latin America policy, to participate in the formation of study groups and dialogues with groups in Latin America and to look into starting a publication. Richard Shaull, a Christian theologian and activist who had been in Santo Domingo as the mainstream Protestant representative on the Dominican election commission, was then teaching at Princeton Seminary. (As this is written, we have been informed of Shaull’s death after a long bout with cancer.) In October, he hosted a two-day meeting of the UCM subgroup at Princeton.

A second meeting took place in Chicago on November 5 and 6 and is thought of by those who attended to be the founding meeting of NACLA. The minutes record 23 people being present. To the best of everyone’s memory, it was at the Chicago meeting that the name “North American Congress on Latin America” first emerged. The word “congress” resonated from a recent gathering called the Congress of Unrepresented People, a meeting of civil rights, antiwar and labor activists who had met to organize challenges to a broad variety of U.S. policies. The newly named NACLA was seen by the activists who met in Chicago as an extension of the work of that congress.

A few weeks later in New York, the first meeting of NACLA’s Administrative Committee was convened at the Interchurch Center—nicknamed “the God Box”—the uptown Manhattan headquarters of several Protestant denominations. In attendance were provisional staffers Goff and Lippincott, and four “directors”: Christian activists Shaull, Glenn Smiley and Brady Tyson, and Time correspondent John Gerrasi. It was decided to issue a communique announcing the formation of NACLA and “to begin a temporary house organ-newsletter.” On February 11, the first public meeting took place at New York University. The first issue of what was to become the NACLA Report, then called the NACLA Newsletter, was published in time for the meeting. It consisted of ten stapled-together, mimeographed pages.

NACLA had begun with a focus very specifically on the Dominican Republic and U.S. foreign policy; it moved quickly to a focus on the structure of Latin American political institutions and their relation to North American institutions, and moved from there to a critique of what NACLA came to call “the Empire”: the U.S.-dominated system of inter-American relations. NACLA’s key activity became empirical research. The idea was to reveal the basic structures of power and influence on U.S. Latin America policy. NACLA’s early power structure research, in the radical empirical tradition pioneered by the sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s, was meant to shed light on interlocking structures of political and economic power throughout the Americas.

The times were right for that kind of research; young activists hungered for data and hard information: Who’s in charge of the universities? Who owns the companies doing business in Latin America? Who controls foreign policy? Who rules the Americas? It was business as usual that NACLA’s research uncovered, not scandals that could be seen as aberrations from the normal functioning of the system. Many young students, for the first time, felt as though blinders had been removed from their eyes. After the American celebration of the early postwar era, this kind of information had the power to move and to radicalize.

From the mid 1960s through the mid 1970s, a radical sensibility, a willingness to challenge all beliefs and a sense that all was not well in the “free world” had a significant presence on U.S. campuses. Combined with this radical sensibility was a fundamental optimism that this new questioning could be channeled into constructive projects for radical change. Writing in a 1973 issue of the pacificist WIN Magazine, SDS chronicler Kirkpatrick Sale cited a 1970 Playboy college poll that found “15% who assert the need for revolution in this country,” and a Daniel Yankelovitch poll that found “between 11 and 15% of the college population consistently favoring revolutionary change.” NACLA reflected and served these attitudes.

While large parts of the movement were inspired, motivated and educated by the nonviolent sit-ins, freedom rides and freedom marches of the southern Civil Rights movement, and many activists revered the memories of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, many middle class U.S. students, influenced by a wide variety of Third World and anti-racist domestic movements, declared themselves in solidarity with “armed self-defense” of one sort or another, and others took to the study of revolutionary Marxism and the practice of Marxism-Leninism. What brought together this diverse collection of beliefs and ideologies into a frequently unified movement was a shared outrage at the multiple levels of oppression that had become suddenly visible in the United States and at the hands of U.S. power, a shared hope for significant political and social change and a shared faith that the agency for that change was at hand in the vast plurality of movements of the day. It was within this world that the Dominican invasion inflamed already existing passions; that the creation of small new groups to oppose war and injustice aroused hopes.

Judith Adler Hellman, who now teaches political science at York University in Toronto, was then Judy Adler, an undergraduate at Cornell and an activist in a group called the Cornell Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations, founded, like NACLA, after the invasion of the Dominican Republic. She attended NACLA’s February meeting at NYU and remembers the moment quite clearly: “The two things I remember from that meeting were first of all that I did not talk at all. I was thrilled, mesmerized and excited, but this was a year or so before feminism would change everything and I just sat and listened to the men. Second, I recall a lot of discussion about the term ‘congress’ in the name and the importance of linking ourselves to the ‘congress of unrepresented people.’ And I decided then that I wanted to work at NACLA. It would be the answer to my dreams of doing something that counted, working with really good people and all the rest. It was really rather a different idea, the idea that privileged middle class college graduates could explicitly make use of those privileges and put them at the service of the movement.”

By February, NACLA had a paid and volunteer staff consisting of six people working out of the Presbyterian offices at the God Box. Goff, Lippincott, Locker, Edie Black, Peter Henig and Stoney Shaull, were all working at least part time. By April, the staff had grown to 11, two of whom were on the full-time payroll. Through the first year, NACLA was given free office space in the Presbyterian offices. Printing of the newsletter, promotional materials, stationery and small pamphlets was also underwritten by the Presbyterians. Those in-kind contributions aside, NACLA’s first annual budget, including salaries, stood at just over $11,000. Sources of income were newsletter sales (about $200 per month) and grants from the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Division of Youth Ministries of the National Council of Curches and the UCM. Few thought the group would survive long.

Tags: NACLA, movement, leftist politics, media

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