A Bent for "Scholarly Propaganda"

This article forms part of Fred Rosen's institutional history of NACLA, published for the 35th Anniversary issue, vol 36 issue 3 (Nov/Dec 2002). The full issue is available here

Soon, however, the fledgling organization was turning out a lengthening list of publications: Early NACLA Newsletters included analyses of the penetration of Latin America by U.S. corporate interests: “Kaiser’s Global Empire,” “The Hanna Industrial Complex,” “Brown Bros. Harriman,” “The Rockefeller Empire.” In 1968 NACLA published a carefully documented study of one university’s ties to corporate and military power called Who Rules Columbia? In 1969, NACLA told everyone else how to probe power in a pamphlet that became—in movement terms—something of a best-seller, the Research Methodology Guide.

The idea behind all these works was to understand the system in order to change it. Back in the mid 1960s, in the spirit of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous 1961 farewell warning to beware of the “military industrial complex,” NACLA founder Mike Locker, then a radical sociology student at the University of Michigan, had been researching the composition of that complex, a complicated network of military and business interests and institutions. “Suddenly,” he remembers, “the United States invaded the Dominican Republic in a massive, overwhelming way, under the pretext of defeating a Communist insurgency. It was quite obvious to me that the pretext was 99% baloney. It was a justification for U.S. domination and it deserved some research and analysis. So I started looking into it and I discovered the sugar industry which I then knew nothing about. But when you look at the Dominican Republic and you look at the Caribbean—more so in that period than now—you see that sugar was the dominant force. So I started doing some research on who influenced sugar policy in the United States. What was the ‘sugar power elite’? And who pops up but Ellsworth Bunker. Bunker was Lyndon Johnson’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and special envoy to the Dominican Republic. He was the former president and a large shareholder of National Sugar Refining Corporation, the second largest sugar company in the United States. Right off the bat, this was interesting. Then there was Abe Fortas, Special Counsel to the President: board member of the Sucrest Corporation, very big in Puerto Rico, a large molasses importer. Then there was Averell Harriman, on the Board of Directors and with strong financial ties to the National Sugar Refining Corporation.

“So here was a power structure that I felt was largely influencing what U.S. policy and direction was all about. Was it a conspiracy? No, it wasn’t a conspiracy; it was a culture. Interests were clearly articulated. Preserving interests and preserving environments friendly to those interests was essential, and the U.S. government was obviously making itself available in that capacity.”

In the late 1960s, Michael Klare, now a prominent analyst of the arms industry and U.S. military policy, was a graduate student in art history at Columbia University, an antiwar activist and a member of SDS. “For some reason, maybe my scholarly bent, I got attracted to the research part of the movement, in particular, seeking out the ties between academic institutions—particularly Columbia—and what we called the military industrial complex. There’s a detective work aspect to research that has always appealed to me. I became a kind of research activist, and that activity became a key factor in the Columbia student strike of 1968.”

He had heard through friends that a radical organization called NACLA was making “research and exposure” a central part of its mission. “I was drawn to that and started hanging out with the NACLA folks and found the atmosphere congenial, especially compared with the more revolutionary and violent modes of activity that were proliferating at the time.” Klare did much of the research that went into the early NACLA power structure studies and the documentation of the military industrial complex on U.S. campuses. In particular, he worked on a politically explosive pamphlet that documented Columbia University’s links to the corporate and defense establishments of the Vietnam era. The pamphlet was called Who Rules Columbia? Data, he remembers, came from obscure library sources: military research journals, histories from the “Columbiana” section of the Columbia library, New York City records and deeds. Most notably, the pamphlet also drew from documents from the university president’s own files.

Jon Frappier, now a private investigator near San Francisco, recalls how the files were obtained: In May, 1968, several thousand Columbia students, on strike to protest the university administration’s plan to build a new gym in Harlem’s Morningside Park, and opposed as well to the university’s research complicity with the war in Vietnam, seized several campus buildings, including the administration offices. “We were sitting around the office at 106th and Amsterdam and another staff member came running in and said ‘they’ve just taken over President [Grayson] Kirk’s office at Columbia and what are we going to do?’ And as I remember, we didn’t discuss it very long; we all just packed up and went down there for the duration of the strike. People were copying and distributing documents found in Kirk’s office and it was all right there, the complicity with the military and the CIA.” The “liberated documents” gave great impetus to “Who Rules Columbia?” “We were able to get it off the presses by graduation day. I think we sold a thousand copies that day. Not only were we able to document the charges against the university, but we were part of the efforts to change its policies.”

Frappier had been Mike Locker’s housemate in Ann Arbor, and an activist with SDS and with an SDS offshoot called the Radical Education Project. After a trip to Guatemala in early 1966, Frappier had returned to Ann Arbor and learned of the tentative plans to start something that would eventually become NACLA. “We had all been active in the antiwar movement, working on Ann Arbor’s first teach-in in 1965, for example, and I remember not really buying some of the arguments that the liberals were putting out that the Vietnam war was just an aberration. So one of the discussions we had about trying to combat this was that we needed to show in some systematic way that this was how the U.S. imperialistic operation was, and that Vietnam was no aberration at all, and that there were so many things happening in Latin America and the history of Latin America that provided what we needed to show people in this country that this was endemic to the system.”

He went to New York in the fall of 1967 after Goff and Lippincott had set up shop. He got a job with Ramparts magazine which had a contract to write a book on secret funding of domestic and foreign organizations by the CIA. “This was after Ramparts had broken the story of the National Student Association getting [CIA] funds. There was a group of us doing that research and working at NACLA. That’s how I started.”

This early work was self-consciously in the spirit of the great radical journalist I.F. Stone’s credo: Everything is there to be revealed. The truth is in front of you. NACLA was not uncovering arcane information, but revealing the forces at play which, once they were understood, could be dealt with more effectively. Lippincott remembers a NACLA meeting with Stone. “He said if you’re not really committed to doing this on a long-term basis, don’t do it. His house was filled with newspapers. He had every newspaper you can imagine, and clippings. We were all clipping fanatics. He suggested that sometimes it was the small, seemingly unimportant news items obscurely situated in the paper that were, in fact, the mega stories, and that typically you had to hunt through a number of papers to find them.”

“We tried to deepen that orientation,” says Goff, “by focusing on the economic interests behind U.S. foreign policy and then how the military and police forces were brought to bear” to implement that policy. The early focus led to a combination of political theory and intensive empirical research. In 1969 NACLA published its manual on empirical corporate research, the Research Methodology Guide. “This was one of the key origins of what became known as ‘the corporate campaign,’” says Goff. “We drew material from mainstream sources and footnoted everything.”

On the basis of this kind of work, NACLA was able to bring together a fairly broad spectrum of people unhappy with U.S. policy. The early meetings and discussions were attended by people from Christian, Marxist, civil rights and antiwar groups, as well as by professional journalists and academics. It was not always, as Goff comments, “a compatible group of people, but NACLA managed to hold it together. I think that’s always been one of the strengths of NACLA, to be able to speak to a very wide group, to bring people together not necessarily to agree but to work in concert.” The idea, he remembers, was to create “an activist organization whose role was never totally clear, but it would focus on trying to change U.S. policy, trying to create a ‘foreign policy public’ that could create change.”

The lack of clarity was both a strength and a constant source of tension. It gave rise not only to political conflicts but to conflicts over NACLA’s role. Judy Hellman remembers the ambivalence felt by some Naclistas at being “comfortable” researchers when others were taking great personal and physical risks and making great sacrifices. “There was a pervasive sense that we were on the verge of a huge political upheaval,” she remembers. “We all thought that. But my sense was that the people in NACLA were people who had made a different choice; that we were not in a political party, and we were not in a clandestine situation, we were just doing this other thing, theoretically convinced that it was the thing to do. For me, the great irony and contradiction of working for NACLA in 1970-71 is that on the one hand the people working there recognized, accepted and embraced the fundamental notion that we had a contribution to make as a research arm of the movement.... In contradiction to all this was the fact that you had revolutionary groups running about, people who were prepared to sacrifice all. And attracted by this level of commitment, some of the compañeros at NACLA really wanted to be engaged in ‘active’ activism, not sitting at a typewriter turning out the newsletter.”

Later on, there would be a concerted focus on studying political economy and thinking about how an intellectual group could play a role in radical politics. Throughout the 1970s, the group debated—fiercely—whether NACLA should become part of a leftist or working class party, what NACLA’s relation to the working class should be, whether NACLA should be an organization with no discipline in the political sense but a group of critical thinkers with a Marxist background.

The early Newsletter was directed both inward and outward, to the movement and to a larger public. It was the kind of newsletter that circulates among organizers, gets handed out at demonstrations and that also begins to be picked up by libraries. But it was fundamentally seen as a part of the movement’s own self-education. “We didn’t contract out for articles,” remembers Goff. “We were talking to one another, putting out ideas, communicating, doing research, organizing conferences, getting people together.” In 1969, of course, the movement was alive; the movement needed information; NACLA was just getting it out; not prettying it up, not packaging it to make it more readable or attractive. And since the movement was dynamic and growing, there was a thin line between “talking among ourselves” and outreach. People who were “out there” yesterday were in the movement today. The idea gradually evolved into a critical magazine with a left perspective. The tension between “politics” and “information,” however, has never disappeared. Nor has the tension among a broad variety of left political positions. These tensions were to rise throughout the 1970s.

Tags: NACLA, leftist politics, newsletter, academia, propaganda, media

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