NSA--CIA to NLF: 1967-71
Before NSA was synonymous with the National Security Agency, it was widely known as the initials of the United States National Student Association.

In a five year period from 1966 to 1971, it made an astonishing shift from a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-funded anti-communist bulwark to a group that helped lead a student strike against the Vietnam War and negotiate a “People’s Peace Treaty” with their counterparts in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) and Provisional Revolutionary Government/National Liberation Front (Viet Cong).

The National Student Association (NSA) was founded in 1947 as an association of student governments to represent US students in the international student movement. There is no evidence of direct CIA involvement in its creation, but it was formed to represent the United States interests in international student gatherings where communist aligned students largely dominated.

CIA funding

Shortly after its formation, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began funding the organization through a number of shell foundations. Initially the CIA was content with funding the group’s international operations that were housed and staffed separately, but the NSA president and other key officers and board members were always aware of the source of the funds.

The international office of the NSA, through its CIA money, provided funding for multiple student trips to youth conferences and festivals in other countries. They also funneled funds through NSA to anti-communist student groups abroad. The evidence is pretty conclusive that they also gathered information on student leaders abroad and passed the information to the CIA.

Ideologically, the NSA international positions could be characterized by critical support of United States Cold War positions. The CIA found this useful in counteracting communist influence among students internationally.

Domestic politics

Domestically, the NSA at times worked closely with the early formations of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Early 60s radicals like Paul Potter, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Paul Booth, Carl Davidson, David Harris and Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) vied for power within the association, but ultimately fell short of obtaining control.

Several prominent Cold War liberals go their start in NSA politics including U.S. Rep Allard Lowenstein (D-N.Y.) and feminist Gloria Steinem. Sam Brown, a chief organizer of the “Dump Johnson” movement and the Vietnam Moratorium Committee got a boost from his activism in NSA.

The group generally steered a middle ground between liberal and radical activists represented by SNCC and SDS and the conservative wing of students personified by the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and except for a brief period from 1960-62 kept away from campus activism.

CIA domestic funding

The organization’s books were always rather precariously balanced and it went into yet another financial crisis in 1964-65. This time the CIA stepped in and directly funded domestic operations. The CIA paid for the NSA’s new headquarters at adjoining townhouses at 2115 -17 S Street NW along a row of townhouses on the street that were likely obtained by the CIA for a multitude of purposes.

The CIA provided a 15-year rent-free lease and paid for all the furniture and moving costs. For the first time that later analysts could identify, funds were also going directly to support domestic staff positions.

Ironically the conservative Young Americans for Freedom campaigned for disaffiliation of individual campuses from NSA during this period with some limited success.

In February 1967 Ramparts Magazine exposed the CIA funding arrangement after a former staffer with a conscience gathered the evidence while working for the group and leaked the information after he separated from the organization.

Before the article broke, but after NSA President Eugene Groves became aware of the impending story, Groves traveled to Warsaw to help get an American student funded by NSA out of that country before the story was published.

The resulting story by Ramparts, The New York Times and the Washington Post created a firestorm of national media coverage and a debate about the CIA’s role in a domestic organization and the ethics of students accepting funds from the CIA to promote official government views, much less performing the roles of spies.

NSA President Eugene Groves tried to quickly distance the organization from the CIA, but the organization’s perilous finances caused at least some board members to seek to find a way to keep the CIA funding going. The plan quickly fell apart when someone leaked the new plan to the press and NSA president Eugene Groves and board chair Sam Brown quickly denied the scheme ever existed.

In the aftermath, it became clear that a number of officers, staff and board members had knowledge of the CIA funding and had signed non-disclosure agreements.

Later that year, the organization held its annual congress (convention) at the University of Maryland College Park in August 1967.

By now campuses were increasingly radicalized as the Vietnam War continued unabated and cities were exploding with black rebellions.

The College Park chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized a counter-congress, put out daily broad sheets to NSA delegates and called for the group to dissolve itself.

The counter-Congress at times drew several hundred NSA delegates, but most were committed to a more activist NSA that severed ties with the CIA. The delegates ratified an exit agreement from CIA funding.

The election for the new president of NSA came down between two insiders—Ed Schwartz who advocated an emphasis on student power and Sam Brown who wanted the organization to adopt an electoral antiwar strategy. Schwartz prevailed on a close vote. Neither represented the interests of the informal radical caucus that was influenced by SDS.

1969 NSA Congress

By the time of the 1969 NSA Congress, SDS was imploding between different factions.

The NSA Congress was largely focused on the debate over whether to fund the launch of a new independent African American student association. In the election for NSA president, Charles Palmer, a former activist University of California at Berkeley student body president, was elected with the support of most students of color.

Palmer immediately focused on the Vietnam War and lent organizational support to the Vietnam Moratorium Committee that organized two nationwide work stoppages in October and November of 1969 against the war.

When President Richard Nixon widened the war on April 30, 1970 by invading Cambodia, Palmer quickly organized 10 student body presidents at major universities to call a nationwide student strike and NSA offices were turned into a strike headquarters.

When four students were shot down by National Guardsmen at Kent State University of May 4th, the strike spread to over 500 campuses---the largest student protest in U.S. history.

The 1970 Congress also focused on Vietnam and elected David Ifshin as president. Ifshin was the former student body president at Syracuse who had taken an active role in organizing the 1970 student strike.

Ifshin quickly set about on a mission to organize a delegation of American students to meet with both North and South Vietnamese students to negotiate a People’s Peace Treaty.

NSA staffer Larry Magid left for Paris to make arrangements shortly after Ifshin took office. While abroad, Magid also met with exiled Black Panther leader Elbridge Cleaver in Algiers before returning to the U.S.

In December 1970, the ten-member delegation led by Ifshin was thwarted in their attempts to meet with student groups in Saigon—then under U.S. control. Instead they met student representatives from both the National Liberation Front and other independent South Vietnamese students in Paris. The NSA group then left Paris and went to Hanoi where they met with student representatives from North Vietnam.

The People’s Peace Treaty emerged from these meetings and was introduced into Congress by eight U.S. representatives and endorsed by over 300 student body presidents and campus newspapers. Referendums conducted on 63 campuses resulted in 61 endorsing the treaty.

The treaty called for immediate and total withdrawal of U.S. forces, prisoner exchanges and discussions for guarantees of safety for U.S. collaborators in South Vietnam.

CIA investigates the NSA

The CIA, which had funded the organization only five years before, placed the NSA under investigation through its secret program that spied on the antiwar movement. The FBI placed Ifshin and former University of New Hampshire student body president Mark Wefers under investigation. The U.S. State Department publicly denounced the treaty.

The U.S. had gone from funding the NSA to pursue the government’s policy objectives to investigating the organization for defying them.

Margery Tabankin was elected president at the 1971 NSA Congress and followed up Ifshin with another antiwar conference with Vietnamese students in Paris and co-sponsored an antiwar conference in the U.S. Tabankin also visited North Vietnam during her term of office while the U.S. continued to prosecute the war.

When President Richard Nixon finally concluded a peace treaty with the Vietnamese in early 1973, the NSA began focusing more on domestic student issues.

NSA began merger discussions with the National Student Lobby in 1976 and merged with the organization to become the United States Student Association in 1978.
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