It appears to be a portentous phone call from the young man who identifies himself as president of the U.S. National Student Association and requests urgently that he be allowed to call on me in person. I suspect that he will be seeking a back channel to President Johnson's ear in order to transmit the message that NSA resolutely opposes LBJ's policy toward Vietnam. This is not exactly news. Having been present at the creation of this organization -- in fact, having been one of the original 25 student activists who called the founding meeting at the University of Wisconsin two decades earlier -- I have followed NSA's career with more than casual interest, and worried from time to time that it might grow too strident in its efforts to speak for youth's ideals. I am aware that similar volunteer organizations have been prey to Communist takeover and also that my past association has been noted in my FBI security file.
But the message transmitted by the young man is quite different. Next week, he tells me, there will be a story in Ramparts Magazine, an organ known for its muckraking propensities, reporting that the NSA is being secretly subsidized by the Central Intelligence Agency. I watch the young man intently while struggling to bring my thoughts into focus. "Is it true?" I ask. He replies without blinking that it is true. Having been tipped off about Ramparts' investigation, he has discovered that for some years the CIA has dispensed covert funds through one of the lesser NSA officers to support the organization's participation in international student activities. More recently, the agency even purchased or leased the small office building in Washington where the NSA maintains headquarters. Ramparts, I am told, has collected all the grisly details.
When he departs, I do not tarry in dictating an urgent memorandum to the president. LBJ, in turn, does not delay his response. His voice on the direct line that connects our two desks has the familiar edge of sarcasm. "Well, aren't you the lucky one," he drawls. "You let that fellow come into your office and lay a big, fat turd right in your lap."
He grants my request for an immediate audience and glowers impatiently while I attempt to engage in what is described as crisis management. My argument is that no matter what the young man's motivations, the White House can benefit by being granted a week's grace to prepare for the storm that lies ahead. LBJ appears somewhat assuaged when I suggest that he issue an order calling on the CIA instantly to cease and desist from all funding of the NSA as well as any other voluntary American associations and that a high level committee of inquiry including Undersecretary of State Katzenbach (Secretary Rusk being out of the country), HEW Secretary Gardner and CIA Director Helms investigate and report the facts about any such subsidies. He grudgingly does not reject my added proposal that my friend and journalist mentor, Scotty Reston of The New York Times, be briefed on the situation as a way of gaining credibility with the press.
But he explodes in righteous indignation when I caution against issuing premature denials of his own foreknowledge. "Are you telling me that I ought to lie and pretend I knew something I did not know?" he snorts. In vain, I attempt to argue that no one will really believe he could have been uninformed.
Once Ramparts hits the newsstands, the Washington press corps unravels a labyrinthian tale of CIA entanglement in funding not only NSA but labor unions, foundations, literary and fraternal societies, even the magazine Encounter which has a wide reputation among European intellectuals. This covert philanthropy, dating back a number of years, has been more recently directed by Cord Meyer, a CIA sub-chieftain who once helped found the World Federalists. It is Meyers' idealistic conviction that American associations have a role to play in the international community. Government subventions to support such intercourse have been customary not only within Communist bloc countries but among the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe. But the U.S. Congress has been niggardly in going beyond the Fulbright Exchange Scholarships. In the absence of overt government support, Meyer and company have contrived to dip into covert funds.
How much did the president know and when did he know it? These two questions which are to become a consuming curiosity during later White House scandals are strangely absent amid the brouhaha that ensues after the Ramparts expose'. The original sanction was approved by a senior staff committee of the National Security Council. Our best evidence is that no one raised a warning or monitored the runaway growth of this enterprise. I come from my own post-mortem with renewed conviction that secrecy has a self-destructive potential which cannot stay the long course, especially when pitted against this country's passion for publicity.
Two revelations emerge. Despite the best probing of the press and angry congressmen, no evidence turns up that the Cord Meyer caper has sought to subvert NSA's policies or to muzzle its leaders. Nor is there evidence that the CIA demanded a quid pro quo from those subsidized. In the NSA's case, the CIA seems to have been content to allow youth to be youth.
A second revelation is more disheartening.
After LBJ has got the facts straight, he appoints a bipartisan commission, chaired by Secretary Rusk and including such venerables as Sens. Fulbright and Russell, enjoining them to develop an alternative way by which American voluntary associations can be encouraged, with open government funding, to join in the world's discourse. Alas, after months of intermittent meetings, the commission ends in failure. It does not declare bankruptcy but simply ceases to exist. The hard fact of life is that the politicians do not really care about such voluntary enterprise.
What difference would it make? While lacking handy statistics, I have a hunch that ordinary American activists fall woefully short of their European counterparts in getting a feel for the world that goes beyond tourism. We relentlessly expand the bureaucracies that populate our military bases and manage our many government programs abroad. We have experimented with the ideal of the Peace Corps, whose young recruits are dispatched to assist Third World nations in do-good activities. But in the age of Pax Americana, we devote scant resources to developing the generations of future leaders who will be sophisticated about what can and cannot be done in building international comity. Perhaps the ordinary American is not quite such a sore thumb abroad as the Japanese or the Soviet citizen. But we are not very good, despite our outlay of dollars, in winning friends or educating ourselves in the world's ways.
This, at least, is the motive behind LBJ's sponsorship of the International Education Act of 1966 which seeks to enhance the learning component of all our foreign assistance programs and to build centers of international studies in American universities. The act is hailed as a logical extension of Johnson's domestic education programs, and it sweeps through Congress with hardly a dissenting vote. It emerges just when LBJ, having delayed overlong in facing the combined cost of guns and butter and costly social programs, is obliged to ask Congress for additional taxes. He knows all too well that at last angry money men in Congress have him where they want him. Not one dollar is appropriated for the International Education Act. The writer, president of Washington College in Chestertown, Md., was a special assistant to President Johnson. This article is excerpted from a book in progress.