Smart cookies don't crumble - they assemble.
Even before demonstrations swept the country in the early ’60s, a contingent of Grinnell students were among the first to travel to Washington, D.C. to protest in front of the White House. Was it bold to travel a thousand miles to tell the president what they thought?
Yes, but they were invited in for cookies, anyway.
Being the right people in the right place at the right time
The student body galvanized after discussion about converting the basement into a fall-out shelter. Campus conversation and student referendum turned to action when a group of fourteen students from the Student Peace Union drove to Washington DC on a cold and rainy morning Monday November 13, 1961. They held a water-only, three day fast while picketing the White House against resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Their two signs read "Iowa Students Fasting for Peace," and "We're Behind Kennedy's Peace Race."
The campus fast included another hundred students and nearly half the student body attended a session in Herrick Chapel.
A Grinnell alumnus connected the group to the media resulting in television coverage by NBC News among other notable news organizations including the Washington Post.
By November 24 hundreds of students from dozens of schools marched in Washington DC. The November 10, 1961 Scarlet & Black gave no hint that by November 17, 1961 the 1960s student protest movement was launched. Grinnellians changed America.
Grinnell’s Anti-Nuclear Testing Protest
by Larry Smucker ’63
My generation at Grinnell (my class was ‘63) grew up under the shadow of The Bomb. It was hardly a daily obsession for us, but across America, voices for the complete elimination of nuclear testing became stronger in the early1960s. A group of us – 14 men and women in all -- shared that conviction and drove to Washington DC in the spring of 1962 to send a message to President Kennedy. All forms of testing should end immediately as the basis for countries to rein in the dangers of nuclear war. There was strong backing for our plan among many faculty and students at the college.
The trip to Washington was exciting, and we immediately set up shop in two locations: a house on P Street which catered to political protest groups, and the sidewalk in Lafayette Park across from the White House, where we carried signs with anti testing messages. One of us -- Mike Horwatt, a Washington insider (he came from there), provided a lot of good tips on how to proceed. One was that we should dress up (for example, jacket and tie for the men) and avoid the bad impression we might give by looking too scruffy.
On the second day of the protest, a White House staffer came out to the Park and told us that President K¬¬¬ennedy, who was then travelling, had read about us that morning in the national newspapers. He asked that we be invited into the White House to meet with MacGeorge Bundy, his National Security Advisor. We were floored. We were thrilled. The NSC was the holy grail of protest destinations. So we were ushered in and talked with Mr. Bundy for about an hour. He was serious and, from all I could tell, was respectful of and interested in our opinions. We left his office with the conviction that we had successfully stated our position on a matter of importance to our nation and the world.
I have no idea what impact our protest really had on government policy regarding nuclear testing.
But President Kennedy did ban outright all testing by the United States a few months later, in his famous speech at the American University commencement.
And the effort had an impact on me and probably on others in our group. We learned an important lesson – that we have a right and an obligation in our democracy to elaborate the ideas we believe in and to communicate them sincerely and persuasively to our leaders.
New York Times Archive November 17, 1961 (fee for article)
New York Times Archive November 24, 1961 (fee for article)
New York Times Archive May 16, 1962 (fee for article)
Thanks to Larry Smucker '63 for sharing his story.
Appreciation to Grinnell College Archives and the College and Alumni Relations library.