From the Archives: Tracing the History of Anti-Imperial Activism at Tufts

November 6, 2023 will mark the 55th anniversary of the start of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). The TWLF was formed by members of San Francisco State University’s Black Student Union and other political student groups of color in the late 1960s. Forming a united student front, the group went on to initiate a five-month strike calling for better treatment of minoritized students from their institution. The TWLF strike became one of the longest ever initiated by students in the United States. The strike stemmed from the frustrations of San Francisco State students with biased admission practices that barred students of color from being admitted at the same rates as their white counterparts. The coalition also demanded a change to the dominance of Eurocentrism in their education. They wanted visibility in a curriculum that empowered “Third World peoples”—a term used during the 1960s to refer to minoritized and working-class peoples—according to their demands.

TWLF’s vision and values have become central to the founding and teaching of ethnic studies on university campuses across the country as well as US-based international solidarity organizing. 

Not only was the TWLF concerned with the US education system, but the coalition was also focused on the political stakes of the ethnic education they demanded. Inspired by the growing anti-war US movement and calls for the US government to pull American troops out of Vietnam, TWLF organizers connected this incident of US imperialism in Vietnam to their visions for a third world education.

Heavily rooted in anti-imperial activism around the world, the legacy of TWLF has expanded far beyond the boundaries of the 1960s radical Bay Area. The seeds of the TWLF have been sown across the country, from San Francisco State to Tufts University, where anti-imperial student organizing has defined student life and campus politics over the last 50 years.

Brian, a current senior who asked to be identified only by first name, described in a written statement to the Tufts Observer how “part of the mission of anti-imperial organizing is to make it clear that the interests of these [politically motivated] organizations, unions, and student groups, ultimately lie in the ending of this capitalist system and the institutions that prop it up at home and abroad, such as the US military, weapons contractors, and intelligence services.” 

This legacy of radical student activism has been well documented by past Tufts students and the Tufts archives. Access to this history provides entry points for the Tufts community to apply effective tactics and strategies to campus organizing today.

Dan Santamaria, Director of the Tufts Archival Research Center (TARC), wrote in a statement submitted to the Observer, “We hope that students working with archives take away that they are part of a long legacy of activism and of people working to try to improve the lives and work of everyone in the Tufts community… [to learn] about what strategies for enacting positive change were effective and building organizational continuity across generations of students.” 

History of Anti-Imperial Student Organizing at Tufts

Three of the most prominent examples of past anti-imperial student activism have been extensively documented by TARC: student oppositions to the Vietnam War from 1967-1972; student-faculty organizing against the Marcos regime in the Philippines donating money to the Fletcher School from 1977-1981; and student mobilization for Tufts to divest from South Africa apartheid from 1977-1989.

Note: These are not comprehensive histories. Many more materials exist at TARC that dive into each of these three campaigns in much more extensive detail.

Vietnam War and the anti-war movement 

Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing in the late 1960’s, and Tufts students were no exception. In the fall of 1967, students protested against the CIA and Dow Chemical Company, two military institutions that sought to recruit students to join the war effort. In 1968, the Student Council held a vote that aimed to ban military recruiting on campus. The Student Council supported this initiative, but then Tufts President Burton Hallowell rejected the student advocacy effort, according to TARC. 

The anti-war movement reached its peak once President Nixon publicly declared that the US would involve its military in Cambodia. When mass opposition erupted amongst college students, the government responded by deploying National Guard troops on campuses across the country to suppress student protests. Anti-war sentiments at Tufts were fueled by a clash between National Guard troops with Kent State University students that triggered a nationwide student strike. 

Tufts students held rallies to criticize the war and violence against protesters, culminating in the cancellation of final exams during the spring semester of 1970, according to the archives.

A March 1971 edition of the Observer reports that “the Fletcher School and its deans have been constant targets for campus political activists and the local SDS [Students for Democratic Society] chapter. Criticism has largely focused on Fletcher’s role in furthering the aims and activities of imperialist American capitalism and the military.” 

Edward Gullion, Dean of the Fletcher School in March 1971, had his office firebombed in the early morning by a group of anonymous students, reflecting the increasing intensity of anti-war activities on campus in the spring of 1972.

According to the same edition of the Observer, a handwritten note made its way to then President Hallowell that claimed credit for the bombing. The group was known as the Arson Squad, who said they bombed Dean Guillon’s office to express solidarity with the people of Laos who were fighting against American imperialism, led by agents trained at Fletcher. The note concluded by confirming that this act of violence was the only way to demonstrate to America the destruction it was enabling abroad in Southeast Asia. 

Anti-war movements around the country eventually paid off when President Nixon began withdrawing US troops from Vietnam starting in June 1969. 

Marcos regime, Philippines, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Six years later, the Fletcher School was yet again a target of student protest and activism. This time, students were calling out the Fletcher administration for accepting a $1.5 million grant from the Marcos Foundation, according to a 1977 edition of the Tufts Observer

The grant money was proposed to create an endowment fund where a program could be developed to teach Fletcher students about “the history, politics, development, economics, cultures, and foreign relations of East and Southeast Asian countries,” according to the same 1977 edition of the Observer. Part of the endowment also proposed the establishment of a Chair of East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the name of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines at the time. 

In late October 1977, Mrs. Imelda Marcos and Carlos P. Romulo, the First Lady of the Philippines and the secretary of foreign affairs for the Philippines, visited Tufts and met with President Jean Mayer and other members of the Tufts administration to discuss the details of this newly proposed endowment. Fletcher was chosen as the ideal candidate for their philanthropic initiatives because of its growing reputation as a prestigious institution for international relations. Secretary Romulo specifically cited that “President Marcos has dug deep into [his] resources (for this gift) so that people of the United States may know [the Philippines] better.” 

In the same 1977 edition of the Observer, Tufts students questioned why the First Lady of the Philippines at the time was donating money to a “rich American university instead of to her own people” when poverty rates and living conditions in the Philippines were so dramatically worsened under martial law. 

Dean Gullion dismissed student concerns and voices. He was quoted as having labeled their sentiments as “complete nonsense.” President Mayer additionally “defended Tufts acceptance of the gift on the grounds that it is strictly for academic purposes and does not tie the university to the Philippine government.” 

The original plan for the $1.5 million distribution was for the Marcos Foundation to pay Fletcher $500,000 from 1978-1979. The remaining $1 million was to be distributed at a later date. However, the archival records suggest that it was largely because of student and faculty activism that the Marcos Foundation eventually decided to withdraw the funding. Marcos lifted martial law in the Philippines that same year, creating another motive for Tufts to withdraw the funding. 

Building Student Power On and Off Campus

Historically, student organizing has taken the form of student groups challenging and demanding change from the Tufts administration. One such group was a Tufts chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), formed in the fall of 1964. This student organization would eventually “become one of the largest organized opponents of the [Vietnam] war on the Tufts campus.” Tufts SDS’s mission statement included the commitment to “rebuild [their] universities as truly humanist institutions of learning” and “democratize all the major institutions of our society.” The legacy of activism planted by organizations like Tufts SDS continues to be relevant in the present, providing Tufts students with a historical model for developing a radical political consciousness on campus. 

Students in the past leaned on the power of collective action when organizing in their struggle to push for what they believed in, a method that can serve as inspiration for the current moment. Nick Rabb, a Computer Science and Cognitive Science PhD student, currently teaches an elective in the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) department titled “Data and Power: Surveillance.” In a written statement to the Observer, he said “there are certain levers that students have access to when they want to make change, and the more people they have to push on the levers, the more they can make the university listen to them rather than to their funders, board, or donors.” 

In addition to their activism on campus, anti-imperial students also took more non-classroom based approaches to political education with the goal of radicalizing students on campus. The famous Tufts tradition of painting the cannon, for example, is rooted in a history of anti-imperial student organizing.

Some student activists feel that disruption is the most effective strategy to call attention to issues they are passionate about. Brian said, “If Tufts students are to stop Tufts from backing this imperialism, they will have to make ‘business as usual’ unsustainable for the university. The university will not drop these profitable investments, the prestige, and research funding that these imperial connections bring if it is not forced, and, if they are unified and organized, Tufts students have the collective power to force it.”

Intercollegiate Student Organizing

Tufts students of the past did not organize alone. With the abundance of colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area, there is a rich history of intercollegiate anti-imperial activism. 

For example, the Tufts SDS chapter worked with Harvard students to create political education spaces for students to learn about South African apartheid. The longest anti-imperial student campaign recorded in the archives was in response to Tufts financial investment in the South African apartheid government. It took twelve years of student pressure and activism for Tufts to finally divest from the apartheid government in 1989. 

Refer to this Observer article published in 2021 for a quick history overview of student activism at Tufts related to the anti-apartheid in South Africa movement: A Legacy of Oppression.

A 1965 edition of the Tufts Weekly describes these inter-collegiate spaces as, “Part of the Boston student anti-apartheid movement, directed at American corporations who continue[d] [providing] economic support to the undemocratic African nation and against the US government’s refusal to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.”

This was not an isolated event, but part of a growing web of collaborative anti-imperialist activism. Students protesting the Vietnam War frequently interacted with students attending the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston and exchanged organizing strategies. “When the anti-war movement became a national force in the fall of 1967, Tufts students were quick to join. They followed many of the same protest trends as the students at UMass Boston,” wrote Emily Hoffman in a senior thesis titled Three’s a Movement: Student Demographics and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement at University of Massachusetts-Boston, Tufts University, and Wellesley College for the Department of History in April 2019.

To Brian, “The best way for students to build on these legacies is to not let the lessons of past struggles go un-learned by us in the present. Decades of student activism on just the Tufts campus, let alone the rest of the world, gives plenty of evidence of the power that an organized, active, and conscious student body can have.” 

United Students and Faculty: Solidarity at Tufts

Alongside a history of collaboration with other institutions in the Greater Boston area, anti-imperialism organizing at Tufts was oftentimes a joint effort between students and faculty. 

For instance, in 1978, “80 students marched in a candlelight vigil calling for divestment [from Tufts’ investments in companies upholding South African apartheid]. The group chanted and sang in front of President Mayer’s house for over an hour, and also dropped off a petition signed by students and faculty calling for divestment,” according to the South African Divestment entry in the Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History, a project that seeks to record Tufts institutional history.

During the anti-Vietnam War movement at Tufts, professors used their positions within academia to speak out about war and to educate their students. Hoffman wrote that during the time of the campaign, “the arts and sciences faculty voted prior to the [October Moratorium, an event intended to think critically about the war] to suspend classes and use the time for an extensive educational program about the war.” 

Professors also went beyond the classroom to take a stance in the anti-war protests. The Tufts Weekly from 1966 details a letter written by Tufts professors in the Boston Area Faculty Group on Public Issues that “called for an immediate de-escalation of war, withdrawal of American troops, and meaningful peace negotiations.”

During the period of the Marcos grant advocacy, students found ways to build power with faculty members from various departments across the university. Students and faculty organized alongside one another to put pressure on Tufts to cut ties with the Marcos regime and to hold the administration accountable for Fletcher’s ties to the violent legacies of US imperialism in the Philippines, as noted in the archival records. 

A coalition of students and faculty known as the Get Marcos Off-Campus Committee (GMOCC), proved to be effective in protesting the endowment. A December 1977 edition of the Observer reports that the GMOCC “[was] an organization of fluctuating size, comprised of students, faculty and staff who…feel that ‘by accepting the money, by maintaining a chair named after Marcos, and by honoring Mrs. Marcos as a humanitarian, Tufts is lending support to the repressive Marcos regime.’” 

Brian shared that “professors, especially tenured ones, have a lot of protection from university retaliation, and they would in theory be able to use that relative safety to speak out, join protests, and call others to do the same. It is important to remember that this is not just the students’ struggle, and that, in fact, the anti-imperial movement is made much stronger when broader sectors of the people join in.” 

Brandon, a Greater Boston-based anti-imperial community organizer who asked to be identified only by first name, agreed. He said, “Professors should also be engaged politically with [what] students are trying to do [on campus]. Aside from helping uplift those struggles, alongside the students, those [professors] can also help pass down experiences of organizing and the [institutional] knowledge. Professors should also be talking to other professors and staff about these situations, so it’s not just a student movement.”   

Even now, educators are weaving conversations about imperialism into their classes. In “Data and Power: Surveillance,” Rabb writes that in his class, they “explicitly think about state oppression in these cases—whether the state doing the oppressing is the US or Israel, in our examples—and how surveillance technologies embody and enable oppression.” 

This rich history of collaborative organizing is still present at Tufts today. Brian reminds students that “[they] cannot fall into the practice of ritualistically painting the cannon whenever the next atrocity is committed, they cannot fall into tradition for its own sake. The best way to honor these legacies is for students to have a clear idea of what needs to be fought for and the level of organization and activity to see the struggle through.”

This article is the first in a two-article series on past and present anti-imperial activism on Tufts campus. Read Pt.2 in the Observer’s upcoming issue 4 this semester.