Over the summer, Reed fired Warren Sussman. Students assumed he was too far left. Reed’s Dean of Faculty insisted it was his poor teaching. We told the Dean how much we had learned from Sussman, how much extracurricular work we’d done and how we looked forward to continuing with Sussman. The Dean insisted that when we grew up we’d agree that Reed had done the right thing. Sussman went on to a distinguished career, serving as chairman of the Rutgers College history department from 1973 to 1979. This incident was another nail in the trust we put in our core institutions like colleges and universities in the late Fifties. In 2015 the very idea of trust seems quaint.
With my favorite teacher gone, I took the lightest course load possible and ran for student body president. My cocky assumption that I was smarter than most others must have ticked off some students. My sole opponent ran a negative campaign distinguished by posters featuring a big red kiss and the words, Kiss Crotch for President, I lost by a narrow margin.
In compensation I helped organize the first (and last) Pacific Coast Arts Festival. We featured Beat writers Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferhlinghetti and Gary Snyder and artists Richard Diebenkorn (who had been born in Portland) and Elmer Bischoff. They were all inspirations to me, artists who had ignored financial security and lived according to their own principles.
Raising money for the festival had been difficult. Portland’s business community was not enthusiastic. Julius Meier was chairman of the board of Meier and Frank, Portland’s most distinguished department store, founded in 1857 and still run by the same two families. Julius Meier was one of Portland’s most distinguished citizens. Meier graciously welcomed me into his huge, wood lined office and listened politely to my pitch but declined to offer financial help. “But it will bring artists and writers and poets to Portland,” I argued. “We don’t want those people in Portland,” Meier replied. “I’m that kind of person,” I blurted out. “I know,” Meier replied.
I lived off campus above a fish market, in one of two apartments on the second floor. Three Reed men shared my apartment and three Reed women lived across the hall. I did the cooking for all of us. Everyone else kept the place clean and did the dishes. The Fish Market became notorious for faculty/student parties that pushed the limits of Fifty’s decorum, one with a stripper I’d met on the train from Oakland. “Where’s the senior member of the faculty,” she cooed as she slipped into our narrow living room for the last time dressed only in a small towel which she clutched to her breasts. To the applause of everyone in the room, she dropped her towel in front of the Dean of Students and gave him a warm embrace.
My immersive relationship to Reed was loosening its grip just as the United States was waking up from the somnolent Fifties. The Eisenhower administration had begun testing nuclear weapons in 1951. The British exploded their first atomic bomb and we exploded our first thermonuclear device in October 1954. In March of 1955 we exploded a hydrogen bomb on the tiny Bikini atoll in the South Pacific. Radioactive fallout from the blast irradiated local islanders and a nearby fishing boat. Americans became increasingly concerned about the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing. When the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb in 1955, Americans began to worry about nuclear war.
In April of 1957 a new peace movement emerged untethered to the old left, so badly discredited by the anti-Communist crusade. The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) grew out of a meeting of pacifists and anti-nuclear activists. It was initially conceived as an ad hoc committee to provoke debate about the hazards of nuclear testing.
Then, in October of 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first earth satellite, Sputnik, into orbit around the earth. At the time, it was profound to look up into the sky and see a tiny light crossing the heavens, sent into space by people on earth. A few months later, the United States failed at an attempt to launch our own, smaller satellite. People freaked out. It was a fear deeper than anything I’ve seen yet in 2015. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them to American targets. Nuclear war seemed more and more possible.
In November of 1957 SANE ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times warning Americans: ‘‘We are facing a danger unlike any danger that has ever existed.’’ Estimates of a nuclear exchange predicted 23 million dead and 26 million fatally injured. Nuclear testing had raised radioactive strontium-90 to dangerous levels in milk. The response to SANE’s New York Times advertisement was huge. SANE attracted celebrity supporters — Steve Allen, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and Harry Belafonte. It redefined itself as a mass membership organization, gaining 130 chapters and 25,000 members by the following summer.
The peace movement won it’s first major victory in November of 1958 when the United States, United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R. agreed to observe an informal moratorium on nuclear testing.