PAUL POTTER, "THE INCREDIBLE WAR" (17 APRIL 1965)
Jeffrey P. Drury
Central Michigan University
"Words have little meaning." So begins Part I of Paul Potter's 1971 memoir, A Name for Ourselves. To students of rhetoric, Potter's statement might seem ironic. As a founder and one-time president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Potter employed the power of words throughout the early and mid-1960s in his effort to build a massive social movement against the American "system." Yet we can also understand and empathize with Potter's frustration if we consider the words he delivered on April 17, 1965 at a SDS rally in Washington D.C. This speech, "The Incredible War," did not achieve all of the goals Potter set for himself, and in that sense his words seemed to have "little meaning."
Potter's words went largely unheard and unheeded at the national level, carrying scant significance beyond his own circle of believers. The war in Vietnam continued for years after Potter delivered his speech, and he never realized his vision of a massive, integrated movement to change the system through local advocacy and grassroots activism. From this perspective, we might consider Potter's speech a "failure." While it may have done little to end the war, however, Potter's speech did mark a turning point in SDS priorities. As the Vietnam War became a more dominant theme in SDS rhetoric during 1965 and beyond, Potter's speech helped build a massive student movement that fundamentally altered the political culture of the 1960s. Students of social movements have long recognized the importance of rhetoric in constituting and sustaining a movement's agenda. Along these lines, Potter's speech helped broaden the SDS's agenda by demonstrating how the Vietnam War was but one symptom of a larger malady.
Potter's words also might be said to have had "little meaning" because he offered few concrete solutions. As the last speech after a long day of protest, Potter's speech was, for many in attendance, the highlight of the day. Many participants not only embraced Potter's criticism of the war in Vietnam, but also his larger, more radical critique of the American system. Yet Potter's vague description of the alternative to "the system" and his lack of attention to questions about strategies and tactics opened the door for misinterpretations of his vision. Although Potter did not believe in militancy, his speech eventually rationalized, for some, more violent and revolutionary tactics against the U.S. government. Eventually, disagreements over the scope and tactics of the movement splintered the SDS, and the organization disbanded less than five years after Potter's speech.
Nevertheless, Potter's critique of American government still resonates today. Although more than forty years have passed since Potter delivered his address, contemporary students and commentators still appreciate the relevance of its themes. The same issues that Potter discussed in relation to the Vietnam War remain salient in the context of the war on terror and American intervention in Iraq. In light of this contemporary resonance, we can understand the paradoxical nature of Potter's speech; while one can appreciate the speech for the ideals it articulated, some find it disheartening that his critique of the system produced so little real change. In the view of those who find Potter's critique persuasive, the United States continues to stumble into foreign entanglements similar to Vietnam, and its leaders remain largely insulated from public opinion.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the speech's lack of "success," we can learn much from investigating the rhetorical purposes and character of Potter's "The Incredible War." I argue that Potter's speech demonstrates the difficulty in rhetorically constituting a cohesive movement, especially one with the ambitious goal of changing not just American foreign policy but the larger "system." In particular, by failing to delimit and define the appropriate tactics for overcoming the system, Potter invited more militant activists to appropriate his critique as justification for more aggressive and even violent actions. Indeed, Potter made it possible for others to interpret his speech in ways completely contrary to his original purposes and vision. In making this argument, I will first contextualize Potter's speech by discussing the history of the SDS and the March on Washington. I then provide a biographical sketch of Potter focused on his ideological commitments and on his political activities leading up to the speech. Next, I will explore how, in his speech, Potter sought to constitute a new social movement dedicated to ending the war and radically transforming the larger system. Theories of social movements will provide a framework for understanding the nature and implications of Potter's call for a movement against "the system." Finally, I reflect on the legacy of Potter's speech for the SDS, the antiwar movement, and for U.S. foreign policy.
Prelude to a Movement: SDS and Vietnam
Although the beginnings of the 1965 March on Washington can be located in a number of places, it is perhaps best to begin with the origins of the chief organization behind the march: the Students for a Democratic Society. As a social movement organization, the SDS grew out of a parent group founded in 1905 called the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). The LID embraced a largely socialist orientation toward democratic governance; the organization was initially called the Intercollegiate Socialist Society before changing its name in 1921. Many prominent political thinkers were members of the LID, including Upton Sinclair, Walter Lippmann, Michael Harrington, and John Dewey (who was president for a short time). Growing out of the larger organization, the student section of the LID--aptly titled the Student League for Industrial Democracy, or SLID--existed in early 1960 on only three campuses: Yale, Columbia, and the University of Michigan. As SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale notes, the chapters at Columbia and Yale called themselves the "John Dewey Discussion Club," and all three existed with minimal recognition.
Given the ambiguous and unappealing connotations of "industrial democracy" and the aging relevance of the parent group, the SLID amended its name in 1959 to the Students for a Democratic Society in hopes of appealing to a broader base of students. However, it was not until the first official SDS convention took place in June 1962, at Port Huron, Michigan, that the organization established its ideological identity by crafting The Port Huron Statement. As the manifesto of the newly reorganized group, The Port Huron Statement would speak for a generation of youth disillusioned with American society. Global in perspective but local in practice, the document recognized the importance of academia to societal progress and situated students and the university as vital engines of social change. The formula for success, the document's authors argued, required melding theoretical ideas with applied analysis and action to overcome the apathy of students and the larger public. Representative of this charge, the introduction stated: "A first task of any social movement is to convince people that the search for orienting theories and the creation of human values is complex but worthwhile. We are aware that to avoid platitudes we must analyze the concrete conditions of the social order. But to direct such an analysis we must use the guideposts of basic principles."
SDS was not simply an antiwar or anti-government organization but rather a student group dedicated to a wide range of activities grounded in social-democratic ideals. During its early years, SDS members were involved in local community efforts, responding to works like Michael Harrington's exposé on U.S. poverty--The Other America. As students, they also embraced the spirit of intellectuals like C. Wright Mills, who was interested in epistemological questions as much as pragmatic politics. The Peace Research and Education Project (PREP), which "was to be a kind of leftish clearinghouse for gathering and publishing research on peace, disarmament, and foreign policy," demonstrated the dedication of SDS to education and pedagogy. Traces of the SDS's socialist heritage were evident in activities like the Economic Research and Action Projects (ERAP), which sought to make the SDS "relevant" by placing organizers in poor urban communities throughout the nation to help those communities find their political voice.
Through these various activities, the SDS represented a brand of social activism that its members labeled "participatory democracy." Characterized by efforts to inform and mobilize young people to implement change at all levels of American government and society, the SDS had become the most influential organization within the broader umbrella of the "New Left" by the mid-1960s. Although there were numerous other New Left organizations, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Northern Student Movement (NSM), the SDS had the broadest scope of activities and the largest membership base. Sale does not exaggerate when he claims that the SDS "shaped the politics of a generation and rekindled the fires of American radicalism for the first time in thirty years."
The SDS's role as generational representatives came about rather unexpectedly. Prior to 1964, the SDS had deliberately and consistently avoided organizing around a single issue at the national level, preferring instead to focus on participatory democracy in local communities. Yet the SDS's opposition to the war in Vietnam would prove to be the recruitment tool that transformed the SDS into an influential political force. Vietnam started becoming a dominant focus for the SDS in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which in August 1964 granted President Lyndon Johnson the authority to commit military personnel to Vietnam without a declaration of war. When Johnson used the resolution to dramatically escalate the American presence in Vietnam, SDS began planning the March on Washington. Although the event is now remembered as the largest demonstration against the Vietnam War up to that time, SDS members were ambivalent about this shift in the SDS's strategic priorities. Indeed, at the SDS National Council meeting in December of 1964, members initially defeated a proposal for a public march. Eventually, however, the Council reconsidered, debated, and passed the proposal. The organization scheduled the demonstration for April 17, 1965, to coincide with the Easter holiday. The January edition of the SDS Bulletin characterized the march as "perhaps the most far-reaching decision" to come out of the December meeting. The student March on Washington, the SDS Bulletin explained, would "call for the end of American intervention in the Vietnamese civil war," and the newsletter predicted that it might "bring several thousand students to Washington."
The March proved much bigger than expected after President Johnson widened the war in early 1965. First, on February 7, 1965, the U.S. military commenced its bombing in North Vietnam in response to a Vietcong attack on the U.S. military base in Pleiku. Then, in early April 1965, Johnson began deploying 20,000 more Americans to South Vietnam. Additional forces were needed later that year, and they too were sent. The dramatic rise in the number of military personnel in Vietnam--from approximately 40,000 to 200,000 by the end of 1965--made President Johnson, as Sale wryly notes, "the most successful recruiter SDS was ever to have." Suddenly, the SDS's prediction that the March on Washington might attract a few thousand students seemed grossly understated. On April 13, Potter himself recognized that the rally had become something much bigger, observing that "plans for the March on Washington indicate more and more that it will be a massive and important demonstration."
According to most accounts, April 17, 1965, was an important and successful day for the SDS. Estimates of the crowd at the March on Washington ranged from 15,000 by conservative estimates to the official police count of 25,000. The participants gathered between 9:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. before marching southeast of the Washington Monument to the Sylvan Theater. There they listened to speeches against the war in Vietnam from approximately 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Speakers included politicians like Senator Ernest Greuning (D-AK), activists like I.F. Stone, and academics like Staughton Lynd of Yale University. Both before and after the speeches, the demonstrators, led by such folk artists as Joan Baez and Judy Collins, sang rousing renditions of protest songs, including "We Shall Overcome" and "The Times They Are A-Changing." Following an impassioned speech by Paul Potter--the relatively unknown 26-year-old president of the Students for a Democratic Society--the demonstrators marched a mile and a quarter from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building. While the Washington D.C. rally was the main event, there were simultaneous demonstrations across the nation, including rallies in Los Angeles and outside the LBJ ranch in Texas.
Approximately three-quarters of the participants in the March on Washington were students, although many faculty members, union leaders, and clergy attended as well. As the New York Times described it: "Beards and blue jeans mixed with ivy tweeds and an occasional collar in the crowd." It is also significant that upwards of 10 percent of the crowd consisted of African Americans. Calling it the largest African American turnout for an antiwar rally to date, the National Guardian championed the march as "a step toward integrating the movements for peace and civil rights." The Guardian also noted that "the outstanding speech by SDS chairman Paul Potter" testified "both to the talent of the SDS leaders and the sense and clarity of their basic policies." The policies that Potter supported as SDS president, though, were most vividly influenced by his background and his beliefs.
Paul Potter's Politics
Paul Potter was born on March 25, 1939, the son of Illinois farmers. His beliefs about the potentials and responsibilities of this great nation were firmly grounded in his Midwestern background. Potter has been variously described as "brilliant," "bright and eager," "politically sophisticated" with "an original and individualistic mind," and exuding "hard-won thoughtfulness." Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abbie Hoffman, Potter never became a household name, perhaps because he focused most of his activism at the local level. Potter entered the national spotlight only reluctantly when, as president of the SDS, he was called upon to deliver a speech at the March on Washington in 1965. Following the speech, he faded back into relative obscurity, relinquishing his notoriety because it violated his beliefs about the purposes of the SDS. Although Hoffman and other SDS leaders like Tom Hayden became better known, Potter's contributions to the formation and evolution of the SDS were significant.
In the early 1960s, Potter became involved in political activism during his undergraduate years at Oberlin College in Ohio. Prior to his graduation in 1961, he and future SDS member Rennie Davis founded a campus political organization called the Progressive Student League. Potter was also a member of the National Student Association (NSA), a student advocacy group established in 1947 that supported civil rights and anti-communism. Before becoming embroiled in a scandal over its CIA funding in 1967, the National Student Association had supplied many leaders to related organizations like the SDS and the SNCC. Indeed, it was Potter's involvement with the NSA that led his friend and SDS pioneer Al Haber to bring him into the SDS fold in 1961.
By this time, Potter had already begun earning name recognition in leftist circles for his political activism. Former SDS member Todd Gitlin recalls that Potter was one of a handful of American students who traveled to Cuba with NSA funding in 1960 and 1961 to demonstrate solidarity with students there. Most notably, however, Potter attracted attention when he and future SDS member Tom Hayden were physically assaulted while attending a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) protest in McComb, Mississippi on October 11, 1961. Potter, who had graduated from Oberlin in May and was living in Philadelphia at the time, was covering the protest for the National Student News. At this event, an irate man who assumed that Potter and Hayden were supporting the protestors pulled them from their car and knocked them to the ground. A photographer captured the attack and the story appeared over the following week in prominent newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Gitlin reports that Potter was privately frustrated that the national media refused to cover the event until two white people were assaulted.
Potter and Hayden returned from their trip to Mississippi with renewed commitment and energy. They also brought with them many ideas from the SNCC, which at this time was operating much more efficiently and effectively than the SDS. Despite his budding involvement with the SDS, Potter was then still a peripheral member of the organization, and his commitment to the NSA overshadowed his involvement in the SDS. However, just two months later, in December 1961, the two commitments began to overlap when Potter became the official liaison between the NSA and the SDS. Upon finishing his elected term at the NSA in 1962, Potter became more deeply involved with the SDS and student activism.
Between 1962 and 1964, Potter attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he studied sociology and anthropology and actively engaged in various intellectual pursuits. During this time, he wrote a number of speeches and articles about the role of intellectuals as agents of social change, observing in 1963 that he had become somewhat "type-cast" as the person concerned with how intellectuals might become more involved in social reform. Most notably, he delivered an influential talk at a conference on "The Role of the Student in Social Change" at the Harvard Divinity School in November 1962. Widespread interest led SDS to eventually publish his 1962 conference presentation in pamphlet form--The University and the Cold War--and sold it for 10 cents through the National Office.
Despite the positive reception of The Port Huron Statement at the time of his presentation, Potter challenged that document's celebration of the American university as a stronghold of intellectual freedom and a platform for political critique, arguing that universities had been corrupted by the ideals of corporate liberalism. In particular, Potter exposed the deep connection between American research universities and the Department of Defense, claiming that higher education is "ultimately committed to the nourishment of a national and international system in which the Cold War in inextricably rooted." He continued: "Implicit in all that I have said has been the view that the model for changing that system cannot be an adjustment model. Our problem is not that the system is not working well enough; it is rather that the current system is working entirely too well--that it is working us all into a final catastrophe."
Potter argued that a truly "revolutionary model" of social change required that SDS broaden beyond the scope of university-sanctioned educational activities to develop more "relevant" forms of seminars, research, and lectures, even if such activities violated commonly accepted practices. In making his argument, Potter utilized the distinction in the southern civil rights movement between "revolutionary" and "adjustment" models. The Southern Student Movement utilized a "revolutionary" model, Potter explained, by "employing non-violent direct action which works outside and frequently against established channels." He further noted, however, that the scope of this model for students "is the topic for another article concerning the counter-university," an article that he would never write.
Potter was a political thinker who saw the need for fundamental change in America. His eloquence in articulating such a vision eventually helped pave the way for his election to the SDS National Council during the 1963-1964 academic year. Then, at the SDS national convention in Pine Hill, New York on June 14, 1964, SDS members elected Potter president of the organization. During that summer, Potter fully integrated himself into Cleveland's Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) and continued to organize outside of the university context while serving as the organization's leader. Although he would live in Cleveland's Near West side until the fall of 1965, Potter's official duties--as outlined in the SDS Constitution--required him to serve as the national spokesperson for the organization and to organize the National Council meeting in December.
As president of the SDS, Potter concerned himself with the long-term viability of the organization. In a number of articles in the SDS Bulletin, he outlined his fear that the expansion of the SDS would reduce its effectiveness and his belief that local chapters needed to take larger responsibility for supplying leadership at the national level. A representative example appeared in his first official article as president in July 1964, in which Potter warned of a "real leadership crisis" resulting from the "attempt by a few to pull together the organizational and intellectual conception of an American New Left." He expressed his fear that SDS members "have let our increasing realism about American society stifle imagination in reaching out to each other and our fellows to create the resources that can truly change the nature of life in this society." In Potter's view, the SDS was better off focusing at the local, pragmatic level on the "development of a student organization, radical or otherwise."
Yet Potter's role as president of SDS made it inevitable that he would become concerned with SDS's stance on the war in Vietnam. Perhaps reflecting his reluctance to get involved in single-issue advocacy at the national level, Potter was not originally scheduled to speak at the March on Washington in April of 1965. As late as February 9, he indicated in a letter to Roy Gesley, a SDS organizer in Berkeley, that he might be able to visit California between April 12 and 18, despite the fact that the March on Washington had already been scheduled. Ultimately, of course, Potter did deliver the speech in Washington, but he characteristically treated the issue of Vietnam in relation to larger democratic principles and problems within American society, describing Vietnam as but one symptom of a larger crisis. With his broad focus on the corruption of the American system, Potter seemed to represent a more radical side of the SDS that did not merely oppose the war but sought fundamental change in American society.
Paul Potter's Speech
Many former SDS members fondly recall Potter's speech as a stirring call for an end to the war in Vietnam. Such memories may be surprising given that the speech was not predominantly an antiwar address. Vietnam was certainly the pressing issue that brought many of the demonstrators to Washington on April 17, and Potter did address the topic of war and peace. However, he identified the underlying cause of the war--the corrupt American "system"--as the broader problem and invited his audience to participate in an integrated social movement focused on making "America a more decent society" (9). This perspective emerged early in Potter's speech when he characterized Vietnam as "the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestiges of our illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy" (2). Later, he even more tellingly described Vietnam as but "a symptom of a deeper malaise" (23). In order to understand Potter's call for a radically new society, then, one must consider Potter's indictment of the war in Vietnam as but a prelude to his larger criticism of "the system."
Potter addressed the theme of the day by challenging the Johnson administration's justifications for the war in Vietnam. In particular, he condemned the administration's perverted use of the concept "freedom." Rather than defending the "freedom" of the Vietnamese, as the White House claimed, Potter decried the war in Vietnam as an act of "cultural genocide" that was destroying the Vietnamese society through direct violence as well as through a more subtle imperialism that had "broken and destroyed local customs and traditions, trampled upon those things of value which give dignity and purpose to life" (5). From Potter's perspective, the fundamental immorality of American foreign policy had made the United States "the greatest threat to world peace" (2).
Potter further developed this argument by claiming the war also damaged American "freedom." He declared: "The President mocks freedom if he insists that the war in Vietnam is a defense of American freedom. Perhaps the only freedom that this war protects is the freedom of the warhawks in the Pentagon and the State Department to experiment in counter-insurgency and guerilla warfare" (10). This freedom to conduct the war, Potter explained, depended "on the dehumanization not only of Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisors thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of their decisions" (14). True freedom, Potter argued, required a sense of humanity that enabled others to choose their own way of life, accepting even the possibility that other nations might choose a non-democratic system (13).
Potter's emphasis on the American role in Vietnam suggested that the underlying problem existed within America's own borders, facilitating his shift in focus from simply ending the war (as most of the other speeches at the March emphasized) to a broader indictment of the system. Potter's first few sentences postured in this direction when he began his speech not by talking about the horrors of war, but by imagining America as a "strong but humble nation" (1), an image that he claimed had been taught to the children of his generation. The atrocities of the war had finally brought this image into question by forcing many at the event "to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country" (2). Along these lines, Potter rhetorically constituted his audience not as antiwar advocates, but as members of a broader movement motivated by a desire to change American society. Potter insisted that "the large majority of the people here are not involved in a peace movement as their primary basis of concern" (9).
The broader movement that Potter envisioned needed to direct its energies toward the whole system, not just the war machine. Although Potter's talk about "the system" was not new to SDS rhetoric, his speech was one of the first to publicly elaborate upon what that notion entailed. As Potter moved toward the climax of his speech, he posed a number of rhetorical questions that delineated the system's negative effects:
What kind of a system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of a system is it that justifies the United States or any country in seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for our own purpose? What kind of a system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout this country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those places where people spend their lives and their work, that consistently puts material values above human values, and still persists in calling itself free? What place is there for ordinary men in that system and how are they to control it, and bend it to their will rather than them to it's? [sic] (15)
Potter did not define or describe "the system" as much as he enumerated its negative consequences.
As his series of questions suggested, Potter did not directly blame decision-makers in Washington for the consequences of the war in Vietnam. Although he specifically named President Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy in his speech, he surprisingly declared that they were not "evil men" and would likely "shrink in horror" if asked to "throw napalm on the back of a ten-year-old child" (14). And although Potter criticized Johnson's notion of "freedom," he depicted even the president himself as a victim of larger forces. The "system" that Potter described had stripped these policy makers of their agency, as their insulation rendered them incapable of making more humane decisions.
Consider how the subtle contours of Potter's depiction of the system suggested no specific or easy solutions. If Johnson and his advisors were the problem, then the appropriate reaction would be to impeach them or to vote them out of office. If the war itself were the only problem, then the rational response would be to quickly end it. Yet while the war was propagating a perverted set of values that Potter labeled "Mr. Johnson's freedom," (8) and while the war was rationalized as necessary for the peace and security of the Great Society (6), the real problem for Potter was a "system" that insulated America's leaders from understanding the consequences of their actions (14). This line of thought not only absolved the Johnson administration of blame for some of the most horrifying effects of the war, but it also implied that those decision makers would not likely be influenced by the March on Washington: "How do you stop a war then? . . . Do you march to Washington? Is that enough? Who will hear us here? How can you make decision makers hear us, insulated as they are, if they cannot hear the screams of a girl burnt by napalm?" (17).
Thus, Potter seemed to suggest the futility of his own rhetorical efforts. In the process, he laid the groundwork for more drastic and radical solutions, including a violent revolution against the existing system. Movement scholars have defined radical leadership in terms of wholesale opposition to "the system." For instance, Richard Gregg characterizes "radical protestors" as those who deliberately oppose "those persons, actions, and things grouped together and identified in the construct, 'establishment.'" He specifically notes Potter's enemy--"the system"--as a site for radical struggle among student activists in particular. Similarly, Robert Cathcart distinguishes moderate from genuinely radical movements by noting that the former "do not confront the system." Clearly, Potter confronted "the system" rhetorically, at least, and in this sense he might be labeled a "radical."
Yet, in other senses, Potter occupied more of a middle ground, radical in some ways but moderate in others. As Herb Simons has argued, "the moderate gets angry but does not shout, issues pamphlets but never manifestos, inveighs against social mores but always in the value language of the social order." Radicals or militants, conversely, "act on the assumption of a fundamental clash of interests" between the movement and the establishment and "use rhetoric as an expression, an instrument, and an act of force." As the student movement itself gradually grew more militant in its opposition to the war in the late 1960s, embracing what Robert Scott and Donald Smith have described as a strategy of "confrontation" (including a "radical and revolutionary" embrace of violence as a tactic), Potter's pragmatism, along with his intellectual orientation, restrained him from going along. As Gitlin has argued, Potter was "a radical pragmatist in the grain of William James and John Dewey," and although he advanced a radical critique of the "system" in his speech, he stopped short of advocating violent revolution or even confrontational strategies and tactics.
Potter's tone reflected this comparatively moderate stance. Rather than enraged or angry, Potter was cool and calm--almost matter-of-fact--which may have struck some as inconsistent with his call for a fundamental transformation of American life. He sped up his delivery toward the end of the speech, yet he never approached the point of yelling or fuming. A certain impatience crept into his voice--impatience with the system, impatience with the excuses, and an impatience with the unwillingness of others to see things from his perspective and recognize the consequences of their actions. Yet he never approached the level of anger and vituperation of some of the more radical activists who would later assume leadership of the SDS and the antiwar movement.
Potter's middle ground was evident in the substance of the speech as well. In the most famous part of the speech, he urged the audience to challenge the whole system that had given rise to the war:
We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it, and then change it. For it is only when that system is brought under control that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over, all of the time. (16)
Yet his focus on naming the system seemed to subordinate his call for change to an intellectual critique. In effect, Potter conceded the need for more analysis and understanding of "the system," stopping short of advocating any particular strategy for changing it. Others in his audience, however, heard a call to revolution. As Gitlin explains, "To the SDS elite and to a considerable proportion of the crowd, SDS President Paul Potter's speech closing the rally . . . was the first public and eloquent articulation of a radical position on the war, insisting that because the war had been generated by the entire American social order, therefore the whole system had to be uprooted."
Potter had clearly developed the need for a "massive social movement," but his speech recognized that the solution would not be easy. If there was going to be radical change, the movement needed people who were "willing to change their lives," who were "willing to challenge the system, to take the problem of change seriously." The marchers could end the war only "if they were serious, if they were willing to break out of their isolation and to accept the consequences of their decision to end the war and commit themselves to building a movement wherever they are and whatever that calls for . . ." (20). Potter demanded that, before joining the social movement, his listeners reflect deeply on their own values and political commitments by considering "what it means for each of us to say we want to end the war in Vietnam--whether, if we accept the full meaning of that statement and the gravity of the situation, we can simply leave the march and go back to the routines of a society that acts as if it were not in crisis" (18). Yet he also wondered aloud whether even the protestors themselves had become insulated from the consequences of their own decisions. If they had really listened "to the screams of a burning child," could they "go back" to "whatever it was" they did "before today" (18)? Did they really grasp fully the depth of commitment needed to change the world? In the end, Potter seemed to suggest that his own vision of overthrowing "the system" was an unattainable ideal given the considerable personal risks involved in building such a movement:
To build a movement rather than a protest or some series of protests, to break out of our insulations and accept the consequences of our decisions, in effect to change our lives, means that we open ourselves to the reactions of a society that believes that it is moral and just, and that we open ourselves to labeling and to persecution, and that we dare to be really seen as wrong in a society that doesn't tolerate fundamental challenges. (21)
The breadth of the movement and the scope of its achievement may have limited Potter's ability to articulate specific and concrete actions. For example, he called upon audience members to work "in communities and with the problems that face people throughout the society," but he did little to define the contours of that work (23). He called upon graduate students to continue staging "teach-ins" and to "intensify them and expand them throughout the land," but he said nothing about the purposes of such action. (23). "If necessary," he said, protestors would "respond to the administration's war effort with massive civil disobedience all over the country," and he imagined that such protests might "wrench this country into a confrontation with the issue of Vietnam" (23). While this rallying cry drew much applause from his immediate audience, however, Potter had little of substance to say about the strategies and tactics of "confrontation."
Perhaps Potter strategically chose to be vague. English professors Sean McCann and Michael Szalay suggest that in doing so, Potter enabled listeners to imagine a new world of their choosing: "Potter's speech managed to accomplish what SDS and like-minded thinkers had been seeking to do for years--it earned the assent of thousands and ultimately millions of listeners to a fundamental recasting of the political landscape." To bolster their case, McCann and Szalay cite Potter's 1971 memoir, where he described how he opted for ambiguity and new terminology as a foundation for change in America. Yet Potter's vagueness also may have been rooted in his lack of understanding of how "the system" worked. Rather than borrowing terminology from previous generations of activists, Potter wanted this new movement to be in charge of defining itself. In his memoir, he acknowledged his own failure--and the failure of SDS--to name and describe "the system" in a way that connected with people beyond the SDS leadership. Instead of a strong, unified movement against "the system," the student movement remained largely focused on the war in Vietnam, failing to see the connections between that war and a variety of other causes and struggles.
Ultimately, because Potter called for radical rather than merely cosmetic change—a change to the entire "system"—he may have raised expectations that he had a clear sense of the new world order he had in mind. Mired in the language and ideologies of the day, however, it was difficult for Potter to fully articulate an alternative, revolutionary model for the SDS. In this sense, Potter's speech eerily recalled Dewey's declaration 40 years earlier that "The prime difficulty [of democracy] . . . is that of discovering the means by which a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests. This discovery is necessarily precedent to any fundamental change in the machinery." Potter's inability to rhetorically imagine a new American public, one willing and able to fundamentally change "the system," may help to explain why his speech at the March on Washington did not lead to a clear and unified vision for the SDS.
The Legacy of "The Incredible War"
Paul Potter's speech and the 1965 March on Washington proved a breaking point for the SDS, as the organization's leadership increasingly moved away from reasoned discourse and localized political actions to more radical and eventually confrontational strategies at the national level. In considering the long-term significance of the speech, we should consider two important legacies of this moment in American history: the short-term influence of Potter's speech on the SDS and the broader antiwar movement, and an ideological challenge to the establishment that still resonates today.
The immediate response to Potter's speech appears to have been largely positive. In the May 1965 SDS Bulletin, Paul Booth, the SDS coordinator of the march, praised Potter for "articulating the radical analysis of the march" and "identifying [the] extent of the task by arguing that the issue of democracy could not be avoided." Crediting Potter with inspiring the marchers to "take up the serious work of organizing a new left to oppose war," Booth noted that the speech "brought the whole assemblage to its feet." Sale also points out that Potter earned "the loudest and most sustained applause of the day."
Additional evidence for the influence of the speech (and the SDS's role in coordinating the March) came in the growth of the SDS over the next year. Organizational membership jumped from 3,000 in June 1965 to 10,000 by the end of October, and local chapters doubled during Potter's watch, from 41 in December 1964 to 89 in October 1965. While membership in the national organization does not alone indicate a rallying effect from the speech, Potter's keynote address as president of the SDS undoubtedly contributed to the organization's expansion by bringing more antiwar advocates into the fold.
Potter's successor as SDS president, Carl Oglesby, further contributed to the legacy of the speech when he echoed Potter's themes in a speech delivered to an antiwar congregation in November 1965. Oglesby began by reminding the audience of Potter's appeal six months earlier. Oglesby then took up Potter's challenge "to name [the system]--to suggest an analysis which, to be quite frank, may disturb some of you--and to suggest what changing it may require of us." Whereas Potter seemed impatient, Oglesby admitted he had become angry about the situation. Whereas Potter called for rhetorical opposition in the form of self-dedication and protest, Oglesby challenged "the notion that statements will bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them responsible enough." Oglesby's candid recognition that changing the system required a deeper commitment than passive or intellectual resistance to the war provides just one example of how later activists used Potter's speech as a starting point to promulgate more radical action.
Yet, ironically, the ensuing explosion of SDS membership and the influx of more antiwar activists may have contributed to its ultimate demise by making the organization more geographically diffused and ideologically diverse. Following the April 17 march, as Gitlin explains, "[n]ew members were streaming into SDS on the premise that it was an anti-war organization." Yet Potter wanted "SDS to return to its original epistemological spirit--its insistence on working from the world at hand." These new SDS members may have shared Potter's desire to change the system, but many lacked the intellectual temperament that consistently grounded Potter's advocacy. In other words, they confused Potter's radical critique of "the system" with a call for more militant tactics. The newer members tended to favor direct action to end the war rather than participatory democracy at the local level to change society as a whole. Generational rifts became more pronounced as old guard SDS leaders moved to the periphery, paving the way for a new brand of student leadership that devalued intellectual critiques and opted for confrontation over critical analysis.
Frustrated by continuing civil rights abuses, increasing poverty, and the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, the new SDS membership had a difficult time agreeing upon a unified course of action. Over the next few years, the organization would thus splinter into various groups. Some, like the Worker Student Alliance (WSA), were still committed to Potter's vision of democratic reform at the local level. Others, like the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), favored confrontation and took Potter's vision to a militant extreme. Gitlin has described the irony of the group disintegrating from within just as it was becoming a powerful national voice: "SDS, at the peak of its size and militancy, with some hundred thousand members, hundreds of chapters, millions of supporters, and under the intense scrutiny (to say the least) of the White House and the FBI, broke into screaming factions."
In the summer of 1969, the RYM faction of the SDS would form an explicitly revolutionary group called the "Weathermen." This group assumed control over the SDS National Office by sheer force, even though they bore little resemblance to the ragtag group of students who had teamed up in 1961 to form SDS. Casting themselves as genuine revolutionaries, they dismissed the old guard as "Movement People" and advocated the use of violent direct action against the United States government in order to "bring the war home." They first demonstrated what they meant by this statement through the "Days of Rage" in October 1969, during which the Weathermen incited riots in Chicago to protest the trials of protestors arrested during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Pursued by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, many leaders of the Weathermen became fugitives and the group went underground, renaming themselves the Weather Underground. In May 1970, the Weather Underground's first official communiqué, distributed via an audio recording and text to numerous press sources, declared a state of war with the U.S. government. It further avowed that "Within the next fourteen days we will attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan [sic] injustice." Nineteen days later, the organization bombed the New York City police headquarters, injuring a number of police officers. Members of the group continued their revolutionary efforts well into the 1970s by attacking numerous institutions in major cities across the United States.
A social movement's turn to militancy, as many scholars of social movements have suggested, is often based in the movement's absolute and total opposition to the "establishment." As such, the legacy of Potter's speech is not simply that it served as a bridge between the moderate past and the militant future of the SDS, but that it articulated an indictment of "the system" that others could later use to justify more confrontational tactics. Just a month after Potter's speech, New York Post journalist and one-time SDS member Jack Newfield published an article in the Nation. Within the article, Newfield elaborated on Potter's vision of a New Student Left that transcended opposition to the war to embrace a variety of causes, including civil rights and the plight of the poor. While Newfield considered that vision a bit too "utopian," he drew historical parallels that foreshadowed the SDS's eventual turn to more confrontational and even violent tactics:
The strategists of the emerging radicalism dream of an anti-Establishment alliance of Southern Negroes, students, poor whites, ghetto Negroes, indigenous protest movements and SNCC--all constituting an independent power base of millions. Most likely they will fail in this utopian vision; certainly they will blunder as they grope for it. Perhaps the final impact of their rebellion will be small. But the impulse that drives them into the lower depths of America is the same one that motivated the Abolitionists and the wobblies.
Most of the marchers on April 17, 1965, including Potter, probably did not foresee the militancy and violence of the student movement in the latter half of the 1960s. But the presence of avowed communists and self-proclaimed revolutionaries at the 1965 March on Washington foreshadowed the "emerging radicalism" of the SDS even then. Potter's speech, with its broad indictment of the system and direct call to "wrench this country into a confrontation with the issue of Vietnam," provided an implicit rationale for embracing militancy. Potter's words, taken at face value, did not endorse violent means of advancing the movement. But the scope of his indictment of "the system" may have encouraged others to interpret it in a more extreme fashion. In this way, the 1965 March on Washington and Potter's speech portended a growing militancy in the New Student Left, especially in the antiwar arm of the movement.
Potter himself worried from the start that others might misinterpret his speech and use it to justify strategies and tactics he did not endorse. He expressed this anxiety in a letter dated May 3, 1965, in which he worried that he had "talked too much on the subject of Vietnam," which was "'beginning to get a little stale." Beyond scaling back his own personal involvement in the organization, Potter encouraged others to more fully consider what the SDS's newfound prominence meant for its mission. Just a month after the march, Potter published an article in the SDS Bulletin urging the group to "consider strategically what SDS should be doing about Vietnam, locally as well as nationally. . . .the time has come for basic thinking about how we are organizing around the issue." Potter seemed frustrated that SDS members were increasingly supplanting his call for participatory democracy and critical analysis of the system with blind rage against the government. Although Potter was not directly responsible for this change in SDS, he recognized the movement's failure to get beyond anger and hatred to establish love and community as the guiding principles of American society.
Potter's broad focus on the struggle between hatred and love may help explain the contemporary salience of Potter's appeal. Because the speech transcended the Vietnam War to reflect on American society as a whole, Potter's critique of "the system" still may well resonate with young people. As today's young people face enduring problems of social and economic inequality and injustice, Potter's analysis of the problems confronting American society still rings true. Moreover, Potter's criticism of President Johnson's rationale for the war in Vietnam--his insistence that we were defending "freedom" in Vietnam--calls to mind President George W. Bush's justification for America's interventions in Iraq and elsewhere. Not only was America's invasion of Iraq in 2003 labeled "Operation Iraqi Freedom," but George Bush has consistently defended his policy in Iraq in terms reminiscent of LBJ's rhetoric. For example, on December 18, 2005, Bush responded to a mounting chorus of dissent against the war in Iraq by emphasizing his commitment to defending "freedom" in Iraq:
I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now, there are only two options before our country, victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any President or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance. I don't expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair, and do not give up on this fight for freedom.
Beyond the thematic salience of Potter's speech, his actual words have been preserved and celebrated in the Port Huron Project, a program of "cultural art" featuring re-enactments of six famous speeches by leaders of the 1960s New Left. Organized by Brown University Professor Mark Tribe, the Port Huron Project hired 23-year-old actor Max Bunzel to re-enact Potter's speech on July 26, 2007, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The goal, according to Tribe, was to stage "a genuine form of protest" using art to show "how much has changed, yet how much remains the same." Tribe further argued that "the system" Paul Potter described and denounced has "gotten so much more sophisticated;" Bunzel's re-enactment reflected that attitude, channeling an anger lacking in Potter's original speech. Potter's speech may not have changed the world at the time it was delivered. But, for some, his vision of a more decent society still resonates in a world where hate, fear, and isolation prevail.
Author's Note: Jeffrey P. Drury is an assistant professor at Central Michigan University. He would like to thank J. Michael Hogan, Shawn Parry-Giles, Sara Ann Mehltretter, and Susan Zaeske for feedback on various versions of this project. Thank you also to Leni Wildflower, Norm Potter, Helen Garvy, and the staff at the Wisconsin State Historical Society archives for their assistance on the project. An earlier version of this essay was presented to a graduate student seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in November 2006.
Abstract: Paul Potter, President of the Students for a Democratic Society, delivered an impassioned speech denouncing the Vietnam War, calling for fundamental change in U.S. society during the March on Washington on April 17, 1965. Potter's criticism of the American "system" invited the audience to view Vietnam as but one symptom of a larger problem. Yet the vagueness of his vision allowed more militant activists to interpret his speech as a call for more violent revolution.
Keywords: Student Movement, Antiwar Movement, New Left, Paul Potter, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Radicalism, Liberalism, Vietnam War
 Paul Potter, A Name for Ourselves (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), 15.
 This lack of efficacy explains why Potter's speech has been lost along the way. The text is primarily encountered in 1960s historical readers and students are rarely exposed to it outside of courses whose primary subject is the rhetoric of social movements. As of August 2008, Potter's speech is not included in one of the largest Internet speech databases, American Rhetoric (americanrhetoric.com), which has texts of more than 5,000 speeches. This lack of attention to the speech is compounded by the inaccuracy of nearly all published texts of the speech, most of which do not match the audio version housed in the Wisconsin State Historical Society archives.
 Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York, NY: Random House, 1973), 15, 16-17.
 Sale notes that SDS distributed over 20,000 copies by the end of 1964 and more than 40,000 by the end of 1966. These printing rates underestimate the number of people familiar with the document given the propensity of students to pass along a single copy of the document to friends. Sale, SDS, 50-51, 69.
 Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement (Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1990), 11.
 Sale, SDS, 82. By June 1965, SDS had distributed more than 75 pamphlets covering a range of topics from foreign policy to sex. Harry Trimborn, "New Radicalism--Groping for the Past," Los Angeles Times, 20 June 1965, I2.
 The SNCC operated on college campuses in southern states while the NSM primarily involved students from the northeastern United States. Both groups aimed their efforts towards civil rights and race relations rather than the "system" as a whole, leaving a space for the SDS to lead the student antiwar charge. Philip Altbach, Student Politics in America: A Historical Analysis (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 198-199.
 Sale, SDS, 5.
 "SDS to Sponsor Vietnam March," SDS Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 4 (January 1965): 1, 14 (http://archive.lib.msu.edu/AFS/dmc/radicalism/public/all/sdsbulletin/ALZ-3.pdf).
 John Finney, "U.S. Plans Step-Up in Troops and Aid for Vietnam War," New York Times, 3 April 1965, 1-2
 Sale, SDS, 172-173.
 Jack Smith, "Giant Rally in U.S. Capital," National Guardian, 17 April 1965, 1.
 Paul Potter, letter to David Mandel, 13 April 1965, series 2A, number 29, Students for a Democratic Society Papers, 1958-1970, Wisconsin State Historical Society.
 See Gitlin, The Sixties, 242. This March on Washington to end the war in Vietnam should not be confused with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which attracted more protestors and featured Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
 Paul Booth, "March on Washington," SDS Bulletin, vol 3, no. 7 (May 1965): 10. (http://archive.lib.msu.edu/AFS/dmc/radicalism/public/all/sdsbulletin/ALZ098-109.pdf).
 Special to the New York Times, "15,000 White House Pickets Denounce Vietnam War," New York Times, 28 April 1965, 3; and Jack Smith, "The Demand is 'Peace': 25,000 March in Washington," National Guardian, 24 April 1965, 4.
 "Report to Readers: What the march means," National Guardian, 24 April 1965, 2.
 Dr. Leni Wildflower, email message to author, 9 November 2007; and Sale, SDS, 89.
 Jack Newfield, "The Student Left," The Nation, 10 May 1965, 492, (http://www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=19650510&s=newfield).
 Irving Howe, "The Decade that Failed," New York Times Magazine, 19 September 1982, 43.
 Sale, SDS, 187.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 102.
 John Bassett McCleary, The Hippie Dictionary: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2004), 612.
 Potter was Vice President for National Affairs for the NSA in 1961-1962. Sale, SDS, 40; and Gitlin, The Sixties, 111.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 122.
 "Two Youths Beaten Near Racial March," Los Angeles Times, 12 October 1961, 2, 23.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 128.
 Sale, SDS, 40-41.
 Paul Potter, "The Intellectual as an Agent of Social Change," Our Generation Against Nuclear War 2, no. 4 (1963): 30.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 101-102; and Sale, SDS, 84.
 Paul Potter, The University and the Cold War (New York, NY: Students for a Democratic Society, 1964), 10-11.
 Paul Potter, The University and the Cold War, 11. See also Potter, "The Intellectual," 30-36.
 Sale notes that another reason SDSers elected Potter was because, unlike the other candidates, he was not yet strongly aligned to the controversial ERAP. Sale, SDS, 102, 107-111.
 SDS Constitution, quoted in Sale, SDS, 669.
 Potter also highlighted that "the expectations of students about political involvement are markedly changed from a few years ago," recognizing the evolutionary nature of the SDS and the student movement as a whole that would later become a challenge for the SDS's old guard. Paul Potter, "President's Views," SDS Bulletin 2 (July 1964), 2-3; and Wini Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal, 77-78.
 Paul Potter, letter to Roy Gesley, 9 February 1965, series 2A, number 29, Students for a Democratic Society Papers, 1958-1970, Wisconsin State Historical Society.
 Booth, "March on Washington," 9, 10; and Sale, SDS, 189.
 Paul Potter, "The Incredible War," 17 April 1965, Tape 517A, Students for a Democratic Society Papers, 1958-1970, Wisconsin State Historical Society. Here and elsewhere, passages in "The Incredible War" are cited with reference to paragraph numbers in the text of the speech that accompanies this essay.
 References to "the system" had been part of the language of SDS at least as early as 1962 when the Port Huron Statement described the peace movement as occurring both within and outside "the System." Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement, 69.
 Richard Gregg, "The Ego-Function of the Rhetoric of Protest," Philosophy and Rhetoric 4 (1971): 74, 78; and Robert Cathcart, "Movements: Confrontation as Rhetorical Form," Southern Speech Communication Journal 43 (1978): 242, 240.
 Herbert Simons, "Requirements, Problems, and Strategies: A Theory of Persuasion for Social Movements," Quarterly Journal of Speech 56 (1970): 7-8.
 Robert Scott and Donald Smith, "The Rhetoric of Confrontation," Quarterly Journal of Speech 55 (1969): 1.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 189.
 Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 56.
 Sean McCann and Michael Szalay, "Introduction: Paul Potter and the Cultural Turn," Yale Journal of Criticism 18 (2005): 210; and Potter, A Name for Ourselves, 101.
 Potter, A Name for Ourselves, 185.
 John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 1954), 146.
 Booth, "March on Washington," 9, 10
 Sale, SDS, 189.
 Sale, SDS, 663-664, 239-240.
 Carl Oglesby, "Trapped in a System," in "Takin it to the Streets," 178, 182. Oglesby's speech is much more renowned than Potter's and scholars and commentators often use it as a representative example of the SDS's stance toward Vietnam in the 1960s.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 189.
 Gitlin, The Sixties, 3.
 Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006), 150-151; and Gitlin, The Sixties, 385, 387, 393-403.
 Newfield, "The Student Left," 495.
 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties, 189-190.
 Paul Potter, letter to Peter Werbe, 3 May 1965, series 2A, number 29, Students for a Democratic Society Papers, 1958-1970, Wisconsin State Historical Society.
 Emphasis in original. Paul Potter, "National Council," SDS Bulletin 3 (1965): 5.
 Potter lived in the Northeastern United States between 1965 and 1969 where he continued teaching and writing about political activism. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Potter orchestrated "movement centers" in Chicago and even testified in the high profile Chicago Seven case in which seven protestors at the Democratic National Convention (including Hayden and Davis) were tried for conspiracy to incite a riot. By this point, however, Potter, like most of the SDS old guard, had largely phased himself out of the organization. At the end of the turbulent decade, Potter sought a fundamental change in his life and decided to leave academia once again. During the next 15 years, he would live in various places--a commune in Felton, California that he co-managed in 1970 with his wife, Leni Wildflower; the University of Hawaii where he earned a degree in Public Health between 1973 and 1975; New Mexico in the early 1980s where he spent his final years living sometimes alone and often times in the company of his family and SDS friends. J. Anthony Lukas, "Another Folk Singer Silenced By Judge at Conspiracy Trial," New York Times, 23 January 1970, 15; and Dr. Leni Wildflower, email message to author, 9 November 2007.
 George W. Bush, "Address to the Nation on Iraq," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush, 2001-, vol. 3, bk. 1 (Washington D.C.: GPO, 2006), 277-279; and George W. Bush, "Address to the Nation on Iraq From the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George W. Bush, 2001-, vol. 3, bk. 1 (Washington D.C.: GPO, 2006), 410-413.
 George W. Bush, "Address to the Nation on Iraq and the War on Terror," Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents: Administration of George W. Bush, 2005, vol. 41, no. 51 (26 December 2005), 1884.
 Randy Kennedy, "Giving New Life to Protests of Yore," New York Times, late ed., 28 July 2007, B7.