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03/2006 ‘The Vietnam Situation Is Hell’: The AIA’s Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia

by Andrew Brodie Smith

The socially turbulent 1960s and early ’70s were a time in the U.S. when people tested and challenged inherited norms and verities, and the AIA was not untouched by the spirit and mood of the moment. Critical national and international events forced the organization, which for 100 years had a reputation for being civic minded, to reconsider its standing in the larger society. As social movements percolated across the country, the AIA took a hard look at itself and asked fundamental questions about the social role of professional societies in general and of architects in particular. Which social ills required the attention of the AIA? Were there questions of conscience, non-professional in nature, that demanded that the organization leverage its influence and prestige in Washington? Was it right for members to ask the AIA to take positions on issues beyond the expertise of architects and planners? Did circumstances sometimes require it?

That the political winds were shifting and the Institute was somewhat out of step with progressive America first came into sharp focus during an address by Urban League President and prominent civil rights activist Whitney Young Jr. to the AIA 1968 Convention. Young told delegates that, when it came to the nation’s critical social issues, architects were “most distinguished” by their “thunderous silence and complete irrelevance.” Correct or incorrect in his assessment, Young had taken the gloves off, and polite discourse no longer was the order of the day when the social commitment of the profession was in question.

Inspired by the line of inquiry opened by Young and influenced by left-wing, activist campus groups like Students for a Democratic Society, architecture students also became more political in the late ’60s, sometimes clashing with established professionals. Students who had addressed prior AIA conventions had been brief and deferential; now their tone was more strident. AIA Students President Taylor Culver, an African-American, spoke to the 1969 convention in Chicago. Culver reassured nervous members, who had seen on television the violent student protests nine months before at the Democratic Convention held in the same city, that architecture students weren’t about to tear down curtains or throw chairs. Nonetheless, they would have their voices heard on pressing national and professional issues. Angry about the AIA’s neglect of some critical social problems, Culver occasionally bordered on the confrontational while addressing the gathered professionals: “What you as a generation have given us, we are not exactly appreciative of.” And then later: “I think you’ve failed and in fact if you turn your backs, you will continue to fail.”

Expertise or conscience?
Civil rights, women’s liberation, political corruption, the student’s movement, inflation, environmental concerns, the energy crisis, of all the exploding social issues of the day that occupied the AIA, none was more divisive than the Vietnam War. In part, the division stemmed from a philosophical difference among members as to whether an organization of architects should voice an opinion on such a complex geopolitical issue. Some members felt that Vietnam fell well outside the expertise of the profession and that coming out officially against the war would squander the influence and prestige of the Institute.

Others argued that it was simply wrong for the AIA to stay on the sidelines of an issue of such national moral import. Moreover, they believed that the organization could not effect change in the domestic areas clearly within its purview—public housing, the environment, energy, transportation, and design—while the war’s price tag threatened funding for programs at home. As Vietnam divided American society, it too split the AIA. The Institute struggled with this internal conflict for years, ultimately to no satisfactory answer.

1969: Commitment to “a humane environment”
When, in 1966, the first anti-war rumblings were heard on the AIA convention floor, U.S. combat troops (as opposed to military advisers) had been in Vietnam for little more than a year. During a discussion of other matters, Sidney Katz, AIA, rose to speak: “The older order status quo is sitting very comfortably by while the younger men are being picked off one by one and sent off to a war to die and we certainly have not done enough to protest this … War is hell; the Vietnam situation is hell, and it must be removed at once.”

Three years later, it was clear that these were the sentiments of many in the architecture community. Chastened by the Whitney Young speech the year before, pushed by its more politically progressive members and students of architecture, and inspired by the social movements building around them, the AIA took perhaps the most public stand in its history on the pressing social problems of the day, passing what it called the “National Priorities” resolution.

The resolution pronounced the AIA’s commitment to a “humane environment,” to finding the money and political will “needed to erase the shame of urban America.” And, while not mentioning Vietnam by name, the resolution asserted “that we have neither unlimited wealth nor wisdom, and that we cannot sensibly hope to instruct other nations in the paths they should follow when we are increasingly unable to demonstrate that we know how to maintain a viable society at home.” As if announcing that it had emerged from what Whitney Young had called its “thunderous silence and complete irrelevance,” the AIA later ran quotes from the resolution in major dailies throughout the country.

Although the positions laid out in the National Priorities resolution represented an unprecedented articulation of political views for the AIA, they did not go far enough in the estimation of many in the organization, particularly liberal members of the Boston Society of Architects, the New York Chapter, and the AIA Students. These groups as well as others made up an opinionated and substantial faction within the organization that wanted it to come out explicitly against the Vietnam War. Those persons holding the most power nationally, especially the AIA Board of Directors, felt differently. Taking an explicit and public anti-war position would risk poisoning the waters between the AIA and the Nixon Administration, hampering the effectiveness of the organization to influence federal policy in areas that were more directly related to the architecture profession.

1970: Increasing opposition
When the AIA convention convened in the summer of 1970, public sentiment had turned increasingly against the war. The courts martial of U.S. soldiers accused of responsibility for the My Lai massacre had dominated the national news for much of March. The invasion of Cambodia in late April sparked protests and riots throughout the country, leading to the National Guard killing four students at Kent State. It was in this environment that the AIA Resolutions Committee was peppered with proposals for anti-war resolutions from members and chapters wishing for consideration of the issue on the convention floor. The Resolution Committee consolidated these suggestions into one supplemental resolution, which, for the most part, reiterated the sentiments of the National Priorities resolution of 1969. While still making no specific mention of Vietnam, the supplemental resolution did urge “the President and Congress to reduce our military commitments and involvements abroad to the absolute minimum consistent with our nation’s security.” [italics added] This was a clear attempt to appease the doves.

A call for reduced military commitments, however, wasn’t about to placate the most anti-war of members. Stymied by the Resolutions Committee and the leadership of the AIA, they introduced an amendment on the floor. Member Richard Stein of New York read it to the assembled: Resolved, that “the President and Congress of the United States remove our military forces from Southeast Asia in accordance with the schedule set up in the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment, that is, immediately withdraw from Cambodia and complete withdrawal from Vietnam by June 1971.” The issue the AIA leadership had been so careful to avoid was now open for consideration.

For many influential people in the Institute, Stein’s amendment was anathema. Such a direct repudiation of Nixon’s foreign policy was to their way of thinking a foolhardy course. Relations between the AIA and the Nixon Administration were cordial. Just prior to the convention, Nixon had written a letter to then AIA President Rex Allen in which he expressed his “warmest admiration” for the AIA’s work on “the urgent needs in communities across the country” and for its “civic awareness and desire for human betterment.” Respect and friendship between the White House and the Institute had ebbed and flowed throughout the years and could never be assumed. If Nixon was receptive to the organization, this represented an opportunity that needed to be delicately leveraged. Outright support of a cease fire on the part of the AIA would likely damage relations. Why squander the prestige and goodwill of the Institute in Washington on a foreign policy issue that architects were unlikely to impact either way and that was beyond their expertise anyway?

Board member and future (1972) AIA President Scott Ferebee, FAIA, rising in opposition to Stein’s anti-war amendment, worried out loud about what effect its passage might have on the fate of the AIA’s efforts to get a professional architect appointed to the position of Architect of the Capitol for the first time in 100 years. Nixon certainly was capable of retaliating by passing over the Institute’s choice for the job, AIA Vice President George White, FAIA. Opposition to Stein’s amendment may have been partisan in nature and not exclusively born of a desire for the Institute to pick its battles judiciously, evidenced by Ferebee’s open support for Nixon’s Vietnam strategy. “A number of us believe that the president’s action in Cambodia was designed to get us out of Southeast Asia,” he said on the floor of the Convention, “and it will have that effect.”

Thanks in part to Ferebee’s arguments, the delegates defeated the Stein amendment and passed the resolution that contained the less confrontational language urging the reduction of military commitments abroad. The issue, however, was not about to go away and reared its stubborn head again during the following convention in 1971.

1971: Boston and New York try again
Not taking defeat lying down, The Boston Society of Architects sent in a resolution to the National Convention the next year, approved by a majority of its membership, which called for an immediate end to the “massive destruction of the natural and human environment in Indo-China.” Consistent with AIA leadership’s reaction to a similar amendment the year before, no such resolution made it out of committee. However, once again, due to the politicking of the Boston architects and others, the Resolution Committee took a small step in the direction of the doves and introduced, now for the third time, a resolution reaffirming the position of the AIA on national matters.

This time, the resolution was called the “Omnibus Resolution on National Priorities,” and its authorship was credited to the Boston Society of Architects, the New York Chapter, the AIA Board of Directors, and the Resolutions Committee. The Omnibus Resolution contained essentially the same general provision regarding military commitments of the U.S. as expressed in 1970 with a slight modification, the word “accelerate” was added, to indicate an added sense of urgency: President and Congress should “accelerate the reduction of our military commitments and involvements abroad [italics added].” The resolution also urged “the rebuilding of areas ravaged by war, most specifically the Indo-China area.”

Like the year before, the most anti-war members found the new Omnibus Resolution on National Priorities lacking for not specifically calling for an end to the Vietnam War, and like the year before, a member from New York (Mr. Frost), introduced an amendment from the floor with stronger and more specific anti-war language. “The recent disclosure in The Pentagon Papers of how our war policy was made makes us more ashamed than ever of what has been going on so long in Indo-China,” he said and then moved that the AIA “urge the President to promptly initiate a unilateral and total cease-fire.”

Debate erupts on the floor
Mr. Bailey Ryan, AIA, (Kentucky): “Mr. President, I don’t think there’s a man [sic] in this room that disagrees with what is said in the resolution … We all feel deeply about this; our guts are torn out about it. But I have seen this war fought on this convention floor for three years with the same resolution, exactly worded approximately the same way, and every year we have the same debate and end up defeating it all because the AIA are architects and we’re not militarists and we’re not at all about showing the president of the U.S. how to run the government on some other level not related to architecture.”

Joe Siff, president of the AIA Students: “The amendment to this resolution was brought up at a number of student caucuses and I would like, therefore, to express the feeling of the majority of the students here … Their feeling is that we are not architects first, we are citizens first, and therefore it is wholly appropriate to debate this issue on the floor of this convention.”

Mr. Boone, member of the Board of the AIA: “At the risk of being called a ‘hawk,’ I will point out this [a cease fire] is totally unrealistic and impossible from a military standpoint, and if someone passed such a resolution when those of us were fighting World War II, I don’t think when we came home we would have joined the AIA.”

Did we, or didn’t we?
After everyone had their say, the vote was taken. The substitute resolution passed 69 to 55. After three years and much acrimony, the AIA had finally taken an official position against the Vietnam War. Or had it?

Upon announcement of the passage of the amendment, a delegate from Southern California called for a written ballot on the question, under which each delegate’s vote would be properly weighted to take into account the number of members he or she actually represented. The call for the written ballot received the required vote of one third of the delegates. There would be a second vote. Under the weighted ballot, the anti-Vietnam War resolution was roundly defeated 365.81 to 736.61. The AIA had taken an anti-war position, at least for a few minutes, and then took it away.

Moreover, the Convention took out the plank calling for the rebuilding of war-torn Indochina. Mr. Virden of Mississippi, member of the Board of Directors representing the Gulf States Region, argued for the plank’s removal: “I find it singularly amusing that in this whole resolution no mention is made of veterans, of children of men that were killed over there, of mothers and fathers and so forth, and yet we want to spend all the money to take care of Vietnam.”

The issue resolves itself
The next year would see yet another attempt to pass an anti-Vietnam-War resolution. This one expressed “profound concern … over the extension of the war.” However, with no National Priorities resolution in 1972 on which to tack such an amendment, those who offered the resolution needed a two-thirds majority vote to get the Convention to consider it. They failed to get the votes needed for consideration.

In January of 1973, the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s combat role in war and silencing the official AIA debate on the issue. The course of events had resolved the problem for the Institute. The organization would remain officially silent about the war. This was as it should be according to some. To others it was a failure of moral courage.

Copyright 2005 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page Home Page

AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

Andrew Smith is the contract researcher/archivist for AIA150.

Photos 1, 2, and 3: Peace and togetherness prevailed despite contention on the issues of the day, as illustrated in these photos of the Experiment in Awareness exercise from the 1970 AIA Convention. To foster appreciation of color, sound, light, and community togetherness, participants were treated to slide shows and music as they hummed, danced, and performed a tarp raising exercise.

Tallying a hand vote at the 1970 convention, from left, AIA EVP William Slayton, Hon. AIA; President George Kassabaum, FAIA; Secretary Preston Bolton, FAIA; and General Counsel Samuel Spencer.

The 1970 AIA Resolutions Council in session to decide the proposed resolutions to recommend to the Board for that year’s convention.

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