[This note was written in 1979; B.E.M. is no longer in existence as an organization.]
Henry E. Niles, Chairman of the Board of the Baltimore Life Insurance Company, began working in the summer of 1966 on the idea of an Open Letter to the President from business executives who opposed the Vietnam war. In December 1966, representatives of a group of more than 80 executives visited the White House to deliver an Open Letter to President Johnson from Concerned Business Executives, which voiced their opposition to the administration’s policy in Vietnam. In an effort to gain more signatures for the Open Letter, it was published in the Washington Post in February 1967 and in the New York Times on May 28, 1967. By May, the number of executives signing the letter had increased to 306.
Henry Niles’ original intention had been to issue a public statement on Vietnam from the business community. However, it soon became apparent that there was support for the idea of forming a new organization. Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace was formally established in August 1967 by drawing up a simple memorandum of association (See Box 6). The objectives of the organization were to press for practical steps towards ending American participation in the Vietnam war, to use the business community’s influence in expanding public support for disengagement, and to emphasize the war’s adverse effect on our economy. At the first meeting of the executive committee of B.E.M., held on August 10, 1967. Henry E. Niles and Harold Willens of Los Angeles were elected co-chairmen of the organization. Also, serving on the executive committees were William F. Fischer, Jr., and Charles G. Simpson of Philadelphia, Erwin A. Salk of Chicago, and Lee B. Thomas, Jr. of Louisville.
The first national meeting of B.E.M. was held at the Statler-Hilton Hotel, Washington, D.C., on September 27, 1967. Among the speakers at that meeting were Senator Thruston B. Morton; Marriner S. Eccles, Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Ambassador Tran Van Dinh, Former Ambassador of South Vietnam to the United States; and Rear Admiral Arnold True, U.S. Navy (retired). Considerable publicity was given to this meeting, attended by about 250 executives. A public campaign to rally support among business executives for a negotiated settlement in Vietnam was launched, and by November, over 1100 executives had signed either the original Open Letter or a new letter which was formulated in September. The membership of B.E.M. continued to grow during the next few years as public opposition to the Vietnam war increased. After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, B.E.M.’s membership and income fell off drastically.
Beginning in February 1968, a regular newsletter, Washington Watch, was sent to all B.E.M. members and supporters to report on developments in Washington related to the Vietnam war. These reports were written by Tristram Coffin, who received an honorarium from B.E.M. The views expressed were Mr. Coffin’s and were not necessarily endorsed by B.E.M. as an organization. Early in 1971, an attempt was made to enlarge the circulation of Washington Watch and to make it self-supporting. By mid-summer 1971, it was apparent that this effort had failed. It was decided that B.E.M. could no longer afford to continue to send Washington Watch to members and supporters.
The main offices of B.E.M. were located at 901 N. Howard Street, Baltimore, Maryland. Chapters of the organization were established in a number of cities around the country, and much of the program of the organization was planned and carried out by committees working at the local level. Among the most active chapters were New York, Philadelphia (Delaware Valley Chapter), Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Files on the various chapters are in Series D, Boxes55 and 56. A Washington office of B.E.M. was established in 1969, first at 1730 Eye St., LW., and then at 201 Massachusetts Ave., N.E.
Harold Willens served with Henry Niles as co-chairman until January 1969 when he resigned to become chairman of the Businessmen’s Educational Thind (B.E.F.), a tax-deductible organization developed by Willens and others. Although there was no organic relationship between B.E.F. and B.E.M., some of the educational activities sponsored by B.E.M. were financed through B.E.F. Information on B.E.F. can be found in Series D, Boxes 43 and 45. During 1969, Robert A. Maslow served as Secretary to the Executive Committee. His major duty was to promote contacts between B.E.M. members and their Senators and Representative.
In 1970, the objectives of B.E.M. were broadened to include efforts to help arrest and reverse the militarization of American institutions and to work for the reordering of priorities toward more humane goals; to support legislation and political candidates that supported B.E.M.’s purpose; and to oppose legislation and political candidates that opposed B.E.M’s purpose. The name of the organization was changed to Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace and New National Priorities. It continued to be known as B.E.M. In January 1970, Vincent F. McGee, Jr. joined B.E.M.’s staff as Field Secretary, serving as liaison between the national office in Baltimore and the various chapters. He first worked out of the Baltimore office but later moved to the Washington office. During 1970, the responsibility for handling administrative details was gradually shifted from Henry Niles to Vincent McGee. In February 1971, McGee became Executive Director, charged with the administration of B.E.M.’s membership files and finances and with the implementation of programs. He served in this capacity until July 1971 when he surrendered to U.S. Marshalls and began serving a 2 year sentence for draft resistance at the Allenwood Federal Penitentiary. In May, McGee’s conviction on several counts of non-cooperation with the Selective Service System had been affirmed by the Supreme Court. He was paroled in June 1972.
Stephen L. Wilcox was hired in March 1971 to work with Vincent McGee as bookkeeper/assistant, and later as Office Manager.
Early in 1970, B.E.M. prepared a series of one-minute radio spot announcements suitable for public service or paid broadcasting. When Station W T 0 P, Washington, D.C., refused to carry the messages, B.E.M. filed a complaint with the F.C.C. under the “Fairness Doctrine.” The legal work for this complaint and the formal suit later filed against F.C.C./W T 0 P was handled by Thomas IL Asher of the Media Access Project. Series D, Box 55 contains information on this case. In July 1970, B.E.M. launched a program called “Operation Housecleaning,” an effort to defeat some of the worst “hawk” Congressmen. Of the 15 targeted Congressmen, 3 were defeated in the November 1970 election. Material on this project is filed in Series D, Box 52.
In 1971, the American Business Committee on National Priorities (A.B.C.) was established as an outgrowth of B.E.M. This organization was granted tax-exempt status. Several active B.E.M. members served on the Board of A.B.C., including W.Walter Hardy, Jr. as President, Henry E. Niles, Bob Childers, and Bernard S. Weiss. The Secretary and Executive Director of A.B.C. was Thomas R. Asher. Among the projects undertaken by A.B.C. in 1971 were a public opinion poll of the constituents of selected Congressional leaders to determine whether the leadership reflected the views of the, electorate on the Indochina war and national priorities; a study of the air war in Indochina, directed by Fred Branfman; and the establishment of the Indochina Resource Center in Washington. In spite of tax-exempt status, A.B.C. was not very successful in raising money. It went out of existence in late 1972. Materials on A.B.C. are filed in Series D, Boxes 48 and 49.
Operation Housecleaning was repeated in 1972, beginning in March. B.E.M. targeted the “Deadly Dozen,” 12 Congressmen who by their pro-war votes had brought death and destruction in Southeast Asia to Asians and to American fighting men and who appeared to be politically vulnerable. Two of the targeted Democratic Congressmen were defeated in the primaries and one Republican was defeated in the general Election. Material on this effort is filed in Series D, Box 53. B.E.M. was also active in the presidential election in 1972. Representative of B.E.M. interviewed all of the declared presidential candidates who agreed to be interviewed. In August, 1972, the National Council of B.E.M. unanimously endorsed the candidacy of Senator George McGovern.
Beginning in 1973, there was a marked decrease in the program carried out by B.E.M. The Washington office was closed and most of the chapters decided to become inactive. However, the national office in Baltimore continued to operate on a minimum budget. B.E.M.’s statement of purpose was revised to read: “B.E.M.’s purpose is to help arrest and reverse the militarization of American institutions and to work for the reordering of national priorities toward more humane goals and to support appropriate legislation.” In 1974, the name of the organization was changed to Business Executives Move for New National Priorities.
Since 1974, B.E.M. has worked closely with the Coalition on National Priorities and Military Policy, 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., Washington, D.C. Several folders of material on this organization are filed in Series H, Box 60.
B.E.M. continues to seek to influence legislation through occasional letters to all members of Congress expressing B.E.M.’s position on proposed legislation. Frequently, selected constituents of key members of Congress are urged to express their opinions on military bills. On several occasions, Henry Niles has testified before Congressional committees opposing high military budgets and urging large cuts. In addition, B.E.M. News Notes is published irregularly and sent to all members of Congress as well as to ail B.E.M. members.
Although B.E.M.’s membership and budget are much smaller than they were in the period 1968-1972, B.E.M. continues to function effectively as the voice of members of the business community who seek to reverse the militarization of American institutions and to reorder national priorities toward more humane goals.