WEST BRATTLEBORO—On March 22, 1961, in the glow of the heady idealism of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, an organization formed here with a goal of promoting a better understanding of the world.
Among the founders of the Windham World Affairs Council (WWAC) were Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, U.S. Sen. George Aiken, psychologist and foreign policy expert Hildegard Durfee, and environmentalist Arthur Westing.
Sixty years later, this local affiliate of the nonprofit World Affairs Councils of America remains its smallest chapter and the only one of 90 chapters in the U.S. that is totally run by volunteers. It celebrated its legacy and outlined its hopes for the future on Sept. 12 with an outdoor gathering at Lilac Ridge Farm.
The world has changed greatly over the last six decades, as has the WWAC. But its primary mission remains, according to Lissa Weinmann, a member of the nonprofit’s board of trustees.
She said the council “has always been infused with a kind of optimism about what’s possible, and I think we’ve all, over the years in many different ways, tried to be part of that.”
One such example is current board member Javed Chaudhri, a native of Pakistan who said he attended his first WWAC event in the winter of 1961, when he was a student at Marlboro College.
He said then-president Tom Ragle brought him to the event “to show me off,” and that he was “the only foreigner in the room.”
“I’ve never forgotten that evening,” Chaudhri said.
“I’ve always followed what is happening with the Windham World Affairs Council no matter where I lived, and I always wanted so much to involve the academic community in the area,” he added.
A longtime teacher at Keene State College, Chaudhri lamented the loss of area academic institutions such as Marlboro College and Southern Vermont College in Bennington, and the downsizing of the School for International Training in Brattleboro.
“We’ve been so rich, until recently, in having so many colleges and academic institutions in the tri-state area,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest losses to our society and to our country that higher education has gone that way, but there’s still people left.”
Chaudhri has worked hard over the years to bring new people into WWAC, and he said he was proud that the council’s board is collectively the youngest it has been in years. That fresh perspective, he said, is needed at a time when the United States needs to be more positively engaged with the world.
“We can make history by changing minds,” he said. “Fortunately, we live in a very, very wonderful part of the United States, a very liberal part of the United States, and we will keep that liberalism going. We’ve got to expand it. We’ve got to reach out to people whose minds have closed through the deterioration of education over the past half-century or so.”
Outgoing WWAC trustees Rosalyn and Eshagh Shaoul agreed.
“The purpose of our involvement,” said Eshagh, “was to bring out the truth of the world and international development and international crisis to the community.”
The Galbraith touch
If there is one family that had a close association with WWAC over the past six decades, it would be the Galbraiths.
Famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration, gave many presentations to the group over the years, a tradition carried on by one of his sons — Peter Galbraith, who served the Clinton administration as the first ambassador to Croatia.
The Galbraith family, along with Chaudhri and the Shaouls, were all honored by the council at the Sept. 12 event for their service to the organization.
Accepting the award on behalf of his family was Peter Galbraith, who told the gathering that yet another generation will eventually come to Brattleboro to talk about global issues: his nephew and his nephew’s wife have become foreign service officers.
Galbraith said that WWAC’s success is “the reflection of this really extraordinary community.”
In the wake of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, many at the gathering were interested in Galbraith’s thoughts. He said his first visit to Afghanistan came in 1989 on the day that the former Soviet Union’s military completed its withdrawal from the country.
Galbraith, who worked with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years and was a United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was a sharp critic of U.S. military strategy during the nearly two-decades-long occupation of that country.
“The strategy we had wouldn’t work because it was a counterinsurgency strategy and it depended on having a local partner,” Galbraith said. “And when your partner — mainly the Afghan government and military — is corrupt, ineffective, and illegitimate as a result of fraudulent elections, then you don’t have a partner.”
Galbraith pointed out that fraud during the 2009 Afghan election, and was removed from his post as a result. He remembered the talk he gave to the WWAC just days after his sacking, and said he still has the petition calling for his reinstatement that was signed by the people who jammed Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro that night.
He put the blame for the failures in Afghanistan squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. generals who ran the military operation.
“They’re the people I hold most responsible,” he said. “They knew their strategy wasn’t going to work, and tried to alter the facts.”
Despite the expenditure of more than $2 trillion and the loss of nearly 2,500 U.S. service members, Galbraith said that “there’s nothing to show for it. The Taliban are back. They may be a little milder than they were, but what we sought to accomplish, wasn’t.”
Looking to the future
Weinmann said WWAC is trying to “reinvigorate” its youth outreach program in January when it starts a program with Nobel laureate Jody Williams at Brattleboro Union High School.
She said the focus will be on “peace and the elements of what real human security looks like.” New board member Amanda Thurber-Ellis, whose farm hosted the Sept. 12 event, will be working with Williams on this initiative.
Citing Williams’s work on an international agreement to ban the use of land mines which earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, Weinmann said the activist will also serve as an inspiration to the BUHS students showing that someone from Brattleboro can make a real difference in the world.
In his remarks, Chaudhri urged those in the audience with high-school or college-aged children to encourage them to attend WWAC events — and to support the council.
“This community has an intellectual wealth that we’re aware of, so I would encourage you to reach out to friends and family, especially at this time, when we need to talk more about diplomacy and our country’s role in the world today,” he said.