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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): Social Upheaval, the New Left, and the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

By Robert V. Labaree

Social Upheaval, the New Left, and the Vietnam Anti-War Movement

By the mid-1960s, college student unrest was spreading throughout the nation. Activism expanded to encompass protests against environmental degradation, demands for equal rights for women and other groups, and—as causalities from the war in Southeast Asia began to mount—a peace movement coalescing around ending the Vietnam War. Unlike the 1930s student-led peace movement, which advocated against entering a war, the Vietnam Anti-War Movement focused on withdrawing from an increasingly unpopular war that had dragged on for years and killed tens of thousands of US college-aged adults. However, this is not to say that the early struggle for racial equality was replaced by the New Left and anti-Vietnam War efforts that emerged later in the decade. Ongoing student protests against racism and segregation are carefully documented in Ibram H. Rogers’s study The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972. This important work provides the first national examination of black student activism at four-year white and predominantly black institutions during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the author places black activism within the broader constructs of the Black Power Movement and the eventual establishment of black studies programs at many college campuses.

The monographic literature about college student activism during this period of time, however, is dominated by studies about the New Left and anti-war protests. Books that attempt to understand the impact and interpret the legacy of unrest during the 1960s could constitute their own bibliographic essay, and most comprehensive historical studies of the era devote significant attention to student activism. However, there are a number of key works that focus exclusively on the student-protest movements. The recent work The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto, edited by Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Port Huron, Michigan, convention where activists composed a manifesto intended to bring together liberal Democrats, peace groups, organized labor, and civil rights leaders to form a new coalition of concerned progressives, representing a deliberate break from the old-guard League for Industrial Democrats. The essays include contributions from convention participants and other writers that provide insight into the lasting linkages between liberalism and radicalism and the concept of participatory democracy that laid the foundation for the New Left.

Important works that explore more generally the 1960s student movements include James L. Wood’s 1974 study The Sources of American Student Activism, one of the first attempts to critically examine student activism from a theoretical standpoint in order to identify how family background and generational differences, socialization, and collective action contributed to the rise and fall of student activism. Ronald Fraser, in his 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, relies on interviews to document student unrest in that year, and reminds readers that the counterculture movement and college-student rebellions were worldwide phenomena. The book’s American edition includes thirty-eight additional pages devoted to describing events in the United States. In The Clouded Vision: The Student Movement in the United States in the 1960s, David Westby relies on social-movement theory to explain the rise of student unrest in the broader context of deliberate collective action against the intractable contradictions and inequities within society. Of special note is the report of the United States President’s Commission on Campus Unrest. Established during the 1969–70 academic year in the aftermath of campus violence, the Commission addressed the causes of campus protests, the black student movement, law enforcement and university administration reactions to the unrest, the violent events that occurred on the Kent State and Jackson State campuses, and concluded with recommendations for avoiding future unrest. Kenneth Heineman’s Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era and Marc Jason Gilbert’s edited work The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums focus on anti-Vietnam War protest and its consequences. Heineman challenges the idea that student protests predominantly occurred at elite institutions, or that they failed to bring about lasting social change. The authors of the thirteen essays in Gilbert’s collection set out to challenge what the editor calls “the perceived notions and received wisdom” of both the Left and the Right, and to reveal hidden dimensions of resistance and apathy toward the peace movement by including what is described as the unheard voices of activists.

Several works highlight New Left activism at schools in the Midwest and Great Plains, demonstrating that the movement was much more than a left coast/right coast phenomenon. In Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest, Robbie Lieberman relies on oral history interviews with former activists at Southern Illinois University, the University of Missouri, Columbia, and the University of Kansas in a study of the meaning of “prairie power” activism and its lasting impact on these schools. Two books with a similar purpose include Mary Ann Wynkoop’s Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University, which chronicles grassroots activism at the southern Indiana campus, and Matthew Levin’s study of Vietnam draft resistance at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties. Both works offer insightful explanations of student resistance to the war and show how university administrators reacted to unrest on their campuses.

There are also several key studies that look back at the 1960s student protests and attempt to understand and explain their legacy. In The New Left Revisited, edited by John McMillian and Paul Buhle, contributors provide a historical critique of earlier studies of the New Left movement that depicted student protests predominantly through the eyes of chief architects of the protests rather than taking a more nuanced, critical interpretation of the movement’s legacy—as the editors argue. The contributors consist of “young scholars” who analyze the movement and also provide insight about the right-leaning countermovement that arose in reaction to the New Left. In another study, Beyond the Barricades: The Sixties Generation Grows Up, Jack Whalen and Richard Flacks conducted a series of life-history interviews between 1979 and 1988 involving former University of California, Santa Barbara student activists. Their aim was to explore “patterns of persistence and change” among the students and to determine their level of commitment to the core values and perspectives of the New Left counterculture; the authors conclude that these students generally held to their values as they grew older. In a similar vein, William Tucker profiles the lives of nine student activists—some of them members of Students for a Democratic Society—in his Princeton Radicals of the 1960s, Then and Now. His study describes how the students’ participation in radical student activism influenced their career choices and shaped their belief systems surrounding politics and social justice issues, particularly in relation to political events following the election of Barak Obama in 2008.

Of special note are the events of May 4, 1970; in many ways, scholars mark this date as the moment when college student activism lost its innocence (if it ever existed to begin with), and events forced a recalibration of the whole public purpose of protest. In a sobering prologue to his 2016 book 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, Howard Means precisely describes the deaths of twenty-four American servicemen killed on May 4 in South Vietnam—ironically, the specific average number of Americans killed each day during that period of the war. In the remainder of the book he describes the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others at Kent State University, which also happened on that day and soon after became an icon of the unsettled times. Also published recently is the study titled Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties, by Thomas Grace (one of the nine students wounded by the Ohio National Guard troops), which offers a thorough analysis of the confrontation between student protesters and the military, and includes a helpful appendix describing the lives of Kent State activists after college. Another notable treatment of the catastrophe is 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Philip Caputo. An important collection of essays edited by Carole A. Barbato and Laura L. Davis appear in Democratic Narrative, History, and Memory, which confronts the meaning of what the editors describe as the contested memory of events at Kent State. Finally, Kent State Shootings: May 4 Collection is a website providing digital access to documents, photographs, multimedia, oral histories, and other primary-source materials related to the shootings and their aftermath.

Works Cited