Non-profit

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Years of Operation:

1960-1969

Type:

Student Organization

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a radical-left student organization often credited as the main force that created the New Left. It existed from 1960 until its demise in 1969, when it split apart after a Maoist SDS group affiliated with the Progressive Labor Party was expelled by a rival communist faction for being “objectively anticommunist” and “counterrevolutionary.”

SDS originated as the student subsidiary of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), a stridently anti-communist socialist labor organization; the organizations severed their relationship in 1965 due to SDS’s willingness to admit communist members. SDS instigated insurrections on many campuses and other locations that led to clashes with authorities seeking to restore order, including the takeover of five buildings and a hostage at Columbia University in 1968, and an occupation of the grounds of the Pentagon in 1967. [1] [2] [3]

Participation and solidarity with the civil rights movement was a primary focus of the earliest years of SDS. Opposition to the Vietnam War later evolved into the primary concern: In 1965, SDS organized the first major Washington, D.C., demonstration against the conflict. By the end of 1966, SDS’s ideology and tactics had swung toward Marxism and the belief that radicalized students could bring about revolution by shutting down the ability of campuses to provide educated workers to the military. [4] SDS used human blockades against campus recruiters from the military and Dow Chemical, sometimes leading to violent confrontations with police. [5]

After SDS’s demise in 1969, the leadership of one SDS faction became the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group that claimed credit for placing two dozen bombs at locations such as the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. [6] In later years, many prominent SDS leaders – including at least three who participated in the Weather Underground – became instructors at U.S. colleges such as Columbia University,[7] Northwestern University,[8] the University of Illinois-Chicago,[9] Clark University,[10] New York University,[11] University of California—Berkeley,[12] and the University of California—Santa Barbara. [13]

At its most successful in 1968 and 1969, SDS had an estimated membership of more than 100,000 on as many as 400 campuses, and a budget of nearly $850,000 in 2019 dollars. Most of the funding, according to an estimate from former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – came from small donors. Important large donors through 1965 included Anne Farnsworth and Martin Peretz (large left-leaning donors of the era who would purchase The New Republic in 1974), and the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union. [14]

Background

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began in 1960 from the renaming and redirecting of what had been the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) – the student subsidiary of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). LID was a democratic socialist organization that evolved from writer Upton Sinclair’s Intercollegiate Socialist Society that later become a severe and sometimes violent ideological adversary of American communists. Analyzing the founding of SDS, historian Guenter Lewy observed: “For the LID anticommunism was at the core of political identity.” [15]

Outbreaks of student activism beginning on a few college campuses with SLID affiliates during the late 1950s caused SLID leaders to reevaluate their name and emphasis. SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale wrote that that the “industrial democracy” label had become “antiquated,” “made the organization sound too labor oriented,” and hurt the ability to recruit on campuses. In January 1960 SLID leaders proposed changing the name to “Students for a Democratic Society,” and the request was approved by LID leadership. [16]

SDS – LID Relations

The LID’s aversion to communism quickly led to friction with the new SDS as the student organization began to adopt a far more militant left-wing ideology. Historian Guenter Lewy writes that during a summer 1962 meeting – one of many called by the LID to address the parent organization’s concerns about this issue – an LID official was said to have removed his shirt so as to show the SDS leader Al Haber “the scars Communists had inflicted on him at the Madison Square Garden riot of 1934.” [17]

A May 1960 conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, regarding “Human Rights in the North” launched the new SDS. The conference had been planned the prior year. But by the time it began a wave of sit-ins at segregated restaurants and businesses in the South had occurred – a major escalation of civil disobedience from the U.S. Civil Rights movement. This elevated the attention and energy of the SDS event, bringing in prominent civil rights leaders (Bayard Rustin and James Farmer) and representatives from the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations. SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale writes that this all led to the creation of important friendships and put SDS on the path of civil rights activism. [18]

Shortly after this conference the United Auto Workers (UAW) gave $10,000 to SDS ($86,000 in 2019 dollars), the first of many UAW donations to SDS in its early years. With this support, SDS hired Al Haber – a graduate student SLID member at the University of Michigan and son of a former professor and LID member – to be a full-time organizer. [19]

SLID’s traditional role on campuses prior to 1960 had been to educate students regarding its own ideological agenda through literature distribution, seminars and conferences. In place of this, Haber set upon a strategy of using SDS (and its UAW money) to assist the left-of-center activism of other student groups already operating on campuses. The students most likely to appreciate the assistance this new direction provided were disproportionately the most active and ideologically left leaning. This included early SDS leaders such as Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Paul Potter, Paul Booth, Todd Gitlin and Clark Kissinger. [20]

Other early SDS leaders such as Richard Flacks, Bob Ross and Steve Max were so-called “red diaper babies” – the children of parents formerly active in the Communist Party USA or other American-based communist factions during the 1920s through the 1950s. [21] Commenting on his memory of the SDS era, Norman Podhoretz, a former left-wing activist who became one of the original neoconservatives, wrote: “As one read about the student radical leaders in the press, one kept coming upon scions of what could be called the first families of American Stalinism.” [22]

Al Haber’s new plans for SDS created the first of many confrontations that ultimately led to SDS and LID permanently severing their relationship in October 1965. [23]

In March 1961 the LID executive board fired Haber. Kirkpatrick Sale cites the SDS’s growing relationship with the SNCC as one of many areas of concern for LID leaders hoping to steer clear of communists. The two sides reconciled two months later after Haber pledged to LID that his plan was designed to provide a left-of-center “counter-force” to the “influence of Communist oriented youth,” and promote the “labor movement to the current student generation.” [24]

Early SDS

Along with Haber, Tom Hayden became the other major full-time employee of the early SDS in the fall of 1961. Hayden expanded upon the early associations with the SNCC and other student groups working the civil rights issue in the South. Paul Booth later remarked that Hayden was the “project” and Haber the “office,” with Hayden traveling through and reporting on the confrontations and violence encountered by the SNCC and others conducting civil disobedience to combat segregation and registering African Americans to vote. [25]

These reports were transmitted back to SDS headquarters and then distributed out to students in newsletters. This became a successful lure to rally students at many campuses and inspire them to join SDS. By the mid-fall of 1961 SDS had 575 members and affiliates on 20 campuses. Kirkpatrick Sale quotes a young woman working for another left-of-center student organization during this era stating the impact of Hayden’s work: “These reports were very important to me: that’s really the reason I went into SDS.” [26]

According to Sale, the early SDS profited significantly from choosing against the temptation to focus its energy and resources on several very contentions left-of-center causes such as opposition to nuclear weapons or “peace research”– all of which he writes were “current issues” that “might have seemed the “inevitable” trigger to student activism.” Instead, they selected civil rights, what Sale writes was the “one cause with the greatest moral power.” [27]

Funding of SDS

In addition to the early assistance from the UAW and sponsorship from LID, SDS also received financial support from personal and institutional donors. However, while it profited from profound membership growth for most of its history (reaching as high as 100,000 in 1968-69), and frequent bumps in revenue alongside this success, SDS spent as fast as it collected and was chronically in and out of debt. Most of its funding, perhaps 60 percent – according to a 1969 estimate from then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – was likely from the membership itself, with an average gift Hoover said was in the “$10 to $50 range” ($70 – $350 in 2019 dollars). [28]

Possibly the most significant benefactor through 1965 was Anne Farnsworth, who gave $25,000 to SDS in the fall of 1964 ($207,000 in 2019 dollars) and $10,000 more ($81,000 in 2019 dollars) in the summer of 1965. Ms. Farnsworth’s future husband, Martin Peretz (who would later take over liberal magazine The New Republic in 1974), also donated and helped with fundraising. Kirkpatrick Sale writes Peretz and others affiliated with SDS during 1965 experienced “considerable success fundraising among polite liberals of wealth.” [29]

In 1968 Peretz and Farnsworth gave $350,000 – or $2.5 million in 2019 dollars – to anti-war Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. [30]

Smaller donations through SDS’s first five years came from the AFL-CIO, the New-Land Foundation, and the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Celebrities were also in the SDS donor base: Singer Joan Baez gave $2000 in 1965 ($16,000 in 2019 dollars) and singer Pete Seeger was also a 1965 donor. [31]

The Port Huron Era

At its 1962 summer convention near Port Huron, Michigan, SDS moved further toward radical ideologies and activism. What became known as The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society – or simply the Port Huron Statement — declared SDS as aligned with a “new left.” Written by Tom Hayden and adopted by the convention, it criticized both the American and Soviet roles in creating the arms race, nuclear weapons, racism, labor unions, and big business. As solutions it called for the removal of anti-civil rights Democrats from the Democratic Party, more welfare spending, giving employees voting power over private business decisions, and disarmament. [32]

SDS leaders by the time of Port Huron, according to historian Guenter Lewy, had begun to believe third world revolutionaries such as “Castro’s Cuba would redeem the socialist ideal betrayed by the Soviet Union.” And they began to associate anti-communism as “essentially synonymous with McCarthyism,” driving them to believe “anti-anti-communism was therefore a political as well as moral imperative.” [33]

“An unreasoning anti-communism has become a major social problem for those who want to construct a more democratic America,” read the statement. And, in a reference that could easily apply to the League for Industrial Democracy’s strident anti-communism, Port Huron clarified that “many liberals and socialists” also participate in the “anti-communist crusade” and thus “discourage” discussion of the “Russia question.” [34]

The constitution of SDS was amended at Port Huron to remove language that had banned from membership “advocates of dictatorship and totalitarianism,” words meant to prohibit communists and fascists alike. The new language declared SDS to be an organization of “democrats” in opposition to totalitarian ideologies, yet “civil libertarian” in their attitude to those who disagree. A resolution prohibiting cooperation between SDS and communists was voted down, despite opposition from an anti-communist socialist youth organization. And while still prohibiting communist members, the new SDS was willing to let a member of a Communist Party USA-sponsored youth organization sit and observe the Port Huron meeting. [35]

When released to the campuses the Port Huron Statement became another exceptional recruiting tool for SDS, so popular that multiple printings of 20,000 or more over the next few years could not satisfy demand. In May 1962 (prior to Port Huron) SDS reported 800 members in ten chapters; by June 1965, SDS reported 3,000 members (2,000 of them dues-paying) in 80 chapters. [36]

LID Reaction to Port Huron

The developments at Port Huron infuriated the leadership of the League for Industrial Democracy. After calling Hayden and Haber in for a hearing to explain and defend their behavior, LID initially fired them, shut down SDS, and changed the locks on the SDS headquarters. But with time for tempers to cool, and mediation from former Socialist Party USA presidential candidate Norman Thomas, SDS was reinstated, along with Hayden and Haber. Also, having based their initial reaction on rumors of what was in the Port Huron Statement, LID executives later discovered the actual words in the document were not as radical as they had expected. [37]

Civil Rights and ERAP

According to historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, the civil rights movement and the early decision by Hayden and Haber to make it a priority provided “much of the impetus for SDS in its early days.” SDS-aligned students both staged “sympathy demonstrations” on their campuses in northern states and went south “in the early 1960s to work with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.” [38]

In 1963 Hayden and others within SDS began agitating for a more action-oriented organization and paying attention to economic projections of a major recession. In the summer of 1964, a floundering SDS initiative called the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) was re-purposed as an effort to organize the poor and unemployed into a revolution-inclined insurgency. There were 125 SDS participants in the first summer of ERAP, and 400 in summer 1965. Kirkpatrick Sale wrote that ERAP failed to accomplish any of its stated goals, owing in part to an economy that failed to collapse, and because of the flawed assumption that the poor would willingly become agents of massive societal change. [39]

But Sale also notes the experience of trying and failing helped to further radicalize the SDS participants and drive them away from any desire to reform the American system. ERAP also provided the widespread notice from influential left-leaning figures such as journalist I.F. Stone, who co-signed a letter to potential donors praising SDS for succeeding in “attracting some of the best and angriest young minds now functioning” and putting “these minds to work in socially relevant ways.” [40]

Communist Infiltration

SDS’s openness to collaboration with communists and willingness to reject the anti-communism of the League for Industrial Democracy led to communists joining and influencing the evolution of SDS. Examples include the DuBois Clubs of America controlled by the Communist Party USA and the Black Panther Party. [41]

The Progressive Labor Party

The most prominent of the communist infiltrators was the Progressive Labor Movement – later the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a Maoist faction created in 1962 by former members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). In 1965, the Progressive Labor Party was 1,600 members-strong and began deliberately trying to work within SDS and poach its members. [42]

Before splitting away from the CPUSA, the PL faction had opposed the CPUSA’s moderation and willingness to quietly assist left-leaning Democrats. Instead, according to historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, PL wanted the CPUSA to “become more politically aggressive, to proclaim its commitment to revolutionary Marxism, and admit that there was no peaceful path to socialism.” In response to this challenge, the CPUSA expelled the PL faction in late 1961. [43]

By 1964, PL was openly trying to violently overthrow the U.S. government. That summer a riot in Harlem followed the shooting of a black teen by a police officer. PL agitators tried to stoke up and continue the violence once it began. One PL leader later convicted of “criminal anarchy” gave an insurrectionary speech telling the mob they’d need to kill “a lot of” police, judges and “go up against their army.” PL demonstrators also circulated instructions regarding how to build and deploy Molotov cocktails. [44]

Strict Maoist partisans, the Progressive Labor Party reliably sided with the People’s Republic of China in doctrinal and foreign policy disputes with the Soviet Union. PL denounced Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro after Cuba accepted aid from the Soviets. And after North Vietnam agreed (with prodding from the Soviets) to negotiate with the Americans to seek an end to the Vietnam War, PL denounced both North Vietnam and the Soviets for collaborating with American “imperialism” and “selling out” the Vietnamese people. [45]

Domestically, PL evolved to a point where it tried to push SDS to de-emphasize campus-based student activism in favor of student activists organizing the blue collar, working class. PL was either skeptical of or sometimes explicitly opposed to student activism that might be perceived as alienating culturally conservative, and militarily hawkish, blue collar workers. PL eventually opposed SDS’s call to end the military draft, and opposed SDS participation in the violent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In place of these policies PL promoted a student-worker alliance as the path to growing the communist revolutionary movement, and advocated placing students in working class communities and in jobs as factory workers. [46]

At its strongest point, Progressive Labor Party represented no more than one-third of SDS’s membership. But unlike other SDS factions, which frequently formed and dissolved based on shifting ideological and strategic goals, PL was a disciplined and united voting bloc. PL members also demonstrated exceptional commitment to doing the tedious work of building and running local SDS chapters. PL’s influence within SDS grew well in excess of its actual membership, leading to increasing acrimony between PL and non-PL factions and ultimately a permanent break at the summer 1969 SDS convention. [47] [48]

Early Vietnam War Opposition

SDS’s sympathy with revolutionary movements (such as the Vietnamese communists) and general hostility toward American military intervention in Vietnam began to increase sharply in 1964. The Vietnam War remained a central agenda item until SDS effectively dissolved in the summer of 1969. In 1965 the antiwar activism led to the final break between SDS and the anticommunist League for Industrial Democracy.

1965 SDS March on Washington

In August 1964 the U.S. Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, an authorization of force requested by President Lyndon Johnson that allowed him to take “all necessary measures” to defend non-communist South Vietnam. Having resisted fixating on any single policy issue other than civil rights, SDS leaders and membership began to consider more strident activism in opposition to the American policy toward Vietnam. At a December 1964 meeting SDS leaders decided to organize an April 1965 march against American intervention in South Vietnam, which at that time involved fewer than 24,000 troops. [49]

Major student demonstrations against what would become the American phase of the Vietnam War had not yet occurred when SDS made its plans at the end of 1964. According to SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale, “SDS found itself in antiwar politics long before there was any widespread interest.” But in February 1965, following a Viet Cong attack that killed eight Americans at a U.S. military camp, President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and began an increase in U.S. troop strength that would escalate 800 percent by the end of the year. [50]

Sale reported that SDS-led antiwar demonstrations erupted “overnight” on “every major campus,” making Johnson “the most successful recruiter SDS was ever to have.” When the demonstration in Washington took place, the New York Times estimated the crowd size at “more than 15,000” – at that point the largest peace march in American history. [51]

Communist Collaboration in Anti-War Activism

With the enhanced activism against the Vietnam War SDS increased its collaboration with communists. On May 2, 1964, nearly one year before the SDS-sponsored march in Washington, DC, SDS assisted in the planning and promotion of an antiwar march sponsored by a subsidiary of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. For the April 1965 march, SDS openly invited participation from communist organizations such as PL, the CPUSA, the CPUSA-affiliated Du Bois Clubs, and Youth Against War and Fascism, a faction affiliated with the Workers World Party. [52]

Many left-of-center and socialist anti-communist opponents of the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam denounced the participation of communists in the march. Single-issue anti-war organizations such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and Turn Toward Peace declined to support the march. A New York Post op-ed co-written by four-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Norm Thomas and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (among others) warned just before the demonstration that it could become “a pro-Communist production” and “anti-American.” [53]

At the subsequent June 1965 SDS annual convention, attendees voted to allow full participation by communists in the organization. In a treatise defending the decision, SDS founding leader Al Haber identified anti-communism as a “weapon” of the “status quo” used to “justify political imperialism abroad.”

“Communists symbolized in America the threat to the country’s basic institutions of free enterprise, private property and the market,” wrote historian Guenter Lewy of Haber’s pamphlet on the new SDS policy toward communist members. “Inasmuch as SDS, too, was opposed to these cherished elements of the American way of life, it had to defeat the rhetoric of anticommunism and fight the exclusion of the Communists.” [54]

Specifically, they voted to remove from their constitution language prohibiting “advocates or apologists” of “totalitarian” principles from membership. [55] The change was introduced by SDS national secretary C. Clark Kissinger, whose behavior later in life was characterized in a February 2000 commentary in the left-wing Mother Jones as “one of the top Maoist dogmatists in America” with “veteran experience in apologizing for the various atrocities carried out by the Great Helmsman [Communist Chinese dictator Mao Zedong] and his acolytes.” [56]

Kissinger’s proposal was overwhelmingly approved, despite opposition from younger SDS students who had already begun to fight ideological battles with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Kirkpatrick Sale quotes one attendee: “If I’d wanted to [work with Stalinists] I’d have joined the [communist] DuBois Clubs.” [57]

Eight months after the 1965 convention the Progressive Labor Party disbanded its student affiliate and encouraged members to join SDS. Former SDS leader Todd Gitlin later observed the 1965 language change allowing communists “stripped” SDS “of its strongest line of defense at just the moment PL was moving in” on the “happy hunting grounds of SDS.” [58]

Separation from LID

In his treatise defending the inclusion of communists, SDS founder Al Haber wrote that SDS’s non-communists did not fear the communists would “convert or corrupt us” or that “alien elements” could “take control” of SDS. [59] He expressed confidence that the SDS non-communists would have the “power to persuade” their new communist compatriots in a “free debate.” [60] Another SDS leader, Carl Oglesby, said of the threat of communist infiltration that “those whose behavior runs athwart the deep SDS commitment to democracy just have no leverage over the democrats of SDS.” [61]

The Communist Party USA, aligned with the Soviet Union and thus fierce rivals of the Communist China-aligned Progressive Labor Party, had less confidence in a non-communist future for SDS. After PL ordered its members to join SDS in February 1966, the CPUSA responded by urging members of the CPUSA-aligned DuBois Clubs to do so as well. According to historian Guenter Lewy, this was done both to recruit new CPUSA activists and to ““save” SDS from the Maoists.” [62]

Following both the Washington march and the developments at the 1965 summer SDS convention, leaders of the anti-communist League for Industrial Democracy were again upset with the subordinate student group’s behavior regarding communism. After the convention, LID requested SDS board members to appear at a meeting to discuss the matter; none showed up. And in a LID publication a member of its board of directors argued SDS and its “reactive anti-American establishmentarianism” should no longer be aligned with a LID dedicated to “principled opposition to Communism and all other forms of totalitarianism.” By mutual agreement of both, SDS and LID dissolved their association with one another on October 4, 1965. [63]

Success and Insolvency

SDS membership increased sharply because of the publicity preceding and following the April 1965 demonstration. Many newspapers, U.S News & World Report, and left-of-center journals such as The Nation and The New Republic all ran profiles of SDS in the summer of 1965. Letters sent to SDS from interested students and others increased 100-fold. [64]

By December 1965 there were chapters on 80 campuses, twice the number that existed one year earlier when SDS leaders made the decision to host the march. Reported membership in December 1964 was 2,500, grew to 10,000 by October 1965, and then to 15,000 by June 1966. Paid memberships, fewer than 1,400 in December 1964, stood at 6,000 by June 1966. [65]

The unofficial growth of SDS may have been much larger. In the months after the April 1965 demonstration “SDS was suddenly the place to go,” said Kirkpatrick Sale in his SDS history, and campus leaders didn’t always get around to signing up the “people who just began to gravitate toward SDS, attend meetings, and join actions.” Of the membership boost, national secretary Clark Kissinger told a reporter SDS was “de facto, the largest membership organization on the left” even though “we don’t stress signing people up.” [66]

SDS raised $65,147 during the 1964-1965 fiscal year ($530,000 in 2019 dollars), most of it after the April demonstration and a sum far above the expectations of SDS leaders. However, the money was spent almost as quickly as it was obtained, and SDS ran out of money by June 1965, with phones in the national office disconnected in July. Kirkpatrick Sale wrote of one $10,000 donation that came in during this period that SDS “managed to squander with truly remarkable facility” on photographic and darkroom equipment. [67]

National leadership – or lack thereof – also became a concern. Carl Oglesby was elected SDS president in June 1965 and quickly set off on a summer tour of Cambodia or North Vietnam. Similarly, newly elected vice president Jeff Shero left the national office for the summer, assuming his presence was not needed until the new school year. By the end of the summer, an SDS office mailing read: “The National Office is in a general state of collapse and failing to perform the most rudimentary functions despite the presence of 11 full-time staff members.” Of this situation and his part in the effort to raise money to dig out of it, Kissinger said it was “the most dismal period in SDS history.” [68]

Anti-Draft Activism

A more confrontational SDS emerged after the April 1965 D.C. demonstration. According to Kirkpatrick Sale’s history, the membership of SDS in the summer of 1965 had grown weary of their years of marching and educational efforts to “speak truth to power” on issues ranging from civil rights to economic inequality and had concluded “power did not listen, power did not change.” Adding to this unease, the new SDS members of 1965, according to Sale, were “more thoroughly anti-American” and more prone to “write off labor, liberals, the Democratic Party, reforms, and ‘the system’ in general.” [69]

Turn to Civil Disobedience

Contemplating ways to escalate their activism, SDS’s leadership in the fall of 1965 discussed (but did not adopt) proposals to disrupt trains full of troops bound for Vietnam, to encourage troops to desert, to put Americans near suspected bombing targets in North Vietnam to deter U.S. airstrikes, and to go to North Vietnam and repair damage inflicted by U.S. bombs. [70]

Though a major public relations coup, SDS’s demonstration in Washington failed to alter the escalation of the American military commitment in Vietnam, causing SDS leaders to become ambivalent toward future demonstrations. When activists unaffiliated with SDS planned another anti-war march on DC for August 1965, SDS withheld support and issued a public statement calling it a “symbolic Assembly” that “should be seriously questioned.” But this was an isolated example; SDS endorsed a subsequent demonstration in October 1965 and participated in others afterward. [71]

In May 1965 SDS moved its national office to Chicago from New York City (where it had shared the same building with its erstwhile parent, the League for Industrial Democracy). Nine days later, reflective of its new bias toward action and civil disobedience, and its break from the activism-averse LID, SDS leaders and members in Chicago participated in an anti-war demonstration in the Chicago Loop. Forty people were arrested, and this was the first major act of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War in which SDS leaders participated. [72]

Adopting Anti-Draft Activism

At a September 1965 meeting SDS leadership declared their desire to go beyond mere anti-war words and marches. Stipulating a preference for “action that educates” rather than “action that demonstrates,” they adopted a policy of assisting student activism against the draft as the organization’s “first priority.” [73]

Their initial plan had three objectives: [74]

  1. Encourage and teach draft-eligible males to apply for conscientious objector status. (Unlike refusing to be drafted, conscientious objector status was a legal method of avoiding fighting – SDS would not endorse illegal draft avoidance behavior by individuals until two years later).
  2. Confront, picket, and debate military recruiters and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) officials when they appear on campus and draft boards off campus.
  3. Use civil disobedience such as student strikes (refusal to take exams) with the objective of pressuring colleges not to reveal the names of male students who had left school due to dropping out or flunking out. (Until 1966, a student in reasonably good standing received a draft deferment.)

SDS prepared to launch this program just as anticipation of nationwide anti-war demonstrations set for October 1965 were receiving major attention from the media, with CBS evening news broadcasts giving regular updates. Even though SDS was not the organizer of the October demonstrations, Kilpatrick Sale writes the success of the April march in DC had conferred on SDS a “reputation as the chief antiwar foe” and the “prime target” for media and politicians seeking to give a name to the movement. [75]

The day before the October demonstrations, Washington Post columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported on SDS’s “master plan” to “sabotage the war effort” with “draft-dodging.” The politicians reacted the next morning, with U.S. Sen. John Stennis (D-Mississippi) denouncing the “deplorable and shameful” behavior of SDS and proposing government action to “jerk this movement up by the roots and grind it to bits.” Later in the week, as other media reports ensued, U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach announced the possibility of communist members working within SDS and the potential need to investigate. Just before the Evans and Novak report was published, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had declared his concern about the anti-war movement representing the “moral deterioration” of American youth. [76]

The negative attention from the media and political establishment immediately spiked SDS’s reputation within the anti-war movement and set it up as a major instigator of anti-draft opposition. Within two weeks 1,000 new dues-paying members joined, for a national membership of more than 4,000. A student organizer at Harvard reported running out of membership cards after signing up 30 new SDS recruits within 30 minutes. [77]

Four months later, in February 1966, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Selective Service System to allow draft boards to induct college students whose grades placed them in the lower rank of their classes. Up to that point, male students had been protected from the draft so long as they remained in school and making progress toward a degree. [78]

SDS’s decision to prioritize campus opposition to the draft placed it in an ideal position to exploit the new policy of drafting students. “Rank protests” – demonstrations and activism aimed at preventing faculty and college administrators from turning over the grade rankings of male students – became a common occurrence at more than sixty schools during the 1967-68 year. Campus draft protests, which did not exist three years earlier, occurred at almost half of the nation’s large public universities. Under this pressure, class ranking was abolished by schools such as San Francisco State University, Wayne State University (in Detroit), and Haverford College (in Pennsylvania). Soon thereafter the controversy led to the Selective Service System abandoning the class ranking system. [79]

Finances

The era of anti-draft activism coincided with relative financial stability. Kirkpatrick Sale reports SDS was “enjoying a steady and prosperous income for the first time in its history.” Based on this fundraising trajectory, the national office projected future annual budgets of at least $75,000 ($610,000 in 2019 dollars). However, Sale noted virtually none of this good fortune was put away for a rainy day, with expenditures “as usual” equaling income. [80]

Revolutionary Ideology

From 1966 through its demise three years later, SDS adopted increasingly strident and revolutionary positions against American political, economic, and cultural institutions. This coincided with the birth of and then rise of violent incidents involving SDS against law enforcement, political representatives, and the military.

Student Syndicalism

By the summer of 1966, according to Kirkpatrick Sale’s history, SDS was running out of “avenues for effective radical politics.” The anti-war activism, demonstrations and draft opposition had failed to stop the conflict in Vietnam. SDS had encountered other disappointments working within the civil rights movement or trying to politically radicalize the poor through the Economic Research and Action Project. As a remedy the organization turned next toward a plan for radical students to seize control of universities and then leverage that insurrection into a revolution that spread to the nation. [81]

The first outline of this revolution was A Student Syndicalist Movement, a position paper written and distributed by SDS vice president Carl Davidson during the summer 1966 annual convention. The paper identified universities as the critical “factories” producing the institutions and policies SDS was fighting against. Davidson cited “military officers, CIA officials, segregationist judges, corporation lawyers, politicians of all sorts” and more as the “commodities” manufactured on campus, with the students themselves being the raw material. Referring to novelist George Orwell’s classic tale of totalitarianism, Davidson wrote that universities had already become “the chief agents for social change in the direction of 1984.” [82]

But without these so-called “commodities,” he theorized, “it would be difficult to produce the kind of men that create, sustain, tolerate, and ignore situations like Watts [the Los Angeles neighborhood where a deadly riot occurred the prior summer], Mississippi [the location of ongoing civil rights conflicts], and Vietnam.” His proposed solution was to organize students, radicalize them, have them refuse to participate as the raw material producing the “commodities,” and have them take control of the universities. Davidson argued this would starve the “manipulative society” of its ability to create “manipulative people,” and give the students a “fighting chance to change the system!”[83]

Using illegal means to prevent young men from participating in the Vietnam War also became part of this policy. By spring 1967 SDS had eight full-time organizers deployed to the task of promoting draft resistance. At the summer 1967 convention SDS approved a resolution encouraging troops to desert their posts. Assisting and encouraging illegal draft avoidance was a strident escalation beyond merely helping young men apply for legal conscientious objector status, which was the SDS policy two years earlier. [84]

Davidson’s battle plan, according to Sale, has sometimes been misinterpreted as a more moderate call to merely reform universities. To the contrary, it called for the “sabotage” of the schools, and proposed total institutional takeovers where students decided all the rules – or even “whether they need rules at all.” [85]

Marxism and Revolution

An unprecedented embrace of Marxist and revolutionary language by SDS activists coincided with the turn toward the student insurrection strategy. “Talk about the need for an ideology became increasingly common,” wrote Kirkpatrick Sale about SDS in the early fall of 1966. That “talk” turned to Karl Marx and “regularly the idea of “socialism.”” This is in sharp contrast to the early days of SDS, according to Sale, when “Old Left” ideologies as such as socialism and Marxism would not have been seriously advocated “without embarrassment.” [86]

Sale also describes this as the era when SDS leaders began speaking of it as a “revolutionary” movement. Conceding to SDS members in the fall of 1966 that the organization had so far failed to win the changes it desired, new national secretary Greg Calvert wrote that for the future “a truly revolutionary movement must be built out of the deepest revolutionary demands and out of the strongest revolutionary hopes.” In the same period Carl Davidson stated the “system must be fundamentally changed” and in considering the options at hand declared “my own choice is revolution.” [87]

An April 1967 march of 300,000 anti-war demonstrators (the so-called “Spring Mobilization”) through New York and San Francisco drove SDS further in the direction of insurrection. Despite the demonstration’s size and success as a media stunt, Sale writes that it left SDS activists believing it was as “fruitless as the previous [demonstrations]” in changing American policy in Vietnam. Troop commitments continued to increase afterward. [88]

According to Sale, this is where “the people around SDS began toying with the idea of revolution,” and even discussing destructive behavior to bring it about. He quotes one SDS member who wrote of the New York “Mobilization” march:[89]

“The meaninglessness of non-violent, “democratic” methods was becoming clear to us in the spring of 1967. The Civil Rights Movement was dead. Pacifism was dead. Some Leftists — the Trotskyites, Maoists, radical socialists, anarchists, some of the radicals in SDS, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, Tom Hayden – knew it early. But it took the rest of us a while to give up the sweet life of the democratic Left for revolt.” [90]

By this point (spring 1967) Sale writes SDS’s combination of reputation, resources, reach, revolutionary ideology and tactical direction had made it into the “touchstone of American radicalism” and responsible for “pushing people left” more than “any other single group on a national scale.” On the walls of the room at its summer 1968 national convention at Michigan State University SDS hung hammer and sickle banners and pictures of Soviet revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. [91]

Black Revolution

During a meeting from March 29-31, 1968, SDS leadership voted to de-emphasize its anti-war activism and instead pivot toward the “black struggle for liberation.” In a near unanimous vote SDS declared the “black struggle for survival” in America as a “struggle against imperialism” and pledged SDS activists “must make the State pay as high a price as possible for genocide.” [92]

The change in strategy was validated and made more militant by two events occurring within the next week.

On the day this meeting adjourned, March 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection in 1968, would immediately pause most US bombing of North Vietnam, and would dedicate his remaining days in office toward ending the war if the North Vietnamese were willing to negotiate. North Vietnam’s willingness to begin peace talks sharply reduced the stridency of the anti-war movement for the remainder of Johnson’s presidency. [93]

Four days later, April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Immediately afterward demonstrations, violence, and civil unrest occurred in more than 100 cities, leading to 60 fatalities and thousands of injuries. Two months after this, Bernardine Dohrn would be elected one of the three top SDS officers after declaring herself a “revolutionary communist.” A friend has written of Dohrn’s participation in one of the April riots following the killing of King:[94]

“We went up to Times Square, and there was a demonstration going on of pissed-off black kids and white radicals. We started ripping signs and getting really out of hand and then some kids trashed a jewelry store. Bernardine really dug it. She was still crying, but afterward we had a long talk about urban guerilla warfare and what had to be done now – by any means necessary.” [95]

Following the demise of SDS in 1969, Dohrn would become a leader in the faction that became the Weather Underground organization[96] that the FBI has called a “domestic terrorist group.” [97]

Radical Confrontations

Student Syndicalism and Robert McNamara

Some of the earliest SDS student syndicalist actions were demonstrations against recruiters from government and private agencies involved with fighting in Vietnam. Targets included recruiters from the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Dow Chemical (the manufacturer of napalm). [98]

In one of the first – at the University of California (Berkley) in November 1966 – SDS activists surrounded the table of a US Navy recruiter and staged a sit-in to prevent anyone from visiting the recruiter. Police were called in by the administration and made ten arrests. A five-day strike ensued to protest the university’s action against the demonstrators, with the participation of an estimated 75 percent of students. [99]

Also, in November 1966 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was scheduled to speak to a small gathering of 50 people on the Harvard University campus. SDS asked for the event to become a debate between McNamara and the editor of the left-wing Ramparts magazine. This request was refused, and SDS responded by deploying 800-1000 demonstrators to the site of the event, surrounding the defense secretary’s car, and forcing him into an impromptu and contentious discussion that made the network television news and the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times.[100]

By the following year more than 100 of the nation’s campuses and most of the largest ones reported protests of recruiters during the school year. The activists often began by using sit-ins to obstruct recruiters, with the confrontations escalating from there. Several recruiters were chased away by the mobs of demonstrators and violence occurred at an estimated four dozen campuses. [101]

Carl Davidson, architect of the student syndicalism strategy in 1966, described its success and evolution over the first year: “While the anti-recruiter sit-ins last Spring were primarily acts of moral witness and political protest, an increasing number of the sit-ins this Fall displayed the quality of Tactical Political Resistance. Their purpose was the disruption and obstruction of certain events and actions BY WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY [emphasis original].” [102]

University of Wisconsin Riot

Campus recruiters for the Dow Chemical company were a major target of SDS demonstrations and obstructions. Dow estimated that of the 339 recruiting visits made to campuses during the 1967-68 school year, 113 were confronted with demonstrators or prevented from recruiting at all. Some campus administrators succumbed to the SDS pressure and refused to allow Dow to officially recruit their facilities. [103]

One such campus was the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where Dow recruiters were temporarily kicked off the campus in the fall of 1967 following a violent clash between SDS demonstrators and police sent to clear a sit-in blockade targeting a Dow recruiter. More than five dozen students and seven police (three with broken bones) were admitted to hospitals for injuries. A near-total boycott of classes ensued for the next two days to protest the school’s decision to use the police to disperse the demonstrators. The chancellor of the university, new to the job, eventually resigned: He had refused an offer by the students to disperse voluntarily in exchange for a permanent prohibition against Dow recruiting. [104]

Pentagon Demonstration

SDS activists helped lead the escalation of what became a violent confrontation at the Pentagon during an October 1967 anti-war demonstration. During what had been an otherwise peaceful protest by 100,000 people outside the building’s fence, a group of 5,000 to 10,000 – led by SDS activists and others – stormed through the troops guarding the fence, over the barricade, and to the lawn outside the walls. A Viet Cong flag was raised by the “occupiers,” who began to set bonfires made from nearby weather fences and dig in for the evening. A massive draft card burning took place. [105]

SDS was a major contributor to the crowd’s willingness to sustain its occupation, according to Kilpatrick Sale. He quotes a police spokesperson who credited SDS with playing “a very prominent role in prolonging and sustaining the actual siege of the Pentagon.” Tear gas was deployed, and seven hundred arrests were made before most of the demonstrators voluntarily dispersed the next morning. [106]

Dean Rusk Riot

In November 1967 the Columbia University SDS chapter staged a deliberate street battle with police aimed at preventing a dinner speech made to a private organization by then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk. A demonstration of 5,000-10,000 people gathered outside the hotel where Rusk was to speak and – held at bay by New York police – verbally assaulted the guests as they arrived. The event turned violent when – according to police – the activists from Columbia SDS began throwing trash, bottles and bags of red paint at the arriving limousines. [107]

As the police responded to repel the violence, the mob retreated. But the demonstrators reformed again and again over the course of three hours, intermittently attacking vehicles that might plausibly be affiliated with the Rusk event, retreating when the police advanced, and vice-versa. Ted Gold and Mark Rudd – Columbia SDS leaders who would later become part of the Weather Underground domestic terrorist group – were arrested on charges of riot incitement. The riot resulted in 46 total arrests and 21 injuries – five of them to police. [108]

According to Kirkpatrick Sale’s account of the incident, the SDS participants were “excited” by the organization’s escalation to more militant tactics. He quoted one activist: “It was the first time we ever tried to take the offensive, and, you know, it worked.” [109]

Final Years

1968 and 1969 featured arguably the most successful period in SDS’s history (membership increased to as high as 100,000 by November 1968). SDS members and leaders expressed hope that they could leverage their influence on campuses to become a successful Marxist revolutionary force. The fear of same in the minds of the mainstream media and American politicians significantly increased after a campus insurrection at Columbia University in April 1968 and the disruption of the Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago in August 1968. But this was followed by what was effectively SDS’s demise when it split irrevocably into feuding factions in the summer of 1969. [110]

Columbia University Takeover

In February at Columbia University in New York City a planned picket of a Dow Chemical recruiting event escalated over subsequent weeks into a late April SDS-led takeover of five campus buildings that lasted more than a week and included the brief hostage-taking of a campus administrator. [111] The insurrection was forcibly ended by police, leading to more than 700 arrests and 200 injuries, but touched off severely disruptive demonstrations at dozens of other schools over the ensuing weeks. Building takeovers occurred at colleges as large as Ohio State University. [112]

The proximity of major national media outlets to the Columbia takeover provided unprecedented publicity for SDS. In addition to coverage from all major broadcast media and weekly news magazines, Kirkpatrick Sale reports the Associated press dedicated “thousands of inches of copy” every day to the takeover; the New York Times gave “especially prominent and lengthy coverage.” [113]

A report on the front page of the financial newsweekly Barron’s declared the “Columbia crisis vitally affects the life of every American” and reported SDS as a “revolutionary movement” whose next target might be “a City Hall, the State Capitol, or even the White House.” Fortune said SDS was “acting out a revolution,” and was intending to “storm and overthrow “bourgeois” America.” [114]

The U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee responded with a report predicting SDS would attempt “guerilla-type operations,” and President Lyndon Johnson denounced the campus radicals as “young totalitarians.” [115]

SDS leaders such as Carl Davidson and Tom Hayden (who was present at the Columbia takeover) considered the insurrection and its aftermath to be proof of Davidson’s strategy of fomenting national revolution by starting within the universities. Referring to the “Columbia rebellion,” Davidson said it “summed up and expressed the best aspects of the main thrust of our national political efforts” and put SDS “onto a new plateau as a national political force.” The SDS rallying cry thereafter became “two, three, many Columbias.” [116]

SDS raised and spent $115,000 during 1968 ($847,000 in 2019 dollars). A major spike in membership occurred after the Columbia unrest, driving national SDS membership beyond 7,000 and campus membership past 40,000. [117]

1968 Democratic Convention Riot

Anticipating the selection of incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the nominee at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and that this would lead to loud protests from left-leaning anti-war Democrats favoring the rival campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, SDS prepared a protest at the event with the aim of recruiting disgruntled McCarthy supporters to SDS’s causes. SDS was not alone: National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), the Youth International Party (aka: the “Yippies”), the Black Panthers, and other anti-war and/or radical-left activist groups planned to demonstrate at the DNC gathering. [118]

The agitations of various national groups – plus local Chicagoans participating with them – culminated in a 10,000-strong anti-war demonstration, the raising of a Viet Cong flag over a city park, and a violent riot between police and demonstrators. According to historian Guenter Lewy, “the SDS contingent threw itself into cat-and-mouse games with the ‘pigs,’ the shotgun-toting Chicago cops who were easily provoked.” Of the seven men later charged with inciting the riot (the so-called “Chicago Seven”), two had been major SDS figures: Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis. [119] [120]

SDS’s reputation as a major left-wing revolutionary force, combined with tens of millions witnessing live television coverage of demonstrators clashing with Chicago police, brought about SDS’s final – and largest – major boost in membership and influence. SDS’s New Left Notes newsletter reported 2-4 times as many attendees at campus chapter meetings following Chicago, including a four-fold increase at the University of Texas and a ten-fold increase at Stanford. [121]

Once again SDS was appearing in national newsmagazine profiles in Newsweek, Look, and Life with interviews of its leaders. A fall 1968 survey of what Fortune magazine considered opinion-setting college students revealed Cuban revolutionary Marxist Che Guevara was more popular than President Johnson, then-Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and Democratic Presidential nominee (incumbent Vice President) Hubert Humphrey. [122]

Historian Guenter Lewy quoted a triumphant post-Chicago SDS statement: “We won. We have a base in the millions of young people who have no place and want no place in plastic poverty pig America.  . . . Call us revolutionary Communists – you better. But you better call us the people because that’s who we are.” [123]

“SDS now had chapters on 350 to 400 campuses and perhaps as many as 100,000 members,” wrote Lewy. “Many more sympathized with the organization’s militancy even if they did not themselves participate in disruptive demonstrations and confrontations.” [124]

SDS Splits Apart

The Maoist Progressive Labor Party – having begun its infiltration of SDS in 1966 – was by the summer of 1968 strong enough to maneuver for major influence and leadership positions, and motivated to do so because of ongoing disputes with other SDS factions.

The most obvious disagreement between the PL faction and the majority of SDS activists was the emphasis on a target audience. The majority of SDS believed students and campus activism would become the driver of the hoped-for revolution. The PL partisans believed revolution was impossible without first motivating and making common cause with the working class, and as such opposed strategies that carried the potential of driving away the workers. [125]

According to Kilpatrick Sale’s characterization in his history of the movement, by the summer 1967 national convention PL openly disdained the student-led revolution strategy (Carl Davidson’s student syndicalism) as “dangerous and wrongheaded.” When the majority of SDS was prioritizing draft resistance, PL worried this would “frighten away sons of the hawkish working class.” And of SDS’s August 1968 Chicago street battles, Sale reports PL considered them “play-acting at revolution” and a “childish outburst” that “estranged the working masses.” [126]

Even when facing a common opponent, PL and the rest of SDS found reasons to disagree. During the April 1968 campus unrest at Columbia University, the PL partisans (who had strong influence over the campus chapter) squabbled with other SDS activists over the goals and strategy of the insurrection. [127]

1968 SDS Summer Convention

Historian Guenter Lewy reports this fault line caused “open warfare” between the factions for the first time during the summer 1968 SDS national convention. Though only one of four delegates, Lewy has said the PL followers were “shrewd and disciplined” and had influence in excess of their numbers because of their “willingness to take on the hard jobs involved in running [an SDS] chapter.” This won PL the sympathy of many uncommitted delegates. [128]

Frustrated by the ideological disputes and PL’s willingness to filibuster discussions to win its points, opponents of PL (a so-called “national office” faction, because of their representation in SDS’s national office) accused the PL group of using SDS for its own selfish ends. Kirkpatrick Sale quotes one national office delegate speaking to the PL faction: “It’s simply not principled to move into SDS in order to recruit members for another party. Your function should be to bring in ideas.” [129]

Tom Bell, another representative of the national office group, made similar criticisms, and declared it time to put an end to PL’s obstructive tactics. This was met with an accusation of “redbaiting” from a PL heckler, to which Bell angrily declared himself the real communist and denounced the dogmatically Maoist PL of holding SDS back from “being really communist” and “really getting on with the revolution.” Bell began a chant of “PL OUT! PL OUT!” – it lasted for a few minutes but failed to pull in most of the delegates. Kilpatrick Sale wrote “it was clear that PL not only was not going to be stampeded out of SDS, but that most of those in SDS simply didn’t want them out.” [130]

“Bell’s claim that he was the true Communist was in keeping with SDS rhetoric,” wrote Lewy. “Marxism-Leninism” had become “the unofficial language of SDS,” a necessary weapon for any faction seeking influence within the movement. [131]

Summer 1969: The Final SDS Convention

In the year following the acrimonious 1968 convention, the SDS factions in opposition to Progressive Labor Party evolved into two camps, loosely aligned on the goal of blocking a PL takeover at the 1969 gathering. Both were aligned with the Black Panthers and other anti-PL factions within SDS. [132]

The Revolutionary Youth Movement I also called itself the “Weathermen,” and was aligned around a 16,000-word manifesto dedicated to the “armed struggle” and a goal of “the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” Those not in complete ideological or tactical alignment with the Weathermen, but in common cause against the PL Maoists, formed the Revolutionary Youth Movement II, or “RYM II.” [133]

The convention, and effectively SDS itself, ended shortly after the Weathermen-RYM II faction tried to expel the Progressive Labor members for being “objectively anticommunist” and “counterrevolutionary.” [134]

Lewy states that the Weathermen-RYM II group and PL each commanded roughly one-third of the 1,500 delegates, with the remaining third either first-time delegates or otherwise unaffiliated with either warring side. This might have compromised the prospects for a successful expulsion vote, but no such vote occurred. Having deemed the PL faction to be “counterrevolutionaries,” the Weathermen-RYM II partisans further reasoned it was logically absurd to allow the supposed counterrevolutionaries a vote on their “counterrevolutionary nature.” [135]

Lewy wrote that this rupture soon caused “the end of SDS as an effective political organization” as members drifted away, and chapters closed. One SDS faction continued to operate until 1972 as a subordinate affiliate of the Progressive Labor Party, but with nothing of the former movement’s size and influence. [136]

2006: The New SDS

A so-called “New SDS” was launched in 2006, ostensibly as a protest group against the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of September 2019, New SDS promoted “change on campus” and opposition to “crimes against the people” as its primary objectives. [137] In August 2012, Occupy Colleges and New SDS announced a merger. [138]

The University of North Florida SDS chapter hosted the 2019 New SDS national convention at the end of September 2019. A photo of the attendees was cross-posted and re-tweeted by the UNFSDS Twitter account on September 25. The photo shows approximately sixty people. [139]

Weather Underground

Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, and other members of the Weathermen faction from the 1969 convention coalesced into an ultimately violent faction that adopted the same name, and later that of the “Weather Underground.” [140]

In the summer of 1969 Dohrn and others from the Weathermen met a communist delegation from Vietnam while traveling in Cuba. According to historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, the Vietnamese communists encouraged the SDS remnant faction to “begin an armed struggle within the United States.” The Weathermen returned home and instigated the so-called “Days of Rage,” an October 1969 riot on the streets of Chicago that led to hundreds of arrests, injuries to police officers and property destruction. [141]

The Weathermen convened a so-called “war council” at the end of December 1969, under a motto historian Lewy says called for the “disintegration of the pig order.” John Jacobs (one of the agitators responsible for the 1968 Columbia University insurrection) declared the Weathermen were “against everything that’s good and decent in honky America” and that they would “burn and loot and destroy.” Dohrn, at the time reportedly fascinated with the murders recently committed by the so-called “family” of Charles Manson, declared “Dig It! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork in the victim’s stomach. Wild!”[142]

Afterward, the group went underground and claimed credit for two dozen bombings over the next six years at sites such as the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. [143] The extremism and isolation of the group from mainstream America had become so complete, wrote historians Havery Klehr and John Earl Haynes, that they “discussed whether killing white babies was politically correct.” [144]

In March 1970, a nail bomb being assembled by several Weather Underground members in a New York City townhouse accidently blew up, killing three of them. [145]

Many Weather Underground members remained wanted fugitives for years after their bombings. Dohrn made an appearance on the FBI’s “most wanted” list, and later married Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers. Many of the fugitives later resurfaced. Many of the most severe charges against some of them (such as both Ayers and Dohrn) were dropped or otherwise could not be prosecuted successfully because of federal law enforcement misconduct committed during the era of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. [146]

Notable Members

Many former SDS leaders rose to other positions of notoriety or importance in academia and left-of-center political activism.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn

Weathermen co-founders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn later married. Because of misconduct by federal law enforcement, the federal charges against them related to the Weather Underground’s behavior were dismissed in the 1970s. When the pair came out of hiding in 1980, Dohrn accepted a plea bargain on state charges, which cost her a $1,500 fine and three years of probation. [147]

In 2001 Ayers’ memoir of his SDS and Weathermen experiences was published. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” he said in the opening sentence of an article about his book that was published by the New York Times on September 11, 2001. [148]

“We weren’t terrorists,” Ayers claimed later in a 2008 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “The biggest challenges to democracy in my youth were the war in Vietnam and racism. The truth is, we weren’t extreme enough in fighting against the war, and we weren’t extreme enough in fighting racism, which is still a stain on America.” [149]

Fellow SDS leader Todd Gitlin disagreed, saying of the Weathermen movement in general, and Ayers and Dohrn in particular, that they “planned on being terrorists” and “wanted to be terrorists,” but wound up “failed terrorists,” so “let’s give them a medal for not killing anybody besides themselves.” [150]

“He was one of a bunch of people who committed absolutely, I mean literally, incoherent and reckless acts in the name of nonsensical beliefs,” said Gitlin of Ayers to the Chicago Tribune in 2008. “They [the Weathermen] wrecked SDS.” Gitlin also said Ayers was “not a deep thinker. [151]

Ayers later became a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. [152] Dorhn became an associate clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and for 23 years was the director of its Children and Family Justice Center. [153]

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin was the third president of SDS (1963-64). He later became a professor of journalism and/or sociology at several institutions, including the University of California-Berkeley, New York University, and Columbia University. He is the author of numerous novels and non-fiction books covering culture and politics. He has been a contributing author for several left-of-center publications, such as The Nation, The New Republic, and the American Prospect. [154]

Kathy Boudin

SDS activist Kathy Boudin, later a member of the Weather Underground, was one of two survivors of the 1970 New York City townhouse explosion accidentally caused by the bomb-making work of her fellow Weathermen. Boudin had been showering in the townhouse at the time of the explosion, exited the rubble naked, received clothing from a neighbor, and then fled the scene, remaining a fugitive for years afterward. [155] [156]

In 1981 she and several other former members of the Weather Underground, now aligned with the so-called Black Liberation Army, participated in the robbery of a Brinks armored car, the murder of one of its drivers, and the murders of two police officers who were ambushed while trying to apprehend the suspects. David Gilbert, the father of Boudin’s son and later her husband, received a 75-years-to-life sentence for his participation in the attack.[157]

According to an account from the TruTV Crime Library, Boudin’s father, a civil rights attorney, secured her an expensive private criminal defense lawyer, an advantage not available to the other defendants in the felony robbery and murder case. Also, unlike other defendants, there was no evidence linking Boudin to the firing of the fatal shots that killed the policemen and armored car driver. In 1984, after a protracted prosecution effort, Boudin was offered and accepted a 20-years-to-life sentence in exchange for her guilty plea on murder and robbery charges.[158]

She was granted parole in 2003. By 2013 she had become an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a scholar-in-residence at the New York University Law School. [159]

Paul Booth

Paul Booth was SDS vice president from 1962-64. He later became a key organizing official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He died in January 2018. An obituary in the left-of-center American Prospect credited him with creating “the nation’s very first living-wage campaign” and helping to “mastermind the 1995 insurgency that ousted the old-line cold warriors from the leadership of the AFL-CIO.”[160]

Bob Ross

Robert J.S. “Bob” Ross, an influential leader and once a full-time campus organizer for SDS, became a research professor of sociology at Clark University in Massachusetts. He has authored numerous publications critical of global capitalism and has been a contributor to left-of-center publications such as The Nation. [161]

Richard Flacks

Richard Flacks was an SDS leader and one-time member of its national council. He became a professor of sociology at the University of California (Santa Barbara). He is the author of several books on American leftist politics and a contributor to the socialist website In These Times. [162]

Carl Oglesby

Carl Oglesby was president of SDS from 1965-66. In 1972 he founded the Assassination Information Bureau, an organization that researched the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and is credited with influencing the U.S. Congress to re-open the investigation into the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the author of books and other publications regarding the FBI, the CIA, the slaying of President Kennedy, and more. He died in 2011. [163]

During his SDS days, Oglesby identified himself as a libertarian and advocated cooperation between SDS and conservative/libertarian student groups such as Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). He said this led to his being “denounced” by SDS activists, even though YAF was receptive to the idea and participated in ant-war demonstrations. In a 2008 interview, Oglesby argued that SDS was never a socialist organization, even while conceding most of its membership would have selected socialism over most other political ideologies.[164]

Tom Hayden

For more, see Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden, author of the SDS Port Huron Statement, was elected to the California state legislature in 1982, and remained there until 2000. He was a lifetime proponent of left-leaning political causes. He died in 2016.[165]

Bob Avakian

Bob Avakian, a leader in the “Revolutionary Youth Movement II” faction of SDS, founded the far left and Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, in 1975. As of 2019, he still appears to be the leader of the RCPUSA.[166]

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