Vietnam War Era: Students and Political Activism

Caroline Hoefferle. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.

There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

—Mario Savio, December 2, 1964 (Rorabaugh 1989, 30).

With these famous words, University of California student Mario Savio perfectly expressed the motivating sentiment of the student movement of the Vietnam War era. Frustrated and angered by events they perceived as a corruption of American ideals, both locally and globally, many students were moved to political action. Although popular memory and media attribute most student activism to opposing the draft and the Vietnam War, evidence shows that student rights issues—basic civil liberties such as free speech, free press, and personal liberty—as well as participation in university decision making, generated more student protests than any other topic. Almost alone among 1960s campus issues, student rights could build coalitions across all political persuasions. In addition to local concerns, campus activists contributed invaluable support to other reform movements of the era, including civil rights for racial minorities, ending the Vietnam War, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmentalism.

To better understand why students were so politically active in this period, one must first understand the context of the university system in which they lived. At the beginning of the Vietnam War era, university students lived in largely apolitical communities, dominated by fraternities and sororities, and guarded by in loco parentis regulations. These college rules, known as “parietals,” included dress codes, curfews, behavioral guidelines in and outside the classroom, and limitations on speakers and other forms of entertainment allowed on campus. Female students found special rules for women particularly offensive. At most colleges, women could not wear shorts or jeans, were required to have written permission from their parents to travel outside the town, had earlier curfews than male students, and could not visit men’s residences without chaperones. Many universities also required men to spend part of their undergraduate years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Administrators defended their right to set parietals on the grounds that parents expected universities to take care of their children just as a parent would in their first years away from home. University of Michigan student Tom Hayden described his life in Ann Arbor in the early 1960s as a “barracks culture,” with students crammed into sterile dorms attending large, impersonal lectures. He tried to liven up his life by exploring the fraternities, but “found them absorbed in mindless partying and status comparison” (Hayden 1988, 27). Students had disliked parietals since their creation in the 18th century, but resistance produced only sporadic protests and little change in university regulations. Because Americans under the age of 21 were considered minors, without full rights of citizenship, students had little power to change this situation. Student life remained tightly controlled and regulated throughout the early 1960s.

Restraints also came from outside the university. With the Cold War at its height in the 1950s, McCarthyism invaded the nation’s educational system looking for radical professors and organizations. Bowing to political pressure, universities fired and blacklisted known and suspected communist educators, and required all employees—and sometimes students—to sign loyalty oaths pledging that they were not and never had been communists. To protect students from subversive un-American ideas, university administrators initiated new steps to prevent communists or communist sympathizers from speaking on campus. Occasionally, students and faculty spoke out against this political repression, but in the anticommunist culture of the era, they had little support and were easily isolated and contained.

The rapid post-World War II increase in the college population and resulting expansion of the American system of higher education offered both additional problems and new possibilities. The key to this growth was the maturation of the baby-boom generation, which began reaching college age in the early 1960s. Middle-class affluence in the 1950s and 1960s made college attendance more affordable than in previous generations. As a consequence, the proportion of high school seniors advancing to higher education rose from 18 percent in 1940 to 50 percent in 1970, and the overall number of college students rose from 3 million in 1960 to 10 million in 1973 (Anderson 1995). As the campus population exploded, some universities grew into large, impersonal institutions where students were lost in ever-larger classes and had less guidance from and connection to university faculty and administrators. Alienated and discontented students, raised with a faith in American justice and opportunity, sought to engage the world around them. Their massive numbers alone would give them influence.

The civil rights movement inspired students to take action, giving them a language and tactics with which to confront those in authority. When African Americans stood up to demand their civil rights in the 1950s, students from across the country were outraged as law enforcement officers brutalized nonviolent activists. In countless and crucial ways, students mobilized to support the civil rights movement by raising money, recruiting workers, and organizing campus civil rights actions.

Civil Rights

Independent student civil rights activism began in earnest in February 1960 in a famous sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. By the end of February, student sit-ins spread to segregated businesses across the country. Quietly, peacefully, and politely, they faced white managers, patrons, and police officers who bullied, beat, and arrested them. Within one year the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience was evident: 70,000 people in 13 states held sit-ins to desegregate businesses in nearly 200 cities. By providing a role model for student activism and involving thousands of students in a moral crusade, the 1960 sit-in movement had a major impact on American college students (Anderson 1995).

Young activists founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to coordinate this sit-in movement and continue its momentum by involving black and white students in other forms of civil rights activism. SNCC’s founding statement reveals its roots in Christianity and the importance of nonviolence, not only as a tactic but also as an ethic:

Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love…. Love is the central motif of nonviolence…. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil … By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities (Calvert 1991, 71).

This language of spiritualism, justice, morality, and love attracted many supporters who fervently believed in the civil rights cause. Inspired by the sit-in movement, members of the Student League for Industrial Democracy met in June 1960 to create a new multi-issue organization. Calling themselves Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), they coordinated their activities with a variety of other organizations on the Left. Between 1960 and 1964, SDS was heavily involved in the southern civil rights movement; most of its leadership joined SNCC and similar organizations in the South. This involvement had a profound impact on SDS leader Tom Hayden, who wrote of SNCC’s voter registration project: “It is a good, pure struggle … a struggle we have every reason to begin in a revolutionary way across the country, in every place of discrimination that exists” (Hayden 1988, 55). Jane Adams, an SDS leader from Southern Illinois University, later described working in the civil rights movement as like being born again, “and it was that kind of a transformative, redemptive quality that the movement had that was extraordinarily powerful” (Lieberman 2004, 63). Another civil rights activist wrote that students participated in SNCC’s voter registration drive “because we believed what we learned in the schools of this country—freedom and justice for all…. because we believe in this nation…. We are your children, living what you taught us as Truth” (Anderson 1995, 81). SNCC’s language and mission appealed to both secular and religious constituents, although the risks and commitment demands limited political activists to a small minority on campuses.

After a year of organizing and working on civil rights, Hayden and other members of SDS drafted a manifesto in June 1962 at Port Huron, Michigan. The resulting 63-page Port Huron Statement reveals the primacy of the civil rights issue in the early student movement, even echoing SNCC’s language. It expresses many of the values that united left-wing student activists throughout the Vietnam War era: a belief in participatory democracy, faith in the power of community and nonviolent activism, and a critique of America’s injustices, amoral capitalism, anticommunist repression, and militarism. With this document, SDS self-consciously created an “agenda for a generation” and proclaimed itself leader of a “New Left,” which would create a new politics in America.

Other student groups, including the National Student Association, Southern Students Organizing Committee, and hundreds of local groups, also supported the civil rights crusade through sit-ins, fund-raising, and petitioning local authorities to end segregation and discrimination in their own towns. National polls and student organizations indicate that civil rights was the single most important issue for student activists across the country in the early 1960s. Despite all of their activity, however, change proceeded at a slow pace and produced an incredible backlash from both predictable and unexpected sources. Southern students such as Gwendolyn Robinson, a student at all-black Spelman College in Atlanta when she first joined SNCC, often paid a high price for trying to educate and register black voters in Mississippi. Robinson was arrested, expelled, spit upon, beaten, and had her life threatened by angry whites, but she was also disowned by her family who thought she was being foolish and throwing away her career. In the North, civil rights activists who participated in nonviolent civil disobedience faced less severe consequences, but they confronted university administrators who expelled them, parents who disowned them, and other students who shunned them. The experiences of civil rights activists tested their commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence and their faith in America’s ability to reform itself.

Some SNCC leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael, were attracted to the Black Power philosophy of Malcolm X, which advocated black separation for mutual support and using violence in self-defense. A SNCC veteran, Carmichael worked for the organization full-time after graduating from Howard University in 1964 and was elected national chairman in 1966. Although he had many white friends and allies in the movement, and he asked white students to continue to organize civil rights support among white Americans, he argued for separate all-black organizations, asserting, “We cannot have the oppressors telling the oppressed how to rid themselves of the oppressor” (Carson 1995, 217). Under this influence, blacks in the SNCC told whites to leave the organization, and several SNCC leaders also joined the Black Panther Party, the largest Black Power group in the country.

This move toward Black Power had an important impact on the student civil rights movement. Although favored by many younger blacks, Black Power pushed SNCC outside the civil rights mainstream. Carmichael’s increasing militancy—the abandonment of integration and advocacy of violence—alienated some SNCC members and especially older black civil rights activists. Although many radical white leftists supported SNCC’s Black Power emphasis, many also resented it. Feeling snubbed by blacks when they were excluded from their organizations, many white students dropped out of the fight against racial discrimination.

Nevertheless, the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs produced significant gains for African Americans. The proportion of black students grew from 3 percent of all college students in 1964 to nearly 9 percent in 1972. Still, when black students arrived on predominantly white college campuses they were expected to be grateful and to “emulate ‘white’ standards of social decorum” (Exum 1985, 17, 39). In the context of Black Power rhetoric, many perceived this as a reflection of white America’s racism and hypocrisy. Many blacks responded by joining Black Student Unions (BSUs) to pressure their universities to eliminate institutional racism and address the needs of minorities. Reflecting the Black Power movement, BSUs emphasized black unity, pride, and community.

Although most BSUs worked peacefully against racism, one of the most famous and explosive instances of black student activism occurred at San Francisco State College in 1968. The BSU there wanted a black studies program to provide relevant education for black activists, lower admission standards, and increased scholarships for black students to raise their numbers to equal their proportion of the San Francisco population. The administration agreed to address these concerns but could not immediately implement their demands. Black faculty to teach black studies courses were in short supply, as was scholarship funding for black students. Race relations, therefore, were already tense when a black faculty member sparked controversy in the autumn of 1968 by urging minority students to bring weapons to campus for defense. When college trustees demanded that he be fired, they set off a chain of events in which student protests provoked stern reactions from administrators, which in turn provoked increased student activism. A 134-day strike took place during the next school year, conducted by thousands of students, which attracted hundreds of police who occupied the campus and made 700 arrests. In the end, the administration met many of the BSU’s original demands, but those arrested paid stiff fines and the administration fired more than 20 faculty members for supporting the strike (Exum 1985).

By 1970, student civil rights activism had resulted in the creation of minority and ethnic studies programs, special admissions policies for minority students, and the hiring of more minority faculty at many universities across the country. Student activism, however, did not wipe out racism in the wider society, end police brutality against black protesters, or even convince the majority of students to support programs to end racial discrimination. For example, only half of college freshmen in 1969 favored government intervention to desegregate schools (Bayer, Astin, and Boroch 1970). Like the wider public, many students were suspicious of government-enforced desegregation.

Cold War and Vietnam

Although civil rights dominated the early student movement, Cold War issues soon emerged as a leading cause of campus protest. After World War II, moderates in the Republican and Democratic parties had reached a consensus that communism represented the primary threat to the United States. This anti-communism led to McCarthyism at home and a Cold War with the Soviet Union and other communist nations. The Cold War manifested itself in a continuation of the draft, involvement in numerous political conflicts across the globe, and a nuclear arms race that threatened to destroy the world. Nuclear proliferation energized the political Left in the early 1960s. Groups such as the Student Peace Union were especially vocal during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962. Students all over the world were horrified but divided over whom to blame. The Left protested the Kennedy administration for its hard-line anticommunism, and the Right blamed the Soviets and Castro in counterdemonstrations. When the crisis was over, students of all political persuasions were disillusioned with the Cold War consensus and eager to change the direction of the nation’s politics.

In the early 1960s, conservative students organized around their concern over communist expansion. As Scott Stanley explained, “We’d gone through [World War II] believing that America was invulnerable…. Why was there no pax Americana? We knew something was wrong…. Our values had been betrayed. Our dreams were being destroyed” (Klatch 1999, 30). Disillusioned with politicians whom they saw as soft on communism, conservative students met in September 1960 in Sharon, Connecticut, to form a new university-based organization. That conference produced the Sharon Statement, which declared their support of libertarian and traditional conservative beliefs such as individual free will and liberty, freemarket capitalism, suspicion of big government, and opposition to communism. Conference participants created the Young Americans for Freedom, which became the leading conservative activist organization on campuses in the Vietnam War era and would eventually influence the emerging New Right in the 1970s.

By the mid-1960s, the focus of the Cold War was in Vietnam. Framed by the U.S. government as a struggle to protect a democratic South Vietnam from the communist domination of North Vietnam, the conflict escalated in 1965 when the Johnson administration initiated a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and committed combat troops to South Vietnam. Right-wing students criticized the limitations imposed on the American military by liberal politicians. Left-wing students questioned the legitimacy of the war and its anticommunist premise. Others opposed the war from a moral perspective. Christian student groups, such as Newman clubs and YMCAs, were early hotbeds of antiwar activism. Concerns that Vietnam did not meet the “just war” criteria of their faith and religious injunctions to oppose injustice and murder motivated many young Christian antiwar activists.

Students on both sides of the political spectrum were especially troubled by the draft. Every 18-year-old man was required to register with the Selective Service System. Local draft boards decided whom to select for military service. Draftees, however, could request deferments for a number of reasons. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, most college students and those employed in defense or government industries could easily obtain draft deferments. As the United States committed more troops to Vietnam, however, draft deferments became more difficult to obtain and more young men faced possible induction.

SDS responded by creating the Peace Research and Education Project in the autumn of 1962 to stimulate discussion and research on the military draft, American imperialism, and foreign policy. Shortly after Johnson’s escalation of the war in 1965, SDS sponsored its first large-scale antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C. An unusually large turnout of more than 20,000 people caught the attention of the media, which publicized SDS as the leader of the student antiwar movement. This in turn led more students to join SDS because of its antiwar reputation. Beginning in 1965, branches of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV) formed at hundreds of campuses as single-issue coalition organizations, joining SDS as the core of antiwar activity in the student movement.

One important tactic of the campus antiwar movement was the teach-in. University of Michigan faculty sponsored the first nationally publicized teach-in during the spring of 1965 as an educational protest against the war in Vietnam. The teach-in involved 3,000 people who listened to arguments for and against the war (Eynon 1993). University of Michigan students and faculty then organized a national Vietnam teach-in on May 15, 1965, which included leading authorities on Southeast Asian affairs and carried detailed information across the country through a television broadcast. The teach-in movement spread rapidly to universities all over the country. In the spring of 1965 alone, teach-ins took place at 120 campuses (Eynon 1993). The largest occurred at the University of California at Berkeley, where 12,000 people participated in a marathon 36-hour event sponsored by the Vietnam Day Committee (Menashe and Radosh 1967). Teach-ins were crucial in sparking more antiwar activity because they provided student activists with disturbing information in an exciting atmosphere, showed them inaccuracies in government and media reports, and emboldened them to criticize the government.

Although teach-ins appeared on many campuses in 1965, many colleges had no antiwar movement until the late 1960s. As late as 1967, only 35 percent of students wanted to reduce U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, whereas 49 percent favored escalation (Lipset 1971). One of the most important factors in turning American public opinion against the war was the communist Tet Offensive in January 1968. The Tet Offensive failed in its immediate goal of forcing a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, but it did convince many Americans that the United States was mired in a stalemate despite the Johnson administration’s optimistic statements. In addition, changes in the draft laws that year threatened more college students with the draft, making it even more imperative to stop the war to avoid jeopardizing their lives for a war they did not support.

As a consequence, the student movement increasingly protested the draft, the war, and other issues related to American militarism. Although most antiwar activists were liberals or moderates, libertarian conservatives also joined antiwar demonstrations because they believed the draft was an infringement on personal liberty. In 1968, more than a third of colleges polled reported antiwar protests (Peterson 1968). For some students, such as Jane Adams, “The Vietnam War was the crucible” of the student movement and was the most important issue of all (Lieberman 2004, 66). Similar to civil rights activists, however, antiwar activists paid a heavy price for their dedication. Jeff Shero Nightbyrd, a national SDS leader who attended the University of Texas, explained that radical students like him, from rural and conservative areas of the country, embarrassed their families and were generally disowned for their antiwar activism. Washington State University CEWV member Bill Halstead wrote in 1965, “I have been called names, threatened with physical violence, and made uncomfortable by my friends and enemies alike. All because I am willing to stand up and be counted for my opposition to the war in Vietnam” (Halstead 1965, 4). Even students who were Vietnam veterans faced accusations of being communists and cowards when they joined the antiwar movement. When the war became widely unpopular after 1969, antiwar activists encountered less harassment from family and friends, but they still faced suppression from authorities.

Student Rights

Civil rights and antiwar activism often led students to question their place within the university system. As a University of Utah journalist noted, the civil rights movement “served to make them more sensitive of their own civil rights” (Anderson 1995, 100). Many came to see university regulations that prohibited political activity and limited free speech and free press as a clear parallel to restrictions placed on African Americans in the South. To change these rules, students imitated the civil rights movement’s defense of constitutional rights and use of nonviolent direct action.

Free speech issues often galvanized student activism, and the most famous confrontation occurred at the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1950s, the regents of the University of California system had banned communist speakers as well as many forms of political speech and organization from their campuses. Students at several of the University of California’s campuses petitioned for reforms for years without effect. At the Berkeley campus, however, students drew on their civil rights experience to mobilize one of the largest and most famous student protests of the era. When Berkeley administrators prohibited political activity at a popular recruiting ground on campus in the autumn of 1964, a group of students—including some veterans of civil rights work in the South—challenged the ban. Students viewed this as an unjust limitation of their civil rights and built a broad coalition to defend those rights, the Free Speech Movement. The conflict escalated as the semester progressed. The Free Speech Movement committee organized student rallies, marches, and sit-ins in which thousands demanded free speech on campus and more student participation in university government. The administration handed out citations and threatened students with expulsion while police made 773 arrests. Finally in December, after months of turmoil and negative national publicity, the university regents agreed to relax the rules on campus political activity along the lines laid down by the Free Speech Movement.

The Berkeley protests received national attention, and several of the key figures made frequent appearances on the lecture circuit. Student governments from across the United States and the world sent messages of support and solidarity to Berkeley students, and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement made students across the nation aware of limitations on their own rights and lack of power in the university. Over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of students tried to apply the lessons of the Berkeley protests to their own campuses.

Limitations on campus political activities and disciplinary actions against activists led increasingly to student demands for more influence within the university. In a 1969 poll, researchers found that only 11 percent of students believed the Vietnam War was the “biggest gripe” of the student movement, whereas 81 percent of all students wanted “more say in the running of the colleges they attend” (“Why Students Act” 1969, 34). Nearly 90 percent wanted “a major role in specifying the curriculum” (Bayer, Astin, and Boroch 1970, 18). For this reason, student rights activism emerged on all types of campuses—liberal and conservative, small and large, North and South—and it typically involved more students than any other issue. The fight for student rights unified campus activists, many of whom saw increased power within the university as a first step toward broader social reforms. The slogan “student power” captured this idea and became the rallying cry for hundreds of demonstrations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Related to the demand for student power in the universities was the demand for civil rights within the wider society, including the right to vote. Throughout the 1960s, the voting age in most states was 21. Activists had long argued that it was unjust to treat people under 21 as adults in the criminal courts and draft them to fight in the military and yet deny them the right to vote. Young demonstrators asserted that they resorted to direct action because they could not voice their dissent through electoral methods, and many adults agreed that voting rights might help reduce public protests among the young. The states finally ratified the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age for national elections to 18 in July 1970. Although it is difficult to measure the effect of the 26th Amendment on student activism and the wider society, it did give students more power to change the country through direct participation in the democratic process.

The student rights movement, together with the lower voting age, made parietal regulations seem outdated. In six major court cases between 1967 and 1970, the courts supported a university’s right to make its own regulations but found that the in loco parentis doctrine was invalid and irrelevant. Most colleges did away with curfews, dress codes, and other restrictions. Curriculum became more responsive to student interests and concerns, and students sat on a variety of committees, participating in at least a low level of decision making at most universities. Of all the different branches of the student movement, the expansion of student rights was arguably the most successful.

This success, however, came at a high price. The police, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), politicians, and college administrators typically resisted student demands. Many authorities believed student activists were communist sympathizers or dupes, and their dissent was not only un-American but also illegal. In March 1965, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover testified before a House Committee that communists had orchestrated the antiwar protests, though he provided no evidence to substantiate this claim. That April, the FBI began extensive harassment of politically active students. In October 1968, that program developed into “New Left COINTELPRO,” which put hundreds of students under illegal surveillance and effectively disrupted their protests. By 1969, the FBI had 42 of its 59 field offices and thousands of special agents actively engaged in operations against the New Left. They harassed student activists with repeated interviews, mailed anonymous letters to black and white student leaders to spread rumors and criticisms that might turn them against each other, sent information on students’ political activities to prospective employers to blacklist the activists, and impersonated students and alumni in letters to administrators and boards of regents to pressure them into resisting activists’ demands for reform. Some FBI informants even led student demonstrations, provoked violence between police and students, and were arrested. These operations abused American civil liberties and broke FBI and government regulations limiting domestic surveillance. Although they caused serious problems for dissenters, they also further radicalized some students.

Most student activists in the Vietnam War era had high hopes that they would help change the system in a positive way, but repression and the lack of rapid change led many to reevaluate their movement in a new light. SDS member Sue Jhirad explained, “You might think you were doing this fairly innocuous antiwar work, but I was visited by the FBI. People were harassed. You began to see there was something going on, as far as the state goes…. People’s awareness of things just evolved” (Klatch 1999, 115). The overreaction of the FBI and other authorities made the entire system seem unjust, undemocratic, and incapable of change or reform. This awareness opened the doors to revolutionary ideologies.

The year 1968 was a turning point in the radicalization of the student movement. Mark Rudd exemplified the experiences of many left-wing extremists. He had been an antiwar activist at Columbia University and a member of SDS since his freshman year in 1965. Over time, he became increasingly involved in the theoretical discussions of the national SDS. Along with other SDS leaders, Rudd traveled to Cuba in January 1968 and, inspired by the legacy of revolutionary hero Che Guevara, decided to devote his life to fighting American imperialism and fomenting revolution in the United States. That spring, he returned to Columbia and led the SDS in a highly publicized and powerful protest against the university’s affiliation with military research and its plans to replace an African American housing project with a sports facility. Rudd and other like-minded extremists made inflammatory speeches, threatened authorities, and encouraged students to protect themselves with weapons and physically attack symbols of American repression and imperialism. In the summer of 1968, he and other SDS radicals urged students to go to Chicago during the Democratic National Convention for militant demonstrations against the government and the war. Although relatively few responded to this call, television coverage of the convention included pictures of young protesters fighting with police officers and contributed to a more negative image of the student movement, which ultimately undermined its effectiveness.

In an atmosphere of FBI harassment, escalating war in Vietnam, growing violence against protesters, clashes at the Democratic National Convention, and race riots in cities across the country, SDS leadership became increasingly radical and isolated from the rest of the student movement during 1968 and 1969. Some SDS members accepted the rhetoric of the Black Power movement. Others adopted Maoism and other forms of Marxism, attempting to lead the student movement toward revolution. At the 1968 SDS convention, a well-organized Maoist Progressive Labor faction gained support from the majority of the SDS delegates. The Progressive Labor faction asserted that students should seek to build an alliance with workers, who were the key to revolution in America. The SDS leadership, however, was still controlled by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM). RYM asserted that American workers were too conservative to lead a revolution and that radical blacks, students, and other oppressed peoples should unite to lead a people’s revolution. SDS fragmented into two competing branches, one in Boston led by the Progressive Labor faction and the other in Chicago led by RYM. At the end of 1969, SDS fractured even further, when a small group within RYM broke off to form Weatherman groups, which went underground to foment revolution through symbolic violence, such as bombings and vandalism. Over the next few years, they set off hundreds of bombs in Selective Service offices, government facilities, and military establishments across the country in an attempt to terrorize the government and society into ending what they saw as global imperialism. Weatherman Bill Ayers later explained this shift toward violence:

Two thousand people a day were being murdered in Vietnam in a terrorist war, an official terrorist war…. This was what was going on in our names. So we tried to resist it, tried to fight it. Built a huge mass movement, built a huge organization, and still the war went on and escalated. And every day we didn’t stop the war, two thousand people would be killed. I don’t think what we did was extreme…. We didn’t cross lines that were completely unacceptable. I don’t think so. We destroyed property in a fairly restrained level, given what we were up against (Dohrn and Ayers 2004).

The divisions within SDS and the violent rhetoric of its national leaderships, however, alienated many American students, and SDS’s presence on campuses declined rapidly after 1970.

The most tragic incidents of the student movement were the killings of four students at Kent State University in Ohio and two students at Jackson State in Mississippi in 1970. It began on April 30, 1970, when President Richard Nixon announced that U.S. troops had crossed into Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese supply bases to speed the pace of the peace process. Many saw this as a betrayal of Nixon’s promise not to enlarge the war, and massive protests occurred across the country. Like students at 16 percent of the nation’s campuses, activists at Kent State University held several rallies to protest the expansion of the war. After a late-night riot outside the bars in downtown Kent and an antiwar rally in which the Kent State ROTC building was burned to the ground, the governor of Ohio took a stand for “law and order” against the culprits. He declared a state of emergency, imposed curfews, banned all outdoor demonstrations, and gave the National Guard complete control over law enforcement on the Kent State campus. A contingent of guardsmen was posted around campus and moved quickly to break up any large gatherings. On Monday May 4, a noon rally drew thousands of people to the center of campus. Some attended to protest the war, but many more came to protest the presence of the guardsmen, and several hundred were merely curious observers. After a warning to disperse, the guardsmen advanced with bayonets and loaded rifles. Students responded with cursing and angry taunts, and some threw rocks. Suddenly, without warning or an order to shoot, 28 guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing four and injuring nine, most of whom stood more than 100 yards away from the guards and were completely uninvolved in the confrontation. The Kent State Massacre was an extreme example of authorities overreacting to student activism and led to some of the largest protests of the era.

The Kent State incident added fuel to the fires of rage on the nation’s campuses. An estimated 4,350,000 students at 1,300 universities and colleges—44 percent of the nation’s total—protested the war in Southeast Asia and the murder of their fellow students, closing many universities in the process (Heineman 1992). The editor of the UCLA student newspaper explained this outpouring of activism:

They were there because they were angry and frustrated. They were angry and frustrated with a President who promises peace and widens the war…. with a society which responds to thrown bottles and rocks … with 40 rounds of rifle fire into a crowd. They were angry because every day America seems to become more callous, more ruthless, and they were frustrated because there is nothing they can do about it. Consequently, they lashed out at the most available target in the society—the University…. America is strong enough and has become cruel enough to be capable of smashing all dissent within its borders (Daily Bruin 1970, 4).

Student letters and publications from May 1970 repeatedly mention this sense of anger, frustration, and ominous confrontation.

A pattern of escalation similar to that at Kent State occurred at numerous state universities across the nation that May. Students protested the Cambodian invasion and Kent State, administrators sent in campus police to arrest and disperse protesters, students protested the presence of police, and state officials sent in National Guardsmen to protect the campuses. Injuries and property damage occurred frequently, but only at Jackson State College, an all-black college in Mississippi, did unrest result in more student deaths. After two nights of students and local youths setting small fires and throwing objects at cars and people at the edge of campus, members of the National Guard, highway patrol, and city police unexpectedly fired 150 rounds of buckshot and birdshot into a women’s dormitory where a small number of protesters had gathered (President’s Commission 1970). This attack, provoked by the sound of a shattering glass bottle thrown toward the police (some officers later claimed they had seen a sniper), killed two students and wounded at least twelve. The governor and other officials immediately blamed the students for this incident and began criminal proceedings against them. The killings at Kent State and Jackson State enjoyed public approval, and American students’ disillusionment with the establishment reached its zenith in that deadly spring of 1970.

Campus protest continued at a fever pitch through 1972. In the 1970-1971 academic year, 45 percent of American colleges experienced significant demonstrations (Sale 1973). Some universities faced their largest antiwar demonstrations in the spring of 1972 in reaction to the renewed bombing of North Vietnam. At the University of Minnesota, for example, antiwar activism exploded that spring. When 500 students disrupted a speech by Nixon cabinet member George Romney, police attacked students with mace and nightsticks and arrested 17. The next day, 2,000 students rallied at the Air Force recruiting center to protest the arrests and the war machine. When they moved to break into the campus armory, the university administration called the Minneapolis police tactical squad. Violence between the police and students escalated for several hours until Minneapolis mayor Charles Stenvig called in the National Guard. After much negotiation, the confrontation finally ended after an anticlimactic but peaceful antiwar march of 10,000 from the university to the State Capitol on May 13 (Jacobsen 1982).

After 1972, the student movement changed dramatically. With both the American combat role in Vietnam and the draft ending in 1973, antiwar protests gradually disappeared. Significant expansion of student rights had been won by the mid-1970s. Civil rights activism remained on many campuses but attracted smaller numbers. Student interests splintered, encompassing environmentalism, United Farm Workers’ boycotts, Chicano and American Indian rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. With newly won student representation in the university structure and the national voting age lowered to 18, it was easier for student activists to work within the system rather than by direct action. By 1975, the student movement of the 1960s ceased to exist.

The consequences of the student movement were felt long after it ended. Students won considerable campus reforms that gave them a voice in university decision making and greater personal freedom than before. Universities began to treat students as adults rather than children. This new independence allowed countercultural behaviors and styles to sweep campuses in the late 1960s and 1970s. The student movement stimulated new curriculum in many disciplines as well as interdisciplinary programs in peace, women’s, and racial and ethnic studies at many universities across the country. Student dissidents contributed to ending the Vietnam War and the military draft and helped women and minorities win important victories against sexism and racism. These victories, however, came at a high cost to student activists. Many suffered strained personal relationships with family and friends, had careers disrupted, acquired criminal records, and even suffered injuries and deaths. The student movement was a powerful and sometimes violent and tragic chapter in the history of the Vietnam War era, but it contributed to some of the most important reforms in the nation’s history.