Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes


Question for Discussion:
What are some of the
major threats to American democracy in the
1960s?

Reading: FBI Cointelpro: New Left handout; Senate
Committee Probes the FBI's Secret Campaign handout;
Students for a Democratic Society (web); Journalist
Account of Police Riots (web)


Video: Chicago Riots: 1968Making Sense
of the Sixties: Picking up the Pieces

Daily Class Web Links

The Student Protest Movement of the 1960s

The 1960s and the Division of America

Conservative Reaction to the 1960s Political Movements

Daily Class Outline

1. The goals of the 1960s student movement

2.  The Student Movement and the Youth Counterculture

3. The Conservative Reaction to 1960s activism

4. The FBI's Counter-intelligence war 
  against the New Left

4. Kent State and the End of 1960s Student Activism



Daily Class Questions

1. According to their Port Huron Statement, what is the Students for  a Democratic Society's larger political goal?

2. What do the students believe are the major problems facing America in the early 1960s?

3. According the the Port Huron Statement, how do Americans feel about their government and society in the early 1960s?

4. How does K. Ross Toole characterize the student activists of the 1960s?

5. Do you agree with Toole that these activists are threatening to create "the tyranny of spoiled brats"?

6. According to the FBI memorandum, "Counterintelligence Program...Disruption of the New Left," why are the student activists a threat to American society?

7. What are some of the major tactics the FBI plans to use to "neutralize" the New Left?

8. Has the FBI presented any hard evidence that these students activists are a threat to society and committing criminal acts?

9. What does the Senate Committee investigating the FBI mean when it argues that the FBI decided "to take the law into its own hands for the 'greater good' of the country"?

10. Do you agree with the Senate Committee's conclusion that "many of the techniques [the FBI] used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity"?



Daily Class Notes

In the 1960s, American young people and college students believed they could make a difference in their society and government. They believed that America was a democratic society that could be reformed and made a better, freer, more just, and abundant society. Many students and young people in the 1990s no longer hold these optimistic and idealistic views. What was it about the 1960s that led young Americans to engage in social and political activism to reform and improve their society? Why didn't students and young people in the 1950s also engage in political protest and activism? These are the sorts of questions we must answer in order to understand the political and social protest movements of the 1960s.

American students and young people in the 1950s did not challenge their government or society for fear that their lives and careers would be destroyed as a result of being called a communist. In the 1950s, anyone who challenged the government, society, or American values or assumptions could be tarred with the charge of communism. So why weren't students in the 1960s afraid that they too would be called communists? Why didn't McCarthyism prevent social and political activism in the 1960s as it did in the 1950s? In order to answer this question we need to look at the the mood and assumptions of Americans in the early 1960s.

I believe that if you want to understand the origins of the 1960s student movements, you need to understand the social, political, and cultural idealism of the 1950s. In the 1950s, Americans were under the spell of the "liberal consensus," a set of basic assumptions about American society and culture that the majority of Americans implicitly accepted. This liberal consensus said that America worked, it was a just, democratic, middle-class, abundant, and free society; if there were any problems in America, they were caused by communists and outside agitators. By the early 1960s, however, many Americans, young and old, began to critically look at the contradictions in American society. On the one hand, they believed that America worked and was becoming a better society, but on the other they were forced to recognize the growing poverty amidst middle-class affluence, the bitter racism and racial hatred, the real and growing threat of global nuclear war, and the lack of opportunities for many Americans to realize the American Dream. Instead of refusing to accept these problems and contradictions and holding tightly to the idealized America of the 1950's liberal consensus, Americans became committed in the early 1960s to overcoming and solving these problems and created the idealized America that their society believed it was.

The source of this so-called 1960s-idealism lies in the Presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the early and middle 1960s. For many Americans to this day, the young, vibrant President John Kennedy represented the hope, idealism, and optimism of a generation. You can these this generation's hopeful idealism about President Kennedy in Oliver Stone's film, JFK. For Stone, when Kennedy is killed, this is the beginning of 1960s division, dissension, and lost hopes and idealism. How did Kennedy come to represent and shape this 1960s idealism?

In President Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address, we can see the seeds of Kennedy's and 1960's social and political idealism. Kennedy's speech is remembered fondly by Americans to this day. Unlike most Presidents' speeches, Americans remember the substance, style, and message of Kennedy's inaugural. In order to understand this, we need to look at the hopes and idealism that Kennedy both encouraged and sensed in the American people.

In his inaugural address, President Kennedy begins by declaring "that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." Kennedy seems to be calling on this new generation and America's young people to join with him and help create a better America. He challenges Americans to join with him and help America win the Cold War, defend and protect freedom throughout the world, end poverty and suffering, and to use science and technology to defeat "the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." Kennedy calls forth from Americans "the energy, the faith, the devotion" which he declares will "light our country and all who serve it." Kennedy closes his inaugural with this ringing challenge:"My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." It was Kennedy's powerful call for activism, idealism, and hope that powerfully influenced the social and political movements of the 1960s. Just as Johnson, echoing Kennedy, would later call for Americans to help him create "the Great Society," young people, Blacks, women, students, and many other Americans joined in the struggle to help make America live up to its dreams and ideals.

We can see some of this 1960s idealism and optimism in the Students for a Democratic Society's 1962 "Port Huron Statement." This is an early statement of the 1960s student movement's larger political goals. It reflects both the hope and optimism of the 1950s "liberal consensus" and their faith that with a little work and effort America could finally live up to its dreams and ideals.

In the "The Port Huron Statement," written by Tom Hayden and others, the students begin by looking at the growing contradiction they see in American society. They talk about growing up in the 1950s with complacency and innocence. But by the early 1960s, as young adults, they begin to look underneath this widespread American complacency. The students want to bring to light many of the troubling problems they believe face American society. They see widespread racism and racial hatred; they fear the growing threat of nuclear war, warning that they "might die at any time"; they see racial and social inequality in America; they see Americans stifled by a mindless conformity and belief that things are as good as they can get; they see an American "withdrawal from public life" and democratic participation; they see the growing power of a "military-industrial elite" that is dominating American politics and economy; and they see growing poverty and squalor in America's cities. The students conclude by arguing that America can solve these problems. But in order to solve these problems, the students argue Americans must work to "establish greater democracy in America." Only the American people working together to shape and control their government, society, and lives can solve these problems and make America a better society.

Driven by this 1960s idealism and optimism, American young people organized to end racial inequality, eliminate poverty, protect the environment, clean-up America's cities, challenge the war in Vietnam, and make America a more democratic society. But in order to do this, they would have to first overcome the threat of McCarthyism. What would they do differently from their parents, when they too were accused of being communists for challenging the complacency and conformity of the 1950s liberal consensus? In 1962, the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) committee was in San Francisco investigating "communists" in the public schools. HUAC called teachers before it and charged some of them with being communists. Students from the University of California at Berkeley protested the hearings. The police brought out the water cannons and night sticks and attacked the students. Later, HUAC tried to call the students before it, accusing them of being communists. But, unlike their parents, these young people did not back down. When accused of being communists, they said "so what if we're communists, we have the right to be." These students weren't really communists, but they were declaring their right to hold their own, independent political beliefs without being called communists for doing so. In the early 1960s, both Black and White students and young people declared their independence from McCarthyism be refusing to allow charges of communism to silence their voices and protests.

However, the FBI, the CIA, and other government agencies refused to accept that these students and young people weren't communists; they refused to believe that their larger goal was "to make America a more democratic society." According the the Senate's investigation of FBI activities in the 1960s, the FBI believed that "a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order."  The FBI concluded that anyone who challenged American society, government, or values was a threat to the nation and had to be stopped. But what is the FBI and the government doing when they decide which Americans and which political groups have the right to protest and challenge their government and society?

Just as the FBI tried to destroy the Civil Rights movement, it tried to destroy the Student and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s. The FBI and the government concluded that "making American a more democratic society" was a threat to the United States. The FBI had the right to oppose, neutralize, and even crush those who challenged their government and society. But in doing this the FBI and the government is undermining the very foundations of America's democratic society. When the government can decide who can speak, who can protest, who can challenge American government and society, it is denying American's their basic democratic rights. In a democratic society, the people are responsible for shaping and controlling their government and society, not the government. When the government decides that the people can't be trusted or allowed to shape and control it, then we are no longer a democratic society. As some students said, we are becoming like a communist society, in which the government believes it knows what is best for its people and the people can't be trusted or allowed to challenge it. Ironically, then, in fighting the Cold War and communism, the American government in the 1960s became like the very communist government it was trying to destroy. In fighting to protect democracy, American democracy was threatened.

In its counterintelligence strategy "to expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize" the student movement, the FBI approves a 12 point plan to crush the movement. By the late 1960s, it was increasingly clear to many students that the FBI had infiltrated, bugged, and harassed their political protest movements. In many cases, men in black suits with polished shoes seemed to show up wherever the students went. The FBI made its presence clear to these students hoping to intimidate them, letting them know that if they crossed the line the government would come down on them hard. Faced with this harassment and intimidation, many students became even more committed to making America a more democratic society. The FBI's harassment further proved to them that America was increasingly becoming an undemocratic society. If the students didn't challenge their government, they feared that the government might one day soon crush democracy in America.

In 1971, students in New England broke into a local FBI office and stole the FBI's counterintelligence or Cointelpro files on the student movement. These students sent these files to the major newspapers, who promptly published the evidence that the FBI was violating the basic democratic rights of Americans. This greatly embarrassed the FBI and President Nixon, who were determined to crack down even harder on the students.

By the late 1960s, there was increasing government resistance to the demands of the student and anti-war movements. In 1968, at the Chicago Democratic convention, the police and national guard brutally beat up and harassed Americans who came to Chicago "to protest the war" and force the Democrats to come out against the Vietnam war. Many Americans watching this week of brutal police violence on their TV began to question whether America was a democratic society. How could the government so brutally deny young people their basic democratic rights.

As a result of student protest against the Vietnam war, President Nixon was elected President in 1968 promising to end the war. He had claimed he had a secret plan to end the war. Many Americans hoped that he would finally end the war and bring Americans back together again. But in the Spring of 1970, President Nixon ordered the United States to invade Cambodia, which actually expanded the Vietnam war to another country. This caused the anti-war movement to erupt in outrage. Students throughout the country rallied against Nixon's expansion of the war. But Nixon and the government reacted hard to these protests. On May 4, 1970, National Guard troops open fired on white students at Kent State University killing four student and wounding 20 more. Americans watched in horror as they saw soldiers firing on their children. Why, they asked, was the government killing American young people over their protests of the Vietnam war?

A little after the Kent State shootings, policemen at Jackson State University in the South open fire on students, pouring 300 shots into a women's dormitory, killing two students. In addition the the Kent State shooting, the Jackson State shootings terrified Americans. Colleges throughout the country shut down early for the year, fearing that there would be more National Guard and police shootings on college campuses. Many parents demanded that their students come home quickly, rather than risk being shot on their college campuses.

In the fall of 1970, when the colleges reopened, the student and anti-war movement was silent. Students feared that the cost of protest could be death; they feared that the government would no longer allow democratic protest and challenge to its authority. Many Americans feared that under President Nixon America was becoming police state. Most of the idealism, optimism, and hope of the early 1960s was not dead and dying. Many Americans no longer believed in their government and society; they questioned whether we were a democratic society. Tragically, 1960s idealism and optimism created and nurtured by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was destroyed by violence and disillusionment in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As a result of this violence and government abuses of power in the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans no longer trust their government. Instead of believing what their government does is right, many Americans assume that what their government does must be wrong. The wounds, cynicism, and despair caused by the government's violation of American's fundamental rights and liberties still haunt the generations of Americans who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It would be very hard for Americans to respond positively to a call from an American President like John Kennedy challenging Americans to join him in making America a better society. Much of that hope and idealism died in the political and social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 19 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/students.htm
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