Question for Discussion: What
are some of the
major threats to American democracy in the
Reading: FBI Cointelpro: New Left handout; Senate
Committee Probes the FBI's Secret Campaign handout;
Students for a Democratic Society (web);
Account of Police Riots (web)
Video: Chicago Riots: 1968,
of the Sixties: Picking up the Pieces
The Student Protest Movement
of the 1960s
The 1960s and the Division
Conservative Reaction to
the 1960s Political Movements
1. The goals of the 1960s student movement
2. The Student Movement and
the Youth Counterculture
3. The Conservative Reaction to 1960s
4. The FBI's Counter-intelligence
against the New Left
4. Kent State and the End of 1960s
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
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
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
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"?
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.