Along with the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s, one of the most divisive forces in twentieth-century U.S. history. The antiwar movement actually consisted of a number of independent interests, often only vaguely allied and contesting each other on many issues, united only in opposition to the Vietnam War. Attracting members from college campuses, middle-class suburbs, labor unions, and government institutions, the movement gained national prominence in 1965, peaked in 1968, and remained powerful throughout the duration of the conflict. Encompassing political, racial, and cultural spheres, the antiwar movement exposed a deep schism within 1960s American society.
A small, core peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, but failed to gain popular currency until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race of the late 1950s led Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, along with Clarence Pickett of the American Society of Friends (Quakers), to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. Their most visible member was Dr. Benjamin Spock, who joined in 1962 after becoming disillusioned with President Kennedy’s failure to halt nuclear proliferation. A decidedly middle-class organization, SANE represented the latest incarnation of traditional liberal peace activism. Their goal was a reduction in nuclear weapons. Another group, the Student Peace Union (SPU), emerged in 1959 on college campuses across the country. Like SANE, the SPU was more liberal than radical. After the Joseph McCarthy inspired dissolution of Communist and Socialist organizations on campuses in the 1950s, the SPU became the only option remaining for nascent activists. The goal of the SPU went beyond that of SANE. Unwilling to settle for fewer nuclear weapons, the students desired a wholesale restructuring of American society. The SPU, never an effective interest group, faded away in 1964, its banner taken up by a more active assemblage, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
SDS formed in 1960 as the collegiate arm of an Old Left institution with an impressive heritage-the League for Industrial Democracy. Jack London had been a member, as had Upton Sinclair, but the organization had long lain dormant until Michael Harrington, a New York socialist, revived it late in the 1950s as a forum for laborers, African Americans, and intellectuals. Within a single year, however, SDS was taken over by student radicals Al Haber and Tom Hayden, both of the University of Michigan. In June 1962, fifty-nine SDS members met with Harrington at Port Huron, Michigan, in a conference sponsored by the United Auto Workers. From this meeting materialized what has been called the manifesto of the New Left-the Port Huron Statement. Written by Hayden, the editor of the University of Michigan student newspaper, the 64-page document expressed disillusionment with the military-industrial-academic establishment. Hayden cited the uncertainty of life in Cold War America and the degradation of African Americans in the South as examples of the failure of liberal ideology and called for a reevaluation of academic acquiescence in what he claimed was a dangerous conspiracy to maintain a sense of apathy among American youth.
Throughout the first years of its existence, SDS focused on domestic concerns. The students, as with other groups of the Old and New Left, actively supported Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Following Johnson’s victory, they refrained from antiwar rhetoric to avoid alienating the president and possibly endangering the social programs of the Great Society. Although not yet an antiwar organization, SDS actively participated in the Civil Rights struggle and proved an important link between the two defining causes of the decade.
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