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History of Students for a Democratic Society & the Vietnam War

Instructor: Julia Maypole

Julia has a master's degree in world history and has taught college history and other humanities courses.

The decade of the 1960s was a turbulent one fueled by the desire for change among young Americans. This lesson will examine one of the most influential student activist groups, Students for a Democratic Society.

Students for a Democratic Society: Born From Civil Unrest

By 1960, early baby boomers were growing up and entering college. In some ways, it was surprising that these privileged students (mostly upper- to middle-class white students), attending some of the most prestigious universities in the country, began shaking the establishment. They held sit-ins, protests, and anti-war marches. Many university students joined the Civil Rights movement, while others took lessons from its successes and formed their own groups. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was one of these groups--and also the most influential, especially in its fight against the Vietnam War.

Let's take a look at the origins of SDS, examine its accomplishments, and analyze what eventually led to its downfall.

The Origins of Change: Roots of SDS

The 1960s was a volatile decade fueled by a dissatisfied and determined youth. Many groups were inspired by the Civil Rights movement and took up their own causes. Women, Native Americans, Hispanics, and students all found their voices from the protests and marches organized by Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. Initially following the path of passive resistance, student groups at universities across the country began organizing to protest against university policies and procedures that they saw as bureaucratic and hierarchical tools of the government.

SDS Logo
SDS Logo

As an off-shoot of other organizations (most notably the Student League for Industrial Democracy), Students for a Democratic Society was formed in 1960 by Tom Hayden and Al Haber. Both were recent graduates of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 1962, Hayden and Haber called a convention at Port Huron, Michigan, where in front of a couple dozen people, they outlined their goals in what became known as the Port Huron Statement. They argued that, through student activism, participatory democracy could be renewed in the United States. Among other charges, they also condemned the Cold War policies that led the nation's soldiers to the jungles of Vietnam.

Free Speech Movement

From 1962 until 1965, SDS was fairly low key. It was gaining momentum, advocating non-violent disobedience as the means to achieve the goals laid out in the Port Huron Statement. In fall 1964, there was a major clash with the administration at the University of California, Berkeley, after students were banned from organizing on campus. The conflict resulted in a tense 32-hour sit-in inspired by the tactics of peaceful disobedience promoted by SDS. When the administration relented, it was an early victory for the free-speech movement advocated by the organization. However, the dramatic expansion of the Vietnam War in 1965 changed the agenda and focus of SDS.

Vietnam War Resistance

Despite his promise to not send in ground troops, President Lyndon B. Johnson began his escalation of the Vietnam War by dispatching 3,500 Marines to Da Nang in South Vietnam on March 8, 1965. Another 200,000 troops were in Vietnam by December as the grossly unpopular draft picked up pace to meet the new demands. In response to these actions, SDS organized its first large-scale anti-war march on Washington, D.C., on April 17, 1965. With 25,000 participants at the march, SDS emerged from the large demonstration at the center of the anti-war movement.

March Against the Vietnam War in Washington D.C.
Vietnam Protest Washington D.C.

A series of sit-ins, protests, and teach-ins followed at campuses across the nation. Some still focused on issues with the university system, but more and more, the Vietnam War was at the heart of the dissension. In October 1965, SDS led another anti-war march in Washington D.C., the March on the Pentagon, and this time over 100,000 people participated.

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