Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, founded 1959)

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS, founded 1959)


* Radical student group during the 1960s
* Spearheaded the Anti-Vietnam War movement
* Was transformed into Weatherman, a terrorist cult

Forming the core of the 1960s counter-cultural movement known collectively as the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was a radical organization that aspired to overthrow America’s democratic institutions, remake its government in a Marxist image, and help America’s enemies defeat her sons on the battlefield in Vietnam. The group developed from the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the youth branch of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy.

SDS was established in 1960 by Aryeh Neier, who would later spend fifteen years working for the American Civil Liberties Union (including eight years as its national executive director), and twelve years as executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) — an organization he founded in 1978. After leaving HRW, Neier was appointed in 1993 by George Soros to serve as president of the Open Society Institute and the entire Soros Foundation Network.

SDS held its first meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1960. Its first President was Alan Haber, and its first impress on the political landscape was the Port Huron Statement of 1962, drafted principally by Tom Hayden, a former editor of the University of Michigan’s student newspaper. The Port Huron Statement adopted the position of “anti-anti-Communism,” refusing to support the West in the Cold War. The statement denounced bigotry in the United States, world hunger and American abundance, materialism, personal alienation, industrialization, the threat of nuclear war, military spending, and the Cold War. Its prescribed solution to Cold War tensions reads as follows: “Universal controlled disarmament must replace deterrence and arms control as the [American] national defense goal. … It is necessary that America make disarmament, not nuclear deterrence, ‘credible’ to the Soviets and to the world. That is, disarmament should be continually avowed as a national goal; concrete plans should be presented at conference tables.”

Calling for “participatory democracy,” the Port Huron Statement continued: “[The] allocation of resources must be based on social needs. A truly ‘public sector’ must be established, and its nature debated and planned. At present the majority of America’s ‘public sector,’ the largest part of our public spending, is for the military. When great social needs are so pressing, our concept of ‘government spending’ is wrapped up in the ‘permanent war economy.’”

The Statement promoted the politicization of the University, a call that was answered in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964, which permanently altered the political atmosphere on college campuses.

SDS’s initial efforts at the promotion of civil rights, voting rights, and urban reform were gradually overshadowed by its focus on the Vietnam War. In April 1965, SDS advertised its opposition to the War by participating in the March on Washington.

Noel Ignatiev joined SDS in the 1960s. In 1967 he and fellow CPUSA member Theodore Allen, drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of the “Blindspot in the eyes of America,” co-authored The White Blindspot, a pamphlet arguing that “white supremacy and … white skin privilege” had historically blinded white workers to the desirability of allying themselves with blacks in a united revolutionary force dedicated to overthrowing capitalism. As such, the privileges that whites enjoyed were, in reality, a “poison” that was “ruinous” to the “working class.”

The White Blindspot had a significant influence on activists and young radicals within the emerging New Left, most notably members of SDS, whose National Office called for a full frontal assault on “white skin privileges.” Likewise, SDS’s Weatherman faction, steeped in identity politics, contended that white radicals had a moral duty not only to renounce their “white skin privilege,” but also to participate in armed struggle against the U.S. government; anything short of such a commitment, said Weatherman, was tantamount to endorsing racism.

Many key SDS members were “red-diaper babies,” children of parents who were Communist Party members or Communist activists in the 1930s. In 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson abolished student draft deferments, some 300 new SDS chapters were formed. Among the organization’s activities were: disrupting ROTC classes, staging draft card burnings, and harassing campus recruiters for the CIA and for firms that conducted research tied in some way to national defense. SDS also occupied buildings at universities such as Columbia and destroyed draft records.

At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, SDS protestors, organized by Tom Hayden, created a riot in order to destroy the electoral chances of the pro-war liberal Hubert Humphrey, and thereby set the stage for a confrontation with the Nixon Administration over the Vietnam War. Hayden and his cohorts — including Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale — were arrested and indicted for crossing state lines to incite a riot. They became known as The Chicago Seven. In a celebrated trial (whose guilty verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality), they were given token sentences.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, SDSers famously chanted, “Ho, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win.” Ho was the Communist revolutionary who served as president of North Vietnam from 1945-69. The NLF was the National Liberation Front, formally National Front for the Liberation of the South, a Vietnamese political organization (established in 19860) whose aim was to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunify North and South Vietnam.

In 1969 SDS began imploding into factions. One of them, a group calling itself Weatherman, was elected to SDS leadership and proclaimed that the time had come to launch a race war on behalf of the Third World and against the United States. The new entity dissolved SDS and formed a terrorist cult in its place, which was given the name Weather Underground.

Additional Resources:

A Study in Marxist Revolutionary Violence: Students for a Democratic Society, 1962-1969
By John Edgar Hoover

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