Students for a Democratic Society

SDS pin
SDS pin
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was established in 1960 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as an outgrowth of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), the youth affiliate of the Old Left organization League for Industrial Democracy (LID).

Believing that “industrial democracy” was too narrow and outdated a term, young members of the SLID felt a need to break with the older labor-oriented leadership of the LID and establish an organization that not only saw the political power of working-class unions, but also realized the importance of organizing middle-class students in the struggle for social justice.

Under the leadership of two recent University of Michigan graduates, Al Haber and Tom Hayden, the SDS became a small but increasingly influential network of campus activists that organized students around such issues as civil rights throughout the early 1960s.

In June 1962, approximately fifty SDS members gathered in Port Huron, Michigan, to draft a guiding document for the fledgling organization. The finished document, which became known as the Port Huron Statement, was a detailed examination of the arms race, the cold war, racism, capitalism, and the future of U.S. government.

Drafted primarily by Hayden, the Port Huron Statement highlighted the SDS’s intellectual debt to such thinkers as Albert Camus, Paul Goodman, and especially C. Wright Mills.

While never fully embracing any sort of conspiracy theory, early SDS literature did refer rather ominously to such groups as “the power elite” (a phrase borrowed from Mills), the members of which held the highest positions of authority in the realms of big business, the federal government, the press, and the nation’s largest and most prestigious universities.

Students for a Democratic Society
Students for a Democratic Society

The worldview of such elites, according to SDS leaders, was termed “corporate liberalism,” a philosophy of governance described by one historian as “a smooth blend of demotic sophistry, symbolic legislation, and fantasies of endless consumption” (Kazin, 197).

Such a philosophy alienated people from the political process and kept them from questioning the validity of U.S. forms of government—an outcome that corporate liberals welcomed and strove to maintain.

What was needed to challenge such apathy, according to Hayden and other SDS members, was a turn toward “participatory democracy,” where the governed could govern themselves directly and begin to see through the rhetoric and propaganda of the corporate liberal order.

By 1965, the focus of the SDS had become foreign affairs, specifically U.S. policy on the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam. Although the SDS did not often assume organizational responsibility, “it was symbolically and politically at the center” of the antiwar movement (Breines, 12).

As the SDS became more and more concerned with issues of U.S. foreign policy, it displayed a greater willingness to turn to concepts of conspiracy to describe global events. At the heart of this turn to conspiratorial thinking was the SDS’s growing disillusionment with the country’s universities.

Due to their connections and cooperation with the government in the form of military research, as well as military and corporate recruitment, SDS members now saw such universities as willing participants in the expansion of U.S. imperialism.

Not only were university researchers conspiring with corporate leaders to create new weapons of mass destruction, but these institutions of higher learning were also indoctrinating students to become unquestioning cold warriors.

Knowing that much of the public would disagree with such policies, university officials (and their counterparts in the worlds of business and government) worked to conceal their involvement in the Vietnam War and to suppress the voices of those who attempted to draw attention to such attempted cover-ups. Here, history has supported SDS’s turn toward conspiracy.

Many universities did attempt to cover up their involvement with the war effort, and the June 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers revealed that U.S. leaders had frequently misled and often outright lied to the American people regarding policies dealing with the Vietnam conflict.

By 1968 the intensity of the political situation domestically and internationally moved many in the SDS toward a militant revolutionary program and rhetoric, and toward a greater reliance on conspiracy theory.

In the aftermath of the bloody confrontations at the Chicago Democratic convention in the summer of 1968, most SDS members abandoned whatever hopes they still cherished of reforming the existing political system.

Declaring themselves allies of Third-World Communist revolutionaries like Mao Tse-Tung and Che Guevara, as well as domestic groups such as the Black Panthers, SDS leaders now conceived their principal role as one of “bringing the war home” to an “imperialist mother country” that now actively conspired against them.

In 1969, the SDS collapsed as small, self-proclaimed revolutionary vanguards squabbled over control of the organization. One such group was the Weathermen, who believed that the capitalist, imperialist conspiracy against them was so large and well funded that they had no choice but to “go underground” and launch a guerrilla assault on the U.S. political system.

As the Weathermen spiraled into a pattern of increased paranoia, they began to believe that the only answer to such an all-encompassing conspiracy was a campaign of violence and intimidation, a campaign that ultimately ended with three members accidentally blowing themselves up while constructing bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse in March 1970 (Sale).

Such paranoia, however, was not entirely unwarranted, as there is evidence that a number of groups did conspire against the SDS. Throughout the organization’s history, such figures as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, believing the SDS itself to be a part of a Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the United States, actively monitored SDS membership and activity. Hoover ordered SDS phones to be tapped, and the FBI also secretly solicited students to work as undercover agents infiltrating SDS chapters.

Across the nation, numerous SDS chapters suffered daily harassment and surveillance by local law officials, often with the support of the FBI. While such realities do not fully explain the SDS’s turn to violence, they make it easier to see the appeal of conspiracy theory to many of the group’s members.