In June 1962, a group of mostly white, middle-class college students met in Port Huron, Michigan, to draft a manifesto for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS called for the creation of a “New Left,” that is, a new kind of liberalism. As a Cold War document, the Port Huron Statement is significant for several reasons. First, it sharply challenged the nation’s basic, bipartisan foreign policy: that every price must be paid, every effort made, to stop the global spread of communism. Second, the SDS became a vocal, well-organized opponent of the war in Vietnam (Documents 29–34). Third, by criticizing America’s faith in technology, affluence, and materialism, the statement provided a foundation for the counterculture of the 1960s and beyond.
Source: Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement (New York: The Student Department of the League for Industrial Democracy, 1964).
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people – these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.
As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.
While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration “all men are created equal . . .” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo. . . .
Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity – but might it not better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties about their role in the new world? And if these anxieties produce a developed indifference to human affairs, do they not as well produce a yearning to believe there is an alternative to the present, that something can be done to change circumstances in the school, the workplaces, the bureaucracies, the government? It is to this latter yearning, at once the spark and engine of change, that we direct our present appeal. The search for truly democratic alternatives to the present, and a commitment to social experimentation with them, is a worthy and fulfilling human enterprise, one which moves us and, we hope, others today. . . .
. . . As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.
In a participatory democracy, the political life would be based in several root principles:
that decision-making of basic social consequence be carried on by public groupings;
that politics be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations;
that politics has the function of bringing people out of isolation and into community, thus being a necessary, though not sufficient, means of finding meaning in personal life; . . .
The economic sphere would have as its basis the principles:
that work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. . . .
that the economy itself is of such social importance that its major resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation.
Like the political and economic ones, major social institutions – cultural, education, rehabilitative, and others – should be generally organized with the well-being and dignity of man as the essential measure of success.
In social change or interchange, we find violence to be abhorrent because it requires generally the transformation of the target, be it a human being or a community of people, into a depersonalized object of hate. It is imperative that the means of violence be abolished and the institutions – local, national, international – that encourage nonviolence as a condition of conflict be developed.
These are our central values, in skeletal form. It remains vital to understand their denial or attainment in the context of the modern world. . . .
Communism and Foreign Policy
As democrats we are in basic opposition to the communist system. The Soviet Union, as a system, rests on the total suppression organized opposition. . . . Communist parties throughout the rest of the world are generally undemocratic in internal structure and mode of action. . . .
But present trends in American anti-communism are not sufficient for the creation of appropriate policies with which to relate to and counter communist movements in the world. In no instance is this better illustrated than in our basic national policy-making assumption that the Soviet Union is inherently expansionist and aggressive, prepared to dominate the rest of the world by military means. On this assumption rests the monstrous American structure of military “preparedness”; because of it we sacrifice values and social programs to the alleged needs of military power. . . .
. . . [W]e can develop a fresh and creative approach to world problems which will help to create democracy at home and establish conditions for its growth elsewhere in the world.
A. Why are the students uncomfortable with the world as it is? What problems currently exist in the United States? What kind of new social system do they want to create? How are they critical of American Cold War policies and actions? Do the students see communism as a problem?
B. Compare the students’ view of the threat of communism with the views expressed in one of the following documents: 1, 2, 6, 12, or 21. How are the views different? Similar? Why might the students later be critical of the war in Vietnam? What might the students say about the way in which the Voice of America covers civil rights (Document 11) – would they approve of this coverage? How are the warnings about militarization similar to the caution offered by President Eisenhower in Document 19?