U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jim O’Brien: The Student Movement and the New Left, 1960-1969 (Part I)

[Note to readers:  “Memories of the Student Movement and the New Left in the United States, 1960-1969” is a participant-observer account of the period written in 1996 by Jim O’Brien, New Left activist, historian, and editor at New England Free Press.  Jim has graciously agreed to let us publish his manuscript here at the blog.  The manuscript is divided into five main chapters/sections, each with its own title.  The post below includes Jim’s brief prologue to the work, as well as the first chapter in its entirety.  We will publish a new chapter each week.]


Good books exist on the New Left, most of them written by or about people who were heavyweights in the movement.  My own perspective is that of a local New Left activist who was in touch with events at the national level but not really part of them.  I was one of the movement’s unofficial historians at the time, and I wrote a PhD dissertation on its origins.  In the end I was too close to the events to come up with a real analysis of where we fit into the flow of history.  I’m still not sure I can do that, but in this manuscript I’ve tried to step back a little and look at the times of great excitement that I lived through in the 1960s.

Jim O’Brien
July 1996


“The nineteen-sixties,” both literally and symbolically — meaning a decade of political insurgency — began February 1, 1960, during my freshman year in college.  That day, four young students at the all-black North Carolina A & T College sat down at a department-store lunch counter in downtown Greensboro.  They refused to leave.  Impeccably dressed in coats and ties, they stayed patiently until the police came to arrest them.  Their challenge to segregation fell like a spark in dry tinder.  Over the next few months, thousands of black students throughout the South defied Jim Crow practices in the same way.  The “sit-ins” were an extraordinary mass movement.

I lived in Minnesota, not the South.  (If I needed a reminder, I could look at the ice sheet on the inside of my dormitory window, where the radiator’s heat met the outside cold.)  But I was halfway through my first year at Carleton College, a small, academically strong co-ed liberal arts college.  I was a liberal Republican, an idealist who thought that certain things were right and others — segregation above all — were wrong.  In the spring of 1960 I took part in my first demonstration:  a big symbolic picket in downtown Minneapolis by maybe a hundred students from Carleton and from St. Olaf College, across town.  We picketed at a Woolworth’s store because black students across the South were being arrested at Woolworth lunch counters.

I didn’t feel a part of history.  I participated because some older students on the soccer team told me about it — a black African soccer player from St. Olaf had recruited them.  To me at that time, “politics” simply meant choosing individuals for office (Richard Nixon for president, for example, though I couldn’t vote for him because I wasn’t yet twenty-one).  Picketing was new to me, and it felt strange.

What I couldn’t have known was that the Woolworth pickets (they were happening nationally) had cracked the dam of 1950s apathy on northern college campuses.  The circumstances were right.  First, racial segregation — at least in its overt, official southern form — was a clear-cut issue of right vs. wrong.  Second, national ideals and U.S. government policy were opposed to segregation (the armed forces were integrated, for example).  Third, it was black college students who had taken the initiative in the sit-ins; these were our counterparts.

The pickets were a form of issue-oriented politics.  The idea was to advance a “cause,” rather than a political candidate.  It was a way of asserting direct personal responsibility for what happened in society.  Over the next couple of years, other issues joined segregation as “causes” for left-of-center activism, on our campus and others.[1]  These issues included the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a relic of cold-war witch hunting; nuclear testing in the atmosphere; and U.S. attempts to overthrow the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro in Cuba.  The Woolworth pickets launched the 1960s student movement in the North, and indirectly they launched the New Left.

My sophomore year, 1960-61, was the real turning point, both for me and for the campus.  Two older students who later became academic historians, John Miller and Jim Gilbert, helped to shake things up.  Miller, after a year out of school editing a small-town weekly in Georgia, became editor of the student weekly, the Carletonian.  He wrote in his first editorial that the function of a college paper “is to make people mad” and started by printing two articles by Jim Gilbert on his Christmastime trip to Cuba.  The articles gave a radically different picture of life in Cuba than did the mainstream media, and provoked an endless stream of letters pro and con.  Miller happily encouraged more controversy in the paper through a range of personal-opinion columns.

The Cuba debate intrigued (and threatened) me because it put American foreign policy on the table for discussion.  I had always assumed the government was making the best of whatever bad situations it was confronted with.  American policies were moral almost by definition.  Cuba shook me up — not because I instantly agreed with the critics of US policy, but because the debate offered a new, disturbing perspective on America’s role in world affairs.  The Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 made the new viewpoint seem all the more plausible.

Issues that centered on free speech and civil rights felt most comfortable to me.  Those issues seemed open-and-shut.  But with Cuba as a wedge, I looked into broader issues with more radical implications.  I listened to socialists and pacifists (as well as liberals and conservatives) who spoke as part of the student government’s Challenge program.  I started to read some left-wing authors:  a little Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and, more influentially, the angry American sociologist C. Wright Mills, who died young in 1961.  Mills argued that key decisions in the US are made by an interlocking “power elite” of higher-ups in the bureaucracy, the military, and the corporations.  Unlike Marx and Engels, Mills had no clear notion of how things could change.  He basically appealed to the consciences of intellectuals, and in my case he did a great job.  His writings helped convince me that ideals I had grown up with, ideals such as fair play, honesty, equality, and democracy, were being betrayed by the realities of twentieth-century America.

Left-of-center political activism involved a medley of radicals, liberals, and people like me who didn’t know exactly what they were.  Halfway through my junior year, still nominally a Republican, I ran for chairman of the liberal-radical Action Party and was elected — mainly because the party had just done badly in the Student Senate elections and I promised to make us more respectable.  In fact, while I was chairman we elected every candidate we ran.

In addition to Action Party, the college had a chapter of the Student Peace Union, the biggest radical campus group nationally in the early sixties.  And often an ad hoc group would spring up around a particular cause.  Taken all together, we really didn’t do much.  Sometimes we circulated petitions; less often, we demonstrated, usually in Minneapolis.  Sometimes we brought in outside speakers for the student government’s Challenge program.  Sometimes we raised funds through a “sacrifice meal”:  for every student who agreed to skip dinner in the college dining rooms that evening, the Food Service would give a dollar to whatever cause the organizers specified.  And sometimes the Student Senate (whose other functions are a blur in my mind) would be asked to pass a resolution on one or another national issue.

The milieu of a good liberal arts college encouraged “global” ideas about changing society, and I think the class composition of the student body helped nourish this kind of political interest.  Nearly everyone came from families in which the parents had also gone to college.  We took college — and the careers that college made possible — for granted.  In this we were like the activist students at the other schools that were the seedbed of the early-sixties student movement in the North.  Our backgrounds gave us, from the start, a readiness to believe that we could make a difference.[2]   When you add the heady liberal-arts atmosphere to the class backgrounds that most of us came from, it’s easy to understand how some of us picked up the idea of working to change the entire society.

The best teachers I had at Carleton both encouraged and discouraged political activism — probably without intending either one.  They fostered it in the sense that they had one foot outside American culture.  Both the smug placidity of the Eisenhower years and the go-get-‘em boosterism of the Kennedy administration left them uncommitted.  I remember in one class a student used the word Life, meaning Life magazine, and the teacher said in near-pain, “That’s not what all of us necessarily mean by `life.’“  They provided a kind of shelter for us against having to be 100 percent Americans.  At the same time, they tended to see ironies where the politically committed students saw injustices.  I never heard any of these teachers recommend doing anything politically.  The one radical social-science teacher I had, an economist, hid his politics behind a veil of sarcasm and allusion.  Only in private did his bitterness against capitalism come across directly.

The political students overlapped a little with the culturally alienated set who clustered around the campus drama group.  Those people were part neo-Bohemian, part proto-hippie — though long hair for men at that time meant shoulder-length, and I never heard of their using drugs.  They saw a stifling air of conformity at the college, embodied in such policies as “women’s hours” and the college’s vestigial rule that students had to attend a religious service or religion-related speaker’s program most weeks.  Few of them were politically active, but we saw them all as a reliable voting bloc for our Action Party candidates in student elections.

The deans of men and women were used to a family-type atmosphere in which college authorities had wide leeway to preserve the tranquility and good name of the school.  Yet the admissions policy had put them on the horns of a dilemma.  In seeking the brightest students it could attract from around the country, the admissions office was bringing in a growing number of skeptical nonconformists.  The gamble was that these men and women, as distinguished graduates, would enhance the college’s academic reputation, without upsetting the applecart too much on their way through.  The classic model — and warning — was the great maverick sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who had graced the college briefly in the late nineteenth century before running off with the president’s niece.  Nobody did that while I was there, but the student body was becoming a hotbed of individualism.

Most students were neither rebellious nor rah-rah.  Carleton was noted, above all, for intense concern with courses and grades.  A Conservative Party sometimes ran in Student Senate elections, but defensively:  they wanted the student government to ignore off-campus issues.  I don’t think most students cared what the student government did.  Only the election for student government president every February stirred excitement, mainly because it offered an escape from the midwinter Minnesota blahs.  (Even then, I remember a second-hand quote from Walt Alvarez, now a well-known geologist.  He reportedly told a candidate, “John, I hear that you’re a totally wishy-washy person who if elected will do absolutely nothing.”  The candidate started to protest, but Alvarez continued, “and on that basis I’m going to vote for you.”)  Starting in my sophomore year, the more liberal candidates always won — I think because they offered the chance of some vicarious excitement.

John F. Kennedy became president halfway through my sophomore year.  Decades after his death, I still can’t judge his impact on the student activism of the early sixties.  In my memory, he always seemed to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.  The youthful, militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee constantly chided his failure to protect civil rights workers in the Deep South.  He sent the military budget soaring out of sight.  He invaded Cuba and risked nuclear war to keep Soviet missiles out of Cuba.  He resumed nuclear testing in the atmosphere and tried to scare Americans into spending big money on fallout shelters.  And so on.  We always found Kennedy on the wrong side of our “causes” or, at best, dragging his feet.

Yet that’s only true as far as it goes.  It ignores something that springs to my mind when I think about him:  his eagerness to shape the world.  A self-consciously young president whose predecessor was (literally and figuratively) a grandfather, he radiated impatience.  “Let’s get America moving again,” he trumpeted.  He took America’s post-World War Two pre-eminence for granted, and foresaw the full achievement of greatness for his country in all areas.  His very dynamism was infectious.  I think his short presidency gave everyone — left, right, and center — permission to “think big.”

A Place in History

From the start, my radicalized civic conscience intertwined with my interest in history.  I identified myself and my fellow activists with a tradition of struggling for social justice.  My favorite American history book in college was probably Eric Goldman’s Rendezvous with Destiny.  It brought to life the American reform impulses that began in the late nineteenth century and gathered steam until the New Deal embodied many of them in law.  I sometimes envied those who lived at a time in the past when issues seemed to have been so clear.

At the same time that I looked for people in the past to identify with, I had a vague, strongly idealistic feeling that we were making history.  Issue-oriented politics seemed to be the wave of the future somehow — if enough people would really care.  A National Student Association congress I went to in 1962, as a delegate from Carleton, brought that sense out most vividly.  We met at Ohio State University in Columbus.  We sat at long tables in a giant ballroom and deliberated in the name of “American students” on issues like nuclear testing, civil rights, and academic freedom.  It was heady.  “The eyes of the international student community are on us,” one of the NSA leaders thundered in an early-morning debate over nuclear testing.[3]

Part of the feeling that we were making history — both at that NSA congress and in the student movement generally — came from the borrowed glory of the southern civil rights movement.  Leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, some of whom showed up for the congress, had immense prestige among activist students everywhere.  SNCC and the civil rights movement radiated energy.  Here were the front-line troops battling our society’s most visible evil.  They seemed to be bringing the nation to a historic crossroads:  in one direction, a historic righting of wrongs; in the other, a tragic evasion.

The NSA convention introduced me to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a loose collection of some of the most thoughtful left-of-center student activists — not much of a membership organization except at the University of Michigan.  SDS’s newly written and mimeographed “Port Huron Statement” seemed too long and imposing to read, but I met some of the SDS people such as Rennie Davis, Sharon Jeffrey, Bob Ross, Tom Hayden, and Steve Max.  They were part of the NSA’s large grouping of liberal delegates.  The campus activism of the early sixties couldn’t be carried by a single organization.  It was held together more by a mood than by an agenda.  We had an optimistic sense of new possibilities.  We saw years of political inertia giving way to a crusade for humane values in American politics.  We owed this sense of possibilities above all to the civil rights movement, which had shown the way starting with the sit-ins of the spring of 1960.  Civil rights became a metaphor standing for the whole range of issues that concerned us.  All sorts of things seemed to be on the table in the Kennedy years.  We had our own rendezvous with destiny.

On our campus, push came to shove, by the standards of the early sixties, during my senior year, 1962-63.  That year, several episodes concerning freshman traditions, the Cuban missile crisis, National Defense Education Act scholarships, use of the student union building, and open houses brought a new level of divisiveness to student politics.  They presaged the far more freewheeling, confrontational years of campus strife in the late sixties.

Freshman traditions, unquestioned my freshman year, required first-year students to wear beanies with their first names sewn in.  (“Find a girl and ask her to sew your name on,” we were told during Freshman Orientation).  We also had to do various silly things at the whim of sophomores, who in truth seldom bothered.  It never occurred to me that anything was wrong in this.  The next year’s entering class included the mule-headed John McAuliff, a tall, ungainly devotee of John Stuart Mill and classic English liberalism, who came to Carleton from suburban Indianapolis ready to defend his ideals.  He posted on a bulletin board in the student union an angry protest at freshman traditions.  Over the next two years, more and more students came to see the traditions as part of a homogenizing pressure at the college, an infringement on individual rights.  By my senior year the new freshmen got mixed messages:  they learned about the traditions, but they learned quickly enough that some students hated traditions.  Despite the pettiness of the issue, feelings ran high.  My co-sports-editor on the student weekly, Dave Beckwith (who later held the hardest job in Washington as press secretary to Vice President Dan Quayle) quit in protest after the paper ran an editorial urging freshmen not to comply with traditions.

The Cuban missile crisis came at the end of October, in the form of cryptic radio news.  The only thing that seemed clear was that the US and the Soviet Union were talking about going to war, which meant nuclear war.  Feelings ran the gamut of fright and confusion to a feeling that things would work out somehow.  On my dormitory floor John McAuliff played a Pete Seeger song full blast:  “Last night I had the strangest dream/I ever dreamed before/I dreamed the world had all agreed/To put an end to war.”  A Trotskyist friend sneered, “McAuliff thinks world peace will come by leaders talking with each other.  Peace comes through social change.”

The scariest moment in the missile crisis — one that I missed — affected a handful of students who went up to Minneapolis to join a peace rally at “the U.”  The protesters were surrounded by a much larger number of hecklers, fraternity types who howled chants such as “Gimme a W, Gimme an A, gimme an R.”  People were afraid of being beaten up.  It was the first time in Minnesota in the early sixties that a student demonstration had been threatened by violence.  But on our campus, not much happened.  The Student Peace Union chapter got up a petition against the US blockade of Cuba, but most students either viscerally supported the American government or figured that “we don’t have the facts.”  I think we got no more than eighty signatures in a student body of thirteen hundred.

The National Defense Education Act fight, also that autumn, began after the Trustees decided to participate in the NDEA scholarship program.  The scholarships had a catch:  applicants had to sign an affadavit saying they didn’t belong to any “Communist” organizations.  It was a compromise of civil liberties, and an insult to students — farmers didn’t have to sign affidavits to collect their subsidies.  The Student Senate, with some of the independents joining our Action Party delegates, voted to ask the college to withdraw.  That vote — which would have cost some students their scholarships — aroused a storm of protest.  We backtracked as best we could; the Senate passed an amended resolution which merely asked the Trustees to leave the program if they could find equally good alternative sources of scholarships.  It seemed like a good way to save face, but a special all-school meeting overruled us by about ten to one.  I felt humiliated.

The next controversy took a different turn.  Trivial though it may have been, it gave me my first glimpse at the kind of generational solidarity that became so important in the late sixties.  By my senior year, the first-floor lounge of the student union building had become the headquarters for what the dean of men called “those bearded, shoeless, long-haired guitar playing characters.”  Nobody’s hair was really all that long; they did look scruffier than the average student, but other people used the lounge too, and everybody seemed to get along.  The dean was mainly worried about what visitors would think.

One day a faculty-student committee that included the dean suddenly announced plans to rearrange furniture in the union.  The obvious though unstated purpose was to consign the scruffy set to the second-floor lounge.  A group of us decided to put out a leaflet in protest.  It was a bizarre production.  We had an old mimeograph machine but no paper — and the stores were closed.  In desperation, we took rolls of paper towels from dormitory bathrooms, forming an assembly line to pass the towels through the mimeo and cut them up into individual leaflets.  We put a copy in everyone’s campus mailbox, then posted a sign-up list for our “Ad Hoc Committee on Tolerance” on a bulletin board.  Hundreds of people signed up.  A few days later we put a paper ballot in everyone’s box, asking them to vote “yes” or “no” on rescinding the changes in the union.  The vote was overwhelmingly in our favor — twenty to one, if I remember rightly — and that was the last we heard of the plan for rearranging the union.

The last controversy didn’t resolve so neatly, but it augured the future even more.  It had to do with the college’s zealous social regulations.  During all my years there, nobody made a public issue of “women’s hours” as a form of discrimination against women, which obviously they were.  Pressure for change focused instead on open houses (monthly occasions when students in some dormitories could entertain members of the other sex for a few hours).  Most students wanted more of them.  The proposal was usually stated in terms of easing the artificial separation of the sexes, an argument which the administration tended to interpret as simply “sex.”  Toward the end of my senior year, the school paper came out with a front-page headline to the effect that “Fear of More Pregnancies Bars More Open Houses.”  This sophomoric challenge to authority freaked out the administration; starting with that issue, the college stopped mailing copies of the paper to prospective students.  It was the death knell for the deans’ old idea of the college as a family.

A common thread ran through these divisive issues, or rather, two common threads.  One was an idealistic assertion of “principle” regardless of the costs (which in the case of the NDEA scholarships would have been considerable).  The other was a restiveness in the college atmosphere, a rejection of the idea that the college should act as a substitute parent (in loco parentis was the Latin phrase that was bandied about).  Some students were simply in rebellion.  They hated the midwestern conformity that surrounded them, and regretted they had gone to Carleton.  Others like me tried to fit it all together — liked the college but tried to find in the college/student relationship a set of civil liberties issues that ran parallel to our idealistic views of national politics.

Looking back, the early 1960s were a strange time to be in college.  We were on the edge of a historical divide.  In 1969, I read an article by a Wall Street Journal reporter who went back to Carleton for his tenth reunion.  His class graduated just before mine got there.  It startled him to find how conservative most of his old classmates were — how little they had been moved by the ferment of the sixties.  I think those people got established in their post-college lives before the civil rights movement blossomed and before the Vietnam war heated up.  (The men didn’t need to worry about the draft.)

For my class, the Class of 1963, even many people who stayed away from liberal/radical politics in college were hit by all the turmoil within a few years of graduating.  I think of the football quarterback who became a radical Catholic; the conservative treasurer of the student government who was later arrested many times in anti-war and anti-nuclear protests; others who became radical teachers or filmmakers or tenant organizers.  I think of one classmate who used to write conservative opinion pieces for the student paper and who came back to speak at a Carleton convocation in 1988.  He described a lawsuit he was working on to stop the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service from spying on churches.  A student told me that his talk ended more or less like this:  “It was at Carleton that I first learned to see injustice in the world.  I know that’s happening to a lot of you too.  I hope that wherever you find it in your later lives you’ll fight it, and if you do I’ll see you in the trenches.”


[1].  Carleton was one of the predominantly white schools that were most affected by the left-of-center activism of the early 1960s.  The most important were probably Berkeley, Michigan, Cornell, and Swarthmore.  Others, besides Carleton, included Oberlin, Harvard, Yale, Antioch, Johns Hopkins, Haverford, City College of New York, and the Universities of Wisconsin, Chicago, Minnesota, and Texas.  Other schools could easily be added.  An important common denominator was that “the movement” attracted almost exclusively liberal arts students.

[2].  The Vietnam war is a good example — the civilian anti-war movement was overwhelmingly middle-class, even while opinion polls showed that blacks and working-class whites were most strongly opposed to the war.

[3].  The leadership wanted to condemn all nuclear testing in the atmosphere, while conservatives plus a few liberals such as Barney Frank of Harvard wanted to condemn Soviet testing but deplore the “need” for American testing.  I was elated when the leadership’s position won.  Nothing is ever simple, though.  The NSA’s international operations, it later turned out, were being coordinated with the CIA.  Looking back, it’s obvious that the NSA leadership needed the more radical-sounding resolution in order to keep the NSA’s credibility in international student politics.  It was four years later that Ramparts magazine broke the CIA-NSA connection.  Like countless other things I’ve heard about American foreign policy over the years, it made sense when it came out but I never would have guessed it on my own.

[Edit 3/6/17: See Part II here. Also, I have edited the prefatory remarks above to note that this history was written in 1996. – LDB]