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Student Activism in the 1930s
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    Student Movements, 1930s
    Robert Cohen

    From Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York : Oxford University Press, 1998), edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas, p. 799-802. Permission to reuse here granted, courtesy of the editors.

  1. Student organizing was one of the American Left's most successful areas of political activity during the Great Depression. Under the leadership of Communist and Socialist undergraduates, the campus activists of the 1930s built the first mass student protest movement in American history. During its peak years, from spring 1936 to spring 1939, the movement mobilized at least 500,000 collegians (about half of the American student body) in annual one-hour strikes against war. The movement also organized students on behalf of an extensive reform agenda, which included federal aid to education, government job programs for youth, abolition of the compulsory Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), academic freedom, racial equality, and collective bargaining rights.

  2. The emergence of this protest movement on the nation's campuses represented a major shift in American student politics. During the prosperous 1920s the undergraduate population-overwhelmingly middle class and affluent-had endorsed conservative Republican presidential candidates by an even larger majority than had the general electorate. But this collegiate conservatism eroded steadily as a consequence of the Great Depression. Undergraduates in the early 1930s faced hard times, with the collapse of the job market and the exhaustion of student loan funds and parental financial support. In 1932 and 1933 even the student body itself began to diminish because of the sinking economy; some eighty thousand youths who in more prosperous times would have attended college were in these years unable to enroll. The economic crisis and its growing impact on campus led students to start questioning both the logic and value of American capitalism.

  3. Capitalism's loss was the student Left's gain. Prior to the Depression, student radicalism had been in a moribund state. During the 1920s the entire American student Left had been confined to a single national organization, the Socialist-led League for Industrial Democracy (the LID, a direct descendant of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, founded in 1905 by Upton Sinclair); it had only about two thousands members out of a student population of over a million, and was demoralized because of the 1920s undergraduates' indifference and hostility to the Left. By the early 1930s, however, the Depression had increased the Left's prestige on campus because the economic crisis seemed to bear out the radicals' critique of American capitalism. Many collegians seeking to comprehend the economic crisis found that the Left alone was able to explain the Depression and offer alternatives to the faltering capitalist system. In this changed political atmosphere, the LID not only began to grow, but also for the first time faced competition from the Left, with the emergence in 1931 of the Communist-led National Student League (NSL).

  4. The founding of the NSL changed the political style of student radicalism. The NSL prodded the campus left to become more militant and action-oriented. Where the pre-Depression LID had focused primarily on education and the formation of study groups to discuss radical ideas, the NSL emphasized agitation and the building of a mass student protest movement. The NSL argued that students could be radicalized most effectively not through abstract discussions, but through political organizing drives focusing on issues of concern to the student body. Under the NSL's influence the LID also began to sound more radical. The campus LID emphasized its interest in building a militant student protest movement by changing its name to the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) and by temporarily renaming its national magazine (the LID News Bulletin) Revolt.

  5. This more militant approach to student organizing paid off politically as the NSL obtained an unprecedented degree of press attention in its early campaigns. The first action of the 1930s campus Left to make national headlines was the NSL-sponsored student delegation to Kentucky's strike-torn coal region in March 1932. Kentucky police and vigilantes assaulted the delegation to prevent it from bringing food and clothing to the impoverished miners, and to halt its investigation of alleged coal company and police brutalization of the strikers. This assault kept the delegation from reaching the Harlan miners, but it also provoked indignation on campus: more than three thousand students nationwide sent letters and telegrams of protest. The publicity surrounding this incident helped provoke a Senate investigation of conditions in the coal region. This was regarded as a significant victory by the NSL because it seemed to prove that students could assist workers victimized by the Depression and have some national political impact.

  6. Within a few weeks of the Harlan delegation the student Left was again attracting national attention. This time the issue was free speech. Columbia University had expelled student newspaper editor Reed Harris because he repeatedly criticized the campus administration and supported the new student activism. The NSL led a student strike and free speech campaign on behalf of Harris, which won his reinstatement. The stream of good news continued for the student Left through autumn 1932 as the LID and the Young People's Socialist League ran a national campus campaign on behalf of Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas. This campaign helped spread the organizational presence of student radicalism across the country, and—according to college straw polls—won Thomas the endorsement of eighteen percent of the student body, a far higher level of support than he was able to obtain from the general electorate.

  7. Soon after the economic crisis breathed life into the student Left, the rising crisis in international relations gave campus radicalism an even greater boost. Observing Hitler's ascension to power in 1933, Japan's invasion of Manchuria, and Mussolini's belligerent fascism, American students became increasingly worried that a new world war was in the making. These anxieties were compounded by the widespread disillusionment with the First World War. Influenced by the revisionist scholarship on the causes of the Great War, anti-war novels and movies, and by the Nye Committee investigation, many students were convinced that the United States had gone to war in 1917 to serve plutocracy rather than democracy; they believed that Wilson's lofty rhetoric had hidden the fact that America had entered the war to safeguard the profit margins of bankers and munitions makers. A strong anti-war mood took root on campus, as students grew determined to prevent the United States from again being misled into a bloody foreign crusade.

  8. This anti-war atmosphere enabled the student Left to make rapid progress in building a national campus peace movement. The building process began in December 1932, with the NSL-sponsored Chicago Antiwar Conference, a relatively nonsectarian affair that brought Communist, Socialist, pacifist, and liberal student activists together around a common anti-war program-advocating Campus demonstrations and anti-ROTC campaigns. These anti-war activists received aid from their British counterparts in 1933, when students at Oxford University made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic by endorsing a pacifist pledge refusing to fight "for King and country." Recognizing an exciting protest tactic when they saw one, student activists in the United States adopted an Americanized version of the Oxford Pledge, in which students declared that they would "refuse to Support the government of the United States in any war it might undertake." By autumn 1933 this pledge had been taken by students at anti-war conferences across the United States, and a national poll found thirty-nine percent of the American student body endorsing the pledge (with an additional thirty-three percent saying that they would take up arms only if the United States was invaded).

  9. At a time when the adult Left was still weakened by bitter sectarian rivalries, the student Left was pioneering a more cooperative and effective approach to political organizing. The NSL and SLID worked together on anti-war campaigns. As early as 1933 the NSL had proposed a merger with the SLID. Though the SLID turned down this offer, the two groups jointly sponsored the first national strike against war in April 1934. This strike consisted of a one-hour boycott of classes, and anti-war demonstrations; it was held on the anniversary of U.S. entry into World War 1. The strike day was selected to emphasize the students' desire to prevent a repetition of the interventionism of 1917. The strike drew some twenty-five thousand students, which though only a minority of the national student body, nonetheless drew great press attention because the anti-war walkout was to that point the largest student protest in American history.

  10. The student strike mushroomed into an annual mass protest, as the NSL and SLID extended their Popular Front style of anti-war organizing beyond the Left to religious and liberal groups. In 1935 the NSL and SLID convinced the National Council of Methodist Youth, the Interseminary Movement, and regional branches of the National Student Federation and campus Young Women's and Young Men's Christian Associations to act as cosponsors of the second annual strike against war. This broader sponsorship expanded the peace walkout. Some 175,000 students participated in the 1935 strike. The success of their joint anti-war efforts drew the NSL and SLID closer together, and as the danger of international fascism grew, so did their unity: the two groups merged into the American Student Union (ASU) in December 1935. Strengthened by this merger, the campus antiwar strike of 1936 drew an estimated 500,000 student participants. The ASU soon became the largest student activist organization in the nation's history, with some twenty thousand members.

  11. As student peace agitation grew more effective so did the movement's drive to aid youth who had been victimized by the Depression. Having originated the idea of federal student aid in the Hoover years, the student movement during the mid-1930s used its national federation and lobby, the American Youth Congress (founded in 1934), to champion job programs for low-income students and unemployed youth. The Youth Congress initially advocated passage of its own aid bill, the American Youth Act, which would have gone much further than the New Deal in assisting needy youth. Though this bill never passed, the Youth Congress proved so effective in making the case for federal student aid that the Roosevelt administration repeatedly enlisted the Youth Congress's support in staving off Republican efforts to cut the National Youth Administration's aid programs. The movement's activism on behalf of domestic reform also included free speech fights on many campuses, support work for the Congress of Industrial Organizations' blue-collar organizing, the establishment of campus cooperatives and student labor unions, and campaigns against racial segregation in college area stores, services, recreational facilities, athletic teams, and in university admissions. Black Communist veterans of the student movement went on to establish a regional civil rights group, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (founded in 1937), which battled Jim Crow below the Mason-Dixon line.

  12. The student movement unity cracked in the late 1930s as a result of shifts in both the international situation and the Comintern line. During the Spanish Civil War, liberal and Communist students watched in horror as the neutrality legislation that the student movement had endorsed in the early 1930s was used by the Roosevelt administration to embargo the Spanish Republic—paving the way for the fascist triumph there; they concluded that isolationism and the Oxford Pledge would be useless against fascist aggression. Thus the ASU dropped the Oxford Pledge and embraced collective security in winter 1937, but in the process alienated pacifist, isolationist, Trotskyist, and left-wing socialist students. These alienated groups founded their own national organization, the Youth Committee against War (YCAW), which clung to the Oxford Pledge and isolationism. This split was not fatal because most of the student population shifted with the ASU away from isolationism—leaving the YCAW with less than a thousand members. But the ASU was now left without a socialist faction to offset Communist influence.

  13. The consequences of this loss were not immediately apparent, since in both 1938 and the first half of 1939 the ASU's Communist and liberal students were united on a Popular Front antifascist platform During this period the student movement became even larger and more attractive to liberals because the ASU, in line with the Communist Party's shift rightward, grew more pro-Roosevelt-supporting both the president's domestic reform programs and his "quarantine the aggressor" foreign policy, on the grounds that such support bolstered antifascist unity.

  14. The negative impact of Communist dominance in the ASU became evident after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. Following the new Comintern line, the Communists drove Popular Front liberals out of the ASU's leadership, and forced the organization to drop its militant antifascism in favor of an isolationist "Yanks Are Not Coming" position. This flip-flop and the ASU's refusal to criticize the Soviet Invasion of Finland alienated most students, and led to the collapse of both the ASU and the student movement in 1940-1941.


    Cohen, Robert. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Draper, Hal. "The Student Movement of the Thirties: A Political History." In As We Saw the Thirties, edited by Rita Simon. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969.

    Pagan, Eileen. Class, Culture and the Classroom: The Student Peace Movement of the 1930s. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

    Peterson, Patti. "The Young Socialist Movement in America from 1905 to 1940: A Study of the Young People's Socialist League." Ph. D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1974.

    Phelps, Marianne Beth. "The Response of Higher Education to Student Activism, 1933-1938." Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1980.

    Rawick, George. "The New Deal and Youth: The Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration and the American Youth Congress." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1957.


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