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Students for a Democratic Society, “Port Huron Statement,” 1962

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this primary source to supplement the Students and the Anti-War Movement Narrative and have students further explore the text of the Port Huron Statement created by Students for a Democratic Society.


In 1962, the recently formed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) met at Port Huron, Michigan. Under the leadership of University of Michigan student Tom Hayden, SDS delegates drafted a declaration of purposes, or manifesto, known as the “Port Huron Statement.” The “Port Huron Statement” reflects the dissatisfaction and disillusionment many young people felt in the 1960s. The authors described their frustrations with the world they inherited and how it could be improved. The “Port Huron Statement” became the ideological basis of the New Left, and college campuses became centers for protest throughout the decade. Mississippi Freedom Summer and President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War gave SDS a recruitment boost: by 1968, SDS had grown to 100,000 members. By the end of the decade, SDS splintered into several groups. The actions of its most radical and violent fringe, known as the Weathermen, discredited the early idealism set forth in the “Port Huron Statement.”

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document and what was their purpose?
  2. What major events were going on in the United States when the document was written?

Vocabulary Text
Introduction: Agenda for a Generation
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.
complacency (n): a feeling of self-satisfaction or security when unaware of potential danger 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. . . .
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.
We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers under nourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than “of, by, and for the people.”. . .
The University and Social Change
There is perhaps little reason to be optimistic about the above analysis. . . . From where else can power and vision be summoned? We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.
First, the university is located in a permanent position of social influence. Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. Second, in an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for organizing, evaluating and transmitting knowledge. Third, the extent to which academic resources presently are used to buttress immoral social practice is revealed, first, by the extent to which defense contracts make the universities engineers of the arms race. Too, the use of modern social science as a manipulative tool reveals itself in the “human relations” consultants to the modern corporations, who introduce trivial sops to give laborers feelings of “participation” or “belonging,” while actually deluding them in order to further exploit their labor. And, of course, the use of motivational research is already infamous as a manipulative aspect of American politics. But these social uses of the universities’ resources also demonstrate the unchangeable reliance by men of power on the men and storehouses of knowledge: this makes the university functionally tied to society in new ways, revealing new potentialities, new levers for change. Fourth, the university is the only mainstream institution that is open to participation by individuals of nearly any viewpoint.
These, at least, are facts, no matter how dull the teaching, how paternalistic the rules, how irrelevant the research that goes on. Social relevance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness— these together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.
adjunct (adj): connected or adjacent to something Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.

  • A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.
  • A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.
  • A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.
  • A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.
  • A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social, and economic sources of their private troubles, and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency, and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.
But we need not indulge in illusions: the university system cannot complete a movement of ordinary people making demands for a better life. From its schools and colleges across the nation, a militant left might awaken its allies, and by beginning the process towards peace, civil rights, and labor struggles, reinsert theory and idealism where too often reign confusion and political barter. The power of students and faculty united is not only potential; it has shown its actuality in the South, and in the reform movements of the North.
The bridge to political power, though, will be built through genuine cooperation, locally, nationally, and internationally, between a new left of young people and an awakening community of allies. In each community we must look within the university and act with confidence that we can be powerful, but we must look outwards to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice. . . .
As students for a democratic society, we are committed to stimulating this kind of social movement, this kind of vision and program in campus and community across the country. If we appear to seek the unattainable, as it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What two events roused the students from their complacency? Why are they paradoxes?
  2. List the other paradoxes the country faces.
  3. What is the major problem with the democratic system, according to this manifesto?
  4. Why is the university the best place for social change to begin?
  5. How will political change be achieved, according to this statement?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. To what extent is the “Port Huron Statement” a rejection of the previous generation’s political, social, and economic values? Explain your answer.
  2. Do you think the role of students and universities in demanding change has changed since the writing of this document? Explain.

“Port Huron Statement”