December 1, 2015
Tom Hayden’s New Port Huron Statement
Posted on Apr 10, 2006
By Tom Hayden
The Port Huron Strategy of Radical Reform
If the vision of participatory democracy has continuing relevance, so too does the strategic analysis of radical reform at the heart of the PHS. Our critique of the Cold War, and liberals who became anti-communist Cold Warriors, bears close resemblance to the contemporary war on terror and its liberal Democratic defenders. The Cold War, like today’s war on terror, was the organized framework of dominance over our lives. This world was bipolar, divided into good and evil, allies and enemies. The U.S.-led Cold War alliance included any dictators, mafias or thieving politicians in the world who declared themselves anti-communist. The Cold War alliance scorned the 70-plus nonaligned nations as soft-on-communism. The U.S. and its allies engaged in violence or subversion against any governments that included communist or “pro-communist” participation, even if they were democratically elected, like Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1970). Domestically, the American communists who had helped build the industrial unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the defense of the Scottsboro Boys and the racial integration of major league baseball, who had joined the war against Hitler, suddenly found themselves purged or blacklisted as “un-American” for the very pro-Soviet sympathies that had been popular during World War II. 
Of course the “threat” of violence is not imaginary. Raging militants have attacked innocent Americans and are likely to do so again. Our government’s $30-billion intelligence budget failed to stop them. But those who question the current military priorities or dare to speak of root causes—addressing the abject misery and poverty of billions of people that contributed to the growth of communism in the past or Islamic militancy today—are dismissed too often as enemy sympathizers or softheaded pacifists who cannot be trusted with questions of national security (“sentimentalists, the utopians, the wailers,” historian Arthur Schlesinger called them during the Cold War.  Today they are accused of “blaming America first” by critics ranging from neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick to onetime SDS leader Todd Gitlin.  ) During the Cold War the CIA routinely funded a covert class of liberal anti-communists everywhere, from the American Committee for Cultural Freedom to the AFL-CIO to the U.S. National Student Association.  There is a direct line, even a genealogical one, from the leaders of those groupings, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, to their neoconservative descendants like William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and John Podhoretz, from the 1940s celebration of “the American Century” to today’s neoconservative project the Committee on the New American Century. As for the definition of “the enemy,” during the Cold War it was a conspiracy centralized in Moscow and operated through a myriad of puppet regimes and parties; today it is Al Qaeda, an invisible network consolidated and controlled by Osama bin Laden and a handful of conspirators.
The Port Huron Statement properly dissociated itself from the Soviet Union and communist ideology, just as antiwar critics today are critical of Al Qaeda’s religious fundamentalism and terror against civilians. But the PHS broke all taboos by identifying the Cold War itself as the framework that blocked our aspirations. As a result, SDS was accused of being insufficiently “anti-communist” by some of its patrons in the older liberal-left who had been deeply devoted to the liberal anti-communist crusade. 
Square, Site wide
The truth lay in contrasting generational experiences: We were inspired by the civil rights movement, by the hope of ending poverty, with the gap between democratic promise and inequality as reality. The Cold War focused our nation’s attention and its budget priorities outward on enemies abroad rather than the enemies in our face at home. The nuclear arms race and permanent war economy drained any resources that could be devoted to ending poverty or hunger, either at home or among the wretched of the Earth. Most, not all, of the liberal establishment, the people we had looked up to, left behind their idealistic roots and became allied with the military-industrial complex. Today a similar transition has occurred within the Democratic Party’s establishment. Despite their roots in civil rights and anti-poverty programs, members of that establishment have become devotees of a corporate agenda, promoting the privatization of public assets from Latin America to the Middle East, creating the undemocratic World Trade Organization, whose rules taken literally would define the New Deal as a “restraint on trade.” With the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many of the same liberals have abandoned their pasts in the anti-Vietnam movement or the Eugene McCarthy, Kennedy and McGovern campaigns, to help pass the Patriot Act, invade Afghanistan and Iraq, justify the use of torture and detention without trial and expand the Big Brother national security apparatus, while leaving the U.S. at the bottom among industrialized countries in its contributions to United Nations programs to combat hunger, illiteracy and drinking water pollution. Consistent with the Cold War era, any politician who questions these priorities, even a decorated war veteran, will be castigated as soft on terrorism and effectively threatened with political defeat. 
The Port Huron Statement called for a coalescing of social movements: civil rights, peace, labor, liberals and students. It was an original formulation at the time, departing from the centrality of organized labor, or the working class, that had governed the left for decades, and again causing some of our elders to grind their teeth. The statement reaffirmed that labor was crucial to any movement for social change, while chastising the labor “movement” for having become “stale.” The Port Huron vision was far more populist, more middle class, more quality-of-life in orientation than the customary platforms of the left. The election of an Irish Catholic president in 1960 symbolized the assumed assimilation of the white ethnics into the middle class, and offered hope that people of color would follow in turn. The goal of racial integration was little questioned. Women had not begun to challenge patriarchy. Environmentalism had yet to assault the metaphysic of “growth.” And so we could envision unifying nearly everyone around fulfillment of the New Deal dream. The Port Huron Statement connected issues not like a menu, not as gestures to diverse identity movements, but more seamlessly, by declaring that the civil rights, anti-poverty and peace movements could realize their dreams by refocusing America’s attention on an unfulfilled domestic agenda instead of the Cold War.
The document contained an explicit electoral strategy as well, envisioning the “realignment” of the Democratic Party into a progressive instrument. The strategy was to undermine the racist “Dixiecrat” element of the party through the Southern civil rights movement and its national support network. The Dixiecrats dominated not only the segregationist political economy of the South but the crucial committees on military spending in Congress. The racists also were the hawks. By undermining the Southern segregationists, we could weaken the institutional supports for greater military spending and violent anti-communism. The party thus would “realign” as white Southerners defected to the Republicans, black Southerners registered as Democrats and the national party retained its New Deal liberal leanings. Through realignment, some of us dreamed, a radical-liberal governing coalition could achieve political power in America—in our lifetime, through our work.
This is the challenge which SDS took on: to argue against “unreasoning anti-Communism,” to demand steps toward arms reductions and disarmament, to channel the trillions spent on weapons toward ending poverty in the world and at home. It was the kind of inspired thinking of which the young are most often capable, but it also was relevant to the times. After Port Huron, Haber and I traveled to the White House to brief Arthur Schlesinger on our work, hoping to spark a dialogue about the new movements. There was a handful of liberal White House staffers like Harris Wofford and Richard Goodwin who seemed to take an interest. Also, we had funds from and the goodwill of Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers (whose top assistant, Mildred Jeffrey, happened to be the mother of Sharon Jeffrey, an Ann Arbor SDS activist).
History has completely ignored, or forgotten, how close we came to implementing this main vision of the Port Huron Statement. President John Kennedy and his counterparts in Moscow were considering a historic turn away from the Cold War arms race, sentiments the president would express quite boldly just before he was killed. At a time when his generals sought a first-strike policy, Kennedy promoted a nuclear test ban treaty and offered a vision beyond the Cold War in August 1963, three months before the assassination. At the same time, Kennedy’s positions on civil rights and poverty were rapidly evolving as well. At first the Kennedys had been taken aback by the Freedom Riders, with Attorney General Robert Kennedy wondering aloud whether we had “the best interest of the country at heart” or were providing “good propaganda for America’s enemies.”  President Kennedy is heard on White House tapes calling the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its chairman, future U.S. Rep. John Lewis ,  “sons of bitches.”  “The problem with you people,” he once snapped, [is that] you want too much too fast.”  In this sense, the Kennedys were reflecting, not shaping, the mood of the country. Sixty-three percent of Americans opposed the Freedom Rides that preceded Port Huron. The New York Times opined that “nonviolence that deliberatively provokes violence is a logical contradiction.” President Kennedy, who at first opposed the March on Washington as too provocative politically, finally changed his mind and welcomed the civil rights leadership to the White House. By the time of his assassination, he and his brother Bobby almost were becoming “brothers” in the eyes of the civil rights leadership. In addition to their joint destiny with the civil rights cause, President Kennedy was sparking a public interest in attacking poverty, having read and recommended Mike Harrington’s “The Other America.” One of the original plans for the War on Poverty, according to a biography of Sargent Shriver, was “empowering the poor to agitate against the local political structure for institutional reform,” which would have aligned the administration closely, perhaps too closely, with SNCC and SDS community organizers. 
For Kennedy truly to address poverty and racism in a second term would have required a turn away from the nuclear arms race and the budding U.S. counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy suggested as much in a 1964 interview: “For the first few years ... [JFK] had to concentrate all his energies ... on foreign affairs. He thought that a good deal more needed to be done domestically. The major issue was the question of civil rights…. Secondly, he thought that we really had to begin to make a major effort to deal with unemployment and the poor in the United States.”  Despite efforts by today’s neoconservatives to portray Kennedy as a Cold War hawk, the preponderance of evidence is that he intended to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam by 1965. Two days before his murder, for example, his administration announced plans to withdraw 1,000 to 1,300 troops from South Vietnam. But two days after his death, on Nov. 24, a covert plan was adopted in National Security Memorandum 273, which authorized secret operations, “graduated in intensity,” against North Vietnam. 
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the first of several catastrophic murders that changed all our lives, and the trajectory of events imagined at Port Huron. The dates must be kept in mind: Most of us were about 21 years old in June 1962. An idealistic social movement was exploding, winning attention from a new administration. Just as we hoped, the March on Washington made race and poverty the central moral issues facing the country and the peace movement would hear a president pledging to end the Cold War—and then a murder derailed the new national direction. I was about to turn 24 when Kennedy was killed. The experience will forever shadow the meaning of the ‘60s. The very concept of a presidential assassination was completely outside my youthful expectations for the future. No matter what history may reveal about the murder, the feeling was chillingly inescapable that the sequence of the president’s actions on the Cold War and racism led shortly to his death. The subsequent assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968 permanently derailed what remained of the hopes that were born at Port Huron. Whether one thinks the murders were conspiracies or isolated accidents, the effect was to destroy the progressive political potential of the ‘60s and leave us all as “might-have-beens,” in the phrase of the late Jack Newfield.
Hope died slowly and painfully. There still was hope in the year following President Kennedy’s murder—for example, in the form of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the most important organized embodiment of the Port Huron hope for political realignment. Organized by SNCC in 1963-64, the MFDP was a grass-roots Democratic Party led by Mississippi’s dispossessed blacks, seeking recognition from the national Democratic Party at its 1964 convention in Atlantic City. The MFDP originated in November 1963, the very month of the Kennedy assassination, when 90,000 blacks in Mississippi risked their lives to set up a “freedom vote” to protest their exclusion from the political process. Then came Freedom Summer 1964, which included the kidnapping and murders of James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at first suggested that the missing activists had staged their own disappearance to inflame tensions, or that perhaps these three might have gotten rather fresh.” 
Next, just before the Democratic convention, on Aug. 2, the U.S. fabricated a provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin that expanded the Vietnam War along the lines suggested in NSM 273 (“a very delicate subject,” according to Pentagon chief Robert McNamara).  President Lyndon B. Johnson drafted his war declaration on Aug. 4, the same day the brutalized bodies of the three civil rights workers were found in a Mississippi swamp. On Aug. 9, at a memorial service in a burned-out church, SNCC leaders questioned why the U.S. government was declaring war on Vietnam but not on racism at home. On Aug. 20, Johnson announced the official “war on poverty” with an appropriation of less than one billion dollars while signing a military appropriation 50 times greater.  The war on poverty, the core of the Port Huron generation’s demand for new priorities, was dead on arrival. The theory, held by historian William Appleman Williams among others, that foreign policy crises were exploited to deflect America’s priorities away from racial and class tensions, seemed to be vindicated before our eyes.
Johnson was plotting to use the party’s leading liberals, many of them sympathetic to the fledgling SDS, to undermine the civil rights challenge from the Mississippi Freedom Democrats three weeks after the Tonkin Gulf incident. Hubert Humphrey was assigned the task, apparently to test his loyalty to Johnson before being offered the vice presidential slot. He lectured the arriving Freedom delegation that the president would “not allow that illiterate woman [an MFDP leader, Fannie Lou Hamer] to speak from the floor of the convention.”  Worse, the activists were battered by one of their foremost icons, the UAW’s Walter Reuther, who was flown by private jet to quell the freedom challenge; he told Humphrey and others that “we can reduce the opposition to this to a microscopic fraction so they’ll be completely unimportant.”  White House tapes show clearly that Johnson thought the Freedom Democrats would succeed if the matter was put to a convention vote.
This became a turning point between those who tried bringing their morality to politics, not politics to their morality, said Bob Moses, then a central figure for both SNCC and SDS. It was so intense that Humphrey broke down and cried. At one point, LBJ stole off to bed in the afternoon, vowing for 24 hours to quit the presidency.  The Mississippi Freedom Democrats and the hopes of the early ‘60s were crushed once again, this time not by the clubs of Southern police but the hypocrisy of liberalism. If Johnson had incorporated the Mississippi Freedom delegation, we believed, he still could have defeated Barry Goldwater that November and hastened the political realignment we stood for. But the possibility of transformation evaporated. In the resulting vacuum, the first Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was born in Lowndes County, Ala., in response to the rejection of the MFDP. Only days after the convention, while Johnson was mouthing the words “no wider war,” his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, was suggesting that “substantial armed forces” would be sent. 
That fall, the Port Huron generation of SDS met in New York to ponder the options. Just two years before, the war in Vietnam seemed so remote that it barely was noted in the PHS. Some of us, following the SNCC model and convinced that realignment was underway, had moved to inner cities to begin organizing a broad coalition of the poor, under the name Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). Others were excited about the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and prospects for campus rebellion. Still others were planning protests if the Vietnam War should escalate. Amid great apprehension, the SDS national council adopted the slogan, “Part of the Way With LBJ.” While the president vowed never to send America’s young men to fight a land war in Southeast Asia, on election day itself the plans for expanding the war were being drafted by the White House.  By springtime, 150,000 young American men were dispatched to war. In May, SDS led the largest antiwar protest in decades in Washington, D.C. But it was too late to stop the machine. Having learned that assassinations could change history, our generation now began to learn that official lies were packaged as campaign promises.
The utopian period of Port Huron was over, less than three years after the statement was issued. The vision would flicker on but never recover amid the time of radicalization and polarization ahead. Since the Democratic Party had failed the MFDP and launched the Vietnam War, those favoring an electoral strategy were frustrated and marginalized. Resistance grew in the form of urban insurrections, GI mutinies, draft card burnings, building takeovers and bombings. Renewed efforts at reforming the system, like the 1967-68 Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign, helped to unseat LBJ but failed to capture the Democratic nomination. RFK was the last politician who rekindled the hopes of realizing the vision of Port Huron, not only with interest in anti-poverty programs and his gradual questioning of Vietnam, but most eloquently with his 1967 speech challenging the worth of the gross national product (GNP) as a measure of well-being. I supported his candidacy, attended his funeral, and finally embraced the death of hope and the birth of rage. After Richard Nixon’s election, I was convicted with the so-called Chicago Eight of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, a judicial process that ended in acquittal in 1972. By then, the long-awaited political realignment was partly underway, starting with Sen. George McGovern’s presidential 1972 campaign, then leading to the ascension of Southern liberals like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Andrew Young and John Lewis to national power. But by that time it was too late to keep white Southern voters in the Democratic Party with populist economic promises. The threat to their Southern white traditions drove them into the Republican Party. It was Nixon’s strategy of realignment that prevailed. 
The importance of the mid-1960s turning points, however, is missed by most historians of the era, who tend to blame SDS for “choosing” to become more radical, sectarian, dogmatic and violent, as if there was no context for the evolution of our behavior. Garry Wills, whose book “Nixon Agonistes” extolled the Port Huron Statement, later accused the young radicals of having prolonged the Vietnam War.  In his view, the movement should have practiced constructive nonviolence like Dr. King’s, an approach that aimed at gaining national acceptance. This analysis ignores the fact that Dr. King himself was becoming radicalized by 1966, and starting to despair of nonviolence. Liberal bastions like the New York Times editorially blasted him for speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967. His murder and that of Robert Kennedy stoked violent passions among many of the young. Wills also writes that it was easier to unite Americans against the manifest evil of racism than against the Vietnam War, in which, he believes, “the establishment was not so manifestly evil.”  But for our generation, the fact of the U.S. government dropping more bombs on Vietnam than it did everywhere during World War II, while lying to those it was conscripting, was a manifest evil. Wills writes that the police simply “lost their heads” in Chicago, as if the beating and gassing of more than 60 journalists was somehow “provoked.” Wills complains too that his classes at Johns Hopkins were interrupted by student bomb threats, not an easy disruption to accept, but not different from the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins that disrupted the normalcy of innocent (white) people. Wills laments that “civil disobedience had degenerated into terrorism,”  without acknowledging the causes or the fact that violent rebellions were taking place in both the armed forces and American ghettos and barrios at an unprecedented rate. Were the student radicals to blame for this turn toward confrontation, or was it explainable by the failure of an older generation to complete the reforms begun in the early ‘60s instead of invading Vietnam? As Wills himself wrote in his 1969 book, “the generation gap is largely caused by elders who believe they have escaped it.” 
Similarly, some still believe that the election of Hubert Humphrey in 1968 would have ended the Vietnam War and restored liberalism as a majority coalition. Who is to say? Humphrey remains an icon for an older generation of liberals to this day. For the Port Huron generation of SDS and SNCC, however, he remains the symbol of how liberalism, driven by opportunism, chose Vietnam over the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. Whichever of these views is chosen, the forgotten fact is that Humphrey probably would have won the 1968 election if he had taken an independent antiwar stand. In late October, Nixon led 44% to 36% in voter surveys. With the election one week away, the U.S. ordered a bombing halt and offered talks. On Nov. 2, both the Gallup and Harris polls showed Nixon’s lead shaved to 42%-40%. According to historian Theodore White, “had peace become quite clear, in the last three days of the election of 1968, Hubert Humphrey would have won the election.”  The final result was Nixon 43.4%, Humphrey 42.7%, a margin of 0.7. Would Humphrey have ended the war? Perhaps; perhaps not. But there is no single factor that causes a loss by less than one percentage point. Anyone who magnifies the blame directed against one group or another is indulging in self-interested scapegoating. 
There is no doubt that many of us, myself certainly included, evolved from nonviolent direct action to acceptance of self-defense or street fighting against the police and authorities by the decade’s end. On the day the Chicago defendants were convicted, for example, there were several hundred riots in youth communities and on college campuses across the country, including the burning of a Bank of America by university students in Isla Vista, Calif. No one could have ordered this behavior; it was the spontaneous response of hundreds of thousands of young people to the perceived lack of effectiveness of either politics or nonviolence. A Gallup poll in the late ‘60s showed 1 million university students identifying themselves as “revolutionary.”  What many fail to ask is where it all began, where the responsibility lay for causing this massive alienation among college students, inner-city residents and grunts in the U.S. military. It is convenient to accuse the teenagers and twentysomethings in the ‘60s of “losing their heads,” unlike the heavily armed and professionally trained Chicago police, who knew their “riot” would be approved by their mayor. “Vietnam undid the New Left,” Wills writes, because it “blurred the original aims” of the SDS.  One wishes in this case that Wills had dwelt on how Vietnam undid America.
When the period we know as “the 60s” finally ended—from exhaustion, infighting, FBI counterintelligence programs  and, most of all, from success in ending the Vietnam War and pushing open doors to the mainstream—I turned my energies increasingly toward electoral politics, eventually serving 18 years in the California Legislature, chairing policy committees on labor, higher education, and the environment. This was not so much a “zigzag”  as an effort to act as an outsider on the inside. It was consistent with the original vision of Port Huron, but played itself out during a time of movement decline or exhaustion. The lessons for me were contradictory. On the one hand, there was much greater space to serve movement goals on the inside than I had imagined in 1962; one could hold press conferences, hire activist staff, call watchdog hearings with subpoena power, and occasionally pass far-reaching legislation (divestment from South Africa, anti-sweatshop guidelines, endangered-species laws, billions for conservation, etc.). Perhaps the most potent opportunities were insurgent political campaigns themselves, raising new issues in the public arena and politicizing thousands of new activists in each cycle. On the other hand, there was something impenetrable about the system of power as a whole. The state had permanent, neo-Machiavellian interests of its own, deflecting or absorbing any democratic pressures that became too threatening. The state served and brokered a wider constellation of private corporate and professional interests that expected profitable investment opportunities and law-and-order, when needed, against dissidents, radicals or the angry underclass. These undemocratic interests could reward or punish politicians through their monopoly of campaign contributions, media campaigns and, ultimately, capital flight. The absence of a multiparty system with solidly progressive electoral districts was another factor in producing compromised and centrist outcomes. I think of those two decades in elected office as an honorable interlude, carrying forward or protecting the gains of one movement while waiting for others to begin, as happened with the anti-sweatshop and anti-WTO campaigns in the late 1990s.
New and Improved Comments
This month, we're marking 10 years of uncompromising, challenging and truly independent journalism here at Truthdig.
Help us celebrate — and set our sights even higher — over the next decade by counting among our network of Truthdig supporters.
SUPPORT TRUTHDIG Thank you!