Skip to content Skip to footer

The FBI and the Shattering of Students for a Democratic Society

(Image: JR / TO)

This past August, when protests in response to the police killing of Michael Brown did not abate after the first few days, instead attracting forces such as the New Black Panthers and the Revolutionary Communist Party, first the right-wing blogosphere, then other media, started reporting on “outside agitators.” What was remarkable – leaving aside what one thinks of the particular actors being “outed” – was the way such media seemed focused on and effectively worked to undermine, a certain kind of protest. Such press behavior in Missouri along with such things as revelations of spying on Muslim-American leaders, the making an example of Occupy activist Cecily McMillan, and other such repressive phenomenon, point to the omnipresence in 2014 of ubiquitous police-state measures in play. Sometimes covert, sometimes just the normal operation of things, they are an expression of a repressive terrain that has become effectively a way of life for anyone seen to be standing on the wrong side of the dominant authority. They are, however, manifestations not without precedent. In that respect a look back to an earlier time, the experience of the breaking apart of the largest radical student organization of the 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), is instructive.

SDS’s roots lay in the early 20th century America Student League for Industrial Democracy, the student arm of the League for Industrial Democracy. (1) This was an organization mainly focused on socialist and progressive education, founded by Norman Thomas, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and other socialists of the turn of the century United States. (2) In 1960, in an effort to broaden its appeal, it changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society and issued its famous Port Huron Statement – after the site in Michigan where it was issued. Drafted during a particularly dark period of the Cold War, it was a broad call for students to step into activism, ending with the clarion call, “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” (3)

While initially not sharply radical, its name embodying its overall sensibility, by 1969 that was no longer the case. The group, in the view of the FBI, had “evolved from civil rights struggles to an anti-Vietnam war stance to an advocacy of a militant anti-imperialist position.” (4) Correspondingly, it contained an array of different organizations vying for influence within it – from Trotskyists, anarchists and pro-Soviet communists, to Maoists. The latter found organizational expression in two groups: the Progressive Labor Party and the small and newly formed, Revolutionary Union. These two in turn, would figure prominently in the Bureau’s efforts against the group.

Of the two, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP or just PL), was the older and more established. Founded by ex-Communist Party USA members in the wake of Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev’s denunciation of Josef Stalin in 1956, it had attempted to revitalize revolutionary communism in the early and mid-1960s. By 1969 however, it was taking positions contrary to where the larger movement was at – refusing to support the Black Panther Party and the National Liberation Front in Vietnam because of their perceived “bourgeois nationalism.” (5) To compound things, the group, which had previously been supported by the Chinese Communist Party, would soon denounce Mao Zedong as a “revisionist,” (6) ending its relationship with China. In 1969, however, it still had a significant organization, which it was using to try and dominate SDS, particularly through its Worker Student Alliance (WSA).

The Bureau had a much more vital source inside the emerging organization, an informant sitting on the RU’s executive committee, the leading body of a group that at the time consisted of less than two-dozen members.

The Revolutionary Union (then known as the Bay Area Revolutionary Union) by contrast, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Black Panthers, with whom they had extensive relations, particularly through their work in the Peace and Freedom Party (a radical alternative to the Democratic Party). The RU, while late to the SDS table, had made a positive impact when a few of its members attended the SDS meeting in Austin, Texas, in March 1969. As an FBI informant working inside the RU would later report, the national SDS leaders had read the RU’s, “anti-brainwash paper and felt that this was an excellent paper and should be published without any changes.” (7) Even the Trotskyist International Socialist Club conceded that, “The handful of RU members who showed up at the Austin meeting for all intents and purposes walked away with it.” (8)

The Bureau, meanwhile, was all over the RU, though that group had yet to publicly announce itself as an organization. There was already massive surveillance in place targeting RU founder Leibel Bergman, who was a particularly important government target because of his travels to Mao’s China. Indeed, he was the subject of his own, “Bergman investigation,” according to that project’s head, FBI agent David Ryan. Ryan admitted at the 1980 trial of two former FBI agents that among other things, Bergman’s phone was tapped starting in March 1968, (9) that he was the target of a “surreptitious entry” (10) likely”done in connection with the installation of sensitive coverage, ” i.e., planting a microphone in his apartment, (11) and that the Bureau had worked “to secure authority for two FBI laboratory experts to travel to San Francisco to conduct a survey of installation of closed-circuit television” that would monitor him, all done under the supervision of W. Mark Felt, also known as Watergate’s Deep Throat. (12)

Beyond this, the Bureau had a much more vital source inside the emerging organization, an informant sitting on the RU’s executive committee, the leading body of a group that at the time consisted of less than two-dozen members. This was in keeping with the FBI strategy of infiltrating groups in their formative stages. As a result, the Bureau knew the RU was writing a paper that later became part of something called Red Papers, (13) which, among other things, openly denounced the PLP. As the informant reported:

It was felt that this is a most important paper in that it is necessary to expose the PLP as not following the true line of the Chinese Communist. It was the feeling of those preparing this paper that the PLP must be destroyed and that the RU must take a leading role in this effort. (14)

With such intelligence in hand, the Bureau made plans to use the RU’s own writings against it, suggesting they, “forward copies [of Red Papers] to one or several of the addresses listed in the PL publication,” the stated purpose being, to cause “additional disruption,” (15) i.e. to incite the two groups against one another. And here it needs to be noted that if the FBI had infiltrated the RU, they more than likely would have informants within PLP giving them two streams of information to manipulate.

The Bureau, however, was not just seeking to inflame things through mailings. In a step guaranteed to cause confusion and unease, a few days before the critical June 1969 SDS national meeting in Chicago, an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune reporting that, “[a]n underground communist organization [the RU] is expected to vie for control of the radical Students for Democratic Society.” (16) It went into some detail on the RU’s polemic against PL, “[t]he [Revolutionary] union used its booklet [Red Papers] to criticize the Progressive Labor party which has been accused by SDS leaders of receiving operating funds from the Chinese communist government.” The acrimony within SDS was already approaching a fever pitch, and this high profile article – a mix of truth, exaggeration and invention – was effectively throwing gasoline on the fire. As it turns out, the article, bylined by Ronald Koziol, had a ghost writer – it “resulted from the Bureau authorized contact by SAC M.W. JOHNSON with REDACTED [most likely Koziol of the] Chicago Tribune.” (17)


The final Convention of SDS was a fractious event in which no one walked away a winner. Ostensibly the defining struggle was between Progressive Labor Party/Workers Student Alliance and the rest of SDS. PLP/WSA was organized and politically savvy on how to operate and had the foresight to send enough members to vote themselves into power. Against them was a coalition known as the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), an entity that itself would soon split into two, RYM I (later Weathermen) and RYM II.

Amid much tension, the convention got under way. Things did not proceed smoothly, breaking down in chanting and counter-chanting over issues high and low. For its part, the Revolutionary Union scored an initial victory in putting forward a speaker, a student and US citizen, who had been part of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (18) Chris Milton, an 18-year-old RU member, had lived in China while in high school and had joined a group of Red Guards in Beijing when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. (19) The FBI later reported on Milton’s speech noting that it was,

laced with pro-Chinese communist sentiment, and in closing he called on all present to show solidarity with the CPC [Chinese Communist Party] by displaying red bands. All except PLP forces responded to this request. The PLP objected on the grounds that MILTON was attempting to upstage PLP forces. (20)

The level of friction increased with the appearance of two Black Panther Party representatives who, among other things, took the opportunity to talk about “pussy power” (21) – a reference to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s convoluted view of women’s empowerment in the radical movement. (22) This statement created no small amount of upset and dissension, leading those in the house to chant and catcall against its blatant sexism. SDS and the larger radical movement in 1969 was an aggregate of this and other conflicted and contradictory things much of which was also getting expressed at the convention.

The Bureau counted as other “tangible results” in trying to destabilize SDS a cartoon book they distributed among “moderate groups” and high school students.

The ultimate split, however, came after Jewel Cook, a Black Panther Party representative issued a challenge, “If PLP continues [in its positions on nationalism etc.], we will consider them counterrevolutionary traitors” and SDS “will be judged by the company it keeps and the effectiveness with which it deals with factions within its organization.” (23) This in turn lead to the whole of RYM walking out, and resolving to expel the Progressive Labor Party faction. For all intents and purposes this was the end of SDS.

The RU’s final engagement at the convention came after the walkout. The RYM grouping set about electing their own leadership. The Revolutionary Union fielded Bob Avakian for national secretary, along with Lyn Wells (not an RU person) as national education secretary. Avakian’s ticket lost (24) to Mark Rudd and Bill Ayers, both of who would become prominent Weathermen. The Revolutionary Union had not succeeded in capturing the key position in the group, something the FBI duly noted, attributing it to the role of the Tribune article. As they reported, “there was widespread discontent among the delegates to the SDS national convention with [the] politics of the RU and their attempt to ‘take over SDS.'” (25) Overall, the Bureau would brag that the Koziol piece:

[Caused] irate reaction by SDS leadership and caused disaffection among non-aligned members who did not hold a commitment to Maoist teachings. This aggravated a tense situation and helped create the confrontation that split SDS. (26)

Along with this, the Bureau counted as other “tangible results” in trying to destabilize SDS a cartoon book they distributed among “moderate groups” and high school students. They were pleased because it “appeared to be especially successful” in scaring students away from SDS and its “revolutionary ideals.” They also noted the success of a June 6, 1969, letter, “mailed to various key persons in SDS accusing the national office of refusing to hold a national convention because of fear of the strength of the pro-Progressive Labor, Worker Student Alliance (WSA),” with the result:

[I]mmediately after this letter was disseminated, SDS rented the Chicago Coliseum at a reported cost of $2,000 [$13,000 in today’s dollars] to hold their national convention. This rental fee required SDS to charge a $5.00 [$32] delegate fee, which caused discontent and anger among the delegates. (27)

Complementing that effort was outreach to universities scaring them away from SDS. They noted that their Cleveland office had contacted Case Western University and Bowling Green University. While they stipulated that it was their decision whether or not to allow an SDS convention to take place on their campuses,

other campuses which had accommodated SDS in this manner had been rewarded with damaged property, rowdy and disruptive activity on the campus, unfavorable newspaper publicity, the animosity of irate alumni and, in some instances embarrassing litigation. (28)

There was one other thing the Bureau managed in regard to the convention, and it is something that has thus far flown under the historiographical radar – they issued specific instructions on how they wanted their informants to vote:

Reference is made to San Francisco aritel, dated March 25, 1969, under the triple caption of SDS, the Bay Area Revolutionary Union and Cointelpro-New Left wherein San Francisco suggests the Bureau informants support the National Office faction in SDS against the PLP faction on the grounds that, PLP control of SDS would transform a shapeless and fractionalized group into a militant and disciplined organization. REDACTED. All REDACTED informants were instructed to support the National Office faction during convention proceedings. (29)

Those informants added up to no small number as The New York Times reported in May 1969, [t]he FBI “has undercover agents and informers inside almost every [SDS] chapter.” (30)

What the memo makes clear is that the Bureau was not neutral here; they had a favored outcome, i.e, electing the faction that would ultimately lead to the emergence of the Weathermen:

The convention did result in a split of the SDS with the result that PLP was required to form its own “rump” organization; the SDS as the mainstay of the New Left Movement is now seriously divided and, to this extent weakened; and the National Office fraction is gradually being forced into a position of militant extremism which hopefully will isolate it from other elements of the libertarian community and eventuate its complete discrediting in the eyes of the American public. (31)

Those in SDS at the time were not oblivious to the measures being leveled against them, though the full scope was beyond their purview. As Mark Rudd recalled in an interview with Truthout, “We knew we were being infiltrated and surveilled, but it didn’t slow us down at all – except for the problem of finding a place to hold the convention.” He does feel, however, the revelations of the Bureau’s role in fomenting a schism, “confirms my view that our faction in its hyperradicalism was unwittingly doing the job of the FBI for them.”

Regardless of how one assesses this, the FBI’s work was a critical factor in the way things fell out. In the case of the Weathermen, the Bureau’s estimate was largely borne out. The group would become an underground organization planting a series of bombs mainly at symbolic sites within the United States, but spent most of its time trying to avoid capture by an excited and highly mobilized law enforcement establishment. While they garnered certain support from the radicalized youth population and some elements of the intelligentsia for a time, they were largely marginalized and politically isolated among most of US society.

As for the Progressive Labor Party/Worker Student Alliance, they took control of the name SDS, and had some success in leading struggles against ROTC recruitment on campuses in Columbia and Berkeley at the beginning of the 1970s. However, the SDS they ruled over was a far diminished organization from the one that existed in 1969. Overall, PL would become increasingly marginal. (32)

For its part, the RU would go on to become a national organization with branches across the country, leading among other things, the Attica Brigade/Revolutionary Student Brigade with chapters on every major campus in the United States, this before the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976, which would lead to a reversal of their fortunes.


The collapse of SDS is an ugly moment that stands in 1960s history as a train wreck. The most prominent student organization confronting the Vietnam War and racial injustice was reduced to tatters; a critical instrument for meeting the challenges to come was no more. Unfortunately, the story of its destruction has largely revolved around the particular political actors and their conflicts – especially the emergence of the Weathermen – effectively ignoring the FBI’s not inconsequential role.

While in the end, the FBI was not mainly responsible for the destruction of the group – by 1969 its leadership and most committed members broadly speaking were far more radical, divided and sectarian than the wide-open, ultra-democratic organization they were part of could tolerate – the Bureau did play a critical role. In practical terms, it unleashed a flurry of initiatives against these young radicals: sophisticated initiatives to exacerbate real political divisions in order to set groups and individuals against one another, the use of the media for vilification and fractious ends, a sophisticated (for its time) technology to surveil and snoop, and the extensive deployment of informants with the aim of disruption, disorientation and the supplying of the intelligence to be used to underminine this highly influential organization.

Things since the spring of 1969 have changed in dramatic ways. Today, it is possible for law enforcement and government spies to carry out sophisticated snooping with keystrokes and mouse clicks; the proliferation of laws leveled against offenders high and low serve as ubiquitous leverage to “flip” “offenders” into informants, and the media, while open to far more people, is at the same time a much more ready instrument to target protest and dissent – whether or not an FBI agent is whispering in anyone’s ear. This is the place we have arrived at, not from nowhere, but from measures and methodologies – many tried and true and still in play – honed in their execution during earlier times.

Material for this article has been drawn in part from the forthcoming book, Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War Against America’s Maoists, to be published by Zero Books later this year. Copies of select FBI documents and news articles referenced in this article can be found at


1. Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS: The Rise and Development of Students for Democratic Society. New York:Vintage, 1974. pp. 16-17.

2. See Handbook of the League for Industrial Democracy. Student League for Industrial Democracy. New York, 1935.

3. Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, 1962. New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement in Its Time and Ours website.

4. Report of Brent T. Palmer. San Francisco, FBI. Re: “Steven Charles Hamilton – Security Matter Revolutionary Union,” 4/10/70 – Appendix Page. Bureau file, Steve Hamilton, 100-45639. Document release p. 163.

5. “SDS Expels PL.” Originally Published: New Left Notes, Vol. 4, No. 29, August 29, 1969. From, Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line.

6.Challenge Editorial: Workers Will Smash Nixon-Mao/Chou Axis.” Progressive Labor, Vol 8, No 3, November 1971. From, Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line.

7. RU Executive Committee Meeting, San Francisco, California, 4/6/69, submitted, April 14, 1969. Bureau file, Steve Hamilton 100-445639. Document release p. 118.

8. Weinberg, Jack, Gerson, Jack. “The SPLIT IN SDS.” I.S., September 1969. Reprinted in America’s Maoists – The Revolutionary Union, The Venceremos Organization. Report by the Committee on Internal Security, House of Representatives, Ninety-Second Congress, Second Session. USA. Congress.US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1972. pp. 173-175.

9. Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States, District of Columbia, Criminal Case File 78-00179, United States v. W Felt and Edward S. Miller. National Archives. Location in NARA Stacks: 16W3/15/05/05-06. Box 30, p. 3964.

10. Ibid. p. 3952.

11. Ibid. p. 3949-3951.

12. Ibid. 3962-3964.

13. Red Papers. Revolutionary Union. San Francisco, 1969. From, Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line.

14. SA Bertram Worthington TO SAC, San Francisco, 3/5/69. Bureau File, Steve Hamilton 100-445639. Document release p. 177.

15. SAC, San Francisco (100-61281) to Director, FBI (105-184369). “Revolutionary Union.” April 30, 1969.

16. Koziol, Ron, “Red Unit Seeks SDS Rule.” Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1969.

17. SAC, Chicago to Director FBI, Subject COINTELPRO – New Left, 6/24/1969. Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts Subject (COINTELPRO) New Left, Chicago Division. 1,00-449698-9, document pp. 31-32.

18. Smith, Jack. “SDS Ousts PLP.” The Guardian, June 28, 1969. From, Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line.

19. The Movement, “Revolution in the Revolution.” Interview with Chris Milton. February 1969.

20. FBI: Mao Tse-tung Influence on SDS Factions at the June 1969 National Convention.”, Weather Underground (Weathermen) Part 2 of 6. Document page 61.

21. Sale. op. cit. p. 531.

22. Eldridge Cleaver in a 1968 speech at Stanford, speaking to women, said, “You have the power to bring a squeaking halt to a lot of things that are going on and we call that, pussy power.” Jones, Charles. The Black Panther Party Reconsidered. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998. p. 33.

23. Smith. op. cit.

24. Bob Avakian was, however, elected to the National Interim Committee. Waters, Mary-Alice. “The split at the SDS national convention.” The Militant, Vol. 33, No. 27, July 4, 1969. From, Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line.

25. SAC, Chicago to Director FBI, Subject COINTELPRO – New Left, 6/24/1969. Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts Subject (COINTELPRO) New Left, Chicago Division. 1,00-449698-9, document pp. 31-32.

26. Chicago, To Director, FBI, 6/30/69 Subject: COINTELPRO New Left. Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts Subject (COINTELPRO) New Left, Chicago Division. 100-449698-9.

27. Ibid.

28. SAC Cleveland. To Director, FBI. ” 8/1/1969. New Left, Cleveland Division. Bureau file, 100-449698-11.

29. Ibid. Grateful acknowledgment to Professor Art Eckstein for his assistance in analyzing this document and helping bring forward this point.

30. Colliers, Barnard L. “S.D.S. Scores Big Gains But Faces Many Problems: S. D. S., Though It Scored Several ‘Victories,’ Faces Potentially Grave Crises.” The New York Times, May 5, 1969.

31. Op Cit. SACCleveland, 8/1/1969.

32. For more see Alan Adelson, SDS: A Profile. New York: Charles Scrib

Countdown is on: We have 4 days to raise $34,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.