American Student Union

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The Depression decade witnessed the rise of the first mass student protest movement in American history. This movement, which crusaded against war and fascism, and initially promoted a political agenda to the left of the New Deal, was led by the American Student Union (ASU), the largest U.S. student activist organization of its time (1935–1941). At its peak years of influence in the mid and late 1930s, the ASU had some 20,000 members, mobilized almost half the nation's college students in antiwar protests, lobbied for greater federal aid to low income students and unemployed youth, became a campus voice for racial equality and workers' rights, championed student free speech rights, attracted the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, and even generated student activism in some of the nation's high schools.

Although it arose during the Depression, the ASU-led student movement's most massive mobilizations focused on peace rather than the economy. Convinced that World War I had served plutocracy rather than democracy, and had paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, many college students embraced isolationism, pacifism, and anti-interventionism. This antiwar mood facilitated the rise of a mass peace movement on campus, which beginning in 1934 featured the first national student strikes in American history, annual one-hour peace rallies, and boycotts of classes held on the anniversary of U.S. intervention in World War I. These strikes, which mobilized 25,000 students in April 1934 and more than 100,000 students in 1935, were organized by the Communist-led National Student League (NSL) and the Socialist-led Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID). The success of these strikes, together with the Communists' new Popular Front movement, which urged unity against fascism, led NSL and SLID to merge into the ASU during a national unity convention of student activists in Columbus, Ohio, in December 1935. The ASU's biggest successes in its early life were the 1936 and 1937 antiwar strikes, each of which rallied more than 500,000 students for peace.

The ASU was emblematic of the shift leftward of American student politics in the 1930s, marking a sharp break with the conservatism that had dominated the campuses in the 1920s, when students endorsed Republican presidential candidates by even larger majorities than did the American electorate. Although its leaders were predominantly leftists, the ASU found much common ground with liberals as it urged students to show solidarity with the burgeoning labor movement, supported the New Deal's more egalitarian measures, and criticized racial discrimination both on campus and off. With this kind of left-liberal ideology setting the tone of campus politics, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 became the first Democratic presidential candidate in decades to win a plurality of the national student straw vote. It is little wonder, then, that Eleanor Roosevelt, attracted by their youthful idealism, befriended several ASU leaders, worked with them in their campaign to expand federal aid to needy students, and defended them when they were attacked by the red-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities.

International events, most notably the Spanish Civil War, rocked the ASU and the student peace movement and undermined their anti-interventionist ethos. That war seemed to prove that U.S. neutrality could not preserve peace, for while the United States embargoed the Spanish Republic, Hitler gave military assistance to the fascist rebels who ultimately crushed the young republic. The ASU, influenced by these events—especially by the deaths of several ASU members who joined the International Brigade in its fight to save the Spanish Republic—and by the Popular Front line of the Comintern, shifted its emphasis from anti-interventionism to collective security against fascism. Although this shift alienated left-wing socialists, pacifists, and isolationists, it conferred upon the ASU the elan of being at the forefront of the battle against Hitlerism.

The ASU's demise was rooted in the machinations of its Communist faction, which forced the organization into a series of disastrous flipflops on foreign policy. This began in fall 1939 when, in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the ASU dropped its anti-fascism in favor of an isolationist "Yanks Are Not Coming" position at a time when Hitler seemed more threatening than ever. This, together with the ASU's refusal to criticize the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1940—which found an ostensibly antiwar organization unwilling to protest Stalin's military aggression—discredited the ASU with both mainstream students and such key liberal allies as Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw the organization as a puppet of the USSR and the American Communist Party, causing the collapse of the ASU by the time the United States entered World War II. Not until the 1960s would a student organization duplicate the ASU's initial success in leading a mass protest movement on American campuses.



Cohen, Robert. When the Old Left Was Young: StudentRadicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941. 1993.

Cohen, Robert, and Thomas Thurston. "Student Activism in the 1930s." New Deal Network. Available at:

Draper, Hal. "The Student Movement of the Thirties: A Political History." In As We Saw the Thirties: Essays on Social and Political Movements of a Decade, edited by Rita James Simon. 1969.

Eagan, Eileen. Class, Culture, and the Classroom: The Student Peace Movement of the 1930s. 1982.

Lash, Joseph, P. Eleanor: A Friend's Memoir. 1964.

Wechsler, James A. Revolt on the Campus. 1935.

Robert Cohen

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American Student Union