Politics in the University, 1933-1936

National Student League membership application form, 1935

National Student League membership card, 1935. Courtesy Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

When Richard Hofstadter began his studies at the University of Buffalo in September of 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been in office for only six months. The American economy was in crisis, with many millions unemployed and millions more without adequate food or shelter. In both the United States and in Europe, radicals right and left seized on the pervasive sense that neither liberal politics nor the capitalist economic system could survive any longer. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany that January, it had joined a growing number of fascist governments across the European continent. As ideological divisions grew more rigid and contentious both domestically and internationally, politics became inescapable.

While we tend to associate mass youth involvement in radical politics with the 1960s, the Depression decade also saw a large movement of students opposing war, fascism, and capitalism on and off college campuses. According to biographer Susan Stout Baker, Hofstadter's involvement in left-wing politics began with his courtship of Felice Swados at the University of Buffalo in the fall of 1934 [11]. Swados, who was several years older, had already established herself within the university's small but growing radical community and served as the leader of the campus chapter of the Communist-affiliated National Student League (NSL).

Anti-ROTC Petition, 1935

National Student League petition against college ROTC programs. Courtesy Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

Students Fight War

Cover illustration for a 1935 National Student League anti-war pamphlet. Courtesy Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

Hofstadter soon became involved in the NSL and, in the spring of 1935, he headed the strike publicity committee in anticipation of a second annual nationwide student strike for peace. This action consisted of a student walkout, held in protest of militarism on college campuses (for example, mandatory ROTC programs) and imperialist aggression abroad. Although nearly 200,000 students participated in demonstrations across the country, the turnout was unimpressive in "overwhelmingly conservative" Buffalo [12]. Unfazed by this experience, Hofstadter assumed leadership of the local NSL chapter when Swados, now his fiancée, graduated from the University of Buffalo and went on to pursue an M.A. in philosophy at Smith College. In the fall, he served on a Committee for Peace Mobilization, which planned yet another student strike. This time, turnout was much higher. Still, Hofstadter had hoped to secure majority support for a pledge of opposition to all wars, but came nowhere close: the proposal was voted down 335-40 [13]. 

The images featured at right include a petition against school ROTC programs and the cover page of an antiwar pamphlet. Both were printed in 1935, the year of Hofstadter's most intense involvement in the NSL. Although neither one of these documents is specific to Buffalo per se, both would have circulated nationally, and they therefore convey a sense of the political discourse and activities in which Hofstadter was engaged as a young campus organizer.