Mario Savio and the “Free Speech Movement” Speech | 2 December 1964
When Mario Savio and fellow students launched the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in 1964 at the University of California-Berkeley, they were fighting in the Cold War. More specifically, they were fighting against the culture of conformity and oppression within what scholars would later refer to as the “Cold War University,” a term for elite universities enlisted to serve as institutions for supplying knowledge and expertise, especially in fields of science, to the U.S. government and military industries. University of California chancellor Clark Kerr, the regents, and administrators at UC campuses, in an effort to curb dissension and preserve the Cold War consensus around federal policies, banned student political organizations they deemed radical and also required faculty to pledge loyalty oaths. Professors had to affirm their loyalty to the California state constitution and deny any affiliation or belief in Communist organizations to retain their jobs. Protests erupted at UC-Berkeley in the fall of 1964 as many students objected to limits on freedom of speech, the right to assembly, and academic freedom. On December 2, student Mario Savio delivered his famous speech on the steps of Sproul Hall, in which he encouraged activists to engage in civil disobedience and resist “the machine” mentality at UC-Berkeley and within the entire Cold War political system.
Savio, like many of his fellow FSM students at UC-Berkeley, had been a Civil Rights activist during Freedom Summer, just a few months prior to the 1964 protests. Freedom Summer called attention to the hypocrisies of national leaders, who presented the U.S. as a defender of freedom and democracy against Soviet totalitarianism while allowing Jim Crow laws and racial violence to deny such freedoms to African-American citizens. Activists had also witnessed the consequences of political oppression during the 1950s “Red Scare” when the U.S. government actively sought to identify and punish anyone suspected of Communist affiliations. In the early 1960s, many college-aged participants in the Civil Rights movement formed the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a progressive organization on college campuses that challenged the Cold War consensus as a threat to human dignity, democracy, constitutional rights, and peace throughout the world. Young people in New Left organizations such as SDS began to ask important questions about what happens to people when they feel part of a mass public rather than an engaged public. They argued that the Cold War consensus, bolstered by anti-Communism, was creating a culture of conformity and apathy among citizens, as well as a tendency to favor bureaucratic and military efficiency in competition with the Soviets over human individualism and self-determination.
It is in this context that one can begin to understand the deeper substance of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, a New Left-affiliated civil activism at UC-Berkeley. Students at UC-Berkeley fought against the school’s limitations on extracurricular political organizing and academic freedom, though they also promoted freedom and human dignity beyond the campus. Mario Savio’s speech, in fact, is directed against the oppressive conditions created by a bureaucratic, mechanical society that reduces human beings to mere cogs in a machine: New Leftists, such as Savio, were concerned about how human beings were subordinated to the state and the state’s reliance on science, technology, bureaucracy, and efficiency. In the early twentieth century, most people accepted science as beneficial to human life, a way to order and control one’s environment and achieve progress. For example, Frederick Taylor, an efficiency expert, aimed to make human labor a science. Taylor believed that workers could become extensions of factory machines, increasing productivity and prosperity. Savio argued that proponents of the Cold War University were treating students and faculty in the same dehumanizing manner. The problem, he recognized, stemmed from trends in society, at large. In a nation dedicated to efficiency, he and other critics claimed, people can become instrumental and thus expendable, just as they were in Fascist regimes and during the Soviet purges. Savio criticized the impersonal and authoritarian culture of the Cold War that conceptualized human beings as tools or products, valued only to the extent that they increased U.S. military-industrial output.
For Savio and others of the New Left, this cultural consensus was detrimental to democratic values, as it blunted critical, personal, and creative thought. Faced with oppressive measures against individual opinion-making and few channels of political engagement, an apathetic society, New Leftists feared, would accept the status quo, authoritarian rule, and all kinds of illiberal practices for the sake of security and national prestige.
In short, apathy, they believed, was creating the space for uncritical nationalism.
Such uncritical nationalism meant national prestige and power justified the means of oppression and violence. This was a primary feature of Fascist ideology, and as New Leftists noted, it was a troubling feature of Cold War America.
Savio and the New Left could point to the American public’s complicit acceptance of civil liberties abuse by official government agencies such as the House Un-American Activities Committee, which put Americans on trial for alleged conspiratorial activities. New Leftists also saw the disturbing effects of an uncritical nationalism in the education system, including politicized textbooks, the practice of the pledge of allegiance, loyalty oaths for faculty, and the paternalistic university which enforced strict criteria for banning extracurricular activities deemed subversive. Mario Savio and the FSM were responding to these conditions at UC-Berkeley, but they were also challenging the coercions of the Cold War consensus in general.
Cohen, Robert. Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Lunsford, Terry F. The “Free Speech” Crises at Berkeley, 1964-1965: Some Issues for Social and Legal Research. A Report from the Center for Research and Development in Higher Education. Berkeley: University of California-Berkeley, 1965.
Miller, James. Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Raskin, A.H. “The Berkeley Affair: Mr. Kerr vs. Mr. Savio & Co.” The New York Times Magazine, February 14, 1965.
Rosenfeld, Seth. Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.