"Shut it down": The May 1970 national student strike at the University of California at Berkeley, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David H. Bennett


National student strike, University of California at Berkeley, Syracuse University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Student movement

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History | United States History


On the evening of April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that he was sending American ground troops into Cambodia, a diplomatically neutral country. Across the United States, protesters, many of them students at the nation's colleges and universities, immediately took to the streets to show their opposition. They believed that the Cambodian incursion signaled an expansion of the unpopular Vietnam war. Days later, on Monday, May 4, National Guard troops at Kent State University fired into a demonstration, killing four students and injuring nine others. The country's spontaneous student protests against the Cambodian incursion grew in size and intensity following the violence at Kent State. In order to make people take notice, campus protesters became adept at shutting down institutions of higher learning, thus preventing ''business as usual.'' In many cases, they succeeded. The national student strike of May 1970 was the peak of both the student and antiwar movements.

This dissertation focuses on what happened at three large universities during May 1970: the University of California at Berkeley, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All three campuses endured large-scale spontaneous protests that ended ''business as usual.'' Events at Berkeley and Syracuse were mostly peaceful, while Madison was the site of street fighting between students, police, and National Guard troops.

This examination of the national strike shows that while the student voices that spring were primarily focused on the Vietnam war, that was not their only concern. The May 1970 student strike also dealt with the role of the university in society, educational relevance, race, in loco parentis , and the counterculture. Also, the character and outcome of that month's protests was highly dependent upon local history and local leadership. It was the local leadership at all levels---students, faculty, administrators---that were most able to influence and guide campus events during the national student strike.


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