Dr. Matthew Levin’s Cold War University and UW-Madison’s Legacy of Student Activism

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By KJ LeFave

The University of Wisconsin – Madison is known for its legacy of student activism. During the 1950s-70s, universities across the nation saw protests on their campuses in the name of Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War sentiment, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and more. It was during this time that Madison’s most well-known era of protests and student activism occurred. The events that took place on campus and among the student body during the mid-20th century solidified UW-Madison’s place in history as one of America’s most politically active campuses.

Cover of the book Cold War University by Matthew Levin.
Cover of Cold War University. [1]

This fact is the subject of discussion in Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties by Dr. Matthew Levin, a graduate of UW-Madison. After graduating with a B.A. in history from Whitman College in his native state of Washington, Dr. Levin came to UW-Madison for his Ph.D. in 1998. It wasn’t until Dr. Levin arrived in Madison and explored his interest in the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement that he learned of UW’s history of activism.

While student activism during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement is perhaps the most well-known example of UW being a politically charged campus, student activism on campus was prominent as early as the turn of the 20th century. As Levin describes in his book, Wisconsin “had been at the forefront of the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century.”[2] This movement aimed to “curb political corruption and limit the power of special interests,” earning Wisconsin a reputation for being “a laboratory for democracy.”[3] From this era emerged one of Wisconsin’s most esteemed leaders, Robert La Follette, who, like other progressives, was committed to capitalism.[4] This contrasted with other leaders in Wisconsin, like Victor Berger and Emil Seidel, who served as the first socialist congressman and socialist mayor of a major American city respectively.[5] This diverse political landscape among state officials eventually manifested in the culture of the university, demonstrated by the fact that UW-Madison was one of the only colleges in the nation that allowed communist student clubs on campus.[6] With opposing political views so close together and so prominent, Wisconsin and in turn the University of Wisconsin, quickly became an epicenter for civic engagement and protest.

The presence of conflicting ideologies in Wisconsin was not the only factor in UW-Madison becoming a politically active campus. This was also largely due to the fact that the university had (and continues to have) a substantial out-of-state student population. These students, consisting primarily of those hailing from the East and West Coasts were often called “coasties” – a term still used among students today. Many of these out-of-state students, specifically those from the East Coast, were Jewish men and women who “drew on an ethnic background that included family and community traditions of radical political activism and played a crucial role in campus politics.”[7] The presence of Jewish students on campus and the role they played served as the building blocks for UW-Madison’s political scene during the mid-20th century. These students often served as leaders in politically focused student organizations. A notable example of this is found in Jeffry Kaplow. A Jewish student from Brooklyn, New York, Kaplow first arrived on campus in 1952 with an interest in politics.[8] His mother was a Communist Party sympathizer, and Kaplow himself was a member of the Communist Party’s youth group, the Labor Youth League (LYL), in New York and later joined the LYL chapter on campus.[9] Kaplow and other LYL members, many of them also East Coast Jews, regularly advocated for political dissension and constantly defended their communist beliefs.[10] Unsurprisingly, this sparked backlash against the group, with many Wisconsin residents and nonresidents alike calling for the club’s disbandment.[11] However, the university remained adamant in their protection of disfavored political groups despite calls for kicking the LYL off campus.

While the influence out-of-state students had on UW-Madison’s political landscape during the 20th century was significant, Levin also makes it clear that in-state students were also heavily involved in shaping the university’s political climate. Levin states, “as I wrote this book, I really wanted to be careful to emphasize that this was not a movement that was brought in from out-of-state.”[12] This fact is made clear in Cold War University through Levin’s highlighting of Frank Peterson, a student from a small town in Wisconsin who went on to serve as president of the socialist club on campus in the late 50s.[13] Levin also described an “awareness” among those in socialist groups on campus that many members were not Wisconsinites, which resulted in these groups attempting to recruit more locals.[14]

Black and white image of male student with sign reading "End University Participation in the Undemocratic Draft" in his lap.
Student at administrations building sit-in.[15]

Wisconsin’s own rich political history and the university’s tradition of attracting out-of-state, politically engaged students coalesced to set the scene for what would become one of the most rousing time periods in university history. Largely inspired by the protest means deployed by Civil Rights activists in the South, UW students adopted strategies of sit-ins, rallies, teach-ins, and marches to make their voices heard.[16] One of the most successful sit-in campaigns on campus during this time occurred when hundreds of students peacefully occupied the administration building in protest of the Vietnam War draft for a week in May 1966. While peaceful, the sit-in did not go without its risks to the students participating. Students faced the prospect of being arrested, kicked out of school, or otherwise disciplined.[17] Still, despite these risks, students kept staging sit-ins in protest of the war, as seen in the occupation of the university President and Chancellor offices – while the President and Chancellor were there – in February 1967. While nonviolent activism among students was the most common form of protest on campus and instances of violent activism were rare, violent conflict did happen. Undoubtedly, the most well known example of this was during the Dow protests, where a violent confrontation between students and police resulted in the hospitalization of 70 students and 19 police officers.[18] The riot started in response to the presence of Dow Chemicals on campus, the military’s “sole supplier” of napalm, a flammable gel that marred hundreds of thousands in the Vietnam War.[19]

Black and white image of students from the shoulders up. They appear to be holding sticks and wearing head coverings.
Students protesting for Civil Rights on campus in 1960.[20]

While the Vietnam War was a foremost concern of activist students on campus, the Civil Rights Movement was also seen as an important issue. UW-Madison continues to be a predominantly white institution where students and staff of color are often not supported, but UW-Madison in the 1960s had an even smaller PoC staff and student population. Still, these students spearheaded Civil Rights activism on campus. One of the ways student activists brought attention to the issue of Civil Rights was by sponsoring leaders of the movement to visit campus.[21] This included Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, and more.[22] Civil Rights protests at UW were generally in response to events in the South, such as the March on Selma and Freedom Rides. Examples of this include when students picketed the Madison federal building over the lack of federal protection of protesters after Bloody Sunday and when four hundred students gathered under the statue of President Lincoln on Bascom Hill in support of James Meredith, the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi.[23] Despite the fact that many of the UW students who participated in Civil Rights activism on campus were White, Levin accentuates that these students “largely ignored the reality that was right in front of them.”[24] In 1964, less than one hundred Black students were enrolled at UW with only nine Black professors on staff and calls for “direct action against the university” for its pattern of discrimination went largely ignored.[25]

UW-Madison’s legacy of a politically active student body continues to flourish today. In October of 2022, students protested Matt Walsh, a transphobic figure invited to speak outside the Memorial Union. Prior to and after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, students protested on campus and around Madison for abortion rights. In the wake of anti-Asian sentiment during the Covid-19 pandemic, students organized demonstrations denouncing discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans. Indigenous students and their allies continue to advocate for a permanent cultural space.

Levin states, “I’m really excited about young people…I’ve seen a lot of examples of student activism over the years and those get me pretty excited about young people and their potential for activism.”[26] The students who participate in these acts of protest and civil disobedience carry on UW’s tradition of student activism and bravely pave the way for future students and staff to follow suit. In doing so, these students today ensure that the work of those who came before is continued.

[1] Cover of Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.

[2] Matthew Levin, “Introduction” in Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013, p. 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] KJ LeFave, Nonviolence Project with Dr. Levin. Personal Interview, September 3, 2022.

[7] Levin, “Introduction,” p. 43.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 44-45.

[11] Ibid. p. 43

[12] LeFave, Nonviolence Project with Dr. Levin.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sit-in at A. W. Peterson building, Still image, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Archives, May 1966.

[16] Matthew Levin, “‘I Can’t Be Calm, Cool and Detached Any Longer’: The Beginnings of a Mass Movement” in Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013, p. 111.

[17] LeFave, Nonviolence Project with Dr. Levin.

[18] Colleen Leahy, “Remembering the Dow Protest and Riot 50 Years Later,” Wisconsin Public Radio, April 18, 2019.

[19]Napalm and the Dow Chemical Company,” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service.

[20] Civil rights protest at UW, 1960, Still image, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Archives, 1960.

[21] Levin, “’I Can’t Be Calm, Cool and Detached Any Longer,’” p. 115.

[22] Ibid. p. 116.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. p. 117.

[25] Ibid.

[26] LeFave, Nonviolence Project with Dr. Levin.