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Student Peace Union Records

Identifier: SCPC-DG-065

Scope and Contents

The collection includes administrative files, correspondence, reports of organizational activity, with information on branch activities and local high schools, and reference files.


  • Creation: 1959-1967


Language of Materials

Materials are in English.

Limitations on Accessing the Collection

The collection is open for research use.

Physical Access Note

All or part of this collection is stored off-site. Contact Swarthmore College Peace Collection staff at at least two weeks in advance of visit to request boxes.

Copyright and Rights Information


Historical Note

The Student Peace Union (SPU) was founded at the University of Chicago in 1959. It was an intercollegiate student group whose members believed that neither war nor the threat of war could any longer be successfully used to settle international disputes. The SPU merged with the College Peace Union in 1960; two years later membership peaked at 3500. Philip G. Altbach was national chairman. The SPU was headquartered in Chicago until 1964, when that office was closed down and re-opened in New York. In February 1967 the SPU merged with Campus Americans for Democratic Action to become the Independent Student Union.

According to the online Wikipedia website:

The Student Peace Union was a nationwide student organization active on college campuses in the United States from 1959 to 1964. Its national headquarters were located near the campus of the University of Chicago. The SPU was founded by Ken Calkins, who had gained notoriety when his pelvis was fractured when he ran in front a truck during a pacifist demonstration against nuclear weapons at Cheyenne, Wyoming. He had returned to Chicago and became educational director for the local American Friends Service Committee. As part of his duties in that position he conducted a number of peace seminars at local Chicago high schools, where he developed a number of contacts with local students. By the spring of 1959 this network had been organized in the Student Peace Union, and had about 100 members by the end of the school year. In 1960 it merged with the Fellowship of Reconciliation-affiliated College Peace Union, which had several campus chapters in the Northeast. By December 1961 the group 1,500 members in dozens of campuses in the Midwest and Northeast, and a year later would expand to 3,500 members, with inroads on the West Coast and South. From the beginning the Young People's Socialist League, then under the influence of the Shachtmanites poured its members into the group and tried to give it a "Third camp" direction—rejecting both Western capitalism and Soviet communism as equally imperialist.

The SPU organized a number of protests and vigils at the White House. The first was in November 1961 against the resumption of nuclear testing. To their surprise President Kennedy displayed some sympathy for the group, having his disarmament advisers confer with picket leaders and receiving their petitions. A second protest, the "Washington Action" drew 5,000 students in February 1962. Kennedy sent them an urn of coffee on the first day of the protest, which was held during a snowstorm. The event was co-sponsored by Student SANE, the Students for a Democratic Society (which at the time had a tenth of the membership of SPU) and a Harvard affiliate of the SPU called TOCSIN, which was led by Todd Gitlin. TOCSIN was able to initiate some contacts with Senators and State Department officials, combining the protest march with lobbying efforts.

The SPU continued its protests against nuclear testing that spring, when they engaged in the first confrontation between police and anti-war protesters of the decade in New York. During the Cuban Missile Crisis that October the group sponsored demonstrations across the country, including a march in front of the White House that drew 2,000 people. When the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in the wake of the crisis it was a mixed blessing for the SPU. While they had always been against nuclear testing, so much of its identity was bound up with anti-nuclear war activism that it struggled to find a new footing. Furthermore it was undermined by the factional struggles within the YPSL between the Shachtmanite "realignment tendency" -- which favored socialist entry into the Democratic party—and the more non-electoral "labor party tendency" led by Mike Parker. The Shachtmanites tried to dilute the labor party tendency's control of SPU by urging a merger with Student SANE, but this fell through. Debated among the YPSLs over when, if ever, to support peace candidates and questions over foreign policy consumed the top leadership and the organization dissolved in the spring of 1964.

A second incarnation of the Student Peace Union was formed in the fall of 1964 by some of the young SPU members and David McReynolds. While not very prominent nationally, it had chapters on a few campuses not otherwise known for New Left activism - Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, St. Peter's College, Idaho State University and Rocky Mountain College. It merged with the Campus Americans for Democratic Action to form the Independent Student Union in 1967.

More records of the Student Peace Union are held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and by the Taniment Library (


5 linear ft. (5 linear feet.)


The Student Peace Union was founded at the University of Chicago in 1959. It was an intercollegiate student group whose members believed that neither war nor the threat of war could any longer be successfully used to settle international disputes.


The SPU records are organized in the following order: National SPU records; New York City Regional records; regional/chapter records; and, reference files.

Custodial History

The Swarthmore College Peace Collection is the official repository for these papers/records.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the War Resisters League (which had housed the SPU office in New York, New York), 1969 [Acc. 69-133]

Related Materials

For related materials, search the library's online catalog

Legal Status

Copyright may have been transferred to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Copy right to some items in this collection may have been retained by the creators/authors (or their descendents), as stipulated by United States copyright law. Please contact the SCPC Curator for further information.

Processing Information

Reprocessed by Anne Yoder, Archivist, in November 2013.

Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2017: The file list was standardized in Summer 2017 by Min Cheng in preparation for importing into ArchivesSpace. Elisabeth Miller added the notes in Fall 2017.

Find It at the Library

Most of the materials in this catalog are not digitized and can only be accessed in person. Please see our website for more information about visiting or requesting repoductions from Swarthmore College Peace Collection Library

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