Young Americans for Freedom

From Academic Kids

Young Americans for Freedom (or YAF) is a conservative youth group based in the United States of America. YAF was founded in 1960, and its greatest era in terms of numbers and influence was in the early 1960's. The organization continues to exist to this day.



The meaning of "conservatism" was in flux after World War II. Traditionally, American conservatives were isolationist. But as the Cold War began to dominate American foreign policy, the old conservatism disintegrated. After Robert Taft was defeated for the Republican nomination in 1952, isolationist conservatism mostly vanished. In its place, a new conservatism was created. This new ideology was primarily the brainchild of the writers associated with the magazine National Review, especially the magazine's editor, William F. Buckley, Jr. The new conservatism combined three different strains: free-market economics, respect for traditional values and an orderly society, and anti-communism.

Young Americans for Freedom's founding statement of principles, the Sharon Statement, was written in September 1960 by M. Stanton Evans. Two years later, Tom Hayden's Port Huron Statement, the foundational document of Students for a Democratic Society, would become the unofficial "rebuttal" to the Sharon Statement. These two manifestos would frame the ideological stuggles on American college campuses throughout the 1960's.


In September 1960, Young Americans for Freedom was founded at a meeting held at Buckley's estate in Sharon, Connecticut. National Review publisher William A. Rusher and conservative fundraiser Marvin Liebman became the primary adult advisors to the group for the next decade.

YAF focused primarily on national and international politics, rather than on campus politics. YAF members were much more likely to pass out leaflets for a candidate for congress than for student body president.

The history of YAF can be broken into five periods.

National conservative activism, 1960-1965.

Beginning in 1960, YAF grew rapidly on college campuses. On March 7, 1962, a YAF-sponsored conservative rally filled Madison Square Garden in New York City.

In the 1960's, the Republican Party was divided between its conservative wing, led by Barry Goldwater, and its more liberal wing, led by Nelson Rockefeller. YAF members fell squarely on Goldwater's side. However, some YAF members had sympathy with the conservative Southern Democrats known as Dixiecrats, and thus from its inception YAF was deliberately non-partisan. By 1964, YAF was a major force in the campaign to draft Goldwater, and then after his nomination, to elect him President. Goldwater's massive defeat in the presidential election of 1964 demoralized many YAF members.

One major achievement of YAF during this period was their defeat of Firestone's plans to open a rubber plant in communist Romania. A large public-relations campaign by YAF, capped with a threat to spread "Boycott Firestone" leaflets at the Indianapolis 500, resulted in Firestone cancelling their Romanian plans in April 1965.

Reaction to radical activism, 1965-1971.

Liberalism and radicalism dominated campuses from the mid-1960's until the early 1970's, primarily as a result of the Vietnam War. During this era, YAF members felt outnumbered by the left on campuses, and spent their energy challenging and rebutting liberal groups such as Students for a Democratic Society.

However, despite the stereotypes of "uncool conservatives" in later media depictions of this era, most male YAF members in 1970 had long hair and beards just like the left-leaning students.

YAF members tended to hold similar opinions to their older compatriots within the conservative movement, except on two major issues. A significant fraction -- probably a majority -- of YAF members during this era supported legalization of marijuana and opposed the draft. The fact that YAF members vocally supported the Vietnam War, but opposed the draft and rarely volunteered for active service themselves, exposed them to charges of hypocrisy.

A smaller fraction of YAF members began to favor an extremely limited government. This group came to be known as libertarians. This faction within YAF was expelled ("purged") following the tumultuous 1969 National YAF Convention. Members of this faction were among the founding members of the Libertarian Party in 1971.

The majority of YAF members during this era supported Ronald Reagan's successful bid for Governor of California in 1966, as well as his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

Advocacy politics, 1971-1985.

In the 1970's, YAF became much older, demographically. Rather than stage campus demonstrations, they focused on influencing national politics by lobbying and occasionally by staging and publicizing small demonstrations. When the Nixon Administration completely abandoned conservative principles in favor of wage controls, price controls, abandonment of the gold standard, and overtures to Red China, YAF was the first conservative organization to publicly repudiate the administration. They supported Reagan's almost-successful bid to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 and his victorious race for the presidency in 1980.

On college campuses YAF was a large political group, more conservative and less partisan than the College Republicans. YAF members were willing to oppose liberal Republicans and support conservative Democrats and third-party candidates. During many local and national races throughout this era, YAF members were divided about whether to support a moderately conservative "electable" candidate or to support a staunchly conservative long-shot candidate.

By the 1980's, many of YAF's leaders were in their thirties and were long out of college. Some of them held positions in government while continuing to run YAF as a lobbying and fundraising group for conservative causes. This era ended with an unpleasant financial scandal which led to YAF losing most of its assets.

Campus activism, 1985-1990.

After the financial collapse, most of the older YAF members went on to other things. YAF became again dominated by a younger element. During this era, a new generation of liberal and radical activism was growing on college campuses, and YAF members began focusing on opposing these movements. This growth was strongest in California, where YAF members staged protests in favor of aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, in favor of Reagan's anti-communist policies, and in opposition to the United Nations.

At the same time, internal problems paralyzed the YAF hierarchy. The National Board was still controlled by lawyers and lobbyists who remembered the glory days of YAF fundraising in the early 1980's. The new activist element resented and distrusted this "old guard", and began to gradually whittle away at their power. In 1989 an alliance of Californian and New York activists ousted most of the "old guard" from the National Board. By 1991, the National Board of YAF contained a majority of Californians -- the first time a single state had had a majority in the governing council of YAF. However, this new regime found itself unable to effectively run YAF as a financial and organizational entity.

The strength of YAF activism was shattered by the Gulf War that begin in January 1991. Most YAF members considered President George H. W. Bush to be insufficiently conservative, and his rhetoric justifying the war ("a new world order") to be dangerously utopian. So when the anti-war protests in major American cities were confronted with even larger pro-war demonstrations, many YAF members were on the anti-war side (albeit for very different reasons than the left). This cut YAF off from the young pro-America demonstrators who would normally have been its recruits for the next generation of activism.

This disconnect, along with the organizational and financial problems that prevented any effective national mobiliatization of YAF, resulted in a rapid shrinkage of the organization in 1991.

Advocacy politics, 1991-present.

In the 1990's, YAF returned to national advocacy politics. The national office organized petition drives and staged a variety of P.R. events to promote the conservative viewpoint on a variety of public issues. Often these events would have an attention-grabbing theme such as "Pardon Oliver North!" or "Impeach Janet Reno!"

YAF continues to exist today on numerous college campuses and continues to advocate conservative issues. Its most recent activities have been demonstrations against affirmative action and in support of the war on terrorism.

Lasting Influence

Young Americans for Freedom's greatest direct influence was felt in the early 1960's. During that time, conservative activism on college campuses was actually greater than liberal activism.

Young Americans for Freedom's indirect influence is felt through the great numbers of conservative political figures who began their careers as members of YAF in college. These alumni include former National Chairman Robert Bauman (U.S. Congressman from Maryland, 1973-1981), former California Chairman Pat Nolan (Minority Leader in the California State Assembly during the 1980's), Dana Rohrabacher (U.S. Congressman from California, 1989-present), Dan Quayle (Vice President of the United States, 1989-1993), and a great number of other national and state politicians.

External links

Further Reading

  • Andrew, John A., III. The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (1997), 286 pages, ISBN 0813524008 (paper). Covers the history of YAF from 1960 to 1964.
  • Crawford, Alan. Thunder on the Right: The "New Right" and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Pantheon Books (1980), 381 pages, ISBN 039474862X (paper). A negative portrayal of 1970's and 1980's conservatism, including much material on YAF.
  • Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute (1996), 467 pages, ISBN 1882926129 (hardcover). A history of the different strains of conservative ideology from 1945 until 1976, updated to 1996 in the second edition.
  • Rusher, William A. The Rise of the Right. New York: National Review Books (1993), 261 pages, ISBN 0962784125 (paper). A history of American political conservatism from 1953 until 1981, updated to 1993 in the second edition. Includes much material on YAF.
  • Schneider, Gregory L. Cadres for Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right. New York: New York University Press (1999), 263 pages, ISBN 081478108X (hardcover). Covers the history of YAF from 1960 to 1985.

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