In 1936, the year before the Class of 1941 arrived in Cambridge, Harvard celebrated its Tercentenary. The University applauded itself, examined its past achievements, and enjoyed charting the course of the next 300 years.
But as the Class of '41 arrived, this self-preoccupation faded, and in the four years between freshman registration in '37 and commencement in '41, the University's interest shifted toward the world and the growing war. A year after registration the Munich conference convened; and a year later World War Ii began.
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor six months after graduation; and by the end of the war, 38 members of the class of '41 had died in the Armed Services -- the highest casualty rate of any class in Harvard's history.
The years 1937-1941 were somber ones. Gradually, world and national news took up larger and larger spaces on page one of the CRIMSON; and with increasing frequency the editorials on page two were devoted to debates about neutrality and criticism of two Presidents, Conant and Roosevelt.
But when the 1030 new members of the Class of '41 entered Harvard in September, 1937, much of this was still ahead. Deans reminded them that the fall hour exams would soon be separating the men from the boys. Howard Mumford Jones, Chairman of the American history committee, started a special program of extracurricular reading for freshman, because he said he felt that a required course in American history would amount to "indoctrination worthy of Hitler."
After three months of bitter feuding, Harvard that fall signed the first labor contract in its history, recognizing two AFL locals as sole bargaining agents for the dining hall workers. But an "inside" union, the Harvard Employees Representative Association, challenged the AFL for the loyalty of the buildings and grounds workers, and the Administration's efforts to preserve a neutral stand during this dispute became more difficult as the year went on.
The football team defeated a previously unbeaten and heavily favored Yale team 13-6, (Yale lost to Harvard three out of the Class of 41's four years.)
A spectacular disappearance and apparent suicide was the subject of much conversation for more than three months that first year. A law student vanished from his room, and the only clue was his neatly folded jacked found alongside the Charles. The neatness precluded violence, and for 145 hours the police dragged the river, with no success. His description was published, and reports filtered in from allover the country -- he was seen in Maryland, he was seen selling magazines in Virginia. But these reports proved to be only visions, for three months later two boys on an icebreaker found his body in the frozen Charles.
That same spring the University had an uncomfortable brush with city politics. Mayor Lyons of Boston inaugurated one of the first Harvard Red scares by charging in April that some undergraduates had been involved in recruiting Cambridge schoolchildren for the Young Communist League. The charges were denied.
H.G. Wells came to Harvard and declared that there would be no general war in Europe for at least four years. William L. Langer '15, Coolidge Professor of History, claimed that Hitler planned to conquer the entire continent.
Hamilton Fish '10, senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a meeting in Winthrop House that America should "stop pulling chestnuts out of the fire for other nations and mind our own business." A mass meeting in April drew 700 people, and the newly-formed Undergraduate Neutrality Council demanded that all prowar memorials at Harvard be removed, including the Sargent murals Widner.
Sophomore year began inauspiciously: registration came two days after the Hurricane of '38 -- "the greatest hurricane which has ever struck Boston," the CRIMSON reported. Not only had the 186 mile per hour winds done $100,000 worth of damage to Elliot House, Winthrop House, and the Yard, but whole chunks of the northeast remained isolated and without transportation. Days passed while students straggled back to Cambridge.
The political atmosphere seemed equally inauspicious when three weeks later the Cambridge City Council passed a unanimous resolution demanding that Harvard become a separate municipality with no connection with Cambridge.
"Cambridge will not allow itself to be run by the disciples of Karl Marx." one councillor declared, referring to the "deep-seated and far-reaching conspiracy which has as its aim the capturing of the very government of the city itself." Although Harvard did not deign to counter this charge, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the resolution turned out to have been only a publicly stunt designed by one of the councillors to pigeonhole other legislation before the Council.
Attention soon turned to the crisis in Czechoslovakia. Hundreds attended meeting after meeting to hear almost anyone's interpretations and predictions. Five hundred undergraduates crowded into Emerson D in November to hear the deans and several Faculty members denounce the Nazis. Two weeks later, 1250 in Sanders Theatre heard Eddie Cantor and Leverett Saltonstall talk about the German refugee problem. Forty-seven science professors boycotted German scientific supplies. The Harvard Corporation voted $10,000 in scholarship aid for German refugees.
There was still news to be made at home. In January, Felix Frankfurter, Byrne Professor of Administrative Law, was appointed to the Supreme Court. When the dining hall workers threatened to strike, Harvard granted a closed shop and higher wages.
And then on April 18 a banner headline in the CRIMSON announced the start of the campaign to abolish that "organized vice racket," the tutoring schools. It seemed that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all undergraduates used the course notes obligingly sold by the "cram parlors" rather than going to the bother of taking their own. Further, the CRIMSON revealed that some of the schools had tried to bribe University officials in order to get class lists and other information.
The Board of Overseers started a probe, and exactly one month later the Faculty Council voted to forbid students to aid the schools by either tutoring or taking notes for them. Course instructors pledged to penalize "canned answers" on exams. With no source of advertising and a shrinking clientele, the schools began to founder.
Once again the year ended with the thought of war; that spring, Carl Friedrich said that the United States had to be willing to risk war so that Nazism could be stopped.
* * *
Germany had invaded Poland and World War II had begun by the time '41 returned to Cambridge as juniors. Another war had started too -- that between Conant, who advocated increased aid to the Allies, and prominent Faculty members such as Pitrim A. Sorokin, professor of Sociology, who in October, 1939 said, "I prefer unjust peace to a long war."
There was more student support for Sorokin than for President Conant. A CRIMSON poll in November showed that three-quarters of the undergraduates favored American neutrality. Peace rallies grew in size and frequency. In April, 1940, a CRIMSON editorial probably expressed the feelings of most when it said. "The United States should ... face the fact that neutral countries in Europe will be crushed.... If only blood can wash away the strange quirks in the human mind that breed war... there is still no reason why it must be done with American blood."
Attention that year was also focused on the University's tenure policy, which the Student Council said was too rigid. The tutoring schools, lingering on since the scandals of the past year, finally died. Publishing companies brought suit against some of the major schools, whose published course notes infringed on textbook copyrights. And the administration made any student who used the services of a tutoring school subject to disciplinary action.
* * *
At a service in Memorial Church in September, 1940, President Conant urged undergraduates to remember that the best way to serve the country at that point was by finishing their education. But the distractions of the War became harder to ignore as '41 began its senior year; the neutrality debate within the Harvard community became bitter, and more and more the outside world intruded upon what academic calm remained. During a mass registration day in October 4700 students and Faculty members registered for the Selective Service.
Undergraduate organizations proliferated on both sides of the neutrality question. The American Student Defense League was formed to "arouse and prepare students for American defense" and to urge an Anglo-American pact. The Harvard Student Union emphatically opposed involvement, as did the Harvard Committee Against Military Intervention. Conant's frequent public speeches helped polarize the issue. On a speaking tour of the South in October he called for immediate and complete American armament; in November he said that no limit should be put on our aid to the Allies; by May, on a national hookup, he urged immediate entry into the War.
There was an election in 1940, and Wilkie easily best Roosevelt in a CRIMSON straw poll of the entire College. "Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D. Roosevelt offer a confusing and unsatisfactory choice," a CRIMSON editorial said, and added that neither candidate would be able to prevent American involvement.
By that winter, isolationist feeling was substantially weaker than it had been a year before. A CRIMSON poll in February showed that 51 per cent of undergraduates opposed involvement but most thought it inevitable in any case. Aid-to Britain and anti-war rallies competed for attention.
So did some less momentous issues. In February the Student Council called for reform of the parietal rules, and the rules were changed to the present "Oxford system" -- girls had to be signed in and out, but advance permission was no longer necessary and a third person no longer had to be present.
The Faculty Committee on Distribution, in apparent response to a Student Council complaint that a Harvard education was no longer providing students with a common intellectual groundwork, announced that the next freshman class would have to take courses in each of the three areas of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Thus General education began at Harvard.
A scandal over racial discrimination erupted when a Negro lacrosse player was taken out of the lineup for the Navy game because the Navy refused to let its team play against a Negro. The Corporation issued a no-discrimination statement and declared that in the future a game was to be called off if the opposing team objected to Negro players on Harvard teams.
As commencement approached, the draft loomed in the future for almost every member of the class and the War far overshadowed the labor fights, curriculum debates, the tutoring school muckraking, and the Yale games. America would be at peace for not quite six more months, and the Class of '41 would be the first to fight.