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.