More than a hundred Harvard students gathered on the lawn in front of Widener Library on that afternoon in April. They handed out leaflets and condemned war and aggression, but they were not worried about Vietnam. Most of them, in fact, had probably never heard of Vietnam.
It was the spring of 1940 and the students were members of the Harvard Student Union, a leftist political organization that was determined to keep the United States out of the war in Europe. From September of 1939 on September of 1941 they waged a campaign that rivals in intensity and conviction anything that Students for the Democratic Society has done in protest against the war in Vietnam.
In addition to the Student Union, the best-organized and most extreme group, there was the American Independence League, the Youth Committee Against War, and the Harvard Anti-War Committee. If the massive phallus planned by these groups did not always materialize, it was not because they had no supporters. In November of 1939 a Student Union poll of 1800 undergraduates revealed that 15 per cent opposed immediate inter-mention in the European war, and 78 per cent would oppose U.S. participation even if Britain and France were in the point of being defeated.
In their efforts to convince the Administration to keep the country out of war, the pacifists used many of the same techniques that are being used how by anti-war groups. A petition was sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 in May of 1940, reminding him "to bend his efforts toward securing peace and not war for America." More than 300 students signed the petition and sent with it a naval artillery shell, World War I vintage, for the President to use as a paperweight. The signers vowed "never, under any circumstances, to follow in the footsteps of the students of 1917."
Later that same month, a number of pacifists, armed with gas masks and sporting arm bands and placards protested against "the war mongering preaching" of Paul P. Cram '15, instructor in History, by picketing outside his classroom. Cram paid no attention to the protestors or their placards (including such poetic masterpieces as: Churchill's in a jam/No fault of Mr. Cram/But he must fight alone/Save democracy at home.)
The Harvard Student Union scheduled a rally for the morning of April 20, 1940, and arranged for Michael J. Quill to address the gathering. (This is the same Michael J. Quill who died earlier this year leading the New York transit worker's strike.) Quill was, even then, a prominent leader of the CIO and president of the Transport Workers Union. Objecting to the "pseudo-peace stand" and the Communist affiliations of the Student Union, the Harvard Anti-War Committee planned a rival peace meeting the afternoon of April 20, with Norman Thomas, Socialist candidate for President, as guest speaker.
Thomas prevented any chance of uniting the two rallies when he refused to speak on the same platform with Quill, whom he accused of being "too close to Stalin." The rallies, although eventually held separately, attracted more than 1000 people.
The protesters could see two possible reasons for entering the war and they rejected both of them. The interventionists argued that democracy in America could be preserved only by restoring democracy in Europe and breaking America's ideological isolation, and that a Hitler-dominated Europe would be a direct, military threat to the United States. At the beginning of the war, a majority of Harvard students were unwilling to fight for the preservation of democracy in Europe, and they did not believe that Hitler was a direct threat to the United States.
But after the Nazi invasion of the Lowlands and the Battle of France had begun, Germany seemed to pose a greater threat to America and the isolationist front began to waver. On Class Day in June, 1940 the entire senior class booed and hissed the 1915 Ivy orator when he said: "We were not too proud to fight in 1917," and implied that perhaps the class of 1940 lacked the necessary humility.
In December of 1940 the Committee for Militant Peace Action conducted a mass demonstration in the Yard and 400 students, teachers, and workers proclaimed "1941 shall not be 1917." Approximately 100 members of the Militant Aid to Britain Committee quickly organized a counter-rally and crashed through the pacifist picket lines singing "There Shall Always Be an England" and carrying posters which read "pacifists are yellow." The Action group replied by chanting "keep America out of war," and by passing out "the Yanks are not coming" buttons.
Although the isolationists continued to form new committees and to protest, they soon lost the support of most undergraduates. A week after the rival rallies in the Yard ended in a near riot, a poll conducted by the Student Defense League revealed that 84 of 99 students in Eliot House favored substantial military aid to Britain. Enrollment in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps was rising rapidly and every poll of Harvard students showed strong support for intervention on the side of the Allies.
Many isolationists abandoned their anti-war position when the Nazi invasion of the Lowlands convinced them that the United States was in danger, but there were also factions that continued to object to a declaration of war against Germany and its ally the Soviet Union. These groups, including the Harvard Student Union, did not support intervention until the Nazi-Soviet pact was shattered. As Hitler's armies rolled into Russia, the Student Union suddenly turned a complete about-face and came out strongly for an immediate declaration of war against Germany and the rapid dispatch of American troops to Europe.
But after the Nazi invasion of the lowlands and the battle of France had begun, Germany seemed to pose a greater threat to America and the isolationist front began to waver. On Class Day in June, 1940 the entire senior class booed and hissed the 1915 Ivy orator when he said: "We were not too proud to fight in 1917," and implied that perhaps the class of 1940 lacked the necessary humility.
Many observers, who noticed the same stupendous switch in the editorial policies of the ultra-left Daily Worker, were convinced that the Student Union had been following a hard-Stalinist position from the beginning. In any case, the most powerful anti-war group was silenced, and in October, a petition calling for the repeal of the Neutrality Acts received 1000 signatures.
When war was declared at the end of the first week in December, the Student Defense League and several other anti-involvement groups pledged their support for the Administration and voluntarily disbanded. The Class of 1941 had done what it had originally vowed never to do. It had followed in the footsteps of the Class of 1917.