After Commencement '68, many Harvard seniors will lose their 2-S student draft deferements, and the war in Vietnam will scatter them across the nation and the world. Fifty years ago, Commencement had just the opposite effect, serving as the first reunion for the Class of 1918--which had already been scattered by the First World War.
By September 1917, the war in Europe had decimated the Class of '18 and all of Harvard. Over 400 seniors did not return to Cambridge--a loss of 65 percent. The College as a whole lost 1804 students or 40 per cent over the 1916-17 school year.
The war had first come to the Yard in May 1915, when four Harvard men were among the 1153 passengers who perished when the Cunard liner Lusi-tania was torperoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. In February 1917, Germany resumed her unrestricted submarine warfare. President Wilson severed diplomatic relations--and the nation prepared for war.
Within a few weeks, the Harvard Faculty voted by a sizable majority to give early exams to students who planned to enlist. President A. Lawrence Lowell, in a letter to the CRIMSON, pleaded with students to wait until word from Washington before rushing into service.
By April, however, the paper declared, "Hereafter the CRIMSON will print no more communications of a pacifist nature." On Friday, April 6, the United States declared war on Germany. President Lowell immediately offered the government full use of University facilities.
At the outset of the 1917-18 school year, Lowell declared that all students still at Harvard would be expected to list at least one military course on their study cards. Freshmen were permitted to take military science in place of any required subject. ROTC officials hoped to raise a regiment of 950 men and got 1028 Harvard enlistees.
The twelve Crimson companies began their drills at Fresh Pond. On October 26, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker--along with President Lowell and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge--watched ROTC work in the muddy Fresh Pond trenches and found high praise for what he saw. Forty-nine years later, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara paid a brief visit to Harvard and went away less favorably impressed.
Unlike the war in Vietnam, the first world war captured the imagination of even the most dedicated Harvard scholars. As the CRIMSON editorialized: "It is very hard for even the oldest head in these times of fierce commotion to settle down to the book and pen. The blood of youth is very hot, and when the bugle blows to war young men are stirred by the desire for great deeds."
The next paragraph, however, could well have been written today: "Nations are being made and unmade. Young men are the inciters of revolution and the stirrers-up of conflict."
A week after the editorial appeared, the Columbia University campus erupted in student protest. Over 500 Columbia undergraduates gathered on the library steps when the Trustees expelled two faculty members, and the renowned American history professor Charles A. Beard resigned in sympathy. The crowd was harangued by a former philosophy instructor named Durant.
By 1918, Harvard's enthusiasm for ROTC had died down to more modern levels. Since participation in ROTC made undergraduates draft-exempt, many took refuge in the program while expending as little effort as possible. Two Harvard students received dishonorable discharges in an incident that foreshadowed Colonel Pell's dismissal of four ROTC graduates last spring.
"Many men now in the corps are abusing this privilege," the CRIMSON observed in January 1918. "They are cutting drill as often as they think they can without losing their good standing with the Military Office."
After the ROTC enlistment drive in the autumn of 1917, the Harvard community launched a liberty bond drive as part of National Liberty Bond Week. On October 20, the CRIMSON printed a letter from ex-president Taft urging every Harvard student to buy a bond. In the seven-day period, the University contributed $35,370 toward the war effort. Over 1000 Harvard students joined the Red Cross in still another University-wide campaign.
Not all of the sacrifices were voluntary. An acute coal shortage gripped New England in the harsh winter of 1917-18. Harvard undergraduates suffered numerous measures to conserve fuel, finding the New Lecture Hall padlocked, the Junior Dance indefinitely postponed, and Widener Library closed on Sundays--the plight with which the Class of '68 can best sympathize.
The Student Council proposed that Harvard's daily schedule start an hour earlier to economize on the use of artificial light. Federal fuel administrator Storrow immediately endorsed this suggestion, recommending it for all colleges. When put to a College-wide referendum, however, undergraduates with 8 a.m. language classes combined to defeat the earlier schedule, 689 to 393.