Harvard has defied all its traditions as a cloistered ivy tower in its multifold reactions to the war during the past two years.
Almost from the first shot the Yard was split into two opposite groups which can easily be classed into the rough distinctions of "isolationist" and "interventionist". Each side has formed a succession of student and Faculty committees, the number of which has grown so large that it is doubtful if any one person can remember them all.
When the war broke out in September of 1939 the "isolationists" were far and away the more numerous of the two groups. The CRIMSON, which with the "Progressive," the Student Union magazine, has been a spokesman for the isolationist camp since the beginning, urged all aid to the Allies short of war as a means of keeping American soldiers on this side of the ocean. For if England and France should begin to loss the CRIMSON declared, pressure on this country to enter the war would become too great to resist.
First Committee Formed
Early in October the first of the succession of committees was formed under the title of the American Independence League. In four or five days the A.I.L. sold 600 buttons at a dime apiece. The members wore their badges for a week at the most, put them away, and forgot them. Except for one brief and poorly attended meeting in the winter, the A.I.L. never raised its head again. It was the prototype of what was to follow.
However, the speed with which members were found is significant of the strength of isolationist sentiment in Cambridge at that time. For the last year no one organization could hope to get more than 100 members even without a $.10 tax because opinions have split into so many varied channels.
By the end of the fall a Faculty vs. students lineup which was to last for the rest of the year was apparent. Under the distinguished leadership of President Conant, the majority of the Faculty came out vehemently first for the repeal of the arms embargo and then for all aid to the Allies. The majority of the student groups remained in the isolationist camp and only a few sided openly with their teachers.
Student anti-war agitation continued through the winter and spring despite the disadvantage of having no tangible enemy. Nothing was happening "over there" and no visible efforts were being made by the Allies to draw America into the war. But with the invasion of France things began to pop around Cambridge as well as around Paris.
Isolationist Front Wavers
At that time the general student attitude can be summed up as a disinclination to fight simply to preserve and restore democracy in Europe when there is no direct threat to America. When France fell, numbers of students began to see a direct threat to America and in the late spring of 1940 a realignment took place. The isolationist front began to waver.
The second came at Class Day when the capped and gowned Seniors rose to boo the 1915 Ivy Orator when he said "We were not too proud to fight," hinting that perhaps the Class of 1940 was not so humble.
During the summer of 1940 the Faculty organized its pro-aid members into a well-knit body known as American Defense-Harvard Group. The Group followed roughly the Conant Line, which at that time consisted of "all aid short of war now; all aid later if necessary." Faculty members spent last year speaking, writing and acting on behalf of Aid to Britain.
Leaders in the Group have been Ralph Barton Perry, professor of Government, who has written a bi-weekly letter to the New York Times which has overshadowed the regular Times editorial in length; William Yandell Elliott, professor of Government and lecturer in Gov. 1, who made the claim last year that "the last war wasn't much worse than crossing Harvard Square"; and James A. McLaughlin, professor of Law.
The Group argued active defense measures and aid to Britain on two grounds: that democracy must be preserved and that America could not be ideologically isolated and still preserve democracy; and that it was to the direct military interest of America to prevent an Allied defeat. It was also on this basis that several hundred undergraduates formed themselves into a Student Defense League as soon as they returned in the fall.