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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.
But the similarity between the Classes of 1917 and 1941 was not limited to the fact that both went to war, for the First World War also saw a significant amount of anti-war protest.
The central issue during the First World War was military preparedness. In March 1915, the Collegiate Anti-Militarism League was formed and it announced its opposition to all increases in American military strength. A number of students sent a letter to President Wilson in May supporting his isolationist stand, and denouncing blind or pyrotechnic patriotism.
A number of Harvard students sent a letter to President Wilson in May of 1915 supporting his isolationist stand, and denoucing blind or pyrotechnic patriotism.
That same spring, the National Security League of Harvard was organized. "We must carefully consider our lamentable lack of preparedness," their statement of purpose said. "Our organization will seek to arouse such public sentiment as will influence the proper authorities to enforce some systematic plan of national defense."
The groups which had so effectively presented the anti-war position in the spring of 1915 were considerably weaker by the fall of the same year as the consensus of student opinion shifted toward the preparedness position. The CRIMSON, which had opposed U.S. preparations for war the previous spring, changed its policy and became one of the leading spokesman for increased American military strength. The Student Council also adopted a resolution supporting increased preparedness and voluntary military training for all students.
To provide some form of voluntary training, the Harvard Regiment was organized. The Regiment, which attracted nation-wide attention, gave its 1200 student members training in military tactics, taught them how to use rifles and expected them to attend one lecture a week in military science. In March, 1916, 52 students organized an zero corps to train Harvard men as aviators to fight with the United States Army in case of war.
During the fall of 1916 and the winter of 1917 the issue had changed from "should the U.S. prepare?", to "how should the U.S. prepare?", and the dispute between the preparers and the pacifists flared up again. It was at this time that the Senate began to discuss the Chamberlain Bill, calling for universal military service. Many Harvard organizations, including the Student Council and the CRIMSON, supported conscription, but pacifist organizations from several Eastern universities, including Harvard, sent delegations to the Senate committee which was hearing testimony on the Bill. Speaking for the International Polity Club, several Harvard students told the committee that the voluntary system of service had proved adequate and that the government should not use compulsion until it had been proved that it was impossible to obtain soldiers in any other way.
But a University-wide poll, held soon after, refuted the pacifists. In January of 1917, less than three months before the United States entered the war, 72 per cent of the students voted for conscription. The CRIMSON commented: "Those men who have declared both formally and informally that Harvard is against universal training are shown to have spoken with no cause. The views of a University may not be circumscribed by the desires of any partisan of peace, however lofty his ideals or altruistic his hopes."
But the pacifist movement was not completely dead. At the end of January a majority of students at the Divinity School signed a petition which was sent to Congress opposing any form of conscription on the grounds that it was un-Christian, contrary to American ideals, and self-defeating since it bred international misunderstanding and distrust. As war became more imminent, such protests became more unusual, and an increasing number of students at the University entered some form of voluntary military training.
Anti-war protests at Harvard followed essentially the same pattern in the First and Second World Wars. While the United States was still uncommitted and indecisive, students organized and petitioned and argued and protested. But once America became involved the dissension disappeared. The Vietnam war protest at Harvard is unique in the history of the University, not because is exists at all -- for Harvard has a long tradition of anti-war process -- but because it has not voluntarily dissolved itself as soon as the first American bullets were fired, as soon as the first American soldiers were killed
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