Student Movements on Campus

With my college generation a new thing developed: “the student movement.” We had a definite effect upon our times. We were in revolt. Not in the manner of many preceding generations,…not in the individualistic sense of hating the smugness of middle class life and mores…We believed passionately in the integrity of the human personality, but we sought these ends, not by changing the individual, but by changing the way society—meaning chiefly economic society—was organized. We sought neither wealth nor fame, nor did we expect security and serenity in the end. We had to help change society. We did not feel sorry for ourselves; we felt sorry for the others. The methods would have to be the methods of election and legislation, of large-scale organization, of mass meeting and strike and protest parade.

Eric Sevareid
Not So Wild A Dream

Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press. (originally 1946) 1995. Pages 55-56.

The University of Minnesota student movement, like the national one, opposed the United States entering the war looming in Europe, and requiring male students to prepare for the military as part of their undergraduate studies. By the mid-1930s, white University student activists also began to address issues of racism that had been important to African American students throughout the decade. Student rights loomed large as well.

Nowhere did national and state issues meet on the campus more forcefully than in the requirement that male students participate in military drills to prepare the nation for war. Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd B. Olson’s campaign for reelection to Governor turned, in part, on his opposition to required drills, which also affected the choice of eight new members of the Board of Regents in 1935.

 

Strike for Peace

The American student movement, which focused on international issues even more than domestic ones, opposed the United States entering another war. Beginning in 1934, activists mobilized students across the country in April and November to participate in “Peace Strikes” marking the beginning and end of World War I. Students boycotted classes at 11:30 A.M. for one hour and held the largest campus demonstrations to that point in American history. The strikes continued until 1941.

In 1935, for example, 3,000 Minnesota students assembled in the plaza and on the steps in front of Northrop Auditorium for one of the nation’s largest anti-war demonstrations. Fliers were used to both advertise the events and to lay out the positions of the organizers locally and nationally. President Coffman would not allow students to enter the auditorium because he disagreed with their call to miss classes. The demonstration attracted hecklers and pro-war students, who made some effort to disrupt the pro-peace activists, but they were not effective in stopping the peace strike.

Armistice Day Proclamation flyer, 1935

Leaflets calling on students to protest the United States entering a war in Europe were circulated on college campuses throughout the United States, as well as the University of Minnesota.

Armistice Day Proclamation flyer, 1935

Leaflets calling on students to protest the United States entering a war in Europe were circulated on college campuses throughout the United States, as well as the University of Minnesota.  They called for student protests to coincide with dates related to WWI, such as the armistice. The University administration constantly monitored student activism by collecting names of student protestors, and keeping hand outs like this one, which was found in the files of President Lotus Coffman.

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Strike for Peace flyer, 1935

This flyer called on students to skip an hour of class in order to protest the possibility of the United States entering a war in Europe.

Strike for Peace flyer, 1935

This flyer called on students to skip one hour of class in order to protest the possibility of the United States entering a war in Europe.  This was a national movement in which such strikes were coordinated on campuses throughout the United States.  These flyers are in the files of President Coffman because he closely monitored student activism.

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A few student testimonies from the period provide their view of the events. What undergraduate Rosalind Matusow, an activist in the mid 1930s, recalled about the demonstration was Governor Floyd Olson’s speech. She also was impressed by the diversity of opinions among students.

“I immediately became involved in student activity, antiwar activity, you know that was the big worry then of all of the students, war and fascism. I remember the first student peace strike. We thought it was just huge because the whole plaza in front of Northrop Auditorium was just filled with students.

There was a tremendous amount of work and activity on all kinds of levels. A very few people started it and you know it really developed into a tremendous movement.

There were all kinds of divergent opinions and I got quite a real political education, during that time. I hadn’t been exposed to people having different shades of opinions and you know, it was a good education.”

Rosalind Matusow Belmont
Minnesota Historical Society, 20th Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project

From the beginning, the Peace Strikes were organized by several different campus groups. They included the YMCA and the YWCA, the Social Problems Club, as well as the All University Council. The campus chapter of the National Student League was also an ally, as well as, for a time, the more moderate Practical Pacifists.

Peace Demonstration, 1941 campus photograph

In 1941, University of Minnesota demonstrators carried signs with national antiwar slogans.

Peace Demonstration, 1941 campus photograph

In 1941, University of Minnesota demonstrators carried signs with national antiwar slogans.  The student movement was turning toward support for war after 1939 when Hitler invaded multiple countries.

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Why Did Students Oppose a War Against Fascism?

If World War II is remembered as a “good war” because it defeated Nazism and fascism, then why did the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum oppose entering a second world war, and why students in particular?

World War I ended in 1918 and left over 17 million dead; 11 million soldiers perished.  Students faced the possibility of war again, barely a decade later. A simple oath, known as the Oxford Pledge, was advanced in 1933 by Oxford University’s debating society in England. It stated, “This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The same semester, American students adapted the pledge to state, “I will not support the government of the United States in any war that it might conduct.” Tens of thousands of students took this oath on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1935, The Literary Digest, a popular weekly that canvassed opinions on a variety of political topics, sought student views on war. Questions included whether students were willing to fight a war outside the United States or within the nation’s borders, and whether industries should profit from building arms. More than 4,000 University of Minnesota students cast ballots, and nearly 90 percent declared that they would not take up arms outside the borders of the United States. Minnesota students were in the mainstream.

“Students Will Get Ballots For Peace Polls”

On January 16, 1935, the Minnesota Daily announced the student poll and continued to urge students to participate. This reprinted cartoon offers the student peace movement’s perspective; death is in league with those who profited from the war industries.

“Students Will Get Ballots For Peace Polls”

This Minnesota Daily article reports that the Association of College Editors will disseminate thousands of ballots so that the “world leaders of tomorrow” can register their opinions in regard to future conflict. The initiative demonstrates the growing anxiety in the 1930s about the prospect of another global war—one in which many university students would no doubt be asked to fight.

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These strong anti-war sentiments among students in the United States had several sources. Activists often used the term “lessons learned” from World War I as the foundation of their support for neutrality, and their refusal to die in another war. These were the “lessons:”

  • President Woodrow Wilson had promised that World War I would make the world “safe for democracy.” That promise failed, and Europe was now increasingly dominated by dictators and fascism. Activists argued that war could not solve problems.
  • Student activists argued that profits and greed caused World War I. The United States responded to the demands of bankers and the munitions industry and the war made them rich. Students argued that economic gain was the only reason nations went to war, and they rejected nationalism and militarism.
  • Germans were accused of some atrocities during World War I that were ultimately revealed to be fabricated. The war had, in the face of this propaganda, created an atmosphere in the United States of anti-German hysteria that led to the the suppression of American civil liberties. Student activists held their families and government morally responsible for this harsh chapter in the nation’s recent history.

The Administration Attempts to Contain and Control the Peace Strikes

President Coffman and Dean Nicholson actively worked to undermine the rights of students to assemble, discuss, and debate the war. Coffman would not allow students to enter Northrop Auditorium to assemble for their demonstrations, which is why they were held on the plaza. Governor Olson addressed activists on the steps of the building, below the president’s office window. Coffman’s assistant, Dean Willey, triumphantly informed him that he was able to minimize the Minnesota Daily’s coverage of these events by speaking to the editor.

Malcolm Willey Letter to Lotus D. Coffman about the Minnesota Daily and student demonstrations

Malcolm Willey’s letter is an example of the efforts of administrators to shape and influence the content of the Minnesota Daily to their own views.

Malcolm Willey Letter to Lotus D. Coffman about the Minnesota Daily and student demonstrations

Malcolm Willey’s letter is an example of the efforts of administrators to shape and influence the content of the Minnesota Daily to their own views.

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Political surveillance involved monitoring students at demonstrations. Dean Nicholson likely passed names of demonstrators to Ray Chase to build his files of subversive students.

Chase list of Peace March, May 23, 1934

A list of demonstrators from a 1934 student demonstration in the Ray P. Chase files.

Chase list of Peace March, May 23, 1934

Campus administrators monitored students who attended peace demonstrations at the University of Minnesota.  This list was found in the files of Ray P. Chase.  Students were not only spied upon, but then that information was gathered to be sent to Chase.  Some of these students appear on Chase’s dossiers on student activists.

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The Fight to End Required Military Drills

There seemed to be a law hanging over from Civil War days which made it necessary for any boy striving for education at the people’s university to don a hand-me-down uniform and shoulder a 1905 unfireable Springfield rifle three times a week for a full two years. (It was) a harsh interference with our liberty and a humiliating affront to our personal dignity.

Eric Sevareid
Not So Wild A Dream

Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press. (originally 1946) 1995. Page 59.

Public universities required undergraduate male students to participate in military drills and classes in some periods of the 19th and 20th centuries. Male students were required to study “military arts,” along with agriculture, science and mechanic arts, under the Morrill Act of 1862 that established public universities through the sale of federal lands. The University of Minnesota instituted that requirement under the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) at its founding in 1869 and required young men to prepare for defense of the nation and war.

ROTC Drills in Minneapolis Star

The Minneapolis Star ran this photograph in 1940 to demonstrate preparedness for war.

ROTC Drills in Minneapolis Star

This photograph of the ROTC at the University of Minnesota appeared in the Minneapolis Star to demonstrate preparedness for war.

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Following World War I, however, students began to question the necessity of required drills, and particularly the place of militarism on American campuses. At the University of Minnesota, student activists built a powerful movement to end required drills. The students’ complaints varied. Some declared themselves “Conscientious Objectors,” who were opposed on principle to all wars. Some decried the waste of their time due to the terrible quality and disorganization of the classes. Some objected who were part of the antiwar movement and opposed militarization of the campus and the nation.

At the same time, other student groups supported the drills on the grounds that the United States needed to be prepared in case of attack. They called themselves the “Practical Pacifist Club.”

Warner Shippee Letter to Edward E. Nicholson for Conscientious Objection

Warner Shippee was an activist in the Anti-Drill movement, and a committed pacifist. He sought to legitimate the right of a student to substitute physical education for drills as an act of conscience.  He requested the right to substitute physical education for mandatory drills.

Warner Shippee Letter to Edward E. Nicholson for Conscientious Objection

Warner Shippee was an activist in the Anti-Drill movement, and a committed pacifist. He sought to legitimate the right of a student to substitute physical education for drills as an act of conscience.  He requested the right to substitute physical education for mandatory drills.

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Lotus D. Coffman Response to Warner Shippee Regarding Request for Conscientious Objection

President Coffman had the right to make the final decisions on student requests to be excused from required military drills because of matters of conscience.

Lotus D. Coffman Response to Warner Shippee Regarding Request for Conscientious Objection

Warner Shippee requested to be excused from mandatory ROTC drills, and to take physical education instead because he considered himself a conscientious objector.  His requests first went to Dean Nicholson and then President Coffman.  Others had been excused on those grounds.  The request came in the midst of student protests over ROTC, which was resolved by the Board of Regents’ decision in June of 1935.

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The Anti-Compulsory Drill Debate

In 1934, Sheldon Kaplan, an undergraduate, was suspended from the University because he skipped two days of drill class. His case became a cause for activists. His suspension was featured in the Minnesota Daily, whose editorial leaders opposed required drills. His outstanding grades were splashed on the newspaper’s front page along with the F on his report card in the military course. The article quoted Kaplan’s comment that he was told by the officers in charge that he was “free to sleep through the classes.”

Kaplan was defended by another student activist, Richard Scammon, before the ROTC “military tribunal,” which called for Kaplan’s suspension. President Coffman overrode the tribunal’s decision and Kaplan returned to class. The fight gained momentum.

Nevertheless, Dean Nicholson and Ray Chase’s surveillance focused on the leaders of this movement even after the Regents voted in 1934 to end the drills. Their names appeared on all of Chase’s lists.

“Arts Student Ousted for Failure to Attend Drill”

This Minnesota Daily cast honors student and philosophy major Sheldon Kaplan’s suspension as proof of how useless military drills and classes were.

“Arts Student Ousted for Failure to Attend Drill”

In 1934, Sheldon Kaplan, an Arts student at the U of M with a near A-average, was suspended for refusing to attend drill. The controversy would become one of many surrounding the ROTC and the growing anti-drill movement on campus. President Coffman reinstated Kaplan and over ruled the ROTC.

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A Question that Haunts the Student Movement

The vast majority of the male students who opposed entering the war eventually supported it and fought in it after the United States declared war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Did the “lessons learned” from World War I apply to World War II? Why were antiwar activists slow to understand the dangers of fascism, and the genocidal program of Adolph Hitler and National Socialism?

Looking back on this period, former antiwar activist and journalist Eric Sevareid wrote in his memoir:

“The actions of Hitler were being justified on all sides by a lot of people who believed in capitalism, in preparedness, in all the conventional ideas, as merely a necessary attempt to bring “order” into German life, and to give the Germans, frustrated by the mistaken terms of the Versailles Treaty, a sense of dignity and place in the world. These people were inclined to approve the Nazis as a “stabilizing” force. But we who had learned from history…knew the moment the Nazis burned books [in 1933] that Fascism wanted war. Why did we not immediately go all out for preparedness [for war]?  We grasped the implications of fascism, but we failed to grasp the scale of a world conspiracy that was under way.”

Eric Sevareid
Not So Wild a Dream

Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press. (originally 1946) 1995. Pages 55-56.

Debate About War and the Wide Reach of “Campus” Politics

The decision to end mandatory drills rested with the Board of Regents. Despite mounting opposition to the drills from students and the Farmer-Labor Party, the Regents voted early in 1934 to maintain the requirement. However, at their June 18, 1934 meeting the Regents reversed course and voted 6 to 5 to end the requirement and made drills voluntary. Though the issue persisted through 1935, mandatory drills never returned.

The popular Farmer-Labor Governor, Floyd Olson, had nominated the candidates for the eight open Regents positions earlier that year. Governor Olson shared the Progressives’ antiwar stance and Minnesota Republicans feared that Olson’s choices would tip the balance against drills. State and campus politics were shaping one another. The minutes of the Board of Regents meeting recorded the vote, and took the unusual step of including how each regent voted. On the question “Shall the rule requiring compulsory military training at the University be repealed and military training be made optional, effective beginning with the academic year 1934-35,” the Regents voted as follows:

1. Coller: No2. Determan: Yes3. Hagen: No4. Lawson: Yes5. Mayo: No 6. Murphy: Yes7. Olson, A. E.: Yes8. Olson, A. J.: Yes 9. Rand: Yes
10. Snyder: No
11. Williams: No

Military training was therefore made optional effective beginning with the academic year 1934-35.

Board of Regents' Meetings and Committee Meetings: June 11, 1934, p.251. University of Minnesota

Student journalists put out a special edition of the Minnesota Daily for graduation, and the next year devoted a page of the Gopher Yearbook to their victory.

Minnesota Daily, “Extra!” End of Drills

Journalist Arnold (Eric) Sevareid wrote for the Minnesota Daily as a student. His story provides a thorough analysis of the Regents’ vote to end required military drills on campus

Minnesota Daily, “Extra!” End of Drills

This exclusive “extra edition” was written by Arnold Eric Sevareid in June of 1934, when the Minnesota Daily was normally out of print. Published and hurriedly circulated among the remaining students on campus, Sevareid‘s “EXTRA!” reported the Regents’ surprise decision to end compulsory military drill at the University of Minnesota, following extensive activism on the part of students. It would be the second ‘land grant’ institution to do so.

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Anti-Drill in Gopher Yearbook

In 1935, the Gopher Yearbook devoted a page to the previous year’s battle to end drills. The staff selected photographs of both sides of the debate.

Anti-Drill in Gopher Yearbook

In 1935, the Gopher Yearbook devoted a page to the previous year’s battle to end drills. The staff selected photographs of both sides of the debate.

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Student Rights in the Student Movement

American student activists readily grasped that their struggle against war was inseparable from their need for student’s rights on campus. In 1935, they passed a resolution that called for freedom of speech, assembly and the press. In 1936, the University of Minnesota’s administration and Regents passed multiple rules to further limit or withdraw all of those rights from students. The students’ call for student rights in the 1930s echoed through the student movements of the 1960s and beyond.

The Right to Form Political Groups Freely

Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicholson limited activism by denying students the right to form local chapters of the political organizations that constituted the Student Left. He and other deans interviewed the activists who proposed these groups and demanded to know what their ideas were and to see copies of their membership lists. Most Leftist political groups were denied approval. Communist clubs did not want to provide membership lists for fear of reprisals.

Abstract of Student Affairs on Left-Wing Groups

Abstracts of the Senate hearings from 1935 were collected in the files of Ray Chase as he began to build the case that the University of Minnesota was “infiltrated” by Communists. The interviews reported in these minutes are filled with accusations about students’ political views.

Abstract of Student Affairs on Left-Wing Groups

This transcript of a University Senate records how Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicholson and Dean of Women Anne Blitz grilled students about the organizations they wished to form on the campus. Students were asked about their political affiliations, and asked whether or not they were communists.. Most left-wing groups were rejected. This report was found in the Ray P. Chase papers, most likely given to him by Dean Nicholson.

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Propaganda Versus the Free Exchange of Ideas

By 1936, the Student Movement had begun to threaten the conservative administrators of the University of Minnesota. Dean Nicholson forbade Mr. Poucher, who oversaw the University’s postal services, to allow first class mail from the Progressive Student Council to be put in student mailboxes. In this and other cases he denied that this information was of interest to students.

Nicholson Memo to Poucher about Political Mail

In this 1936 letter Dean Nicholson reiterated that mail sent through the U.S. postal service could not be distributed to student mailboxes because the Progressive Council was not recognized by the University.  This was one medium open to the Dean to control the distribution of political materials to students.

Nicholson Memo to Poucher about Political Mail

This 1936 letter from Dean Nicholson to Mr. Poucher explains that he would not allow first class mail to be distributed to University of Minnesota students.  The mail was sent by a progressive student organization. Dean Nicholson stated that the group was not recognized by the University of Minnesota and could not use the U.S. postal service to deliver mail.  This is an example of the ways that Dean Nicholson controlled student rights to distribute political information.

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In 1936, the University Senate, directed by Dean Nicholson, put into place severe restrictions concerning the distribution of information he deemed “propaganda.” The University of Minnesota’s administration and Regents passed multiple rules to further limit or withdraw all of those rights from students. Dean Nicholson would now determine what constituted “propaganda.” Approved information could only be placed on nine bulletin boards on the entire campus. Finally, new policies forbade any group “with partial allegiance to an off-campus group and non-University group” to participate in student government.

Propaganda Denied Place in Post Office Boxes by Senate

Description of propaganda rules imposed by the University of Minnesota on student activism.  No one ever defined what propaganda was.

Propaganda Denied Place in Post Office Boxes by Senate

The University of Minnesota Senate and  Board of Regents not only imposed regulations on the public display of student group events and information, but also limited their use of the post office for the circulation of material. Though they argued that prohibited material was limited to that which was “purely propaganda”, the Regents’ decision was the culmination of ongoing disputes with liberal campus groups. Therefore, many saw the new rules as a backlash against student radicalism.  Dean of Students Edward Nicholson constantly advocated for these limitations on student rights to expressing diverse political attitudes.  No one ever defined propaganda.

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“Poster Restriction Rules Announced by Senate Group”

The Minnesota Daily explained the rules that Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicholson finally succeeded in passing to limit student rights to distribute political literature.

“Poster Restriction Rules Announced by Senate Group”

In 1936, the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota instituted regulations to limit the power of student groups to distribute pamphlets, post “propaganda”, and invite speakers to campus. According to the new rules, all future posters and speaker invitations would need to be approved by Dean Edward Nicholson and enforced by J.C. Poucher, head of student affairs enterprises. The regulations were the result of ongoing “skirmishes” between left-wing groups and the administration, and were interpreted by student activists as an effort to censor political dissent on campus. Dean Nicholson worked through the 1930s to contain activism on the left.

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The Minnesota Daily tracked the events around student rights and reported on the decisions made by the University Senate regarding limitations on student rights to distribute literature and participate in student government. The Daily also editorialized with concern about the decisions taken to limit student rights to distribute political information.

The Senate Committee Solves the Propaganda Problem

The January 30, 1936 edition of the Minnesota Daily summarized the new rules and on the following day editorialized about them with withering sarcasm.

The Senate Committee Solves the Propaganda Problem
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Following Edward Nicholson’s retirement in 1941, no Dean of Student Affairs was ever again allowed to exercise so much control over the lives of students.

Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press. (originally 1946) 1995. Pages 55-56.