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
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.Robert Cohen. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and American’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.
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 to participate in “Peace Strikes” in April and November, 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 when the United States declared war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
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.
A few student testimonies from the period reflect on these events. What undergraduate Rosalind Matusow, an activist in the mid 1930s, recalled about the demonstration was Governor Floyd Olson’s speech. She was also impressed by the diversity of opinions among students.
“I immediately became involved in student activity, anti-war 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.
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 brief 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 1933, anti-war activists at the University of Minnesota held a debate on the Oxford Oath at the University recreation building attended by 300 students. Nearly every male student who attended rose to take the Oxford Oath. Fifty ROTC cadet officers walked out in protest.
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.
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 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 Attempted 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. Governor Olson told the students assembled on the plaza, “No government has the right to compel its citizens to bear arms in a war of aggression. The history of most wars shows that they were fought for material reasons and not for human rights and for human ideals.”John S. McGrath and James J. Delmont. Floyd B. Olson: Minnesota's Greatest Liberal Governor. Self-published, 1937.
Coffman’s assistant, Dean Malcolm Willey, triumphantly informed him that he was able to minimize the Minnesota Daily’s coverage of anti-war events by speaking to the editor.
Political surveillance involved monitoring students at demonstrations, among other activities. People in Dean Nicholson’s office may have collected names of demonstrators to be passed to Ray Chase to build his files of “subversive” students. Another source may have been people working for Colonel Potts.
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
Public universities required undergraduate male students to participate in military drills and classes in some periods of the 19th and 20th centuries. Under the Morrill Act of 1862 that established public universities through the sale of federal lands, male students were obligated to study “military arts,” along with agriculture, science, and mechanic arts. 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.
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, which stretched back to the mid-1920s. 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 anti-war 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.”
The Anti-Compulsory Drill Debate
An effective campaign to oppose compulsory drills was launched by a new group at the University of Minnesota. These students called themselves the Jacobin Club, and they shared a number of powerful principles, chief among them opposition to war and to required ROTC drill and classes. The Jacobins were a unique fraternity for the 1930s. Their “house” was the student union, and they admitted Jews, which no other specifically non-Jewish fraternity did, although no African American students were included as members. The Jacobins ranked highest in grade point averages of all fraternities, and dominated student government, leadership of the Minnesota Daily, and anti-war activism. Many of them ended up on every list created by Ray Chase of “Radical Students” to be watched. The Jacobins constantly challenged Dean Edward Nicholson, who did everything in his power to control and suppress their effective activism.The Jacobins were the subject of a 1959 article in the University of Minnesota publication, The Ivory Tower. Terry Fisher described the group and its struggle to end ROTC on campus from 1933 to 1935. November 16, pp 5, 10-12. (Included in the papers of Warner Shippee, Courtesy of Elizabeth Shippee). Eric Sevareid. Not So Wild a Dream. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press. (originally 1946) 1995, pp 60-67 provides an account of the Jacobins and their activism on campus. These publications both note Dean Edward Nicholson’s deep hostility to the Jacobins.
The Jacobins were aided in their efforts to stop required drills by an incident 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 a Jacobin 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. On May 23, the activists scheduled a demonstration against compulsory drill the same day that the annual spring ROTC review took place. Dean Nicholson attempted to stop the student demonstration, which was written about in the Minnesota Daily. When the students refused to cancel their demonstration, the Dean simply censored the newspaper and would not allow it to publish any more information about the protest. He lifted the censorship after two days.
A Question that Haunted 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 anti-war activists slow to understand the dangers of fascism, and the genocidal program of Adolph Hitler and National Socialism?
Looking back on this period, former anti-war 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
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 to campus.
The popular Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd Olson, had nominated the candidates for the eight open regent positions earlier that year. Governor Olson shared the Progressives’ anti-militarism 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:A discussion of Governor Olson's appointment of regents and his commitment to end required drills may be found in Arthur Naftalin, A History of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota 1948 pp 266-268.
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.
Student Rights in the Student Movement
American student activists readily grasped that their struggle against war was inseparable from their need for students’ 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 student activists’ call for student rights in the 1930s echoed through the student movements of the 1960s and beyond.
The Right to Form Political Groups Freely
Communist and Marxist clubs were often among the most controversial organizations proposed by students at the University of Minnesota. Organizers wanted the opportunity to read Karl Marx and other economic thinkers. Students required faculty sponsors and had to provide a list of their members, which they feared could be turned over to authorities on and off campus, and be used to punish them for their political views.
Five well-known faculty members agreed to sponsor the Marxist Club because of their commitment to students’ rights to free speech and the open exchange of ideas. State Senator J. V. Weber immediately sought to have all of them fired and “sent to Russia” because he labeled them Communists.
The Minnesota Daily editorialized strongly against the Senator’s tactics, and referred to the faculty sponsors as “unbiased.”
Dean of Student Affairs Edward Nicholson attempted to limit activism by denying students the right to form many of the 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, telling them which were acceptable and which were not. They insisted on the right to review copies of membership lists. Most leftist political groups were denied approval. Communist clubs did not want to provide membership lists for fear of being monitored and possible reprisals.
The following “abstract” is in the papers of Ray Chase at the Minnesota Historical Society. The person who prepared it for him had access to the minutes of the Senate Committee on Student Affairs from 1935 to 1937. That person was likely Dean Nicholson; other members of the committee appear nowhere in the Chase files. These minutes document the political outlooks of a variety of students who came before the committee. Four of the six students mentioned ended up on Chase’s lists of radicals, as well as one faculty advisor, and several of the organizations appeared in his document about “radical organizations” at the University of Minnesota.The faculty members of the committee were Elvin Stakman, Department of Plant Pathology, Lloyd M. Short, Political Science, and E. E. Hartly, Electrical Engineering. University of Minnesota Archive. Senate Committee on Student Affairs Minutes, 1936-37—1942-43, Box 80.
This abstract provides another example of the relationship between Chase and Nicholson, based on Nicholson most likely providing this information to be used by Chase as he built a case of the University of Minnesota being “infiltrated” by communists.
Finally, in 1937, the Marxian Club was given “temporary recognition” following years of student protests and faculty support, which included demonstrations in front of Memorial Union, which was not yet named for President Coffman. Dean Nicholson authorized a “free speech room,” to allow students to discuss ideas that were the focus of organizations that he refused to allow to exist on campus in 1936. He again excluded any discussion of communism.“University Students Debate Political Issues in Free Speech Room.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 6, 1936, Morning Edition p 4.
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. Dean Nicholson’s right to censorship was upheld by the Postal Service.
In 1936, the University Senate, directed by Dean Nicholson, put into place severe restrictions concerning the distribution to students of information that he deemed “propaganda.” With his encouragement, the University of Minnesota’s administration and Regents passed multiple rules to further limit or withdraw rights from students for the free exchange of ideas. 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.
The Minnesota Daily tracked 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 Collision of Dean Edward Nicholson’s Political Life and His Position at the University of Minnesota in 1937
Dean Edward Nicholson had an active civic life. He worked closely with the most politically conservative forces in Minnesota and the Twin Cities through his leadership of the Law and Order League and its links with the Allied Industries and its forerunner, the Citizens Alliance. His belief in what he called law and order and his fanatical opposition to organized labor and to a rainbow of left-wing organizations certainly extended to his views on student organizations.
His life as a dean of students and political conservative collided in 1937 when the Minneapolis City Council, in an 11-13 vote, called on the University of Minnesota to dismiss Edward Nicholson for what was viewed as his illegal interference with a grand jury. The aldermen were divided and vociferous in their complaints or support for Edward Nicholson.
The charge of grand jury tampering grew out of Dean Nicholson’s role in the Association of Former Grand Jury Foremen. In the Citizens Alliance’s effort to control many facets of government to realize its ambition to block the success of organized labor, the grand jury system played an important role. Historically, grand juries determined whether trials of citizens should go forward based on sufficient evidence and a compelling case made by the prosecution. If cases could be stopped before they went to trial, or advanced, the grand jury had a powerful role to play in Minnesota politics, particularly in relationship to organized labor.Robert M. Paule. The Perversion of the Historic Function of the Grand Jury in Minnesota, 7 Law & Ineq. 299 (1989). Available at: http://scholarship.law.umn.edu/lawineq/vol7/iss2/5.
Edward Nicholson was president of the Hennepin County Law and Order League and president of the Association of Former Grand Jury Foremen in 1936. The Former Grand Jury Association was accused of tampering with grand juries. In particular, Edward Nicholson had arranged a lunch for incoming members of the grand jury, before they were seated, which led to the accusation that he was trying to influence the ideas and attitudes of the jurors. He denied the accusation, of course. However, the accusations did not end there. The Minnesota State Federation of Labor called on Governor Hjalmar Petersen to investigate efforts to control Hennepin County grand juries. Charles Drew, who served as Secretary of the Law and Order League, in which Nicholson played a major role, did resign.William Millikan. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001 pp 329-330. Footnote 17, p 452. A proposal for a new jury group was discussed in “New Jury Group Hits Repeaters, Foreman Choice.” Minneapolis Star January 9, 1937 p 13. It provides a critique of the current system and appeared the day following the call for the ouster of Dean Nicholson.
In Edward Nicholson’s case, these questions led to the call for his dismissal from his position at the University of Minnesota. Several student groups weighed in on the resolution. The Minnesota Daily printed side-by-side editorials from two groups at different ends of the political spectrum the following week. Dean Nicholson’s campaign to control student speech, associations, and use of first-class mail to communicate with all students about progressive political issues were raised by left-wing students as further proof of his unfitness to serve.
Other organizations also took stands about the matter. The Hennepin County Farmer-Labor Party and the Bear Cat Veteran’s Association, two different political organizations, supported the resolution. Both the Student Alliance and the Farmer-Labor Party wanted Dean Nicholson removed from his on-campus leadership, for more reasons than the grand jury concerns. They called on the University to hold an open hearing where evidence against the dean could be aired. That hearing never took place.
On January 30, 1937, President Lotus Coffman announced, following a Board of Regents meeting, that the resolution for Nicholson’s dismissal would be put “on file,” meaning filed away not to be considered again. There is no record in the minutes of the Board of Regents for January 19 or January 29 of 1937 of a discussion of a resolution calling for the dismissal of Dean Edward Nicholson.University of Minnesota Board of Regents. (1937). Minutes: Board of Regents Meeting and Committee Meetings: January 19, 1937. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://hdl.handle.net/11299/45507.
Following Edward Nicholson’s retirement in 1941, no Dean of Student Affairs was ever again allowed to exercise his degree of control over the lives of students. The University administration was aware of the excesses of Dean Nicholson’s role in student life. In anticipation of his retirement, a Committee of Seven appointed by President Ford’s assistant, Dean Malcolm Willey was tasked with recommending the reorganization of the roles and responsibilities of the office of Dean of Students. More telling was a confidential memo from Edmund G. Williamson in 1939 when he was “Coordinator of Student Personnel Services” to Dean Malcolm Willey, who was an assistant to President Guy Stanton Ford. Williamson would ultimately succeed Nicholson as dean two years later. He explained that “student leadership had been stifled, and too much emphasis has been placed upon control by means of authority.” Dean Nicholson created a campus environment that was challenged even from within the University of Minnesota’s administration.
The tumultuous climate of American politics and student protest in the 1930s shaped the campus of the University of Minnesota during this period. Students were remarkably successful in driving an agenda to stop required military drills and at creating powerful demonstrations against war mobilization in the United States. However, those successes were sharply curtailed on matters of student rights and freedoms for creating organizations and exchanging ideas. Dean Edward Nicholson, as well as President Coffman and Assistant Dean Malcolm Willey, were committed to the containment of a student left. Among all of these administrators, only Dean Nicholson pursued an active political life as a political conservative, and his involvement in politics found their way into campus life, both conspiring with Ray P. Chase on many matters and in containing student activism.Memorandum to Dean M. M. Willey from E. G. Williamson, January 24, 1939. Dean of Students, Box 12, Folder: Policy and Procedure, 1935-1946. University Archives, University of Minnesota.