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 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.
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 also was 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 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 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 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 Malcolm Willey, triumphantly informed him that he was able to minimize the Minnesota Daily’s coverage of these events by speaking to the editor.
Political surveillance involved monitoring students at demonstrations. Dean Nicholson likely passed names of demonstrators to Ray Chase to build his files of “subversive” students.
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. Male students were obligated 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.
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 fraternity did. Though no African American students were included as members. The Jacobins ranked highest in grade point averages of all fraternities, 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 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 as 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 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 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.
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’ anti-war 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.
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.
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.
In 1936, the University Senate, directed by Dean Nicholson, put into place severe restrictions concerning the distribution of information that he deemed “propaganda” to students. 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 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.
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.