Where Do You Stand?

An open letter to American undergraduates


During the last six months something has been happening on the campus that many of us who graduated twenty five or thirty years ago cannot understand. You may not be startled by this discovery, but I assure you that we are, since we have always prided ourselves on being able to understand you a good deal better than our parents ever understood us. We like to feel that we are more flexible and more tolerant. We admit that you are more inquisitive about the world than we were, that you have read more widely, and that socially you are far more mature. Incidentally, I wonder if you realize what gallant efforts we have made to get your point of view. And why not? The important thing is to keep the line of communications open between the two generations, and that is what we have tried to do. It has not always been easy. Superficially you may appear more demonstrative than we were. Actually you are like Cordelia in that you 'cannot heave your heart into your mouth,' and, like Cordelia too, you are sometimes dreadfully obstinate. At least we think so. You call it looking at things objectively.

Please don't think that I am drawing up an indictment against you. Obviously one cannot indict a whole generation any more than one can a whole country. There must be infinite shades of opinion among you, as indeed there are among us. Still I think that most of you feel very differently about the war than we do. By 'we' I mean those of us who fought in the last war. We are baffled by your attitude. You think us sentimental, we think that you are unimaginative and cold blooded—not all of you by any means, but apparently the majority.

To be specific, we want to know why it is that the undergraduates of Dartmouth, Cornell, Harvard, Yale, and other colleges as well, have petitioned the President not to intervene in Europe. Youth is traditionally impulsive, generous, and idealistic. How do these qualities display themselves in the college press?

The Daily Dartmouth warns its readers against the dangers of helping Finland. 'Contributing funds to Finland means shutting our ears to the other side, means swinging our emotions solidly to the side which may not have all the right . . . it means falling in with British and French propaganda, sending money, money not just for relief but for arms, perhaps eventually sending volunteers.' The Harvard Crimson, 'frankly determined to have peace at any price,' raps Presidents Conant and Seymour over the knuckles for having spoken 'so soon and so early the words that may send to destruction the lives in their charge.' Bishop Lawrence's expression of sympathy for the Allies is roundly denounced as 'warmongering.' The German rape of Belgium and Holland inspires 300 Harvard undergraduates to tell President Roosevelt in a petition dated May 15, 1940, that 'never under any circumstances will they follow in the footsteps of the students of 1917.'

At Cornell the American Student Union exercises its ingenuity by constructing a cardboard tank six feet high, topped by a dummy turret and gun, which is sent to the White House with the inscription, 'Dear President Roosevelt keep America out of war,' painted on its side. The Yale News surveys the conflict in Europe with Olympian detachment and on September 29, 1939, finds that 'there is no preponderance of good or evil on either side.' Nor does the Nazi invasion of Norway, Belgium, and Holland appear to have altered that conviction among the students at large. At the end of May, when Hitler's armies were crashing through to Paris, a self styled Christian committee of Yale undergraduates secured 1486 signatures to a petition to the President urging among other things that 'this country should grant no credits, give no supplies, and send no men.' It is true that a counter petition was set in motion the next day protesting against the isolationist poll and urging that 'the United States extend credits and send supplies to the Allies wherever such assistance is needed immediately,' and it is also true that a certain number of undergraduates who signed the first petition in favor of isolation cheerfully signed the second petition against it; but even so, only 700 went on record as being in favor of helping the Allies. With more time the examination schedule interfered with the second poll—another hundred names might have been added, but no juggling with figures can alter the fact that the average student is not sympathetic to the cause of the Allies.

We find this flow of student petitions to the White House pleading for a purely negative attitude in foreign affairs very difficult to square with the notions of idealism we associate with you. A lawschool student who is deeply interested in European affairs writes to Life, 'I hope desperately that England and France can win this war,' and in the next breath he adds, 'We feel that this country should extend no further aid to the Allied governments beyond what they can buy with the many billions in cash and credits that they now have over here,' In other words, he wants to see Hitler stopped, but he prefers someone else to do the job, and he is not going to lift a finger to help. What sort of idealism is that?

Some of you, no doubt, are Christian pacifists, and I think you will find that even the people you accuse of being warmongers respect your opinions. Unfortunately a good many students have rallied under your banner who don't belong there. The man who is inspired by hysterical timidity, and so refuses to send aid to Europe in case he should become involved, has no right to call himself a conscientious objector. He is an objector, all right, but his conscience has nothing to do with it. The true religious pacifist is a lion of courage, because, though he cannot bring himself to take another man's life, he is always willing to risk his own in die relief of suffering.

A few of you, but I think only a very few, are actually hoping for a German victory. More than a few admire Hitler tremendously. You can't help it. You have been taught to admire success whether it be in the realm of athletics, business, social life, or politics, and Hitler is the greatest exponent of success the modern world has ever seen. In the midst of your admiration just remember what William James said about the danger besetting America, 'the danger of moral flabbiness born of an exclusive worship of the bitch goddess Success.' Only on the plea of success worship can I understand why you are so very ready to condone the crimes of Germany.

Let me give you an example. The day after the Altmark incident, when the rest of the civilized world was chuckling over the rescue of British prisoners, the Yale News came out with a flaming indictment of Great Britain's breach of international law. Righteous indignation is not a popular weapon in campus journalism, but here for once the editors let themselves go. The law had been flouted, and the Yale News was not going to stand for it. Had there been any similar outburst over the German sinking of neutral ships? There had not. The fact that hundreds of neutrals had lost their lives through German action did not seem to the News worthy of editorial comment. Whether or not a belligerent is justified in using the coastal waters of a neutral for the transfer of prisoners I do not pretend to know. International lawyers are not agreed on the subject, but it is significant that the campus wiseacres jumped to the conclusion that Great Britain must be the guilty party, not Germany.

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