'Where Do You Stand?' A Letter From the Lost Generation to the 'Greatest' One

In 1940, an Atlantic author expressed his alarm at growing isolationism in America's colleges


"What's wrong with kids today?" is a recurring question every advancing generation asks about its progeny. Even the members of the "Greatest Generation," those who grew up in the depression and fought in World War II were, according to their elders, at one point lacking in gumption and ideals.

Sensing a growing isolationist movement across the nation's college campuses (or, at least the Ivy League ones), Arnold Whitridge, a World War I veteran, took to the pages of The Atlantic in 1940 to voice his outrage. In "Where do You Stand," he's condescending and demeans the character of the rising generation. He even senses that a growing portion of them are pro-Nazi. But mostly, he accuses them of apathy. He asks, "Are you determined to use your education merely to get a good job, marry and settle down, in ordinary times that would be the natural aspiration, or are some of you chafing to defend the rights of the spirit in a rapidly materializing world? Unless you are, the shadow of Hitlerism is likely to darken the world for a long time to come."

Whitridge believes that the growing war in Europe will become America's problem, like it or not, and that intervention is inevitable. He insists that America's college youth are simply being naïve.

I picture you hovering on the sidelines, some of you inclined to cheer for the Allies, but most of you still contemplating the tragedy of Europe as something interesting but remote. You seem to me to be suffering from a sluggish imagination and arrested skepticism. You have arrived at the conclusion that war is heartrending and horrible and there you have stopped. The further conclusion that there is something noble in defying horror and in enduring the rending of the heart has apparently escaped you.

But America's collegiate youth didn't take Whitridge's attack without fighting back, and Yale students Kingman Brewster Jr. (a future president of the university) and Spencer
Klaw ran a counter-editorial in the next month's Atlantic defending the Yale Daily News' editorial position against intervention. In "We Stand Here," they voice their dismay at being rallied to battle by someone who would ultimately leave the fighting to them. The students believe America can strengthen itself while the rest of the world tears itself apart.

We acknowledge the challenge to defend America in the Americas as the test of our patriotism and courage. But we can by no standard accept the defense of England as the automatic measure of our loyalty to American ideals. The cause of one's own country comes before that of another. We do not condemn Englishmen for feeling the same way in the case of Ethiopia, China, or Spain, but we do claim that same right to put allegiance to our own nation above all else. Mr. Whitridge's conclusion that this means we 'have no sympathy for the Allies' or 'condone the crimes of Germany' is unfounded. It would be just as unfair for us to conclude from Mr. Whitridge's interventionist stand that he cared more for England than for his own country. Such casuistry and acrimony seem to us as unworthy as they are unjust ...

We will not fight just for the sake of fighting; but convince that war is the best means of serving our American ideals and we will follow anywhere.

Kingman changed his mind after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, whereafter he joined the Navy.

Read the whole "Where Do You Stand?" and "We Stand Here."

Presented by

Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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