A Letter to Twelve College Presidents


On January 24 of this year, twelve college presidents addressed an Open Letter to President Roosevelt, in which they opposed the adoption of compulsory military training, as a permanent peacetime policy, while the nation is under the strain and tension of war. The digest of the letter had an instantaneous effect upon the men in uniform. THE EDITOR

FRANCE, March, 1945
I sec by a clipping mailed to me from home that you have written Mr, Roosevelt a letter to tell him that you disapprove of passing a peacetime draft law in wartime. Time enough, you say, to face that problem when the war is over and we all have a chance to look around. Your arguments are various, and their points of reference somewhat hazy, but the general idea is clear. The President advocates peacetime universal military training, and you are not having any now.
The Army has not destroyed my deep respect for what you represent, but your wholly unexpected views have aroused in me a feeling of deep apprehension. If in less than three years I can have come so far from men and minds whose leadership I once proudly acknowledged, it is time to speak plainly. For if it has happened to me, it has happened to others like me, and there is a wide new gulf between you gentlemen and those you taught not many years ago.
We believe that universal military training after victory is an urgent national necessity. We believe it is the focal point of any solid United States policy for post-war peace. Our arguments and thoughts and hopes about the fruits of victory all come back in the end insistently to one vital condition: “If we have universal military training.” And so when men like you oppose it, we are deeply troubled.
The core of your argument is the inadvisability of taking this drastic step in time of war — and you point with warning finger at the Prohibition Amendment. This, you say, is what happens when one does new things in wartime.
And yet what a curious argument! The trouble with the Eighteenth Amendment was not that it was passed in wartime — the trouble with the Eighteenth Amendment was that it was a bad law. It is true that pressures and emotions are different in war; it is not true that all the differences are for the worse. And as for the passage of large-scale legislation in wartime, I do not recall having been taught in college to view with cold displeasure Mr. Lincoln’s Homestead Act.
What I fear you really mean is that you think peacetime universal military training unwise. Then you should say so. It would keep you from advancing arguments that only hide the basic issues. For example, you write: “No one can now foresee the international situation when the war is over; it is therefore impossible to determine intelligently the extent of defense measures which will be needed.” In other words, we are to let our military policy be determined by something nebulous called the international situation.
This is the fatal error, gentlemen. First off, military policy is not something separate from foreign policy, nor even something that waits upon and follows it; the two are one. Peaceful peoples like ourselves get into wars for want of a military and foreign policy, not for too much of it. We get into wars because we let situations govern us when we should be governing the situations. You are talking the old language, the helpless language of men who dare not act as men to master man-made “situations.” You have put the cart of situation before the horse of policy.
You crave postponement of the issue, and this argument of yours obscures the essential reason for having a peacetime universal military training law now. Your advice is to wait till the situation is clear. But this thing you fear is the one thing above all others that Americans can do, today, to make that situation clear.
The “international situation” is not a phenomenon to be observed at a distance, dispassionately, scientifically. It is here and now and you and I. It is full of question marks, but the biggest of all is whether America is in, or whether she will wait and see. If that question can be firmly answered, “In,” the day of victory will show a scene more fair by far than any we have known. And the best way to be in is to take the single drastic, hard-boiled step that will mean our bets are backed by aces.
“Yes,” you will say, “it is good to be in.” (At least some will — others of you have in your time held other views.) “It is good to be in. But is this the way? Is it not rather a matter of conferences and treaties and world organization and trade and general good will?” If only it were. Those are the things you taught us ten and even five years ago. If they were true, how many things we might never have had to learn from the Army!
Yours is the error of great and learned men in other times — the tragic error of Wilson, and Briand, and even Chamberlain. Clemenceau once gladdened hearts like yours (and mine) by saying that war was too important to be left to the generals. He should have added, I begin to think, that peace is too important to be left to the civilians. We have been killing Germans and Japanese for three years now. They have been killing us. Surely all this intensive effort is not the result of a failure in conferences and good will. We got into this war because we had not the will, or the policy, or the force, to stop it. If we wait and see, we shall see my sons and your grandsons in this same old horror.
You are concerned about the dangers of a “revolutionary change in fundamental American policies.” You say that such a change should not be made in wartime. Your sciences, together with the war in which we are engaged, have already revolutionized the fundamentals upon which our policies are based. We cannot escape history, and whatever policy we have must now be new. Many of you gentlemen, even, when it is foreign and not military policy that you discuss, are shameless advocates of revolutionary change — you seek a sweeping reversal of America’s reluctance to commit herself in Europe. It is not “revolutionary change” in wartime that you fear; it is this particular, specific proposal.


BUT you cannot have your cake and eat it. If you believe in a new American policy, newly alive to American responsibilities everywhere, you must have the courage to accept its inevitable accompaniment — a new and lasting American military strength. We cannot go forward with one foot and back with the other. You are challenged by a new and different world. Do not dodge the challenge. “New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth.” Must we come back to find our college presidents, when these new duties seem to fall on them, fighting with specious arguments? It is not a hopeful prospect.
You say that a proper military policy may not require compulsory military training. Is your judgment in this matter very solid? You would agree, surely, that the military establishment of the United States cannot be allowed again to fall below the level of a self-respecting third-rate power. Can you point out the modern nation which has met its international commitments without peacetime universal military training? Can you produce a military man of proved reputation who will say that any sound American military policy can be developed without the assurance that the young men of the country have been trained to fight?
You are merely hoping, and in these matters it will not do to put hope ahead of facts. Some among you, scientists, may look to wars of brains and buttons, atom-smashing bombs and mighty rockets. But men have been trying to escape the fact of the infantry for hundreds of generations. It has not yet been done. Wars are still fought by trained men, millions of them. It is today that we need military strength; and today our military strength is in universal military training only.
“Young man,” you are muttering, “young man, you are talking beside the point. Read the third reason we give for our position.” It is an estimable statement. It says among other things: “We are all heartily in favor of whatever measures may be necessary to insure our adequate defenses and to give us adequate military and naval strength commensurate with our international commitments in the post-war world.” This is a proper sentiment; break it down, though, and what does it say? Does it say what commitments we may or should have? Does it define a policy? No, it says only: “Wait and see; we shall later favor what we shall later favor.”
No, gentlemen, America cannot wait. Americans must decide now; we are moving through war to peace, and each new battle opens out a string of peacetime problems. What the soldiers do now affects the peace tomorrow, and what the legislators say and do and vote today is writing future history. If we wait, we merely abdicate.
But what, you say, if the peace is really peaceful? What then becomes of this panoply — this permanent “armed camp”? I must answer with another question: Is it then your belief that out of the bloody bitterness and suffering of this war the twisted, torn, and shaken peoples of the world can build in five years, or in ten or twenty, the lasting peace that makes an army foolish waste? The question answers itself. We are in a world of force; we are fighting our greatest war to assure that right has might.
Our leaders, with other leaders, are moving firmly and with practical effect to bind up live peoples wounds. It is slow work — and we have not yet begun on the enemy, whose energies will still be bent on finding means to break our will, our policy, and finally our strength. It will not be over when the battles end. It will be only beginning. Later, much later, when we know that we don’t need them, we can dismiss our armies. It is not hard to make peacetime soldiers into peacetime civilians — if younger men replace us in the occupation armies, we may have a chance one day to prove it. The hard step is in the other direction. And it will be five times harder if we ever let the pattern now established vanish into wartime history.
And incidentally, when you talk of armed camps you are drawing across the trail one of the oldest of red herrings. This is the argument that guns and armies cause wars. It has never been true in our country. It has been pointed out that the only war the United States has ever kept out of was the one she was prepared for — the war that was not necessary when the fact of our military strength induced the French to get out of Mexico just after our Civil War. Strength in the hands of the righteous is the only guarantee of peace.
As you most properly remark, the essence of the problem is military and not educational. We do not need universal military training for its side benefits. We need it to make soldiers and sailors and flyers — to have an army, a navy, and an air force. We need a year of military training for everyone. We need it now, to guarantee our policy — to show ourselves and all the world that, in the battle for a lasting peace, America is in to stay.
We are agreed that the educational aspect is secondary. It is odd, then, that you should choose to write as educators. The answer is, perhaps, your special, warm, and almost vital interest in the eighteen-year-olds of our country. You do not trust the Federal government, you say, to educate these boys. Neither do I, if you are talking about politics and languages, history and sciences, and the disciplines of scholarship. But when you say that military training has no “collateral educational and social values,” you are talking through twelve learned hats.
Have you asked us, who know the Army from the inside? By three or four to one we believe in lasting universal military training, and one reason is that we are sure it was not a bad thing for us. We do not look for the millennium in a military year. But we think a boy will learn to know Americans he would not otherwise meet; we think he will face and learn from a kind of American discipline he would not otherwise find.
I believe that to know what military service means greatly helps a man in search of rounded education. I know of no place where a man can learn more quickly how to judge his fellow men and trust his judgment. These lessons, and those of cooperation, self-reliance, self-criticism, and humor, can all be learned in other places, but nowhere better than in the Army.
Some of you, perhaps, are worried lest military training turn out men who will be blind to higher education, and who will be a spawning ground for fascism. You cannot serve in the American Army without learning that the effect of military training, in both these matters, is exactly the reverse.
So much for universal military training in peacetime. I think my views are not far from those of most other men in uniform. In closing, then, may I point out that if this is the case there is a danger facing you that is far greater than anything you have to fear from any peacetime draft. You are in danger of cutting yourselves off from the young men of your country.
The returning soldier will have a deep and lasting hunger for education. Not all of what he wants, of course, is yours to give. Not every man is looking for the training of the colleges. But among us there are many tens of thousands who are waiting for the day when we can again go to you for light and truth — for a sharpening and deepening of our minds that these last years have left us badly needing.
We will go eagerly and humbly, but if we find in your colleges a way of life still unrevised to meet the facts as we have had to meet them, we will not stay so long or drink so deep as you and we now hope. It would be your great loss, and ours, if, in your eagerness to keep the old, you should lose your great, shining chance to mold the new. For the road is forward, gentlemen, not back.