An Historian Looks at the Young Entry



IT WAS the end of the second week of May, 1940. On the tenth, the Germans had crossed, without warning, into Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Two days later their advance guards were pouring over the Albert Canal, and in the interim Neville Chamberlain had resigned the premiership of England.

In addition to these harrowing world events — enough to take the heart out of any man — I had personally had a very trying day. Two lectures in the morning, then a “Departmental Lunch” (far more tiring than any two lectures), and finally, and much the most fatiguing of all, an oral examination of a candidate for the doctorate, which lasted from 3.30 to 6.00. At 6.30, I got back to my study in the Master’s Lodgings in Eliot House, provided myself with a long, cooling drink, and then sank back into an armchair, with a happy feeling that the bulk of the day’s work was done.

Just then the telephone at my elbow rang. A courteous, well-modulated voice addressed me and said, “ I was one of your old pupils in History I, Professor Merriman. You know that an anti-war petition has been started in Lowell House and is being circulated among the students in the University. I’d like to be told what you think of it, and what you think the United States ought to do about this war anyway. ” Well, I suppose that depression and fatigue made me careless, for I neglected even to ask my young friend’s name, or what organization — if any — he represented. Instead I poured forth the thoughts that were uppermost in my mind. “The petition should be tossed into the ash-barrel”; “The United States can and should send money and supplies to the Allies as soon as possible”; “The students totally fail to see the moral issue, and, apart from that, they fail to discern that a Hitler victory would vitally affect the United States.” These, and, I fancy, many other things, I said, but my interlocutor had already had enough. When I ceased to speak, he said, “Thank you, Mr. Merriman; all this will immediately be given to the Associated Press! ” And then, without another word, he rang off.

The repercussions were swift. I was presented with a miniature tank — now one of my proudest possessions — inscribed to “Professor Merriman, armchair strategist. ” Then came newspaper clippings — from all across the continent and also Canada — and a sheaf of comments thereon. Many of the favorable ones were sent by old friends and pupils, but a goodly portion of them came from people that I had never heard of before, and from all quarters of the land; needless to add, they warmed the cockles of my heart.

The critics, on the other hand, were all unknown to me; many of their missives were illiterate, and the more violent of them were unsigned. A considerable portion of them were unprintable, but a few expurgated excerpts may not be amiss. “Please let us be able to hold our heads up — proud that we can live and work out our problems intelligently here in the United States.” “The advice of George Washington, to keep away from Europe, should be adhered to at all times.” “The moral issue was settled back in the 20’s when the republican form of government in Germany was done to death by the Allies in their role of balancers of power.” “When you, and others like you, get me in the army to fight for a bunch of - - Jews, we will have something to say about what will be done with you monkeys.” “Get out of Harvard and go to England; you are merely a - ignorant man. All Europe is not worth an American boy’s death!” And so on. It is also worth noting that all or practically all of my supporters (I took some time to track down those I didn’t know) were forty-five years old or more — in other words they were people who had lived through, and many of them fought through, the last World War; whereas my critics, as far as I could make out (three of them volunteered their ages — two were under thirty and one of them “just nineteen”), were mostly very young men. They had heard enough of the horrors and futility of World War I to be certain that they didn’t propose to sacrifice their lives in another, and they hadn’t the background or education to realize how “squabbles in Europe are any business of the United States.”

Let me make it clear that the anti-war petition with which this story started was by no means a Harvard monopoly. One was being circulated at Dartmouth at the same time, and I cannot doubt that many more were brewing in other American colleges and universities. The same sentiment, though differently expressed, was distressingly prevalent among the young men of England in the years 1935-1939. “Preparedness” was at its lowest ebb. Lord Lothian saw what was coming plainly enough, long before he became British Ambassador to the United States; he dreaded its implications, and spoke, pathetically, to President Roosevelt about it, when he was passing through Washington in 1938. Of course large allowance must be made for what was then the fashionable pose, but there can be little doubt that there was deep feeling underneath. And now, after the ordeal of five years, we all know what a superb record those boys have made.

What served to wake us up? Obviously, in both England and the United States, a terrific national jolt, which shook the nonsense out of thousands of doubters, and made them realize, for the first time, what tremendous issues were at stake. For England, of course, it was the series of catastrophes that culminated at Dunkirk. For us the jolt came a year and a half later at Pearl Harbor, and meanwhile we had been given time, not only to prepare, but also to begin to grasp the fact that the war in which we were about to engage was in truth a world war in such fashion and extent as no war had ever been before.

I well remember many conversations which I had over the fireplace in my study at Eliot House, with students, some of whom, I strongly suspect, had been numbered among the signers of the anti-war petition of May, 1940. It was interesting to watch their ideas develop. Just after Dunkirk, most of them reluctantly consented to acquiesce in the sending of munitions and supplies to England; in the following autumn this had changed to enthusiastic approval of it; a little later it was: “Well, we’ll fight, but only if the United States is attacked.” Pearl Harbor fulfilled the condition. Almost all of them are in uniform today; few of them waited to be drafted; too many of them are dead.


AS I reread what I’ve written, I have an ugly feeling that it all sounds like a piece of egotistical selfjustification: “You see I was right from the beginning.” But that certainly is not my object. What I want to do is to help preclude the possibility of the same cataclysm happening again. The winning of the peace is of course the first essential, and the eradication of the Nazi and Japanese philosophies of life is a close second; but these are no part of my business here.

Nor can I go into the much vexed question of compulsory military training for all our able-bodied young men, save to say that, despite the enormous practical difficulties and the tremendous expense, I devoutly believe in it. Nothing could contribute so effectively to keep the facts of the situation constantly in the minds, not only of the trainees, but also of their families and friends. But at present my chief concern is to do my best to prevent the oncoming generation of American youth, which has not participated in World War II, from growing up as blind to patent facts as were its predecessors when World War II began. “For,” as a wise man said to me the other day, “it is, after all, only a question of education.”

It seems to me that there are two fundamental points which must be constantly reiterated and emphasized, as an indispensable basis for such an education. They have been often made before, and at this moment few sane people would question them; but bitter experience shows that we are good at forgetting.

The first is that in the European war, America has had a far easier time than England or Russia. I fully realize that this may seem, at first sight, to be a very hard saying. The heroism and gallantry of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen in North Africa, in the Mediterranean, in Sicily and Italy, have been beyond all praise. They played the major role in the battles of France and of Germany. General Eisenhower directed the operations of the Western Allies with military genius and real statesmanship, and his lieutenants accomplished marvels. Had it not been for the funds, supplies, and munitions which we contributed, the war might well have been lost before we entered it; and there can be no doubt that our shouldering of the main burden of the war in the Pacific since Pearl Harbor had favorable effects on the struggle in Europe.

But bear in mind that we entered the war two years and three months later than England, and nearly six months later than Russia; let us never forget that from June, 1940, to June, 1941, Britain “took it,” virtually unaided and alone. Then we had the inestimable advantage of entering the fray at the moment that the enemy was about to pass from the offensive to the defensive. (The beginning of the German retreat from before Stalingrad, Montgomery’s first big break-through to El Alamein, and the first American landings in North Africa all took place in November, 1942.) Those who have read von Clausewitz will realize what Angriff, — the initiative, — and the necessity of abandoning it, have always meant to the German military mind. Third, and most important of all, let us remember that we have not been bombed like England, nor have our fields or our cities been devastated like those of Russia; our civilians and our industries have been practically untouched. In other words, the unutterable horrors of modern warfare have not come home to us as they have to our allies.

The other fundamental point, which seems to me essential to the intelligent education of the youth of the future, is the realization that the conditions under which we entered this war cannot possibly ever obtain again. The Atlantic is no longer an “insurmountable barrier”; George Washington’s Farewell Address is hopelessly out of date. (I say this with the deepest respect for the Father of my Country, but also with the firm conviction that, if he were alive today, and apprised of all the incredible things which modern science has provided us, he would alter his verdict.) If there is another European conflict, we shan’t again be given two years or more to decide what we’re going to do about it. War is no longer a “contentio declarata, armata, justa,” as Grotius described it in 1625. We shall have to take a definite line, and take it quickly. Acceleration is the essence of modernity. “Splendid isolation” is at an end for us. We are now too deeply involved with the other nations of the earth to be able ever to withdraw. To an extent that has never been true or even imagined before, we are all in the same boat.


AND what should be the essential features of the education which will bring our youth to a full realization of its responsibilities? It would be a bold man indeed who would venture, at this moment, to give a definitive answer. Certainly I’ve no desire to see the oncoming generation converted into a breed of men who think primarily in terms of war, and I fully realize that the program which I am about to offer should constitute only a fraction of the sum total of the ideal education of the age that lies before us. But, within these limitations, it may be worth while for one who has taught at Harvard for the past forty-three years, and has known the undergraduate body more intimately and extensively than most of his contemporaries, to offer a few suggestions.

In the first place, I maintain that the whole educational scheme of our schools and colleges should be recast, and that a much larger portion of it should be devoted to modern languages and to history. It goes without saying that the ability to read, if not to speak, one or two modern languages besides our own is a prime requisite for the man who wants to help his country to shoulder her responsibilities as a world power. Linguistic inhibitions have been, for centuries, a chief cause of Anglo-Saxon isolationism. More important still is a knowledge of the principal events of the past. A careful study of the history and institutions of the United States should unquestionably come first; but a knowledge of the European background is scarcely less essential, and the latter should not fail to include a full account of Germany’s conduct in the past eighty years, of her ambitions to expand, of her religion of war, of her broken treaties, of her torture chambers and massacres. It might be advisable to add a few words about how she “got that way”; and it would not be a difficult task to give the main lines of the story. All this historical instruction should emphatically be based on the narration of undisputed facts; “interpretations” and “aspects” should be reduced to a minimum, or omitted altogether.

This leads me, in the second place, to say a few words in regard to what the historian sometimes rather arrogantly characterizes as “Allied Topics,” or as they are more popularly known, the “Social Sciences.” Some of these, as, for example, the story of our Anglo-Saxon heritage of liberty and law, if they be well taught, — without too much theorizing, — can be invaluable. But there are others, many of which have recently become extremely popular, which are unnecessary if not positively harmful in the education of a student of eighteen or nineteen.

As I scrutinize the pages of A Design for General Education for Members of the Armed Forces, issued in June, 1944, by the American Council on Education Studies, I find the following topics recommended: “Eugenic factors in Mate selection”; “The Common Man and a new Social Philosophy”; “Cultural Patterns of the Family and of the Community”; but I fear I cannot agree. I strongly dissent from most of the proposals for the teaching of the Social Sciences, in school and college, which are contained in the Report of the “$60,000” Harvard Committee, entitled General Education in a Free Society. Many of these proposals seem to me wholly impracticable; I certainly do not share the committee’s belief in the effectiveness for freshmen and sophomores of the so-called “area course”; and I cannot help feeling throughout that it would have been the part of wisdom to consult fewer teachers and more students. I still think it has been a mistake to admit freshmen to the course on “Principles of Sociology” at Harvard. Doubtless all these “Allied Topics” deserve careful study by experts; but most of them border on the realm of what the Germans call Zukunftsmusik — the imponderables; we really know little about them ourselves as yet, and they are emphatically not the principal things that our very young men need to know.

Thirdly, it is essential that the presidents of our universities and colleges and the headmasters of our schools take far greater care than they have done in recent years in the selection of those whom they employ to teach — not only history and modern languages, but other subjects as well. The influence of the teacher in the years that lie ahead of us will be greater than ever before; and, in the last analysis, it’s the personality of the teacher that counts, far more than the topic he expounds.

Many of the young men who came to consult me in 1939-1941 told me frankly that the cynicism of some instructors had shaken the foundations of their faith. “They care for negatives, not positives,” said one; “They seem solely interested in debunking everything” was the comment of another. Now I have never wavered in my belief in the famous dictum that it is the first duty of the historical “researcher” to learn to doubt, but that’s not the point here. We’re not talking, at present, about candidates for the doctorate, or instructors who are writing monographs in order to obtain promotion, but of much younger men, for whom a groundwork of basic facts — universally accepted as true by the civilized nations of the world — is the first and indispensable essential; after all, one must have a building built before one tries to tear it down. And we have the immense advantage that the fundamental facts which need to be kept constantly before our students’ eyes are based on truth and not on lies.

The Nazi educators during the past decade or more had to build on a foundation of falsehood. They all took the same prescribed line; they all misrepresented the past in the same prescribed way; and yet they “got away with it.” The pictures and accounts that have come through to us of fanatical Nazi Volksstürmer — sixteen years of age and younger — are tragic proof of how completely a youth’s outlook on life, and his conception of his duties to his country and to civilization, can be distorted by evil teachers in his formative years. Shall we flinch from our nobler and more honest task?

If we do, we shall be asking for more trouble. Doubtless the Germans, for some time to come, will not venture again to make open and official profession of their faith; on the other hand, there can be no question that there are many of them today, beyond the boundaries of the Reich, who are determined, stealthily and by devious ways, to perpetuate the legend, if not of Hitler and Nazidom, at least of a Herrenvolk and of Pan-Germanism. One reason I am so insistent in opposing the types of “Allied Topics” I have mentioned is that it is largely through such “interpretations” — “psycho-analytical,” “socioeconomic,” “ progressivestic,” and so on — that German propagandists will get their feet on the first rung of the ladder. Let our academic authorities fight shy of such topics and of the people who profess to teach them. The plain straight facts of German arrogance, faithlessness, brutality, and beastiality — which everyone is talking about now and which it is imperative for us to keep constantly in mind — are just the facts which teachers of these “Allied Topics ” may well try to gloze over, explain away, and, ultimately relegate to the background, if not to oblivion. The employment of competent returning veterans as instructors of our young men might well be one of the best of all ways to see to it that they remember the essential things.

But, I hear my critics say, why devote all this space to the excoriation of Germany, and the recapitulation of her misdeeds? She’s certainly down and out for many years to come. Well, as Field Marshal Montgomery has recently reminded us, it is by no means certain that Germany is down and out. We thought she was in 1918, and we were wrong. We failed to grasp the real significance of her march into the Rhineland in 1936; not till 1939 did Europe wake up to the fact that she had come back with redoubled power. We in America took still longer to realize it.

Germany has subverted the peace of the world twice in a quarter of a century, and in a fashion to which there is no parallel in the aggressions of Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, or even Napoleon Bonaparte. It is by no means impossible that she may do it again. “Germany,” writes General Eisenhower, “is unrepentant, with the majority of her people denying her war guilt.” She needs constant, careful, and suspicious watching, and it is a principal object of the educational program outlined above to make certain that that watching remains constant, careful, and suspicious.