World War II

I. VASSAR CONSIDERS THE NEW GERMANY          In the years leading to the Second World War, Vassar’s campus, perhaps more than much of the world, examined the rise of the Third Reich with a dispassionate, measured attitude. The college’s president since 1915, Henry Noble MacCracken was himself both an internationalist and a pacifist. The founder, during the First World War, of the American Junior Red Cross, MacCracken had graduated from New York University in 1900 at the age of 19 and spent the next three years teaching English to Middle Eastern students, fluent in 11 other languages, at the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut—later, the American University in Beirut—before undertaking graduate work at Harvard. An advocate of international education, MacCracken had engaged eagerly with the founding, in 1919, by Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, former United States Secretary of State Elihu Root and Vassar trustee Stephen P. Duggan of the Institute of International Education. Established by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the institute’s “general aim,” Duggan, the institute’s director, reported in his first annual report, was “to develop international good will by means of educational agencies, and to act as a clearing house of information and advice for Americans educational practices and issues in foreign countries and for foreigners concerning such matters in the United States.” MacCracken served, along with Jane Addams and the presidents of Harvard and Yale, on the IIE’s board of advisors.

Owing both to Vassar’s association with the IIE and to MacCracken’s own interests in peace through international education, the college was a pioneer in educational exchange. In 1920, through arrangements by Ruth Crawford Mitchell ’12 and two classmates working in Czechoslovakia to establish the country’s first school of social work, Vassar accepted five Czech women, who graduated in the Class of 1922. Also that year Professor of German Marian Whitney, under a grant from the IIE, embarked on a study of women’s educational activities in France, Italy and Germany.

A decade later, such interests were reflected in a special Armistice Day assembly at Vassar of students and faculty members representing 15 foreign countries—Argentina, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, India, Mexico, Poland, Spain and Switzerland. Joining Dean C. Mildred Thompson ’03 on the stage, Stephen Duggan praised the college’s inclusion of foreign students and faculty, saying that it fostered international good feeling and understanding. “There is one certain way to peace,” Duggan said, according to the New York Times, “and that is for the peoples of different countries to understand each other so well that war is unthinkable, and understanding can only be accomplished through education.”    

But, in May 1933, Professor of German Magdalene Schindelin addressed the Men’s Club of Poughkeepsie, and Esther Kinsler ’33, who covered the speech for the Miscellany News, found Professor Schindelin’s remarks alarming:

[Schindelin] stated that the charge that the Jews have corrupted the ethical standards
of public life in Germany was “probably true.” She also stated that the Eastern Jews are
bearing the brunt of the Nazi program and implied that they deserve it, because “Eastern
Jews have played an unpleasant part in Germany.” ... In further justification of Hitler’s
measures, she said that the movement is chiefly an anti-communist revolt and that the
Jews are attacked because they are radicals.

Kinsler hoped no one in Poughkeepsie would believe that all Vassar students embraced “the absurdity of Professor Schindelin’s statements.”

Throughout the 1930s, several Vassar students spent time abroad in Germany, and returned with a complex perspective on the country. Mary Ridder ’34 had prejudged Nazism as a “German Ku Klux Klan experiment,” but, as she wrote in the Miscellany News, “while I was in Germany I met Hitler and had a long conversation with him. Now I see him as a truly national person who beyond a doubt feels he is looking out for the best interests of his country.” Her professors at the University of Munich said “You have lived to see the reawakening of Germany” and “It is the duty of every student to further this revolution.” Although she disapproved of Hitler’s Jewish policy, Ridder admired “the mature attitude of the German student.” Joan Becker ’34, Ridder’s schoolmate abroad, also found the passionate German students impressive; she commended their powerful, unified political actions: “the burning of the books, for instance, was a solemn, symbolic ceremony.”

In October of 1933, over a hundred people were turned away from a lecture, “The New Democracy in Hitler’s Germany,” by the University of Berlin’s Dr. Friedrick Schoenemann, whom President Henry Noble MacCracken introduced as “a specialist in Democracy.” Flatly denying he was a propagandist, Schoenemann compared Hitler’s “struggle” to Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life.” On the topic of Albert Einstein’s recent critiques of the new regime, Schoenemann said, in a packed Skinner Hall: “He is first of all a Jew and only secondly a German.” On Hitler’s politics, he concluded, “At bottom he is a democrat.”

A month after Schoenemann’s speech, introducing the German philosopher and author Dr. Alfred Vagts, Dean C. Mildred Thompson ’03 said, “As students, we welcome the chance to hear as many sides of the German question as possible.”

Responding to Dr. Schoenemann, Vagts found it “strange that a philologist should confuse the terms democrat and demagogue.” He told students of the concentration camps that Marxists and other alleged radicals were being shipped to, declaring that Hitler had led Germany to “bestiality.” Still, he said, “war will not take place in the near future, for Hitler has too many enemies at home. It is unlikely that a war of prevention will be waged against Germany because no country is in a frame of mind to do so.”

A different source of information was Henning Freiherr von Dobeneck, a chemistry student from Munich, one of four “Foreign Correspondents” appearing in The Miscellany News masthead in 1933 and 1934. His “German Notes” appeared four times in the Miscellany News, once explaining the enthusiasm of German students for the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler and, in March 1934, justifying the exclusion of Jewish journalists.

The press in Germany did not give a true representation of the German spirit but had become an organ of class distinction, of the Free Masons and the Jew. By new legislation the very roots of this malady were destroyed.

That last line unsettled some Vassar students, and when Dobeneck’s last column, “Idealism,” appeared, on April 23, 1934, and editorial note stated that the newspaper did not “sympathize in any degree with the opinions expressed....The Miscellany News disapproves heartily with the present crystallization of German Ideals, even though it may honor the ideals themselves. However, in accordance with our policy of presenting all sides of opinion, and because we believe that students from other colleges and countries should express their points of view we include these German notes in our present issue.” This was the last appearance of the “foreign correspondent” who endorsed in his conclusion “the complete separation of the German people from the sole racially foreign element within its borders.”

Inclusion of “foreign correspondents” in The Miscellany News ended in May 1934, but in October an account, by an anonymous German student at the University of Munich, of the Röhm-Putsch, or Night of the Long Knives, a bloody spree of political assassinations, carried out by the Nazi party from June 30 to July 2, 1934, appeared in The Miscellany News: “I was present at many arrests and finally at executions,” he wrote. “I saw men dragged out of their cars and shot.... I had to watch men die; I saw how they trembled cowardly before the last call, or how, surrounded by a horde of howling murderers, they could face death steadfastly.”

“The frank disillusionment,” the Misc editors commented, “expressed by this student today is in striking contrast to the exaltation in the letters on Nazi Germany which we printed last year. Apparently, fascism is unable to keep its grip on the intellectual mind. German universities, defiled of their historic right to free thought, are in rebellion.”

Also concerned about the purging and closing of higher education in Germany, President MacCracken, with aid from the IIE and the Rockefeller Foundation, organized a program whereby “displaced scholars,” most of them Jewish, were resettled in American colleges and universities. In November 1933 he announced that Professor Moritz Alfred Geiger, formerly professor of philosophy at the University of Göttingen, would join the Vassar faculty as chair of the department of philosophy. The distinguished phenomenologist was the first of several such scholars who joined the Vassar faculty, and by the end of January 1934, according to the New York Times, some 275 “displaced scholars” had relocated to American campuses. Some 1,200, The Times added, were still seeking refuge.

In October 1939, the Social Problems Club and students who had studied abroad in Germany publicly debated Hitler’s policies, and Vassar’s role in the crisis. The well-attended debate was meant as an intellectual exercise, so debaters assumed positions they did not necessarily agree with. One participant, Rosemary Rothschild ’37, asked women who had been to Munich for a semester on a German scholarship the following question: “If Germany spent a lot, as she did, on propaganda to get the American students to Germany, wouldn’t she spend a lot to keep them from seeing anything unfavorable?”

The Vassar faculty and administrators believed, unlike their peers at Harvard who had rejected German funding of study abroad programs, that Vassar girls should still take the opportunity to travel to Germany, if given the chance. Professor of English Helen Lockwood, however, dissented from this view. She desired “to clarify the ethics of obligation when one has accepted money that one knows to be intended for a given purpose.” For Lockwood, accepting money from Germany on scholarship was not an apolitical act, and she wondered if Vassar gave its students “the tools with which to meet the emotional pressure of modern dictatorships.” Professor of economics Mabel Newcomer supported the scholarships and remarked, “I feel... that an intelligent girl who is really concerned can get both sides if she wants to and if converted to Nazism, will her regain her perspective when she returns to this country.” And, even if the regaining of perspective failed, Newcomer said, “If a student...remains a Nazi sympathizer simply because she has pleasant memories of her trip, she will not be a menace to this country.”

By 1935, forty United States college presidents, including the presidents of Wellesley and Mt. Holyoke, publicly supported a U.S. boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; President MacCracken did not publicly announce a position on the boycott. Kathryn Fay Symmes ’37, however, voiced her opinion: “May I be the first to register my disapproval of the boycott!” she announced in the Miscellany News, explaining that the lack of Jewish athletes on Germany’s team stemmed not from foul play, but from a general lack in athletic ability in the Jewish race.

II. WAR APPROACHES        By 1938, however, campus sentiment had shifted from antipathy to anti-Nazi activism. On December 14, 1938, the Miscellany News editors acknowledged this “feeling” on campus, but insisted:

Only when feeling is followed with action can we be of any
practical assistance in a crisis. Vassar has realized this, and our
outraged sense of justice has been expressed by setting up a
committee of students and faculty whose immediate task is to
raise twenty-four hundred dollars which will bring to this
college two German Jewish students.

More immediately, President MacCracken, Professor Philip H. Davis, and the mayor of Poughkeepsie sponsored a city-wide boycott of the “aggressors’ goods.” Customers knew which businesses embraced the boycott by the red, white, and blue placards displayed in their store windows.

By the time Germany invaded Poland, on September 1, 1939, the college community had strongly united against Germany, and many were quick to denounce the Nazi invasion. A dislike for Germany, however, did not mean Poughkeepsie or any American city wished to send its citizens across the sea to fight. On September 30, the Miscellany News declared “No War For Us”; “We, in the United States, can see the dirty hands on both sides and must not be drawn in.” Yet the Class of 1940 Editorial Board quickly condemned any suspension of civil liberties in the U.S., any “alien-baiting” or “hysterical witch-hunts.”

Before the 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor, Vassar’s community did not change its position in the face of the war in Europe. In October 1940, President MacCracken told his students that well-educated women were necessary for the defense effort. Given that academic freedoms had perished in European universities, MacCracken asked,

Shall we not highly resolve that our lives shall be dedicated anew
to this cause, ...to use that freedom which we have, that freedom
which is ours upon the Vassar campus to make a contribution to
knowledge in our own lifetime, to create paintings of beauty and
worth, to write new plays and novels and essays, to spread the
word as editors of free newspapers and magazines, to fill up the
gaps and to carry on?

President MacCracken remained a pacifist voice in the months leading to Pearl Harbor; he saw no reason to rush into war. In his opinion, any homegrown conspiracy to coax the U.S. into war “carries with it all the intolerance, all the intimidation, all the mob psychology that other wars have done, and no good will come of it.” His staunch pacifism led to a falling out with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a trustee of the college and a confidant since 1923.

III. VASSAR FACULTY AND STAFF HELP THE WAR EFFORT.

In August, 1941, Vassar trustee Dr. Barbara Stimson ’19 and Dr. Achsa Bean, one of four physicians in the Vassar health service, sailed for England, the first of ten American doctors to respond to a request by the British Emergency Medical Service.  Dr. Stimson, a specialist in fractures, was the niece of United States Secretary of War Henry Stimson; her sister, Julia Stimson ’01, the president of the American Nurses Association, had attained the rank of Major during World War I and was decorated by the French government for her service abroad.

Another Vassar faculty member, Professor of Physics Paul A. Northrup, took a leave of absence in 1944, ostensibly to join the Division of War Research at Columbia University. Only after the Japanese surrender of 1945 was the physicist able to reveal that he had, in fact, been working on the top-secret development of the atomic bomb at the Special Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories at Columbia. Upon returning to campus, Northrop spoke about the atomic bomb, confessing, “Within a few years the principles will probably be known to most nations, but at present, information regarding the technical aspects of the subject are a closely guarded secret.”

Several other Vassar employees left campus to aid the United States war effort. Eunice Dodge, the senior assistant director of halls, joined the WAACS (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps), while Marion Wing, a personnel worker and director of the Goodfellowship Club House, served with the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Professor of Mathematics Grace Murray Hopper ’28 joined the WAVES in 1943; the Navy assigned her to a team at Harvard working on the Mark II, an early computer. (At retirement, the Navy’s first female admiral and a key figure in the invention of the computer language COBOL, Hopper dedicated the rest of her career to the Navy and to computer science.) Margaret David, an assistant in the geology department, traveled to Lowry Field, Denver, where she took a course in photogrammetry, “in preparation for making maps from aerial photographs for the use of the Army,” as the Miscellany News explained. Davis was the first woman to be selected for military photogrammetry.

IV. THE COUNTRY GOES TO WAR        When Japan stunned the United States with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, any hopes for isolationism and peace were dashed. As Vassar students nervously traveled home for Winter Break, Kay Eisenhart ’42 and Priscilla Sprague ’42 remarked, “This year, we felt for a while that there would be a queer unreality about smiling ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”

When students returned to campus in January 1942, conversations began about how Vassar could best bolster the war effort. While some believed the college required a fundamental shift in priorities, the editors of the Miscellany News saw little need to change:

Some students feel that music and Greek have lost some of their significance, and that studying in these fields can make little contribution toward winning the war. A glance at what is happening in countries where these things have been neglected convinces us of their vital importance. This must be made clear to the students. Every course must be related to the world of today, as every course can be.

In the early years of World War II, Vassar as an institution maintained its prewar habits, even while students yearned to contribute more meaningfully to the war effort. The selling of defense stamps proved a popular patriotic activity, as its supporters reminded the campus community: “Defense stamps become defense bonds, and defense bonds become armaments, air forces, and a two-ocean navy.” Students eagerly bought defense stamps at both the Post Office and the Retreat.

VI. EVERY BIT COUNTS       Several campus projects dedicated to the war effort highlighted the 1941–42 academic year. On the weekend of November 15–16, 1941, Vassar welcomed 54 student delegates from 14 colleges to a conference on national morale, sponsored jointly by the student-faculty Vassar Political Association and the International Student Service, a Federal agency for international education.  Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt joined Massachusetts Democratic congressman Thomas H. Eliot, Francis J. Brown, consultant to the American Council on Education, Captain G. J. Weitzel from West Point, and Private John Dahlberg in the opening conversation.  During the conference, several experts on civilian and military morale addressed the delegates, including Hungarian journalist and novelist Hans Habe, an escapee from a Nazi concentration camp who had emigrated to the United States. They also attended a special benefit production of The Experimental Theatre, Reveille: 1941, a “living newspaper” play, written by Vassar students, focusing on conditions in the draft camps.

Civilian defense activities abounded during the war years. Keene Richards, general manager of the college and chief air raid warden for Dutchess County, chaired the Defense Council. The council organized ten subcommittees to teach students about the many ways they could help their communities—at home and at school—in the event of an emergency. Sub-Groups included the Police Unit, Fire Unit, Water Supply Unit and Evacuation Unit. Richards made it clear that the student volunteers should not “write home that Vassar is preparing to defend itself. That is not the case.” Instead, he said, “Vassar if offering an educational program.”

In 1942 some students began waiting tables in the residence hall dining rooms, as a way for the college to save money during the war. Most maids had already departed from the residence halls to pursue more urgent defense work for the war effort. Priscilla Bullitt ’42, head waitress in Lathrop, said, “Every girl in the college ought to be a student waitress sometime. “ According to Bullitt, the experience shed light on “a formerly unknown part of college life” and made her more aware of how much food the average person wastes each day.

Reflecting wartime conditions, in May Vassar cancelled class reunions and shortened commencement week for the Class of 1942 to one night and one day. For the 1942–43 academic year, acting upon a government recommendation, administrators lengthened Christmas vacation to save fuel in the period that was coldest and required the most light, and shortened the spring vacation from 11 to 5 days to discourage travel.

In the summer of 1942, under its new director, Mary Fisher Langmuir ’20, the annual Vassar Summer Institute of Euthenics became the Vassar Summer Institute for Family and Child Care Services in Wartime. The institute trained professionals, volunteers and parents in a special curriculum focusing on the particular challenges of raising a family in wartime. Over 100 adults and 90 children attended the first session of the Summer Institute. Vassar hosted a second conference in summer, 1943.

By the autumn of 1942, the Vassar community sought to make a more significant adjustment in its war effort. The college’s War Council, in concert with the faculty, introduced its War Service program in September, and made clear that “every girl is expected to participate in the war services program.” The Miscellany News published, on its front page, the mandatory form each student was to submit, detailing tha extracurricular program for which she may be most suited: sewing, nurse training, child care, shorthand classes, to name a few.

VII. THE DEBATE TO ACCELERATE            Despite these adaptations, the undergraduate curriculum still kept students enrolled in college for a full four years, and as schools such as Mt. Holyoke began graduating students in three years, many supported a similarly accelerated track at Vassar. Professor Otto Lee, chair of  the philosophy department, wrote to Professor Mabel Newcomer, a member of the War Council, advocating a three-year degree. To the claim that an accelerated program would be too difficult for students, Lee responded, “Surely we should expect to work harder now than in peace time. We hear constantly that every citizen must work harder at his job, whatever it may be, and ours is education.” The Vassar Students Association polled the student body on the issue of an accelerated program, and “a large group of the students who did not want acceleration opposed it,” according to The Miscellany News, “on the grounds that women were not really needed enough to make this step necessary.”

At a town hall meeting in January 1943, the Faculty proposed a three-year accelerated degree plan to students, and the idea was met with great support. The school year, said The Miscellany News, would “be lengthened to 40 weeks, with three terms of 15, 15 and 10 weeks respectively, extending from about September 1 to June 30 with a long vacation at Christmas and a short recess at the end of the second term.” In February 1943, the trustees approved the plan, and changes commenced in September 1943. Seven seniors (class of 1944) received their diplomas in December 1943; the 202 sophomores (class of 1945) who wished to accelerate took extra courses in the third term to graduate in December 1944. These students’ graduation year became known as ’45-4. The last class to graduate with a three-year B.A. from Vassar did so in June 1948. The measures were always considered a temporary emergency measure and completely voluntary. 

Wartime curricular changes accompanied structural changes in the school year. Courses in French, German, Spanish and Russian emphasized translation skills, particularly of technical or other very specific material, and were open to members of the surrounding community who possessed the necessary fundamental knowledge of a language.  This emphasis prepared students for the civil service translator examinations.  A course in Modern Greek was also offered, although only to Vassar students, and the Russian department augmented its extraordinary collection of Russian rare editions with dictionaries and lexicons of scientific and technological terminology. The department of astronomy offered its first course in meteorology, Astronomy 122b, open to juniors and seniors with the proper prerequisites and designed to meet the requirements of the civil service junior grade meteorologist examination. The physics department taught an advanced course, Physics 345b, focused on radio and vacuum tube applications, such as radio transmitters and receivers and television.  The psychology department offered a graduate course (Psychology 460a) within the new conservation graduate division on the psychology of personality with collateral study to prepare for scientific research of problems of mental health.  A second new course in the department, Psychology 461b, was directed at undergraduates preparing for non-academic psychological vocations, in education, social services, industry or government.

By the fall of 1943, Vassar’s wartime response was in full swing.

VIII. HIGH-SOARING EFFORTS       “This plan is one of the most exciting things that has hit Vassar since the days of Woman’s Suffrage,” exclaimed Barbara Banks ’45-4 and Harriet Harvey ’45, speaking about the notion of starting the Vassar Flying Club. Banks and Harvey, licensed pilots, formed the club so that Vassar students might earn their commercial pilot’s license or gain the necessary training for admission to the WASPs (Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots). Nineteen students took advantage of the opportunity, which took place at the Lime Ridge Airport, twenty miles southwest of Vassar.

Other wartime changes sought to eliminate what Keene Richards called “frills.” For instance, in the absence of maids, each student was responsible for caring for her own room, as well as for contributing seven hours a week to housekeeping and messenger duties.  Heat was reduced to 65 degrees during the day and turned off at 9:30 pm.  Tablecloths were abandoned, as were lights in the indoor tennis court; and the pool opened its doors only three days a week.  The Social Museum and The Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies were suspended, and a “vegetable dinner” was served once a week.  To further conserve on materials needed for the war effort, the latter restriction was changed, in November to require a “meatless day” once a week.

As the war continued, some Vassar students questioned the policies of the American government, and the dangers of jingoism. In December 1942, the Miscellany News editorial board declared that peace at Christmas time would be impossible “until we have conquered what is the Enemy in our own country—until we have remedied our economic ills which allow for human suffering, and our more intangible and dangerous ills—anti-semitism, and maltreatment of the Negro, which are the first weapons of reaction.” President Roosevelt’s decision to relocate and confine 110,000 Japanese-American citizens into internment camps on the West coast also alarmed some students. A group of Vassar students wrote in the Miscellany News:                                                                  

In May 1942 the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council was set up to find relocation opportunities for [Japanese students]. The Council has already cleared 459 colleges as acceptable and 1271 students have been placed. But there are still 1543 students seeking clearance.... Vassar has been cleared for relocation but, as yet, we have no Japanese-American undergraduates. ...we feel the admittance [of a student] would be beneficial... it’s up to Vassar to stand by fellow Americans.                                                 

Despite this one plea, recruiting Japanese-American students was not a priority for the administration; none were admitted to Vassar during the period of Japanese internment.

IX. DENOUEMENT        Students crowded into the chapel on May 8th to hear President Truman’s announcement of an Allied victory in Europe; President MacCracken addressed the campus after everyone present sang, together, the national anthem and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The Vassar community of 1939–1945 had endured, together and with relative harmony, a lengthy and devastating global war. But many Vassar students knew that there was still much work to be done in a world reeling from catastrophe. The editors of the Miscellany News, in September 1945, cautioned:          

The war is over. We’ve won our chance to build a new world. Cars, cigarettes,
and maids may return to Vassar, but we cannot return to pre-war attitudes
and ideas. We’ve got to work for that new world.


Related Articles


Sources

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———. “As We See It,” The Vassar Miscellany News, February 11, 1942.
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PB, 2015