By Geoffrey Blodgett '53
Most historians would agree, I think, that the fifteen years from 1930 to 1945, spanning the Great Depression and the Second World War, were the harshest stretch of time in 20th-century American history. Yet an impressionistic survey of the Oberlin campus scene throughout those years leaves one with an odd sense that the morale of student life flourished with a resilience that compares surprisingly well to the mood in later years of less searing anxiety and stress.This essay pokes around for clues with which to puzzle through that paradox.
What follows needs a warning label.
Many Oberlinians come to think of the years just before their own stay here with a particular nostalgia, imagining them as a kind of Golden Age which they barely missed. As a Depression kid who monitored the war from a safe distance by punching red pins in a National Geographic map of the world, and whose first visit to Oberlin at age 14 for my sister's graduation in 1946 made it seem a wonderfully serene and pastoral place, I share some of that second-hand nostalgia. My own subsequent student years here and my accumulating obligations to historical detachment have not washed it entirely away. The teenage visitor's soft thoughts about Oberlin may be forgiven. As for the professor's, well, fair warning.
The great educational reformer of the 1930s, Robert Maynard Hutchins, grew up in Oberlin and went to the college here for a couple of years before finishing at Yale. He came back to speak at the commencement of 1934. He called his talk "The Sentimental Alumnus," but he managed to avoid nostalgia in describing his student days here:
"With a struggle I can remember aspects of the Oberlin of my time... I can remember, for example, that this is the hottest, coldest, wettest, flattest part of the state of Ohio, so uninteresting and disagreeable that Plum Creek, the arboretum, the reservoir, and even the cemetery seemed like scenic gems glowing in a dull setting of yellow clay. I can remember sitting every day in this room on the most uncomfortable of all chapel seats, trying hard not to hear what the speaker was saying. I can remember the dancing rule, the rules confining ladies to their rooms [after dark], and the smoking rule, which I abhorred but was not robust enough to violate. But these items do not disturb me very much. On the contrary, they help me to preserve my illusion of the uniqueness of the Oberlin of my day... My college had the worst climate, the hardest seats, and the silliest rules of any institution in the world." Hutchins went on to say that Oberlin gave its students the best teaching to be found anywhere. That may or may not have been a lapse into nostalgia.
In 1930 the bedrock anchors of the campus were in place: Baldwin, Talcott, Warner Gym, Peters, Cox, Finney, the Men's Building, known as MB (now Wilder), Severance, Carnegie, the Quadrangle, First Church, and the Art Museum. (The old Conservatory has been the main disappearance.) Gibson's was selling its bed-rock donuts and the Apollo was going strong. So were Campus and the Varsity. Students learned about the humanities in an abandoned high school, geology in an abandoned house, zoology in an abandoned church. The college was about to acquire a larger batch of abandoned homes and turn them into dorms -- May Cottage, Squire, Elmwood, Webster. They all vanished, along with Crawford, Embassy, White House, Grey Gables, and Lord, in the "Big Dorm" building program of the 1960s, Oberlin's version of urban renewal.
In 1939, President Ernest Hatch Wilkins initially favored prudent neutrality, or perhaps a negotiated peace with hitler. Student opinions varied wildly. however, after December 7, 1941, the campus was fully unified in the war effort.
The most urgent building needs in 1930 were men's dormitories, a women's gym, and a physics lab. Hall Auditorium was about to go up. In 1932 Noah Hall was completed, the first of half a dozen red-brick Georgian dorms projected to create a new men's campus nicely tucked in between science and athletic facilities -- the presumed male priorities of the day. Hales Gym for women arrived in 1939, Wright Physics Lab in 1942. Hall Auditorium was still about to go up. In 1940 the April Fool issue of the Review announced that owing to accumulated planning costs, Hall was being redesigned as the Golden Lion Saloon so that it could pay its own way. The auditorium finally opened 14 years later.
In 1934, Rec Hall in the basement of MB (now known as Wilder's Disco) replaced Peters Court as the place for nightly dancing, the faculty having caved in on co-ed dancing (called "promiscuous dancing" by its critics) back in the 1920s. The student generation of the 1930s was born dancing, intoxicated with Swing. In the fall of 1939, it celebrated the sudden arrival of the Jitterbug.
After long faculty debate and deep misgivings, required chapel was dropped in 1934, replaced by "expected regular attendance," a term suggesting that even back in those days the faculty had a knack for useful euphemisms. Next year brought another change -- President Wilkins called it a "drastic change" -- the mixing of men and women in chapel seating. From now on you could sit next to a person of the opposite sex for religious purposes.
Student demographics began to change decisively across the 1930s. More students were coming from the urban East. President Wilkins called this a Depression phenomenon: Oberlin was attracting Easterners, he said, because it offered an Eastern education at Western prices. Geographical diversity brought growing religious and cultural diversity. Until the Depression years, Oberlin remained a Protestant place, in its self-description and its student and faculty composition. The percentages of Jews and Catholics, infinitesimal in 1930, rose steadily across the decade, in the case of Jews, from one percent to five percent. The Depression was clearly the catalyst for this long-term shift. Asians and African-Americans remained few and far-between. Not till the 1970s would Oberlin's white homogeneity begin to disappear, and with it a degree of cohesive community sameness. When students in the 1930s talked about racial diversity, they did so with a certain wistful longing.
Despite the Depression (or maybe because of it) graduate school loomed as an ever more alluring post-Oberlin choice. In the early 1920s fewer than 20 percent of Oberlinians went on to grad school. By 1940 the figure was up over 50 percent. In those lean years, graduate school was a valuable avenue of rising expectations, of hope for job security and satisfaction some day. The percentage of women going on tripled between 1920 and 1940. College teaching was the fastest growing profession of choice for both sexes; the ministry and missionary work the fastest shrinking. Clearly teaching was replacing preaching in an increasingly secular world.
The Depression energized campus politics. In the
presidential election of 1932, a straw poll among the
students recorded 69 percent for Republican Herbert Hoover, 22 percent for Socialist Norman Thomas,
8 percent for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. These
results were squarely in the Oberlin tradition: strong Republican family voting habits going back to Lincoln, Emancipation, and civic morality, spiced with a strong dose of social concern and a serious mistrust of Democrats. Oberlin villagers, also firmly Republican, complained when Roosevelt's New Deal started governing with borrowed money. A lot of that borrowed money went to relief agencies like the Federal Emergency "Relief Administration and later the National Youth Administration, both of which funneled job money to college students. By 1935 some 225 Oberlin students had FERA grants. This work relief may be one reason why the Democrats fared better at the next election. In 1936 the student body still tilted Republican, but by a much smaller margin: Landon, 51 percent; Roosevelt,
43 percent; Thomas, 4 percent.
A Republican resurgence occurred in 1940, the year of Wendell Willkie and the ominous Third Term issue. A bus caravan of several hundred students went to hear Willkie whistlestop in Elyria, and in the poll of that year he took 64 percent, as against 26 percent for Roosevelt and 8 percent for Thomas. (The faculty was barely to the left: Willkie, 59 percent; Roosevelt, 39 percent; Thomas, 2 percent.) At the student Mock Convention the previous spring, several state delegations collabor-ated in an effort on the fourth ballot to stampede the nomination of W.C. Fields. Convention leaders were alarmed; mock conventions were serious campus business in those days.
Mock conventions were serious business in those days-an urgent fourth-ballot nomination for W.C. Fields notwithstanding. A highlight of the 1940 Mock Convention was this patient elephant, borrowed for the day, tolerantly posing in front of the Apollo movie theater.
In both 1936 and 1940, the mock conventions featured live elephants. But behind those elephants and the sturdy mainstream they stood for, a good deal of ideological ferment and anxiety divided students over where the real world was headed. With other Americans, they coped with an either/or global crisis environment: democracy versus dictatorship, capitalism versus communism, peace versus war. Lots to worry about, and therefore lots to debate.
Campus political organizations, long dormant across the 1920s, suddenly flourished, most of them well to the left of center. The Liberal Club of the '20s became the Radical Club of the '30s and promptly got into trouble with President Wilkins and the faculty for attacking the college's complicity in the wealth of ALCOA. "A large proportion of the President's time," Wilkins told the trustees, was spent dealing with "the problems created by the doings and desires of a small but active group of radical students" -- a complaint echoed in one way or another by each of Wilkins' successors. Meanwhile, a steady run of visiting speakers kept minds open and lively across the whole political spectrum from left to right, to a degree that really hasn't been matched since. In 1933-34, for example, Rex Tugwell came for the New Deal, Norman Thomas for Socialism, Earl Browder for Communism, and Lawrence Dennis for Fascism. A full platter, its equivalent no longer widely desired today.
The largest campus political organization of the decade was the Oberlin Peace Society, founded in 1930 at the initiative of President Wilkins, for whom it was by all odds the most important cause on campus. "What is the use of giving four years of laborious and expensive education to these fine young men and women," he asked, "if their lives are presently to be shattered, in one way or another, by war and the consequences of war?" He proposed an undergraduate major in peace, hoping to ensure that pacifism did not slump into passive isolationism. Roughly half the student body belonged to the Peace Society by mid-decade. In 1936 an Oberlin chapter of the Veterans of Future Wars was formed, called the Peter Pindar Peace Post. Its stated aim was to win from Congress an immediate $1,000 bonus for each future veteran so that he could "enjoy his government's generosity before he is blown up."
As the decade neared its end, prospects for peace grew more grim each month as events began their dark slide toward war. In March 1938, Nazi troops goose-stepped past Adolf Hitler through the streets of Vienna as he joined Austria to the Third Reich and called it "the greatest accomplishment of my life." More accomplishments soon followed. As college opened the following September, the young nation of Czechoslovakia was dismembered at Munich. Then came Kristallnacht, the night of shattered glass for German synagogues. Oberlin could not isolate itself from these events. A mass campus protest meeting passed a solemn resolution: "We, the students of Oberlin College, fully realizing that we in the United States are not above insidious action toward minority groups, do abhor and condemn the racial and religious persecution now taking place in Germany, and all persecution of minority groups everywhere." Nine months later mechanized German armies rolled over the Polish frontier and the second war was under way.
Campus debate mounted over what America should do. President Wilkins and Dean Wittke led one side of the debate, in favor of prudent neutrality. Wittke told students that "if fascism comes to America, it will not be because of a foreign invasion but because of internal decay." Political scientist Oscar Jaszi and historian Freddie Artz marshaled 23 colleagues behind a militant reply: "This war seems certain to be long and bitter, but all its waste cannot be compared with the evil consequences of capitulating to Hitler."
Then in the winter of 1939-40 the war seemed momentarily to go away, and students could concentrate a while on pleasures close at hand. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Rudolph Serkin, and Marion Anderson (fresh from her rebuff by the DAR, and her invitation to the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt) performed in Finney Chapel. "Gone With the Wind" began smashing box office records. For Whom the Bell Tolls hit the best-seller list. Harry James came to play for the junior prom; Eddie Duchin for the senior prom.
Suddenly the dark realities exploded. Hitler's Blitzkrieg turned west, overran the Low Countries, cracked the Maginot Line, and forced the Dunkirk evacuation. The Battle of Britain got underway that summer. When college opened in the fall, 237 men registered for the draft in Warner Gym, 14 percent of them as conscientious objectors.
Over the academic year 1940-41, a faculty majority gathered around American intervention. Freddie Artz wrote an eloquent pamphlet, published by William Allen White's national committee to save the Allies, about the possibly terminal damage that Fascism was inflicting on Western Civilization. In class, Artz interrupted his own lectures repeatedly to drive home the warning. He circulated a letter supporting Lend-Lease aid to Britain, which President Wilkins opposed. In May 1941, 90 percent of the faculty signed a call for armed convoys to get the aid across the Atlantic. Not many students were quite so convinced. One wrote to the Review: "Our Daddies are running around signing petitions for convoys, and it is youth that is going to be blown full of holes when those convoys are sunk and we go to war." A Review poll indicated minimal student support for American entry but also massive opposition to strict American neutrality. So what to do?
Some students favored waiting till the war came to America, where it could be fought to better advantage; others, perhaps influenced by President Wilkins, favored a negotiated peace with Hitler. In the end there was no satisfactory solution.
In October 1941, the Review startled readers by publishing a long, anguished editorial, mostly written by future college trustee Victor Stone '42, in favor of an immediate declaration of war against Hitler. The heart of it merits quoting:
"We young people of the inter-war period have ever been activated by the hope that we were living in a postwar period. We hoped that we could look back with historical objectivity upon the mistakes which led our elders into world-wide slaughter and destruction, that we could recognize these errors and, by avoiding them, could shape our lives as we chose. We were wrong. If we go to war, we will temporarily relinquish democracy. It is better to relinquish democracy for the duration of the war than to relinquish it indefinitely in a Nazi-dominated world. We shall brutalize, conscript, and regiment ourselves for the duration of the war in the hope that we can thus avoid being forced to do so for the next fifty years or more. That is the only hope."
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning seven weeks later. When President Wilkins spoke to a packed crowd in Finney Chapel about it on Tuesday at noon, the Chapel was never more still. "I offer you no illusions," he said. "Fate has given you a job to do, a job which is in its essential nature a terrible job. But it is your job." Scattered in the crowd he spoke to were nine students whose names, along with 66 others forever young, are on the new memorial alongside Finney Chapel. Wilkins honored every one of them, and wrote personal letters to other Oberlin servicemen all over the world throughout the war.
After Pearl Harbor, the college immediately went over to a three-semester accelerated wartime calendar. Commencement Illumination Night was canceled for the duration. As volunteers and draftees began disappearing from the campus, Wilkins opened negotiations with Washington about a military unit to replace them. A 700-man Navy V-12 unit finally arrived in July 1943. Faculty members discovered untapped skills in engineering, personnel management, and navigation to try to teach them.
Meanwhile, among remaining students on campus, thoughts about a more democratic postwar world, led by a stronger version of the League of Nations, dominated conversation about the war itself. This led in March 1942 to a multi-college conference on the role of youth in postwar planning, keynoted in Finney Chapel by Eleanor Roosevelt. She arrived on a Greyhound bus, having traveled all night alone by train from Washington to Cleveland to get to the conference on time.
Professor Freddie Artz chats with a student in a uniquely benign moment. Hew was vigorously outspoken against Fascism and its potiential damage to Western civilization, and let his classes and the administration know it at every opportunity.
The war hardly curtailed domestic concerns in Oberlin. Anti-black racial discrimination in the Deans' offices, in downtown barbershops, and in the local public schools came in for student censure. An anti-Semitic English professor was publicly condemned for his outbursts. A few students began to call for student course evaluations, a brash idea whose time would not come for another 25 years. A feisty Review columnist named Midge Myers shocked her readers by coming out for sexual freedom and no-fault divorce. The Reveiw's next April Fool issue announced that she was scheduled to be stoned to death on Tappan Square by the Women's Board for her indiscretions, but predicted that she would probably survive the ordeal since "she who is without sin shall cast the first stone." An ad hoc wartime feminism emerged as women took charge of the Review and Hi-O-Hi staffs. When 17 veterans of Japanese-American internment camps enrolled at wartime Oberlin, one of them, Kenji Okuda, was promptly elected student body president. Meanwhile, the wartime fighting blasted on.
Finally came that summer night in August 1945 when the war's end arrived in Oberlin, so much sooner than expected. A loudspeaker near the Historic Elm blared the news by radio. Police sirens, fire sirens, car horns, church bells, and train whistles raised a raucous chorus of relief. The Navy V-12 unit marched briskly once around Tappan Square, and happy teenagers snake-danced across the Square itself. At last the killing was over.
Most student survivors of the Great Depression and World War Two had their lives disrupted or delayed, in some cases by many youthful years, before savoring what they hoped would be "normal" life from now on beginning in 1946. Yet in their years at Oberlin there is little evidence of despair, resentment, or alienation. Denied the American illusion which most of their parents and grandparents had once shared, that the future would surely be better than the past as they came of age, they learned to hang in there anyhow, eager for hard times and then wartime to stop.
Meanwhile, as Oberlinians, they tried very earnestly to understand what had happened to them and to the world they had grown into. I believe that there has not been a time since then when this academic community -- president, deans, faculty, and students -- worked harder to educate one another through blunt, open, reasoned debate about the scary times they lived in. They met reality head-on and dealt with it in balance and civility. Five decades later that still seems quite remarkable.