Swarthmore at War, Part I

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

My next two articles will be a two-part sequence on Swarthmore at War. Today’s article focuses on the way Swat responded to the pressures of World War II on a larger, more policy-related level; next week, I’ll look at student life during the “fractured forties.”

When America broke out of its isolationism in 1941, Swarthmore faced a dilemma: how could a college with a traditionally pacifist Quaker ideology respond?

Swarthmore founder Benjamin Hallowell was a conscientious objector in the war of 1812. Should the college encourage students to do the same even after the attack on Pearl Harbor? The government wanted to bring the Navy’s V-12 program to Swarthmore, offering sailors the opportunity to rigorously study science while completing military exercises. Yet one of the very reasons Swarthmore was created was because the founders believed that “the disposition to introduce military drill into the course of instruction in our public schools … is especially objectionable to Friends.”

It was, and is, a difficult debate. It might be easy to look at our current wars and say that a state of war doesn’t necessitate military mobilization at Swarthmore College, but I think most of us can agree that WWII was a different animal altogether. On the other hand, even without the pacifism angle – could idiosyncratic, geeky little Swarthmore really tolerate holding the military on campus? Couldn’t we just ration our food and plant victory gardens?

But eventually, in his January 1943 address to the college, President John Nason asked of the Quaker tradition: “It is a fine tradition, a clean tradition, but is it any longer tenable?” The college had abandoned official Quaker ties in 1909, and the number of conscientious objectors in the 1940s was minimal. Besides, the line between civilian and combatant was increasingly hard to define. Nason concluded: “I feel bound to recommend that policy which will enable us to do positive good rather than merely to refrain from evil.”

So in July 1943, the Navy enrolled at Swarthmore. This wasn’t entirely unprecedented – during World War I, Swarthmore was the only Quaker college to accept a Student Army Training Corps. College enrollment stayed constant even with the V-12 program, but military men outnumbered civilian men 2 to 1; the student body consisted of 297 sailors, 234 women, and 155 civilian men. The college also hosted 49 Chinese naval officers who came to learn English. By 1945, Navy-college cooperation was so great that the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient was James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy.

The Navy was eager to ensure that the agreement was suitable for Swarthmore. The V-12 leader here, Lt. Bartle, was a former Dean at the University of Kansas City, and his expertise in both naval command and higher education made him both ideal for the role and popular on campus. Dean Everett Hunt claimed to be pleased to find that “the action of the Navy in allowing as small a quota as 300 has meant that the College has not been forced into mass production.” Hunt might claim that the navy did Swarthmore a favor by limiting the number of sailors to 300 – but other records show that Swarthmore had originally asked for 450. The college had hoped that with so many new students, the military would build Swarthmore a new dining hall. Sneaky.

In 1950, prominent alumnus Thomas McCabe proclaimed, “I was never more proud of Swarthmore than in the early days of the war when this Quaker institution, in spite of its traditional stand against war, offered all of its facilities voluntarily to our Government in time of need.” Of course, not everyone felt the same way. To quote William L. Richards ’48, whose resistance to the draft took him to prison from 1942 to 1946: “A Quaker college has no place in aiding a war. Swarthmore should have taken a stand for peace and not sold its birthright for a mess of pottage.”

There was general agreement, though, among both the administration and the student body, that Swarthmore should be primarily concerned with postwar reconstruction efforts. The college even created a short-lived special major in Civilian Public Service, comprised of courses in international relations, economics, and German or French. A Phoenix editorial argued: “Swarthmore’s men, and her women, too, are going to help win the war. But helping to win the peace is Swarthmore’s real job.” Nason added: “Any emphasis placed on aiding men for the armed services should be balanced by an equal or greater emphasis on the constructive or reconstructive activities so close to the enduring work of the Society of Friends.”

Nason lived this message himself; in 1942, Nason was appointed head of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, a body created to allow Japanese-American students in internment camps to matriculate in colleges around the country during the war, including Swarthmore. Nason called this some of the most important work of his life, and one student later opined, “Swarthmore has no better example of lighting a candle against the darkness.”

The wartime policy change with the most lasting impact, however, was the admission of Swarthmore’s first black students. John Nason avoided the issue in the first years of his presidency, despite three-quarters of the student body signing a statement asking the Board of Managers to “implement the traditional concern of the Society of Friends for racial equality by admitting Negro students to Swarthmore college at this time.” But Swarthmore’s support for the war may have given the argument for black admissions some weight; there’s a rumor that Nason went to the Board of Managers during the war and argued that tolerating racism at home was incompatible with fighting fascism in Europe. In any event, Swarthmore admitted its first black students in 1943: Dorothea Kopschcinski and Gloria Clement.

Still, the records of this period hold a fascinating omission. There are no major statements from Nason or any other college official about admitting the first black students. There aren’t any press releases to the college or community, and you can feel how Nason avoids the issue in his major addresses to the college, focusing instead on the V-12 program and wartime policies. Was Swarthmore trying to admit black students discreetly, while everyone was buzzing about the Navy and the war? Or was it really just not that big of a deal?

Generally, I think this demonstrates how the college admitted the first black students without simultaneously making a genuine commitment to integration. The bulletin added the statement “The college does not prohibit the admission of any student because of his or her religion, race or color,” but no major shift in college policy occurred or was even spoken of in 1943. Maybe this was necessary, given how many major shifts in college policy were already going on during the war. But this left room for tensions to simmer under the surface, with student pressure against the administration’s lack of real support for black students coming to a head in the Crisis of 1969.

The V-12 sailors, the Chinese Navy, Japanese-Americans from internment camps, and the first African-American students weren’t the only new groups of students to come to campus during the war. French, German, and Jewish refugees from Europe came to Swarthmore, as well as plenty of returning veterans. Come back next week for an article on student life during WWII – when the most distinguished professor ever to teach at Swarthmore graced the English Department, and Wharton C declared war on Japan before Congress.

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