Despite the general fervor of the administration and alumni, enthusiasm for the coming of the war did not come naturally to the Columbia community. In fact, as the likelihood of US involvement increased prior to the declaration of war, many Columbia students, like much of the rest of the country, vocally protested the rising tide of militarism. Much, but not all, of this anti-militarism subsided when war was declared, though the university was home to a small but substantial community of pacifists throughout.
Above: Barnard Political Science Professor Henry Raymond Mussey's response to the first 1917 personnel survey
Before the United States entered the war, Butler and the administration sought to include the university in the national preparedness campaign. The result was the Columbia University preparedness camp established in Plattsburg, at which students could learn the benefits of military discipline.
The Plattsburg camp was not well received by many Columbia students. A group of eight students (including, according to newspaper reports, the head of the debate team and some of the university’s most prominent athletes), released a statement opposing it and all militarization:
Plattsburg gives to the college man all the atmosphere of jingoism without any real military training … We resent and protest against the idea that he is unpatriotic who refuses to believe that America's future greatness depends upon an immediate and material increase in the army and navy and other military forces of the United States.
This attitude evidently found a broad base of support among the student body – enough so that two groups of alumni publicly rebuked what they saw as the “peace at any price” attitudes according to one newspaper account. Continued one newspaper account: “It seemed as if the two alumni associations, the minings and the arts, were fearing for the good name of their alma matter.” It wasn’t an entirely baseless fear. The students followed their statement with a rally at Earl Hall. Over 400 students attended, and several professors spoke.
In fact there were several on-campus organizations devoted to the anti-militarist cause, including another that again provoked the ire of the more jingoistic alumni. As early as 1915, the University Common Sense League held meetings on campus opposing the escalation towards war – and the alumni did not take kindly to it, again publicly denouncing it to the press. The Common Sense League hosted such prestigious speaks as Rabbi Stephen Wise.
Opponents to the war also made their opinions known in the 1917 personnel survey, sometimes less than subtly.
Above: pacifist responses to the first 1917 personnel survey. Be sure to click through them all; there are a good number.
Perhaps the most stirring response came from Henry Raymond Mussey, a political science professor at Barnard, who wrote a full letter (opposite) in response to receiving a personnel survey slip, denouncing the university's mobilization as a threat to free inquiry.
Above: pacifist posters
Much of this opposition seemingly evaporated when the United States entered the war, though not all of it. But pacifists on campus experienced a startlingly different reality after war was declared; while previously they had been met with tacit (and occasionally overt) support from much of the student body, when the war began they instead found themselves facing violent opposition.
Part of this transformation was a matter of official administration policy. As Nicholas Murray Butler explained in his 1917 convocation address, "Now is the time for our school committees and boards of education everywhere to protect their wards from the mischief-making demonstrations of "shadow Huns," whatever their masquerade." Seditious ideas, whether they came from faculty or students, no longer had any place on Columbia’s campus.
The meaning of Butler’s words became realized in a sort of mob policing of opinion. On October 18th of 1917, 300 anti-war protestors meeting on the steps of Low Library found themselves met with eggshells and forcefully driven off campus. A New York Times reporter described the scene:
Then, suddenly, the eggs began to fly. One of them, aimed apparently at the motor truck, struck a policeman, spattering him and some of the spectators.
“Cut that out,” roared the policeman, “ or –,” but detecting another egg coming swiftly in his direction, he ducked his head, and the rest of the sentence was lost in the eager scurrying of many persons for cover.
This, and the transformation of the jovial mode of the attackers into something more serious proved too much for the speakers….”
The attackers then moved to South Lawn, where C.P. Ivins, the vice president of the senior class, delivered “patriotic addresses.” Chillingly, they then distributed a flyer describing one of the protest’s leaders, a CUNY student expelled for his anti-war beliefs:
Our fighting pacifist. Keep him on the jump. You know him. He slew his enemies with the jawbone of an ass. He will speak again today.
The message was clear. Another protest later that day was forcefully broken up by loyal students – and the muscle of 40 members of the local naval reserve, who marched up to the speaker’s vehicle in formation and tore down his banner. Police were present, but did not intervene. Pacifists were no longer welcome.
The effect was profound and almost immediate. A 1917 newspaper article put it succinctly: “The Flower of anti-militarism at Columbia University, which has been three years budding, has withered and passed away without ever coming to bloom.” “Collegiate Pacifists,” concluded the article’s headline, “Have Suddenly Faded from Morningside Heights.”
It started with three kids: Owen Cattell, Charles F. Phillips and Eleanor Wilson Parker – Columbia students or alumni, all. They were dedicated pacifists, or at least pacifist enough to lead Columbia’s division of the Collegiate Anti-Militarism League, of which Philips was an executive secretary. And some time in the spring of 1917, they decided to publish a pamphlet.
It was titled “Will You Be Drafted,” and it was also a violation of the recently passed Espionage Act, which made speech against government drafting and recruitment illegal. A major challenge to free speech, the act was used against pacifists, and opponents of mainstream American opinion of all stripes, particularly socialists – socialists like Phillips, Cattell, and Parker. (Memorably, the jurisprudence resulting from challenges to the Sedition Act inspired Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ claim that shouting fire in a crowded theater is not speech protected under the first amendment).
Above: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana
And so, in the Spring of 1917, two FBI agents came to arrest the three students; they took them in for questioning, and eventually brought them to trial. A sympathetic professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, put up their bail – a staggering $1,500 (a little over $28,000 in 2017 dollars). Nicholas Murray Butler was furious, thundering to the Columbia Spectator that “No person who is convicted of any conspiracy against the United States government will get a degree from Columbia University.”
The trial, the first of its kind in the city, rapidly descended into a small circus. The students got Morris Hillquit, the famed New York socialist lawyer and politician, to defend them.
They also attracted an odd crowd and a minor media frenzy, much to the judge’s displeasure. One reporter from the New York Telegraph disparagingly took note of the scene: "The three young defendants are not drawing very large audiences, because Judge Mayer is very strict in the matter of admissions. However, a fair sprinkling of young women in floppy clothes and storm shoes and tousled-haired youths in sort shirts and flowing ties crept by the deputy on the door and listened intently. There was a small delegation of Greenwich Village anarchists present, all of whom opposed to everything except table d'hotes, including laundries. Two parlor socialists were conspicuous inside the rail by their general air of superiority and wrist watches." Even Randolphe Bourne felt compelled to weigh in.
The students remained resilient under questioning, and Phillips even used the opportunity to expound upon some of his pacifist principles. In some accounts, Eleanor Parker was meek and frightened; in others, she was wholly unrepentant and unfazed. The prosecution was not amused, calling the defendants “craven cowards.” All of this was rather befuddling to Parker’s father, who, in a sentiment that can only be described as trans-historically familiar, came to believe that his daughter had fallen under the spell of “false teachings” from her professors.
Several times throughout the proceedings, friends of the defendants disrupted the court; once, memorably, a friend of Phillips’s pretended that he was a journalist in order to get close to the defendants. Later, the court marshal forced thirty college students to leave. When Phillips asked that they be allowed to return, the officer fumed: "I don't want to talk to you. You think this is a vaudeville show, and you want your friends to see you act."
It seemed pretty clear that the fix was in: the court was going to convict. The defendants weren’t denying what they’d done. But there was a problem – and that problem was Eleanor Wilson Parker.
Reading through the newspaper accounts of the trial, it’s clear that both the judge and the newspapers did not really want to see Ms. Parker put in jail. It would’ve been a tough sell, putting a Barnard girl behind bars: the espionage and sedition laws were supposed to root out the rotten, disloyal parts of society – and those parts presumably didn’t wear a pretty straw hat: green, lined with a thin pink band. They weren’t “but of a slip of a girl,” in the words of one reporter; they couldn’t wear clothes that “set off (their) beauty to an advantage.”
In other words, they weren’t supposed to be middle class, native-born, white, college educated women; they weren’t supposed to be named Eleanor Wilson Parker.
And so they let her off, using the most peculiar of technicalities. The judge insisted that Ms. Parker had never seen the final proof of the pamphlet, and thus clearly could not have colluded the seditious actions of Cattell and Phillips. The court did not have enough evidence to convict her.
This was pure nonsense. When she’d been arrested, Eleanor had told the FBI that she knew what she was doing was illegal; that she didn’t care, and, given the opportunity, she would do the same thing again. Somehow, the court mysteriously managed to forget this – and that Parker was an officer of the Columbia Socialist Study Club, and that she had met Philips while they both wrote for The Challenge, one of Columbia’s radical magazines. The Columbia Spectator even noted that Parker had a reputation of being a radical around campus, and that Virginia Gildersleeve, Barnard’s Dean had tried to force her off of her editorial position at The Challenge for her incendiary work. Parker knew her release was nonsense, too: when a reporter asked her about it, she told him bluntly that "only a technicality separates their position from mine. We are on the same moral grounds.”
In truth she was right, but those “same moral grounds” were very much particular to the gender and status of the defendants. But having removed Parker from the picture, the court speedily set about convicting the two remaining boys…
… Only to run into Eleanor Parker again, who, having been released, immediately began to stir up trouble. She returned to the court the next day and passed notes to her co-conspirators, laughing all along. Somehow, she started a campaign denouncing the court, and , in what must have been a gross embarrassment for the patriotic officials of Columbia University, got the daughter of a dean to sign it. The New York Sun noted that the higher-ups were fuming: "Eleanor Wilson Parker… has again aroused the wrath of Federal officials, and it was intimated yesterday that unless the nineteen year old girl settles down to a simple life she and other radicals would face serious trouble."
Which is precisely the opposite of what she did. During this period one of her poems was published in The Masses. And, in one additional show of defiance, she eloped with Charles Phillips. They were married that fall. Both of their parents refused to attend the wedding.
Phillips, meanwhile, was found guilty and promptly given a slap on the wrist – a $500 fine instead of the max $10,000, and a day in jail, rather than the possible two years. He was also stripped of his citizenship but it’s not exactly clear what that meant in 1917. He later tried to dodge the draft, and continued generally being a thorn in the side of the government for the next several years.
Morris Hillquit rhetorically brought the trial to a close in a final statement stirring enough to capture the sympathy of even the papers. “They are young, enthusiastic idealists,” he said, “and happy is the nation that has such young people now and then preaching a gospel of peace."
Nicholas Murray Butler did not agree. It was only after this that, perhaps as a sort of revenge, Butler and the trustees fired two professors: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana (the professor who had provided bail) and James McKeen Cattell, Owen Cattell’s father. In protest, the famous historian Charles Beard abruptly resigned, and everything went to hell.
All of this was beyond Eleanor Parker. When reporters asked her what she thought of her experience with sedition, she simple replied: “It was lovely. Now I'll get my degree from Barnard."