That was the hope, anyway. And in some senses, enthusiasm for the war deeply permeated university life. At the beginning of the war, Nicholas Murray Butler may have led the undergraduate body in singing the university alma mater,but by the end of the war, Columbia had its own university specific war hymn.
In fact, plotting out just a small fraction of the war related uses of campus buildings reveals how the university’s purposes and that of the war became one and the same, and the extent to which the war was in some sense unavoidable if not omnipresent.
But rather than necessarily being all-encompassing, instead, in as much as we can tell, university life found a way to accommodate itself to the “war footing.” In some ways that are both reassuring and patently absurd, life continued as normal at Columbia University.
For example: on April 2 – the day the US entered the war – The Columbia Spectator notes that the Columbia handball team lost to Yale. Two days later, front page space was devoted to both a call for students to drill more, and to a “mass meeting of undergraduate(s)” – not about the war, but about a dispute between students and the management about the conditions in the Hartley Hall dormitory.
The normalcy continued: the freshman dance of April 19 was cancelled on account of military preparation, but the April 28th “Moonlight Dinner for Southerners” was not. By May, most of the paper’s front-page real estate was devoted to more local topics, like a thief caught in one of the dorms, though one column was normally reserved for war-related announcements and news. By February of the next year, the war seems to have become largely uninteresting.
Ultimately the most common way in which students interacted with the World War I while at Columbia was as an adjustment to the familiar. The war effort was positioned atop an existing superstructure of school spirit and national pride. Existing traditions and institutions (clubs, dances, etc.) were slightly modified to acknowledge the war’s presence, but not usually fundamentally changed. A look at the publication produced by the student naval unit provides illustrates the point: the publication, called “The Log,” included a humor column called The Salt Cellar; its purpose was “just to make things salty.” This was not just “intensive military and academic training.”
Above and left: comics from S.A.T.C. student publications
Likewise, relationships between male and female students continued in their normal mode, if not entirely unabated. The student publication of the Columbia University Navy Unit, for example, advised its readers that "making a date with someone you have never seen is about the same as ordering a necktie by mail." Much here has been left to ellipses, but we know a little bit about how the war affected the gender and sexual dynamics of campus life. War service, of course, was supposed to make young men tremendously appealing, a concept certainly not lost on Columbia’s male servicemen.
Nor was it a fact lost on Columbia and Barnard administrators. In fact, Barnard students were often set up to be near servicemen or S.A.T.C. members, usually in situations where flirtation was either socially acceptable or even expected. Barnard students staffed the Barnard Boathouse Canteen and a café for servicemen in Earl Hall, offering “entertainment to soldiers and sailors.” A newsletter from the Columbia University S.A.T.C. naval unit elaborates on this a little:
Dancing, delicacies, books, and a pool table were placed at our disposal by the Barnard girls at the canteen. And we certainly took advantage of their every offer. We will be civilians soon, girls, and we hope to be able to speak to you on campus.
Above: a student comic
The Committee on Women’s War Work even planned social dances. Many eyes seem to have been knowingly winked.
What the women of Barnard thought about any of this is difficult to say.
Perhaps the closest that Columbia came to a full mobilization of student social life was an aborted effort, in the fall of 1918, to close its fraternities, for fear that they might distract S.A.T.C members from their obligations. It was abandoned about three weeks after its proposal.