Before Pearl Harbor


The years before the Second World War at Virginia were much like they were elsewhere in the country. Day to day life was fairly normal despite a gradual heightening of concern over the situations in Europe and Asia. At Virginia that meant athletics, dances, alcohol, and visiting women's colleges were still the students' main activities although speakers on the growing international crisis became more frequent and well attended. The N.S.L. was replaced by the American Student Union, a composite of liberal organizations formed in 1936. The A.S.U., like the N.S.L., was overexposed at U.Va. because of the sympathetic student paper. While its agenda was farther left than most Virginia students its presence was tolerated. It was the most outspoken group on the issues of the day, but was far from radical. Until the outbreak of the war in Europe students' interest in war was largely intellectual, but once U.S. involvement became a real possibility the school and the students geared themselves quickly for war. Pearl Harbor surprised many, but the school was ready to contribute to the war in the name of democracy. The University's quick response and adaptation to the war at first is surprising given the previous extent of anti-war sentiment, but even in the mid-thirties when U.S. involvement in another war seemed remote most students had been willing to defend the country. The radicalism of other campuses never existed at Virginia during the depression. And so Virginia found itself more prepared for the War more than many other schools.

In the four years preceding the Pearl Harbor attack the University was saturated with speakers on the international situation. Most focused on the most advisable course of action for the United States. Others discussed specific situations like Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1938 the audiences seemed, "puzzled over the confusion existing in Europe." Speakers such as Dr. Heinrich Bruening, a former chancellor of Germany, attracted large audiences in Cabell Hall auditorium. Additionally, the A.S.U. sponsored many other speakers on topics not solely related to war in Madison Hall or a room on the West Range to significantly smaller audiences. College Topics aside from covering these speakers began getting news from the Associated Press wire service. The student body's hunger for information was satisfied by many sources. In the middle 1930s however U.S. involvement seemed unlikely to students.

As the thirties passed more student organizations began spend to time on the war threat. Their activities provide a useful measure of student sentiment. For example, the Little Congress, a student government which mimicked its federal counterpart, in its first meeting of the 1938-39 session passed a bill favoring military alliances between the U.S. and other democracies, embargoes against "aggressor" nations, and "moral support to nations seeking to uphold the democratic ideals." The majority felt such a bill would be effective and "keep our necks out of the noose." A minority felt the bill too weak citing the failure of such a policy during the First World War. The next year the Little Congress, dominated by the right party (over two others, the center and the left party) favored a cash and carry policy--generally seen as an effective means to help our allies' war effort without committing American forces.

Other student groups organized specifically to publicize the undesirability of war, primarily through speakers. These included the University of Virginia Anti-War Committee, University Peace Council, and the Profiteers of Future Wars. This last group's sarcastic name reflects the dismay among many students that the First World War made capitalists very wealthy.

Bob Ireland, secretary of the A.S.U. and a columnist for College Topics, was a constant voice of student opinion on the international situation. He favored the "immediate development of an impregnable internal defense" so that domestic issues such as the South's high illiteracy rate could be addressed instead of expanding the Navy. He felt that fascist countries military build up could affect the United States only if we are foolish enough to follow their example. Such naivety was typical of the time, but it did not last for most students. Additionally, he spoke for the relaxing of immigration restrictions for fleeing persecuted European minorities while at the same time referring to African Americans cordially as "darkies" and speaking against anti-lynching legislation.

Other students expressed their opinions on the pages of College Topics as well. One writer referred to isolationists as "ostrich thinkers", calling for America "to be ready to fight for her institutions both externally and internally". The Easter's week (a week of dances and debauchery much loved by the students) satire issue of College Topics sported the headline "REDS STAGE RAID ON ROTUNDA" and reported that Hitler was seen leaving a dance the previous night in formal wear. The prominence of the war in students consciousness is underscored by its appearance in student humor. The student body had a remarkable talent for joking about their gravest concerns; a pattern that continued into the 1950s. The humor belied the seriousness of the student body on the issue. When one student wrote in 1940,

He felt it necessary not to pen his name to his words which echoed Bob Ireland's and so many others of a couple of years previous. The climate of the University in 1940 was not open to debate as it had been. Speakers, too, spoke with increased urgency and less hope of averting world war.

However the most significant event at U.Va. before U.S. involvement was the establishment of military and para-military organizations at the University. In the summer of 1940 President Newcomb inquired with the Army and the Navy as to the feasibility of establishing R.O.T.C. programs at the University; the Navy responded and so did the students, quickly filling the 100 person quota in the fall. Despite N.R.O.T.C's small size it was quickly incorporated into the regular University scene. A fictious account in Corks and Curls of a first-year man's experience reflects the openness of the students to the new program. The student, having recently joined the N.R.O.T.C. declares, "I pity the fellows who had to register for the draft". As R.O.T.C. reentered the University landscape, a group of students organized the "Minute Men of 1940" during the summer to "work among students on behalf of conscription". This group met with tremendous support from College Topics. The paper, no longer staffed with men sympathetic to the A.S.U., distinguished the Minute Men from A.S.U.-type pressure groups because of the Minute Men's patriotism. The Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, too, received much press in the student paper. As the Alumni News reported,

Thus, despite having no R.O.T.C. program until the fall of 1940, the University of Virginia was ready for World War II in mind and institution by the time of Pearl Harbor.


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