17. Academe in the Great Depression

Alma Mater/Spring 2014
March 31, 2014

18. The Great Depression and the Rise of the Academic Left

Public attention on undergraduates
Modest democratization of college-going —
Declining engagement of faculty and students in political affairs; Hoover over Smith in ‘28
Faculty careers often helped by family money

Top institutions becoming financially significant through fundraising among alumni
Harvard/Yale/Princeton pass Columbia in endowment
CU still primarily in Manhattan real estate; HYP venturing into stock market
academic economists bullish on market prospects
1929 – 30-year lease of “Upper Estate” land to the Rockefellers — $3 million per year

October ’29 Stock Market crash hurt universities, some more than others

A couple universities used the Depression/crisis to good effect:
Harvard James Bryant Conant succeeds AL Lowell in 1933
Restoration of focus on research, particularly in the sciences;
Tightening of tenure requirements “up or out” procedures formalized
Nationalized the Harvard student body – [fewer Jews out there???]

Stanford – Begins to overcome its sleepy country club reputation with
developments in aeronautical engineering and electrical engineering à computers
Beginnings of Silicon Valley – Frederick Terman/Bill Hewitt/David Packard

MIT and Berkeley – technology-centered institutions — anticipating post-WW II developments where federal government becomes the main funder of academic research (not alums/not state/not corporations0

1930s – decade of cutbacks/layoffs/frozen salaries or worse/deferred maintenance….
Ageing faculties – few new hires; fewer voluntary retirements….
At CU, ageing president (NMB 70 in 1930) – been president for 28
Enrollment growths of 1920s stalled; dropouts for financial reasons commonplace
Only CU construction what becomes Butler Library [with pre-Crash $$]
Dormitories at Barnard under-occupied – financial aid funds strained….
College seen as even more a privilege of the relatively wealthy

Alfred Kazin on City College/the crew team at University of Washington….

College students/young faculty drawn back into politics – but not that of the two national parties
FDR and New Deal only retrospectively championed on campuses
The campus debate between socialists (i.e., public ownership of al all heretofore “private” businesses) who believed in democratic/majoritarian government [Norman Thomas] and  socialists who no longer did
Among those who did not à the Communists

Columbia Spectator editorial /James Wechsler ’35 – “New Deal a patchwork of ineffective programs”

The can-do  William James/Dewey  out as college man’s guide to public life – pragmatism/progressivism/social control….
Karl Marx/Lenin/Trotsky now in – capital vs. labor – which side of the barricades??

Support for workers and their efforts to organize/strikes/sit-downs….

Intellectuals siding with labor/the proletarian – black and white sharecroppers; coal miners; factory workers à   dining room staff/cafeteria workers on campus

Reed Harris – Columbia 1932 – Spectator editor – openly attacked Nicholas Murray Butler as a plutocrat
Academic Left and foreign policy
Not notably critical of American foreign policies in 1920s – not enamored of League of Nations….
Rise of Fascism – in Italy/Mussolini and Germany/Hitler – Spain/Franco
Consolidation of Communist power in Russia under Stalin – Giving Joe a pass?? Ignore the Gulag??
Critical of US policy of seeing these two developments as morally equivalent – must be with the anti-Fascists

Levels of identification:
1. Register and vote for the Socialist Norman Thomas or the Communist Earl Browder
2. Attend rallies/Join organizations supporting workers à National Lawyers Guild –“fellow traveler”
Frank Oppenheim – younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer

3. Make yourself secretly available to the Communist Party for spying/infiltration
[In Britain, “Cambridge Four” – Philby/Burgess/MacLean/Blunt spies]
Whittaker Chambers  CC 1921-23 – who then recanted and turned on his comrades
Alger Hiss JHU 1926  Harvard Law 1929
Judith Coplon – Barnard 1943

Trilling position – How rough could you allow your  side to be before dissociating from that side?
1. Stalin purges of 1930s
2. Treachery in Spain
3. Non-Aggression TreatyAlliance with Germany  in August 1939
4. Assassination of Trotsky

At  home, attempts to highjack the labor movement….
Belated appreciation of what FDR trying to do – and of his opposition
Positions —

1. Isolationist/Pacifist  – avoid ‘foreign entanglements” — None of our business;
let them (Fascists/Communists) knock themselves off; à Norman Thomas

2. Stay out but rearm to the teeth to assure their staying away (“America First”)
Prominent at Yale and Univ. Chicago [Hutchins] à Charles Lindbergh
Kingman Brewster Yale ‘41– later president of Yale
Opposed by McGeorge Bundy – Yale ’40 — later Harvard dean and National Security adviser to JFK

3. FDR — Provide aid to the Allies – get ready to enter the war when public acceptance there….
Columbia/Barnard/Harvard – Aid the Allies
Came to see FDR as one of them but with the job/responsibility to bring the nation along

Something else going on in late 1930s – Reconciliation of American intellectual expatriates of the 1920s with many aspects of American popular life:
Origins of American Studies/American Civilization  as an academic discipline
American Folklore
James Agee, Let Us Praise Famous Men
Reevaluation of American literature – F.O. Mattheissen/Perry Miller/Mark Van Doren….
Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., on Andrew Jackson….

Graduate students from the working class waiting out the Depression in school, dirt poor like their comrades:

Alfred Kazin, Starting Out in the Thirties (1962)  on the political spectrum of CCNY —

“engulfed by Socialists who were Norman Thomas Socialists, old-line Social Democrats, Austro-Marxists; Communists who were Stalinist centrists, Trotskyite leftists, Lovestoneite right-wingers, Musteites and Fieldites; Zionists who were Progressive labor Zionists, left Socialist Zionists and religious Zionists – all the most accomplished philosophers ever born to the New York streets, tireless virtuosi who threw radical argument at each other morning, noon and night with the same curves and smashes which  they played ping-pong at each other in the college basement that smelled of the oily sandwiches that we brought from home”

Later, in 1935, as graduate student at Columbia:
course on the art of the long poem – Virgil’s Aeneid

“All the Van Dorens had this particular, ‘American’ and rhythmical charm, but no one ore than Mark at his teaching. Everything smiled. America was a sweet revolution in itself. Even in these informal lectures beauty came out of beau and poetry gave birth to poetry; the voice of the poet’s eloquence and of the poet’s nobility was calm, easy, undismayed by any terror outside Philosophy Hall.”
Columbia – NMB as old-time internationalist; no admirer of Hitler (over his flirtation with Mussolini)
Presence of Jews on faculty (I.I. Rabi, visitor Enrico Fermi, Paul Lazarsfeld, Julius Held, Paul Kristeller, Meyer Schapiro)  and in student body; alert to Hitler’s anti-Semitism;
Some alert to Nazis’ interest in developing nuclear weapon – first nuclear reaction produced in Pupin – January 1939
Leo Szilard – Hungarian Jew à Alfred Einstein à Letter to FDR – August 1939

Nazi policies of late 1930s with respect to Jews so blatantly objectionable as to bring about some rethinking in US as to the acceptability of the common “country club anti-semitism” present on most American campuses

Position on intervention in WW II
3/38 – Austria
3/39 – Czechoslovakia
7/39 – Nazi pact with Russia
9/39 – Nazi Invasion of Poland – draws Britain and France into war with Germany/Italy
1940 – US building up its military capacities  — CU/MIT/Harvard/UCal…..
September — Draft of 21-plusers – for one year only
1940 election – FDR —  keeping his determination to enter the war to himself….
12/41 – 26 months before US entry
Pearl Harbor made it easy for both camps – Germany in alliance with Japan

America Firsters on campus  sign on to war effort
Interventionists prove to be good winners – few recriminations
Very few conscientious objectors/ treated with some sensitivity

WW II a “good war” for universities – gave promise to an even better post-war when
Americans come out of the war as the only real winners….

Last updated: March 29, 2014


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