This appeal to the ground rules of rational debate in the midst of war hysteria revealed the depth of Foster’s intellectual stubbornness, as well as his political naiveté. He wrote that he saw no reason why, in the search for the truth, tolerance of opposing views should be incongruous with the community’s highest regard for the speaker of those views. A week later, he addressed the Jackson Club, a Democratic political association in Portland, with a talk entitled “Truth is the First Casualty of War,” alleging that a secret diplomacy was behind the effort to pull America into the war. Foster’s local nemesis, Malarkey, denounced the allegations as “spineless tommyrot,” deploring Foster and the Reed faculty as “sickening and nauseating.” (Malarkey’s own patriotic sincerity was later questioned when he was accused, in a letter to the Oregon Journal, of allowing his “traitorous son” Neil to attend Reed. Neil Malarkey ’19 promptly announced his enlistment in the military; he returned to complete his degree after the war.)
College historian Johansen argued, in her overview of Reed’s early history in the 1976 Reed College Student Handbook, that by publicly opposing the war in his role as president of Reed, Foster confused individual freedom of expression with the limits of institutional academic freedom. But Foster had no sense of such a boundary when it came to freedom of expression. “Without freedom of speech,” he wrote, “there can be nothing worth the name of college.”
In terms of the college’s financial welfare, however, Foster’s showdown with Portland could not have come at a worse time. The college’s estimated $3 million endowment, left it by the estate of Amanda Reed, was largely invested in 40 real estate holdings around Portland. This legacy consisted of apartment houses, warehouses, office buildings, and retail properties. Funding of the college’s operating budget was dependent on rents from those properties. A recession that began in 1912 had sent rents and property values steadily downward, cutting the endowment’s value in half, while taxes on the properties had steadily risen. The resulting decline in income placed the college in a sudden financial bind. On March 2, the very day Foster was defending himself in the press against charges that he was a traitor, Reed’s five founding trustees convened an ad hoc committee of Portland businessmen. Headed up by local banker E.B. MacNaughton (whose lifelong association with the college would include a stint as president from 1948 to 1952), the committee was charged with selling or remodeling Reed’s real estate holdings in an effort to increase revenue generated by the endowment.
A month later, the United States formally declared war on Germany.
Honoring his earlier pledge to Wilson, Foster immediately threw his full support behind the war effort, appealing to America to use the war to clarify its vision and conserve its national ideals. But the damage had been done. While the mobilization for war overshadowed any immediate fallout from Foster’s initial pacifist position, his heroic quest for uncompromising academic freedom and nonconformity was, for all intents and purposes, over. The Espionage Act of 1917, with its limits on freedom of speech and the press, made it official.
Reed entered a season of bitter ironies. On April 15, 1917, the New York Times ran its laudatory article on the college, announcing to the nation what the academic community already knew, namely, that Reed had “emerged successfully from a unique experiment in education.” Foster had the article reprinted in a small handout that he re-titled “Comrades of the Quest—The Story of Reed College.”
A month later, the trustees sent out their first local appeal for financial assistance. For a college that had launched just six years earlier with one of the largest founding endowments of any college in the country, the fundraising brochure was simply titled “An Emergency.”
Foster threw himself into the war as though it were another crusade. He established at Reed the only institution in the West for training reconstruction aides. He built a barracks on campus and, like many other colleges, opened a Students Army Training Course. Appointed to a six-person commission to investigate the work of the American Red Cross War Council, Foster spent months touring the front lines in France and Belgium, filing dispatches to the Oregonian. Upon his return to the U.S., he toured the country in an effort to drum up support for the war, delivering 150 speeches in 50 cities.