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What's so funny 'bout communism, atheism, and free love?

As 1917 began, the stage was set for a showdown. The citizens of Portland, like most Americans, were becoming caught up in the undertow of the war in Europe. Lines were being drawn nationally between pro-war patriots and anti-war pacifists. Foster took an early and steadfast public stand against the war and continued to stand firm even as his old friend, President Wilson, re-elected to the presidency in November 1916 on a non-interventionist peace platform, faltered in his own convictions.

In a speech delivered at the Portland Unitarian Church on Valentine’s Day, Foster publicly broke with Wilson, speaking out in favor of peace. Two weeks later, on February 27, Foster announced to Portland a new series of extension courses on “War and Peace.” He also welcomed to Portland for a public lecture his old friend, former Stanford president David Starr Jordan. The commencement speaker for Reed’s first graduating class in 1915, Jordan was barnstorming across America on what he called a “university extension course in the interests of peace.” That same afternoon across town, Dan J. Malarkey, a prominent Portland attorney and leader of the local patriots (he had been the Republican president of the Oregon Senate in 1913), addressed the Lawyers Naval Auxiliary, denouncing Foster and Jordan as traitors. He further lumped them in with anti-war Wobblies and “the peace-at-any-price movement.”

  William Foster in WWI uniform

William Trufant Foster served in France after the U.S. entered World War I.

President Wilson had just appealed to Congress for emergency powers to act with a free hand in determining whether to go to war. Three days earlier, British intelligence had provided Wilson with a decoded secret telegram from Germany proposing a German-Mexican military alliance against the United States. Like many pacifists, Foster questioned the validity of the British intelligence, urging that time be taken for verification. Joined by several members of the Reed faculty and 100 Reed students (almost half the student body), Foster sent a telegram to Oregon’s senior senator, protesting any declaration of war unless the country was in actual danger of invasion, and opposing any militaristic legislation that imperiled free speech, free press, and the right of free association. Foster also joined a group of prominent local citizens in asking the mayor of Portland to support them in calling for a national referendum on the question of going to war. The mayor’s rebuke—“national honor first, peace second”—was swift.

The next day the Oregonian weighed in, echoing Malarkey’s charges against Foster for lending his name to the peace movement, and denouncing him and “his pacifist professors” for being out of accord with the patriotic sentiment of America. Oregonian editors further accused Foster of being among the “socialist sowers of class hatred and the secret champions of Germany.” Letters from Oregonian readers were less civil. They denounced Reed for flaunting its traitorous principles, calling the college a “hotbed of sedition and crime,” as well as a “hotbed of socialism” for having lost sight of its dependence on the economic prosperity of the local community. “Mr. Foster and his fellow pacifists,” wrote one reader, “should be made to take the front line in the military mob . . . so that they would be sure to be in the slaughter.”

In response to the local outcry, Foster disputed any connection with the peace-at-any-price group, and cautioned Portlanders against mounting an emotional response to the events at hand until all the facts were known. He also reiterated his unwavering loyalty to President Wilson, and noted that he had personally spoken with Wilson to assure him that, should the country go to war, he would have Foster’s support.