President Foster addresses the Student Army Training Corps, 1918.
President Foster addresses the Student Army Training Corps, 1918.

The Pacifist Menace

World War I ravaged a continent – and nearly destroyed a college.

By Raymond Rendleman '06 | March 1, 2015

It was as unthinkable then as it would be now. Soldiers stationed on campus. Barracks covering the Great Lawn. Reed College coursework requiring credits in the military arts. Would you like to learn to be a soldier or a Red Cross nurse?

But this was Reed’s harsh reality during World War I, “the war to end all wars” that raged a century ago. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, pitted Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Serbia, Russia, Great Britain, and France in a devastating conflict. At least eight million soldiers perished, and tens of millions more were missing or wounded. The term “total war” was coined for the unprecedented degree to which civilians suffered.

The war wrought many consequences, big and small. It dismantled empires, transformed aviation, spawned horrifying new weapons, and changed the role of women.

It also nearly destroyed Reed College.

In 1917, as the United States stood on the brink of war, Reed had already earned a stellar academic reputation, thanks to the determination of President William Trufant Foster [1910–19] to scorn the “sheep dip” approach to education and focus on the rigorous study of the humanities, where learning was the core of the student’s experience. 

But Reed’s political reputation was a different matter. Foster was an outspoken pacifist—at a time when pacifism was practically a dirty word.

“The war, I said, would settle nothing,” Foster wrote in his unpublished memoirs. “The first World War would lead directly to a second World War and that to a third World War, unless we formed a world government with power to stop wars . . . . We had a mission at home, I said, to ‘make democracy safe for the world.’”

Foster certainly knew his position was unpopular. He doesn’t seem to have cared much. His opposition to the war stemmed not from pie-in-the-sky idealism—he came up from the streets of Roxbury, after all—but from genuine concern about whether the United States should get entangled in a European conflict.

Moreover, he had the backing of the Reed trustees. During his years as Reed’s president, he said, there was not one interference with freedom of teaching or freedom of speech. Despite “sharp provocations,” not one of the five trustees—Thomas Lamb Eliot, Cyrus Dolph, William M. Ladd, William P. Olds, and Charles Wolverton—ever flinched. 

“There is no reason why independent thinking and tolerance of opposing views and painstaking search for the truth and free speech and highest community regard for the speaker cannot go together,” Foster noted. “Without freedom of speech there can be nothing worth the name of college. With freedom of speech there are sure to be statements from some teachers with which some men disagree.”

As impressive as all this must have sounded in the lecture halls of Reed, it rang hollow in the sitting rooms of Portland. Many locals were already suspicious of this godless den of troublemakers who advocated for social reform, blathered on about intellectual freedom, and couldn’t spell right (Foster was a champion of simplified spelling). Now their worst fears were being proven correct.

In a not-too-subtle editorial headlined “The Pacifist Menace,” the Oregonian branded Foster as one of the greatest enemies of the republic. His “disloyal opposition to the [U.S.] President’s excessively moderate and cautious course can be averted,” the newspaper assured its readers, but only if the likes of him and other “Socialist sowers of class hatred and secret champions of Germany” stop their “humiliation upon the American people by encouraging Germany to murder our citizens, to sink our ships and to block our ports.”

Foster was no fan of epithets, or any use of “-ists” in reducing a person or an intellectual argument: “If any professor were so far-sighted as to be able to tell us what actually would happen in the next generation, he would be condemned by some men as a starry-eyed idealist; by others as a communist, socialist, pacifist, or whatever happened to be the favorite epithet of the day.” 

As the drums of war grew louder, Reed students infuriated Portland by remaining on the sidelines. Instead of marching in parades, Reedies took up a collection for feeding one-and-a-quarter million Belgian child refugees who found themselves in the crosshairs of the war. While students at Yale showed “intense patriotic spirit” in an 80% vote in favor of universal military service, Otto Schultz ’19 and Prof. Joseph K. Hart [education 1916–20] circulated a petition against the declaration of war “until the people of the United States have been consulted thru some sort of general referendum.” 

(A competing wartime petition encouraging the expulsion of all “Bolshevists” from Reed received a few signees after Foster pointed out that each student might have a different definition of that term. “If a man is really a fool, is it not better to provide him a platform on which to announce the fact than to make a martyr of him?” he asked.)

The simmering tension between town and gown boiled over in February, 1917, when Foster invited leading pacifist David Starr Jordan to give a major speech on campus. Once the president of Stanford, Jordan had been marginalized on his own campus because of his outspoken opposition to the war. At Reed, he made a compelling case why the U.S. should not fight in Europe. Rather than seeing any glory in the conflict, he spoke of how the corpses of men became manure for the grain fields. Soldiers also rendered the bodies so that the fat could lubricate their weapons in countries where oil was scarce. Generals in Germany, Britain, France, and Russia were sending their fellow students to be massacred in the trenches, while the feeble and dissolute of mind and body stayed at home to father the next generation.

“Military training makes bad citizens, citizens who will willingly obey their masters in the factories without asking for a chance for the simple comforts and privileges of life,” Jordan said. “A war would cost us . . . a great deal in money and supplies. It would cost us many lives . . . but most of all it would be costly on account of the domestic principles we would have to sacrifice by entering such a conflict.”

Jordan’s account had no small effect on the crowd of Reedies. As the Quest reported, “Although Dr. Jordan spoke without passionate emphasis of either voice or gesture, the terrible conviction, which the rationality of his thoughts carried, stirred his listeners deeply, and the irony of fact that was at his command uncovered the stupendous folly of war more effectively than the cleverest mockery.”

For the Portland establishment, the speech was the final straw. The next day, Oregon senator Dan J. Malarkey mounted the podium at the Multnomah Hotel and denounced Foster and Jordan as “traitors”—to thunderous applause.

Foster shrugged off the insults. “I was born a rebel,” he later wrote. “New England ancestors made me a cantankerous nonconformist, scowling at contented men and women, and warning them that whatever they were doing, they should be doing something else.” But while the attacks in the Oregonian had little influence on him, they had a great impact on the only man in the world who could change Foster’s mind— President Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson and Foster were old friends. As president of Princeton, Wilson had inspired Foster to write a final chapter in his dissertation on progressive education. Written under Columbia University philosophy professor John Dewey, a social reformer who founded functional psychology as a way to study behavior adapting to environment, the chapter on the “Ideal College” propelled the 31-year-old Foster to his appointment at Reed as the youngest college president in the nation. In 1909, he listened to Wilson’s address at Haverford College arguing that “the nation needs trained and disciplined men . . . who can conceive and interpret, whose minds are accustomed to difficult tasks and questions.” Asking for a copy of Wilson’s speech afterward, he would go on to create his “Johns Hopkins for undergraduates” by committing Reed to an intellectual environment measured not by grades but by theses and oral exams. Instead of competitive sports and fraternal organizations, Foster envisioned a haven in which students lived democratically and pursued knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

But Jordan’s speech set off Wilson’s alarm bells. He requested a private conversation and literally called Foster into his office. 

It’s unlikely that any primary record of this conversation survives. During the ’40s, Foster destroyed his notes and papers as he wrote his never-to-be-published memoirs, and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Virginia has only a correspondence between the two from 1913. 

What we do know comes from what Foster wrote in an open letter to the Quest, published March 6, 1917, saying that “every citizen can serve his country loyally in the present crisis by supporting the President of the United States.” In the event war is declared, he wrote, everyone must be ready “to serve his country to the full extent of his power . . . . But, in the meantime, he can best serve his country by avoiding inflammatory utterances, by patiently awaiting evidence from official sources before forming convictions, by refusing to credit rumors, suspicions, guesses and partisan charges of all kinds.” 

While expressing his hope that goodwill between nations could be retained without the U.S. resorting to war, he wrote that no one should attempt to restrain Wilson by suggesting that citizens wouldn’t heed his call to battle. “Since the beginning of our international difficulties, I have done nothing to badger him,” he wrote of Wilson. “I have been loyal to him and to the country according to the full measure of his own definition of loyalty.”

The grand compromise they achieved during that private conference? Foster would serve in the Red Cross, setting an example of helping the war effort without actually fighting. 

In the same issue, the Quest also essentially reversed its position, declaring in an editorial on Jordan’s speech, “Pride ourselves as we may on our intellectual attitude toward the current events of the world, we often find emotionalism creeping in and dominating our judgement to different points of view.” The statement could have been written by Foster, who had reluctantly come to the conclusion that war was inevitable and that once it was declared, Reed would have to join it—or perish.  

When Congress finally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the nation had no plan for using colleges. Students and teachers “more or less hysterically,” Foster remembers, began enlisting or rushing out to do anything, anywhere, that sounded like war work, especially if a uniform went with it. “The Reed College men who have been anxiously awaiting for a month their chance to do service for their country are soon to be gratified,” the Quest declared in May as 33 Reedies signed up—early—for armed service.

The hard fact was that young men now wanted to serve rather than go to college. Only 250 students enrolled in fall 1917, a drop of 13%. In May 1918, a paltry 37 seniors received degrees, only 11 of them men. 

Enrollment fell and tuition receipts plunged at a time when Reed’s finances were already in perilous shape. Reed’s income from endowment had fallen to about a seventh of its power when the college admitted its first class, due to a real-estate crisis not entirely unlike that of 2009. Meanwhile, taxes on the college’s 40 properties were up 73% from 1909. Rampant inflation was also chipping away at faculty income: the $3,000 annual salary had lost half its purchasing power by 1918. “They were learning from the butcher, the baker and the electric-light maker that the purchasing power of a salary is its only charm,” Foster wrote. 

Even with frozen wages and dipping into its own $20,000 surplus fund, Reed faced a $50,000 deficit over the next three years.

The college produced a fundraising pamphlet, “A War Emergency,” calling for donations from “citizens of Portland who believe that war work begins at home.” At the time, 90% of students came from the city, despite the college’s national reputation for excellence. Since the college had produced only five graduating classes, there was little choice but to appeal to wealthy Portlanders. “To meet the emergency, the College cannot turn, as other colleges do, to federal state and city governments, to alumni, or to a religious denomination,” the pamphlet continued. “Its only resource is private aid; its only field is its own city.”

Despite the bleak financial picture, Foster was convinced that Reed and other colleges could play a vital part in the war. At a meeting in Chicago, he begged the Association of American Colleges and Universities to send a committee to Washington, D.C., to urge the army to make provision for the best use of colleges in the war effort. The association agreed and appointed him to lead the delegation. When U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker asked for a written report, the committee nominated Foster to write it. That report deplored the fact that students and teachers were receiving demands from numerous official and semiofficial agencies without consideration of total future or even immediate needs. Colleges could not, he wrote, continue to meet the need for trained experts without prompt, definite action on the part of the government. 

Secretary Baker agreed and publicly urged all students as a patriotic duty to continue their studies unless called into military service. He warned the country against sending too many college students to the front, thus cutting off the future supply of trained leaders. “We said we feared that such general terms would have little effect, while teachers and students were called every day to specific, often dramatic work; work which appealed to them and to the public as patriotic, whereas able-bodied students and teachers who remained in college were regarded as slackers,” Foster wrote in his memoirs. If he had waited for Washington to act, he added as a theoretical historic alternative, there would have been no army corps at Reed College.

Partly on the strength of Foster’s report and further prompting, the Student Army Training Corps was organized in hundreds of colleges. In a July 18, 1918, letter to all students, Foster announced they were all “drafted into the servis of your country,” and would be provided with a uniform, receive instruction by U.S. Army officers, and most importantly, “go on with the studies of [their] choice.” Wilson echoed Foster’s own pleas that summer. “After the war there will be urgent need not only for trained leadership in all lines of industrial, commercial, social and civic life, but for a very high average of intelligence and preparation on the part of all people,” he declared. “I would therefore urge that the people continue to give generous support to their schools of all grades.” Wilson called Reed specifically “a bulwark of national defense” and said “it will be a public calamity if the work of the college is to suffer” during the war due to a lack of private financial contributions. Reed could now solicit donations for the war effort, but it still had more men serving overseas in the army or navy than in its classrooms. Foster and Wilson told students that the U.S. now lacked physicists, chemists, psychologists, biologists, draftsmen, and accountants (and other professions trained through the humanities) who were willing to serve their government.

A Quest editorial from 1917 called on students to concentrate their anxiety about war into their studies: “Instead of expending all that precious energy into merely being excited, work it into your themes, enliven your thesis with it, employ it in ferreting out the truths of science in laboratory, project a little of that pep into Greek and Latin, attack math with bayonets and the German with military tactics.” 

While “hastily planned and far from perfect,” Foster viewed authorization for a Reed branch of the training corps as a good first step toward keeping student-age men in school. The next step was to build a barracks. To do this, he asked Harvey Eugene Davis [superintendent of buildings 1911–48] to go across the Columbia River and borrow blueprints of the army barracks at Vancouver and build a copy on the Reed campus. By fall 1918, the 200-person Student Army Training Corps Barracks was constructed on campus facing Woodstock Boulevard, just south of the present Hauser Library. 

Two months after the building was completed, November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed. 

It took a full year for the U.S. government to reimburse Reed for the barracks—a delay that the college could ill afford. To keep the college open, Foster had to ask the board members, who were old and infirm by this point [Dolph was deceased], for emergency transactions of several hundred thousand dollars at a time—tens of millions in today’s dollars. 

During the war, Foster had been able to raise substantial sums for emergency use. When the emergency and patriotism died down after the war, however, the atmosphere turned chilly. Portlanders remembered Foster’s outspoken pacifism, and rumors still circulated about him being a German spy in a U.S. uniform. Reed’s daring academic experiment was in danger of being hijacked by his notoriety. 

With his reputation preceding him into the living rooms of local families and potential wealthy donors, Foster resigned and urged Reed trustees to find a president who could save the college financially. He was not the right man, he said, because he “had been a leader in too many off-the-campus fights; too many for the good of Reed College . . . . I had the courage of my convictions—foolhardy courage at times—but I lacked the courage of my emotions.”

How genuine was Foster’s change of heart? That’s a difficult historical question, even with his personal testimony, because it requires evaluating whether he cynically made the appearance to back Wilson in a desperate attempt to save Reed. It’s impossible to know for sure, but Wilson, as his mentor, could have easily told him that serving in the Red Cross, despite his deeply divided feelings about the war, could shore up Reed’s battered public image, thereby advancing its cause of academic excellence through its ability to solicit “emergency war-effort contributions.” 

However, the fact that Foster not only put on that Red Cross uniform—but also fully deployed his influence in that capacity worldwide—suggests his motives were genuine. After visiting 10 universities across the nation, Foster came back apparently convinced that loyalty to country could come without sacrificing ideals. He addressed the student body in the Reed chapel on May 14, 1917, saying that he witnessed college men “responding superbly to the call of the nation in this crisis” by putting in an hour or two of military training at 5 a.m. before beginning the usual day’s work. “Colleges are offering all their resources—human and material—without a thought of self-protection. Traditionally the torch-bearers of idealism, they are true in this crisis to the noblest epochs of history. Nothing more could be desired than that the whole country could come to comprehend the seriousness of the war and to feel the eagerness to face duty as have our universities and colleges.” Surely, Foster could have satisfied Wilson’s demands and done much less for the war effort.

In his memoirs, written during the late ’40s, Foster said that he appreciated the trustees’ commitment to academic freedom: “They knew, moreover, that where everyone thinks alike, few are doing any thinking at all. When I consider the kind of world which has resulted from two wars—wars for which we are still paying billions—I wonder what will be the long view of history.”

Foster’s outspoken pacifism had brought Reed to the brink of financial ruin. But once war was declared, his determination to have Reed play a meaningful role in the war effort probably saved it. 

After Foster resigned in 1919, the trustees resolved never again to allow Reed’s fate to be bound up with a political position—an attitude that would persist for decades and which in many ways still echoes today.

Dr Mary Mcmillan image

At Reed, Dr. Mary McMillan ran the nation's first program to train young women to become "reconstruction aides" focusing on physical and occupational therapy for returning veterans.

Reed and World War I

Anxious for Reed to play a role in the war effort, President William Trufant Foster created the nation’s first program to train young women to become “reconstruction aides” focusing on physical and occupational therapy for returning veterans. 

The program was run by Dr. Mary McMillan [director of the Reed clinic 1918–19], who later became a legend in the field of physical therapy. Trainees took classes in biology, anatomy, physiology, personal hygiene, psychological aspects of recovery, posture, theory of bandaging, military hospital management, massage, corrective gymnastics, and orthopedic surgery.

Dr. McMillan once described the case of an ambulance driver who was brought back from Europe after a raid on a Red Cross hospital: “He had been standing with two companions. Then came the awful explosion. He was knocked down. He didn’t lose consciousness. He found himself lying on the floor. On either side were his comrades. They had been blown to pieces . . . . ‘Oh they’re dead, and I’m not’ was the thought that went through his mind. It was curiously detached . . . . There was no great regret for their going, no great rejoicing that he was saved . . . . The amputations are necessarily quick work—guillotine operations, we call them. Often the muscles must be shrunk down over the bone-end by us, which is done by tight bandages and heavy weights . . . we often have to flatten out the bone-end by exercises so that it will bear weight.”

McMillan’s first cases never left her memory: “Bearded, broken men . . . came with their clothes caked in mud and their own blood. They were half demented with the thing that had befallen. They had lost their wives, their children, their all. They let us care for them as we would. The first thing was to cut their clothes from them. We took their garments into the yard and in a great pile burned them.” 

She prescribed daily gymnastic exercises and out-of-door games for all students to prepare for their arduous work in military hospitals. Mornings were spent attending clinics at various Portland hospitals and leading patients through exercises and massage. Reed graduated about 200 aides altogether; three died in the line of duty from influenza acquired in hospitals.

One of the aides, Col. Emma Vogel ’18, joined the Reed faculty to help train students in subsequent classes. After succeeding McMillan as head aide of the Department of Physiotherapy at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Emma became the first director of physical therapists in the U.S. Army.

At least 93 Reed students, professors, and alumni served in World War I. A bronze plaque at the entrance to Eliot Hall lists 12 students who died in the line of duty; many more were wounded.

Among those who served:

Neil Malarkey ’19 (son of Dan Malarkey, the state senator who denounced Foster as a traitor) joined the troops to France and was badly burned when a large timber fell on a tank of ammonia, causing it to rupture. He returned to Reed, graduated in English, and went on to became a district attorney and was elected as an Oregon state representative for Multnomah County.

Howard Hopkirk ’20 served as a first lieutenant and returned to write his thesis on press associations and newspaper reporters. He became an influential figure in social work, authoring the book Institutions Serving Children and becoming executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

Glenn C. Quiett ’20 served on the front lines in France, where he was exposed to poison gas and lost a lung. He returned to Reed and graduated in English, writing his thesis on the French playwright Eugene Scribe, whom he quoted thus:

You believe, like everyone else, that political disasters, revolutions, the fall of empires stem from deep, profound, important reasons. Don’t you know that it was a window in the Trianon castle, criticized by Louis XIV and defended by Louvois, that gave birth to the war which now grips Europe?

Glenn went on to write the seminal history of 19th-century American expansion, They built the West: An Epic of Rails and Cities. He died of tuberculosis in 1936; his friends and family raised money to build the Quiett infirmary that stands just north of Eliot Hall. When the building was dedicated, his aunt brought a bouquet of red carnations—Glenn’s favorite flowers—to adorn the entrance.

Tags: Reed History, Campus Life