The Pacifist Menace

President Foster addresses the Student Army Training Corps, 1918.

World War I ravaged a continent—and nearly destroyed a college

By Raymond Rendleman ’06

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.

We’ve all had close calls, and two of our cars have had hole put thru the roof by rocks falling on them, which has been thrown up by shells . . . . Every once in a while, the shells tear up our road, but it is all fixt up again in a few hours. On our first trip up to the postex, we had to fil in three shell holes at twenty-five yard intervals before we could go on.

We have three dugouts in which we live when on duty . . . . At first we found it a little hard to sleep without a lot of fresh air, but we’re used to it now. When off duty we stay in a ruind village a little further back , but not out of range, for they shell us every once in a while . . .

—Excerpt from a March 1918 letter from Albert Gentner ’16

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“The war, I said, would settle nothing,” Foster wrote in his unpublished memoirs.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. 

Return address, 116th Engineers detachment, “Somewhere in France” postmark:

Yesterday I began thinking how hard it was going to be to spend Christmas in this camp away from home with no mail and no Christmas packages . . . . But the cooks had been working all night to get our turkey dinner redy, and our lieutenant in command of the detachment has gotten a large number of Christmas Red Cross packages. We had our dinner—and I ate so much—have never eaten so much since I left . . . . After a big meal and distributing the Christmas gifts, it seemed like Christmas after all.

—Excerpt from a December 25, 1917, letter from Arne G. Rae ’19

“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.)

Return address: 147th Field Artillery, 66th Brigade, 41st Division, Camp Mills, Hempstead, Long Island, New York

I do not have the regular gun drill as I am on the regimental telefone and radio detail, composed of five men from each battery. Our duties are to take charge of all communication work between observation and listening posts . . . . The war is getting closer and closer each day. We have received short trench overcoats, several units have their gas-masks . . .

—Excerpt from a November 16, 1917, letter from Richard M. Kennedy ’20

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. 

Excerpts from November 1917 “Devastation in France” and “Modern Warfare” lectures at Reed:

The total front amounts to twenty-two-hundred miles, nearly the distance between Chicago and San Francisco . . . . Germans have vented their worst hatred upon the quaint churches and beautiful cathedrals of the French, doubtless because they realize how much it hurts the spirit of these ardent people . . . . With all their shelling of the cathedral, they have not toucht the statue of Joan of Arc, a sign she is still with them in spirit and will again lead them to victory . . .

It is impossible for a German submarine to mistake a hospital boat. On the side of the ship is a red cross more than four times the height of a man. England has never misused the sign of a hospital ship, but the Germans have repeatedly destroyed them . . .

Wounded men walk if possible. Otherwise they must be taken in a canvas covered “bathtub” attacht to a motor-cycle, on an ordinary stretcher often carried by four German prisoners, on a stretcher on two wheels, or in a canal boat. The latter is much preferd because, altho it is slower, it lessens the pain of the wounded men.

—Reed College President William Trufant Foster

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 an-xiously 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.

Foster opposed the war, but served in the Red Cross.

Foster opposed the war, but served in the Red Cross.

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.