Examining student attitudes toward war a century ago

Founded in 1874, St. Olaf has its roots in American history. Student publications, such as the Manitou Messenger, begun in 1887, and the Viking Yearbook, started in 1904, offer a record of campus response to changing tides in U.S. history. This article will specifically track U.S. military actions, beginning around the turn of the 20th century and continuing to the First World War.

From April to August 1898, the United States backed Cuban insurgents in an uprising against their Spanish colonizers, a conflict called the Spanish-American war. After a joint U.S.-Cuban victory, Spain agreed to cede a number of colonies to the U.S., including the Philippines. A number of Messenger articles contended with the conflict, with the majority discussing its value for the country.

One article, released in April 1898, focused on the war as just and as a demonstration to the world of the United States’ role.

“Above all, the United States must stand for right; the president has shown to the world that we stand for right and justice in the impending conflict,” the article read.

Another article, released in May of that year, emphasized the war as an ideologically unifying force.

“The war will cost much in money and perhaps in blood, yet it will not be without good results even beyond the freeing of Cuba … it has demonstrated that the great rupture between the North and South is completely healed so that now the Gray as well as the Blue are ready to defend and, if necessary, die for ‘Old Glory;’ and finally it will … add fresh lustre to the name of our young republic, the champion of the oppressed, the destroyer of tyranny,” the article read.

Other articles focused on the impact the war had on American citizens.

“It was not a long war, nor was it a close struggle, but it gave birth to heroes, and opportunity for achievements to which Americans both now and in the future may point with pride and admiration,” read another article from October of that year.

Another controversial element of the war was the U.S. acquisition of colonies from Spain and whether those acquisitions were just. Few, if any, St. Olaf students were in vocal opposition, evidenced by an editorial by Lawrence Grimsrund in December of that year.

“America cannot consistently with her own interests let go the foothold she has secured in consequence of the late war,” Grimsrund wrote.

The general attitude of St. Olaf students appeared to favor this war as a reflection of American ideals and as a positive good for the country domestically and internationally.

Following the turn of the century, student discussion of war shifted to greater focus on the role of patriotism and the reasons for involving the nation in conflicts.

“In 1898 an army was marshaled, not to swell an eastern despot’s pride, not to devastate the country and make the sky glow with burning towns, nor to leave whole cities of dead; but to march to distant climes against oppression and tyranny, to give the privileges and liberties which they themselves enjoyed to a people driven forth to battle,” C.C.A. Johnson ’06 wrote in November 1905.

In the edition of the Viking Yearbook for the classes 1913, 1914 and 1915, a multiple page spread is dedicated to the celebration of St. Olaf alumnus Captain Alfred Bjornstad. He is described as “one of the many ex-students of St. Olaf who have ‘made good’” because of his military service in the Philippines. The dedication continues with a strong endorsement of Bjornstad’s ability.

“We are ardent believers in Carnegie’s peace movement, but if there is to be war we shall find Captain Bjornstad ever ready with his daring and skillful head to fight for the right,”  wrote C.A. Mellby.

In 1914, the First World War officially began. The conflict had little initial impact on the published works of St. Olaf, and very few considered the United States as having a role. The Viking Yearbook for the 1916, 1917 and 1918 classes did not make much mention of the war, save for a testimonial from Mabel Jacobs ’13, an alumni speaking about her experience as a student in Germany. Written in April 1915, the piece displays pro-German sentiment and downplays any impact of the war.

“The student in Germany this year does not need to become stagnant, nor a nervous wreck, if he has any strength of mind,” Jacobs said. “Brooding over the war, or trying to solve political problems much beyond his horizon is neither profitable, nor elevating, and altogether unnecessary so long as he has work, operas, concerts, and plays to keep him busy,” Although German sentiment is strongly opposed to the selling of arms and ammunition to the belligerents by the United States, still the Germans do not force us into defending her stand.”

However, some students on campus condemned the war, such as Herman Bakken ’15, in an article titled “the Economic Detriment of War.”

“The present day sees Europe as a vast amphitheater of waste and devastation. The combined pent-up militant energies of no less than eleven nations have been released to wage a war unparalleled in history,” Bakken wrote. “Thousands of cheerful and happy homes have been draped with sorrow and discontent where mothers and children are eking out a most miserable existence.”

Anti-war sentiments grew in 1916, when Joseph Lee ’16 wrote an article condemning nationalist patriotism as a force sustaining the war, singling out Germany.

“The evil of this autocratic power is well illustrated by the patriotic devotion to the German State,” Lee wrote. “Here we find a patriotism asserting itself in duplication of Napoleonic conquests; a patriotism enlivened and vitalized by a desire for national aggrandizement, both in terms of territory and industry.”

He also expressed hope at a close end to the conflict, emphasizing different nations plans.

“Evidences of a coming victory of peace is shown by the growing and effective sentiment that is being expressed in peace organizations thruout (sic) the world. England has organized a union of democratic control for the settlement of peace; Germany, a union to oppose land-grabbing; Switzerland is effectively modifying public opinion thru her International Peace Organ, and Norway is making valuable contribution to the cause of peace by her Nobel Foundation Fund.”

Despite hopes for a swift end to the conflict, the U.S. entered the war on April 6, 1917, marking a severe tonal shift in St. Olaf publications. Articles, such as “The College Student and the War,” published on April 10, 1917 were not given a named author and focused on individual duty to participate in the war effort.

“Our nation has reached a serious crisis. As college students we will be vitally affected by our country’s recent action in regard to entering the European conflict,” the article read. “The only test of whether patriotism is genuine or not is its willingness to make sacrifices … We believe that when the Nation needs them the college men of America will be ready to defend the Flag and the heritage of Democracy which it stands for.”

After over a year of U.S. involvement, the war ended on November 11, 1918. In commemoration, the Viking Yearbook for the classes of 1919, 1920 and 1921 focused greatly on the war. Uniquely titled “Victory Viking,” the yearbook incorporated an eagle symbol on the cover.

Among the first dedications is to alumnus and then-General Bjornstad and the “650 students and ex-students of St. Olaf who took part in the World War.” Bjornstad and the others were described as having “made good” through their participation in the war.

The book also includes a history of the class of 1921, written by “Chris” ’21 and “Maia” ’21, which describes the effect the war on those conscripted and those not.

“With the call to colors many of the boys of ‘21 were numbered in the ranks. Those who remained at school substituted military drill in their former recreation periods. But while our class thus decreased in numbers our loyalty and pride for country and class increased. We returned to our Sophomore year under new and strange conditions to which all readily adapted themselves,” they wrote. “After the armistice was signed, and the beginning of the year 1919, the entire college was put back upon a normal basis. Besides our class members in the S.A.T.C. many returned who had seen active service.”

The yearbook also included a dedication titled “Fighting for Old Glory,” which expressed the College’s support for those who fought.

“St. Olaf College will cherish always the deeds and sacrifices of the men who went out to fight for God and Country. It was our proud privilege to contribute over six hundred college men to the forces of the nation in the hour of her peril.” wrote A.O.L. ’20.

Another part of the yearbook focuses on the role of women during the war, documenting first aid classes and a checklist of activities women students could pledge themselves to. Elements of the pledge included volunteering for the Red Cross, “reducing lunches to an absolute minimum” and maintaining “the highest standards of womanhood, physical, intellectual, social and spiritual.”

Following the war, the yearbook suggests  classes and other scholastic activities were resumed as before. However. some questioned the lasting impression the war may have on people, including an article in the Messenger asking “Will the Lessons of War Be Made Permanent?” focusing on rationing.

“Will Americans return after the war to their pre-war extravagance? Or will they learn to abide by the lessons of war? Extravagance, not needed during the trying times of today, cannot be necessary during peace,” the article reads. “When normal times are again resumed by a democratic world, will it be too much to expect that banquets and receptions will retain the simplicity acquired during this war?”