Most students at the College have lived in times of war for nearly half of their lives. Considering the College is nearly as old as the U.S. itself, we are not the first students to attend Williams in wartime, and likely we won’t be the last. In the 20th century alone, the U.S. engaged in three extended global wars, and the students of the College played a role in each of them.
In 1917, months before the U.S. officially entered World War I, the College, students and faculty were already preparing themselves. There was discussion of instituting a military training course as part of the curriculum, which other colleges in New England had already done. Almost immediately after war was declared, a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was established here in Williamstown. The corps had a membership of a couple hundred young men through the end of the war, although the numbers went up and down as many of these students enlisted.
Throughout 1918, the Record reported on correspondence from Williams students in active service, literally printing personal letters received by students still here at school. “How I wish I were back there with you, and yet I know very well that I wouldn’t go back if I got the chance until this mess of a war is finished,” wrote J.C. Wiley ex-’19 (“ex” being a designation given to students who dropped out to enlist) from the trenches of France in March of 1918.
Judging by such letters and the editorializing of the Record during this period, which frequently focused on the College doing its patriotic duty – whether that meant reprimanding the ROTC for lax discipline or entreating the community to donate to the latest “Liberty Loan Drive” – support for and connection with the “Great War” was strong at the College.
High in the central alcove of Thompson Memorial Chapel, there are several stone panels engraved with the names of former students of the College, all of whom died in war. More than three dozen students and alumni died between 1917 and 1918.
After World War I ended, two decades worth of students passed through the College during peacetime, until the political situation in Europe unraveled into World War II. While military training had been performed at the College during the previous war, the situation became much more drastic in the early 1940s: At one point, there were nearly 700 men training for the military and only 100 civilian undergraduates. Sage Hall was converted to military barracks, with all the inner doors ripped out to accommodate this purpose. Most of the faculty taught the cadets in addition to the undergraduates, although the two curricula were separate. When the war escalated in the winter of 1943, 125 of the 500 then-undergraduates did not return for the spring semester because they had been called up for duty.
Like in World War I, the students at the College were supportive and engaged in the war effort. The Record wrote a weekly column called “Williams in Wartime,” following changes to the training programs, the draft and developments in the war. There was a Williams Victory Board that organized stamp drives to support the government.
“That was the good war. There was no question about it,” said Stuart Winston ’47, part of the first civilian wartime class at Williams. “It was the war that had to be fought, and we had to win. There were no protests.” Winston himself attended college for a year and a half before being drafted. He returned when the war ended a year and a half later. About 130 students and alumni had died.
“It was always considered a playboy country school. But that reputation faded,” Winston said. “After the war [with veterans returning], there were many more men and their wives. We were considered the most serious group of students ever to pass through.”
In the decades following the end of World War II, the U.S. was embroiled in the Cold War, but there was no need for active service on a large enough scale to engage students at the College. During the Korean War, draft policy was changed to allow for student deferments, although in 1967 this exemption was limited to prevent endless draft dodging.
As Vietnam escalated in the 1960s, it likewise escalated in the consciousness of the College community, for faculty and students alike.
Clark McFadden ’68 remembers this time vividly. “In the first two years [from ’64 to ’66] Vietnam was really an issue of great focus,” he said, “But after my junior year, after two years of being bombarded by the media, the overwhelming view turned negative towards the war.” All students were well aware that if the war was still going when they graduated, they would be eligible to be drafted.
In this period, the domestic opposition had yet to reach the height of its frenzy. “Demonstrations were very unusual [while I was at school]. That didn’t really start until ’69. There were lots of discussions and meetings,” McFadden said. “All of the news was about the war, so constantly we watched the news.” Though the students at the College were eligible for deferments, the war was still a deeply personal issue. “The pictures were really gripping. It just seemed to get worse and worse,” McFadden said. “A lot of us also had friends in the military, so it wasn’t something that you could just take a clear-cut response to.”
Within the next few years, students began organizing and holding regular demonstrations in Williamstown and nearby in opposition to the war. Barnaby Feder ’72 was one of the students involved in such activism, though it was one among a full roster of typical Williams activities. For him, political engagement was natural. “I didn’t think of myself as a student; I thought of myself as a citizen who happened to be a student,” Feder said, explaining what motivated him to participate and organize in opposing the war in Vietnam.
Some of the more notable protests included a two-state march from Williamstown to Bennington; a protest against Green Berets where students dressed up in all black and ran around a nearby airfield; pretending to be Viet Cong as soldiers parachuted down; and an all-night demonstration outside the Faculty House when General Taylor slept there during a visit.
A new newspaper called the Record Advocate was formed to allow for more politicized pieces where the Record had limited itself to objective news coverage rather than advocacy.
In contrast to the previous major wars, students – whether conservative or liberal – no longer took for granted that they should support their government.
“A lot of my friends [and co-activists] came from quite conservative backgrounds, and there was a generational conflict with parents who asked, ‘How could you ever be against the war?’” Lenny Goldberg ’67 said. He was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an organization engaged in activism on several fronts but particularly to oppose the war. “We all grew up in affluence, but there was a lot of questioning of the dominant values. We were skeptical; we were questioning; we didn’t accept received authority.”
McFadden expressed a similar sentiment. “There was a sense of really losing faith in the government,” he said. “I still feel that in that generation there was a much greater interest in coming to Washington, trying to change the leadership and government.” Even for those who supported the war, such as Glen Everhart ’68, who was president of the Williams Conservatives Club while at the College, this loss of faith was evident, though focused instead on domestic issues.
Of course, Williamstown was not exactly the hub of decision-making on these issues. “I know in Williamstown, it’s hard to believe that any activism you do here has any impact on the world,” Feder said. “But that’s partly because people are being educated to think on the grand scale, and they don’t think to look right under their noses in terms of what’s going on. Ultimately, I think the real battles are fought out where you live.”
Goldberg affirmed this idea, too, in explaining the mission of SDS. “One of our goals as the left on campus was to convince the more conservative students of the disaster of the war and their need to oppose [it],” he said. “At a Williams reunion, one of those students, [the former] head of College Council, expressed his appreciation for those efforts, which surprised me after all these years.”
Some students were drafted following graduation. Most managed to avoid it, whether through luck or lax standards on their local draft boards. Today, though the country has been engaged in these two wars longer than both world wars combined, Iraq and Afghanistan are not prominent in the College’s consciousness and no draft has taken place.
There are probably many reasons for why this is the case. For Feder, however, the reason is simple: “It’s because people don’t have any skin in the game.”