Skip to main content
Omeka - Digital History at Ursinus

Politics on Campus during the 1930s

Fiddling While Rome Turns

This artcile chastises college students for failing to use their intellect to address matters of great importance both foreign and domestic. The author calls them out as the Neros of today, referencing the Roman emperor's indifferent behavior whilst a fire spread all throughout the city of Rome. Many students on the writing staff of the Ursinus Weekly felt as though the majority of the Ursinus student body was shamefully indifferent to the Great Depression and the politics sweeping the nation. Soon enough, however, their dream of a more politically involved Ursinus student body would come to fruition as a result of the buildup to World War II. 

 

 
The Presidential Straw Ballot

85% of the Ursinus student body participated in this straw ballot, in anticipation of the presidential election of 1932, in which incumbent President Herbert Hoover ran against Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Delta Dictator

Ursinus students were wary of the promises of demagogues that popped up throughout the Great Depression, who offered easy solutions to very complex problems, fooling many in the process. One example of a demagogue is Huey Long. 

Fascism, Socialism, or Democracy?

Students at Ursinus grappled with the question of which model of government to follow. America's democractic government, having once appeared to be invulnerable, was nearly toppled by the Great Depression, leaving many looking at the recent successes of Soviet Russia and Fascist Germany and Italy, wondering whether socialism or fascism would be an uprgrade from democracy. Here at Ursinus, though, the student body sticked with the model of democracy, on account of the individual freedoms they enjoyed from it, that would not be guaranteed under a socialist or fascist government. 

Debater's Impersonations Show Reactions to Hitler

Two impersonations of German women living in Nazi Germany presented at the Women's Debating Club leads to criticism of Hitler's oppressive policies towards women and the Jews. 

 

 
Perpetual Armistice Day

Ursinus celebrated the anniversary of World War I's conclusion on November 11th, 1918: Armistice Day. Students at Ursinus attached to this holiday the importance of disarmament for the prevention of future wars, as well as their desire for continued peace for the forseeable future. 

 

 

 
Foreign Entanglements

An artistic warning about the dangers of becoming once more involved in a European conflict. The spaghetti represents Mussolini's Fascist Italy, with the lifeless object personified to imitate the Italians' image of racial superiority, as well as their militant behavior. The lasting message of this short story, as vague as it may first appear, is: becoming involved in anything European can prove to be a messy affair, and not worth our time. Still though, as the author reminds us, even if we are to do nothing, we must remain vigilent of the threat posed by our "spaghetti." 

 
I.R.C. Argues Question of Germany's Rearmament

Members of the International Relations Club reacted to Hitler's efforts to rearm the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany signed after its defeat in World War I. Hitler's efforts stood in complete defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, and, as such, posed a great danger to the rest of the world, as the buildup to war loomed ever closer. At Ursinus, students were regularly kept up to date on the news coming from Europe, especially when it involved the German chancellor Adolf Hitler. 

 

 

Prior to the Great Depression, the student body of Ursinus was conservative through and through, as indicated in an article titled “Are Colleges Hotbeds for Radicalism.”[1]

This dramatically changed, though, on account of the Great Depression, which began in 1929. From that point onward, the political makeup of the student body of Ursinus during the 1930s began to diversify. No longer was the unanimous feel on campus conservative, instead more and more students flocked to the ideals promoted by either liberalism or socialism. By the time of the Presidential Election of 1932, 268 students voted for the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, 88 students voted for the Democrat candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and 66 students voted for the Socialist candidate Norman Thomas.[2] Meanwhile, Socialist rallies were held by the Y.W. program on campus, along with Republican and Democratic rallies.[3]  To combat the spread of socialism on campus, Ursinus hosted minor events, such as a lecture from Professor Boswell, that touched on the flaws and shortcomings of socialism and other radical ideologies.[4] Such efforts reflected how the political identity of Ursinus students was becoming more radical than ever before, and in large part due to the disillusionment caused by the Great Depression. Students had less faith in the government, as a growing number were unconvinced by Hoover's administration that the politicians in power were leading the country in the right direction. Ursinus, like most colleges of the time, was supposedly becoming a hotbed for radicalism and revolutionary zeal. It wouldn't take long though before Roosevelt helped restore many Ursinus students' confidence in the government.

The introduction of FDR's New Deal in the mid-1930s New Deal was well received by the writing staff of the Ursinus Weekly, as indicative by the absence of criticism for it in the paper's syndication. Moreover, the writers made frequent mention of the efforts of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or F.E.R.A., to fund some of the more financially deprived students attending Ursinus.[5] Besides this, however, there is a general lack of material concerning how Ursinus students felt about domestic policies, events going on in the states. Several articles do hint at the reason for this, being that the average Ursinus student was more interested in foreign affairs than they were in those happening in the country, even with something as big as the Great Depression.[6] An article titled, “Are We Economically Educated,” went so far as to question whether Ursinus students even knew how the Great Depression had come about, let alone the efforts the government was currently taking to solve it.[7] Alas, the drama of Europe, had greater pull than the recent findings on unemployment in America. When it came down to it, more students were concerned with the continuation of peace than they were with the economy. However, the major concern for graduating students at Ursinus was the prospect of unemployment, as the nation had become home to more than 10,000,000 unemployed people.[8]

Ever since the conclusion of World War I, the issue of disarmament was extremely relevant at Ursinus. Under Hoover's presidency, the nation was returned to "normalcy," and abandoned Wilson’s idea of an American world power in favor of isolationism. Americans, for the moment, were war weary, and so too were Ursinus students. Armistice Day was celebrated on Ursinus campus every November 11th, while the themes of peace and the horrors of war were subtly featured in the Ursinus Weekly on a regular basis.[9] Still, not all students were so subtle in their expression of their disgust for war. For instance, students performed a play titled "After Supper," to celebrate Armistice Day.[10] The play’s plot promoted the idea that there was no glory in warmaking, only in peacemaking, with its main protagonist’s changing attitude towards war serving as the vessel for their message. All throughout the 1930s, Ursinus students continued to show their commitment to peace, and their disinterest in anymore bloodshed. At this point, it would be hard to believe that in just a matter of years, this very same campus would host a Navy V-12 unit. The fact of the matter is, World War II changed everything when it came to how Ursinus students’ interacted with the rest of the world.

Even as early as 1933, nine years before the United States would be at war again, the students’ commitment to peace was frequently challenged by ongoing events in Europe: Hitler and his Nazi Party had taken power in Germany in 1933, introducing a nationalist agenda hell bent on conquest, Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia, and Stalin was purging his Soviet Union. As Hitler dared the League of Nations time after time to challenge his regime, with his re-armament of the Rhineland in 1935, a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, the students of Ursinus protested his warmongering ways, and became more and more critical of his regime.[11]

All the while, organizations on campus, such as the International Relations Club debated what Hitler's plan for a Third Reich meant for Europe and the rest of the world. It is apparent that they believed him to be evil, judging by how he was generally portrayed on campus. A program held by the Women's Debating Club allowed students to interview two "German" women, played by fellow club members, on the indignities they suffered under Hitler's rule, as well as the horrors the Jews suffered under him.[12] Criticism for the fascists Hitler and Mussolini even translated in the Lantern, Ursinus's newly created literary magazine. A certain submission titled "Foreign Entanglement" warned about the ambitions of Mussolini's Italy, while retaining the isolationist warning that becoming involved with Europe was not in the best interest of the United States.[13] There seemed to be a near complete rejection of fascist sentiment on campus, as not one article reported on a fascist rally being held here, whereas there were rallies held for socialist, democratic, and republican speakers.

In 1935, a majority of students who participated in a current affairs examination voiced their belief that the United States should be more involved in European affairs.[14] In that same exam, the majority of students expressed the belief that children should not be taught that defending one's country should be their priority during wartime. All female students voted against this notion, that a person was obligated by their patriotism to fight in the country's wars.[15] The anti-war sentiment remained, even though Ursinus students weren't comfortable with the way things in Europe were going. The findings of the Nye Committee in 1934-1936 had made many Americans distrustful of the munitions industry. Also reflected in this survey was that the majority of students protested the involvement of munitions companies in future wars.[16] And in further confirmation of the student body's anti-war attitude, a majority of students voted against the League of Nations interfering in Germany's re-armament, for fear of war.[17]

At a time when the political ideologies adopted by Ursinus students fluctuated in response to the Great Depression, one thing was certain: the majority of Ursinus students, though critical of Hitler, did not want to get involved in another European war.

1. The Ursinus Weekly, “Are Colleges Hotbeds for Radicalism,” Ursinus College, May 6, 1935

2. The Ursinus Weekly, “Presidential Poll Shows Landslide For Hoover,” Ursinus College, October 31, 1932

3. The Ursinus Weekly, “Weekly ‘Y.W. Program’ Features Political Rally,” Ursinus College, October 24, 1932

4. The Ursinus Weekly, “Prof. Boswell Speak on ‘Anarchism and Socialism,’ Ursinus College, March 27, 1933

5. The Ursinus Weekly, “F.E.R.A. Boasts Maximum February Payroll of $794.88,” Ursinus College, March 11, 1935

6. The Ursinus Weekly, “Students Score Low Grades In Recent Current Affairs Examination Reveal Differing Attitudes and Opinions Concerning Contemporary Questions,” Ursinus College, May 27, 1935

7. The Ursinus Weekly, “Are We Economically Educated,” Ursinus College, March 13, 1933

8. The Ursinus Weekly, “Unemployment and the Class of ‘33,” Ursinus College, June 5, 1933

9. The Ursinus Weekly, “Perpetual Armistice Day,” Ursinus College, October 31, 1932

10. The Ursinus Weekly, “Joint Y.W.Y.N. Presents Armistice Theme in Play,” Ursinus College, November 13, 1934

11. The Ursinus Weekly, “IRC Argues Question of Germany’s Rearmament,” Ursinus College, May 20, 1935

12. The Ursinus Weekly, “Debater’s Impersonations Show Reaction to Hitler,” Ursinus College, March 25, 1935

13. Halberstadt, Spencer, “Foreign Entanglements,” The Lantern, March 1936

14. The Ursinus Weekly, “Students Express Attitude On Current Problems,” Ursinus College, October 10, 1932

15. Ibid

16. Ibid

17. Ibid