Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Yale and Pearl Harbor

One of my favorite stories of Old Yale, unearthed while researching my senior thesis, is that of December 7, 1941. Ever since September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and, in 1940, overran Western Europe, student opinion at Yale had trended against American intervention in the war, whether with materiel or men; the university -- particularly the Law School -- was a center for America First. This was a generation raised in the aftermath of World War I, come of political age in the years of the Nye Committee and Neutrality Acts. As Germany became more aggressive, views shifted but were still, on the whole, anti-interventionist. Pearl Harbor changed everything, as it did so much else.

After news of the attack interrupted Sunday football on the radio and finals study sessions, students gathered on Old Campus and the New Haven Green, for the first time united in favor of intervention. Singing "Over There" and "Bright College Years," they marched through the streets and ended up in front of the house of Yale president Charles Seymour, who was sick in bed. A veteran of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Seymour was an Anglophile and had supported aiding Great Britain from the outbreak of war. He had used his Yale pulpit to participate in the debate over intervention, to little avail in changing the students' minds. This had to have been a moment of some satisfaction for him, albeit darkened by inevitable thoughts of what was to come. Seymour came to the window and addressed the gathered crowd.

Men of Yale: you know as I know that tonight this nation is under attack and that the nation will respond to that attack immediately and vigorously. This is not the first time in American history that Yale men have gathered together to express their loyalty to the nation. I remember in 1898 and in 1917 similar gatherings. I am happy that you realize the serious nature of the situation and that you are ready to serve where you best may serve. In this day of trial there are two factors necessary: first, complete unity, the obliteration of all domestic discord, and second, that self-discipline upon which democracy is based.

The time for debate was over. It was time, at last, to fight.

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