"I Didn't Raise My Boy…"
When the First World War broke out in Europe in August 1914, most Americans expressed an immediate and strenuous disgust with what they perceived to be the reckless, warmongering tendencies of their Old World cousins.
Reflecting American sentiment, President Woodrow Wilson described the hostilities as a conflict “with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us.”
But as the fighting dragged on into 1915 with no conceivable end in sight, many US military and civilian leaders became concerned about the nation’s readiness and defensive capabilities should the war ever spread to America.
Led by ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, a so-called “Preparedness Craze” started to sweep the country. The public clamor forced the Wilson Administration to draw up plans for increasing the size of the meager US Army and Navy.
A more controversial proposal involved instituting universal military training in America’s colleges and universities, as a means to prepare and train a large cadre of officers should the need ever arise. One of the proposal’s champions was General Leonard Wood, former Army Chief of Staff and commander of the Eastern Department. Since 1913, he had been active in setting up summer training camps for high school and college students in the Northeast and hoped to convince Washington to provide funds so that he could expand the program nationwide.
But even the preparedness-friendly Wilson Administration thought it too radical. And although Wood had some support on Capitol Hill, the president himself was against it, saying, on January 12, 1916, that he was “opposed to the idea of compulsory military training … and flatly opposed to any move in that direction.”
KU Chancellor Frank Strong would have none of it. On January 13, 1916, the University Daily Kansan published a story headlined “I Didn’t Raise My Boy …”, in which Strong minced no words about his views on the subject. The Chancellor stated he was “strongly opposed to military training in our colleges and universities,” contending such a course of action would be “highly impractical” and make trouble between faculty and students by “undermining discipline.”
Up until US entry into the war in April 1917, Strong remained adamant that on-campus military training would gravely detract from, or perhaps even undermine, the university’s primary mission of education.
“I look upon all attempts toward militarism among us with great apprehension,” he wrote President Charles R. Van Hise of the University of Wisconsin in September 1916, asserting that “colleges and universities should be the very last agencies in our civilization to further, by compulsion and official action, the military idea.”
KU History professor Carl Becker agreed with the chancellor, contending, “Universities have taken upon their shoulders all they can manage without the addition of military training.”
His colleague in the history department, Prof. C.A. Dykstra, echoed Becker’s sentiments, noting, “The primary purpose of our colleges is to supply the intellectual leaders of the country, not military leaders.” He thought the proposal was little more than conscription, and suggested that students who wanted military training could join the National Guard.
Ironically, the immediate cause for these outbursts of official opposition to campus militarization was not some announcement from Washington.
Instead, it was a call to arms issued by a KU undergraduate. Two days earlier, Leland Thompson, president of the Men’s Student Council, had told the University Daily Kansan of his strong support for instituting student military training.
“I am in favor of establishing such training here in the University without further delay,” the paper quoted him as saying on January 11, 1916, “and I will heartily support any suggestion to realize that end.” He explained that military training at KU would not only help strengthen the United States, but would also instill in young people a “greater feeling of democracy.”
Thompson further stressed that military training would help “establish a system of discipline” and a “sentiment in favor of respect for superior authority,” and he vowed to seek the views of the wider student body on this issue at the earliest possible moment.
Undeterred by the Chancellor’s negative views feelings about the subject, Thompson joined with the KU International Polity Club and its president, Kenneth Pringle, to conduct a poll of the student body over the next month on questions dealing with military preparedness.
The results, announced on February 24, seemed to indicate that most respondents supported President Wilson’s preparedness initiatives. For example, although only 45 percent favored compulsory military training for American college students, 70 percent approved establishment of courses of instruction in military science in American universities, and 73 percent called for a substantial increase in US armaments. In addition, 64 percent of the respondents favored the Wilson Administration’s program for increasing the size of the US Army and Navy.
These results, however impressive, were extremely misleading, as many contemporary observers were quick to note at the time. Of the approximately 3,500 students attending KU at the time, only 300 participated in the poll.
The University Daily Kansan headlined its story on the poll “K.U. Public Inclined to Disregard Question Asked.” In the article, Pringle remarked, “the result of this vote on the preparedness question shows either that the students have not considered the question and have no opinion on the matter, or else, the students are indifferent and did not give their opinion on the question.”
The poll results also elicited a response from Kansas Governor Arthur Capper. In a letter to Ralph Ellis, secretary of the International Polity Club (and one of the 130 KU students or grads who would lose their lives on the Western Front), the governor said that, in his view, the tiny sample did not “correctly represent the sentiment of the state of Kansas.”
According to Capper, there was “decided opposition throughout the state of Kansas, especially among the masses of the people,” for increasing the size of the US armed forces. “Everyone,” he added, “is in favor of adequate national defense and reasonable preparedness,” but President Wilson’s measures were leading the country towards an unacceptable level of “militarism” that he simply could not support.
Capper was in an excellent position to judge Kansas public opinion, for just a month earlier (on February 2) the president himself had stopped in Topeka to rally support for his preparedness initiatives.
After Wilson left town, the governor wrote to a friend that “President Wilson’s visit to Kansas did not change very many of our people on the ‘preparedness’ issue. The state is strongly against his program. The farmers are almost unanimous in their opposition to it…. The newspaper correspondents accompanying the train said that the president’s reception here was the coldest he received at any place.” Wilson’s biographer, Arthur S. Link, added that while in Topeka, President and Mrs. Wilson “drove through snow-packed streets and silent crowds.”
As Robert Taft noted in his history of KU, “The intensity of feeling against Germany, active along the Atlantic coast, only slowly penetrated westward.” KU’s relative disinterest in preparedness was “more or less typical of the entire West,” at least until early 1917.
Of course, when the US finally did enter the war in April of that year, the entire KU community rallied around Wilson and the war effort. Even Chancellor Strong proudly offered to “put the whole University officially at the disposal of the President and the Federal Government.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas