World War I envelops University

Mike Wereschagin

Editor’s note: This is the second in a 10-part series of stories highlighting each decade of the 20th century and how The Minnesota Daily covered them. The series will appear on Wednesdays leading up to the Daily’s 100th anniversary on May 1, 2000 and culminate with a special edition. We hope you enjoy this trip through time.

On Oct. 16, 1917, The Minnesota Daily printed a letter from former University junior Kurt Luger.
Corporal Luger, U.S. Army, wrote the letter to his younger sister, University freshman Alvina, from northern France. In it he wrote how eager he was to scythe through the German forces. He told of uplifting conversations with disheartened German prisoners of war, conversations he was sure signaled a swift, rapidly approaching end to World War I. He assured his younger sister he would be attending classes again the next fall.
He mentioned nothing, however, of the German shell that would crash into the ground next to him several months later. Nor did he write of the empty casket his family would bury in his name — empty because there was nothing left of Kurt Luger after the Great War was through with him.
The Minnesota Daily also mentioned nothing of the untimely end of its “Minnesota Boy” once he was no longer “eager to battle the Kaiser.”
During World War I, the University was transformed into a war machine by its president, Marion LeRoy Burton.
In a University address, Burton proclaimed sacrifices must be made by college men and women, “as the leaders of public thought and action,” if the United States was to be victorious.
“To fit men and women for these places of leadership that they may help win the war is the declared purpose of this University,” he said.
Burton received help in his endeavor from many sources, but two of his biggest supporters were the U.S. War Department and The Minnesota Daily.

A brave new world
On Oct. 11, 1917, the Daily reported a new war order issued by the newly formed War Department making all University freshmen and sophomores members of the Officers Reserve Corps.
As a result of the order, all male students were required to take an elementary course in military science and participate in drills every morning except Sundays.
The advanced course offered to juniors and seniors was only available to students who signed a contract binding them to the class for two years.
Those who successfully completed the course were eligible to be commissioned in the Army as lieutenants, the article stated.
Burton ushered in this mass conscription with an all-University convocation the same day. During his speech Burton instituted a rigid set of rules, making it clear that anti-war attitudes had no place on his campus.
High on his agenda was a total intolerance for dissenting opinions against the war and the government.
“At present, the country’s main purpose is to win the war and any hindrance cannot be tolerated,” Burton proclaimed. “I would rather be dead than live in a world governed by Germany!”
His zeal infected the entire University and led to an institutional paranoia that resulted in a McCarthy-esque witch hunt.
When the war ended and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made his famous call for a “return to normalcy,” nearly a dozen University professors, deans and students had nothing to return to. Casualties of the WWI home front, they were left with ruined careers and smeared names because of their “sedition.”
A professor accused of making anti-war remarks would find him- or herself standing trial before the University’s Board of Regents, as the Daily reported on several occasions. If it was proved — either through a “confession” or enough corroborating witnesses — to the Board that the teacher did not support the U.S. war effort, he or she would be fired on the spot.
One student, a Quaker, protested his forced attendance of military drills every morning, the Daily reported. He contested it violated every principle he was raised upon and asked to be excused from training.
The student, whose name was not disclosed in the Daily, was told by his drill instructor that he must either participate in the drills or leave the University. Two weeks later, the student was expelled.

Unchallenged hypocrisy
Yet as Burton forced his zealous patriotism and ideas of civic duty on the University, he chastised Germany extensively for similar reasons.
“In Germany, men exist for the state,” he told a capacity crowd at one of his many war-related lectures in 1917. “In America, the state exists by and for the people.”
Instead of analyzing Burton’s policies or pointing out his self-contradictions, The Minnesota Daily took up arms to defend the University president.
Under the leadership of managing editor Clinton Boo, the Daily did not print a single article or editorial in opposition to national and University wartime policy during America’s year-and-a-half-long involvement in The War to End All Wars.

Boo at the helm
With nearly 1,500 former University men in the armed forces, there were many vacancies in positions of student leadership. In many cases, Boo filled those vacancies.
He was a member of the Board of Athletic Control, president of the University YMCA and enlisted in the University Base Hospital Unit, a military medical support detachment.
An outspoken advocate for the war, Boo turned his positions into virtual recruiting posts for the military.
He spoke to athletes about the benefits of military service and helped turn the YMCA into Minnesota’s second-largest military support organization, next to the Red Cross.
Boo’s fervor even affected The Minnesota Daily. Under his leadership, the paper went to great lengths to show its support for the war effort, even going so far as to print front-page advertisements for the purchase of Liberty Bonds to fund the war campaign.
The Daily’s stance was best illustrated in an April 25, 1918 editorial entitled, “Test Everything by the War.” The editorial described U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as the “absolute antithesis” of Austrian monarch William Hohensollern and stated that any policy beneficial to the war should be instituted immediately.
“Nothing else matters but the war,” the piece concluded.
There was no mention of Boo’s obvious conflict of interest in all of this. No letters to the editor contradicted the University’s policies and any faculty members who spoke against the dissemination of pro-war opinions would have to defend their reputations and jobs before the Regents.
The Daily also reached a greater number of people than ever before. With the shortage of bodies on campus, the two other campus publications, Minnesota Magazine and Minnehaha, had to merge with the Daily to continue printing. So, in addition to its regular subscribers, the other two publications’ subscribers also bought the Daily for 5 cents per copy.

For God and country
Under the pressure created by the mass of pro-war messages, nearly half the University’s male population left for the battlefields of France and Italy. Fraternities cumulatively lost more than half their members and Phi Delta Theta had to shut down because of low membership.
The void left on campus prompted someone identified only as “An Upperclassman” to write a letter to the editor. A portion of this letter stands as the closest The Minnesota Daily came to publishing an anti-war opinion in that era.
“Where are the familiar faces of last year? Where are the men who lead our University’s activities, literary, athletic, forensic? We who return to the University this year sense a vacancy, find ourselves watching expectantly, always watching, in the crowded halls for someone who is missing.”
The war came to a close on Nov. 12, 1918. By the end of December, most military institutions on campus had disbanded and students were once again free to embrace peace.
But they were forced to do so with 120 fewer men, 120 fewer leaders, 120 fewer faces in the halls.
Some had gone to fight “The War to End All Wars” to rid the earth of humanity’s greatest atrocity. Some had gone to end the threat of tyranny once and for all. Still others went because they were told they were the world’s last, best hope for democracy.
No matter the reason, 120 University students did not have to witness it happen again 20 years later.

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.

Aaron Kirscht — editor in chief
Nick Doty — project coordinator
Craig Gustafson — associate editor
Michelle Franta — copy editor
Mike Wereschagin — staff reporter
Krista Poplau — staff reporter
Mike DeArmond — art director