Wartime coverage captures student unity, strife

Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

Image courtesy of Archives and Special Collections


“As we gather in front of our radios today, carry our portables to class, wait after our concert to hear the words of the president, we cannot help wondering what a war really means to the college campus.”

These were the words on the front page of the Dec. 12, 1941 issue of Mount Holyoke News, published five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As the United States officially entered the second world war, the News staff sought to identify ways students might serve their country. 

By 1942, the war appeared on nearly every page of the newspaper — in articles, upcoming events, letters to the editor… even the Chesterfield cigarette ads bragged about providing “more arms for America” by using U.S. Defense bonds and stamps — and it had an equally pervasive impact on students’ academic leanings and day-to-day life. 

Image courtesy of e courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

Image courtesy of e courtesy of Archives and Special Collections

 The War Service Committee was established to promote and coordinate government-mandated conservation efforts. Clubs reorganized their finances to cut extra expenses. The paper kept a running list of faculty on leave for government service and students took more political science classes with a focus on post-war reconstruction. Later in the war, faculty voted to switch to a six-day school week (adding morning classes on Saturday) and piloted special economics classes that allowed students to work in factories as well as attend class. 

In March 1943, Mount Holyoke welcomed the first class of female Marines, trained under Major E. Hunter Hurst. Some had been teachers and secretaries, according to a Mount Holyoke College website, while others had backgrounds in law, chemistry and interior decorating. 

Eleanor Roosevelt visited campus to address the cadets on March 24, according to a Mount Holyoke News report published that April. After inspecting the military training operation, she told an auditorium full of servicewomen and students that “A woman can do anything when she is trained that a man can do, provided that it doesn’t take only brute force.” The article also mentioned that the first lady wore a black dress and black hat, with “a corsage of gardenias on her shoulder.”

“WWII was often referred to as the ‘Good War,’” said Professor Daniel Czitrom of the history department. “This was the last time it seems that the United States was really united in a conflict. Of course, there were some people who dissented, there were conscientious objectors to the draft and so on, but compared to WWI, and compared certainly to the civil war, WWII was a historical moment where I think you had kind of unprecedented unity in the United States during wartime. Vietnam, of course, points us in the opposite direction.”

The top headline on Jan. 7, 1966 read “Campus Opinion Divided On War in Vietnam.” According to a newspaper poll, 34 percent of students and 52 percent of faculty wanted to stop bombing and press for immediate negotiation with the North Vietnamese government, but less than 3 percent of students — and no faculty — advocated for immediate withdrawal. Similarly, there were 40 percent of students and 30 percent of faculty who supported the administration’s policy as of 1965, and 8 percent of students — again, no faculty — favored escalation. 

But with every year, the voices of dissent grew louder, and with every protest, anti-war sentiment seemed to grow among students.

By 1970, the Mount Holyoke community was weary with America’s prolonged involvement in Vietnam. The Feb. 19 issue of the newspaper published a list titled “Say it again,” which outlined the various times public officials had made empty promises to end the war over the past 15 years.

“The spring of 1970 is the key moment,” said Czitrom. “That spring, there were over 600 universities and colleges that went on strike and closed down their campuses.” 

Unlike the protests of the past, which often focused on draft resistance, the new anti-war movement was fueled by frustration at an untrustworthy government and complicit institutions — even colleges. According to Czitrom, students focused on “demonstrating the connection between universities and colleges and the war machine.”

Around this time, the newspaper also changed its name to Choragos, after a famous Greek chorus leader, and committed to using their platform to instigate change. Naturally, their coverage of the Vietnam War became more aggressive.

“PEACE NOW,” read the front page headline on April 9. Like many articles over the next few years, this piece relied on a conglomerate of newswires, like the College Press Service and Liberation News Service, to funnel more national reporting into the hands of Mount Holyoke readers. On several occasions, the front page was dominated by a single Vietnam story or graphic, even if the rest of the paper had little news to report. 

Under the Paris Peace Accords, a 1973 agreement between Nixon and both Vietnamese governments, the United States removed the last American troops from Vietnam. The war didn’t actually end until 1975, when the North Vietnamese army took Saigon (in the issue immediately following this incident, Choragos only mentioned Vietnam in passing), but for many Americans, the removal of U.S. troops is where the story ends.

“Is it really over?” asked an article published on Feb. 8, 1973. “Is the Administration telling us the truth? Are we really out of Vietnam? According to the Gallup Poll, two out of every three Americans doubt the president’s proclamation. Somehow, it seems that the United States will be back in Vietnam in some formal capacity within another six months. People in this country feel little satisfaction — there is no feeling of victory or even of accomplishment.” 

Ultimately, the end of America’s most controversial and divisive conflict came at an unexpected cost, with students losing the closest thing they felt to the national unity experienced in WWII. 

“What does the ending of U.S. involvement mean to a student?” the piece continued. “Draft card burners in front of the Justice Department are history, a flash of the temper of the sixties. Demonstrations in Washington, Chicago, Boston, scaled down by the seventies, will no longer protest the war. Harvard Square may never again be packed with bodies and signs, and police armed with clubs and tear gas may never again have to drive a disorderly anti-war crowd to the safety of the banks of the Charles River…. Here in South Hadley, perhaps there will never again be a spring strike. We will not have to worry about whether the noisy planes which zoom overhead are bound for Vietnam, and we will not have to wonder if the fliers within will return to the states alive.”

MHN 100 is a bi-weekly column celebrating the newspaper’s 100 years of student journalism. Archival copies of the Mount Holyoke News can be found at compass.fivecolleges.edu.

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