1941 was a year of adversity for the University of Oregon. While there was much to be thankful for, the university celebrating its 65th anniversary, the ensuing tragedy which threw the nation into war would disrupt everything the young students thought they would be forced to endure.
World War II became immediate anxiety for a generation just beginning their education. On January 15, 1942, Oregon’s Daily Emerald published an opinion column titled “Books or Guns, Oregon Must Decide,” which detailed the dissonance students would face in deciding how to spend their future in a once unfathomable world at war. Newly minted graduates hoping to begin a life-long pursuit of education were pushed between two choices – to defend freedom or exercise it.
“College students, perhaps more than any other class of Americans, have been the victims of that vicious pair, 'Old Man Gloom: and 'War Nerves.' For no other group of Americans are so directly affected as a group as the college student. It has disrupted his plans, destroyed his most cherished dreams.”
Bombs fell on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It only took four days for the university to mobilize and address how the future of every student was now thrown into question. Students found themselves contemplating their education in relation to their duty. University President Donald M. Erb addressed the university as such:
“Now that we are actually at war, there will be some changes in the usual routine of University life. All of us connected with the University will have to adapt ourselves to the demands of national defense and the demands of local civilian defense authorities. We will also probably introduce facilities for special training of students in civilian defense activities, but as far as possible—and this is at the specific request of the national defense authorities themselves—we will carry on the academic work of the University without drastic change. Above all we should set an example for the rest of the population in using calm intelligence under any emergency.”
The university was split into eight raid zones, with buildings and fraternity houses transformed to spot possible air strikes. According to vigilant reporting in the Daily Emerald, the Oregon state board considered shortening terms to six-day weeks, eight-hour days and four-quarter years to accelerate graduation and allow students to enlist in the war effort. Students were deputized; community defense councils were organized. Committees formed to combat campus fires and rescue persons potentially trapped in bombed buildings.
This transformation revolutionized the utility of college education as well. Those studying the sciences saw their efforts put toward advancing the machinery of war. It was evident that the tools of speech would be tuned for war as well.
Students proficient in writing and rhetoric began utilizing their education to write their support for soldiers abroad. In the W.F. Jewett speech competition-- an annual Oregon contest held since 1916 -- Jane Hooker, a sophomore in arts and letters, won first prize with her speech titled “America’s answer”; second prize, consisting of $10, went to senior in English Dorthy Durkee, for her speech titled “Today for Country, Tomorrow for you.” In war time, students began exercising the old cliché of the pen being mightier than the sword.
In time, this nationalist persuasiveness moved from Oregon to the national theater. On January 14, 1943, Dr. Clarence Valentine Boyer – then chairman of the English Department – gave a speech over radio broadcast in Durham, North Carolina, regarding the role of the English department in relation to the war effort.
Dr. Boyer joined the English department staff in 1926 and served as university president from 1934-38 before resigning due to health complications. He stayed at the university as dean of arts and letters, chairman of the English department and professor of English. Dr. Boyer oversaw an unfortunate period of transition during the great depression, when budget crises threatened faculty positions and enrollment.
According to the Presidential Archives from the Office of the President, Dr. Boyer continued to build infrastructure at the university despite such hardships:
"Just before he took office, in an effort to save money and eliminate duplication, all science classes were moved to Oregon State College and all social sciences moved to the UO. Opposed to this and wanting the immediate return of the science classes to campus, Boyer found himself at odds with the university's Advisory Council, which favored a slower process. In spite of these struggles, Boyer was able to gain funding for three major building projects—the library, the men's physical education building, and the infirmary."
Thus, when Dr. Boyer took to the airwaves in 1943 he was already a figure of repute. His speech was delivered through Oregon’s KOAC AM radio station, located in Corvallis. The speech covered areas of English life and featured quotes from Mill, Milton, Cowper, Burns and Shakespeare throughout. A defense of country needed a defense of English.
“The great importance of training in English composition lies in the fact that writing is one of the chief means of communication,” Boyer spoke. “And communication, at all times essential to civilization, has become an invaluable weapon to the successful prosecution of the war.”
Dr. Boyer's speech was laced with bombastic language deputizing the study of English as a defender of American life. Dr. Boyer also understood the initial disconnect between the utility of English as it related to other, more obvious studies like math and engineering. The university was encouraging students to study in the sciences to better aid the mechanical and technological race.
“To the average citizen, thinking in terms of bombing raids, battleships, bayonet charges, and men dying in the air, on sea, and on land in the thick of the carnage, the quiet study of grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and the relationship of all the parts of a composition to one another may seem unimportant, even a waste of time.”
Dr. Boyer went on to explain that other subjects such as math, science and history were high on the list of important subjects for then Secretary of War Henry L. Stinson. Despite the obvious distinctions, however, Dr. Boyer took pride in noting, in a quote from Stinson, that “A capacity for clear and accurate expression” lies at the top of the secretary’s important list.
Furthermore, Dr. Boyer references that “more than 200,000 able-bodied men have been deferred from induction into the Armed Forces because of illiteracy,” including that “even the private in modern warfare has to be able to think, to read directions, and to understand explanations concerning complicated movements and machines.”
For Dr. Boyer, a command of English was tantamount to life in war – and more optimistically, in diplomacy.
“The distinctive characteristic of literature, as one of the liberal arts, is that it works through the imagination and gains its effects by stimulating the emotions and by creating sympathetic understanding," Dr. Boyer said.
This sympathetic understanding stands in stark contrast with his earlier description of English as weapon and prosecutor, and this speaks to the versatility of English: an opportunity for communication and empathy in one moment, and in another, a force for propaganda.
The speech concluded with a feature on Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Revenge -- a poem dictating the valiant legend of the English vessel The Revenge against the Spanish armada, and a story of heroism against insurmountable odds. A small excerpt of the poem is given here:
"And they stared at the dead that had been so valiant and true,
And had holden the power and glory of Spain so cheap
That he dared her with one little ship and his English few;
Was he devil or man? He was devil for aught they knew,
But they sank his body with honor down into the deep."
The literary excerpts throughout the speech show rhetorical finesse, but they also illustrate how great works canonize their historical moments and give life to national identity. President Erb, after hearing the speech via radio, wrote a letter thanking Dr. Boyer for his broadcast.
“There could not be a better case made for the values of English literature and English composition in war as well as in peace,” President Erb wrote.
This tone of fortitude and optimism is featured in many of the writings from the time. For another range of students, however, hysteria over war meant a different threat – and one which came from their supposed sovereign protector. President Erb, in his initial war address to the university, continued:
“There is a special phase of calm intelligence that deserves immediate emphasis. Although this country is at war with Japan, we should keep our perspective in our treatment of our fellow students of Japanese descent. A spirit of sympathy and understanding and tolerance is indispensable. From all I have heard, the attitude toward Japanese students on this campus has been admirable and I want it to continue.”
The conflict around Japanese-Americans would be central to life on the West Coast and in Oregon, half of which was cast under the shadow of the “exclusion zone.” Due to the large population of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, the U.S. government became nervous that these American citizens would act against their country because of a possible allegiance to Japan. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans within the exclusion zone.
To solidify their position on campus, Japanese-American students published letters in the Dec. 11, 1941 edition of the Emerald declaring their allegiance to the United States.
To the editor:
To those who may have some doubt in their minds, we, the University of Oregon students of Japanese descent, desire to make it clearly known that we, as loyal American citizens, condemn without reserve the unwarranted attack made upon us by the Japanese government.
Being born, reared, and educated in the United States, we are American citizens, and regardless of facial characteristics, consider ourselves to be just as American as our fellow students.
Whenever we are called upon to do so, we shall be ready and willing to bear arms and fight for the Stars and Stripes against Japan or any other aggressor nation. We only ask that we be given a chance to prove our loyalty to our country, the United States.
George Uchiyama, Harold Kay Ito, Shu Yasui, Harry Fukuda, Larry Takei, Samuel t. Naito, Ted T. Hachiya, Makotk M. Iwashita, Kenzo Nakagawa, tadashi M. Osaki, Taku Kawauchi.
To the Emerald:
To those who may have any doubts in their minds in regard to our stand, let it be known that we American-born citizens do pledge ourselves to the cause of the United States of America.
We have ben reared and educated under the principles of democracy of this country which we sincerely cherish and would preserve at all cost. We will at any time voluntarily give our services wherever needed to aid this government. We will be loyal in every respect.
Michi Yasui, Mary Furusho, Alice Kawasaki, Midori Funatake, Ellen Ogawa.