December 27, 1937
President Roosevelt sent a greeting to over 500 student delegates from colleges across the nation, at Vassar for the third annual convention of the American Student Union. “The fact,” he declared, “that large groups of students, on their own initiative, are taking up national problems is evidence that our institutions of learning are getting results. So long as our printing presses, radios and schools are kept free I do not have any great anxiety about the future success of our democratic system.”
On the second day of the convention, President MacCracken spoke on “Currents and Cross-Currents in American Education.” He warned the members of the union—an uneasy fusion of former groups with socialist or communist leanings—against exploitation by political leaders, and he took issue with the recent statement by Columbia University’s president Nicholas Murray Butler that, in the present European crisis, universities in fascist Germany and Italy were impotent.
The day’s main event was a floor fight over the so-called Oxford Pledge, an American version of the pledge endorsed in the Oxford Union not to fight “for king and country.” In American terms, it was the vow of collegians to be pacifists. The pledge had been adopted in Chicago at the union’s last annual meeting, and the call for its repudiation came from the union’s executive secretary, Joseph P. Lash—later, a close confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt and much later her Pulitzer prize-winning biographer. “Our conviction, all our actions,” he said, “ are dictated by the sincere and passionate aspiration to defend the peace we have and to help bring peace to the peoples that have been plunged into war by fascist aggression.”
The following day, Lash’s long, precisely detailed resolution, introduced by its author as supporting “a program which will make the United State a genuine and active force for peace,” was accepted, paragraph by paragraph, the opening statement being most contended. Many of its points closely followed President Roosevelt’s positions.
After serious deliberation, the delegates to the convention, as The New York Times put it, “dropped the League of Nations delegate-with-the-weight-of-the world manner for the first time and danced around the fire.” After passing a resolution boycotting Japanese goods, they protested against Japan’s invasion of China by—at the suggestion of Lloyd (Bud) James from the University of Chicago—tossing silk stocking, neckties and “a few more intimate garments” onto a bonfire in front of Main Building, while chanting “Make lisle the style, wear lisle awhile,” and “If you wear cotton, Japan gets nottin’.”
In the evening, the delegates, having accepted each paragraph of the resolution for “collective action” in rejection of pacifism, accepted the resolution as a whole. Political science professor Frederic L. Schuman from Williams College summed up the convention’s actions. Noting that “world politics today has become a struggle between madmen and paralytics and in a fight the madmen win. If this convention has any meaning it lies in the hope that the youth of the world in not completely paralyzed.”
If not paralyzed, the convention delegates were at least splintered. On the gathering’s last day, a welter of sometimes divergent resolutions were passed, endorsing aid to the Chinese people, opposing military shipments abroad, endorsing “independent popular action against aggressors” and opposing the American military budget which, a resolution declared, should be transferred to “socially useful” projects.
Among the officers elected for the next year, Agnes Reynolds ’38 was named financial director. The New York Times