August 15, 1938
The Second World Youth Congress was held at the college. Over 550 representatives from 53 countries attended. Soviet Russia, Germany and Italy were unrepresented and Japan and Santo Domingo seated only observers. In this country, the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America boycotted the congress.
Festivities at the municipal stadium at Randalls Island in New York City greeted the international delegates. Some 23,000 persons heard Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s welcome the young participants and his wry encouragement to them: “I don’t know what the conference will accomplish, but I do know that you can’t accomplish less than a disarmament conference. This is the answer of the peace-loving people of the world…to the great manoeuvres that start in Europe today.” Other speakers included the president of the French Chamber of Deputies, the secretary general of the League of Nations, the Czech minister of foreign affairs and President MacCracken, the chairman of the United States sponsoring committee. Spokesmen representing five continents greeted the delegates, and music and dancing from around the world—including a “mass demonstration of the collegiate shag by members of the American Student Union”—entertained them. A Book of International Fellowship containing the signatures of 200,000 American well-wishers was presented to the organization’s English international secretary, Elizabeth Shields-Collins.
No similar welcome greeted the delegates when they reached Poughkeepsie on the afternoon of August 16th. The New York Times reported that Acting Mayor William Duggan said he “had given no orders for a reception because of what he termed the group’s ‘internationalism.’” Instead, a large informal gathering featured a brass band that played the national songs of many of the delegates’ countries. Helen Kenyon ’05, the chairman of Vassar’s board of trustees, greeted the delegates’ steamer when it arrived at the Poughkeepsie dock.
In the evening, after a dinner that included corn on the cob and blueberry pie, the delegates heard more formal welcomes from President MacCracken and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt.
At the plenary session in the Students’ Building on its first full day, the congress heard reports from representatives of 14 countries on four continents about conditions in their countries and about their notions of how international peace could come about. Australian political apathy, Belgian multi-lingualism and unemployment, Bulgarian wariness about the first world congress’s failure to coalesce and Canadian multicultural turmoil sometimes echoed and other times contrasted with Chinese shock at the Japanese invasion, Colombian yearning for democratic Pan Americanism, Czech determination to democratize its different cultures and Danish pride at Scandinavian solidarity, to give a broad and challenging world picture. A British delegate’s announcement that a pact of friendship uniting British, Canadian, American and French youth groups was being drafted contrasted with the report from Holland that no effective way had yet been discovered to unite elements of its youth movement either internally or in an international sense. An Indian delegate lamented the illiteracy and low life expectancy in his country, blaming both on the British.
Four commissions were established to gather information and lead discussions on the political and economic collaboration for peace, the cultural and economic status of youth, the religious and philosophical bases of peace and the international role of youth.
On August 18, a breakthrough occurred when the American delegation—ranging from young communists and union members to students and members of religious youth movements—was able to agree unanimously on a seven-point program for world peace, which they presented to the congress. The measures included arms reduction, economic reconstruction in the name of equality and abstention from the use of force and from interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Reviewing the seven points, The New York Times observed that they closely paralleled points laid our two days earlier by Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
The following day James G. McDonald, former high commissioner of the League of Nations, spoke about the worldwide refugee situation, noting that among the Americas only the United States had committed to accepting upwards of 27,000 refugees yearly. “Go back to your countries,” he said, “and say to your governments that there is being offered to them an opportunity to enrich themselves with the…intelligence of some of the finest people in the world.” His remarks came after a detailed discussion of the plight of subject peoples was reported on by representatives from Ethiopa, Korea, Czechoslovakia, Puerto Rico and Palestine.
Concurrent with the congress at Vassar, Texas Representative Martin Dies, co-founder of the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities, had been conducting hearings during which the Youth Congress had been called a communist front and President MacCracken had been identified as a communist. On August 21, Joseph Cadden, the Brown University graduate who chaired the United States delegation, apologized to the foreign delegates for the “rude and stupid” maligning of the Youth Congress and its work. Cadden wrote to Congressman Dies, asking to be invited to his committee to discuss the congress and the international organization with 40,000,000 members that sponsored it.
The previous day, Professor Nikander Strelsky had written to Representative Dies, protesting the characterization before his committee of Professor Hallie Flanagan Davis, on leave from Vassar to direct the Federal Theatre Project, as a communist and of plays she had produced as subversive. Irreproachable critics, he noted, had praised production after production by Davis. “‘The Living Newspaper,’” he wrote, referring to one of her innovative productions, “denounced as subversive and communistic, has been acclaimed by the same critics for its clarity in dealing, in an American way, with problems of American life.”
Strelsky’s defense of Davis was echoed in a letter sent to Dies the same day by Poughkeepsie resident and leading Catholic playwright Emmet Lavery, a director for the Federal Theatre, demanding to be called before the committee and urging the congressman to examine “the complete list of plays” produced by the Federal Theatre and “the vast amount of theatre research” done by the project.
The World Youth Congress concluded on August 23 with the signing, by 47 of the 53 delegations present, of “the Vassar pact,” a declaration of peace and friendship on a basis of collective security. While a majority of the American delegation endorsed the pact’s six articles, a considerable minority—largely socialist, pacifist and religious representatives—denounced it and argued that it had been forced on the congress by the executive leadership. Their main objection was to Article IV:
We agree to bring pressure to bear, whenever the circumstances arise, upon our respective authorities to take the necessary concerted action to prevent aggression and to bring it to an end, to give effective assistance to the victims of treaty violations and aggression and to refrain from participating in any aggression whether in the form of supply of essential war materials or of financial assistance.
President MacCracken praised the delegates and their work, urging them not to refrain from association with “Fascists or Communists, religionists or irreligionists,” if such associations could promote the cause of peace in the world. The New York Times