By Wendy Hirata, VI Form
St. Mark’s Wartime Views
With St. Mark’s School’s emphasis on service, the St. Mark’s student body shaped its wartime views based on the general atmosphere of World War I and the Vietnam War. Such student perspectives did not always agree with the general views of the public. Both St. Mark’s students and the American public showed less support for U.S. war effort from World War I to the Vietnam War. St. Markers shared the patriotic national preparedness and humanitarian mission with the general public during the World War I, but had more of an aloof, elitist attitude towards the Vietnam War and the anti-war movements of the time.
Before deciding to join World War I on April 6, 1917, Wilson and other progressives promoted isolationist foreign policies. However, Germany’s continuous challenge to American neutrality eventually led to the United States’ Declaration of War on Germany. When World War I broke out in 1914, President Wilson announced the Declaration of Neutrality stating that “the United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men’s souls.” As such, the American public did not expect the United States’ involvement during this early period. On May 7, 1914, Germans torpedoed a British ship, the Lusitania, which resulted in more than 120 American casualties. After the incident, the American government warned Germany to stop its submarine warfare. After the warning, Germany stopped their bombing for a while, but Germany ultimately ignored this request by announcing an attack on all enemy vessels in a war zone around Britain. As the U.S. civilian casualties continued to increase, President Wilson stated that Germany is “strictly accountable for violations of the rights of neutral nations on the seas” and thus declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917 as a way to “make the world safe for democracy”. The impact of innocent civilian deaths on the American public was great enough to counter the progressive opposition of militarization, leading to President Wilson’s abandonment of his strictly isolationist policies.
After the U.S. entered World War I, the government used propaganda and other media to transition the public from an isolationist view to a pro-war view. It is true that there was an increasing growth of the Preparedness Movement for a potential war after the Lusitania incident in 1914, but isolationist philosophy still dominated the nation. President Wilson won the election of 1916 with the help of his isolationist slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Therefore, he strived to maintain his previous position of neutrality. Yet, with the continued bombing from Germany, U.S. declared war against Germany in 1917, and President Wilson needed a way to reverse the remaining isolationist view of the general public. The government started projects such as building shipyards, taking over railroads, controlling prices for staple goods, and creating new war-related agencies and departments. These projects and the rapidly developing war atmosphere impacted Americans’ private life as these new developments altered all their daily activities. To further stimulate the American fighting spirit, Wilson promoted the “American belligerence as a fight for a democratic, liberal, redemptive crusade against the forces of barbaric militarism.” Groups, such as the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and its subgroup, the Four-Minute Men, formed to spread propaganda that promoted pro-war sentiment through emotional appeals and emphasis on a humanitarian mission. The Four-Minute Men went to public places, such as schools, to give short, patriotic speeches that promoted the war spirit. These Four-Minute Men touched upon themes such as “support for war bonds, food conservation, relief organizations, patriotic behavior, the draft, and federal policy issues,” and were successful in attracting the American youth to enlist for the war. The CPI produce patriotic films such as The Kaiser: Beast of Berlin and continued to spread a hundred million copies of pro-war pamphlets around the U.S. As the publications and posters emphasized the national preparedness and stimulated nationalism, many Americans joined the war voluntarily and considered war participation as an honorable, patriotic act for the greater good of humanity. The draft results represent this trend: eighty nine percent of the eligible male population registered for the war, and out of the twenty four million registered for the war, almost 4.5 million served in the war. For World War I, anti-war factions and pacifists did existed, but the general mass accepted the government’s decision to enter the war.
The St. Mark’s student body’s reaction to World War I correlated with the public’s focus on national preparedness and the U.S.’ humanitarian mission as the students willingly joined military camps and enlisted for the war. Dr. Thayer, the headmaster of St. Mark’s School during the time, did not try to “protect his students from the news of an increasingly violent world, [and rather] tried to channel their interest into productive areas of service to others.” Under such influence, the student body had a wild reaction to the Lusitania incident as they stated that World War I was a “struggle of mankind to defend the principles of humanity and chivalry,” and that the “individuals should fight for [their] existence” when joining this war. The first student interest shown in the Vindex is the October 1915 edition with a letter from Samuel Prescott Fay, a St.Marker who provided medical service for the soldiers in a hospital in Paris. In the letter, he wrote, “When you have seen thousands and thousands of wounded, and seen men freshly mangled and torn by bombs and shells–for they are no longer cleanly wounded–then you realize that a war ought to be avoided at almost any price.”
Through this letter, the St. Mark’s student body could feel the horror and the tragedy of the war more directly, and this led to stimulation of the humanitarian mission towards ending World War I. The idea of national preparedness reappeared in many of the Vindex articles related to military camps, and the St. Mark’s community responded to such sentiments by starting mandatory military training. In the Vindex article, The Proposed Military Camp, a student discuss how “the average American demands real military aggressiveness and efficiency as a means of safeguarding his peace; in other words the national slogan [had] become, ‘the Preparedness Against War.’” For St. Markers, World War I meant a fight for the protection of humanity. The student body honored those who joined the war, believing that “the responsibility of the American citizen is not limited to his civic duties” and that the students should be prepared for “defence of their country in the time of need.”  St. Mark’s ambulance donations represented such efforts and interests in the war, as “two St. Mark’s Ambulances [had] been given to the American Ambulance work in France,…[contributing] fifteen hundred dollars for the ‘St. Mark’s School Alumni Ambulance’ [and] one thousand dollars for the ‘St. Mark’s School Ambulance’” Due to the “wide-spread recognition of the need of National Preparedness,” St. Mark’s School also started mandatory military trainings for all the forms, with “no opposition on the part of the parents of boys in the School.” By the end of the war, there were 499 St. Mark’s participants in World War I. St. Mark’s embraced the passionate war-time view and promoted the honorary cause.
Thirty six years after the end of World War I, the Vietnam War broke out between communist Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, and the democratic South Vietnam. South Vietnam was supported by anti-communist allies, mainly the U.S. The specific reason for the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War is still quite ambiguous, but effort towards containment of communism is the most widely accepted justification. As a superpower during the Cold War, the U.S. played a crucial role in the war between the communist and capitalist powers in the world. After the French withdrawal from the Vietnam War, the U.S. took over South Vietnam as a patron to support Ngo Dinh Diem’s weak regime in Saigon. The U.S. involvement in Vietnam intensified after the Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964, when the North Vietnamese forces allegedly attacked the USS Maddox. After this event, President Johnson passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, allowing the President to “employ military forces against North Vietnam,” which began the deployment of ground combat forces to Vietnam. Such involvement in the Vietnam War received much criticism and opposition from the public, both before and throughout the war.
Unlike the U.S. entry to World War I, the Vietnam War involvement caused a rise in anti-war movements and protests, due to lack of justification for the war and the violence used in Vietnam. Even before the U.S. entry of the Vietnam War, many American critics disapproved of the U.S. intervention because there was a lack of strong war aims and a great possibility of large numbers of casualties for both sides. By supporting South Vietnam, the U.S. government wanted to legitimize the Saigon government. Yet, due to the internal disintegration of the Diem regime, such a result was near unattainable. Furthermore, the continuation of the conflict not only worsened the living conditions of the Vietnamese, but also drained the vitality of the American spirit because, as the United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said, the “[failure in Vietnam] would stimulate bitter domestic controversies in the United States and would be seized upon by extreme elements to divide the country and harass the Administration”. With such criticisms, it was harder for the government to promote pro-war sentiments as it did during World War I. Thus, the beliefs of the era influenced public opinion regarding the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Before and during the Vietnam War, there was a Conservative era of peace and optimism in the 1950s and the Counterculture era of increasing Civil Rights movements in the 1960s. The Conservatives attempted to maintain domestic tranquility of the 1950s by avoiding war involvement. Counterculture advocates doubted the U.S. claim of “saving South Vietnam from communism,” and the Civil Rights supporters saw this war as a “struggle between haves and have-nots.” Whereas all classes had similar participation levels during World World I, the upper class had ways to avoid the Vietnam War as draft selection process left loopholes for rich and the college-educated population. One of these deferment opportunities included deferments for full-time college and graduate students. Many working class students did not have enough money to be full-time students, and this deferment policy created a disproportionate draft between those who could afford to be full-time students and those who could not. Seventy six percent of the draftees were from the lower-middle working class, proving the the unfair conscription situation.
Amidst the war in the 1960s, television started to report domestic protest and wartime brutality. Unlike World War I, the media could clearly publicize the violence, and such appeal to emotion aggravated anti-war feelings. The news media continued to increase critical reports of the war and contributed to the intensification of the anti-war movement, especially after Tet Offensive in 1967. In late January 1968, the North Vietnamese communist forces attacked numerous targets in South Vietnam, causing great losses for both sides, which “made clear to the American public that an overall victory in Vietnam was not imminent.” Such public dissent against the war escalated by the end of 1960s, with different anti-war demonstrations and protests against conscription happening all around the nation. Violence during these protests was not uncommon, as was seen during the anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio, which was violently suppressed by the National Guard. During the peak of the anti-war movement, student and faculty strikes closed more than 400 colleges and universities. The public believed that the war was not worth the lives of the American youth and that the U.S. government should withdraw from the Vietnam War as soon as possible.
The interest level of the St. Mark’s student body matched up with the general public’s focus on the Vietnam War. However, the heart of the issue varied for the two; the public focused on the anti-war movement, while the St. Markers focused more on the general concept of the Cold War while having an aloof attitude for the public movements. With the government’s weak reasons for entry in Vietnam, a majority of the nation lacked interest during the earlier part of the war, but the anti-war movement rapidly developed and peaked around the late 1960s. Such public trend of growing interest was seen in the St.Mark’s student body through school publications. Many early St. Marker articles before 1966 discussed the Cold War and the broader political nature of the time, and did not specifically focus on the Vietnam War since it was considered a very small part of the big Cold War picture. Some articles also showed disapproval of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as seen in John Mason’s St. Marker article in the January 19, 1962 issue. After describing the guerilla warfare of the Viet Cong, Mason concluded by saying that “the United States must use every diplomatic means possible to contain the Communists without war,” which correlated with the initial critics of the Vietnam War. Only two articles about the Vietnam War were written before 1966 in the St. Marker newspaper, but the number of articles gradually increased with the increasing public attention of the war: more than 15 articles were written about the Vietnam War from 1966 to 1969. Yet, the focus of these articles were quite different from the topics the mass media emphasized. James Clarke, an editor of the St. Marker, wrote an article in the February 8, 1965 issue stating that “In Southeast Asia, where the Communist Chinese and the West are struggling to dominate or control emerging nations, Johnson seems to be without any sort of plan.” Clarke further criticizes Johnson’s foreign policy by stating that Johnson “refuses either to step up the war in South Vietnam and make a serious attempt to win it, or to attempt a face-saving pull-out.” As such the articles try to focus on the political aspect and the governmental decisions rather than the violence of the war. Throughout the war, the St. Mark’s student body maintained an aloof stance toward the Vietnam War. None of the articles mention the anti-war movement nor other student protests and draft issues. St. Mark’s student body’s detachment from the anti-war movement is understandable because with an upper class background, St. Mark’s students naturally connected more with the political world than the general public. For the anti-war movements and draft protests, the reality of the draft and the loss of American youth most likely did not hit these boys who were part of the rich elite. The closest article that can be found dealing with the national dissent is the St. Marker article written by David Sawyier, an editor of the newspaper, in the May 19, 1967 issue. Yet, even this article glosses over the anti-war movement by simply including a line that stated, “A United States Senator recently advocated that the First Amendment be suspended in regard to certain of the present dissenters against the government’s policy in Vietnam.” The statement suggests some trouble between the government and the public dissenters, but the severity of the rising anti-war situation during the time period was described nowhere. Even during the peak of the anti-war movement around 1967 and 1968, the St. Mark’s student body never directly presented its view of the public movements and mostly presented the broader political concerns and the role the Vietnam War would play in the general Cold War picture, standing far away from the heat of the nation-wide anti-war movement.
Both the public and the St. Markers shared the passion for military service during the World War I. During the Vietnam War, such general trend of interest in the St. Mark’s student body did corresponded to the trend of the American public, but the focal points of the two groups varied drastically. St. Markers focused on the broader political spectrum of the issue, whereas the American public was in the heat of the anti-war movement. Such shifting opinions of the St. Markers from the World War I to the Vietnam War and their relations to the public wartime views provide a window to the elitist youth views of each period.
Wendy Hirata is a VI Former from Seoul, South Korea. She enjoys art therapy coloring books, eating sweets, writing poetry, and collecting cats in the Neko Atsume app.
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