During the mid- to late-1930s, pacifism and generalized antiwar sentiments gained numerous adherents in the western democracies. This was particularly the case among many young men in Great Britain, France, and the United States who had come to see the First World War as a horrible mistake and would be called on to fight the next war. Kansas, deep in the heart of the isolationist Midwest, offered fertile fields for these views.
This was starkly apparent on April 12, 1935 when approximately 700 KU students joined 175,000 of their colleagues around the country – as well as thousands more in other parts of the world – in a one-hour strike protesting potential U.S. involvement in war. Meeting on the lawn in front of Fowler Shops, student speakers addressed the crowd, denouncing war profiteers and defending the strike, saying that protest against mass slaughter was more beneficial than an hour of class. Similar sentiments were heard that day on the 140 college campuses in 31 countries that participated in the event.
This was the second straight year that college students had called for a strike to protest war. In 1934, a spontaneous walkout had spread through eastern colleges with a total of 25,000 students ultimately involved in the action. The 1935 strike benefited from more organization and planning. A “Student Strike Against War Committee” arranged the event on a national basis, with a KU chapter coordinating the local demonstration. Nevertheless, supporting the strike was not a “mainstream” thing to do. KU alum and international news correspondent Clarence P. Oakes gave a talk on campus three days before the event warning students not to participate. Oakes claimed that the Third Communist International, based in Moscow, was behind the strike. Instead of turning out for the demonstration, Oakes advised his listeners to work toward eliminating war profiteering. If profit from war was ended, he told them, war itself would go away.
The feeling that the 1935 peace strike was a communist-inspired event was fairly widespread. One of the speakers on a national broadcast from WABC radio station in New York was Albert Hamilton, chairman of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a pro-labor group at a time when many Americans viewed such organizations with suspicion. At KU, for example, Joseph Doctor, editor of the University Daily Kansan, was so convinced that the strike was a bad thing that he resigned when the paper’s editorial board voted 7-6 to support the strike. Doctor said that if students could disrupt class for the purpose of this strike, then any group could conceivably do the same thing for any other cause.
Strikers met on the lawn in front of Fowler Shops at 11:00 a.m., after an Honors convocation. That particular time was chosen because statistically, it was when most students were on campus and attending class. The National Student Federation of America, which had a KU chapter, also supported the strike, which was coordinated under the auspices of the National Council of Methodist Youth, the National Student League, the American Youth Movement, and the Inter-Seminary Movement. KU Men’s Student Council president-elect Lyman Field spoke at the strike, saying that antiwar demonstrations should be taken out of the hands of the Communists – clearly a politick thing to say given the anti-Communist sentiment of most students.
Other speakers included two students who apparently were leaders in coordinating the event. Kenneth Born, member of the KU debate team, noted that $300 billion had been spent in the World War, clearly a coup for profiteers. He also argued that the solution to preventing war lay in rationalism. The last speaker, Charles Hackler, a KU law student whose rhetoric was somewhat bolder than the previous two, pointed out that demonstrations against war were important for reminding people that armed conflict was not inevitable. ROTC parades, Hackler said, were a form of war propaganda as well as fronts for capitalists, munitions dealers, and other war profiteers. Other than a brief disturbance when someone tossed a handful of firecrackers, the event passed peacefully.
The strike was repeated the next year on April 22, but things were not as quiet this time. Early on in the proceedings, someone released a tear gas canister upwind of the gathering, forcing the approximately 800 students to disperse. Nevertheless, strike leader Kenneth Born, who was at the podium at the time, persuaded the strikers to come back declaring, “You will face worse than this in war.” The effect of the tear gas was minimized when John Piercey, a member of the editorial board of the leftist, off-campus newspaper the Dove, kicked the canister across the street where it was extinguished.
After the strike, a scuffle broke out between KU student Clyde Nichols and First Sergeant Ed Young of the 137th Infantry of the National Guard, based in Lawrence. Apparently Nichols accused Young of throwing the tear gas bomb, a charge the sergeant denied. According to witnesses, Nichols was walking away when Young struck him in the head, knocking Nichols unconscious for a couple of hours. Nichols was treated at the University Health Service for a “contusion to the brain and bruises.”
The 1936 strike had begun with a march by the “Veterans of Future Wars,” who satirized a military unit by wearing paper military hats and carrying signs saying “Unfair to Organized Hypocrisy.” The “squad” marched up to the speaker’s platform, “hepping” in unison, where they were greeted by applause and then dispersed into the crowd. The speakers at this rally included Glenn Austin, chairman of the strike mobilization committee, who told the crowd that students must act as a group if peace was to be guaranteed. Another speaker, Gevene Landrith, the only woman on the program, told students that physical combat settled nothing, and that “positive, organized action” was “the only safe-guard for peace.” Kenneth Born, in his speech interrupted by tear gas, advised listeners that, “To prevent war, labor must be so well organized that through strikes it can make war impossible. The men who fight wars can prevent them.” The final speaker, Martin Maloney, reminded strike participants of the hysteria that preceded the 1914-18 conflict, and cautioned them to be wary of “interests that would profit from war.”
The tear gas incident did not blow over. Two days after the strike, August Anneberg, a KU student, emerged as the prime suspect in the case. The Douglas County Attorney declared he would not press charges in the case, giving a newly created KU student court an opportunity to exercise its function. Anneberg denied the charges and testimony produced the predictable maze of conflicting evidence. John Piercey (of the Dove) was the key prosecution witness. Although he did not see Anneberg release the bomb, he did observe him with his hand on the object. Other witnesses claimed Anneberg did not arrive until after the bomb was released. The “trial” went into the month of May; various charges were hurled at the student “Supreme Court,” particularly for “asking questions [of Anneberg] in an antagonistic manner.” Finally, on May 12, the court found Anneberg not guilty, stating that the only clear testimony against him was given by Piercey, who could have been mistaken.
The 1936 peace strike included an estimated half a million high school and college students across the nation. Strikers were concerned over the German occupation of the Rhineland, Japanese moves toward the Soviet Union (Russia), and the campaign by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy to conquer Ethiopia. The Dove cited these concerns as evidence students were beginning to realize their own fate and that of the peace movement was tied up with the struggles of the “common people.”
As the paper put it, “The fight against war carried to its logical conclusion means the end of that system which has its logical conclusion in war.” Similar peace strikes continued through the remainder of the decade. As Adolf Hitler’s Nazi war machine pursued its various aggressions in central and eastern Europe, the specter of many Americans dying again on foreign battlefields loomed ominously on the horizon. Ironically, most of those who participated in the student peace strikes of the 1930s were still in their early to mid-twenties when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. No doubt a few died on European, Asian, and North African battlefields.
Department of History
University of Kansas