Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Veterans of Future Wars

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Ecclesiastes 3:1
It's listed in the top 10 college pranks of all time, second only to CalTech's 1961 Rose Bowl stunt. The Veterans of Future Wars campaign.

In 1935, hit hard by the effects of the Depression, the nation's veterans lobbied Congress to provide them with their bonus check 10 years early. Congress agreed and passed the bill in January of 1936. A group of Princeton students decided to satirize the events and the following manifesto was published in March 1936 in the Daily Princetonian:
Whereas it is inevitable that this country will be engaged in war within the next thirty years, and whereas it is by all accounts likely that every man of military age will have a part in this war,

We, therefore, demand that the Government make known its intention to pay an adjusted service compensation, sometimes called a bonus, of $1,000 to every male citizen between the ages of 18 and 36, said bonus to be payable the first of June, 1965. Furthermore, we believe a study of history demonstrates that it is customary to pay all bonuses before they are due. Therefore we demand immediate cash payment, plus three per cent interest compounded annually and retroactively from the first of June, 1965, to the first of June, 1935. It is but common right that this bonus be paid now, for many will be killed or wounded in the next war, and hence they, the most deserving, will not otherwise get the full benefit of their country’s gratitude.
The satire spread to other college campuses. Many veterans were offended. Eleanor Roosevelt, however, said: "I think it’s just as funny as it can be! And—taken light, as it should be—a grand pricking of lots of bubbles."

There is a time for bubble pricking, and there is a time for seriousness. While at the time many veterans accused the students of being unpatriotic, and "too yellow to go to war," six years later all but two of the Princeton students were overseas. One stayed home due to an injury, and another was employed in the steel industry.

The first official chapter of the Veterans of Future Wars was at Washington University in St. Louis. And the Post Commander there also served overseas in WWII (as a member of the American Red Cross). He was my grandfather.

I found this article in the March 19, 1936 Jefferson City Post Tribune (in the Ancestry.com Newspaper archives.) I shared it with my family, and learned that while my grandfather didn't hide his collegiate actions from his sons, he had expressed regret.

I'm not sure the regret was necessary. As Eleanor Roosevelt was kind enough to publicly note, there was cause for satire, and the students conducted the satire flawlessly. And when the time came, the students illustrated to the country that their actions hadn't sprung from a lack of patriotism.

The MuseumOfHoaxes points out that in 1950 there was a failed attempt to revive the joke to protest the Korean War. There was also an online attempt that began in 2003, which hasn't had enough success to receive any mention in mainstream press (all references in Google's News Archives to the VoFW after 1960 are historical references to the original protest. News stories concerning the 1950 revival do appear in their archives.)

I feel the reason the revivals didn't catch on is that the original protest took place in a time of peace, though war was on the horizon. The same economic circumstances that caused the veterans to ask for an early bonus caused the students to question their government's spending of money. Those circumstances weren't present in 1950, nor are they present now. In 1950 and now, current veterans weren't and aren't receiving early bonuses, so the only 'statement' left for those reviving the joke is an anti-war message. Without the economic underpinnings, the VoFW loses the satirical humor it had in the 30s.

My grandfather, Melvin L Newmark was born August 27, 1912. He died Jan 22, 1992. He would have been 96 years old today.

1 comment:

Miriam said...

Fascinating post, John! As I viewed Melvin's photo in your Wordless Wednesday post, I could glimpse that he must have been quite the character!