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Princeton University during the Korean War

By Spencer Shen ’16

Beginning in the summer of 1950, reserve officers and those enrolled in the Selective Service System were called up for service in the Korean War, including personnel at Princeton. J. Douglas Brown, then Dean of the Faculty, initially requested information to better cooperate with the government, but later opposed the universal military training advocated by Harvard University president James B. Conant and other educators. The “Conant Plan” called for all 18-year-olds and high school graduates to serve a two-year training period. Brown felt that the induction ages should not be rigid, summing up his position in the Daily Princetonian on November 15, 1950: “I believe that all able bodied young men will need to give two years of service to the Armed Forces at some time in their career, but the necessity for an uninterrupted flow of men trained in medicine, science, and engineering is such that we will need to defer certain men for eventual service.” Princeton students enrolled in either the Navy or Army ROTC programs were eligible for draft deferment through their reserve status. In 1950, 746 men at Princeton had served in the ROTC, 272 in the Navy and 474 in the Army.

Princeton University’s ROTC Class of 1950. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP190, Image No. 5116.

In September 1950, University president Harold W. Dodds met with the undergraduate members of the 1950-1951 Committee of Fifty to discuss the war and its effects at Princeton. The committee examined not only the current situation but also future repercussions, including the increased return of students to campus in 1953 and 1954, serious manpower shortages in 1951, and extracurricular activities. While Dean Francis Godolphin ’24 hoped that student life could remain as normal as possible, he knew that it would be impossible to maintain all activities at a high level.

Before the start of winter break, President Dodds wrote a lengthy letter to all Princeton students to address his concerns about the war, calling for a “calm reappraisal of the future and preparations for probable readjustments.” Prioritizing the needs of the students, he asserted that “the guiding principle for faculty and administration will be flexibility and adaptability.” Dodds emphasized that he was more concerned with the students’ well-being than the overall curriculum, dispelling rumors of modifications to University policies.

Princeton University ROTC, November 1950. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP190, Image No. 5118.

As the war escalated, the draft remained the main concern for students. Many of them wondered how their liberal arts education factored into a potential deferment, and a small number of students enlisted to avoid being drafted later. In response, Dean Brown warned against making hasty decisions and stressed the importance of continued education. Students were asked to consult the Military Service Information Bureau, then in Nassau Hall, before making their final decisions.

President Dodds supported Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall’s plan, which proposed calling up young men either at age 18 or upon completion of high school, whenever it was least costly to them. While Dodd’s opinion differed from Dean Brown’s, the two men saw the student body through a tumultuous time. Marshall announced in January 1951 that students could complete the academic year and would not be called to duty until after that time. Then, a presidential order in March introduced yet another development. Students would be deferred based on class standing or scores received on a test prepared by the Educational Testing Service, then headquartered in Princeton. General Lewis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service System, later announced a more detailed plan, granting local draft boards the final word on deferments. Dodds and Conant both disagreed with the Hershey plan on the grounds that the program was undemocratic, but Dean Brown and Dean Godolphin carried it out nonetheless. Nearly all students who took the aptitude test passed, but even a passing score (70 or higher) was only a suggestion to the draft board and did not guarantee deferment.

Princeton University ROTC (note Princeton seal on their helmets), ca. 1950. Historical Photograph Collection (AC112), Box MP191, Image No. 5141.

For many, the situation felt similar to previous wars, with its heightened interest in officer training, increased enlistments, and expected curtailment of extracurricular activities. The decrease in student enrollment also caused reductions in financial aid for the fall of 1951, such as scholarships, loans, and jobs. Minot C. Morgan ’35, director of the Bureau of Student Aid and Employment, proposed the hiring of student waiters in the eating clubs, causing a controversy on Prospect Avenue. To address such issues, President Dodds drafted a letter to alumni and parents in March 1951, outlining five important points for the upcoming year: general retrenchment, the draft, the question of acceleration, faculty problems and plans, and the future of liberal arts at Princeton. These continued to be the major concerns until the end of the war in 1953.

29 Princetonians died in the Korean War. Their names appear on the war memorial in the entrance to Nassau Hall.
Related Sources:

Daily Princetonian (Student newspaper)

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Historical Subject Files Collection (AC109)

Office of the President: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup (AC117)

Office of the Secretary Records, 1853-2002 (AC190)

This post has been adapted by Spencer Shen ‘16 from the FAQ written for our old website by Jennifer Walele (2003) as part of the launch of our new website.

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