Princeton students drilling in March 1918. They “stand behind president and country,” said a caption on the photograph.
Princeton University Archives
That Was Then: February 1917

The United States did not enter World War I until April 6, 1917, but at the beginning of February, as President Woodrow Wilson 1879 severed diplomatic ties with Germany, Princeton girded itself for battle.

On Feb. 9, in The Daily Princetonian, Professor of International Law Philip Marshall Brown called for a more aggressive response to the “terrific menace” posed by Germany. After deploring “the deportation of Belgians and Armenians, the use of liquid fire, poisonous gases, the bombardment of crowded cities by Zeppelins, the sinking of passenger ships without warning,” he averred that “further delay can only mean the paralyzation of our wills, the decay of American manhood, the base denial of the solemn obligations of honor.”

The University gave substance to this rhetoric by organizing the Princeton Provisional Battalion under the direction of Army Capt. Stuart Heintzelman, who had joined the faculty in the fall of 1916 as professor of military science and tactics. In the words of President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893, “It may not be necessary for American citizens to engage in war in the near future, but Princeton should not delay in affording facilities for its undergraduates to prepare themselves for it.”

Students reacted with enthusiasm. In the first six-hour enlistment period, 509 men committed themselves “to drill one hour a day in open and close formations.” And on Feb. 26, when daily drills commenced in the gymnasium, 850 men showed up, representing 60 percent of the undergraduate student body.

What was deemed good for Princeton was deemed good for the country. With Hibben’s blessing, undergraduates circulated a petition urging Congress to “enact immediately legislation establishing in the United States a system of compulsory universal military training.”

In this environment, dissent was unwelcome, as two students learned when they sought to air “the pacifist point of view.” Hibben denied them permission to meet on campus, arguing that the “University was already committed to a war policy,” beating Congress to the punch.  

John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.