The bell in the cupola in Nassau Hall, photographed in 2018. When Japan surrendered in 1945, people stood in line to ring the bell and sign the walls of the tower.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Danielle Alio

If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan your mission properly. —Col. David Hackworth, awarded eight Purple Hearts

Princeton’s 198th Annual Spring Commencement was held on front campus June 23, 1945. The legendary Dean of the College Christian Gauss gave the address, recalling the creation of the precept system 40 years earlier, for which he had been present as a new Preceptor Guy. Of the 689 members of the Class of 1945 who had matriculated in Sept. 1941, seemingly in a different lifetime, exactly 12 received their AB degrees, along with a mélange of 35 others and 11 advanced-degree attainees. At the University memorial service the same day, the Class of ’45 honored its war dead, who then numbered 13. The grim irony was lost on no one.

After 18 months of mad tap dancing in step with the imminent threat of COVID-19, Princeton will in late August 2021 try to pick up all the large, ungainly pieces and recommence its mission as a leading center of academic attainment and, most important, striving and growing. It will try to recall those thousands of personal-level details that made it unique in the past, and as an added challenge, determine which to reinstate, which to abandon, and which to attempt to enhance. Everyone hopes this will go smoothly, in contrast to the prior craziness. It won’t.

Given that certainty, it may be helpful to review the most recent similar cataclysm to befall the University’s operations and mission, World War II, and the academic year 1945-46, the largest looming overhaul and transition for the school since 1905, when Gauss (who knew an analogy when he saw it) and the other 50 preceptors along with the creator of the preceptor system, Woodrow Wilson 1879, brought it kicking and battling into the 20th century. Today, we’ll look at the fall of 1945, with changes in activities and personnel virtually every day; in October, we’ll turn to 1946, coincidentally the University’s bicentennial as well as its restoration, and look at the ensuing new normal. 

On the evening of Aug. 14, 1945, the upper reaches of Nassau Hall were in full-blown chaos. A series of false alarms regarding Japanese surrender had led to brief errant tolling of the 90-year-old bell, which the entire town had focused upon for the symbolic start of its celebration. When the real announcement came at 7 p.m., a succession of students, soldiers, sailors, faculty, deans, and an avalanche of townspeople got in line to ring the bell and sign the walls of the tower in giddy relief. The proctors might have brought a little order to the ebullient throng, but they were in line waiting for their turn. The huge bonfire laid on Cannon Green was lighted at 8:50 p.m., with the bell tolling and with all sorts of people spontaneously singing Old Nassau and any other Princeton song they could vaguely remember. The bell and the fire petered out by midnight, and everyone drifted off to celebrate more, uh, privately. Thus it was a prudent idea to cancel classes on V-J Day the next morning. While this may seem trivial, consider that in 1943-44 classes had been held on 365 days, excepting only Christmas. The combination of the Navy’s trimesters, the Army’s academic quarters, and the civilians’ departmental and thesis compacting meant the only common scheduling element was the wartime expansion of five-minute class-change intervals to 10 minutes, because the military students had to form up and march to their next class. The 10-minute interregnum has been sacrosanct ever since. 

One third of the faculty had been either absent from campus for war assignments or so preoccupied they might as well have not been there. Francis R.B. Godolphin ’24, the prior chair of classics, returned from two years as a Marine officer in the Pacific and instantly became head of the new Program for Servicemen, which in the next few years strove to keep the veterans and their families stable in the artificial world of academia. This may actually have been a simple test to be sure he wasn’t shellshocked; one month later Godolphin was promoted again to dean of the college, following Gauss’s 20 years of arduous service through the depression and the war. The Graduate Council declared Gauss dean of alumni (whatever that was) because nobody wanted to call him dean emeritus.

Thirty more of the faculty wandered back in before January. They had been working on crucial medical research regarding blood components and shock, on statistical analyses (think Alan Turing *38), on the headlong advancements in radar technology so crucial in the air war; and of course, a number of physicists were researching nuclear power, related to the Manhattan Project and otherwise. While this famously involved professors Eugene Wigner and John Wheeler, it also included physics chair Henry DeWolf Smyth 1918*1921, who was tasked by Manhattan head Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves with the official unclassified history of the project, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: A General Account of Its Development under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945, specifically to be accessible to the laymen in the government who confronted huge decisions on the future of nuclear power. The physicists agreed unanimously on one thing: The genie was out of the bottle, there were no secrets, the reality must be faced. Governments ignored this warning for the rest of the century. Published but one month after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 30,000 copies from the Princeton University Press sold out in hours. It was a national bestseller for months. 

Ken Fairman ’34, the athletic director, also reappeared after three years in the Army, finishing as a lieutenant colonel, but as he took over planning for the new Dillon Gym there was only one issue on campus. Charlie Caldwell ’25 had been brought in from Williams to revive the football team, and fans were clinging to it as a symbol of normal times: 64 random players turned up in September, including but five from the 1-2 1944 team that lost 3-0 to Swarthmore. By Oct. 6 they were capable of tying Lafayette 7-7, and after an insanely presumptuous parade through campus followed by a team rally — during Thursday-evening finals — they won on the road at Cornell, 14-6, upsetting a team which had already scored 80 points in three games. A couple of dozen new players materialized for the last-ever winter term Nov. 1, but they added little. The team ended up 2-3-2, however, playing a great game against a superior Yale team, losing 20-14 in Palmer Stadium on Nov. 24 in front of 40,000 delirious fans who may have had little care whom they were rooting for, besides themselves. They all then partied ’til dawn.

During the war, The Princeton Bulletin (published three times per week by the communications office) had replaced the Princetonian, which had essentially no staff available. The first single issue of the Bulletin after the war, edited by the students, was on Sept. 24, and it highlighted a new committee to organize and reinstitute other student activities, to include not only pep rallies, but the Glee Club, the eating clubs, the Tiger, the Nassau Lit, and the previously popular intramural sports. WPRU resumed its carrier-current radio programs, for six or so hours per day. All this was optimistic at the least: With a new term to start five weeks later, no one had any idea how many students would show up — estimates ranged from 1,000-1,500. It ended up close to 1,600. Meanwhile, the Grad School was being inundated with applications; 240 eventually came in November, only 10 shy of the pre-war limit.

The final fall Commencement in Princeton’s history took place Oct. 22, 1945, 199 years after the founding of the college. Twenty students received degrees — since only 11 were present, the ceremony was moved to President Harold Dodds *14’s office. One of the AB recipients was future famed civil-rights lawyer and U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach ’43, who had studied for 27 months while a POW in Europe, reading 223 books, then writing his economics thesis after his release. But he wasn’t present; he had classes that day at Yale Law School.

The University’s long-range planning got into gear before the holidays. It formally announced its bicentennial from Sept. 1946 to June 1947, proposing “to direct its Bicentennial Celebration to the end of applying, in consultation with scholars throughout the world, our common skills, knowledge, and wisdom to the reconsideration of the fundamental Obligations of higher learning to human society.” And after three years of faculty study, a revised underclass and departmental study plan for undergrads was announced for fall 1947, with more structure the first two years leading to a more informed choice of intense departmental work. Much of it continues in force today.

It is fair to say that World War II ended for Princeton on Nov. 18, 1945, when the USS Princeton V was commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, christened by Mrs. Margaret Dodds s*14, who had also dedicated the USS Princeton IV in 1942. It had been sunk in the Pacific a year earlier with 341 deaths. In all, 355 alumni died in World War II, more than all other American wars combined.

It is also fair to say the beginning of the new postwar Princeton began — with no fanfare whatsoever — on Christmas Eve 1945, when a crew from Turner Construction broke ground for the new Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library, estimated to cost $4 million. A crying need since the four-course plan was announced back in 1924, it had since gone through myriad design changes while enduring deferral during the Depression and the war. It was prepared to house 40 percent beyond Princeton’s entire collection, and almost instantly it became the best open-stack library in the world, a symbol of the free thought and open exchange of ideas to which Princeton and Princetonians had dedicated their entire institution over the prior four agonizing years. 

In the fall, we’ll look at the promise of Princeton at its bicentennial, the parts that were fulfilled, and those which weren’t. Have a safe and healthy summer.