The Nassau Hall cupola, photographed in 2021
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away,
We fly forgotten, as a dream fades at the opening day.
— Isaac Watts, 1719, The Processional Hymn of each Princeton Service of Remembrance

Today, precisely 75 years afterward — by fluke, the 2022 calendar is identical to 1947 — we bid farewell for a bit to World War II at Princeton, after exploring may facets of that peculiar and ominous era over many columns over many years. We’ve discussed among other things, the following:

But in a sense, all through this examination of the disquieting changes surrounding that war — and disquieting is not at all bad for a university, necessarily — we really haven’t addressed the profound way in which the Princeton that left the war behind was a substantially different institution from the one which entered it. Today we confront that head-on in a look at a defining event which arose from yet another fluke of timing — Princeton’s Bicentennial. The celebration of the granting of the college charter on Oct. 22, 1746, and the conducting of its first class in late May 1747 provided a convenient excuse for a dramatic change of gears, from the genteel cloistered institution of Scott Fitzgerald 1917 to the global impact of Ralph Nader ’55. And the visionaries on the board of trustees who built it, who clearly saw that potential in the making, may well be as purely creative as any leaders Princeton has ever seen.

Time may be like an ever-rolling stream, but there are pools and eddies where it pauses to either take stock, backfill in confusion, or possibly both. At Princeton, this was the period from the opening of Fine (now Jones) Hall in 1931 to the unannounced breaking of ground for Firestone Library in early 1946 — almost four full generations of undergrads. In a beleaguered economy (although the endowment had been saved by boy genius Dean Mathey 1912) and then in a global conflagration, President Harold Dodds *14 and his thin cohort had kept the lights burning and the ideas coming — the new SPIA, the religion and music departments, an onrush of math and physics teaching in conjunction with the fortuitous creation of the Institute for Advanced Study — as long as they didn’t cost Princeton much. They had also doggedly been focused on updating plans to move Princeton forward once the money, materials, and manpower became available, the most notable being the new library, previously the victim of a losing battle with the new Chapel. The titanic open-stack complex now in blueprint had little relation to the Pyne Library replacement imagined in the ’20s, or for that matter almost any existing library in the world. 

This same sort of progressive upgrade ended up taking place in the planning for the Bicentennial itself. The trustees had covered themselves a little by sponsoring a series of disparate books about Princeton and its history via the University Press. The most notable were:

  • Princeton 1746-1896 by Professor Thomas J. Wertenbaker, a masterful 400-page history of both detail and feeling that remains unchallenged today.
  • The Lives of Eighteen from Princeton, edited by Professor Willard Thorp, a quirky look at singular Princetonians from Benjamin Rush 1760 to Scott Fitzgerald 1917.
  • The Modern Princeton, written thematically by seven prominent professors to document the institutional advances of the prior 50 years.
  • Pictorial History of Princeton, edited by Wheaton Lane 1925, a meticulously documented set of 400 images covering the 200 years, far beyond anything prior.

But that wasn’t where the prestige PR was, and the trustees knew it. Hearkening back to the blatant example of the wildly successful 1896 Sesquicentennial, so meticulously planned, conducted, and documented by Professor Andrew Fleming West 1874, they loosely imagined a three-day blowout with torchlight parades, guests from around the world (if there was a world left), academic regalia, and grandiose declamations on the model of Woodrow Wilson 1879’s Princeton in the Nation’s Service. With a football game (if football was back yet). Now, this spitballing was in the early spring of 1944, even prior to D-Day, so the idea that there might be sufficient world peace on Oct. 22, 1946, to hold a coffee hour, never mind an on-campus colloquium, was something of a stretch anyway. To address this, the trustees magnanimously handed the whole conundrum over to their chair, Walter E. Hope 1901, without really much of a detailed plan to pull it off, nor a budget.

Not for nothing was Hope chair of the trustees’ executive committee. A rich New York lawyer with Milbank Tweed and 1901 valedictorian, he had previously served as head of the U.S. Fuel Administration for Woodrow Wilson in World War I, and assistant secretary of the treasury for Herbert Hoover, in charge of little things like the IRS, the U.S. Mint, and the Secret Service. With a seemingly endless genius for attracting and organizing volunteers, he set off to create a celebration worthy of a global-quality center of learning, which clearly extended beyond West’s publicity festival of 50 years before. The only thing Hope didn’t do was coin the phrase “go big or go home,” but when the trustees met in near panic after the abrupt end to the war in August 1945, that’s what he had waiting for them. 

Everyone knew they couldn’t organize a huge festival within the 14 months left until Charter Day. But Hope sprang eternal (sorry about that) with a detailed plan deftly moving the big three-day blowout to June 1947 after Commencement and filling in the entire preceding academic year with four other convocations (including one on Oct. 19 before the Rutgers game), various international symposia, concerts (e.g. the Boston Symphony), sermons (the entire megillah was kicked off by the archbishop of Canterbury in September 1946), you name it. Just about every global leader whose name had appeared in Foreign Affairs and who was willing to ride the Dinky received an honorary degree — there were 113 awarded in the five convocations. The first complete publication of the Bicentennial Calendar was here in your Favorite Periodical on Sept. 13, 1946; the archbishop’s sermon was nine days away. The calendar included (I kid you not) 58 separate events, some over multiple days, spread across the nine months from Sept. 22 to June 17. To coordinate most of this, Hope had essentially one full-time staff member, Arthur E. Fox 1913, wartime commander of Army units on campus, plus a skeleton staff of office workers, who spent much of their time dragooning University staffers — some just off the boat in uniform from overseas — to pitch in with their expertise as available, plus a seemingly bottomless well of volunteers, including alumni to operate individual events and townspeople to transport, house, and soothe the waves of visitors to the festivities, vastly outnumbering commercial accommodations then available.

But what Dodds, Dean J. Douglas Brown 1919, and Hope were strategically focused upon were prestigious conferences of worldwide academicians. As word of mouth spread among the faculty they grew from six to 10 and eventually 16, essentially covering every heavyweight field in global education. They began in September with The Future of Nuclear Science, chaired by Professor Eugene Wigner and including Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Robert Oppenheimer among its 100 or so world authorities, and continued to such as Genetics, Paleontology, and EvolutionThe University and its World Responsibilities, and The Humanistic Tradition in the Century Ahead. Totaling perhaps 1,000 attendees overall, they served as something of a starter’s pistol, setting off new post-war contacts and initiatives in many fields and offering at least preliminary relief from the global disruption and carnage just past. And it placed Princeton as an institution, really for the first time, into the front ranks of international thought leaders in higher education. 

Remember the fancy three-day blowout? It indeed took place during the week following 1947 Commencement and Reunions, beginning with the dedication of Dillon Gym on June 15, the laying of the Firestone cornerstone and huge formal dinner on June 16, then the gala final convocation on June 17 with begowned academic representatives from 418 colleges and universities in 42 states and 43 foreign countries. President Truman was on front campus, along with Herbert Hoover, generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, NBC television and radio live, and a crammed-in audience of about 6,500, far beyond the typical commencement. Truman, noting he was speaking on the same spot as President Grover Cleveland 50 years earlier at the Sesquicentennial, when he pleaded for educated public servants, called America to universal service in preemptive defense of the free world (much as George Kennan 1925 was newly arguing as part of his containment doctrine), and the president specifically cited SPIA. He praised the critical importance of the Princeton conferences as a tribute to “free and enquiring minds, with unlimited access to the sources of knowledge.” The New York Times coverage was on page 1 above the fold, complete with a photo of Truman, Dodds, and Hoover in the line of march. Everybody cheered and the weather was beautiful (in any practical sense, there was no contingency for rain).

And when the tinsel and glitter was all swept up, there really were two abiding facts remaining. Princeton, its faculty newly returned from the war, had put itself firmly on the path of regard as a global center of higher learning. And as far as he could figure out, Walter Hope had come in just under his self-imposed budget of $200,000 for the nine months and 58 events.