Princeton’s Sept. 11 Memorial Garden, dedicated in 2003, features a bronze bell — titled “Remembrance” — and 14 stars placed in memory of the alumni who died in the attacks.
Princeton University, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment Communications, Bumper DeJesus (2021)

Be Prepared... the meaning of the motto is that a scout must prepare himself by previous thinking out and practicing how to act on any accident or emergency so that he is never taken by surprise. — Robert, Lord Baden-Powell

Over the last couple years here in the History Corner, we have revisited and investigated a number of lengthy trials in the University’s history — wars, epidemics, and the like. Various examples of hard times give us context for current trials and uncertainty, whether things to do (like locking down the campus during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1917-18) or alternatively things not to do (like barring the great Norman Thomas 1905 from campus at the same time because he was a World War I pacifist.) 

Of course, such wisdom only goes so far. As promised, next time we will wrap up that theme with a look at 1946, a pivotal year in Princeton’s history when we came eyeball-to-eyeball with the uncharted post-War world after years of agony. But today, by grim coincidence of timing, we consider the opposite end of the tribulation spectrum: The University’s role facing sudden, undreamt-of catastrophe. 

It’s the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

That’s all you need to say to anyone who was around then, although it is concerning to think that our current underclass friends were not even alive yet; their entire existence has been in the welter of negative emotions and doings that Osama bin Laden’s followers foisted upon the world. By coincidence, Princeton in the new century was clearly emerging as a force reflecting Toni Morrison’s keynote at its 250th anniversary convocation in 1996. It had grasped the socioeconomic high ground by eliminating student loans and substituting grants as well as liberalizing aid standards for the middle class, recruited an astonishing array of teacher/scholars, and was for the second time rated the best undergraduate institution in the country. Miraculously, there was even a gleaming new student center following perhaps a century of confusion. 

One of the prime movers of all this, President Harold Shapiro *64, had retired June 15, 2001, to be succeeded by one of the most brilliant members of his faculty, Professor Shirley Tilghman. At her first major public address, during Opening Exercises on Sunday, Sept. 9, she recalled the start of school in her youth in Canada and told freshmen of the wonders of learning how to learn.  Nineteen days later, the title of her address at her formal investiture said it all: “The Role of the Academy in Times of Crisis.” In the tradition of Princeton in the Nation’s Service, she asked, “How can we contribute as this great country seeks the honorable path to worldwide justice and to peace?”  

In the immediate term, Princeton did what was proper and obligatory: Sports were postponed, counseling provided, memorial services held (eventually becoming the Memorial Garden adjacent to Chancellor Green). An astonishing spontaneous alumni effort contacted every single alum thought to be working anywhere near the World Trade Center or Pentagon to offer help.  But in some senses, with alums having served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a trillion dollars spent, we still seem to be awaiting the definitive answer to the question of America’s proper place in the post-Cold War world. We are left with still-haunting piecemeal memories, as reflected in Jennifer Senior ’91’s mesmerizing recent piece in The Atlantic about her friend Bobby McIlvaine ’97 and his family. 

In emergencies past, this ambiguity was not always inevitable.

Long before Internet news feeds or video walls in Frist covered with cable news, the public’s thirst for the latest was just as pronounced, and into the gap jumped the yellow journals of Hearst and Pulitzer. On Feb. 15, 1898 — a year and a half after Princeton’s ascendence as a university — the eruption of the USS Maine in Havana harbor proved a sensation on campus as everywhere else, and the country reacted to the furor by brutalizing the shell of the remaining (supposedly responsible) Spanish Empire in a four-month war. Drill units formed on campus, and 170 men from the classes of 1856 to 1900 enlisted and served overseas. Five of them died, including Ralph Simonds 1899, killed by Filipino revolutionaries who were fighting the Spanish, too, but didn’t like the way the U.S. was trying to “help” them. The resulting globalization of American Manifest Destiny accelerated the growth of the new academic field of political science, among whose principal high-profile authorities was Professor Woodrow Wilson 1879. Privately opposed to annexing the Philippines, he nonetheless generally came to support U.S. influence overseas, leaving its own limiting shores behind. Washington clearly leaned the same way: As part of the Navy’s upgrade, the gunboat USS Princeton III had “fortuitously” been christened in 1897, and was immediately involved in the Cuban war, then follow-up campaigns in both the Caribbean and the Pacific.

It is here we brush by our old acquaintance, the Law of Unintended Consequences, which taunts us with the question: If the U.S. had not retained the Philippines, would Japan have attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941?

And so our blind-side catastrophe examination switches from “Remember the Maine” to “Remember Pearl Harbor.” America, in part because of the ferocity of the war that began in Europe in 1939 and familiarity with Western cultures, ignored most of the Asian war that had been underway through the ’30s, and comparatively discounted Japan’s capability or willingness to confront us. Most “America First” debates focused on the evils of Nazism, not securing the beaches of Maui. The support of European allies was the focus of President Harold Dodds *1914’s commencement address in 1940. But never did more than 25 percent of the students support actively entering the war — according to esteemed historian Richard Challener '44, who after all was there — until Dec. 7, when in the huge shock waves across the country America First vanished and Dodds had to suddenly shift to pleading with students to complete their degrees before enlisting, which many still did not. The furor and unprecedented war economy that resulted, aided hugely by an all-out effort by thousands of alumni servicemen (355 of whom died), to the labs of Los Alamos, to the new aircraft carrier USS Princeton IV, quite simply changed the world we lived in, and the University with it, as we’ll conclude next month. 

But it’s very possible the public impact of 9/11 in the modern American world is most like Nov. 22, 1963, before which there was no debate, no economic adjustment, no consultation with allies and clearly, very little intelligence information among friends. The global issues surrounding the Cold War, starkly underlined during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cuba again?) of the prior year, had somehow dissipated protection at the mundane local level that allowed a total nonentity to endanger the entire federal government and sully our national identity. Far more people sobbed for JFK than had ever voted for him, because they knew intuitively that part of them (as they imagined themselves) died with him. The Daily Princetonian tracked down Columbia professor Richard Neustadt eating lunch at the Wilson School, and he noted there was a documented, restless consensus in the country for change, but no agreement on what that should entail. 

While Princeton canceled classes and delayed the Ivy-championship Dartmouth football game (almost an annual feature in the ’60s), the administration under President Robert Goheen ’40 *48 was already on the move toward effectively integrating the student body; the landmark hiring of Carl Fields was imminent. Lyndon Johnson sized up the moment and applied his experience in the hardscrabble Texas hill country and Congressional dealmaking into the War on Poverty and a series of landmark Civil Rights laws. This approach to change triggered further unrest, and the 1968 killings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother Robert essentially extended the trauma of 1963 to envelop a decade. King had preached in the Princeton Chapel in 1960; in 1970 his widow received an honorary degree here. The ensuing decade included wholesale changes in the faculty, social systems, and University governance, not to mention the complete transformation of the student body into a multiracial, multicultural, multisex picture of a broader America.

Since 9/11, Princeton under presidents Tilghman and Eisgruber has become even more diverse, and its juggernaut endowment has increased from $8.4 billion to $26.2 billion, with various new No. 1 academic rankings and huge new efforts to combat global warming and other international scourges. This is in part still the legacy of Goheen and his allies of many stripes and generations. But its attempts in the Service of All Nations have been somewhat muted by an American government that, instead of rallying to first principles after the heinous attack, has retreated into backbiting and the worthless vituperations of the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians. Both of them are long defunct, despite never clearly establishing which caused the War of 1812, or much of anything else. I know this from the memo I got from the History Folks’ Club, somewhat delayed by the newly politicized Postal Service. Perhaps the copies to Congress were similarly affected.