Veterans of Future Wars founder Lewis Gorin Jr. '36. (Photo: Courtesy University Archives)

“The Manifesto of the Veterans of Future Wars” did not look like much — about 250 words of text, tucked in a corner of the March 14, 1936, Daily Princetonian, it could have easily been dismissed as a clever bit of humor and nothing more. Instead, it became a polarizing prank that rallied students, infuriated congressmen, and earned a lasting place in campus lore.

The basic premise was hatched by seniors in Terrace Club who, after reading that Congress had granted an early bonus payment to veterans of World War I, decided that they too deserved a $1,000 bonus, as an advance for future service in the “inevitable” war to stop the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. “It is but common right that this bonus be paid now,” the students reasoned, “for many will be killed or wounded in the next war, and hence they, the most deserving, will not get the full benefit of their country’s gratitude.”

When The Philadelphia Inquirer picked up the story, by way of the University Press Club, the news began to spread nationwide. Campus chapters of the Veterans of Future Wars sprouted like mushrooms — more than 500, reportedly, with a combined membership of 50,000 students — and the group adopted an official salute: the outstretched, itching palm. PAW reported that “the great majority of alumni are proud of the imagination, initiative, and sense of humor displayed by the undergraduate organizers.”

Prominent veterans, politicians, and some alumni, however, were not amused. Notable critics included James Van Zandt, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Ohio Gov. Martin Davey. In this remarkable April 1936 newsreel footage, Rep. Claude Fuller of Arkansas said, “There is no danger of any of these so-called veterans ever volunteering to defend America. Their actions clearly show that they are yellow.” Fuller went on to blame communism and foreign influence in interviews with other news outlets.

While the joke may have been controversial, its message proved prescient. Professor Richard D. Challener ’44, in an October 1956 PAW feature, noted that “with the exception of one undergraduate injured in an automobile crash in 1936, every one of the Princetonians who founded the Veterans of Future Wars served in the armed forces after Pearl Harbor. And, presumably, they qualified for Ward War II benefits and bonuses.”

All but one of the original “commandery” are now departed, but the group’s exploits live on in the University Archives, where the Veterans of Future Wars have their own collection. PAW’s pundit of Princetoniana, Gregg Lange ’70, ranked the episode third in his 2011 list of the University’s best student pranks.

Watch video: Veterans of Future Wars newsreel footage from The March of Time.