Though Princeton University has had a reputation as a relatively wealthy institution, both the school itself and its students faced economic struggles alongside the rest of the nation during the Great Depression. One March evening in 1936, two Princeton roommates, Urban Joseph Peters Rushton ’36 and Lewis Jefferson Gorin, Jr., ’36, went to the movies. The newsreel prior to the film included a report on the Adjusted Service Compensation Act (ASCA), which authorized government payouts of $2 billion to World War I’s veterans. Feeling irritated by this huge expenditure at a time of financial hardship—close to $34 billion in today’s dollars—the two sat at Viedt’s Chocolate Shoppe afterward, outlining their thoughts on paper napkins while they waited for their chocolate malts and bacon and tomato sandwiches to arrive.
It later seemed either a cynical or a chilling prophecy: “War is imminent,” their manifesto had begun, though the Spanish Civil War had not yet started and Adolf Hitler would not invade Austria for two years. At t the time, it was just a joke made by a few irritated youth who had come of age in a time more familiar with poverty than prosperity. They demanded their “war bonuses” before they were asked to fight—after all, many would die and not otherwise be able to benefit from it, they argued. A thousand dollars each, with thirty years’ worth of interest added, payable immediately to every man of military age (18 to 36), was the only fair thing.
Fate would have it that Rushton would run into the editor of the Daily Princetonian on his way home. His friend, Prince editor Penn T. Kimball II ’37, later wrote that he was struggling to fill the paper. Rushton gave him the napkin, solving Kimball’s problem. On March 14, 1936, Prince readers were confronted with the manifesto of the Veterans of Future Wars (VFW). They largely ignored it, but Robert G. Barnes ’37 was inspired. He wrote a fanciful story about the VFW, claiming that Princetonians were joining in droves and had elected Gorin their National Commander, and sent it out over the wire.
The press took the bait, printing stories that brought instant controversy. The next morning, piles of telegrams in hand, Barnes incorporated the VFW with the State of New Jersey and registered the copyright for its manifesto. He became the VFW’s Director of Publicity. Rushton persuaded those who dined with him at the Terrace Club that evening to become its executive committee. Gorin, in a state of shock, assumed the role of National Commander.
They might not have made much of a splash beyond this had someone not asked their rival’s National Commander (of the Veterans of Foreign Wars), James E. Van Zandt, what he thought. He said he felt they were “a bunch of insolent puppies” and they should be “ignored and spanked.” Further, “They’re too yellow to go to war.” A U.S. Congressman agreed, and said on the floor of the House of Representatives that he predicted the VFW members would be draft dodgers in the next war.
With Van Zandt’s inadvertent help, the VFW struck a nerve with college students nationwide. The University of Chicago’s branch promised “to make the world safe for hypocrisy.” Boston University’s theology students offered to preach the military funerals of the VFW in advance. Not to be left out, the women of Vassar organized as the Future Gold Star Mothers Association (the American Gold Star Mothers had been founded to provide for women who had lost a husband or son in World War I). Vassar’s president was outraged, and in response they changed their name to the Home Fire Division of the Veterans of Future Wars.
Critics of the VFW argued that what World War I veterans received through the ASCA was an adjustment in payment, not a bonus, fairly owed to them by the United States. Princeton’s president, Harold W. Dodds, received numerous letters complaining about the students’ insensitivity. “There is something radically wrong with the youth of America…” They urged Dodds to take action to “silence” his students.
The VFW anticipated such a move, however. Barnes and Rushton discreetly moved the VFW off the Princeton campus and beyond the administration’s control, renting an office above the Baltimore Dairy Lunch. To handle the mail, they hired four secretaries. Within weeks, there were 534 posts on campuses across America. Gorin published his senior thesis, Patriotism Prepaid, in April 1936. While visiting his home in Washington, D.C., over Easter, Thomas Riggs Jr. ’36 registered on Capitol Hill as the official lobbyist for the VFW.
Though the VFW did not survive the summer—its founders having graduated and moved on—and it had caught on somewhat by accident, it remains the most significant protest movement began by Princeton students. Perhaps ironically, the vast majority of the membership of the Veterans of Future Wars did, indeed, earn membership in the other VFW, wearing the uniform for the United States. In 1944, the New York Times followed up on the VFW’s nine charter members. All but one (who had been paralyzed in a car accident) were involved in military service during World War II.
John Turner ’36, a member of the National Council for the VFW, told the Times that the group held some of the same opinions as they always had. “Mustering-out pay and support for the widows and disabled—yes,” he said. “But I’m sure all the boys feel that when a man is called to fight for his country he shouldn’t expect any recompense other than his regular pay.” Still, he said, the way the world had changed since 1936 had reshaped their views in other ways. “Certainly our cynical views on the futility and absurdity of war changed … there was obviously no choice but to fight and to fight it out to the end. Otherwise we faced disaster.”
Gorin, Lewis J. Patriotism Prepaid.
Lanni, Timothy Michael. “The Veterans of Future Wars: From Princeton Prank to National Movement” (2009). Senior Thesis Collection (AC102), No. 23784.
March of TIME newsreel, “Veterans of Future Wars,” 1936
Office of Communications Records (AC168)
Office of the President Records (AC117)
Sarles, Daniel Gage. “The Veterans of Future Wars: The Deadly Weapon of Satire” (1998). Senior Thesis Collection (AC102), No. 9981.
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)
Wright, Purd B. III. “The Veterans of Future Wars” (1952). Senior Thesis Collection (AC102).
For further reading:
Whisenhunt, Donald W. Veterans of Future Wars: A Study in Student Activism. Lantham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011.