A Campus Divided: The Iraq Wars and Princeton University

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more. We will be hosting a panel discussion on February 28, 2018 at 1:00PM featuring Robert Rivers ’53, Bob Durkee ’69, and the Princeton University ROTC’s Lt. Col. Kevin McKiernan to discuss the impact of war on Princeton from the World War II era to the present. This event is free and open to the public.

We’ve also recently added a small case with materials about America’s two wars with Iraq in 1991 and 2003-present in our lobby which will be on display along with the rest of the exhibition through June 2018.

As the Persian Gulf Crisis worsened toward the end of 1990, the opinions expressed on Princeton’s campus revealed stark contrasts between those in favor of war and those opposed to it. Teach Peace, a student-faculty organization formed in late November 1990 to promote dialogue on the Gulf Crisis, organized a variety of protest activities, including peace vigils, public demonstrations, teach-ins, and guest lectures. Many of the professors who lectured at teach-ins had been active in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War.

Teach Peace organized a wide variety of events. The November 29-30, 1990 Teach-In represented the first major expression of anti-Gulf War sentiment in Princeton. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 204, Folder 12.

Those who supported the war expressed themselves publicly with vigils and demonstrations of their own. The Class of 1993 invited Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States to give a lecture. Saud Nasir Al-Sabah’s presentation on the plight of Kuwait under Iraqi occupation in December 1990 drew both sympathy and demands for explanations of the Kuwaiti monarchy’s violation of human rights from a divided audience.

Students supportive of the Gulf War hung American flags outside their dorm windows. Photo from the 1991 Bric-a-Brac.

Though a majority of students polled in January 1991 supported the United States engaging in war with Iraq to free Kuwait, roughly 40% opposed it. When the war itself actually began, most students (55%) told the Daily Princetonian that they thought the U.S. should have allowed more time for diplomacy before beginning military strikes, but about two-thirds supported the war itself.

This graphic shows responses to polling in the Daily Princetonian. Articles are linked above and below.

Anxieties ran high on campus. Some students expressed fears that war might mean a draft, as it had the last time the United States had been at war (in Vietnam). A few students involved in the campus ROTC were deployed overseas, increasing the anxiety many felt about having to fight. After being activated as a U.S. Army reservist to train for combat and chemical warfare, Selwyn Hinds ’93 was forced to leave Princeton. He wrote to friends at Forbes College, “I’ll send you some sand from Saudi Arabia. Take care of yourself, everyone.” Meanwhile, Arab students feared for their families. One Kuwaiti student said, “I feel the same way as anyone who has just lost his country. I think the best thing I can do is to go on with my education.”

The 1991 Bric-a-Brac summed up the student experience of the Gulf War this way:

The Persian Gulf War affected everyone on campus, and everyone expressed emotion. Some applauded while others protested; some hung flags, others flyers. And everyone talked: about their ties to the area, their personal reactions, their hopes for the future. We attended endless speeches, dialogues, and forums on the regional reaction, the European reaction, the American reaction, the Soviet reaction…

Somehow, however, despite the constant struggling amongst ourselves, we on campus emerged from the war, like the American troops, relatively unscathed. No lasting rifts were formed, no permanent scars left from the campus clashes. Indeed, perhaps we all learned a little more about each other, adding a positive touch to a harrowing sign of our times.

When the United States again went to war with Iraq in 2003, the divide between students who supported the war and those who opposed it had roughly the same proportions as in 1991. At least one student, lacrosse player and inactive reservist Josh White ’03, considered leaving Princeton to fight. Head coach Bill Tierney convinced him to finish the semester before going to the Middle East. Other students rallied to protest, while Princetonians supportive of the war formed counterprotests.

Archival material about recent history is more limited than the more distant past for a few reasons. Administrative records are routinely restricted, usually for a period of 40 years from the date of their creation, and those who donate materials to us often wait decades to do so. As time passes, a fuller picture of Princeton and war with Iraq will emerge. Nonetheless, we expect that visitors to our exhibition and upcoming panel discussion will see a contrast between the way wars affected the campus in the 20th century and the way the current war’s impact is felt (or not felt) among Princetonians.

Sources:

Bric-a-Brac

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Office of Communications Records (AC168)

Papers of Princeton Database

Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)

Progressive Review Subject File (AC029)

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