One hundred years prior to the construction of this website, the United States went to war in Europe, and Columbia University went with it.
This website is a digital exhibit set up to document and analyze what happened when a great institution of learning devotes itself to what President Wilson referred to as “the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the incidental needs of the Nation.” It is about what happens, in other words, when a university puts itself onto what Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler proudly called "a war footing."
Those seeking an entirely ideologically neutral or celebratory view will not find it here. If this exhibit has a guiding argument, it is that Columbia University’s involvement in the war effort was a great perversion of greater ideals. In this it is a microcosm of the war globally, and of American involvement more locally.
This might not be the most courageous time to take such a standpoint. After all, there are no more veterans of the Great War left – the last one died in 2012 – and who now, in the United States, either remembers or cares about the possession of Alsace-Lorraine or the assassination of an Austrian archduke? But in almost every conceivable way, the First World War is worth remembrance. It ended one era, and began another. It inaugurated thirty years of unimaginable carnage; its necessities transformed society globally, toppled empires, and shook the faith of a generation.
It also changed a university forever, and set it on the path for another confrontation fifty years later.
How to Use This Website
This website attempts to digitally recreate the experience of going to an actual museum exhibit. Accordingly, it requires some interaction on the part of viewers. Not all documents are immediately viewable, and some will require use of the expand button to open them up in a different window for closer inspection; viewers are encouraged to do so for documents that are of interest to them, but are no means expected to look at all of them – as one would not (necessarily) in an actual museum. Text documents are generally presented on the left side of the exhibit text. More visually appealing or verbally striking materials have been included in-text.
What Remains to be Done
The majority of the information and documents reproduced for this exhibit have been drawn from Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library Columbia University and World War 1 Collection. There are many other relevant collections that could meaningfully add to the discussion. Particularly, the voluminous papers and correspondence of Nicholas Murray Butler, for instance, could be of enormous help in understanding the nature of the administration's position. The letters of E.R.A. Seligman could also be useful, as well as manuscript collections of Frank Tannenbaum and John Burgess, who was allegedly a Prussian sympathizer.
Similarly, at the time of publication, the section of this website relating to the experience of Columbia students, faculty, and alumni overseas on the Western Front remains incomplete. Hopefully, with more time, their stories will be told – likely in their own words.
This work was made possible by Columbia University’s application of funding from the Career Diversity for Historians Initiative, a joint project of the Mellon Foundation and American Historical Association. At Columbia, this initiative took the form of a pilot program called History in Action; funding for this exhibit was made available under a History in Action Project Award grant.
Special thanks are due to the archival staff at Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, who courteously summoned documents day after day, and occasionally went looking for long-lost war paraphernalia. Throughout close to two months of annoyances from the historian, they were models of professionalism and kindness.
Thanks are also due to Thai Jones, the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for U.S. History at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, who both brought the historian to this project, and provided helpful advice and guidance all along the way.