Reserve Officer Training Corps Battalion Drill, December 1917
Reserve Officer Training Corps Battalion Drill, December 1917


Students required to wear military uniforms at all times. Double-quick marching practiced daily at 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Mandatory coursework in military subjects that included hygiene and sanitation, mapmaking and surveying, military law and the use of modern artillery. Faculty required to teach “War Issues” courses that present World War I as a struggle to preserve world civilization, and that place the blame squarely on Germany.

Unthinkable today? Maybe. But that was Amherst’s regimented reality in September 1918, when “the war to end all wars” was entering its fifth year. Robert Frost (then beginning his second year on the Amherst faculty) said he was teaching at “a war college.”

The assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, had tipped Europe’s delicate balance of power and pushed Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany into a long and devastating war with Britain, France and Russia. The Great War, as it was called at the time, would make Europe a charnel house. The military dead totaled almost 9 million; the civilian dead almost 7 million.

The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917. Comparatively few American soldiers experienced repeated combat or the sustained horror and tedium of trench warfare. When the slaughter ended in November 1918, American fatalities, horrible as they were—116,516 killed and approximately 320,000 wounded—did not compare with those of European combatants. Even so, America’s entry into the European war had deep-reaching consequences. It marked a historic departure from isolation and all that isolation implied, and required the nation to mobilize and discipline its citizens in ways from which history and geography had spared them before 1917.

Along the way, it also turned Amherst on its head.

When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, Amherst enrolled 413 students. It had 42 full-time faculty and an administrative staff of 12 (including president and secretary). Amherst had approximately 4,300 living alumni and a Board of Trustees with 17 members. Its endowment was $2,735,041, equivalent to $66,680,573 today; its operating budget was $262,985, or $6,402,848 today.

Thanks to the efforts of its eighth president, Alexander Meiklejohn (1912–24), Amherst in 1914 also was just beginning to enjoy an academic reputation far out of proportion to its size. Meiklejohn would devote his first five years in office to raising academic standards, mostly by upgrading the College’s curriculum and recruiting talented young faculty that rivaled those at Harvard, Columbia and Chicago. Trained as a philosopher, he was a forceful intellectual figure in his own right, as well as the first president in the College’s history to exert a broad influence in American higher education.

Student Army Training Corps Inspection, Pratt Dormitory, October 1918
Student Army Training Corps Inspection, Pratt Dormitory, October 1918

Meiklejohn’s political reputation was another matter. From the summer of 1914 to the spring of 1917, he was an outspoken champion of neutrality at a time when presidents of Eastern colleges and universities spoke almost as one in support of “preparedness,” the term used to characterize various initiatives that formed a campaign for national defense launched in 1915. Addressing students and faculty gathered in Johnson Chapel in February 1917, Meiklejohn declared that Amherst’s purpose was to “weigh and consider conflicting opinions and give each its proper due.” The College’s only allegiance, in his view, was to “the truth. We are neither pacifists nor militarists …. We are students.”

Meiklejohn’s refusal to embrace the “preparedness” movement went by the board after Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. In chapel exercises that morning, he told students returning from spring vacation that, while he had “hated the threat of the coming of war” and “shunned every act, every word, that might seem to invite it,” he was now “ready to go wherever I am called, and to look about to see what I can do … whatever the cost.” But he also urged them to join him in reaffirming a shared commitment to Amherst’s “abstract loyalty to principles, to Truth, Goodness, Freedom, Beauty, Youth, and Gladness.” With war now at hand, Amherst would not neglect its “concrete loyalties” to other American institutions, he declared, but its students must serve them by making their “loyalty intelligent.”

Meiklejohn’s plea fell on deaf ears. When the U.S. first entered the military stalemate, opportunities to make loyalty “intelligent” were scarce. The U.S. War Department had no plan for training a large army and then transporting it to Europe. The absence of a plan, however, did nothing to diminish a frenzy of super-patriotism set off by America’s entry into the Great War. At Amherst, as elsewhere, students rushed out to enlist in the military, to attend Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) camps or to engage in war-related employment or voluntary service. Almost one-third of the Amherst student body withdrew from the College immediately. At the 1917 Commencement, only 35 seniors remained on campus to receive their degrees. Enrollment in fall 1917 dropped almost 25 percent—from 500 to 370. Doubtless the percentage drop would have been greater had the 1917 Selective Service Act set the draft-eligible cutoff age at 18 rather than 21.

With mobilization proceeding at a snail’s pace in the spring and summer of 1917, Meiklejohn urged Amherst students not yet draft-eligible or fitted for special tasks to stay in school until the War Department came up with a more definite plan. But he also recognized that, because prolonged warfare posed an obvious threat to an all-male college, changes had to be made quickly to prevent further decline in enrollment. Hence, in fall 1917, Amherst reopened with a new Department of Military Sciences and Tactics. By the end of the semester, the College was officially recognized as an infantry unit of the ROTC, which was put under the command of two resident army officers assigned to train 263 students now enrolled in the Amherst ROTC battalion. Faculty also offered new courses designed to supplement military training, ranging from “emergency” courses in spoken French and German to mapmaking and navigation for students who anticipated naval services.

In February 1918, Meiklejohn gained faculty and trustee approval to modify the curriculum more deeply by establishing a new two-year course of study designed to enroll boys who were 19 years old at the time of admission and whose draft eligibility two years later might prevent them from graduating. Almost all existing academic requirements were waived for students admitted to this program, leaving them free to elect whatever courses they deemed immediately useful. Those who completed the two-year program and went into military service could later apply for readmission to a course of study leading to a B.A.

New war-related course offerings coupled with on-campus military training programs helped to maintain first- and second-year enrollment numbers to the end of the war. Less than a year after the American entry into the war, they also made it clear that, for the foreseeable future, the official rationale for an Amherst education was training students to make direct contributions to the American war effort.

But the Great War’s most sweeping transformation of Amherst was still to come. In August 1918, in an effort to triple the number of American troops abroad in less than a year, Congress amended the 1917 Selective Service Act to lower the draft age from 21 to 18. The amendment not only incorporated almost all undergraduate students into an expanded U.S. Army, but targeted them for training as officers by creating the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). Just before the 1918 fall semester began, administrators at 518 colleges and universities signed contracts with the War Department to establish SATC units, thereby disbanding all existing ROTC units while at the same time transforming campuses of participating SATC institutions into a vast national network of pre-induction centers where draft-eligible young men—more than 135,000 students were involved—would receive military training and temporary housing prior to call-up for active military duty.

Anything resembling normal college life was now impossible. The War Department assigned a captain and eight lieutenants to run Amherst’s SATC unit, with full authority to adjust and foreshorten classes for military purposes. The War Department contract also required Amherst’s two-semester academic calendar to be converted to a quarter system so that the oldest active quartile of its student-soldiers could be transformed into active military units at the end of each semester. The traditional classification of undergraduates by academic maturity as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors also was set aside. When Amherst opened in September 1918, its 400 registered undergraduates were divided into three groups: the first, almost all students over 18, who were designated students and soldiers (this group included 109 “special” students already enlisted in the U.S. Army); and then two much smaller groups of students, under age 18, who either received military instruction or, if physically disqualified, took a regular course of study.

What did the War Department offer in return? All SATC institutions received a welcome financial lifeline in the form of guaranteed tuition, room and board for every student-soldier enrolled in the program, as well as reimbursement for all administrative expenses, including the use of buildings and equipment. At Amherst, reimbursed expenses funded the cost of refitting North, South and Pratt (then Amherst’s only dormitories) to serve as barracks for the entire SATC unit—all fraternities were closed—and the cost of renting the armory in the Amherst Town Hall, which was refitted and equipped as a mess hall. 

Student Army Training Corps, Mess Hall, Amherst Town Hall, October 1918
Student Army Training Corps, Mess Hall, Amherst Town Hall, October 1918


Had World War I persisted through another campaign in spring 1919—as most strategists believed it would—the SATC program probably would have drained all participating institutions of their entire draft-eligible population. But an armistice unexpectedly ended the war on Nov. 11, 1918. Two weeks later the War Department dismantled the SATC program. In mid-December, it sent discharge papers and paychecks to the 338 student-soldiers in Amherst’s SATC unit.  

Final Review of the Student Army Training Corps, December 1918
Final Review of the Student Army Training Corps, December 1918

Full civilian control of Amherst was restored at the start of the 1919 winter semester. So were prewar admissions standards. All but two of the 16 Amherst faculty engaged in the war effort were teaching again, and student enrollment immediately established an upward trend that would continue through the 1920s. Unlike Brown, Yale, Vanderbilt and many other institutions, Amherst did not revive its ROTC program. Unlike Columbia, it did not establish a new required “World Civilization” course to succeed the War Department-required “War Issues” course. The only change made in the College’s now fully restored prewar curriculum was a one-time offering of beginning courses to undergraduates who re-enrolled late in the semester.

And with that, it seems, Amherst had turned its right side up again, and closed the book on 18 months of life as a “war college.”

Well, not exactly.


How was Amherst in June 1919 different from Amherst in June 1914? For starters, while the Great War had ended, the College was still paying its share of the huge costs of the conflict. Already operating with a substantial structural deficit in its operating budget in 1912 and 1913, Amherst faced the prospect of even larger deficits as the Great War continued, thanks initially to soaring operational costs (prompted by wartime monetary inflation) and later to the added burden of decreased tuition revenue. Between 1914 and 1917, the booked deficit in Amherst’s operating budgets averaged 14 percent. In 1918, it would have been even higher had gifts solicited by the Alumni Fund not helped to meet a continuing shortfall. In 1919, thanks to the SATC financial lifeline and new income from substantial endowment gifts provided by a handful of wealthy alumni, the booked deficit was negligible. But in 1920 it would spike back to 14 percent, and rise to over 20 percent in the year that followed. Between 1912 and 1921, Amherst’s net accumulated deficit reached a total of $321,195, equal to $4,273,000 in today’s dollars.

The Great War exacerbated a second problem: Alexander Meiklejohn’s uneasy relationship with a vocal old guard of alumni, who from the start had questioned his efforts to reform Amherst. By spring 1917, an increasingly vocal and now largely pro-war old guard also had come to question Meiklejohn’s patriotism because of his pointed refusal to embrace the “preparedness” movement. And even after the U.S. entered the war, doubts remained. In summer 1917, Meiklejohn was appointed a member of two wartime committees: the Massachusetts Committee for Public Safety and the Education Section of the Advisory Committee of the Council of National Defense. But these appointments demanded very little of his time and allowed him to remain on campus for the duration of the war. As a result, in the eyes of the old guard, he suffered by comparison to presidents of numerous other colleges and universities who had established new measures of stature by taking long leaves of absence that allowed them to either volunteer for or accept special wartime jobs.

nvitation to the “Amherst Victory Dinner,” Hotel Pennsylvania, February 1919
Part of what made Amherst different in June 1919, then, were not new problems, so much as existing problems considerably magnified by the Great War. The trustees would address both in due time. But considerably more visible in the immediate aftermath of the war were two other developments that the trustees doubtless welcomed, because by contrast they suggested that the war years in fact had breathed new life into the College.

The first was the great pride Amherst felt in its contribution to the Great War. 1,475 alumni, faculty and students had served in the armed forces; uncounted more served abroad in the Red Cross, the YMCA and other service organizations. Amherst graduates and students were awarded 42 military honors, including 28 Croix de Guerre (the French High Command’s supreme mark of honor). Thirty-four had lost their lives in the war.

Almost all who served, it seems, believed the experience of war had lifted them and the College to a higher and nobler plane. Efforts to mythicize wartime experiences of “Amherst men” began even before most American troops returned home from Europe. In February 1919, the Alumni Association of New York hosted a huge “Amherst Victory Dinner” at the Hotel Pennsylvania. Attended by 900 alumni and students (250 of whom were in uniform), the dinner was preceded by “a pageant of welcome” which portrayed “the spirits of Peace, Victory, and Amherst.” The triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida was played as Amherst army and navy units, preceded by a color guard, took up their places to complete the tableau. As the dinner began, lights were dimmed so spotlights could play on the unfurling of a giant new Amherst Service Flag, emblazoned with a star for every graduate and student in military service.

Mythmaking resumed in the Town of Amherst in late April 1919 with the return of the “Black Cats,” the name that 24 undergraduates gave themselves in June 1917, after volunteering to drive an ambulance for the French. The Black Cats arrived at the train station carrying their elaborate colors—a large American flag, a silk pennant with the word Amherst set in white against a purple and white background, and another white pennant inscribed with a black cat—and then marched across the town commons to the Octagon. There they presented their colors to President Meiklejohn amidst cheers from the entire study body.

Amherst “Black Cats” Ambulance Unit and Amherst students, following President Meiklejohn and Dean Olds to College Hall, April 19
Amherst “Black Cats” Ambulance Unit and Amherst students, following President Alexander Meiklejohn and Dean George Olds to College Hall, April 1919

Two months later came the Victory Commencement of 1919, where a record 900 alumni returned to campus to hold regular reunions and attend events that commemorated Amherst’s contribution to the war. First came another unfurling of the giant Amherst Service Flag at the Alumni Council’s lawn ceremony honoring alumni, faculty and students who had served in the armed forces. At commencement exercises, the College granted B.A. degrees honoris causa—“for the sake of honor”—to students of three-year college standing who were said to have completed their education in the “school of war.” Dean George Olds then delivered a concluding address in which he lauded Amherst’s “Heroic Dead,” the 34 alumni and students “whose hearts had responded with angry beats to the call of the country’s danger, to the cry of an imperiled world-civilization.” A year later, the Heroic Dead were memorialized again by Frank L. Babbot Jr. ’13 with an $80,250 gift (equal to $981,152 today) that endowed the Amherst Memorial Fellows scholarships.

The Great War worked a second and more durable change in Amherst’s identity that lay visible just below the surface of most efforts to celebrate and memorialize its services as a “War College”: the remarkably increased presence of alumni in the College’s affairs, marked by the establishment of the Alumni Council in May 1914. Organized as eight standing committees—and with the ever-active prodding of its first secretary, Frederick S. Allis ’93—the Alumni Council pursued a broad range of activities that by war’s end would have alumni functioning as a corporate body and a determining force in defining the Amherst’s identity, publicizing its existence and securing its financial well-being.

Only two of many examples must suffice here. After the U.S. entered the war, it was the Alumni Council that created a War Records Committee, charged with the work of collecting and regularly updating information on Amherst men serving in the war and then publishing it in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly (established in 1911, and by then functioning as the Alumni Council’s official publication). The Alumni Council also assumed joint control of the Alumni Fund (established 1906) with the Board of Trustees, and in 1918 initiated what in time would become its most important purpose: annual and direct solicitation of gifts from alumni to help pay for Amherst’s operating costs.


By the time of the Victory Commencement of June 1919, the Alumni Council was functioning as a new administrative arm of the College, on its way to spearheading Amherst’s first major capital campaign—or, more precisely, Amherst’s first direct appeal to its alumni body as a whole to provide capital for planned new physical facilities as well as gifts to its endowment. The Alumni Council’s target was $3,000,000 to mark the Centennial of the College, scheduled for celebration at the 1921 Commencement.

Planning began in the office of trustee Dwight Morrow ’95 at J.P. Morgan & Co. in New York in autumn 1919. An all-alumni Executive Committee, chaired by Morrow, did the groundwork needed to organize a national campaign that was launched in College Hall in early November, with the now almost ever-present Morrow as the principal speaker. With the aid of local alumni fundraising committees—organized in close coordination with alumni associations across the country—solicitation of gifts began at campaign headquarters in New York in late November. It took just 10 days to raise $2,500,000. Alumni Council secretary Frederick Allis raised the other $500,000 by the time of the Centennial celebration. And when his work was done, he would report that $3,013,115 (or $41,160,834 today) in gifts and pledges had been raised, and that among Amherst’s then 4,913 living alumni, 4,044 (more than 80 percent) had pledged or given gifts.

At the Amherst Centennial, the Board of Trustees again turned to Dwight Morrow to make the formal announcement of the Centennial Gift. That decision did not make for a memorable speech. But putting Morrow center stage in June 1921 was in itself historically significant. Morrow, at age 48, had emerged as both agent and symbol of the new regime of alumni involvement in Amherst’s affairs. A driving force on the committee that created the Alumni Council, he also had served as president of the Alumni Association of New York, had chaired the Alumni Fund, and—after his appointment to the Board—had quickly established himself as the dominant voice on the Board’s Executive and Finance Committees, its two most powerful committees. He also had given generously to the endowment and solicited the $250,000 ($4,775,860 today) gift that had funded the design and construction of Converse Memorial Library in 1916 and 1917.

In his Centennial address, Morrow made no mention of his own service in the Great War. But doubtless most on hand knew that he had taken a leave of absence from his position as partner at J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1918 to serve first as appointed American representative to the Allied Maritime Transport Council (work that earned him the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal) and later as chief civilian aide to Gen. John J. Pershing.

Morrow also made no mention of how the Great War now deeply informed Amherst’s identity as what he called a “well-regulated family.” But evidence was not hard to come by. The names of the Amherst Heroic Dead were painted in gold letters atop the lobby walls in Converse. And when, in the early afternoon of June 21, more than 1,800 alumni and their families marched in a parade from the town commons to Pratt Field, it was not surprising to find almost all of the original contingent of the Black Cats—again flying their colors—making a triumphant return visit for the occasion. That night, the Black Cats found an even more prominent place in the Centennial celebrations during the “Amherst Milestones” Pageant, when they were invited to sit onstage during the last of 11 pantomime episodes which brought Amherst’s first 100 years to a close by portraying the College’s “supreme service in the War.” “Europe is agonized by the bloody torch of War,” reported the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, “and hearing her appeal, America draws the sword.”


What would the later history of Amherst have been had the Great War never been fought?

It is, of course, impossible to know. But one can say several things about how the war changed Amherst.

To begin with, at no other time in its history had Amherst displayed a deeper sense of itself as a continuous institution than it did during the last 18 months of World War I and the several months following the armistice. Looking back, it’s also hard to imagine the remarkably quick success of the Centennial campaign in the absence of the new regime of alumni engagement for which the Great War had served as both background and occasion.

World War I also marked the emergence of Amherst graduates as a conspicuous and influential force in national affairs. Dwight Morrow and Harlan Fiske Stone ’94 were among several who gained national prominence as a result of war service. Even more prominent were Robert Lansing ’86, Secretary of State in 1916 and the most influential supporter of the Entente within Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and Frederick H. Gillett ’74, a congressman from Massachusetts (later Speaker of the House) who served on a joint subcommittee that had jurisdiction over nearly all congressional war appropriations.

And finally, Amherst’s Heroic Dead have not faded from institutional memory. No longer painted on the lobby walls of Converse, their names—together with those of Amherst alumni and students killed in World War II—today are carved in stone on the War Memorial monument at the south end of the Main Quadrangle, looking out across Memorial Field onto the Holyoke Range. Since the monument’s dedication in 1946, perhaps no place on the Amherst campus has been more visited. And for those who stop and read the names, certainly no place more powerfully evokes the sense of Amherst as an institution that exists in time, defined by the accomplishments and the loyalty of successive generations of its graduates.

Amherst College War Memorial, 1946

Amherst College War Memorial, 1946

Teichgraeber is a professor of history at Tulane University. He is the author of three books and numerous essays and reviews.