Military Training in the Schools, 1914-1918

For my post on August Sundvall, the first former Bethel student to die in the First World War, I drew on an obituary published in a 1920 book about Fort Sheridan, where Sundvall had trained to become an officer. In the book’s introduction, the camp’s former commandant, Brig. Gen. J.A. Ryan, bemoaned the failure of American education to prepare for the country’s participation in the Great War:

Lt. August L. Sundvall (d. 1918)…Almost two precious years were allowed to pass with the whole world aflame, yet no attempt was made to prepare for the conflict that we had to enter to save civilization.

They came as students, these full grown men, and became pupils again under school masters. They sat at the feet of anyone who could show them this game of war, this life and death game that was thrust upon us. They were filled with the zeal of crusaders, for they felt the call, the Nation’s call to them for sacrifice.

…The greatest monument that can be dedicated to their honor and the only one great enough for their sacrifice is “A law enacted that will forever prevent the necessity for such sacrifices in the future.” You owe it to your sons, your grandsons, and all coming generations, that the lessons taught by this war will not pass unheeded. You owe it to yourself, and to your country, to train the youth of this land so that in any crisis that arises where resort to arms must govern, our young men will be trained in their youth in those elements of military life that will enable them to join the colors at once should they be called.

Ryan was picking up an old argument. When the war began in Europe in 1914, about 10,000 high school boys were enrolled in cadet units, but when the Army Chief of Staff recommended a universal military program in 1915, Secretary of War Lindley Miller Garrison vetoed it — since the federal government had no control over public schools. By the end of 1916 about 4% of high school boys (25,000) were receiving some military training, but it was nothing like the universal system proposed earlier that year by journalist George Creel, soon to become the powerful head of the wartime Committee on Public Information.

Such proposals were opposed by the American Union Against Militarism, the National Education Association, the National League of Teachers Associations, and leading educators like Stanford’s pacifist president David Starr Jordan, who argued that “only that training which develops individual initiative is worthy of the name of discipline. Collective discipline impairs individuality. The good citizen of America is not a chattel sheltered by a state he does not control.”

Bethel Academy football team for 1916

The 1916 football team at Bethel Academy, one high school that didn’t offer military training – Bethel University Digital Library

Not surprisingly, the onset of the war expanded training at the secondary school level, with over 112,000 students in cadet units by the end of the conflict. (This on top of what was happening with the undergraduate students enrolled in the Student Army Training Corps, which I mentioned in my post on WWI at Bethel’s neighbors in the Twin Cities.) But the only state to make such training compulsory for 16-19 year old boys was New York, a hotbed of the Preparedness movement, and the vast majority of cadet corps were in big city high schools — at a time when the majority of the population still lived in rural areas. (In cities like Chicago, high school girls were given nursing and first aid training.)

As the war came to an end, the War Department tried to sustain momentum behind Junior ROTC programs, but Lewis Paul Todd (in a 1945 study of government-school relations during WWI that I’m relying on heavily) observed that “A wave of apathy to all things of a military nature swept the country during the 1920’s and 1930’s, with violent opposition developing in certain quarters. Only during the last six or seven years of the 1930’s did the Junior R.O.T.C. make any really substantial gains” (p. 111).

And not at Bethel. It’s early yet in our research, but it doesn’t seem that Bethel Academy (or the later College) ever did host a military training program, in war or peace.

(Fletcher may have more to say about this eventually, but briefly… It is worth noting that in 1966, Bethel president Carl Lundquist did inquire with the U.S. Army about the possibility of setting up an ROTC chapter on campus. But three years later, he reported to an administrator at another Christian college that “Our involvement in the Vietnam War is such a difficult situation for contemporary America [sic] youth to understand and appreciate that the establishment of an ROTC unit just now would create needless tensions on a campus, in my judgment.”)


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