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Dr. Sharkey's Pieces


Westminster College: The Second 50 Years 1902-1952

(May 2002)

Following is the text of a presentation made by Dr. Eugene Sharkey to the dinner meeting of the Westminster College Board of Trustees at the New Castle Country Club, May 17, 2002. It focuses on Westminster from 1902-1952.

Good evening. It is a pleasure to be here with you once again and to be able to continue our discussion of the historical context in which our College developed and prospered. Tonight I will confine my remarks to the second fifty years, which began in 1902.

The task of addressing the first half of the 20th century during which Westminster continued her development is rather a daunting one, not because of its length but because of its remarkable content. Without fear of exaggeration, it may be said that the period encompassed the most transforming, the most beneficial -- and at the same time some of the most violent and truly horrific characteristics and events of all of the history of the human race.

Several decades and their defining characteristics can only be mentioned briefly at this moment. Constraints of time prevent elaboration this evening. However, they will be the topics of the continuing series of essays I am writing for the sesquicentennial web page during the coming summer.

The preceding century, the 19th, had been one of relative tranquility and it was that relative and deceptive calm which would so profoundly influence the next 100 years. As the longest, easily comprehensible units of human activity, centuries are vital to our consideration of what has transpired. But centuries, while usually having distinctive characteristics, rarely conform to precise calendar delineations of one-hundred year segments.

Thus, the 19th century effectively spanned the time from the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in June of 1815 until the guns of August began the First World War in the summer of 1914.

During that interlude before the era of the airplane, missiles, nuclear weaponry and bio-chemical threats, the Royal Navy of Great Britain policed the oceans of the world and prevented any conflict on a global scale. Relative peace ensured productivity, commerce and the furtherance of that capitalist, consumer-oriented system which she, England, had virtually invented.

Certainly there were wars during that earlier era, most notably the American Civil War, in the midst of which a newly-established Westminster College found herself involved. But international struggles were few and relatively limited in scope before the turn of the century.

Social discord consequent to the new industrial order did begin to threaten domestic harmony here in the United States as well as throughout much of Europe. Meanwhile, most of the less developed world, including Asia, Africa and Latin America, still lay in an essentially late-colonial quiescence -- a false calm which would soon be shattered by events of the 20th century.

Few, if any, of even the most prescient observers realized what were looming in the approaching century. Many were the social, economic and political indicators of vast and truly seismic impending human events but the realization of that, as ever, is clearer in hindsight than it was at the time.

The beginning of the new century in 1901 was undramatic and unremarkable to most people including our forebears here at Westminster. Queen Victoria, whose name was synonymous with the 19th century, died in January. Pablo Picasso first exhibited his work in Paris and Pierre Lorillard, he of the tobacco fortune, introduced the tuxedo as formal wear in New York City that year. President William McKinley was assassinated in September, the Boer War dragged on in South Africa and the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Sweden. The next year, 1902, in which Westminster College modestly commemorated her completion of 50 years, saw the establishment of the United States Steel trust, the Texas Company was founded to challenge the monopoly of the Standard Oil Corporation, the federal government belatedly acted to preserve the American bison and a graduate of Yale University became the first American to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship. Interesting, significant and generally comprehensible were the events which carried the tone of the 19th century well into the nineteen hundreds of the 20th century, seeming to foretell a continuation of the long era of relative world peace and increasing prosperity, at least among the populations of Western Civilization.

Then, in the summer of 1914 there began a war unlike any other which had previously occurred. The unprecedented human carnage exceeded eighteen million across Europe. Weapons of unanticipated destructiveness were revealed for the first time including the machine gun, high explosive shells, shrapnel, the flame-thrower and a variety of gases such as phosgene and mustard gas, the excruciating and prolonged deaths from which are too terrible to attempt to describe in such a setting as we find ourselves this evening.

The magnitude of the death and destruction of what was then known as the Great War -- not called the First World War until there had been a second -- was literally transformative to the world.

In Great Britain, France and Germany, railroad passenger cars henceforth had to be built with flat, open rear sections, without seats, to accommodate the wheel chairs, the wheeled dollies of the legless veterans, the guide dogs of the many who had been blinded by gas, as well as a variety of other prostheses. It has been estimated that the populations of those primary combatant nations, in effect, had lost an entire generation of young men.

A century of the highest expectations for the future of the planet’s most materially advanced civilizations now lay under the endless rows of white crosses in Flanders Field, or ground into the unrecognizable mire that was the shell-churned soil of Verdun, Passchendaele Ridge and the valley of the Somme, or who lay in permanently catatonic conditions in the hospital wards of their homelands.

At Westminster, during the war years there was a great sympathetic excitement toward the war effort of Great Britain and France. Many students had become interested earlier in the sweeping domestic reform movement called Progressivism which had pursued urban, industrial, social reform in America beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s new presidency in 1901. That reformist zeal was extended to the global arena with the wartime presidency of Woodrow Wilson who had unofficially but effectively brought the United States into support for the Allied cause -- that of Britain and France -- shortly after the war began in 1914. Although proclaiming herself to be a neutral nation, America became, in actuality, the arsenal of western democracy during the more than two and one-half years before we formally joined the Allied cause in April of 1917.

Before and, even more enthusiastically, after our assumption of a direct combat role, the population of our nation fell into line with few dissenters and often with scant reflection upon the merits of the war.

Together with so many of the students and faculty of America’s colleges and universities, Westminster people held rallies and clothing and other material drives in support of the war effort.

Because our nation entered the war late the human cost was far less, albeit significant, than it had been during the Civil War and than it would be during the next world war approaching in the 1940s. Alumni and some students served in the armed forces and there were fatalities, but the cost was deemed necessary.

President Wilson had passionately declared that the war effort was not a casual undertaking, in that it moved our great nation from peace to war. He intoned that our combat role was only justified insofar as it would contribute to saving the world for democracy and insofar as it would serve to bring a final end to all war henceforth. His rhetoric was majestic and stirring of the emotions; his expectations and those of his many supporters, were less than realistic. But the idealism and altruism which have always stimulated our people to embrace what we consider to be just causes, carried us forward. And Westminster was fully and honorably an enthusiastic participant in that idealistic quest.

When the war ended and, within two years thereafter, was seen to have been merely one additional almost immeasurably more vicious version of the seemingly endless wars which had for so long characterized the cockpit of European antagonisms; when our own domestic political differences prevented us from joining and thereby giving a chance of success to Wilson’s cherished concept of a League of Nations, there was much disappointment among the educated, aware sectors of our population. The conclusion seemed inescapable that much effort and sacrifice had brought forth very little positive result.

So great was the disappointment that characterized the literary and artistic elements among us that the term Era of Disillusionment came to be the reference which was considered to be that most accurately representative of the following decade.

That disillusionment is not tangibly reflected in the publications of this College during the 1920s. Social historians long ago established that the behavior which causes the Twenties to be referred to, in retrospect, as the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties actually characterized a small part of the American population and that part limited primarily to the larger cities. It is worth noting, however, that innovative social behavior on a limited scale is often -- and was during the Twenties -- a harbinger of profoundly changing societal trends. So it was with the vigorously emergent controversies regarding feminism, relativism, science, technology, religion, racism and modernism in its many forms, which were debated during what might otherwise be likened to a summer afternoon -- in effect a seemingly quiet interlude -- between the turmoil of the previous decade and what, unknown, loomed ahead in the approaching decades of the 1930s and ‘40s.

Here in New Wilmington and on campus the 1920s passed unremarkably. Even more surprising was the absence of discernible impact of the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Most notable, both in the pages of the Holcad and those of the New Wilmington Globe, is the extent to which the College and the surrounding community were protected, if not completely isolated, from the dramatic, ravaging economic and social disruption incurred by that depression, which spanned the entire decade of the Thirties and only subsided as America suddenly was forced to re-employ, re-tool, re-invest and become fully engaged in preparation for the new world war, beginning for the United States, in December of 1941.

The mixed agricultural and industrial economy of much of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio demonstrated a resilience which made more endurable the multitude of difficulties consequent to the depression. The spirit, faith and determination of Americans was strikingly evident in the seemingly unruffled calm which characterized this community and this College during that long economic crisis.

Unquestionably there were more losses than gains financially and circumstantially to the constituency of Westminster but the campus community prevailed and steadfastly proceeded toward the even more problematic crisis soon to emerge in the 1940s, as another, even greater war -- essentially a second round of the war of two decades earlier -- intersected the life of the College and of New Wilmington between 1941 and 1945.

As I mentioned at the outset of these remarks, constraints of time prevent adequate treatment of all that is important. Thus, I encourage your attention to the essays on the foregoing subjects which will be presented on the College web site during the coming months.

Further, and finally for tonight, because the second half of the 20th century -- that is the third 50-year segment of the history of the College -- is so completely derivative of the transforming influence of the Second World War, I leave that war and its consequences to the College, to the remarks which I hope to be able to share with you in October.

I thank you for your kind attention and patience this evening.

Eugene G. Sharkey, professor of history and Peace Studies Program co-coordinator at Westminster College