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Penn History

Penn in the Great War: The University’s Role in a Critical Time

This exhibit was created in 2013 by Rebecca Sokolow, University Archives Summer Research Fellow and an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania

World War I was a small window of time in the long history of the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, in that short time the Great War had a large effect on the University. Even larger footprints, however, were made on the University of Pennsylvania by its own community’s response to the war. During World War I, Penn grappled with dual concerns: what the war would mean for the future of the United States as a member of the global community, and what the war would mean for the University of Pennsylvania, its system of education, and its students. It is these questions that have helped develop the University and the United States of the present day.

During World War I the Penn community formed some of the fundamental questions of American national identity that still exist today. What role should the United States play in global politics? Should it be the protector of democracy all over the world? Does it have a responsibility to do so? Does the United States have the right to try to spread its ideals to other nations, or would that qualify as a sort of cultural colonialism? All of these questions are hotly debated in the present, especially in regard to the American presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, but they began to form in World War I, the first instance of extensive global engagement on the part of what was a relatively young United States. The Americans of the early twentieth century were left with the responsibility of charting the course of their nation in an increasingly connected world, brought closer and closer together by new technologies. Was it wise to continue the isolationist policies that had allowed the United States to thrive practically undisturbed for over one hundred years? Or was it now time to forge a new path and become more greatly involved in the global sphere? In addition, what would be the consequence of each choice for the society in peacetime? The University of Pennsylvania was at the forefront of the struggle to answer these questions. It had representatives of all sides of the debate, and holding a position of prominence in the intellectual realm, other institutions and figures of importance heard the voices of Penn.

Penn’s global concerns were inevitably intertwined with concerns about how the war would affect the University in particular. The positive and negative effects of military training were widely debated, along with whether the University would be permanently altered by its wartime experiences. Before World War I, college had been a time of freedom of action and independent thought for those who were privileged enough to attend. During the war, a question arose of whether discipline would be beneficial to the college-aged population and would make the country more successful and efficient, or whether the free thought characteristic of American universities was necessary for men to become good citizens of the democratic United States.

The University of Pennsylvania sacrificed many men to the war effort abroad. But its involvement in the war and its understanding of the meaning of war as a practice goes much deeper than a list of casualties. Penn saw the world begin to change drastically with the start and finish of World War I, and it did not simply stand by to watch. Instead, it jumped right into the fray.