Walk-Out in Washington Square, 1937

Hester Goodwin

At 11:00 a.m. on April 22, 1937, approximately three thousand New York University students walked out of their classes on the Washington Square campus and the University Heights campus in the Bronx. They were protesting the actions of fascist dictators, such as Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany, General Francisco Franco of Spain, and Premier Benito Mussolini of Italy.1


They were also demonstrating against a possible United States entry into a war against these dictators, in solidarity with other cities, states, and organizations nationwide. However, the students faced opposition from individuals and groups who viewed their cause as an extension of a radical left-wing agenda, an echo of the First Red Scare which directly followed World War I. Some of these groups were Catholic-affiliated organizations who cried out loudly against what they viewed as an extension of the "Red Menace" of the 1920s. Analyzing their response to student protests in light of the fear and anti-socialist extremism of New York State and the nation in the 1920s illuminates how present these fears remained on the eve of World War II.

On April 22, 1937, the Washington Square College Bulletin ran with the headline, “Peace Demonstration Today at 11 a.m.” The protest was part of a nationwide movement to keep the United States from intervening in another large-scale foreign war, such as the Great War of 1914-1918. The NYU All-University Senate passed a resolution cancelling classes for all undergraduate students between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. on that day, and Law School classes were cancelled as well.2


The Bulletin reported that due to the class cancellation, eight thousand students were expected to assemble before the Main Building, on Washington Square East, to listen to anti-war speakers. Students were also encouraged to fast and donate their lunch money to a fund for victims of the bloody Spanish Civil War, then being fought between General Francisco Franco and Spanish Loyalists. The Bulletin proclaimed that the Washington Square rally would contribute to a nationwide movement of one million students from seven hundred colleges and one hundred high schools that day.3 While concrete figures are not available for the actual size of the walk-out, the New York Times reported the next day that over three thousand students had turned out from New York University between the Washington Square campus and the University Heights campus in the Bronx, joining twenty thousand students on the streets of New York that day.4

The Catholic opposition to student protests in New York was in part powered by fears that radical elements were leading the movement, specifically Communist and Socialist elements tied to Russian Bolsheviks. For example, the National Catholic Alumni Federation released a statement explicitly connecting the anti-war protests to the threat of class warfare.5


According to the New York Times, “The federation declared that ‘radical influences obviously were dominant in promoting, directing, and propagandizing’ the rallies.” The Fordham Ram, an undergraduate paper published by Fordham University, is reported as printing an editorial “[attacking] the American Student Union, which helped organize the demonstrations, as an organization with ‘a record in American student life so radical that it needs no further discussion.’”6

This aggressive resistance to the student movement cannot be understood without looking into the political history of New York State after World War I. The turmoil of this period, often called the First Red Scare (the Second Red Scare occurred after World War II), was a response to various factors including the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and increasing violence surrounding labor disputes in the 1920s and 1930s.7 Other scholars have argued that the period was also a response to nativist fears that immigrant populations included Bolshevik agents bent on the overthrow of the United States government.8


“It did not occur to… many others,” Julian F. Jaffe writes in his book Crusade Against Radicalism, “that immigrant radicalism, to the extent that it existed, was more closely related to poor economic conditions than to the length of stay in the United States.”9 The “Red Menace” in the years directly following the First World War became the catalyst for a political juggernaut in New York State, with the Assembly voting to expel five legally elected Socialist members in 1920, and with the formation of the infamous Lusk Committee, which conducted extralegal raids and imprisoned and deported suspected Bolsheviks without trial.10

It is also important to note the memory of brutal repression of anti-war activism in the 20th century, episodes which certainly occurred during the lifetimes of those both planning and opposing the student walk-out in Washington Square and elsewhere. During the Great War, the US Government demanded nothing less than total patriotism from its citizens, enacting the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, legislation which severely limited freedom of speech, expression, assembly and other basic rights. This legislation was specifically aimed at anyone who spoke out against the United States Government or the war, and those students who walked out of class in 1937 were not ignorant of the dogmatic mandates of the recent past.

Yet the connection between anti-war sentiment to Socialism was not totally unfounded during World War I. In St. Louis, Missouri, the Socialist Party passed a resolution just after the declaration of war in 1917, stating, “The Socialist Party of the United States in the present grave crisis, solemnly reaffirms its allegiance to the principles of internationalism and working class solidarity the world over, and proclaims its unalterable opposition to the war just declared by the government of the United States.”11 Furthermore, Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr. of Wisconsin was one of the voices calling publicly for the 1937 rallies. He himself was the son of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., a pro-labor Senator from Wisconsin who was one of only six to vote against Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 declaration of war.12 The connection of radicalism to "disloyal" anti-war sentiments was well-established before World War I, and could not have been erased from public memory by 1937.13

The 1937 walk-out in Washington Square and other parts of New York City incited opposition that drew much of its strength from the semi-coerced patriotic fervor of the Great War, and the deep seated fears of the subsequent Red Scare. This occurred even as the people who would be called upon to fight in future foreign wars raised their voices in response to the horror of the last one. The fear of socialism and the "Red Menace" was present even as World War II approached, as demonstrated by the reaction of Catholic-affiliated organizations to student protests in New York.

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