With war clouds forming, sophomoric humor struck a chord across America.
The scheme sprouted one afternoon in March 1936 at a tearoom on Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey. Seven members of the Terrace Club, one of the university’s fraternity-like eating societies, were sitting around talking about a new law. Congress had voted to pay a bonus to veterans of World War I immediately instead of waiting until 1946, as originally scheduled.
The students, most of whom came from well-off families and considered themselves fiscal conservatives, didn’t like the premature payout. They thought it was an unwarranted raid on the U.S. Treasury. One of them, Lewis Jefferson Gorin Jr., a senior majoring in politics, pointed out that he and his colleagues would have to fight the next war and might not survive it. A Louisville, Kentucky, native known for his genial southern wit, Gorin, 22, jokingly suggested members of his generation ought to receive their bonuses right away, while they were young and healthy enough to enjoy them.
Back in 1925, over the veto of President Calvin Coolidge, Congress had awarded World War I veterans a bonus payment of $1 per day for stateside service and $1.25 for overseas service to compensate for their suffering and income loss. It was to be payable 20 years later. But the coming of the Great Depression brought demands for immediate payment. In 1932 thousands of veterans and their families marched on Washington and set up camp to pressure Congress and President Herbert Hoover. Eventually Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to disperse the campsites of the so-called “bonus march.” Troops commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, with his aide, Major Dwight Eisenhower, and a column of six tanks led by Major George Patton, charged into the encampments and scattered the marchers.
Veterans’ concerns returned to the nation’s capital in 1936 in the form of vigorous lobbying by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided a warmer welcome, though FDR vetoed Congressional action to grant the nearly $2 billion in bonuses right away to nearly 4 million veterans. As with Coolidge, Congress overrode that veto.
Gorin’s idea for bonus prepayment might have remained on the table with the empty teacups if not for the presence of Robert Barnes, a junior who was the campus correspondent for the New York Times. Barnes bet Gorin five dollars he could get the Times to run a story if they could come up with an actual plan and a name for it.
A few days later, a manifesto appeared in the Daily Princetonian. The authors called for a $1,000 bonus for every male citizen between the ages of 18 and 36. Barnes wrote a brief article published on page 24 of the March 17, 1936, Times. The Associated Press picked it up, and the story spread quickly across the U.S. Thus was born the Veterans of Future Wars—what the Wall Street Journal 30 years later would call “one of the most memorable spoofs in American political history.”
To the amused astonishment of Gorin and friends, their jest struck a nerve. For a nation still in the grip of the Depression and discouraged by years of bad news, here was a bit of fun to buoy the spirits, especially on college campuses. Letters, telegrams, and postcards flooded into Princeton with requests from students across the country wanting to establish their own chapters.
Not everyone got the joke, least of all the mainstream veterans organizations that had lobbied so fiercely for that early payout. In fact, the only major group of former soldiers to support the upstart VFW was the American Veterans Association, formed as a protest against unwanted benefits.
James E. Van Zandt, the national commander of the 37-yearold Veterans of Foreign Wars—whose initials the Princeton boys had stolen—denounced the interlopers as “insolent puppies,” and declared: “They’ll never be veterans of a future war for they are too yellow to go to war.”
To neutralize such criticism and control the groundswell on campuses, Gorin and colleagues created a formal entity. They incorporated and, with the help of an unsolicited donation of $100, rented a second floor office in a building across from the entrance to Princeton and hired an efficient female secretary whom they called—with good-natured condescension—“Honey.”
The body’s organizational structure was modeled after the venerable VFW. Gorin was named national commander. Other officers were appointed along with a commander for each of nine geographical regions. Members of each “post” were to pay annual dues of 25 cents, one half of which was to go to the national organization. Membership was open to men between 18 and 36, with a junior division for boys under 18 and an honorary division for older men.
This tongue-in-cheek VFW even had its own salute inspired by Mussolini’s fascist gesture of greeting— hand outstretched but with “palm up and expectant” to receive a bonus.
Gorin speculated about staging a national convention parodying the bizarre behavior frequently seen at the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion conclaves. As one of his colleagues, junior Penn Kimball, later recalled: “Young Americans regarded Legionnaires as foolish old men parading in ill-fitting uniforms carrying on at uproarious conventions where they traded endless anecdotes about the Battle of Fort Dix.” Gorin promised that his group’s own convention “must be absolutely the largest, the best, and the craziest of any veterans convention that was ever held before, else it will not appeal to the chamber of commerce.”
Up the Hudson River at Vassar College, where several of the Princeton co-conspirators had girlfriends, a macabre women’s auxiliary took root. This became the Gold Star Mothers of Future Wars, a take-off on the World War I practice of mothers placing a gold star in the window to mark a son’s death. After that war, Gold Star Mothers successfully lobbied Congress to finance trips to France to visit their sons’ graves or the battlefields where they fell. The Vassar women demanded government grants to send them to Europe so they could tour the cemeteries that might hold their future sons.
The nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the dark humor in this. “I think it’s just as funny as can be,” she said. “And taken lightly, as it should be, a grand pricking of a lot of bubbles.” She sensed, however, that the name was probably a mistake because “if carried to extremes and taken seriously it might hurt some feelings.”
Not the least of those offended were members of Congress. Representative Claude A. Fuller of Arkansas took to the House floor to denounce “an assault on sacred motherhood.” He drew applause by blaming the Princeton boys for the Vassar stab at humor. “My honest opinion,” he said, “is that these young women have been misled and unduly influenced” by the Princeton boys whom he labeled “communistic and un-American” examples of “so-called manhood.”
Vassar president Henry Noble MacCracken considered the appropriation of the name Gold Star Mothers unseemly. The Princeton students responded by changing the name of the Vassar group and several other similarly dubbed campus chapters to the Home Fire Division.
The spoof caught the antiwar mood prevalent in much of the nation as the parody VFW unfolded against the menace of actual war. Hitler was building up Germany’s military with apparent designs on the Rhineland. Mussolini’s Italy was conquering Ethiopia. Japan had already fought with China.
But in the United States, especially on campuses, widespread disillusionment with war prevailed. After all, hadn’t the last war been billed as “the war to end all wars?” Their cynicism was compounded by a two-year Congressional investigation that concluded that not national interest but bankers seeking protection for their European investments and a profit-minded munitions industry had drawn the United States into war in 1917.
Antiwar students seized upon the Veterans of Future Wars prank to rally for peace and against the military. Many posts took part in a national one-hour strike for peace on April 22, 1936, an event that involved some 350,000 students—more than one third of the American college population.
Back at Princeton, the founders did not share in this disillusion with war and the military. Several served in the campus Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Gorin, a descendant of Revolutionary War general Artemus Ward, considered himself a consummate patriot who would willingly answer his nation’s call in time of war.
His greatest concern, he said later, was “a solvent government.” The premature payment of the veterans bonus threatened that stability, he believed.
Princeton’s Veterans of Future Wars and many in their cohort nationwide did not object to bonuses for those who had been in combat. They complained that most of the bonus recipients had never even gone overseas but remained in the U.S. where the only battles they fought were in training camps.
Motivation for joining the VFW may have varied widely, from antiwar sentiment to conservative bias against the bonus. But for most “future veterans,” the impetus was fun. After all, Gorin said later, it was the “spring of the year. One of the professors said that this wouldn’t have happened any month except March, and he may have been perfectly correct.”
Undergraduate imaginations ran riot at campuses across the country. At the University of California at Los Angeles, a VFW chapter, with more than 200 members, dubbed itself the Emily Post, after the etiquette maven. Inventive slogans were all the rage. The University of Chicago post, mocking President Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 vow to “make the world safe for democracy,” promised to “make the world safe for hypocrisy.” The future vets among Columbia University’s students proclaimed, “no cashee, no fightee.”
Satiric spinoffs of the VFW sprouted. Cornell University had the Future Munitions Makers; similarly, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Future Profiteers demanded advances on anticipated war contract payments. The women of Virginia’s Sweet Briar College formed the Future Golddiggers “to sit on the laps of future profiteers while they drink champagne during the next war.”
The possibilities seemed endless. At the University of Texas, students opted for Future Cannon Fodder. Women at the College of St. Rose in upstate New York proposed they become the Ambulance Drivers of Future Wars; Stephens College in Missouri formed the Sock-Knitters of Future Wars. Men at the University of Wisconsin wanted to be Future Conscientious Objectors.
Rutgers University students banded together in the Association of Future War Propagandists. At City College of New York, the Correspondents of Future Wars wanted the federal government to finance courses “in the writing of atrocity stories and garbled war dispatches for patriotic purposes.”
Future Chaplains groups bloomed at divinity schools. “These will have as their chief future function the duty of convincing us that it is entirely Christian to kill our fellow men,” Gorin wrote.
One of the most popular variations was Unknown Soldiers of Future Wars. The post at Macalester College in Minnesota claimed to be Chapter Number 1. Various Future Unknowns sought the money to tour the world to visit their future tombs. The VFW at the University of Washington highlighted the national peace strike on campus with a mock funeral procession.
The post at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, staged an elaborate version of this stunt—and authorities disrupted it. Because the ceremony was planned for the county courthouse lawn, the post commander carefully cleared the event ahead of time with the mayor and the city attorney. The procession consisted of a student-borne banner identifying the post and a bugler and drummer leading six men bearing the future unknown soldier on a stretcher. At the courthouse, three uniformed policemen and other hastily deputized men rushed in to break up the ceremony and scatter the participants.
The press spread word of the movement so rapidly the Princeton headquarters could barely keep up. The wire services and magazines such as Time, Newsweek, the Nation and the Christian Century covered the mushrooming events. A March of Time newsreel reenacting the group’s tearoom founding screened in movie theaters and, in an audio version, on radio. Warner Brothers reportedly was interested in a screenplay.
Seeking a book, Philadelphia publisher J. B. Lippincott approached Gorin, whose eating-club colleague was a member of the Lippincott family. Gorin had intended to write his senior thesis on Niccolò Machiavelli, but persuaded the faculty to approve his VFW book project in lieu of the usual requirement. At the end of March, during spring break, he dashed off Patriotism Prepaid. “The plan of compensation as outlined by Veterans of Future Wars is just,” Gorin wrote, “because it gives the Veteran who will die a right to enjoy his honors and emoluments while yet alive. It gives to the future soldier who will be maimed the right to make full use of the financial aid of the country while he is still physically able to enjoy and profit by it.”
“Somewhat smart-alecky in spots, but never without point,” the Christian Science Monitor observed. “It is on the whole an entertaining bit of writing.”
Also during spring break, Gorin’s fellow founder Thomas Riggs Jr. went to Washington to lobby for the future bonus. Riggs, whose father had been governor of the Territory of Alaska, had contacts in the capital. He brought legislation the Princeton boys had drafted in hopes that someone in Congress would sponsor it. “A Bill for an Act to Grant Adjusted Compensation to Veterans of Future Wars” estimated the cost at $13 billion: $1 billion for cemeteries abroad, $2 billion to send Home Fire Division members—the former Future Gold Star Mothers—to the cemeteries of their future dead sons, and $10 billion in bonuses for future veterans.
Some senators and representatives offered encouragement but didn’t want to be linked publicly with the controversial young VFW. A notable exception was Representative Maury Maverick of San Antonio, an iconoclastic Democrat and member of the old Texas family that lent its name to the term for an unbranded cow that strayed from the herd. Decorated with the Silver Star during World War I, Maverick belonged to the real VFW and was a severe critic of the American Legion. In a speech to 1,100 undergrads at Princeton in April, he promised to introduce their legislation in the House.
That and other commitments faded even as the VFW peaked in June 1936—three months into its existence—with more than 534 posts and an estimated 60,000 members. By the time Gorin’s book reached bookstores, however, the fad was getting to be old news. The proceeds, which Gorin turned over to the Veterans of Future Wars, amounted to little.
Several of the Princeton founders went off to graduate school—Gorin to Harvard Law School—and national attention shifted to the presidential campaign between Franklin Roosevelt and Alf Landon. The VFW sent questionnaires to the candidates to learn their positions on a future bonus, conscriptions, and other issues, but most activity ceased. In April 1937, the Princeton post folded shop, paid off “Miss Honey,” and closed the books “a few dollars in the black,” one of the founders said.
The officers composed what they termed an “obituary” for the organization, declaring they had achieved their goals by awakening the country to “the absurdity of war” and to the “equal absurdity of the Treasury exploitation in which the various veterans organizations had been allowed to indulge.”
The joke had gone stale. As future events made clear, what had seemed a laughing matter was really a prophecy. Except for one man disabled in a car crash before graduation, all of the Princeton founders answered the call to arms during World War II.
Archibald R. Lewis, who earned his doctorate in history at Princeton before a distinguished career as a professor and author of 14 books, served five years in the field artillery, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. His heroics from the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach to the final push into Czechoslovakia brought Lewis five battle stars, a Bronze Star, and the French Croix de Guerre.
Former national commander Lewis Gorin did notable duty as a captain in the artillery in Italy, France, Germany, and Austria. He chronicled the service of his 6th Field Artillery Group in The Cannon’s Mouth: The Role of U.S. Artillery during World War II. After Gorin’s death in 1999, the New York Times recounted his “long, respectable and thoroughly obscure career as a business executive, gentleman farmer, and amateur military historian.”
“He was 84,” noted the obituary, “and all but forgotten as the man who had tickled a dispirited nation’s funny bone in 1936 with a tongue-in-cheek tour de force that created a brushfire national student movement and made Mr. Gorin the most famous collegian in America who did not actually play football.”
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.