Background / Historical Themes /

Historical Themes

The two stories that unfold on this website, the Farm Labor Project and the challenge to civil liberties with the closing of the Vanguard, are distinct and separate. Students of World War II may be particularly interested in the narratives about the Farm Labor Project and the insights these stories impart about life on the home front during the war. Those researching the domestic Cold War will find yet another case study of the pervasiveness of McCarthyism in the Vanguard section of the website. Readers of the post World War II Vanguard saga will also find evidence to support Bill Taylor’s assertion, “It was just an incredible period of creativity and ferment. And that’s not the way people generally think about the ‘50s.”

Read together, however, several themes emerge that bridge the two periods and two stories covered here. Student activism is a leitmotif in both narratives. Both groups were self-selected activists -- one group choosing to participate in the World War II Farm Labor Project and the second on staff at the college's student newspaper. Their oral histories, however, reveal that they were activists in the context of a general climate of student activism. Students engaged in college activities and student organizations, and in political parties representing a variety of ideological perspectives. Their activism ranged from being part of the Student Council, as Marion Greenstone explained, to canvassing for progressive city politician Vito Marcantonio, as Gene Bluestein described. The extent of student activism provides a corrective to the popular and scholarly perspective that student activism on college campuses was a phenomenon primarily of the 1960s. “We were involved in everything” said Marjorie Brockman.

Readers of 20th century American immigration and ethnic history will find in these oral narratives insights into the experiences of the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Both sets of storytellers reflect on growing up during the Great Depression and New Deal era, and comment on the significance of attending college, often the first in their families to do so. Embedded in the narratives is evidence of the dynamic of cultural dislocation and accommodation as was the case, for example, in Frances Koral’s memory of eating creamed chicken for the first time, a dish that defies Jewish dietary laws. Similarly, Geri Stevens, a refugee from Belgium described how a friend decided to give her the nickname Geri as nobody at high school could pronounce Gizelle, her birth name. The history of women and gender relations is an important theme in both episodes. As young men left college to enlist into the armed services, it was predominantly women who participated in the Farm Labor Project. Their experiences and insights support interpretations that during the WWII era, women’s roles and opportunities expanded. Narrators who were students during the war reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of going to college with so few male students. As Marjorie Brockman noted, with so many men off to war there were far fewer prospects for dating. Yet, “we were freer to do our thing politically than we would have been.” Harry Baron also noticed that women students had greater opportunities during the war. “They were in command” at the Vanguard, he described. Many narrators in the Vanguard segment commented on the “veteran’s world” that epitomized life on the campus after the war. Students felt the impact of going to college with returning soldiers in a variety of arenas. As Al Lasher described, even on the sports teams he was playing and competing with ex-GIs who were in “great physical condition.” Finally, education researchers will find information and anecdotes about life on a public college campus during World War II and the postwar years, ranging from academics to social relations.