On June 22, 1941, Adolph Hitler gave the order for more than 3 million soldiers to invade the Soviet Union -- a surprise attack. The huge German army was divided into three groups, accompanied by 3,350 tanks, 600,000 vehicles and 625,000 horses.
The world was stunned. Just two years before, Hitler and Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact, paving the way for the German invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II. Now Hitler’s appetite for more territory and his arrogance had made him launch what he called Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
At the time I was a sophomore at New York University. And the momentous events in Europe had an impact on us down in Washington Square. We followed the drama abroad. We waged our own verbal battles on the campus -- fighting the politics of the war every day.
The verbal battles actually began on September 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland -- and Britain and France entered the war against Germany. The NYU campus was very political. Students were divided into three groups: the aid to Britain people -- I joined that group after I entered college in 1940; the left-wing, pro-Soviet group called the American Students Union; and the isolationists, whose followers included disciples of a philosophy professor name Burnham.
There were rallies in Washington Square Park, leaflets distributed; discussions and debates. Much of the argument took place in what was called the Commons, the cafeteria on the ground floor of the main building on Washington Square.
We were passionate in expressing our beliefs, especially the anti-war ASU and the group to which I belonged, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. The leftist ASU-ers wore buttons bearing the words “No AEF” and “The Yanks are Not Coming.” Both of these slogans referred to 1917 when the American Expeditionary Forces landed in Europe to fight with the Allies.
Sometimes the debates turned ugly. We accused the leftist students of being pro-Communist, pro-Stalinist. They accused us of putting British interests ahead of America’s and they warned that we were jeopardizing the lives of American boys.
Then June 22, 1941 -- our student debates were turned upside down. Now the pro-ASUers were no longer urging that we keep out of the war. The new line was that the United States must do everything to help Communist Russia.
The “No AEF” and “The Yanks Are Not Coming” buttons magically disappeared. The new buttons carried the words: “Open a Second Front Now!.” The debate over the war, in a broader sense, was going on in Washington and throughout the nation. One group that was getting a lot of attention in the nation didn’t establish a beachhead on the liberal campus of NYU.
This organization was the America First Committee. It was a right-wing group that advocated an isolationist policy. It was not our war. We should stay out of it. This is what they preached. And one of the major figures in this group was Colonel Charles Lindbergh, who won the adulation of many Americans after he flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927.
Lindbergh, who didn’t hide his admiration of Germany and Hitler, said that we must stay out of this war. “It’s not the duty of the United States to police the world,” he declared even as President Roosevelt was doing everything possible to help Britain and prepare America for war.
America First resonated on campus, even though it didn’t attract many joiners. We at NYU saw ourselves as part of the great national debate and certainly we followed the activities of the America Firsters -- and the controversies they stirred had echoes in Washington Square.
But on that fateful day of June 22, 1941, the campus at NYU was turned on its head. The people we Aid-to-Britain boys had been tweaking for their failure to oppose Hitler suddenly wanted to be our best buddies.
They wanted us to join them in propagandizing for a second front in Europe to take some of the pressure off the Soviet Union. Hitler was again Public Enemy No. 1. We needed to get into the war to oppose Fascism, Nazism. No mention of Communism. But it was a new ball game.
I look back at those days on campus. The world was changing so rapidly. The fall of France and the low countries, the Battle of Britain, the evacuation at Dunkirk. The days when most of us signed up for the Army, Navy or Marine Corps and came back in uniform to the Commons to greet some of our old classmates before we shipped out for training or, eventually, for the battlefields abroad.
But June 22, 1941 stands out. It was a day the world changed for many of us here in New York and throughout America and the world.