HE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP between Columbia University and France was reinforced by the experience of the war.
Many French refugees found their way to New York during World War II, including such influential intellectuals and artists as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (who wrote The Little Prince while living in exile in New York), André Breton, André Maurois, Jules Romains, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss’s trajectory illustrates the potent forms of French-American intellectual exchange that were made possible by this wartime influx of émigrés to New York. He interacted with American academics including Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas (who famously died in his arms of a heart attack during lunch at the Faculty Club in 1942); he helped create, together with Roman Jackobson, the École Libre des Hautes Études, a sort of French university-in-exile at the New School for Social Research; and he also served as the French Embassy’s cultural attaché in 1946–47. Following the French defeat, many members of New York’s French community were pro-Pétainist. However, from the outset French war refugees largely supported de Gaulle and worked to rally Americans to join their cause.
A number of faculty and students from Columbia and Barnard engaged in the pro-Gaullist movement on the home front. Frédéric Hoffherr, a professor of French at Barnard and director of the Maison Française from 1934–1938, was a founding member and vice-president of France Forever, the “Fighting French Committee in America.” The committee was formed in 1940 to support de Gaulle, fight pro-Nazi propaganda, and mobilize American support. The French-born Hoffherr was also a journalist during the war, send-ing shortwave radio broadcasts to France from a station in Boston. He cofounded Pour la Victoire in 1941, the pro-Resistance French-language newspaper in New York, and later worked for the Office of War Information. Horatio Smith, executive officer of the French Department, helped found the Committee for French Scholars, set up to aid French professors and students exiled by the Nazis. Another founder was Jacques Maritain, who taught at Columbia and Princeton.
Butler was devastated by France’s defeat in 1940, but he declined repeated invitations to join France Forever or to speak out in favor of de Gaulle, just as the Roosevelt Administration was slow to throw its support behind a general it did not entirely trust. But Butler clearly backed U.S. entry into the war, again on the side of the Allies, and he brooked no dissent from the faculty on the issue.
Many Columbia professors, students, and alumni joined in the war effort, often voluntarily. Ian Forbes Fraser, the director of the Maison Française and a professor in the French Department, volunteered in 1942, serving in Great Britain and then in France as Commandant of the U. S. Army University Center. Fraser resigned his post at Columbia in 1946 and returned to France as director of the American Library in Paris, holding that position for the next 20 years. Professor of French Justin O’Brien joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving in Washington and London as chief of the French desk before going to France, where his work establishing intelligence networks behind German lines earned him the Legion of Merit in the U.S. and the French Legion of Honor. Still based in Paris in 1945, O’Brien published several articles in The New York Times about the literature of the French Resistance and the wartime activities of the clandestine Éditions de Minuit.
As it had during World War I, Columbia got behind the war effort even before the U.S. entered the conflict. Among other initiatives, a University Committee for War Relief opened a shop on Amsterdam Avenue. When the country mobilized, the university offered specialized military training and allowed students to accelerate their studies (or to take time off to serve). Columbia opened a war hospital on campus and a hospital in Europe, and became a training center for 20,000 Naval officers and military administrators. All told, more than 15,000 Columbians—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—served in the war. Some 450 died in the conflict.
Meanwhile, the Maison Française was said to be in a “particularly flourishing state” during the war years. The library and phonetics lab stayed open every day in response to the rising demand by students and by officers in training, who needed to learn French before leaving for Europe. French faculty taught a course at the Maison Française for students preparing for postwar reconstruction efforts in France. Horatio Smith proposed to Butler that the course, analyzing “French habits of thinking and feeling” through literature, serve as a model for courses “crossing departmental lines” in “what it is now the fashion to refer to as ‘area studies.’”
The Columbia Spectator reported that “the Maison takes no stand on recent French politics,” but its stance was clear by March 1944, when it opened the first of two major exhibits about Occupied France and the Resistance. Materials were borrowed from the Free French Information Center in New York and the French Committee of Liberation in Algiers. The exhibit displayed underground newspapers, Nazi prohibition decrees, wartime photographs, pamphlets, and posters. One poster, titled “Invaded But Not Conquered,” depicted a muscular Marianne, bound in ropes, looking toward a luminous Cross of Lorraine. Another poster, addressed “A Tous les Français” and signed by General de Gaulle, proclaimed “Notre patrie est en péril de mort. Luttons tous pour la sauver. Vive la France!”
In April 1945, the Maison Française inaugurated a second exhibit about the Occupation and Resistance, featuring original materials collected by Peter C. Rhodes, a Columbia graduate and UP war correspondent. Rhodes returned from Europe with his suitcase packed with French underground newspapers and pamphlets and several first editions of works published by Les Éditions de Minuit, including Le Silence de la mer by Vercors (Jean Bruller), Louis Aragon’s Le Crime contre l’esprit, and André Gide’s La Justice avant la charité—all included in the exhibit. The exhibit also displayed poetry, artwork, clandestine tracts and posters, photographs, and newspapers. Photographs showed the landings in Normandy, the ruined towns of Cherbourg and Rouen, and Allied troops entering Paris. French newspapers published underground or suspended during the war—Combat, Ce Soir, L’Humanité, Le Figaro, and Le Populaire—carried headlines celebrating the liberation of Paris and acclaiming de Gaulle. The general’s portrait proudly served as the exhibit’s centerpiece. In June, the French artist Louise Bourgeois remounted the exhibit at the Norlyst Gallery in New York.
Jean-Paul Sartre, then 40 years old and not yet well known in the U.S., spoke at the opening of the 1945 exhibit during his first trip to the U.S. Sartre had been sent to the States by Albert Camus as American correspondent for Combat and was touring across the country. Lecturing on “New Writing in France,” he concluded, “The Resistance taught that literature is no fancy activity independent of politics.” Jean-Albert Bédé, a former classmate, tempted Sartre with the offer of a teaching job at Columbia. He quickly became the talk of the town, and in 1946 Life devoted a 4-page spread to Sartre and Existentialism, subtitled “Amid Left-Bank revels, postwar Paris enthrones a bleak philosophy of pessimism derived by a French atheist from a Danish mystic.”
Enrollments in French classes had dropped at Columbia by the start of the war. Horatio Smith expressed to President Butler his concern that “Vichy, and the names associated with that place, are so utterly unpopular now in the United States that there are repercussions immediately as regards the study of French,” resulting in a “hostility to all of France and all of French civilization.” By the war’s end, however, the taint of Vichy was countered by American admiration for the Resistance and for French intellectuals such as Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, who reached the peak of their influence in the postwar years. These factors must have heightened student interest, for French enrollments soon recovered and remained high at Columbia.