The National Council of the Veterans of Future Wars
requests the pleasure of your company
at a Treasury Raid and Bonus Disbursement
on Monday, the fifteenth of June
nineteen hundred and thirty-six
at three o’clock
in the City of Washington
R.S.V.P formal Dancing in the streets from four until six
I found this curious invitation nestled in a medium-sized cardboard box in Mudd Library. A middle-aged man with a likeness to Frank Zappa had wheeled a cart over with this box and three others just like it into the musty reading room where I was conducting my research after hearing that my grandfather, who graduated in 1937, was a part of this group. My family knows little of these activities, so I took the initiative to peruse through tightly packed folders of letters and telegrams, administrative records, manifestos, news clippings and magazine articles, photographs, and even creative works like short stories, poetry, and skits. Together they recount the little-known history of The Veterans of Future Wars, a once-famous episode of Princetonia and one of the widest-reaching pranks pulled on the country.
The organization at its largest point reached to 400 different colleges and was comprised of over 50,000 members, but it had humble beginnings over a cup of tea in Terrace Club in March of 1936. Founded by Lewis J. Gorin of Louisville, Kentucky and a few friends supposed to be writing their senior theses, the Veterans of Future Wars originally intended to be a small group poking fun at what members deemed “commercial murder.” Together they released a manifesto on March 14 stating that war was imminent. Assuming they would be drafted, the men demanded from the government a $1000 war bonus financed by bonds. Ideally, by 1965 the veterans would have the earning power to pay off the original bonus. “What’s the point of a war bonus when you’re dead?” was the reasoning, “To Honor the Dead by helping the living,” was the goal, and “America for Americans” the motto.
To spread their message the Future Vets sold poppy seeds and developed a formal salute. The gesture, called the “outstretched itching palm,” imitated the Nazi heil of a reaching arm, parallel to the ground with the palm turned upwards as if asking for money. An article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly gave an account of a meeting in May of 1936, where the Class of ’39 delegation contributed a live duck to the cause and christened the animal “Manifest Destiny.” At the meeting held in Richardson Auditorium, they decided that official rations for the future army would be ice-cream made with Manifest Destiny eggs and mint, signifying the place from where all bonuses must come, as well as a few slices of a Bronx fowl to symbolize the “bountiful bird” being handed to the country. Pictures of another, smaller meeting between Gorin and other founders in Terrace show them wearing suits, smoking cigarettes, and playing Monopoly together. The group even extended to Vassar after a visit by Gorin, who helped establish the “Future Gold Star Mothers” who sought free trips to Europe to visit the graves of their dead sons. The name was later changed to the more tasteful “Home Fire Division,” open to all mothers and future mothers of male children and to future wives of the Veterans of Future Wars.
Despite being an obvious parody group, most of the country was completely fooled. The Nation endorsed the organization and helped further its spread to schools in the West and the South, where the same blasé attitude of superior disdain in northern prep school-grads didn’t exist. Initially, some thought the Veterans of Future Wars were subtly lobbying to keep America out of war, but when journalists came knocking, group members would continue to lie and insist that their aim of a $1000 bonus was sincere. Headlines like “We’re Serious, Declares Future Veterans Leader” abounded and the charade continued, even when making obvious fun at Hitler and donating a duck Manifest Destiny to their cause. The satirical nature of the Vets’ original intention went over the heads of most, including several congressmen who gave the group full support. Suddenly there were 200 colleges with their own chapter, and then 400, and the VFW War Chest Trust Endowment Fund had amassed $1.5 million to give money to men before they left. Unsurprisingly, most of the rank and file came from schools that taught agriculture as opposed to Ancient Greek, but The Veterans of Future Wars was no longer a joke.
Not everyone had a positive reaction to the group, and actual veterans were outraged. A janitor of 1901 hall went to a parade in New Brunswick while wearing a Future Veterans’ pin. Several actual veterans at the event threatened the janitor with bodily injury before he made a strategic retreat to a taxi. The Veterans also frequently fielded accusations of being un-American, and hence a communist conspiracy. Crazed naysayers wrote the “spiderlike finger of Moscow can be plainly seen” behind what they saw as a cowardly, treasonable organization. While the founders got together in Terrace to play Monopoly, paranoid outsiders demanded that, “its cancerous influence must be traced to Stalin’s doors and defeated.” Gorin and the other leaders attracted many a crank letter from angry Americans. They ranged from the rude, “I’ll wager you’re not on the football team,” to the weird, “The boys of 1776 wore 3 cornered hats, the boys of Princeton ’36 wear 3 cornered pants, methinks!!” Another letter asked Gorin to pull a condom over his head.
The VFW inspired a few spin-off groups, such as the Future Gold Diggers at Sweet Briar College and the In & Out club at Princeton just as the war began, dedicated entirely to social and pleasurable pursuits. But for all the hype and publicity around the organization, the VFW didn’t even last a full year. For the presidential campaign of 1936, all administrative activities were suspended and never to be picked up again. All of those 50,000 members were left hanging. War arrived after all, and every member of the original VFW at Princeton served in the military except for one, who died in a motorcycle accident. Their story ended swiftly and prematurely in Mudd Library, just past the E-Quad, where the legacy lives on in cardboard boxes wheeled around by Frank Zappa. The veterans never received their bonuses.