Keep the light alive: The glimmer of cautious optimism

‘Something more than a mound of stone’

The idea started just before Christmas 1946. Members of Michigan’s Student Legislature were discussing J-Hop, the big dance that dominated U-M’s social calendar for decades before World War II. During the war, the dance had been put on hold. When it was revived in the first year of peace, 1945-46, some students had misgivings.

“Wonderful it would be to return to the gaiety of the old carefree days,” said a letter to The Michigan Daily signed by 16 student critics, “to turn our minds from the sickening pictures of devastation and suffering abroad, to wrap our oceans around us more tightly, to preach not only America First, but Me First… But our ears detect a false note in the old melody.”

J-Hop 1912 - Michigan Students form a block M on the dancefloor.

Students commemorated J-Hop 1912 by forming a Block M on the dancefloor. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. Click on the image to enlarge. It’s worth it.)

J-Hop still went ahead in the spring term of 1946. But now, amid planning for the 1947 affair, qualms arose again. So the student legislators agreed to hold a raffle at the dance to raise funds for “a functional memorial” to the Michigan students, alumni, and faculty who had died in the war — maybe a chapel or a recreation center in the Arboretum.

The idea of a war memorial caught on, and in 1947, the regents appointed a faculty-student committee led by Erich Walter, the popular dean of students and professor of English, to produce a plan. (That’s him reading The Michigan Daily above.)

The Alumni Association pleaded for “something more than a mere mound of stone the purpose of which would be soon forgotten.” So the memorial committee’s members decided Dean Walter should solicit suggestions from “world leaders in various fields of human activity,” as he put it.

Many replied. Their letters back to Ann Arbor constitute a minor treasure in the files of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. They also document the cautious idealism that glimmered between the peace treaties of 1945 and the onset of the Cold War just a few years later.

‘So intimate a matter’

A letter to Dean Erich Walter from Winston Churchill's secretary, dated August 1947.

Winston Churchill’s private secretary sent this missive with the British leader’s regrets. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. Click on the image to enlarge.)

Walter wrote to these world leaders that the committee wanted “a functional thing which will keep alive the ideals which our men and women were fighting for. Any building or architectural monument as such seems irrelevant.” He offered one U-M veteran’s suggestion that the memorial be “a light, high in the sky,” to remind “all future generations of students … of the ideals for which our students gave their lives. This is a symbol of the kind of Memorial our Committee has in mind.”

Nearly all the replies were thoughtful and detailed, even when respondents questioned their own credentials for making a suggestion.

Perhaps the most famous of Walter’s luminaries was Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the wartime leader of the United Kingdom. He was hardly known for his modesty. But his private secretary informed Dean Walter that although the former (and future) British prime minister was “very touched” by the request that he suggest a fitting memorial, “he directs me to express his deep regret that he does not feel able to do this, as he could not venture to advise on so important and intimate a matter.”

Military leaders also were cautious about venturing suggestions.

General George Catlett Marshall (1880-1959), who had just been appointed U.S. Secretary of State by President Harry Truman, was credited as the chief organizer of the U.S. war effort and soon would ward off the Soviet threat to Western Europe via the vast economic rescue project known as the Marshall Plan. But, he told Walter, “I am afraid that matters such as this are somewhat out of my field.”

Admiral Chester Nimitz (1885-1966), the flinty architect of the naval war in the Pacific, an administrator par excellence, said he needed more data: “Many significant factors enter into the problem, such as available funds and the preferences governed by peculiarities of the community life, which are beyond my knowledge.”

A building … or not

A letter dated 1947 to Dean Erich Walter from John Hersey.

John Hersey wrote this letter, dated July 1947, to Dean Erich Walter and his student committee. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. Click on the image to enlarge.)

Walter’s request also went to Orson Welles (1915-85), director of Citizen Kane and producer of the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio production, which in 1938 had sent people fleeing for their lives in the belief that New Jersey was under attack by Martians. Amid the acute postwar housing shortage, Welles advocated a new building “devoted to the welfare of students,” first to house them, later “to be used in a thousand ways to enhance the welfare of all students.”

No, decidedly not a building, declared C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), professor of literature at Oxford University, then known to the public for popular works of Christian proselytizing such as The Screwtape Letters, later to be world-famous as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.

He wrote: “In Oxford it seems to me that too much money is spent on buildings and not enough on men.” (He used “men” in the old, generic way, meaning “people;” women had attended Oxford for years.) Don’t convert “empty spaces (one of our most valuable amenities) to building what is useless,” he urged. Rather, “I should with very little hesitation advise a memorial lectureship or scholarship rather than a building or a work of art … Let us remember that 200 years hence no one will think of a memorial primarily as a memorial. It will be valued (or disliked) for its intrinsic qualities.”

Someone on Walter’s committee was surely a New Yorker subscriber since an invitation went to the magazine’s star essayist, E.B. White (1899-1985). Though now better known as the author of the children’s classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, White was then a leading voice in favor of a fringe cause: world government. He told Walter he had already urged Cornell University, his alma mater, to pay for students to attend sessions of the new United Nations. “The way to commemorate war is to engage in the processes of peace,” he wrote. “I’m for packing the galleries of the council chambers with spectators from our colleges and universities until the audience grows vast and noisy.”

‘…the light to be kept alive…’

EB White letter to Dean Erich Walter in July 1947.

E.B. White wrote this letter to Dean Erich Walter in July 1947. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. Click on the image to enlarge.)

The organizers were doubtless thinking of the war’s atomic legacy when they sent an invitation to John Hersey (1914-93), the journalist and novelist who had recently published Hiroshima, which gave Americans their first close look at the human aftermath of nuclear war.

Hersey, who would teach for many years at Yale, said: “This may not seem as poetic as the light your veteran suggested, but I think your memorial ought to be some self-perpetuating shelves in the University Library, of ever-renewing books on world affairs. Surely the light to be kept constantly alive is in the mind.”

But as Dean Walter told the regents, most suggestions, whether from famous figures or people on campus, did not quite meet the committee’s strong belief that “the war memorial should not merely be something, but should actually do something.”

The winning proposal ultimately came from a U-M person after all: graduate and war veteran Fred Smith.

In the fall of 1947 Smith was an executive at the Book-of-the-Month Club. He and Dean Walter, friends from their Ann Arbor days, met for lunch in New York City a few weeks after Walter’s letters went out. When the conversation turned to the memorial project, Smith had an idea.

In a follow-up letter, Smith told Walter that many veterans believed the ostensible purpose of the war — to make the world “safe, free, and a place in which to live that offers some degree of satisfaction” — was already being forgotten. They harbored a resentment “born out of the fear — to put it bluntly — they were suckers.”

Smith said he had been irritated by a Frenchman’s remark that Americans had rushed to harness the atom for destruction but done little since the war to turn it to constructive use. When he looked into the matter, he concluded the Frenchman was right. So why shouldn’t Michigan lead the world with a center for peacetime atomic research and act as a clearinghouse for such work?

This idea, the committee decided, was what they’d been looking for.

Rising from the ashes

U-M student John Carpenter works with an actual nuclear reactor.

The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, among other accomplishments, allowed graduate students like John Carpenter to work with an actual nuclear reactor. (Credit: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

In May 1948, the University announced what President Alexander Ruthven called “the most important undertaking in our University’s history.” On the front page of a special edition, the Daily ran a photo of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, the target of the second atomic bombing of Japan in August 1945. The caption read: “This same tremendous energy will be harnessed to aid, rather than destroy, civilization.”

Students chose to symbolize the project with the phoenix, a mythological creature consumed by fire, which rises from its own ashes to live again.

Students and alumni powered a fundraising drive and eventually raised more than $20 million, all from private sources. The Ford Motor Co.’s donation of $1 million anchored the construction of a nuclear reactor devoted to research on atomic energy and medical applications. The reactor facilitated work by faculty and students in the new Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, the first degree program of its kind.

After many achievements in research and teaching over the ensuing decades, the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project was rededicated in April 2022 “to advancing the peaceful uses of nuclear energy for the welfare of the human race.”


Sources include James Duderstadt, “The University of Michigan Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences: A History” (2018); the papers of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, Bentley Historical Library; The Michigan Daily; and Jan Schlain, “Peacetime Promise: The Phoenix Project,” Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project website.

Lead image: Erich Walter, professor of English and dean of students, led the committee that decided on a suitable memorial to U-M’s war dead. (Image credit: Bentley Historical Library.)


  1. Jerome Gormley - 1994(Masters), 1997(PhD)

    Great history but it falls short at the end. As a NucE grad, I used the reactor and labs many times, and it was a wonderful facility. But the university administration slowed support to a trickle and starved the reactor staff and facility to death in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, even with hundreds of letters of support and a long list of researchers ready to pay for its use, the reactor was shut down in 2003. Now, the NERS department has to travel to other facilities to borrow time from them for access to a research reactor.


  2. Paul Carson, Emeritus Professor of Radiology, Division of Basic Radiological Science - 1965 BS, 1972 PhD

    The Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences did not add “Radiological Sciences” to its name until much later, when no construction of power reactors was being initiated in the USA and some breadth was needed to attract more students. Unfortunately, a broad radiological sciences program did not result and the program was mainly nuclear radiological sciences and, eventually, radiation therapy. Since nuclear engineering is starting to undergo a renaissance and radiological sciences are spread over the university, it might make sense to create a degree-granting interdepartmental program in radiological sciences.


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