Kurt Vonnegut’s Days at the ‘Cornell Sun’ — And The Great Pearl Harbor Controversy

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By: Greg Mitchell

While others noted the novels, plays and comic stylings of Kurt Vonnegut on his passing today, a certain group of editors looked way back — to his days at The Cornell Daily Sun.

The college paper’s online obituary today kicked off with: “Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (?44), former Sun assistant managing editor and associate editor, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84.”

In closing it noted: “Vonnegut often spoke highly about his time at The Sun. At the 125th anniversary dinner in 2005, he proclaimed: ‘The Cornell Sun, thank goodness, showed me what to do with my life, and I did it.’?

The web site also reprinted something he wrote especially for “A Century at Cornell,” published in 1980, in which he detailed his role in printing what he considers the first “extra” in New York following the attack on Pearl Harbor, secret information he received from a famous columnist that day and the paper’s decision to suppress it.
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I went to Cornell from Indianapolis for the excellent reason that my Uncle Tony was a great quarter-miler there in the Class of ’06 or thereabouts. I was told by my father that I could go to college only if I studied something useful. He said that chemistry was useful, so I set out to be a chemist. The subject annoyed and bored me, and I had no gift for it. I was flunking everything when I departed in my junior year to become an infantry private. I was glad to leave.

All I ever found to like about the place was The Sun. All my fraternity brothers were engineers, so my only contact with the liberal arts was through my colleagues at The Sun. I never got close to getting a degree, and would have quit or been thrown out, if it weren?t for the war. I eventually took an M.A. in anthropology at the University of Chicago.

As for the extra we got out after the bombing of Pearl Harbor: I was night editor. I heard about the bombing while I was sitting in a bathtub. I tore down to the office, and we laid out a new first and last page, keeping the stale insides of the previous issue, as I recall. We took whatever was coming off the AP machine, slapped it in, and were, I still believe, the first paper in the state to hit the streets with an extra.

Then we stayed up all night, getting out a more responsible issue. Drew Pearson, to whose column we subscribed, sent us a telegram listing all the ships that were sunk. This telegram was followed almost immediately by one from the Department of War, saying that it had no power to prevent our publishing whatever we pleased. It asked us as patriots to suppress Pearson information.

We suppressed it. Were we wrong?


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