In 1913 a farmer’s son named Oliver Cromwell Carmichael became the first Rhodes Scholar from Alabama. Just 21, he had earned an A.B. from the University of Alabama and had taught German and French there and at Florence Normal School.
In 1914 a 20-year-old Methodist minister’s son named Harvie Branscomb was named the second Rhodes Scholar from Alabama. Branscomb, a rising junior at Birmingham Southern, had ventured outside Alabama only once, on a family vacation.
During the summer of 1914, just before Branscomb left for Oxford University, a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian archduke, Germany invaded neutral Belgium, and Britain declared war on Germany. Oxford University quickly mobilized to aid the war effort. Able-bodied students became soldiers.
But the conflict now known to us as World War I—far from signaling the end of the two young Southerners’ international education—marked the beginning of a great adventure that took the pair from Oxford to Belgium, where they played a vital role in the largest hunger-relief effort the world had ever known.
Under occupying German officers’ noses, Branscomb and Carmichael smuggled a crucial letter through enemy lines. Both men earned Belgium’s gratitude for their feat. And both would later become Vanderbilt chancellors.
Branscomb and Carmichael might never have gotten outside wartime England during their Oxford years were it not for future U.S. president Herbert Hoover. A widely traveled mining engineer and financier living in London at the time, Hoover drew upon his organizational and operational genius to launch the humanitarian Commission for Belgian Relief.
Belgium, a largely urban, manufacturing-based economy producing little food within its borders, faced mass starvation after Germany’s invasion. But Europe’s warring powers didn’t trust their enemies enough to allow aid workers across enemy lines unless they were from neutral countries—and even then with great suspicion.
The United States did not officially enter the war until 1917. But Hoover hit on the idea of asking Rhodes Scholars to help the massive aid effort he was spearheading. They were smart, they were neutral, and they were available.
By December 1914 more than 25 “Yanks at Oxford” were working for the Belgian relief effort. Partly because what they were expected to do wasn’t always clear, not all Rhodes Scholars performed as Hoover hoped.
“Less than two weeks after the first contingent’s arrival, [American ambassador to Belgium Brand Whitlock] asked Hoover to stop sending over ‘such young and inexperienced men,’” writes biographer George H. Nash in The Life of Herbert Hoover, Vol. II.
The Alabama men were a notable exception. Assigned to Antwerp in December 1914, along with a Harvard instructor named Edward Eyrie Hunt, they were housed in a wealthy Belgian’s palatial home, where a staff of servants cared for them.
“We lived in grandeur, but we worked in tiny rooms in an office building, or stood waiting for an interview at the German headquarters, or chased over the country trying to find the whereabouts of a lighter [barge] of food,” Branscomb later wrote in his autobiography, Purely Academic (1978, Vanderbilt University Press). “Once it was my task to report to the venerable City Council of Antwerp that there were irregularities in the distribution which could not be condoned, and to insist that this not continue—this at the ripe age of 20.”
The occupying Germans were everywhere. In Malines for a warehouse inspection, Branscomb and Carmichael were introduced to Belgian Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, a leader in the Belgian resistance. He had a letter that needed to get to London, he told the young Americans. The world must know about the killing of priests and other abuses by the Germans. Would they help?
At the border near Bergen op Zoom two days later, Branscomb and Carmichael seized their chance. Rather than hiding the cardinal’s letter on their persons, they managed to leave it on a table
and then retrieve it in the process of being searched.
The smuggled letter, “Patriotism and Endurance,” appeared in The Times of London three days later, urging Belgians to keep up their spirits. For their bravery and exceptional meritorious service to Belgium, Carmichael and Branscomb were awarded the nation’s Médaille du Roi Albert and Médaille de la Reine Élisabeth after the war.
Carmichael studied philosophy, psychology and anthropology as a Rhodes Scholar, completing an Oxford research bachelor of science and a diploma in anthropology in 1917. He would go on to lead Alabama College before becoming dean of Vanderbilt’s graduate school in 1935 and Vanderbilt’s third chancellor in 1937, serving in that post until 1946. He was president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching from 1945 to 1953, and became president of the University of Alabama in 1953. He died in 1966.
Branscomb earned a distinguished M.A. in biblical studies at Oxford in 1917, later becoming a professor at Southern Methodist University and later dean of the divinity school at Duke University. He was named Vanderbilt’s fourth chancellor in 1946, remaining in that post until 1963. He was 103 when he died in 1998.
Although the two men had maintained a friendship after their studies, there is no indication that Carmichael played a role in Branscomb’s succeeding him as Vanderbilt chancellor.
During his long life, Branscomb retained an interest in the Rhodes Scholarship program. In William Styron, a Life (1998, Random House), biographer James L.W. West III recounts a 1946 episode in Atlanta where Styron, already a talented writer, learned that he had not made the final Rhodes Scholarship cut: “Styron was called aside by a distinguished-looking committee member,” West writes. The man was Harvie Branscomb.
“‘Perhaps it was better that Styron had not won,’ [Branscomb] said. ‘I’ve watched hundreds of Rhodes Scholars come back to America and begin their careers, and I’ll be dogged if I can name a single writer—a single poet or playwright or short-story writer or novelist—that came out of the whole crowd.’”
Perhaps. But the world also needs great chancellors. And if they have a talent for smuggling, all the better for posterity.