Like any controversial public figure or institution Harvard has for centuries been the subject of vitriolic attacks from politicians, press and pulpit. In the pre-McCarthy era, these assaults spanned a wide spectrum of religious unorthodoxy, social snobbery and sexual abnormality, but since the war, the University's critics have increasingly focused on the Communist issue. In recent months, the phrases "a smelly mess" and "a haven for Fifth Amendment Communists" have mostly replaced "the swish across the Charles" and "Harvard-snob" in the public's mind.
This continual battering creates a dilemma for the University administration. It can fight back, vigorously denying the charges and in some cases suing for libel, or it can maintain the traditional Harvard air of detachment. In the past it has chosen the latter course, but recent attacks by McCarthy and other self-appointed red hunters again pose the problem of how to deal with slurs most effectively.
One of the latest assaults is included in the May issue of Confidential, a slick-papered magazine published in New York and specializing in sex, crime and Communism. Sandwiched between "Ava Gardner -- She Wows'em and Wrecks 'em" and "Homosexuals Inc." Confidential this months publishes "There's Plenty of Red in the Harvard Crimson" (no reference to this newspaper). The article is written by Howard Rushmore, a former Communist now ace Red expert for the New York Journal American and confidant of McCarthy.
Confidential's article is unusual because it combines the "Harvardsnob" and "smelly mess" approaches. In the same breath it speaks of Harvard as the "plushiest" university in the "ultra-snooty Ivy League" and as the center of widespread Communist infiltration. "Times have changed in Cambridge," says Rushmore, "and the worried looks on the faces of old alumni who proudly send Sonny Boy off to alma mater is all too apparent. What's bothering the erstwhile proud parents isn't Junior's grades as much as it is the type of Marx made by his professors."
The rich old alumni angle dominates the article. An old hand at this sort of stuff, Rushmore is cagey, letting the alumni do most of his accusing for him. He quotes such "distinguished alumni" as Archibald Roosevelt and John Fox, publisher of the Boston Post, as his authorities for statements about red infiltration here.
But Rushmore has "facts" to bolster his argument. He declares that during the past 15 years "more than 60 Harvard teachers supported or joined the Communist party's 200-odd Red front organizations." But when it comes time to name names he can only come up with 21; and a politically tame 21 they are too, including Gordon W. Allport, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Criminologist Sheldon Glueck, Arthur N. Holcombe, Walter Gropius and William E. Hocking.
On the whole, Rushmore is super-cautions, making few of the accusations himself and dealing only in veiled insinuation. He firsts with libel without actually opening himself to suit. But at one point he does slip badly. Late in the article he boldly announces, "There is an organized Communist movement at Harvard," using for evidence only the testimony of former FBI undercover agent Herb Philbrick and former Communist Bella Dodd that there was a cell of professors here during the 1930's and '40's. The earlier existence of cells is now recognized as a fact, but it would be difficult to prove a present organized movement.
This slip is genuine libel. The libel laws provide that defamatory criticism of educational institutions--including the quality, character and method of their instruction--is permitted since they are institutions in which the public has a "substantial interest." But it also provides that such defamatory criticism, that is criticism which holds the institution up to "ridicule, hatred or contempt," must be based on true facts. The burden of truth lies with the defendant in the libel suit.
The University is faced with this choice. It either can sit by and allow the libel to go unchallenged or it can bring the case to court and thus bring the issue of Communism at Harvard into the newspapers again. Since Rushmore would be forced to try to prove his statement, Harvard would be giving him a golden opportunity to circulate more ill-founded rumors on the "Red movement" at Harvard. For just this reason, the Corporation's policy during the past 15 years has been to ignore such articles, reasoning that the resultant publicity from a libel suit would be far would be far worse for Harvard than the effect of one such article. Unless the attacks increase considerably in their maliciousness, this is likely to be its policy in the future.