The University in the McCarthy Era
To most members of the class of 1965, the McCarthy era meant long afternoons at home after school spent in rapt if uncomprehending attention to the deep-voiced, dark-jowled man rasping out from a 12-inch television screen. For many, it was a time when parents' voices were lowered and heads shaken with resignation; only a few seniors today remember real personal tragedy and envisage clearly the scars caused by public persecution.
Indeed, from the perspective of the sixties, the whole period has an air of unreality; to students eager to advance civil rights through social action, the legalistic defense of established civil liberties seems a limited and rather foreign battle. They view the Wisconsin Senator and the climate he fomented and fed on as an-aberration which could not have lasted. And, in day of sit-ins, summer projects, and full page ads criticizing U.S. foreign policy placed in the Times by hundreds of academics, they would have trouble understanding the years in the early fifties. Then tenured professors thought long and hard before risking a statement on public issues; teaching fellows, fearful of antagonizing Governing Boards, were politically inert; and students retreated into silence and inactivity. It was a time of villains, not heroes; those who stood against the witch-hunt hysteria are little-remembered today.
The rise of "subversion" as an issue in the post-war decade has been interpreted by sociologists and political analysts in terms of group reaction. The crisis atmosphere which prevailed, in varying degrees, from the Hiss investigation in 1948 to the Senate's censure of McCarthy in 1955 has been explained as the response of the United States to the new pressures of leadership in the cold war world; as the reaction of the nouveaux riches to the insecurity of constant acquisitiveness and precarious status; as the dislike by the remnants of the old Republican coalition (rural, midwest) for the New Deal generation and the Roosevelt coalition (urban, east); and as the hatred of the hyphened Americans (the Italian- and German-Americans) for the second-class citizenship imposed upon them by World War II (by attaching Communism, the thesis holds, these immigrant groups not only gained revenge against a hated enemy of their home country but acquired needed prestige in America).
Joseph McCarthy, by no means the only man to exploit the nation's latent fears, gave the era his name since he, more than any one else, had, to borrow Richard Rovere's phrase, "surer, swifter access to the dark places of the American mind."
In 1953, the search for Communists extended to Harvard. The University, acting on a long tradition of academic freedom, held firm against the general craze to find subversive scapegoats and against the particular abuses of Senator McCarthy. Vital questions were thrust upon the University regarding the ambiguous figure of Wendell H. Furry, associate professor of Physics, at a time of uncertainty caused by the resignation of President Conant. Harvard's action in the Furry case, its support of the scholar's right to political independence at a time when the national desire for blood letting was at its height, was a turning point in the defense war against the Congressional inquisitors.
The post-war "red scare" in education began unobtrusively in 1946 with the formation of the National Council for American Education, an organization that sought to "eradicate Socialism, Communism, and all forms of Marxism from the schools and colleges of America, and to stimulate sound American education." In keeping with these patriotic goals, the Council, in 1949, published a booklet entitled Red-Ucators at Harvard, listing subversive Harvard professors and the "Communist-Front" organizations to which they belonged. Crane Brinton, Howard Mumford Jones, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Mark DeWolfe Howe, and John Kenneth Galbraith were all named. So was an associate professor of Physics, Wendell H. Furry.
The same year that Red-Ucators appeared, Alger Hiss went on trial in New York as a result of evidence gathered in an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hiss had graduated from Harvard Law School in the thirties, and while in Cambridge had been on the Law Review and a protege of Felix Frankfurter. When he went to Washington as a federal administrator, Hiss, like countless servants of the New Deal, symbolized Harvard to the nation. And, when he was convicted of perjury, the real charge in the public mind was espionage, and the University was viewed with suspicion as the "Kremlin on the Charles."
By the fall of 1952, Harvard's name had become almost synonymous with all that was evil in education. During the Presidential campaign, Senator McCarthy twice made nation-wide speeches (the last on election eve in which he castigated Harvard Faculty members who supported Stevenson, particularly Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., '38, then associate professor of History, and Archibald MacLeish, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. After the Eisenhower landslide, former Communist Granville Hicks, in testimony before the HUAC, gave an eyewitness' evidence that a cell of the Communist Party had indeed flourished at Harvard during the thirties. And within a week, Committee Chairman Harold Velde announced that his committee would postpone its investigations of defense installations, munitions labs, and Hollywood hanky-panky in order to "get the Reds" in higher education. Harvard, watering-spot for members of the Eastern Establishment and breeding-place for radicals and Jewish intellectuals, would be scrutinized with special zeal.
In the early months of 1954, the Velde Committee began to seek out and identify Communists in education, supposedly as a prelude to proposing new internal security legislation. On February 25, the committee questioned Robert Gorham Davis '29, professor of English at Smith and teacher at Harvard from 1933 to 1943. Davis gave the HUAC the names of ten former and one present Harvard Faculty members who had been in a CP cell with him before the second World War. Wendell Furry was the one man still at Harvard named by Davis.
The following day, Furry made the first of four appearances before Congressional investigating committees and, although he denied that he was then a member of the Communist Party, he refused to answer all questions relating to previous CP activity. He justified his silence by the fifth amendment. That night Provost Paul H. Buck issued a statement: "Professor Wendell H. Furry's reported refusal to answer questions put to him by the House Committee on Un-American Activities will be given full and deliberate consideration by the Harvard University authorities."
The buro-speak concealed an urgent message: Harvard desperately needed time to untangle complex issues and formulate answers to crucial questions. The testimony and the inevitable increase of Congressional and public pressure had raised issues of academic freedom that were vital both to Harvard and to higher education across the country.
In abstract terms, academic freedom guards the liberties of a professor in two broad areas: his right within the academic community to pursue and promulgate truth without restrictions or censorship from the University Administration, and his right, in the public sphere, to enjoy the freedoms of association and expression which any citizen possesses. At the core of all issues of academic freedom is the question of tenure; it is the safeguard which allows a professor to to exercise his rights without fear of intimidation from either University or public officials.
In more concrete terms, the crisis facing Harvard during the Furry case revolved around the area of political independence and three questions raised by the spectre of Communism. Harvard was forced to decide whether it would retain a teacher if he, first, was a Communist; second, had been a Communist; and, third, invoked the fifth amendment before congressional committees in order to keep his political affiliations private.
Although the Communist hunts posed unique problems for the University, Harvard was not without precedents which at least served as guidelines for decision-making. The most important of these was A. Lawrence Lowell's President's Report 1916-17 in which the president distinguished between "matters that fall within and those that lie outside the professor's field of study." Lowell assumed that the right of freedom in the classroom and laboratory was universally acknowledged and understood at the time; his concern, which the pro-German activities of some Faculty members had provided, was with a professor's political action. In the report, Lowell affirmed the professor's right to the "personal liberty of a citizen" and defended a teacher's freedom of expression and association.
Lowell had made a vital distinction and legitimized a professor's right to engage in political activity. But, of course, he could not have anticipated the particular problems posed by Communism over thirty years later. Even if one granted a professor the freedom to associate with with any group, didn't membership in the Communist party imply a loss of independence of mind, an adherence to a rigid, anti-American ideology, and therefore the impairment of a teacher's purely academic function?
This question had caused anxiety throughout the nation in the late forties, and in 1949 under pressure from anti-Communist groups (like the National Council for American Education), the National Education Association appointed a 20-man Educational Policies Commission, including President Conant and Dwight Eisenhower of Columbia, to examine the problem. The commission's conclusion was that "Communists should not be employed as teachers" because membership in the CP meant that they had surrendered their intellectual integrity. In a poll taken among Harvard Faculty members by the Crimson, this point of view was upheld, 218 to 108. Those critical of the commission report felt that a blanket rule should not be applied and that each individual should be judged separately according to his fitness to teach.
Nonetheless, the statement by the commission settled the first of the three questions relating to academic freedom and Communism: if a teacher was a Communist, he would be fired, whether he had tenure or not. But what if he had been a Communist or had taken the fifth amendment? When the Corporation met in March and April to decide the Furry case, a definite position on these matters had been taken by several influential members of the Harvard community, a position which might have been adopted as the University's policy.
In January, 1953, a month before Furry's appearance before the HUAC, Arthur Sutherland, professor of Law, and Zechariah Chafee, Jr., University Professor and a respected civil libertarian, issued a statement intended to clear up ambivalent aspects of the fifth amendment. In sum, they argued that it was "ill-advised" for witnesses to withhold testimony on grounds of self-incrimination in court or before legislative investigation committees. The professors felt the citizen "is neither morally nor legally justified in attempting political protest by standing silent when obligated to speak." Also ruled out as a motive for silence was a "sense of sportsmanship toward suspected associates." Only if the witness "was subjecting himself to some degree of danger of a criminal offense" would his reticence be justified.