In the early 50s, the Cold War dominated our consciousness. It was a time of distrust of social idealism that could be interpreted as being "soft on communism." The University had to defend its essential function of free inquiry, exploration of truth against those who brandished bureaucratic axes under the banner of patriotism. The University bent, but did not break, thanks to leadership from Paul Buck, the Provost, and Nathan M. Pusey '28, who became president. Buck called me into his office in 1953 when the issue was firing a tenured professor for his communist affiliation. "Stay here until I come back," he said, "I am going to see the Corporation. I don't know if I can defend this person. I don't even like him, but if we don't support Wendell Furry now, we won't be able to defend Arthur Schlesinger tomorrow. If they don't agree with me, they will have my resignation."
The Cold War and McCarthy scared many of us into believing that gullibility was a greater vice than servility or calculated careerism. Yet, political leaders of the Class of '54 are among the most idealistic in Congress, struggling against the politics of self-interest toward a still blurred vision of global interdependence and the responsibility of those favored by nature and history to the rest of humanity. "I wasn't a radical when I was young," Robert Frost told us, "so I don't have to be a reactionary when I'm old."
What was Harvard defending? The question needs to be asked in each generation. What were valuable truths then and now? In retrospect, truth emerged for me as much from poetic passion as from the disciplined play of science. John Finley became the sulking Achilles and wily Odysseus on the state of Sanders Theatre while Anna Freud Coolly described our unconscious lust on the third floor of Emerson Hall. Archibald MacLeish, zen-like, trying to "know" an apple balanced James Watson's discovery of the double helix. Clyde Kluckholn's exploration of Navaho culture and psyche challenged Wassily Leontieff's analysis of economic inputs and outputs.
For us, truth at Harvard shone from a tarnished setting of cultivated hypocrisy, in contrast to the let-it-all-hang-out confessions of the '70s. Yet, appearances, manners, and feelings are also truths; they can support good, bad, noble, or banal intentions. "A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent," wrote Willian Blake. The issues then, as now, had to do with intention as much as truth, purpose as much as technique, loyalty as much as self-realization.
In the '50s, there was still a mystique about leaders. Professors, priests, parents, and presidents commanded respect. Many of the brightest sought protection in being close to power in government, corporations, law firms, big newspapers. But we were learning that there was no progress without courage and vision. I visited Harry S. Truman in Kansas City, to interview him for The Crimson. In 1948, we had been the only Massachusetts paper to support him. "Aren't you a funny magazine?" he asked. "No, we try to be serious," I answered. What did he think of President Eisenhower? "How can he let that bastard Joe McCarthy get away with destroying honest people," he said. "The one thing I can't forgive Ike for was that he didn't stand up for George Marshall when McCarthy attacked him." In retrospect, veritas was virtue as much as it was fact, passion and integrity as much as it was knowledge and beauty.
Michael Maccoby '54 is a psychologist living in Washington, D.C., and author of the 1976 best seller, The Gamesman. He was president of The Crimson in 1953-54.