International Issues Dominate Student Debate
It is probably a safe bet that today's Harvard students could not name the European countries that will use the Euro if their lives depended on it.
For the class of 1948, however, international current events were more than a topic of conversation to impress an interviewer or a cocktail party companion.
With the global conflict of World War II fresh in their minds, post-war Harvard students and Faculty grappled daily with international issues from communism to world federalism, arms technology to European reconstruction, arguing with the same intensity with which today's students debate identity politics or affirmative action.
The two central issues of the year were the spread of communism and the implementation of the Marshall Plan, and students were as confident then as they are now that the world cared deeply about the events unfolding on the Harvard stage.
Crimson: Just a School Color?
On Jan. 4, 1948, the Chicago Tribune--under the leadership of arch-conservative Colonel Robert McCormick--indicated Harvard as a breeding ground for the Red Menace.
In an alarmist article titled "Red Poison Tinges Ivy of Harvard," the infamously isolationist Tribune wrote that the hallowed halls of our nation's first university were "infested with pedagogic termites of communism, socialism, world federalism and other foreign-born schemes that would weaken the American Republic."
The Tribune also attacked Harvard's nascent international studies programs. "Eastern Universities, always notorious in the higher education circles of this country for their internationalist sympathies, have placed themselves in the forefront of a movement to introduce regional studies to the world," wrote the Tribune reporter.
Although there were few overt signs of communist activity in the Harvard community, and the witch hunts of the McCarthy era had not yet begun in earnest at the time of the Tribune article, open debates concerning communism were common in campus forums and in the pages of The Crimson.
In October, spectators packed Lowell Lecture Hall to hear conservative author William Henry Chamberlin debate the chair of the Massachusetts Communist Party on "American Communism: Does It Threaten Democracy?"
Just two days later, a divide in a student group showed that the growing rift between democracy and communism had come to Harvard. Sixteen students--nearly a quarter of the group's roster--resigned from the Harvard Liberal Union (HLU) because the officers insisted that all members sign a pledge disavowing communism.
"We believe that the Liberal Union is progressive, not reactionary," Geoffrey White '48, a spokesperson for the resigning members, told The Crimson in 1948.
Among the Faculty and Administration, the hunt for the "Communist Monster" was just beginning to infiltrate University politics. In November, Massachusetts Attorney General Clarence A. Barnes filed a bill calling for the exclusion of communists from positions in all universities and secondary schools. Because communists could not be termed members of a political party, he argued, they could not claim the protection of the First Amendment.
Although no one could have known that this initiative would foreshadow McCarthyism, the Barnes Bill was unpopular among students, Faculty and administrators alike.
Harvard President James Bryant Conant '14 testified against the bill before the joint House-Senate Committee on Education in February. Conant said the bill was a sign that "the American people had begun to succumb to a panic."
The Harvard Teachers' Union called the bill "subversive" and "un-American," and the Student Council voted unanimously to send official delegates to the Massachusetts State House to register Council opposition to the measure.
Although the bill eventually passed, the storm of protest paid off. The Barnes Bill was significantly diluted on the Senate floor: Instead of jail sentences, instructors who refused to pledge their allegiance to the U.S. were subject only to fines.
Marshalling the Forces
The academic year 1947-48 also marked the debut of the Marshall Plan, which Secretary of State George C. Marshall had announced with great fanfare in his historic 1947 commencement address.
While the class of 1947 could cherish the euphoria of being the first to learn of the nation's plan for European reconstruction, the class of 1948 spent their senior year watching the nation work out the day-to-day details.
Calling it "appropriate that the University which was the birthplace of the Marshall Plan should give impetus to the movement to save it," Faculty and student leaders signed an official petition to support the faltering policy.
Varsity football captain Vincent P. Moravec '50 lent his campus celebrity status to the cause, leading the charge as the head of the Harvard-Radcliffe Committee to Save the Marshall Plan. In March, the Band led a torchlight parade before a 300-person rally in support of speedy implementation of the European Recovery Program.
The Student Council also created several programs to help war-torn Europe reconstruct its cultural life. The year 1948 marked the second year of the Salzburg Seminar, a school of American culture and civilization.
Housed in an Austrian castle, the seminar was administrated by students from Harvard and seven other colleges in an effort to teach Eastern Europeans about their American counterparts. The Austrian organization also acted as a facilitator, distributing the food and books sent overseas to Europe.
Significant donors to the student-run organization included the Rockefeller Foundation and an anonymous member of the Radcliffe class of 1948, who wrote a check for $5,000 on her 21st birthday--the day she came into her inheritance.
On a more immediate level, the Student Council took up the issue of the European food shortage. After President Truman called on the nation to curtail food consumption and conserve grain in late September 1947, enthusiastic members of the Council spent months wrangling over the implementation of a University-wide conservation program.
Beginning with ambitious plans to eliminate meat two days a week, grain products from one meal a day and butter another day each week, the beginning of the spring term saw the Council no closer to a food rationing program than it had been the previous fall.
Following a Council poll to determine student enthusiasm for the program, the University decided that a 65 percent approval rating was not enough to warrant an austerity program for the entire University. The matter was turned over to the jurisdiction of the Houses, and finally to the individual students themselves.
But like this year's "Great Grape Debate," in which student activists tried in vain to continue a University-wide boycott on grapes, the food conservation program failed to muster University support, forcing students to abandon plans to influence the world with their dinner plates.