Class of 1949 Witnesses Prelude to Anti-Communist Hysteria

As Commencement approached for the Class of 1949, many Harvard students were concerned with more than just frolicking in the sun and preparing for life after college.

For those who tuned in to the national news on June 8, what they heard left them wondering about the future of academic freedom at Harvard.

On that day, The Crimson's front page informed the Harvard community that President James B. Conant '14 had signed his name to a report declaring card-carrying Communists unfit to teach in America's education system.

Coming barely one week after The Crimson ran a series on faculty dismissals and FBI investigations at schools as close as Yale University and the University of New Hampshire, Conant's stance seemed an unusual departure from Harvard's previously strong stance in favor of free speech.

The June 8 incident would become one of many in the dispute over the place of communism in American schools and universities in the years following World War II.

Only several years down the road, during the hysteria produced by the red-baiting campaign of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, Harvard professors would face a serious threat to their academic freedom.

As Harvard's leftists struggled to distinguish themselves from their radical peers, members of the Class of '49 bore witness to a prelude of the anti-Communist fervor that would grip the nation within a few years of their graduation.

Conant: A Nuclear Power

Before, during and after WWII, Harvard was intimately connected to the national political scene. Conant, who served as Harvard's president from 1933 to 1953, was also an atomic weapons adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

Having earned a Ph. D. in chemistry before assuming the helm of the University, Conant was hand-picked by Roosevelt to function as the president's liaison to the scientists at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory--the physicists and military experts who made the United States a nuclear power.

President Conant transitioned fluidly from the Ivy covered walls of Cambridge to the halls of power in government. After the war, he continued to serve Washington, sitting on the Educational Policy Committee--a body of academic experts who in 1949 issued a report calling for the expulsion of Communists from the ranks of the nation's teachers.

For Conant and the University, his signature on the document represented a policy shift. Just the previous April, Conant had testified at the State House against a bill that would have prohibited Communists from teaching in the state's public schools.

While strongly worded, the EPC report contained no enforcement provisions and was careful to distinguish card-holding Communists from unaffiliated people with leftist political views. Still, the national media focused on the committee's recommendation that Communists not be allowed to teach.

The ramifications for academic freedom were, at best, murky. Crimson President John G. Simon '50 met twice with Conant in an attempt to understand the report's implications for Harvard professors, and Crimson editors penned a staff editorial calling for assurances that no systematic scouring of the Faculty would ensue.

Appreciating the need for a clarification, Conant issued a second statement.

"The harm done by the effort to discover even a single clandestine Party member would outweigh any possible benefit," Conant said in a Commencement day speech to the Foundation for Advanced Study and Research in Princeton, N.J.

"Any suggestion that we should employ here a procedure comparable to that required by the necessities of secret government work and investigate the loyalty of our staff is utterly repugnant to my concept of a university," he continued.

Although the statement made it clear that the FBI would not become a fixture on Harvard's campus as it already was on Yale's, some feared the policy clarification would not be enough to undo the damage of the EPC's original report.

For those devoted to intellectual freedom, the report was a warning of the events to come.

Setting an Example

More so than any time before, world events had shaped the political atmosphere at Harvard in the late 1940s. As veterans returned from active duty, the student body as a whole was older and more experienced than prewar and postwar classes.

Harvard professors, many of whom were world-renowned experts on topics like Communism, nuclear weapons and U.S.-Soviet relations, also exposed the Class of '49 to an unusually high level of political debate.

Associate Professor of Government Payton S. Wild gave an alarmist lecture about the nuclear race and the potential for what The Crimson called a "Gestapo situation" in the United States in April 1946.

Meanwhile, Professor of History C. Crane Brinton '19 warned students against a military alliance with England, whose motives in the Cold War he called into question.

Arthur M. Schlesinger '37, then an associate professor of government, wrote and lectured frequently about the dangers of Communism and the need to support the postwar European relief effort.

Harvard students and professors also became involved when Massachusetts Attorney General Clarence A. Barnes proposed a bill that would prohibit Communists from teaching in Massachusetts public schools.

Student groups organized letter-writing campaigns, and in April 1948 Professor of Geology Kirtley F. Mather challenged the attorney general to a debate at Harvard. The bill ultimately passed, albeit in a watered-down form.

A Campus Presence?

Although the conservative Chicago Tribune branded Harvard a "hotbed of Communism" in January 1948, the main Marxist organization for undergraduates in 1949--the John Reed Club--never boasted more than 50 members.

Nevertheless, the society made its presence felt on campus. John Reed members twice played host to the well-known German Communist Gerhard Eisler. On both occasions, capacity crowds turned out to hear Eisler speak.

About 500 students attended a lecture on the "Marxist Theory of Social Change," and an additional 200 were turned away from the door at the second speech in February 1949.

According to former John Reed President Robert Bellah '48, most students attended Eisler's lectures out of curiosity and because he was a notorious national figure--not because they shared his political views.

Bellah says that non-Communists in the student body and Faculty were usually ambivalent toward the John Reed Club. He adds, however, that the administration tried to influence his organization.

"There was quite a bit of pressure on us not to invite speakers who would embarrass the University," Bellah says, adding that the pressure never came from Conant himself.

"[Conant's] views [on Communism] were quite clear at the time, but I don't think he had the time to care about this sort of thing," Bellah says.

While students usually exhibited tolerance of radical political views, there were exceptions to this case. On Nov. 10, 1948, George W. Stocking '49, then president of the John Reed Club, was attacked by three assailants while distributing pamphlets for a Communist event.

While the stolen pamphlets were later found in a Wigglesworth Hall room, the College meted out no punishment for the attack.

Knowing Left from Left

For every confirmed Marxist in the Class of '49, there were at least three liberals content with being ascribed to the moderate left.

One such activist, Warren A. Guntheroth '49, now a professor at the University of Washington's medical school, remembers the Communists as "kind of fringe people."

"But those of us who were devoted liberals resented them," he adds. The Communists, with their reputation for provoking upheaval and their agitating techniques, often seemed to interfere with the liberals' public relations on campus.

"Every time a good movement would start--for example, an anti-Cold War peace movement--a lot of noisy radicals would show up," Guntheroth says. "Then people would say, 'Oh God, we don't want to be a part of this."

Guntheroth does, however, remember finding himself troubled by the way his fellow students treated their more radical cohorts.

"I was a little disappointed with liberal organizations," Guntheroth says. "They engaged in a public clearing-out of people accused of being Communist."

Bellah also noted that most student debate at the time arose from within the left, in the conflict between liberal and radical students, as many liberals struggled to avoid being branded as Communists.

In October 1946, for example, the Harvard Liberal Union (HLU) purged its executive board of the more radical American Youth for Democracy (AYD) members.

More than 100 of the organization's 125 members had not been present the previous year when the executive board had been elected. A small clique led by Charles G. Sellers '45, Abraham P. Goldblum '46 and Maurice C. Benewitz '47 gathered the night of Oct. 2 to plan an anti-Communist coup.

At an all-group meeting the next day, they portrayed the AYD--heir to the Young Communists League--as an undemocratic organization and won support for the election of a new board. William H. Bozman '46 replaced AYD member Harry A. Mendelsohn '48 as HLU president; three other officers were also deposed.

In a small way, the AYD-HLU subterfuge was a precursor to the anti-Communist purges that occurred across the nation in later years.

While students battled the Communist label, the administration faced similar pressure from the government and the public. From 1952-3--the years of the McCarthy hearings--the University was to secretly but systematically root out junior Faculty members with Communist Party ties, as historians and journalists later discovered.

Far from immune to McCarthyist Red-baiting, Harvard urged both avowed and suspected Communist Party affiliates to report on their colleagues. Those who failed to "name names" suffered career setbacks and were threatened with tenure denial or grant revocation.

Politically Charged

While the campus was not extremely fragmented in the late 40s, certain issues could arouse the passions of the student body.

James S. Bernstein '49 remembers that the 1948 presidential elections served to showcase the leftist impulses on campus.

During the warm-up to the Democratic primary, which featured Harry S Truman and Henry A. Wallace, Bernstein says he attended a rally held by the Harvard AYD chapter.

Truman, the incumbent an establishment Democrat, was clearly the moderates' choice. Wallace's conciliatory remarks about the Soviet Union, by then America's sworn enemy, had marked him as a radical.

"I suspected [the AYD] would be for Wallace, who was the most to the left, but apparently he wasn't to the left enough for them," Bernstein says.

Bernstein recalls how, at a cocktail party for potential new members, the AYD student leaders chanted, "If Truman's in the way, we're gonna roll right over him."

"Then they sang the same thing for Wallace," Bernstein adds.

Former Crimson editor David E. Lilienthal Jr. '49 remembers considerable debate in The Crimson's editorial meeting when the paper was deciding whether to endorse Truman or Wallace. Ultimately, The Crimson supported Truman.

Lilienthal says that the debate over academic freedom aroused student passions as well, especially after The Crimson ran a series of articles chronicling the faculty dismissals at schools around the country.

"This was a major theme in the country at the time," Lilienthal says. "If people didn't stand up and fight in this time of hysteria, Harvard would eventually find itself threatened."

Bellah, however, paints a different picture of the Harvard reaction. He says that while students were aware and concerned about what was going on outside of Harvard, few were courageous enough to openly challenge freedom of speech violations.

"You could have intense discussions at the dinner table, but that didn't result in any kind of activity that would have a real effect on events," Bellah says. "No one got agitated about it, because if you started talking about the Bill of Rights, you were branded a Communist."