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.