At a time when universities across the nation buckled under the scrutiny of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witchhunts, President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 sought to balance spreading fears about traitors while maintaining Harvard faculty members’ intellectual freedom.
McCarthy, Pusey’s old nemesis from Wisconsin, launched his attack on Harvard in November 1953, when the senator publicly declared that Harvard was “a sanctuary for Communists.” The senator demanded that Harvard fire Wendell Furry, a soft-spoken physics professor with communist connections who had been unwilling to talk to a Senate investigating committee the year before.
Pusey publicly responded by calling an unprecedented full-scale press conference in which he affirmed Harvard’s “absolute and unalterable” opposition to communism, and stated, “a member of the Communist Party is not fit to be on the faculty because he has not the necessary independence of thought and judgment.”
But privately, Pusey’s patient dedication to “independence of thought and judgment” would ultimately lead him to rebuff McCarthy’s inquiries for the duration of the Red Scare.
Even before Harvard, during his days as president of Lawrence College Pusey had resisted McCarthy’s witchhunts, calling them an attempt to stifle intellectual thought and instill political and social conformity. And in 1952, Pusey was part of a committee opposing McCarthy’s bid for reelection.
At Harvard, Pusey quietly defended those who found themselves in what he called McCarthy’s “furious irrationality.” “You can count on us here to continue to fight against the obscurantism now rife in our society as best we can,” he said. The Faculty praised Pusey for his “serene and quiet courage,” and the American Civil Liberties Union gave him an award.
Ultimately, Pusey was less afraid of McCarthy than he was of the mass conformity that the Red Scare encouraged. “What scared me,” he recalled years later, “was why the public was so scared about communism.”
Up to the end of his presidency, Pusey saw patience and intellectual freedom as the keys to social advancement.
“It is easy to denounce, to find fault, to make unjust accusations—even to light fires and throw stones—for personal relief or for exploitation,” he said in his penultimate Baccalaureate speech in 1970.
“It is more difficult…to work patiently to improve while refusing to succumb to either cynicism or hopelessness. It is a long way around, but it is the civilized way, and the only way for those who have come truly to understand the role of humane learning.”