In an unusually strong demonstration of McCarthyism at Harvard, a top university official has admitted that Harvard forced a leftist professor to resign in 1954 after he refused to say whether or not he was a Communist.
The admission, to the widow of former Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Raymond S. Ginger, stopped short of apologizing for Ginger’s forced resignation.
"I would not presume to … second-guess the motives or judgments of individuals in that difficult time," wrote Board of Overseers President Sharon Gagnon. "It seems clear, however, that Harvard took an action in the case of Mr. Ginger that many thoughtful people today, looking back, would not find appropriate."
Ginger’s widow, author and activist Ann Fagan Ginger, says Gagnon’s letter is unsatisfactory.
Last week she sent a response
calling for the University to admit that its treatment of her husband was wrong, and she vows to fight until Harvard issues a policy statement upholding its commitment to academic freedom.
"I can prove that Harvard violated academic freedom and constitution law at that time and has never studied what it did, has never apologized," Mrs. Ginger said in an interview. "What happened in the McCarthy period could happen again—there's nothing in this letter that suggests that Harvard would not cave in again as they did before."
When faced with similar opportunities to apologize for events that took place in the Cold War, many universities have tried to make amends.
“Most of the schools who've done this kind of thing have apologized and admitted that what
they did was wrong,” says Ellen Schrecker `60 a historian of McCarthyism at Yeshiva University. “I’m surprised that Harvard couldn’t have been a little more gracious.”
Reed College, Temple University, the University of Vermont, Rutgers University, and City College of New York have come forward with varied expressions of reconciliation for their mistreatment of faculty during the Cold War, according to Schrecker’s 1986 book, No Ivory Tower.
Temple, for example, rehired philosopher Barrows Dunham 28 years after it dismissed him for refusing to identify his associates in the Communist Party to a Congressional committee. At the time, Temple president Marvin Wachman said the reappointment removed “a painful vestige of McCarthyism, that sad and bitter period in our national history.”
In contrast, the text of Gagnon’s letter, though conciliatory, remains cautious.
She extends “sympathy and regret” for causing hardship to Ginger’s family, and acknowledges that some may think the university acted inappropriately in his case, but reserves judgment about whether she thinks Harvard did right.
Mrs. Ginger says this is not enough.
Based on precedents ranging from Harvard’s treatment of Native Americans to the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mrs. Ginger proposes that Harvard undertake its own “truth and reconciliation” program to discuss its actions during the McCarthy period.
“I am in a campaign to cause Harvard to face up to the facts of its past and to issue a strong condemnation of its actions/inactions in the Cold War period, and to make and publicize a firm written commitment that it will in the future obey the fundamental tenets of academic freedom for the good of Harvard, and for their own sake,” she writes.
In sum, she writes she found the “‘response’ basically nonresponsive.”
The exchange of letters has its roots in a week in June almost 50 years ago that ended with Ginger’s hasty departure from Cambridge.
FBI files that Mrs. Ginger obtained under freedom of information laws paint a detailed picture of the events.
According to the files, on June 14, 1954 Business School officials received an anonymous tip that Ann and Ray Ginger might be called before the Massachusetts Commission to Investigate Communism.
Harvard officials, whose names are deleted from the files, twice called Ginger in to discuss the matter. But Ginger would not answer the critical question posed to him: was he a Communist?
Gagnon admits that Ginger was offered a clear choice between talking or leaving the University.
“From what we can see … it does appear that Mr. Ginger was asked to resign from his term appointment as Assistant Professor of Business Administration in 1954 because he declined to answer a question regarding whether he was at the time a member of the Communist Party,” Gagnon wrote.
Two days later, after Ginger’s resignation, he and his wife left Boston for New York to stay with relatives, where Mrs. Ginger gave birth a month later as a charity patient.
The personal tragedy for the Ginger family came as a result of what is definitely one of Harvard’s strongest—and least publicized—anticommunist actions during the McCarthy era.
In several high-profile cases during the early 1950s, the University took action against those it thought might be Reds. In 1953 Harvard suspended Medical School Assistant Professor of Anatomy Helen Deane Markham when administrators decided they could "no longer reasonably believe that she is free from Communist domination."
But in no other known instance did the University force out a member of the faculty for refusing to talk about his political associations.
Ginger had a three-year contract as an assistant professor that he was forced to abandon, but there is still no known case in which a tenured professor was forced to resign.
To scholars and those who lived through the period, Harvard’s action against Ginger—though extreme—is typical of what they view as a general mistreatment of suspected Communists.
“Harvard was not nearly as brave as it
could have been,” said Professor of the History of Science Everett Mendelsohn, who was questioned about his political ties when he was a Harvard graduate student during the McCarthy period. “They were nervous and anyone who they could drop they did.”
—Staff writer Joshua E. Gewolb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.