On October 4, 1957, a lonely rocket climbed skyward, slipped those so-called “surly bonds of earth,” and left the desolate Kazakh plain behind. That rocket carried Sputnik, the first satellite launched into space, and the simple beeping signal it beamed back to Earth reverberated through radio receivers into the most distant halls of power, marking the beginning of the space race and sending U.S. policy makers scrambling to close the gap between the United States and Soviet Russia.
Consequences of the Soviet launch would not, however, stay within Washington—the resulting effort to catch up to the Soviets would engage the nation and drag Harvard into an odd marriage of progressive initiatives and Cold War politics.
The U.S. public and government perceived the Soviet victory in sending the first satellite into space as more than just a failure of its space agency and, instead, a failure of U.S. educational institutions to produce adequate numbers of scientists and engineers to contend with the Soviet engineering corps. Passed in 1958, the National Defense and Education Act aimed to mitigate that gap by providing funding to universities, including cash for student financial aid, but in a hold-over of McCarthy era fears, the act required student recipients to swear a loyalty oath and sign a loyalty affidavit to the United States and its Constitution.
‘A VERY UNCONSCIOUS TIME’
The radicalism of the 1960s was not brewing at Harvard in 1959.
Throughout 1959 headlines announcing steps to pressure Congress to remove the loyalty oath from the NDEA dominated The Crimson, yet College students present at the time consistently say that the loyalty oaths were not considered a pressing issue and concerned few.
Most students, in fact, considered themselves apolitical at the time and were more concerned about gaining financially rewarding and prestigious jobs associated with a Harvard education.
“I think it was a very unconscious time—the country was unconscious—just imagine Joe McCarthy!” said William H.C. Basetti ’59. “But at Harvard at least everybody who had the least speck of brains realized how stupid it was.”
Harvard’s involvement with the Roosevelt administration’s war effort had created a precedent for government involvement on campus, and given that the country had not yet experienced the disillusionment induced by the Vietnam War, most students were willing to trust the government to an extent not seen today and less willing to speak out, said Charles C. Ashley ’59.
When a student council committee issued a scathing report criticizing the loyalty oaths, the council disbanded the committee and formed a new committee to rewrite the report in a gentler tone.
“It was some kind of outraged response that seemed a bit over the top to most of us on the student council at the time—like hitting a small question with a big hammer,” said council-member Abe F. Lowenthal ’61, now a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.
Whether students were outraged at the idea of loyalty oaths or not, the political and social climate at the time seems to have stifled any potential engagement—students simply had other priorities.
“There was not a great deal of [political] activity at the time of my graduation,” said John F. Dobbyn ’59, a law professor at Vanderbilt.
OUTRAGE AT THE TOP
Opposition to administering loyalty oaths to students centered at the highest levels of the University and focused on eliminating the loyalty affidavit—the most legally binding part of the oaths—but rarely trickled down to the student level.
Dean of the College John U. Monro ’34 called the loyalty oaths “180 degrees out of phase with what we are trying to do here.”
“Our method of education is not the method of oaths or the method of restriction of belief,” he said. “We depend on free—not inhibited—inquiry.”
Students at the college during the height of the controversy said that most students were unaware or unconcerned with the NDEA and declined to participate in the kind of activism one associates with college politics today and in the decade after the passage of the NDEA.
“If there were 50 people who were taking strong positions that would have been a lot,” Ashley said. “The students were apolitical.”
As the debate over loyalty oaths reached a fever pitch during the early fall of ’59, administrators reluctantly participated in the program with the hope that a bill championed by then-Senator John F. Kennedy ’40 would remove the loyalty affidavit from the act, making acceptance of federal funds more palatable to the University.
But when that bill stalled on the Senate floor and was sent back to committee, University officials and faculty hardened in their opposition to the bill.
After months of discussion over the NDEA culminated in a flurry of reports by faculty bodies urging the University not to participate in the financial aid program, the Harvard Corporation voted to reject about 350,000 in federal funding—2.6 million in today’s dollars.
Among the faculty, Law School Professor Mark DeWolfe Howe ’28 emerged as a vociferous critic of the act, asking during a debate with a supporter of the NDEA, “Can the federal government dictate the terms of education as the result of an infernal inheritance from Senator Joe McCarthy?”
Yet to a certain extent that conservatism remained an indelible aspect of American culture at the time.
—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.