Harvard in the Political Moments that Changed History

On a warm night in October of 1957, history professor Charles S. Maier ’60 left his dorm room to stand on Weeks Footbridge and stare at the sky.

On a warm night in October of 1957, history professor Charles S. Maier ’60 left his dorm room to stand on Weeks Footbridge and stare at the sky. The Russians were launching Sputnick, and Maier and his classmates watched the satellite, an experiment that would trigger the space race” and fuel the Cold War, floating above Cambridge.

Every once in a while, the Harvard community experiences moments when persons in all stages of academia take their noses out of their books to learn not about quantum physics or Russian literature, but about events that end up forever shaping the nation’s historical landscape.

Just as these events have the power to divide and unite the country, so too do they have the power to divide and unite the campus, making real the connection between Harvard and the world with which it interacts.

“It brings you back to the fact that you’re American, and that Harvard isn’t a country,” government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 says. “Its well-being depends on the well-being of our country.”

November 22, 1963

Michael Shinagel, Dean of Continuing Education and Harvard’s Extension School, still remembers walking from his office to Eliot house, where he was a tutor, and hearing the news of President Kennedy’s death from a student playing frisbee in the Mac Quad.

“One guy said, ‘Hey, did you hear? Kennedy was shot in Texas,’” Shinagel remembers. “The other guy just threw the frisbee back. It was so nonchalant that it was unnerving.”

Entering Eliot, Shinagel was ushered downstairs into the basement, where he watched Walter Cronkite tell America that its president had been killed. “When we all went up for lunch, this kind of deathly pall fell over the members of the senior common room as we tried to figure out what this would mean,” he says.

Mansfield was also in Eliot dining hall when the news of JFK’s death began to spread—by word of mouth, not cell phones—through the campus like wildfire. “Suddenly, everybody just turned pale and looked at each other,” Mansfield says. “You tend to look at your friend to gain some confidence or to share this experience.”

Mansfield immediately realized that the event not only meant the assassination of a beloved president, but also required the ushering in of a new one. “President Kennedy was a great favorite of Harvard, and Lyndon Johnson wasn’t,” Mansfield says. “If you were thinking politically, your first reaction was, ‘Uh oh.’”

For the next couple of days, Shinagel recalls, the world was a blur for everyone at Harvard: a mixture of images on television screens, from Lyndon Johnson being sworn in next to a stunned, bloodied Jackie Onassis, to the Kennedy children following the horse-drawn carriage bearing their dead father’s body.

“It was just like a sustained wake, with an unstoppable sense of grief throughout the weekend,” he says. “It just seemed like the longest time—time without end.”

Three years after President Kennedy’s death, Harvard renamed its graduate school of government in his honor.

“He was one of our own, so we took it personally,” Mansfield says.What made the day livable for Shinagel, just as for Mansfield, was the sense of community he found as he and others on campus sorted the assassination out in their minds.

“There are times that both faculty and students get the sense that they live in an ivory tower,” Shinagel says. “In moments like this, you realize that you’re not actually separated that much from the real world.”

September 11, 2001

Bob Butler was, as usual, on duty as Kirkland House’s beloved security guard. But after news that the Twin Towers in New York City had been hit by two planes, Butler remembers seeing the house’s familiar faces turn from smiles into dumbfounded expressions of shock. “Everybody was walking around in a daze,” Butler says.

Shinagel was in his office when he got the call telling him about the first tower. He came home early that day to a call from his brother, who was watching the chaos unfold from his house in Manhattan.

Although the mood on campus likely reflected that of campuses across the country, the 9/11attacks, Mansfield says, shook Harvard’s campus particularly because the attackers had stayed at the nearby Charles Hotel only a night earlier.

“We had been through all the security lines that they got through so easily,” he says.

The day after the attacks, Mansfield remembers, an overwhelming number of dorm room windows displayed American flags.

“People started wearing flag lapel pins that, today, you only see on Republicans that are running for office, and sometimes, [on] Obama,” Mansfield says. “Everybody could see what it meant. It brought out everybody’s patriotism."

May 2, 2011

It was an otherwise quiet night in Matthews Hall when Edward Escalon ’14 heard someone in the dorm room next to him scream. Next thing he knew, Harvard Yard was full of screaming students. President Barack Obama had just appeared on televisions across the country to announce to the world that America’s number one enemy was dead.

Surrounding the John Harvard statue, students—some in bathrobes—joined in chants of “USA, USA” and sang patriotic songs between huge smiles. Some climbed onto the statue, waved flags, and asked for a moment of silence to honor fallen soldiers.

“It was kind of surreal,” Escalon says. “Osama Bin Laden was dead, and I knew the war wasn’t going to be over. You feel like ‘Oh, the war should be over there...’ and, in your heart, you know it’s not.”Watching the scene, Escalon couldn’t help but flash back to the terror attacks on 9/11, particularly because those attacks sparked the war that took his stepfather from their California home to Iraq. But even in the wake of what most perceived as good news, the scene seemed strange to Escalon.

“It was kind of crazy because [the students] were out there having a party over someone’s death,” he recalls. In the next few days, some students began to speak up about the celebration, an act that many felt was an inappropriate display of patriotism. Others across campus felt the announcement reverberate in different ways. “It put a period on this long sentence that began at 9/11,” Shinagel says.

Despite this divide in reception, Bin Laden’s death marks yet another moment in which Harvard joined the country in rallying together even through fragmentation. “These big events remind us that we’re part of the country and that we’re Americans, besides being sophisticated students who somewhat look down on patriotism as being a rather raw and unsophisticated emotion,” Mansfield says.

Escalon acknowledges the event’s ability to pull students out of the Harvard bubble and into the global community. “It’s jolting when things happen here at Harvard,” he says. “You get snapped back into the fact that you’re still in the real world.”

In the Yard that night, just as on Weeks Bridge in 1957, students were brought together as a community and witnesses to the same history: some singing, some in tears, and some, simply watching.