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. 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.”

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