Pusey on 'The Big Lie'

(The following is the complete text of President Pusey's Baccalaureate Address before the Class of '70 in Memorial Church on June 9. Pusey' attack on student radicals gained widespread attention and praise in the national press. About one in twenty Harvard seniors showed up for the Baccalaureate Service.)

I WANT to speak today not about baffling problems of the world outside but of what I take to be a declination in the quality of our life here which I find disturbing. I have chosen to introduce what I have to say by calling attention to a point of similarity between the present situation of Harvard and that which obtained when I returned to Cambridge seventeen years ago to become the University's twenty-fourth President.

I became President here during a very troubled period on college and university campuses. The fears, accusations, strife and excitement which at that time upset academic communities reverberated about the name of Joseph McCarthy. I felt I had something of an advantage over many academics in understanding the difficulties then because I had known the chief enemy- had often seen him face to face. We had lived in the same town for a number of years and had talked from time to time as our paths fortuitously crossed. He was for me not merely a newspaper personality.

Permit me to indulge in a retrospective glance for a moment. The first time Joseph McCarthy sought the nomination for the United States Senate he was defeated. This took place before the conclusion of World War II. After his initial failure- and after the war- he returned to Appleton to become a judge. A little later lawyers in the state tried unsuccessfully to have him disbarred because of his conduct on the bench.

In 1946 he again sought the Republican nomination for senator. This time- contrary to public expectations (one could say, almost to everyone's amazement)- he defeated the incumbent, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., by some five thousand votes. How this happened is an interesting story, but it is not my subject today. Mr. McCarthy then went on to be elected senator. He did not distinguish himself in his first term, however, and attracted very little attention outside Wisconsin.


Some of us who were not only unimpressed by his record but had come profoundly to distrust him tried next to prevent his reelection. In our innocence we thought we could do this simply by reporting his record to the voters. I offer this confession as a warning to those of you who may imagine influencing elections is an easy matter. Despite our efforts this time McCarthy won reelection by a large plurality and went on to become the national- even the international- figure known to history. Many soon came to think of him as a defender, almost a savior, of our national integrity. Others, including most people in the academic world, took a diametrically opposite view, and came to see in him a symbol of chicanery, deceit, maliciousness, and at the most extreme, diabolical evil.

IT IS NOT my intention today to attempt a reevaluation of Joseph McCarthy's reputation. He was no friend of mine, and I have no disposition to make excuse for his conduct. My first months as President of Harvard were made unnecessarily difficult by the ostensible campaign of hate he was then conducting against universities in general and Harvard in particular (primarily, I am certain, not so much because he disliked or distrusted universities, but for personally profitable political reasons). As long as I remained in Appleton he had taken no public notice of me. But when I came into the light of the Harvard presidency I was quickly numbered among his targets. It was a questionable accolade, but being familiar with the man and the game he was playing, I was not surprised.

I introduce this narrative simply to say that I did not then- nor do I now- accept the theory that all the hideous torment of that time was caused by him. What the historians will have to explain is not Joseph McCarthy. It is rather the reception he was accorded. Millions upon millions of people in the United States needed him and wanted him, or at the very least accepted him, and in so doing in a sense created him.

He certainly was not without blame. He was, and remains in my view, a shameful, cynical politician who discovered how to play skillfully on peoples' emotions for his own gain. But it is much too facile to dismiss the evils and anguish that wracked campuses and country at that time by simply naming him as scapegoat and letting the rest of society off scot-free.

It was said at the time that McCarthy was the first to discover how to use the mass media for personal advancement. I am afraid this is too large a claim, but certainly he raised the practice momentarily to a new peak of effectiveness. The organs of public opinion gave him enormous coverage for years and thus contributed to build his reputation.

In the period of his rapid rise he told a friend of mine in Appleton that he had first glimpsed the secret of political success by reading Mein Kampf. Hitler's technique, he said, rested on the skillful use of the big lie. Tell a whopper and keep on repeating it. In time people will come to believe it. Joseph McCarthy's big whopper was that the communists had taken over the State Department. Hitler's big lie had been that the Jews had almost destroyed Germany.

McCarthy was also a master of telling an endless flow of little lies to sow doubt and distrust and play on peoples' emotions. For him discourse was a tool of exploitation. That is, language was to be used not for clarification and increased understanding, but for accusation, distortion, misrepresentation, denunciation, defamation- in any number of ways to obfuscate and confuse and by so doing to engender and inflame feelings of hate and anger.

It was his cunning intent by playing on peoples' fears and hostile emotions to attract to himself mass support. He built his following by feeding hateful attitudes and by unleashing bigotry, for to the frightened and worried the fears he played on were so real that he appeared to them as hero and savior. He advanced his political career by first inciting a mass public opinion.

He then used this to put pressure on individuals and groups of individuals and institutions- the scapegoats he had identified for society- to make their practices conform to his followers' view of how they should behave. The successes he achieved in this way would in turn serve to maintain and strengthen his political ascendancy. It was not a particularly attractive period in our history.

NOW, less than twenty years later, our campuses are experiencing a not dissimilar period of torment, whiplashed as they are by a resurgence of his hateful technique. Again people are looking for scapegoats. But this time the attack comes not from the outside but from within, from extremist splinter groups of the New Left made up of students and- I am sorry to acknowledge- also of some faculty who for reasons not quite clear to me would like to see our colleges and universities denigrated, maligned and even shut down.