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Senator Joseph McCarthy began attacking Harvard publicly for its supposed Communist taint on November 5, 1953. "It's a smelly mess," he said of the University, "and I cannot conceive of anyone sending their children anywhere they might be open to indoctrination by Communist professors."
The same day, McCarthy sent a telegram to Nathan Pusey, Harvard's president of 23 days, urging him to fire Wendell Furry, an associate professor of Physics here who had been a Communist Party member from 1938 to 1947. Furry had angered the Senator by refusing to answer several questions relating to his past Communist involvement before the Senate subcommittee which McCarthy chaired.
The Harvard Corporation had placed Furry on three years' probation six months earlier for having falsely denied to a government agent in 1944 that an applicant for classified government work had been a party member. At the same time the Corporation had found Furry and two other faculty members guilty of "misconduct" for having refused to testify before Congressional committees about past Communist associations.
Pusey replied to McCarthy's telegram on November 9. So far as he knew, Pusey said, there were no Communists on the Harvard faculty. And he could promise no further action against Furry.
Thereafter, McCarthy repeatedly linked Harvard and Pusey with Communism. The University was "a sanctuary for Communists" which harbored "a sizable number with long records of apparent assistance to the party and of serving the Communist cause."
"A large group" of Harvard professors, McCarthy said, "have refused to say whether or not they are Communists. This means they are Communists and, under the discipline of the party, they must indoctrinate their students."
When a public school clerk from the Bronx refused to answer his subcommittee's questions, McCarthy suggested that she apply for a job at Harvard, "a privileged sanctuary for Fifth Amendment Communists."
Pusey came in for a large share of the Senator's venom. In 1952, while president of Lawrence University, he had been a member of a committee opposing McCarthy's bid for re-election as senator from Wisconsin. Shortly after Pusey was selected as Harvard's new president McCarthy had called him "an anti-anti-red" who had "neither learned nor forgotten anything since he was a freshman in college."
And now McCarthy did his best to identify Nathan Pusey as a public enemy. He talked about "Pusey's Fifth Amendment Communists" and made Harvard's president out to be responsible for the "mess" the University was in.
PUSEY MEANWHILE tried to make it clear that he was no friend of Communism, and that there were no Communists at Harvard. His November 9 telegram to McCarthy included the assurance that he was "in full agreement with the opinion... that a member of the Communist party is not fit to be on the Faculty because he has not the necessary independence of thought and judgment."
At a press conference the same day Pusey said that Harvard "is absolutely, unalterably and finally opposed to Communism." Months later he added, "We feel no uncertainty about Harvard's nor any other university's attitude toward Communism. Harvard wants no part of it. Nor do the others."
What Pusey defended against McCarthyism, then, was not academic freedom but academic independence from the outside world. He wasn't saving that teachers should be allowed to think what they want and to act accordingly: Communism was out of bounds. It was just that the university-not an outsider like McCarthy-should set the limits of their thought.
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