Memories of a Half-Century of Change

Breaking Out of Harvard's Womb

When the editor of The Harvard Crimson called me on Memorial Day to write a piece about what went on during our undergraduate years. I hesitated a long 20 seconds and said yes. Under the circumstances, I have time or space to recall only a part of what happened, even though "minima pars fui."

Most of the recollections--not necessarily in chronological order--stemmed out of my activity in the then Harvard Liberal Club, which in those days could boast a clubhouse heavily mortgaged but benefiting by the benign trusteeship of at least two faculty members: Arthur Holcombe and Arthur M. Schlesinger (the father, of course). Much of our activity was unstructured because we were.

To a considerable degree, we looked beyond the Harvard Yard and the University. For example, at that time, the New Bedford textile strike was dragging on its wretched career. The struggles for a union became hopeless in those pre-Wagner Law days, and the lines of the hungry strikers' families lengthened from dark to dark. Not knowing what the hell we could do about it, we nevertheless used the blessed interval of Reading Period to drive down. The idea was to break through the dreary isolation of the deprived. We made speeches in an available auditorium, stayed a couple of days and, like intellectuals through the ages, were hit and ran back to the security of the University womb.

At that time, "dollar diplomacy" was still in its blatant flower, especially in Nicaragua. On the "invitation" of the recognized but wobbly government, the United States sent in the marines to help establish stability. The chief guerrilla leader was Agusto Sandino, who refused to yield to Yankee imperialism. Over in Boston, meetings were held to protest our foreign policy, and some of us went over to participate in the planning. I remember one committee meeting on Beacon Hill when some mighty stalwart and beautiful women heared their scorn on the Coolidge administration. One lady kept repeating "Poor Sandino, how he must suffer." The marines were finally pulled out in 1933.

Toward the end of our senior year, the more practical student politicians held a two-night mock Democratic convention in the New Lecture Hall. Because this convention was the only game in town, some of us decided to add a happy note by placing Norman Thomas in nomination alongside the more obvious choices, such as New York's governer Al Smith, Newton D. Baker, former Secretary of War, and Thomas J. Walsh of Montana. You never saw such amateur but high-class skulduggery on all sides. The Smith adherents brought in a Boston political claque, which crowded into the balcony and roared every time Al Smith's name was uttered, a thing which proved counterproductive, I think. But this first hurrah added to the excitement. Tom Eliot (Class of '28) chaired at least one of the sessions with an appearance of fine impartiality. I managed to get to the platform to make a pitch for Norman Thomas, but my friend Tom refused to recognize me, loftily explaining that "Mr. Herling is about to deliver another socialist speech." After 1933, with the coming of the New Deal, Tom matured rapidly and joined the Roosevelt administration to help draft social security legislation, thus helping to carry out one of the "socialist" planks of 1928. "It was a far, far better thing that he did." (I think that Newton Baker became the compromise candidate.)


It didn't seem 51 years since the spring and summer of 1927, when Cambridge and Boston had become the epicenter of agitation, the seat of passion and concern over the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The place was suffused with uneasy conscience and fearful belief that Harvard had better do something about it. So it seemed to me.

It was Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at the Law School, who raised the case, which had been malingering for six years, into a new level of public consciousness through the unlikely vehicle of the Atlantic Monthly.

At that time I was taking a course in English composition with Charles Townsend Copeland, better known as Copey, whose genial, sometimes crusty, habit it was to bring outsiders into his classroom, usually without notice to his students. The idea was to shake us up; an element of surprise was part of the process. Copey styled himself Harvard's "reader-in-ordinary." When he gave his readings, in a dry Maine accent and a gravelly baritone, he required absolute silence from an intimidated audience. He was about as 18th-century as a man could be; his academic life largely centered in Samuel Johnson and that circle. He had an iron whim and he did as he darned well pleased.

So, to the lasting surprise of the class, he escorted Feliz Frankfurter and his wife Marian to the front row in our room in Emerson Hall. The class size was limited to 24, so we were a tight, expectant little company. Copey explained that he got to know Frankfurter when the latter was a student at the Law School where, said Copey he has been pouring out words ever since. Today Felix had something special in his mind. Whereupon, for two hours Frankfurter spread before us the details of the "portentous case of Sacco-Vanzetti." He brought to that small room the full range of his social passion, his outrage, his dismay at the prospect of two men being railroaded to their death in an unfair trial presided over by a prejudiced judge.

As short as Copey himself, Frankfurter seemed to loom over us. He made us feel that a massive obscenity was being perpetrated, not only against the grandeur of the law, which was being fouled in Massachusetts in the name of justice. His voice was that of a Hebrew prophet. It was not lament. It was fueled by a determination to correct an evil. He was Isaiah rather than Jeremiah.

But Copey was not content with the shaking-up Frankfurter gave us. We were full of the case but not quite prepared for Copey's next staged event. Several weeks later, Copey ushered in Robert C. Benchley (Class of '12), who wrote themes for Copey many years before. Benchley, a great writer of humor, began dead-pan to read from the latest work of Donald Ogden Stewart, a fellow practitioner. In high dudgeon, Copey broke in, and said, "No, no not that. We don't have to hear the words of a Yale man. You know perfectly well why I brought you here. Tell us about those two anarchistic bastards." So Benchley said, "Okay, I will, but this is a most unfunny matter." He then recounted the following incident: a friend of his had run into Judge Webster Thayer at the Worcester Golf Club. Thayer had presided over the Sacco-Vanzetti trial where they were found guilty. This made Thayer quite a celebrity; said he to Benchley's friend: "Did you see what I did to those two anarchistic bastards?" Benchley had submitted an affidavit to show that Thayer was something less than an impartial judge.

Benchley's impact in some ways was more telling than Frankfurter's. The funniest writer in America was suffused with solemnity. His words were simple, edged with incredulous sorrow that the machinery of law, manipulated by prejudiced men, should mangle the rights and lives of two plain people.

By this time several of us got caught up in the agitation. Demonstrations were popping up all over the world. Tension became almost unbearable. Respectable citizens of Boston, first reluctantly, then with greater assertiveness, began to intervene in the press, to organize committees, and brought their pleas to Gov. Alvin T. Fuller. Fuller finally responded by naming an advisory committee of three to re-examine the case and to decide on the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. His appointees were Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, president Samuel W. Stratton of MIT and Robert Grant, a retired probate judge. It was up to them to decide whether the two Italian anarchists should live or die. By this time it was July. I had decided that Harvard was the place to be that summer, so I stayed on as a University guide.

Since Lowell's house sat right at the edge of the Yard, I would catch fleeting glimpses of him. One July day I saw Lowell in vehement conversation near Widener11CrimsonLisa Hsia