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In 1961 the cold war was at its height. A young John F. Kennedy '40 was sworn in as president, and Alan Sheppard became the first American to enter space. The Peace Corps-sent its first troops overseas. the threat of nuclear war hung precariously over the globe. At Harvard, more than 4000 students rioted to protest a decision by then-President Nathan M. Pusey '28 to print diplomas for the Class of '61 in English rather than in Latin.
By the time the "Great Diploma Incident" was over, Cambridge police--using tear gas to stop the outraged scholars--had arrested four students. University officials seized hundreds of bursars cards from students throwing eggs and firecrackers. Within a week, discussions of Pusey's decision had spread from the Cambridge City Council to the White House and the United Nations.
"The diploma riots may be indicative of the fact that we had nothing else to do," Thomas N. Blodgett '61, a class marshal, said last week, adding, "It was as superficial an issue as you can possibly dream up."
The controversy began when Eliot H. Stanley '63 circulated a petition protesting the new diplomas. "All traditions are not sacred; however, some are worth continuing and strengthening," the petition stated. "In our opinion, the Latinized diploma from the oldest of American. Universities is symbolic of a scholarly tradition worth preserving," it concluded.
Not only were the new diplomas in English, students complained, but they were only half the size of the old certificates, were printed on poorer-quality paper, and were missing the College seal.
"The new diploma is not the sort of thing you'd be proud to frame," a spokesman for the Class Committee said. "We want equity with Radcliffe," another student said, noting that the women's college continued to use Latin on its degrees.
Explaining how the University had "yielded to technology." Pusey said English was the universal academic language and that it would be "hypocritical" for the University to issue Latin diplomas when it no longer had a Latin requirement.
Pusey's explanation, however, was unsatisfactory to most students. On April 26, a large sign outside Leverett House declared "we want Latin," and 40 Kirkland House seniors threatened to wear Madras jackets to Commencement if the diplomas weren't changed.
That night, more than 2000 students gathered in the Yard to hear Phillip A. Stone '62--dressed in a toga, black cape, and crowned by a laurel wreath--demand that "our diplomas be in the language which many admire although few are able to read." One protester carried a sign which warned: "No Latin, No Alumni Money."
The angry mob, chanting "Latin Si, Pusey No," marched from the steps of Widener to Pusey's house, where, after an attempt to storm the house failed, Pusey addressed the crowd with a poem:
What's pat in Latin
Or chic in Greek;
I always distinguish
More Clearly in English.
University officials began to show real concern, however, only after the protest continued into a second day. Dean Monro said the demonstrations "have brought the College to the edge of serious trouble."
"It was kind of fun for one night, but this is being carried too far," he added.
Dean Watson, meanwhile, was seen helping Cambridge police shove one student into a waiting paddy wagon. The crowd, spilling out onto Mass Ave, was temporarily quieted when two National Guard trucks towing howitzers drove past. Cambridge police used eight tear gas bombs to dispell the remaining rioters.
The diploma controversy, however, did not end with the dispersion of the rioters. Bodgett threatened at the time to hand out 10,000 fake English diplomas on street corners, and Cambridge City Councilor Alfred E. Vellucci warned, "I, being of Latin ancestory, will carry this fight to Dr. Pusey."
A few days later, Vellucci pushed a resolution through the city council asking Harvard to reconsider the diploma decision. In Washington, meanwhile, McGeorge Bundy, who was dean of the Faculty at the time the decision to change the diplomas was originally made, denied that he had convinced President Kennedy--then a member of the Board of Overseers--to support the change. The Overseers voted two-to-one in favor of the new diplomas after Kennedy's support became known. Only a protest by the Administrative Board saved the cum laude notations from being set in the English "with honors."
Ralph J. Bunche '28, United Nations undersecretary for special political affairs, told the Overseers that U.N. diplomats informally discussed the controversy. Bunche reportedly told the Overseers that most UN members favored the new diplomas.
"The controversy is very insignificant in everyone's minds, but its a good issue to group around for class identity," Blodgett said last week.
Blodgett said the Class of '61 letterhead bears the Harvard seal with the motto "Truth" inscribed on the three books where "Veritas" is traditionally set. His own diploma, he believes, is in English, but, he notes, "its been a very long time since I've looked at it."
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