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A new biography of James Bryant Conant '13 suggests the Harvard president at times caved in to anti-Communist hysteria after World War II.
The book, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age, by James G. Hershberg '82, began as an undergraduate honors thesis in the history department and grew over the course of 11 years into a 948-page tome. It marks a significant revision to the traditional interpretation of Conant as a heroic defender of academic freedom.
Hershberg's work tells the full story of how the chemistry professor who served as president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953 was a key advisor in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's decision to approve a crash effort to build the atom bomb.
But the author also unearthed new details on Conant, anti-Communism, and academic freedom.
In June, 1948, amid swirling pre-McCarthyite controversy over Communism in academia, Conant signed a document by the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association.
The booklet on "American Education and International Tensions" said members of the Communist party "should be excluded from employment as teachers."
Conant publicly defended the decision on the grounds that Communist teachers were a genuine threat to American society.
But Hershberg argues that new evidence, including transcripts of meetings of the Educational Policies Commission, shows that Conant's support for the ban on Communist teachers was "a pragmatic, expedient move that would put the educational establishment in a much better position to defend left-wing but non-communist teachers."
In a separate incident, Conant played a crucial role in convincing Harvard law professor and civil liberties expert Zechariah Chafee that the Fifth Amendment should not be invoked by faculty members testifying before Congressional committees on Communism.
After a fierce lobbying campaign by Conant, Chafee reversed his previously published position and wrote a letter to The Crimson opposing the blanket use of the Fifth Amendment.
Hershberg holds Conant to a high standard and argues that the Harvard president fell short.
"His failure of nerve at key moments...was very important in the general failure of the American educational establishment" in the fight for academic freedom and against the anti-Communist hysteria, Hershberg said yesterday.
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