Fighting Paranoia, Defending Faith

In first year, Pusey resisted McCarthy, encouraged religious study

In his Baccalaureate address to the Class of 1954—his first as Harvard’s president—Nathan M. Pusey ’28 focused on “the attitude of reverence” that he believed was central to the University.

“Keep an open mind on the subject of religion, and as time goes on, give it an increasing place in your lives,” Pusey told the assembled senior class, adding that he hoped the students would make Memorial Church their “symbol of Harvard” after they had departed from the ivy-covered gates.

Pusey’s speech reflected the tone of his first year as University President, a year in which he emphasized the importance of faith and embarked on a mission to resurrect the struggling Divinity School.

At the same time, Harvard’s leader was also thrust into the public spotlight as an old foe of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R.-Wisc., defending his faculty’s academic freedom as McCarthy and other politicians targeted institutions of higher education for harboring suspected communists.

According to Time magazine, when Pusey had been selected as Harvard’s 24th president, students responded to the news with rhyming chants of “Pusey? Pusey? Who’s he? Who’s he?”

“He was an apparent nobody, plucked out of nowhere, who had never even written a book,” Time wrote in its March 1954 profile of Pusey, an Iowa native, president of tiny Lawrence College in Wisconsin, and first non-New Englander to lead Harvard.

But by the end of his first year, this “apparent nobody” had become somebody, taking on significant roles within the University—as an advocate for the Divinity School—and in a wider realm, becoming what Time magazine called “senior defense counsel to the academic world” against McCarthy’s prosecution of suspected communists.


While Pusey’s name may not have been well-known to the students at Harvard, it was familiar to McCarthy. He and Pusey were both natives of Appleton, Wis., and Pusey had signed a pamphlet criticizing the senator during his campaign for re-election.

After Harvard announced its new president, McCarthy declared that his state would be glad to get rid of a “rabid anti anti-Communist” such as Pusey.

“Harvard’s loss is Wisconsin’s gain,” the senator told the Boston Traveler in a letter reprinted in newspapers across the country under the headline “Pusey vs. McCarthy.”

Pusey brought with him to Cambridge this reputation as a McCarthy opponent, at a time when Harvard had taken center stage in the congressional investigations of communist activity at universities.

In the spring of 1953, three Harvard faculty members, including Associate Professor of Physics Wendell H. Furry, were called before Congress to testify about their ties to the Communist Party, and all three invoked their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions.

In the eyes of Pusey’s predecessor, James B. Conant ’14, pleading the Fifth was tantamount to an admission of guilt, and many universities had dismissed faculty members who remained silent under questioning.

But the Harvard Corporation decided to keep all three faculty members, concluding that none of them were currently members of the Communist Party.

As Pusey took office, McCarthy kept up his public tirades against Harvard—which had a reputation as the “Kremlin on the Charles”—and urged the University to fire Furry.