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Passed by Congress in August 1958, in the aftermath of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the “Sputnik crisis,” the National Defense Education Act was designed to boost America’s scientific prowess and support education at all levels. However, federal funds came with a catch—beneficiaries would have to sign an affidavit disclaiming belief in the over throw of the U.S. government and take a loyalty oath.
In November 1959, Harvard withdrew from the NDEA student loan program, joining universities from across the country in protest against the affidavit and the limitations on free speech that it entailed.
Two years later, in the fall of 1961, President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 reopened the debate among the faculty, which voted unanimously to reaffirm its boycott.
“Although it will hurt the University to continue to refuse the funds,” government professor Robert G. McCloskey told The Crimson that October, “it is a price we can and must pay.”
THE CONTROVERSY BEGINS
The NDEA emerged within the context of a post-Sputnik frenzy to surpass the Soviet Union in the Space Race, resulting in efforts to beef up math, science, and foreign language departments across the country. In addition to supplying funds to these departments, the act provided generous student loan funding: participating universities would be matched nine dollars in federal grants for one dollar from their own resources.
Yet Title X, Section 1001 (f) of the NDEA cited two stipulations for loan recipients. An individual could not receive funds “unless such individual...has executed and filed with the Commissioner an affidavit that he does not believe in, and is not a member of and does not support any organization that believes in or teaches, the overthrow of the United States Government by force or violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.” The individual also had to “solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America.”
Before coming to Harvard, Pusey established himself as an outspoken opponent of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy while he was president of Lawrence College. Still, in 1958, the year the Act was passed, Pusey accepted the funding, lauding “the high motives which prompted Congress to pass the...Act” while simultaneously describing the loyalty oath as “rude and unworthy of Congress” and “a direct personal affront.”
But by September 1959, the faculty became more vocal about the apparent inconsistency between criticizing the loyalty oath requirement and benefiting from the funds. After the failure of the bill to remove the loyalty oath proposed by then-Senator John F. Kennedy ’40, the faculty became more critical of Pusey’s accommodating stance.
A month later, the faculty and the Corporation voted to boycott federal funding. Both cited the affidavit requirement, rather than the loyalty oath, as the primary motivator.
The boycott movement also included Princeton and Yale, as well as dozens of other universities. But as the years passed, the University began to reconsider the issue. “We felt in the first two years we could get along without the money,” Pusey said. “We’re a little worried now”
By October 1961, he reopened the debate before the faculty. The previous summer, Pusey had appeared before congressional committees to promote the repeal of the affidavit provision, but Kennedy’s bill to do so failed once again.
In its October meeting, the faculty confirmed its stance from two years earlier.
In a staff editorial before the decision, The Crimson declared the affidavit “a symbol of hate from a hysterical past, a badge of suspicion of ideas and of men who use them. As long as it is enforced it will indicate an ugly fact—that academic freedom has become a cliché in America before it has become a reality.”
BRINGING STUDENTS TO THE STREETS?
However, students from the time remember the affidavit generating more criticism from faculty than from undergraduates.
“There was an awareness that the U.S. rightly or wrongly thought it needed to catch up [to the Soviets],” said Mary Ellen Gale ’62, a former Crimson editor. Many undergraduates agreed with Pusey’s statement that the loyalty oath was “odious.”
Yet the NDEA debate failed to gain considerable traction among the student body.
“The thing that brought Harvard students to the streets was when they learned that the diplomas were going to be de-Latinized,” said former Crimson president Frederic L. Ballard Jr. ’63.
This apathy was partly a question of timing. Sandwiched between the height of McCarthyism in the early 1950s and increased student radicalism of the late 1960s, the years 1959-1962 were relatively tame ones. The question of student loans, at that time, was not particularly polarizing to many students.
“Student loans were not as a big a thing in our lives as I think it is today,” Ballard said. “We were, I think, very unaware of family money.”
Harvard boasted its own scholarship programs, and, in comparison to other universities, was perceived as better able to reject federal funds.
“The University is one of the few institutions in the nation still wealthy enough to defy Congress on this kind of issue,” declared a staff editorial in 1961.
A year later, the affidavit requirement was repealed under the Kennedy administration. Harvard and its peer institutions agreed to accept federally funded student loans.
In the fall of 1962, Harvard received $240,000; in 1963, that amount increased to approximately $350,000. By 1964, the University requested $1 million from the federal government.
Harvard’s own student loan program had increased dramatically over the same time period. Yet tuition was also rising, so the NDEA money allowed the University to continue to expand its scholarship programs as well.
The debate regarding the loyalty oath had shifted toward a debate about educational equity and socioeconomic diversity within American universities.
“Educators...may one day get down on their hands and knees to thank the powers that be for Sputnik,” wrote Efrem Sigel ’64, former associate managing editor of the Crimson in October 1963. “There is hope, therefore, that Congress will move from the modest NDEA program to a large commitment to increasing educational opportunity.”
—Staff writer Beth E. Braiterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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