The Siege

No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities

by Ellen W. Schrecker
Oxford University Press, 437 pp., $20.95

McCarthyism began earlier and lasted longer than the notoriety of the senator from Wisconsin who gave the phenomenon its name. In Ellen Schrecker’s account he is characterized as “the most unsavory” of the numerous inquisitors, but otherwise receives little attention. More than half of her book is devoted to the years and events preceding Joseph McCarthy’s appearance on stage in 1950 and much more than that before he gains any prominence in her narrative, if he ever does. But for an occasional offstage growl and a one-line snarl or two he remains more a symbol than a participant.

Universities were not, of course, the only institution, or scholars the only profession, victimized by McCarthyites. This was a nationwide witch hunt penetrating nearly every corner and virtually all institutions and professions of the country—the press, bureaucracy, and military included. How then justify this much attention to the academy, which supplied only about 20 percent of the witnesses before the various investigating committees, while only a hundred or so professors lost their jobs?

But McCarthyism is not a subject readily or meaningfully quantifiable. One might more relevantly inquire how many public executions it takes to quell resistance in an occupied city, or how many lynchings to terrify a race. This was the most devastating and demoralizing blow ever struck at American universities by their own government, state and national. The importance of the experience justifies all the prolonged research the author has lavished on this book. And a subject of such a nature as to induce both victims and victimizers to conceal or destroy significant evidence necessitates a lot of digging. Ellen Schrecker does not pretend to have unearthed everything, but she has made a good beginning and produced a book that should receive respectful attention and the gratitude of the many readers it deserves.

As the first serious investigator of so controversial a subject, Ms. Schrecker, a lecturer in history at Princeton, realizes that the reader will have a legitimate curiosity about her own point of view. She is leftist in leanings but not uncritical toward all of that persuasion, or of all McCarthyite victims. While she says that “McCarthy never found any subversives,” and that “most of the men and women he denounced were perfectly loyal,” she declares that but for a handful of “innocent liberals” almost all of the witnesses called before the anti-Communist investigators “had once been in or near the Communist Party.” Of the Party itself she writes:

At its peak it was a dynamic and often effective movement for social change, yet it was also—and at the same time—a doctrinaire, secretive, and undemocratic political sect. Its main flaw, of course, was its uncritical relationship with the Soviet Union, a relationship that required its members to conform their political activities to the dictates of Stalin’s foreign policy rather than the exigencies of American life…. As an ostensibly revolutionary organization, the CP enforced a type of disciplined and conspiratorial behavior that may well have stunted the development of a viable socialist tradition in America.

Despite “these serious defects” she maintains that the Party made some positive contributions such as helping to organize the CIO and gaining a hearing for black citizens. “The record is mixed. To view it in any other way is to distort the past.”

One break she makes in the wall of secrecy around the subject provides insights into the nature of CP activities in the academy, the behavior of academic Party members, and the response of the universities. This was during the 1930s, the years of greatest Party presence and activity on the campus, and the period of greatest interest to the McCarthyite inquisition of the 1950s. One fresh source of importance is the interviews the author conducted with surviving participants of the events in any of several capacities, including that of Party member. She lists 140 people interviewed and says there were others who “requested anonymity.” In addition she draws on interviews conducted by other people, and nearly a hundred manuscript collections, FBI material obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, not to mention published documents and secondary works.

Youthful members of the CP were not on as tight a leash in the 1930s as the Party later imposed. From the start Communists were involved in, and sometimes dominated, the main national student organization. Party membership was kept secret by card holders, but Ms. Schrecker finds that “few of them were revolutionaries, nor were they even particularly interested in the Soviet Union.” They usually joined because they thought it the best way to fight fascism or end the Depression. They were joining because of the views they held, not holding those views because of what they joined and were thus obligated to hold. Or so it seemed to them. Party members of faculty status who were interviewed professed their scrupulous avoidance of indoctrinating or recruiting students. For the most part faculty Communists were more passive than active in Party duties and complained of the boredom of constantly taking part in drives, rallies, benefits, parades, and picket lines.

Some surprising facts emerge. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 did not, as is generally believed, cause many academics to desert the Party. According to Ms. Schrecker’s findings “no more than five or six did.” Many more left the Party during the war when the US and the USSR were allies. Deciding to leave often took as long as deciding to join, and leaving the Party did not mean for most ex-members leaving the left. With the cold war, Party discipline grew more rigid, and the exodus of Americans increased. They often left for personal reasons. Some were bored with the dull routine, “fed up with it,” and yearned for more time for scholarly work. Others sensed “the futility of the enterprise,” or were increasingly revolted by what they learned or began to admit about the Russian purges and gulags and felt “rather shameful” over their apologies for Stalin. For a number McCarthyism had the perverse effect of keeping them in the Party longer than they wished in order to avoid the charge of “chicken.”

Referring to the period before Khrushchev exposed the crimes of Stalin in 1956, the author writes that “by the late forties and early fifties there were few, maybe a few dozen, academics still willing to incur the enormous personal and professional risks that remaining in the rigid and ineffectual Communist Party would have entailed. After 1956, of course, there were just about none.” It is her opinion that while they were members most of them were “neither dupes nor conspirators,” that

the academics who passed through the American Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s were a group of serious men and women who sincerely hoped to create a better world…. That their opposition to fascism and commitment to social justice should take the form of joining the CP was a reflection of that brief moment in history when, because of the Depression and the rise of Hitler, the Party could become relevant to American problems without abandoning its fealty to the Soviet Union…. While they were in it, they did, it is true, follow the Party line…but they did not proselytize in class or try to subvert their universities. On the contrary, they were so anxious about protecting their academic careers that they concealed their membership in the Party. Later on, during the McCarthy period, the clandestine nature of their political affiliation was to cause them problems, but had they been more open about their Party membership they might have lost their jobs.

State legislatures took the lead in Red hunts during the 1930s. Spurred on by the Hearst press and the American Legion, states passed loyalty oaths or established investigating committees. Before 1939, the crusade to purge Communists from the campus had not become universal, but was growing. The Nazi-Soviet pact accelerated the movement by destroying the Popular Front and enlisting anti-Communist support from liberals, Socialists, and ex-Communists such as the followers of Lovestone and Trotsky. Remaining in the Party after the Nazi pact placed members beyond the academic pale. In the prevailing view the CP was not a regular party but a conspiracy dominated by Moscow which made members automatons of the Party line, compelled to indoctrinate their students. This was the stereotype that lasted through the Red scare between 1939 and 1941 and later, throughout the cold war years. After America’s entry into the war in alliance with the Soviet Union, the Red hunt was halted or suspended, but not before the procedures and methods of the postwar McCarthyite inquisition had been established. When it began again the same witnesses were often faced by the same inquisitors, aided by the same informers.

The immediate postwar years saw a brief revival of campus radicalism often by returning veterans, but it never reached the level attained in the Popular Front days and is easily exaggerated. Communists could only mobilize a hundred sympathizers at Harvard compared with four hundred rallied by the Republican Club, and Sarah Lawrence teachers gave Thomas E. Dewey more than twice as many votes in 1948 as they gave Henry Wallace. Of CP members Cornell had a couple of dozen, Michigan about fifteen, and comparable units appeared at Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, and North Carolina during the late Forties. University administrations gave them a hard time by banning their speakers and their student organization, American Youth for Democracy. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) proved of no help, and neither did the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

The opening assault of the postwar Red hunt in the universities began in 1949 with the firing of three tenured professors by the University of Washington as the result of an investigation by an Un-American Activities Committee of the state legislature. The committee marshalled the same professional ex-Communist informers and employed the same procedures as prewar committees had used. Professors at the university circulated an open letter criticizing the dismissals, but only 103 out of a faculty of about 700 signed it. The test of unfitness for academic life applied in this important case was Party membership (at any time)—what counted was affiliations, not conduct, not what individual professors actually did or refused to do, or to think. The test of unfitness proposed by the AAUP—lying about membership—was ignored. Even such respected scholars as Arthur O. Lovejoy and Sidney Hook did not challenge the University of Washington procedure, and that case provided a model the rest of the academy could imitate during the crisis of McCarthyism.

Before the committees of Congress began their purge of the universities in the spring of 1953, the main pressure to fire scholars came from state legislatures and officials. Nearly all the states either conducted some kind of investigation or enacted, or tried to enact, some kind of law to eliminate Communist teachers. Efforts to pass such laws in Massachusetts and Illinois frightened Harvard and Chicago but these fizzled in the end. The most common law, because the most inexpensive to administer, was the loyalty oath, and almost every state imposed one of some sort. They ranged from a simple pledge of allegiance to complicated oaths disavowing certain beliefs and denying membership in certain organizations.

The most notorious of the latter kind was the California loyalty oath that in 1949 the regents required of all university employees. Led by fugitives from fascist Europe and many of the most respected and distinguished scholars at Berkeley, some 50 percent of the faculty refused to sign the oath. Neither Communists nor ex-Communists, the leaders of the non-signers were liberals who took their stand on principle to defend academic freedom and fought with exceptional courage. The struggle continued for six years. In a referendum in March 1950 the overwhelming majority of the faculty (1154 to 136) voted against the oath, but almost as large a majority voted that Communists were unacceptable as members of the faculty. The regents dismissed some thirty professors for refusing to sign the oath. Faced with this threat many nonsigners gave up or resigned, and by May fewer than eighty nonsigners were left. Faculty members strongly sensed the fear, apathy, insecurity, and mutual suspicion that pervaded the community. “The University of California,” concludes the author, “was demoralized, its faculty polarized and embittered.”

Rising winds of the cold war swept away most obstacles to congressional investigation of universities by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). Federal courts fell into line with the cold war spirit and removed any serious concern on the part of investigators about infringing constitutional rights of witnesses by questions asked them. University trustees and presidents demanded that faculty witnesses be “cooperative,” some to the point of “naming names.” The AAUP, the professors’ own organization for the defense of their rights and academic freedom, fell strangely silent, and the ACLU remained ineffective. The more radical faculty members usually withdrew from politics, and the academy grew increasingly acquiescent. Lawyers, apart from a few, like Clifford Durr, whose commitment to civil liberties overrode their desire for the profits of a normal practice, were not interested in clients with radical backgrounds.

For publicity-hungry HUAC congressmen, the radical physicists who had worked on the atomic bomb projects, the most important of whom was J. Robert Oppenheimer, were irresistible targets. These scientists during the war had been under heavy surveillance—phones tapped, homes searched, mail opened—but since the security agents knew little of the science involved, they only hampered work on the bomb, while not preventing a real spy like Klaus Fuchs from serving the Russians. The record of the HUAC investigators was no better in this respect, for although they produced many headlines and several volumes of testimony, they did not turn up a single spy. Their most tangible accomplishment was the shattering effect they had on the lives and careers of some of the scientists they investigated.

Senator Pat McCarran’s Internal Security Subcommittee made its name with an investigation of a private research organization called the Institute of Pacific Relations. The committee set out to prove that the IPR “lost” China and that the Communists in the IPR through their influence in the State Department had subverted American policy in East Asia. Many of McCarran’s witnesses from the IPR were professors, and the attack upon them in June 1951, especially those who pleaded immunity under the Fifth Amendment, marked the end of the relative immunity from congressional investigation that the academic world had thus far enjoyed. In Ms. Schrecker’s opinion, with the possible exception of the House committees’s pursuit of Alger Hiss, the IPR hearings were “the most important congressional investigations of the entire Cold War.” One deep effect was to deprive the State Department of experienced China hands and prevent it from adopting a realistic approach to later policy in the Far East.

While most of McCarran’s victims worked in the State Department, he claimed them also in the academy, and none was more prominent than Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins. McCarthy had already nominated Lattimore casually, and with no more evidence than he used to reckon the scores of Reds in the State Department, as America’s “top Russian espionage agent.” Lattimore had never been a Communist, or taken the Fifth Amendment, but professional ex-Communist informers came forth to identify him as a Communist or hint that he was. It was two years before he got his chance to rebut the testimony. Of the two indictments for perjury filed against him, the first, written by Roy Cohn, was so vague that it was thrown out of court, and so was the second. Those of his Johns Hopkins colleagues who helped in his defense have reason to know what a game fight he made and what a terrible toll it took upon his career. The author is in error in saying that, “Since he had tenure, Lattimore kept his job.” While he was certainly one of the most distinguished members of the Hopkins faculty, his lack of formal academic credentials held him by university rules to the rank of lecturer. That rank did not carry tenure, but Hopkins, to its credit, nevertheless continued his appointment. The university did close the school of international affairs he directed, but by that time the Red hunt had so blighted the prospects of its students—even its former secretaries—that continuing the school appeared to be useless.

More commonly universities fired suspects, and faculties meekly complied or took ambiguous positions, especially in cases of “uncooperative” witnesses who invoked the Fifth Amendment because answering questions might incriminate them or force them into the position of informing on their friends, “naming names.” This happened in the firing of Moses I. Finley and Simon Heimlich of Rutgers. By the fall of 1952, when two instructors at Columbia were involved, a consensus had emerged in the academic community that, at the very least, the universities had to investigate those members who took the Fifth Amendment. From this it was not far to the position that it was not legal to use the Fifth to avoid turning informer, or that using it against risk of self-incrimination was virtual confession of membership at some point in the CP. The Association of American Universities issued an official statement that “invocation of the Fifth Amendment places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position,” and, further, that “present membership in the Communist Party extinguishes the right to a university position.” The ACLU said nothing about the AAU pronouncement for several years, and the AAUP was similarly silent, though some of its chapters voiced distress. Robert Lynd of the Columbia chapter attacked the statement as “an offer by the universities to Senator McCarthy to carry on his aims and work for him.”

Numerous witnesses subpoenaed by congressional committees, half of the group of former Harvard students and teachers, for example, accepted the odious role of informer. Ms. Schrecker generously reminds us that “most of them were under such enormous pressure that it would be unfair for us to require even in retrospect the kinds of sacrifices that few of us have ever been called upon to make.” To these young scholars and young fathers and mothers now careerbent and concerned about their families, the academy had made it plain that it would not protect those who did not “cooperate.” For those who did, things were sometimes rough, and for those who did not things were rougher. The entire academy, including its standards, values, and principles, was thoroughly politicized by right-wingers. It was not a question of the quality of scholarship or achievement, but what politics were professed, or more often had once long ago been professed. A professor might be conceded by his prosecutors to be a brilliant and famous scholar and a superlative teacher and still be summarily dismissed, blacklisted, and driven out of his profession entirely.

Some received what the author calls “the slow treatment.” Chandler Davis of Michigan stubbornly defied one congressional and university committee after another for years on principle to “restore the reputability of dissent.” He lost the fight. His case wandered through federal courts for eight years until in 1959 he ended up in jail. Remarking on the AAU cold war pronouncement that invoking the Fifth Amendment “places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position,” Schrecker points out the unfairness of shifting the burden of proof to the defendant, as almost all universities did—and as the AAUP agreed they should. She spells out the violation of civil rights in this way:

Universities did not have to prove that the professors in question were Communists; the professors had to prove that they were not. Not only that, but…professors who claimed to have left the Party had to prove that they had done so sincerely. In fact, almost every academic who became publicly enmeshed in an anti-Communist controversy, even if never accused of having been a Party member, had to clear himself by making a political confession.

There was also a hidden or covert side of McCarthyism in the universities. This included the quiet dismissal of potentially embarrassing radicals, without a hearing and often with their connivance in a cover-up in the hope that silence would open future employment. The author admits that evidence of such secrecy is “less complete than I, as a historian, feel comfortable with.” She makes somewhat the same admission about an “academic blacklist,” conceding that the evidence about it is “sketchy” and that so far as she knows “there was no official list.” But she carries conjecture about the blacklist further than she does about the cover-up dismissals, and eventually permits herself a reference to “the near-universality of the blacklist.” By the academic boom of the 1960s, she grants, the blacklist had petered out and “almost all of the ostracized professors who wanted to were able to return to the classroom.”

The story of what happened to the lives of the dismissed and excluded victims of McCarthyism after they left the campus is one of the most moving the author has to tell. Some scientists found research jobs in private industry, but the greater number of scholars, if they found work at all, had to leave their professions entirely, often for quite menial jobs. A few took places in small, poor, denominational black colleges, and others scattered throughout the world, occasionally landing attractive positions abroad. Most fared worse, often becoming dependent on their wives, who rarely found well-paying jobs, or upon friends and former students. Personal lives suffered heavily from social ostracism, desertion by friends and colleagues, and threats by fanatics. Uprootings and frequent movings tore at family bonds and took a severe emotional toll in broken marriages, mental breakdowns, and suicides. Those without connection to the CP seem to have suffered most, and the suffering was by no means confined to those who lost their jobs. They also suffered who only sat and waited—and wondered when the ax would fall.

Why the academics did not put up more of a fight, why they displayed such a lack of steadfastness, and why they deserted colleagues under fire are questions Ms. Schrecker gives close attention to. A good many professors did show courage and loyalty, but not nearly the number needed. Perhaps the greatest failure was in the very organization charged with the defense of academic freedom, the AAUP. It seemed paralyzed and took no action at all until the worst was over. Its failure had a devastating effect on academic morale. “Obviously something had gone very wrong,” writes Schrecker, and adds that while there were many explanations, “ignorance was not one of them.”

Not only did the local chapters refrain from action, but, of greater importance, the headquarters in Washington fell mysteriously silent. At the peak of the assault on academic freedom the AAUP censured no institutions. In the summer of 1954 the general secretary Ralph Himstead had a heart attack, and later because of “some kind of psychological factors” became unable to perform the tasks of his office. The general secretary “had ceased to function” at the height of the McCarthy crisis, but was not replaced.

The censures of offending institutions that the AAUP eventually issued did not inflict much pain and had practically no impact on some colleges. Perhaps the collapse of the AAUP was more a symptom than a cause of academic vulnerability, more an excuse than a reason for faculty acquiescence. The association had never been a very effective defender. Given the power and hysteria of the national witch hunt it is doubtful that any organization could have provided effective defense against McCarthyism or prevented the academy from collaborating with it and contributing to it.

The book ends with a somber and bleak assessment of the damage inflicted by the end of the 1950s: the universities politically quiescent and withdrawn; open criticism of the status quo rare or nonexistent; Marxism became marginal or was banished; faculties played it safe, celebrating the status quo, “consensus history,” and the end of ideology. And before them in their classrooms sat the “silent generation” of college students in intellectual torpor. This was not the work of fringe fanatics but of their own government and their universities and colleagues in collaboration with it. By the end of the 1950s the inquisition and dismissals had tapered off, “not because they encountered resistance,” the author concludes, “but because they were no longer necessary. All was quiet on the academic front.” With that sentence she ends her account.

Surveyed from a longer perspective—a university teaching experience going back to the early 1930s and extending through the McCarthy era and twenty years beyond that—the 1950s do not seem quite as bleak and demoralized as Ms. Schrecker’s account suggests. A lot more than craven submission went on in the academy of the Fifties. But my impressions derive from a personal experience that is probably not typical, while her conclusions are based on a systematic nationwide study. Ms. Schrecker has covered the subject she set out to treat, covered it thoughtfully and added fresh knowledge. We owe her much and have no right to demand more. Still, I wish she had taken time for more than the mere glance she cast beyond the end of the decade that terminates her study into the one that followed. She might then have yielded to the historian’s appetite for comparison. I think a comparison with the Sixties might have supplied a needed dimension to our image of the Fifties.

The comparison would be partly one of sharp contrasts. All was not quiet on this academic front. Far from being a silent generation, the students of the Sixties were a screaming generation, and every scream seemed to express a protest. Virtually every protest was directed at the status quo, whether that of government, university, law, church, or state. No craven submissiveness to authority here. Authority in any academic department was anathema, to be treated with defiance and contempt. The movement surged leftward with escalating speed behind a New Left leadership uninhibited by doctrine and undisciplined by party. Old Marxists joined in, but usually as a rear guard. Impressionable or susceptible faculty members were recruited and rewarded with crowded classrooms. Even university trustees, presidents, provosts, and deans found themselves manipulated or physically coerced. One great institution after another was occupied by student mobs, and put through the paces of polarization, politicization, and radicalization.

The revolution was by no means entirely intramural. Unlike the intimidated, withdrawn, and depoliticized academy of the McCarthyites, that of the Sixties was hyperactivist and superparticipatory. It left its mark prominently fixed on the political history of the period. In the mightiest social upheaval of the era, the civil rights movement for blacks, the academy was an important participant. In the struggle to stop the Vietnam War, the universities with students facing the draft took a leading place in the forces applying political pressure. In the course of that struggle student power, violent or nonviolent, figured in bringing down one president’s administration and putting an end to a war.

How then did the cause of academic freedom fare at the hands of the left? A comparison with its fortunes at the hands of the right is not always to the advantage of the radicals. The right had used with powerful effect the laws, the courts, the subpoena, and the hearings before congressional committees. Without these instruments at their disposal, the left employed coercions of a more elemental sort. These included mass demonstrations, sit-ins, occupation and pillaging of presidents’ offices and other buildings, picketing and disruption of classes, “trashing” of library stacks and catalogs, and on some campuses even arson and explosives against laboratories suspected of military connection. The simple expedient of disruption took care of speakers with objectionable or nonconformist views. At some institutions, Yale for example, the conviction took root among students that it was not only their right but their duty to shout down any speaker of whose views they disapproved—which they did repeatedly.

No study such as No Ivory Tower has yet been made of the toll taken by the assault on academic freedom from the left in the Sixties and Seventies. To judge from evidence at hand and experience still fresh in memory, however, similarities in the institutional damage and personal suffering are not lacking. As in the earlier era, bitter divisions split administrations, faculties, departments, and colleagues, even family members. Several suicides at Cornell have been attributed directly or indirectly to the tragic struggle on that campus. Careers and even lives of presidents were sometimes among the sacrifices. As in the McCarthy period, there is no reckoning the number of books not written, research not done, and the standards, values, and ideals besmirched or trashed. Putting aside the relative worthiness of the causes involved in the two periods (and there were obviously differences of significance), it is important to remember that the means employed by both had much in common and by using them both inflicted grievous injuries on the academy. To those who destroy freedom as a means to an end, the end always justifies the means.

No Ivory Tower, indeed. Nor has there ever been. Nor is there likely to be. Only a highly vulnerable institution that happens to serve as the repository for some of the most precious values of our civilization. With varying degrees of success it has stood off, as well as coped, compromised, and collaborated with, or submitted to, a long succession of invaders. These include theologians, patriots, demagogues, ideologues, big business, and big government. Whether the institution was under private or public auspices, whether in time of peace or war, whether the invasion was from right or left, the academy has taken its lumps and losses and managed somehow to survive. By and large it has found its most reliable defenders, weak as they have often proved to be, within its own walls. The wonder is that it has survived as well as it has.


The Academy of the Sixties December 4, 1986

The Academy of the Sixties December 4, 1986