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Conant & the FBI

In response to:

The Quiet American from the July 14, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Only recently has my attention been called to the review by Louis Menand [NYR, July 14] of James G. Hershberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age. Menand has a kinder, gentler opinion of Conant than Hershberg and I do. In what he feels refutes my own harsh view of Conant, he writes that in 1953, “Hoover (as Diamond himself reports) ordered a ‘thorough investigation as to the character, loyalty, reputation, associates, and qualifications of Conant….’ ” But Hoover’s investigation of Conant does not refute my view and cannot be used to whitewash Conant. Hoover made the investigation because he had been ordered to do so—by Secretary of State–designate John Foster Dulles—who, as I wrote, “had requested the usual security investigation; and Hoover responded by directing twenty-three FBI field offices to ‘conduct thorough investigation as to character, loyalty, reputation, associates, and qualifications of Conant.”’ None of the interviews in that FBI report, all with friends of Conant, conflicts with my view of him. Nor was my judgment of Conant based primarily on the FBI investigation mentioned by Menand. Consider only the letter of June 13, 1949, from Clyde Kluckhohm, director of the Harvard Russian Research Center, to Provost Paul H. Buck: “…in accord with previous conversations with you and Mr. Conant, I arranged with Mr. Harrison Williams, the head of CIA for the New England area, that a directive would be prepared whereby all representatives from…government agencies would have to clear through the Boston office of CIA before requesting assistance from us.” Menand writes of the “innate desire” of men like Conant “to express solidarity of purpose when there is nothing to be gained by appearing uncooperative.” But something might have been maintained by being uncooperative—like academic freedom. Conant talked one way and acted another. It’s good to see after so many years that the mascara on the official portrait is beginning to run.

Sigmund Diamond
Salem, Connecticut

Louis Menand replies:

I do not dispute Diamond and Hershberg’s claim that Conant agreed to let the CIA vet members of Harvard’s Russian Research Center. Nor do I dispute their judgment that Conant’s support of academic freedom vis-à-vis communism was not as principled as it ought to have been. I said as much in my review. I do find the evidence that Conant collaborated with the FBI in its investigation of Communists in the professoriate ambiguous and inconclusive. But Hershberg and Diamond know the facts better than I do; I am only a reader of their books, and I respect their qualifications for reaching a different conclusion. I do regret the use of a Bushism to describe any view of mine.

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