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McCarthyism at Harvard

To the Editors:

I am writing to shed new light on issues concerning Harvard and McCarthyism first aired in a 1977 exchange of letters between McGeorge Bundy and me in The New York Review of Books. This might seem to be of only antiquarian interest, but at a time of national anxiety not entirely dissimilar to the McCarthy period, when again civil liberties are in some peril, the behavior of a major American university under pressure fifty years ago may not be without relevance to the present.

In the April 28, 1977, issue of The New York Review of Books, Sigmund Diamond reviewed Seymour Martin Lipset’s Education and Politics at Harvard (McGraw-Hill, 1975), criticizing Lipset for not indicating the degree to which Harvard had cooperated with McCarthyism during the early 1950s and citing his own experience as an example. I was shocked by the tone and content of McGeorge Bundy’s reply to Diamond in a letter to the editor of May 26, 1977, when he defended his record as dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the McCarthy period and bitterly attacked Diamond. I decided not to leave Diamond hanging all alone, but to write a letter detailing my own similar experience with Bundy and Harvard. I sent a copy of my letter to Bundy, then president of the Ford Foundation, before publication, giving him a chance to reply.

Through mutual friends Bundy urged me to withdraw my letter; finally he twice called me by phone. In one of those conversations he said, “Bob, we’re on the same side now.” This remark so shocked me that I was stunned into silence. As far as patriotism is concerned, I think we were always on the same side; on most other issues we were never on the same side. At his request I agreed to remove two names from my letter, referring to the individuals only by their offices, but otherwise told him I wished to go ahead with the letter. The editors decided to publish the two letters together in the July 14, 1977, issue. Although Bundy made statements that I believed were untrue, I decided to let the matter rest and did not reply.

I did, however, make inquiries of the then dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences in order to get to the bottom of the differences between Bundy’s and my accounts by examining the records of what had actually transpired between 1954 and 1957. I was told that it was Harvard’s policy not to disclose administrative records for fifty years from the time of the events in question. That meant that I would have to wait for twenty-seven years, until the summer of 2004, the fiftieth anniversary of my first encounter with Bundy in this matter. During this period Bundy, as well as the then Harvard President Nathan Pusey, has died, and so, I presume, have most or all members of the Harvard Corporation at the time. I suppose this is one of the reasons for the fifty-year rule—most of those responsible for an action will not be around to be held accountable. Although Bundy is not here to defend himself, let me say that his claim to have supported my appointment in the period in question, a claim I doubted in 1977, is confirmed by the records I have now received.

Earlier this year I asked William Kirby, current dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, about the records that were now indeed fifty years old. He had Professor Sidney Verba, director of the Harvard Library and in charge of the archives, undertake a search, and Professor Verba, with whom I have had a friendly exchange, bent the fifty-year rule a bit and sent me, through Dean Kirby, the records concerning me from 1954 to 1958. I am very grateful for their kind cooperation in this matter. The records do reveal some new information that may be of interest to readers. But first I need briefly to outline my case.

I had been a member of the Communist Party as a Harvard undergraduate from 1947 through 1949—my main activity was as a leader of the university-recognized John Reed Club devoted to the discussion of Marxism. In 1949 at the time that the American Party was undergoing internal crisis, the situation became so bad that I dropped out of the Party and, as a Harvard graduate student in sociology and Far Eastern languages (1950–1955), had no connection with it. In the fall of 1954 I was called in to Bundy’s office (Bundy was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the time) and told that he had learned that I had been a member of the CP and that it was my duty to cooperate fully with the FBI or any other duly constituted body and to answer any question put to me. I replied that though I would testify about my own activities, which consisted solely of speech and association, I would not give names at a time when people’s lives and careers were being disrupted or destroyed on the basis merely of being called before an Un-American Activities Committee and refusing to cooperate fully.

Bundy told me that would not do and that my fellowship, the sole source of support for myself, my wife, and my infant daughter, was in danger. One week after meeting Bundy I was picked up on the street by two FBI agents and put under extreme pressure to name names, which I refused to do. Although the director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, from which my fellowship came (the institute’s funds were not under the university’s control), assured me that my fellowship was not in danger, another influential member of the institute warned me to finish my dissertation during the 1954–1955 academic year as my fellowship would probably not be renewed. Under great pressure I completed my dissertation, Tokugawa Religion (it is still in print from the original publisher, the Free Press), in time to get the Ph.D. degree in June of 1955.

The situation took a new turn in the spring of 1955 when the Department of Social Relations decided to put me up for a faculty appointment. I told Talcott Parsons, then chair of the department and my dissertation director, of my encounter with Bundy the year before and of my doubts of the feasibility of such an appointment. Parsons wished to press ahead. Bundy had further conversations with me in which he again urged me to name names and asked me to visit the director of the Harvard Health Service, where I had received some counseling as a freshman, to have my mental health examined. (He later told me that some members of the Corporation thought an ex-Communist must be “crazy” so they had to be reassured that I wasn’t.) In the end I was offered the appointment, but with the proviso that if I were called by any of the several Un-American Activities Committees then active and refused to answer a single question, my appointment would not be renewed. I had an offer from the Islamic Institute at McGill University in Montreal for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, which I accepted rather than the unacceptable offer from Harvard. Parsons felt if I had only waited longer they might have been able to remove the disturbing proviso from my Harvard offer. Before I left for Canada Parsons told me, “This is not the end of it.” Two years later, in 1957, at the conclusion of my postdoctoral fellowship, I had several offers, including one from Harvard without the proviso of the 1955 offer, which I accepted. I remained at Harvard until I reached the rank of full professor and left for Berkeley in 1967.

No complete record of Harvard’s behavior in the McCarthy era has ever been written—for good reason: the data are not available. When I asked for minutes of the relevant meetings of the Corporation I was told that minutes were not taken!1 One must piece together the actions of the Corporation from communications between Dean Bundy and President Pusey; the scanty material recently made available to me does, however, allow me to come to some conclusions.

It must be noted that at the time my case came up the Corporation was preoccupied with the case of Wendell Furry, a tenured physics professor, who had not cooperated with the McCarthy Committee and was under indictment. The Corporation was worried about what to do if Furry went to jail. From what I now know I would characterize Harvard’s policy (the Corporation’s, though Pusey and Bundy on the whole went along with it) as a discreet collaboration with McCarthyism with the primary concern of avoiding criticism. Retaining a tenured professor under indictment did bring criticism, but firing him would also have brought criticism, clearly from the Harvard faculty as well as prominent alumni.

However, persons with term appointments, like Sigmund Diamond and Leon Kamin, could simply be let go at the end of their term. They were unlikely to make a fuss and so Harvard’s collaboration was not likely to come to public attention. Bundy’s effort to pressure me, and presumably others, to give names to the FBI may well not have been Corporation policy, but it was not contrary to it. For what I have learned is that the Corporation’s rule with respect to term appointments was not to renew the appointment of anyone who failed to answer a single question from an investigating committee, regardless of academic distinction.

Bundy told me in 1977 that, although he approved of all previous decisions by the Corporation in similar cases, he did try to persuade the Corporation to make an exception in my case, believing that I could handle myself well in an interrogation and not dishonor the university. In his long letter to the Corporation of April 27, 1955, Bundy argued for an exception in my case on the basis of my character and qualifications. Near the end of his six-page single-spaced letter he came to the crux of the issue:

If there were no danger of outside criticism, I should be glad to see Mr. Bellah as a full-time officer of instruction…. But of course there is danger of outside criticism and it affects the question in two ways.

One was the possibility that if I were called as a witness and refused to cooperate fully the university would be criticized for “deliberately hiring” such a person. Bundy felt I would under such circumstances acquit myself well enough to deflect such criticism. The other danger was that practical refusal to appoint someone with the unanimous support of permanent members of his department would dishearten the department whereas appointing me without the proviso would “strengthen the sense of mutual confidence that now exists, I think, between the Corporation and the Faculty.”2

The Corporation’s response was contained in a brief letter from President Pusey to Dean Bundy dated May 16, approving the appointment but containing the following sentence:

If, during Mr. Bellah’s year of service as instructor, he should refuse to testify about any past association with Communists, the Corporation would not look with favor on any proposal for his reappointment.

No discussion of my qualifications, no response to Bundy’s detailed and lengthy defense of me, only the assertion of what was obviously the Corporation’s blanket policy. Since some have argued that Harvard’s behavior during the McCarthy period was motivated by a concern to uncover “security breaches,” I think it is worth pointing out that no such issue was involved in my case, or mentioned in Bundy’s or Pusey’s letters; nor was such the case with the several other persons I know of who received the same treatment that I did. Harvard’s anxiety was not about “security breaches” but about criticism.

In the new information provided to me I also have a long memorandum from Talcott Parsons, dated May 23, 1955, endorsed by a note from John Edsall, writing for the executive committee of the Harvard chapter of the AAUP, questioning the Corporation’s decision as contained in the Pusey letter of May 16. Parsons made the point that an instructor can normally expect two years of additional appointment, except for misconduct, and that the Corporation apparently believed refusal to answer questions for whatever reason constituted misconduct and consequently there is in the Corporation’s view a blanket obligation, not only for former Communists but for anyone unhappy with these investigating committees, to answer all such questions. Parsons expressed the widely held faculty belief that there was no blanket policy, but that each case would be handled on its own merits, and voiced his dismay to learn that this was not the case. He pointed out that I had cooperated with the inquiry into my mental health “unpleasant though it must have been to him,” a point that apparently had not occurred to Bundy.

Near the end of his letter Parsons indicated that actions up to that time could give the impression that “the Corporation had acted with a degree of deviousness which many would judge to be unworthy of the Governing Board of a great university.” Parsons tried again in the fall of 1956 to raise the principle of the matter and Pusey replied for the Corporation on September 27, 1956, that since I had declined their offer in the spring of 1955, there was no reason to reopen the case, but, he said, “They [the Corporation] feel their action taken at that time [May 16, 1955] was the correct one, and, if circumstances were the same today, they would take the same attitude again.”

Why did things change so dramatically in 1957, when, after my two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Canada was up, I was offered a position at Harvard without the conditions attached to the 1955 offer? Why did the previous blanket policy suddenly disappear? Bundy gives one significant reason in his July 14, 1977, letter to The New York Review: “It was Leon Kamin and Wendell Furry who had to face public trial…, and it was the prosecution’s failure in their cases, in 1956, that did most to clear the air for all concerned.” One might also add that the United States Senate’s condemnation of McCarthy in December of 1954 had shifted the mood of the country so that the jigsaw puzzle of Un-American Activities Committees had been falling apart for some time. McCarthy’s unexpected death in 1957 appeared to mark the end of an era. These were the events that finally removed the danger of “criticism” about which the Harvard Corporation was so concerned. But as to earlier events, Bundy was unrepentant: mine was the only case where he felt the Corporation had made a mistake; he agreed with all their other decisions. If Bundy was using my case to challenge the Corporation’s blanket rule, he did not say so.

What all this amounts to is a record not of Harvard’s being a bulwark against McCarthyism, but of abject cowardice, of a willingness to cooperate completely with the FBI and with McCarthy and McCarthyite committees, tempered only by a concern that the Harvard administration not do something that would rouse even more criticism than not cooperating with McCarthy would, such as firing someone with tenure. What the committees and the FBI wanted was for people to name names, and Harvard willingly cooperated, using its power of appointment and renewal to pressure people to do so. Not all great American universities were so cowardly. I got many letters after the 1977 exchange indicating other behavior elsewhere. I will only mention one, from David Riesman, who told of a case at the University of Chicago where a nontenured person who refused to give names was not only not terminated, but was defended in court at university expense. Perhaps it is time for some Harvard historian to look into the whole sad history of Harvard’s response to McCarthyism in the 1950s, with the end that such cowardice never occur again.

One can wonder at the spinelessness of the Harvard administration. An institution of Harvard’s stature could well have afforded to resist the attack on civil liberties in the McCarthy era, providing an example that weaker institutions might have followed, instead of cowering under the fear of criticism. But that was not the course taken, and only the failure to fire Furry has allowed the myth of Harvard’s resistance to survive. I owe Harvard a great deal. I spent twenty formative years—from freshman to full professor (with a hiatus of two years in Canada)—at Harvard. But I believe the true spirit of my alma mater was embodied not in President Pusey, Dean Bundy, or the Harvard Corporation but in Talcott Parsons and other faculty members like him.

Robert N. Bellah

Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus

University of California, Berkeley

  1. 1

    Further word from Dean Kirby clarifies this statement: “There are, in fact, minutes of Corporation meetings, but they are limited to a record of formal decisions, without any summary of the discussion in the meetings.” These “minutes” did not add anything to what was already contained in President Pusey’s reports as noted above.

  2. 2

    Since writing this account I have deciphered a handwritten note from Bundy to Pusey, dated April 28, 1955, as a cover to his formal letter of April 27, in which Bundy states the issue even more clearly:

    Here is my letter about Bellah, the young ex-Communist in Social Relations. In preparing it I have found myself steadily more persuaded that the right course is to appoint him—only fear argues against it, in the end, though fear could find supporting arguments in the young man’s [indecipherable word] past, of course. But if we believe in our own standards, and in forgiveness of past folly, and in respect for a young man’s conscience, we ought I think to go ahead here.

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