Unearthing 'McCarthyism at Harvard'

February 1, 2005

It's rare for a publication to print letters to the editor about articles published more than 25 years ago. But a letter in the new issue of The New York Review of Books couldn't have been published back then.

The letter, "McCarthyism at Harvard," details the experiences of Robert N. Bellah, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who previously taught at Harvard -- and ran into difficulties there in the 1950s because of his brief membership in the Communist Party while a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1940s.

Bellah writes of his anger in 1977 about statements made in The New York Review by McGeorge Bundy, defending Harvard's conduct during the McCarthy era, when Bundy was dean of arts and sciences. At the time, Bellah writes, he tried to get university records about the incidents but was told that Harvard policy barred the release of such records until 50 years after the events they described.

The records covered the years 1954-8, but Harvard "bent the 50-year rule a bit" and gave Bellah the records last year, he writes.

Quoting from these records, Bellah blasts Bundy and Nathan Pusey, president of Harvard at the time, for their failure to protect scholars -- and he criticizes Harvard for not admitting its unwillingness to protect them. Bellah describes being encouraged to provide names to federal investigators even though those names would only have been people who had shared his political beliefs, not people who had engaged in espionage. And he cites documents to describe Bundy and Pusey privately focusing on such matters as how bad publicity would affect the university, not issues of academic freedom.

Both Bundy and Pusey are dead, but Bellah argues in his letter that Harvard's handling of the period deserves more attention. "One can wonder at the spinelessness of the Harvard administration," he writes. "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."

Raising these issues now, he writes, "at a time of national anxiety not entirely dissimilar to the McCarthy period, when again civil liberties are in some peril," he hopes that "the behavior of a major American university under pressure 50 years ago may not be without relevance."

Bellah thanks Harvard's current dean of arts and sciences -- William Kirby -- for helping him obtain the documents.

In an e-mail reply to a question about the documents, Kirby had this to say:

"The early to mid-1950s was an extraordinarily difficult time. The Cold War and McCarthyism affected nearly every institution in the country, universities not least among them. Judging the actions and attitudes of individuals half a century ago is always hard to do, especially when some key participants are no longer with us.  Looking back, however, many of us would agree that, during those years, Harvard could have been more firmly and consistently protective of the academic freedom of members of the university community.  I hope that the experience of that earlier era will remind us of the importance of affirming academic values and protecting dissent during troubled times."

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