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Harvard’s Troubled History with Free Association: Part 2

Yesterday we brought you the first installment of a two-part series prompted by our open letter to Harvard University published in The Harvard Crimson yesterday. The full-page ad, which ran again today, details the school’s troubling history with freedom of association and links it to current administrative efforts to blacklist student-members of off-campus, single-gender social clubs.

In Part 1, we discussed Harvard’s long-hidden 1920 “Secret Court” files—uncovered by an intrepid student journalist in the early 2000s—revealing that Harvard systematically interrogated students about alleged homosexual activity, asking them to make confessions and name associates. At least one suicide was linked to this unconscionable practice.

Today, we’ll present details of another era in which Harvard saw fit to punish students for exercising their associational rights: In the 1950s, Harvard gave in to McCarthyism and began interrogating alleged communists and communist sympathizers.

‘Harvard is unalterably opposed to communism.’

In the 1930s, Harvard began gaining a reputation for being sympathetic to communists. Critics dubbed it the “Kremlin on the Charles.” This negative public pressure pushed Harvard to respond. In 1948, Harvard President James B. Conant signed a document proclaiming communists “should be excluded from employment as teachers.” And in 1949, the Harvard faculty voted by a two-to-one ratio that communists should not be permitted to teach at colleges. In spite of this, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy continued the attacks on Harvard, leading Conant’s successor, Nathan M. Pusey, to tell McCarthy via telegram:

Harvard is unalterably opposed to communism. It is dedicated to free inquiry by free men. I am in full agreement with the opinion publicly stated by my predecessor and the Harvard Corporation that a member of the Communist Party is not fit to be on the Faculty because he has not the necessary independence of thought and judgment.

But Harvard didn’t stop at declaring communists unfit to teach. Those who had previously been communists, or associated with the Communist Party, found themselves targeted and victimized by Harvard if they refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Sigmund Diamond

Sigmund Diamond was one such victim. Decades later, in 1977, he gave his account of what transpired to The New York Review of Books.

After completing his doctorate in history at Harvard in 1953, Diamond remained at the university with a research fellowship until 1954. In 1954, he was considered for an appointment as Counsellor for Foreign Students and Dean of Special Students by the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, McGeorge Bundy (who is today best known as one of the architects of the Vietnam War). According to Diamond, about three weeks later, he was approached by the FBI about his prior membership in the Communist Party and was asked to identify his associates. Diamond refused, reasoning that anyone he named would likely lose his or her job even though no crime had been committed.

Several days later, Diamond was called into Bundy’s office and told that if he refused to name names, Bundy would withdraw Diamond’s appointment. Diamond remained unwilling to comply, and despite the intervention of others on Diamond’s behalf, Bundy pulled the appointment. Despite this setback at Harvard, Diamond ultimately received a professorship in history and sociology at Columbia University, where he taught for 31 years.

Bundy responded to Diamond’s accusations, and did not deny that he pulled the recommendation for appointment. He instead argued that he was justified in doing so because the position was administrative in nature, rather than academic, and that only academic appointments “carried all the immunities of academic freedom.” Bundy claimed that had Diamond been offered an academic appointment, it would have been approved, whether or not he was willing to sell out his associates.

Robert Bellah

In response to Bundy’s defense of himself and of Harvard, another former student, Robert Bellah, wrote to The New York Review of Books and gave his own story, which was very similar to Diamond’s. Except in this case, it was an academic appointment on the line—the kind Bundy claimed would have been protected. Not so, according to Bellah. The following details come from his account.

In 1954, nearing the completion of his Ph.D., Bellah was called into Bundy’s office, where Bundy made demands similar to those made of Diamond:

Bundy told me that an “officer of the university” had informed him of my political past and that I had an obligation of “complete candor,” as he put it, to confess my activities and to name all of my former associates to the FBI or to any other duly authorized body… He informed me that not only was “complete candor” necessary but that my fellowship would be cancelled and my academic future would be clouded indeed if I failed to cooperate.

Shortly after, Bellah was “picked up off the street” by the FBI and interrogated. Bellah also refused to name names. Thereafter, Bellah was advised by a faculty member to complete his dissertation in the following academic year because his fellowship would not be renewed. He did so, but surprisingly, was offered an instructorship by another department at Harvard. However, he was informed by Bundy and the Harvard Corporation that his appointment would not be renewed if he was called before government committees such as HUAC, Indiana Sen. William Jenner’s Committee on Internal Security, or McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations, and refused to answer any question regarding his alleged communist activities or his associates. Bellah rejected the contingent appointment and took a position at McGill University in Canada.

Notably, Bellah never knew the precise details of the administrative actions against him until he was granted access to related documents some 50 years after the fact, in 2004. The following year, Bellah penned a more detailed retrospective, again for The New York Review of Books, on his experience. As it turned out, Bellah was not the only person with an academic appointment who failed to receive the supposed “immunities of academic freedom” Harvard promised.

Leon Kamin

In response to Bellah’s piece, yet another former Harvard graduate student, Leon Kamin, went public with his own story.

In 1953, Kamin was a Ph.D. student and had an appointment as a teaching fellow. He was subpoenaed by Sen. Jenner’s committee and pled the Fifth when asked to name associates who might be involved with communism. In response, the Harvard Corporation charged Kamin with misconduct, stripping him of his fellowship and putting the completion of his dissertation in jeopardy. Fortunately for Kamin, he was saved by a Harvard faculty member who appointed him as a research assistant without the need for approval by the Harvard Corporation. But before Kamin received his Ph.D., he was subpoenaed by McCarthy’s Subcommittee. Dean Bundy pressured Kamin to name names to McCarthy’s committee, letting Kamin know that Bundy was in close contact with the FBI. Once in front of the McCarthy committee, Kamin did not plead the Fifth, but refused to name names out of conscience. For this, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for contempt of the Senate.

Wendell Furry, an associate professor of physics, faced a situation very similar to Kamin. He was summoned to appear before HUAC, and, like Kamin, refused to incriminate others. He was charged by the Harvard Corporation with “grave misconduct” and placed on probation for three years. He, too, was indicted for contempt.

Leon Kamin was eventually acquitted. Because the indictment made him unemployable in America, like Bellah, he found work in Canada. The charges against Furry were dropped shortly after Kamin was acquitted.

Harvard ‘cowering under the fear of criticism.’

While it is clear that the “immunities of academic freedom” supposedly afforded by Harvard were worth exactly nothing when push came to shove, the fact that Harvard did not immediately fire Kamin and Furry ironically resulted in Harvard gaining a reputation as a bastion of academic freedom that worked to protect its students and professors from the baleful intentions of the McCarthyites.

But the professors and graduate students affected had a significantly different outlook. As Bellah put it:

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.


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.

Kamin added:

The misconduct consisted of my exercising a constitutional right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. For this decision, which left me unemployed three months before I could complete my Ph.D. thesis, Harvard was widely acclaimed as a bastion of academic freedom.


My own case confirms Robert Bellah’s conclusion that Harvard’s reputation as a bastion of academic freedom in the dark days of McCarthyism is wholly undeserved.

Does Harvard have it right now?

If the current sanctions regime against single-gender social club members is to survive in any form, Harvard is going to task someone with finding and sanctioning students who are, or who are believed to be, members.

Will the person or persons running this inquisition do so in secrecy, behind closed doors like the Secret Court? Or will everything happen out in the open, like the congressional committees dedicated to rooting out communists? Will it compel students suspected of membership into revealing their associates? What consequences might Harvard impose on those who, like Diamond, Bellah, Kamin, and Furry, refuse to rat out their friends?

Even if one is prepared to jettison the principle of freedom of association itself—and many at Harvard are—the truth is that any system designed to discover and punish people for lawfully associating with others will be too odious for a liberal society to tolerate for long, whether that society is the Harvard community or America at large. (If you have a counterexample, we would love to hear it.)

Harvard found itself on the wrong side of history in the 1920s and 1950s for failing to respect the fundamental right of its students and faculty to freely associate. It did so for reasons that undoubtedly seemed very good at the time. The Harvard leaders of the 1920s honestly believed homosexuals were spreading destructive, immoral behavior; the Harvard leadership of the 1950s feared America’s defeat at the hands of Soviet Communism. They were wrong then. For those who support the social club blacklist in 2017, then, the question is this: Why are you so sure Harvard has it right now?

It is FIRE’s sincere hope that the newly empaneled committee will look long and hard at history before they repeat it. If they choose to repeat it, they should understand that they haven’t seen the last of FIRE’s involvement in this unfolding debacle.

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