Robert Bellah, McCarthyism, and Harvard (Updated)

by Corey Robin on August 1, 2013

Kieran has already posted about the death of Robert Bellah. There haven’t been many obituaries yet. Even so, I haven’t seen any mention in the write-ups so far of a little known episode in Bellah’s past: his encounter with McCarthyism at Harvard.

(All of the following information comes from Ellen Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. You’ll never look at your favorite mid-century scholar the same way again.)

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1940s, Bellah had been a leader of the university’s undergraduate Communist Party unit. He left the party in 1949 because of its increasing internal authoritarianism.

In 1954, while Bellah was a graduate student at Harvard, the FBI was nosing around asking questions about people’s Communist past and present. Harvard Dean McGeorge Bundy, who would go on to serve as National Security Advisor to Kennedy and Johnson, summoned Bellah to his office and instructed him to answer all of the Bureau’s questions with “complete candor.” If he did not, Bundy warned, Harvard would revoke his fellowship. [click to continue…]