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.

(Just a few months earlier, Sigmund Diamond, who was about to be appointed to a teaching and administrative position at Harvard, had agreed to answer the FBI’s questions about his own background but refused to name names. As a result, Bundy decided to pull the appointment.)

When the FBI interrogated Bellah a week later, he agreed to talk about his own past but refused to name names. As it turned out, Bundy had no control over Bellah’s fellowship, so it wasn’t revoked.

A year later, Harvard’s Social Relations department decided to appoint Bellah as an instructor. Bundy intervened again, informing Bellah that should he refuse at any point in the future to answer any and all questions that the government might put to him, his appointment would not be renewed.

Bundy then asked Talcott Parsons, chair of the Social Relations department, to have the department review Bellah’s appointment. The department voted again—unanimously—in favor of it.

Still uncertain about Bellah, Bundy had a psychiatrist at Harvard conduct a review of his “current state of mind.” (Bellah had admitted to Bundy that he had once been in therapy, and Bundy assumed that it must have been a psychological imbalance that had led him to join the Party; presumably, Bundy wanted to make sure that balance had been restored.) Fortified by the psychiatrist’s assurances that Bellah wasn’t a loon, and confident that Bellah would perform well as a witness before any government body, Bundy sent on his appointment to Harvard’s president.

The Harvard Corporation (what the university calls its board of trustees) approved the appointment. But as Talcott Parsons would later write in a memo about the incident, the Corporation also

instructed Dean Bundy to inform him [Bellah] that, if during the term of his appointment, Mr. Bellah should be called before any legally authorized investigating body and should decline to answer any questions put to him by members of such a body concerning his Communist past, the Corporation “would not look with favor on the renewal of his appointment” after the expiration of his term.

Bellah refused these terms (even though Parsons and Bundy had offered to try and renegotiate them with the Corporation). He left Harvard for McGill, which he described as “about the worst year in my life.”

In 1957, Bellah returned to Harvard as a research associate, with no political stipulations on his appointment. McCarthyism was effectively dead—not everywhere, but in many places—in part because it had succeeded.

Bellah eventually worked his way up to full professor at Harvard, left for Berkeley, and received a National Humanities Medal from Bill Clinton in 2000.

He was one of the lucky ones.

Update (11 am)

In 1977, Bellah and Bundy had a full and fascinating exchange about these incidents in the New York Review of Books. Bellah offers a much more detailed account there; some of the details are slightly at variance with Schrecker’s account.



MATTEO BORTOLINI 08.01.13 at 3:49 pm

Hi, this is Matteo Bortolini, a sociologist from Padova, Italy.
I’m writing the biography of Robert Bellah, and I wonder if you know this followup to the 1977 exchange:

It sheds a completely different light on the episode.
Bob Bellah was a great and decent man, we’ll all miss him.


Jacob T. Levy 08.01.13 at 7:11 pm

Can’t help but be curious: what did he find so dreadful about McGill?


Ben 08.01.13 at 7:59 pm

The mental image of McGeorge Bundy trying to intimidate Talcott Parsons over an administrative academic matter is hilarious to me for some reason.

Thanks for pointing out the Schrecker book, it looks fascinating.


MjM 08.02.13 at 12:37 am

Perhaps it was because Canadians are inordinately sensitive.

Or perhaps it was because he felt he was being denied an opportunity to continue his work at Harvard because of his political views in a country that was supposed to allow that sort of thing.


Mike G 08.02.13 at 4:04 am

He left the party in 1949 because of its increasing internal authoritarianism.

Yeah, a good thing there wasn’t any of that at Harvard.
McGeorge Bundy is a classic example of the manipulative, weaselly right-wing scum infesting our powerful institutions.


Collin Street 08.02.13 at 4:17 am

Our powerless institutions as well. Anyone who’s been involved in clubs or community organisations would recognise the recurring archetype of the process-obsessed semi-competent who constantly angers other people, finds it difficult to accept that they’ve stuffed anything up, hard-on-others-soft-on-themselves.

They accumulate everywhere they’re not chased out of, and once they start accumulating somewhere then normal people start avoiding the institution. There’s nothing special about politics, here.


Gene O'Grady 08.02.13 at 5:13 am

Makes remember that it wasn’t just ignorance and youth that made me find Bundy one of America’s most despicable ca. 1967. Me and George Bush, we go with our gut.


Steven J Fromm 08.02.13 at 12:49 pm

Very nice post on a time in our country that none of us can be proud of. You would not think this stuff would go on at Harvard of all places. Mr. Bellah was a man to be respected and should have been treated better than he was. Thanks for the historical insights.


politicalfootball 08.02.13 at 3:46 pm

You would not think this stuff would go on at Harvard of all places.

Harvard in the 1950s, Berkeley today. One ought not romanticize elite academia too much.


SamChevre 08.02.13 at 5:25 pm

Somehow, had it been Carl Schmitt, I suspect that he would have gotten off less easily–here and in academia.


Palindrome 08.03.13 at 4:04 am

McGeorge Bundy, the man who knew everything he needed to know and was little interested in learning otherwise. My favorite Bundy story is about how, as a popular young lecturer in the Harvard School of Government, he was recommended for tenure by his department. James Conant, Harvard President and former chair in Chemistry, was surprised to learn that Bundy had never taken a single class in political science or government in either his undergraduate or graduate career.

“Well,” Conant remarked, “all I can say is that it couldn’t have happened in chemistry.”


LFC 08.03.13 at 1:40 pm

Not a fan of Bundy. However, the book on nuclear weapons he published in the late ’80s, Danger and Survival, is probably pretty good. He was bad on Vietnam and must bear a lot of responsibility for that, but his successor as LBJ’s natl security advisor, Walt Rostow, was even worse.


MATTEO BORTOLINI 08.06.13 at 5:25 pm

To all commenters: please read the second version of the story that I linked in my first comment


LFC 08.06.13 at 9:50 pm

I just looked v. quickly at the link. Apparently Bundy tried unsuccessfully to get the Corp. to make an exception to its general policy in Bellah’s case by writing a long letter in defense of him. But Bellah’s case was the only such case in which Bundy did that. Fair summary?


LFC 08.06.13 at 9:59 pm

Bellah’s conclusion in the ’05 letter to NYRB, for those who don’t click through:

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 [a tenured physics professor] has allowed the myth of Harvard’s resistance to survive. … 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.

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