Robert Bellah, McCarthyism, and Harvard


Courtesy of UC-Berkeley

Robert N. Bellah, a leading sociologist of the last half-century and author of the pathbreaking Habits of the Heart (1985), has died.

There haven’t been many obituaries yet. In those available, I haven’t seen any mention of a little-known episode in Bellah’s past: his encounter with McCarthyism at Harvard.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, in the late 1940s, Bellah was 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. The Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, who would go on to serve as national security adviser to Presidents 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, 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, his appointment would not be renewed. Bundy then asked Talcott Parsons, chair of the social-relations department, to review Bellah’s appointment. The department voted again—unanimously—in favor of it.

Still uncertain, Bundy had a psychiatrist at Harvard conduct a review of Bellah’s “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 Communist 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 buy research papers perform well as a witness before any government body, Bundy sent on the appointment to Harvard’s president.

The Harvard Corporation (what the university calls its governing board) approved the appointment. But as Parsons would later write in a memorandum about the incident, the corporation also

instructed Dean Bundy to inform him [Bellah] that, if during the term papers 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 to accept those terms (even though Parsons and Bundy had offered to try to renegotiate them with the corporation). He left Harvard for McGill University, 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.

All of the previous information comes from Ellen W. Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. You’ll never look at your favorite midcentury scholar in the same way again.

In 1977, Bellah and Bundy had a full and fascinating exchange about those incidents in the New York Review of Books. Bellah offered a more detailed account there; some of the details were slightly at variance with Schrecker’s account, which was based on a fuller examination of various sources, including interviews with Bellah and some of the other players.

In 2005, again in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Bellah offered yet another set of reflections on the events, based on new information he had uncovered.

Corey Robin is an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and CUNY’s Graduate Center. This article is adapted from his blog.

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