McCarthyism at Smith College
“It’s all very well to fight the Communists with their own weapons, which seems to be the popular cliché about congress…with the threat of totalitarianism imminent isn’t it most important that now we preserve democratic institutions?...” -“Not a Straw Man.” The Sophian, 5 February, 1953.
One of the most notorious periods in the history of the United States is the ‘McCarthy Era’, when Senator Joseph McCarthy the “Junior Senator from Wisconsin” provoked rampant fear of Communist infiltration of the government and other important organizations. Few institutions remained untouched, and Smith College was no exception.
Smith College during the 1950s was a much different institution from the one we see today. Although the student body is now predominantly Democrat, during the 1952 Presidential election, a poll by the Sophian showed that overall 69.6% of the student body supported the Republican candidate, Eisenhower. (1) This was practically inverse of the views of the staff, of whom 68% supported Stevenson, the Democratic candidate. (2) As the gossip column of the Sophian notes, “One girl we heard of came up with an explanation. ‘The faculty must come from the under priviledged classes.’…” (3)
McCarthyism at this point could be said to be in full swing, and it is common to see in news articles of the time in the Sophian references to fears of Communists and the internal threats it was believed they posed. Opinions ranged from the paranoid to the satirical. In one particularly inflammatory article in the Sophian, the question was raised of who becomes a Communist. The reply was, “In the United States it is the abnormal native or the foreign-born individual.” (4) However, in February of 1953 the Sophian published a satire on Russian newspapers. It should be noted that even this attempt to make light of the situation was received with general concern. As one student said in her letter to the editor, “In regard to your satire on Russian Papers…Many people did not realize that it was intended as a joke and furthermore it seemed in very bad taste…” (5) Earlier in January that year the House Un-American Activities Committee had cited Smith College as possibly being investigated in its probe for Communists in higher education. It was included in this list with many other well-known and well-respected schools such as Vassar, Wellesley, Harvard, M.I.T. and Columbia. Congressman Harold Velde was quoted in the Sophian as saying that he wanted to “emphasize particularly that…the great majority—99 and 9/10 percent—of all professors and students in American universities are entirely loyal.” (6)
Through out the next year, the subject was to reappear periodically, usually in connection with HUAC and its threats toward and investigations of various colleges. While Smith was often involved directly or indirectly with these threats, most of them centered around Harvard University. At one point the Sophian quotes Harvard challenging McCarthy to “Put up or shut up”. (7) In deed, the general tone of Smith during the time seems to be one of alternating passivity and resentfulness towards the investigations, and for the most part “put up or shut up” seemed to be the official response to most insinuations. This bold stance would soon be put to the test.
On March 4th, 1954, President Wright addressed the student body in Chapel. He spoke upon a recent letter mailed out to Smith alumnae by a Mrs. Aloise Buckley Heath, ’41, who, along with a number of other anonymous alumnae, had formed an organization they named the “Committee for Discrimination in Giving.” In this letter, she had accused Smith College of employing Communists or people in Communist-front organizations, named the names of five faculty member who she (and presumably the organization as a whole) believed were Communists, and insinuated that there were others that she had not named, and accused them of trying to subvert the young minds at Smith. She also advised alumnae to withhold donations to the college on the grounds that they were being used to pay Communists. As she phrased it, “We suggest…that any alumna who cannot conscientiously, and with complete awareness of its implications, follow this course, withhold her donation until the Smith Administration explains its educational policy to her personal satisfaction.” (8)
The effect of this letter was galvanic both within the Smith administration and within the alumnae community. As soon as they received the letter, many alumnae informed President Wright of what they had received. He immediately took action to talk to those accused and discover the truth of the matter. Additionally, efforts were made to keep the letter from being published in the news until the matter could be cleared up somewhat. Smith College then proceeded to make a number of statements, voicing both its complete confidence in its faculty and its objections to the manner in which the Committee for Discrimination in Giving had made its case. (9)
As for the alumnae, it is very clear that Mrs. Heath’s strategy backfired in no small way. In a short booklet Mrs. Heath wrote about the affair, she says, “Our job [mailing the letters] was completed, our problem in able hands; I anticipated no further interruption of my leisurely life…On February 25 [the next day], I spent almost thirteen hours at the telephone.” (10) She goes on to discuss the nature of those phone calls. She recalls some of the more memorable conversations, including a recent graduate who declared that if she had had one million dollars, she would have given it all to Smith. As Heath recounts, “Another Smith graduate announced that she had reported us to the West Hartford police for “sending objectionable literature through the mails.”” (Ibid) The alumnae response was not limited to the phone: “The letters continue to pack our mail box. “The best answer I can think of is to send a check to Smith College every time I receive a communication from your committee.”… “Mrs. Heath: Why don’t you go to hell?”” (Ibid) The strongest evidence of the alumnae community’s intense negative response to Heath’s letters is that in the entirety of her booklet she makes no mention of anyone voicing support.
In fact, as President Wright noted at the time, “…though several of us [faculty members] have received man letters from alumnae…not one, so far as I know, has indicated sympathy with Mrs. Heath.” (11) Far from causing the College to lose donations, Mrs. Heath herself noted that it caused an increase in donations. (12) However, the letter had done serious damage to the College, particularly to the faculty members it had named as Communists or their associates.
The Massachusetts Un-American Activities Committee had called for an investigation of the charges, and on May 22nd, 1954, a hearing of the five accused faculty members was held by the Sub-Committee. The Sub-Committee members included Mrs. Mary Newman, of the House of Representatives, Mr. Buckley, appointed by the Governor, and Mr. Thomas Besnahan, who acted as the counsel.
The hearing’s findings were sparse. Of the faculty members accused, Howard Faulkner, Newton Arvin (see, Arvin, Newton) and Vera Michaels Dean were shown to have no connections whatsoever to the Communist party. Mervin Jules and Oliver Larkin admitted to having been in the Communist Party, but both had left many years earlier, due to disillusionment with it. As a summary of the hearing notes, “Taking the testimony as a whole there was no refusal of any witness to answer a question and the answers as given did not indicate and action that was illegal or disloyal.” (13) Smith College had been vindicated, and the matter was dropped.
Although the manner that some behaved in during the McCarthy era is deplorable, Smith College was able to avoid much of the acrimony of the period through a firm stance and a determination to do what was right. As Mrs. Philip L. Turner wrote in a letter to Mrs. Heath, “In my experience I have found that you either believe in your college or you do not. It so happens that I believe in it…” Although it was a trying event, it was to the credit of almost every Smith student, staff member and alumnae that they stood firmly by their principles and did not allow hysteria to sway them.
Footnotes 1. “7.1% More Votes for Ike in Retabulated Results.” The Sophian I, 14 (1952):1. 2. “Stevenson Leads Eisenhower in Faculty Questionnaires.” The Sophian I, 13(1952):1. 3. “From Where I Sit….” The Sophian I,5 (1952): 4. 4. Goldstick, Janet. “New Attitude Asked To Treat Communism.” The Sophian I, 26(1952):1. 5. Morden, Patricia. “Letters To The Editor.” The Sophian I,31 (1953): 2. 6. Damon, Marcia. “List For Communist Probe Cites Smith.” The Sophian I, 28(1953): 7. “Crimson Believes McCarthy Prates.” The Sophian II, 17 (1953): 5. 8. Aloise B. Heath to Smith Alumnae, Papers of the Office of the President under Benjamin F. Wright, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 9. Statement Given in Answer to Queries Concerning the Letter from the “Committee for Discrimination in Giving,” 1 March 1954, Papers of the Office of the President under Benjamin F. Wright, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 10. “The “Liberals” of Smith,” Booklet by Aloise Heath, August 1954, Papers of the Office of the President under Benjamin F. Wright, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 11. President Wright to the Members of the Smith College Faculty, 1 March 1954, Papers of the Office of the President under Benjamin F. Wright, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. 12. Heath, “The “Liberals” of Smith.” 13. Memorandum by John H. Finn, 22 May 1954, Papers of the Office of the President under Benjamin F. Wright, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.