Robert Bellah, McCarthyism, and Harvard

Robert Bellah, one of the leading sociologists of the last half-century and author of the path-breaking Habits of the Heart, has died.

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)

As Norman Birnbaum points out in the comments, 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.


  1. normanbirnbaum August 1, 2013 at 10:33 am | #

    First Bob’s death leaves us all very sad, he was a person of remarkable human and scholarly achievement who devoted the last years of his life to what mattered most to him, a study of the origins of human community. He was also devoid of the usual vanities, a sympathetic participant in the lives of others. As for Harvard (we were contemporaries then and I knew the dramatis personae) the fullest account is in Sigmund Diamond’;s Compromised Campus. There was also an exchange of letters decades later in the NYRB by Bundy and Bellah. I do not think it probable that Bundy thought affiliation with the Communist party could be reduced to a psychiatric problem. He was at Yale in the late thirties and forties when faculty and students (or some of them) were swept up in the larger currents of history Actually, education at Groton and Yale and familial membership in the American elite (his father was a Boston lawyer and assistant to Secretary of War Stimson in World War II) was likely to lead not to sympathy for revolutionary doctrines but strenuous examination of these. His stewardship of Harvard’s relationship to the FBI was the sort of institutional cynicism that came with his position Norman Birnbaum

  2. Dirk vom Lehn August 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm | #

    Excellent post. May I ask for your source? I am fascinated by Parsons’ Department of Social Relations. Thanks!

    • Corey Robin August 2, 2013 at 4:04 pm | #

      See the third paragraph of the post.

      • Dirk August 2, 2013 at 4:37 pm | #

        Cheers. All from that book? How interesting, reading Shils and Homan’s autobiographies at the moment. This one next then.

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