Harvard in the 1970s: In Re: John Roberts, Part II: Harvard and the Long view of Things

Byron King gives us a history of Harvard University, paying close attention to the late 1960s and early-mid 1970s, when he and Supreme Court nominee John Roberts attended the institution.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY, in Cambridge, Mass., was founded in 1636 by an act of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Its original mission was to train clergy to minister to the arriving and growing populations of immigrants to the New World. Thus did European expansion, with its precarious hold on the edge of a great and wild continent, focus some portion of its resources upon issues of eternity and matters of the Almighty.
Located on Harvard’s campus are buildings whose foundations were laid down decades before the birth of even such notable figures of American history as Benjamin Franklin or George Washington. Considering its origins, there is an institutional element of Harvard that tends to take the long view of things.

Another way of looking at it is that more than 60% of all Harvard undergraduate classes, from its founding to the present time, graduated before the commencement of hostilities in 1861 that became the American Civil War. Harvard’s Memorial Hall contains a set of carved marble slabs on which are listed hundreds of names of Harvard graduates killed during that decisive war. In all respect and good memory, these are names of the deceased from the Northern side, as well as those who died in support of the Southern cause. This is another example of Harvard’s taking the long view of things.

Seven presidents of the United States were or are graduates of Harvard: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and, most recently, George W. Bush (from the School of Business, not the College). There is an institutional belief at Harvard that there will be more Harvard graduates in the Oval Office in future years.

But Harvard does not merely place its trust in the chance that something will happen that will reflect well upon the institution. Harvard plans its future in ways that take the long view of things.



Harvard in th 1970s: the Long View
Harvard’s Colonial origins give the campus a unique architectural heritage. Harvard has an extensive array of buildings, and an even more extensive array of legacies, constructed throughout the 19th, 20th, and into this 21st century.  This reinforces, at least in the minds of some students, that long view of things.

For example, the name of the great 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz commemorates Harvard’s world-class Museum of Natural History. Harvard’s outstanding Geology Department, now called the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, is the oldest academic collective for the teaching of Earth sciences in the Western Hemisphere. The Department of Geology (formerly called Natural History) was founded in 1787, thus predating the creation of the U.S. government under its present Constitution. And I know from personal experience that the Geology Department teaches its students to take a very long view of things.

Among many other names on the other Harvard structures is that of the ill-fated Harry Elkins Widener of Philadelphia, who drowned during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. His name adorns Harvard’s main library. And among the other legacies of the original bequest from the Widener family, intended to construct the building in memoriam, is the mandate that all Harvard graduates must learn to swim. In its own way, the Widener family was taking a long view of things.

“Despite its reputation as a “liberal” place (a reputation that is often undeserved under the circumstances), the institution of Harvard is a prudent and realistic organization. Harvard’s numerous departments and faculties have produced 40 Nobel laureates. Harvard has the largest endowment of any private university in the world, around $20 billion. No great institution can accomplish what Harvard has, certainly not continually and consistently, spanning several centuries, by having too many loose screws and broken gears in its internal machinery.  In its own way and to its own purposes, the governance of Harvard works.”

Policy and fiscal decisions at Harvard are made by the very thoughtful and careful Harvard Corp. (http://www.aad.harvard.edu/alumni/html/corporation.html ). The mission and academic course of the university is set according to the advice from the offices of its eminently distinguished Harvard Board of Overseers (http://www.aad.harvard.edu/alumni/html/all_overseers.html ). The structure of Harvard’s governance, far beyond the Colonial names, is rooted in respect for its past, and for keeping the great ship on an even keel. Not to overstate the point, but Harvard takes the long view of things.

Harvard is aware of the world outside its brick walls. Harvard draws from the broad spectrum of culture, although it has the luxury of being highly selective. Harvard’s mission is adaptable to the changing times.

Harvard in the 1970s: World War II

In the second week of Dec. 1941, for example, Harvard President James Bryant Conant, a former professor of chemistry, wrote an important letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his letter, Conant offered “the entire resources of Harvard University…in support of the War effort about to ensue” to the U.S. government and the American people. Despite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, much of the American academy still agreed with the antiwar sentiments of previous months and years. Harvard’s President, taking the long view of things, led the way away from these sentiments. The American academy openly joined in supporting the war effort.

During the Second World War, thousands of Harvard graduates served worldwide, fighting German fascism and militant Japanese expansionism. As the walls of Memorial Church, another Harvard landmark, can attest, there was much battlefield distinction and no little loss of life and limb.

During that war, Harvard’s faculty members played diverse but key roles such as translating documents from the Japanese language and locating strategic mineral deposits in far corners of the planet. Harvard faculty members assisted in developing techniques to fight enemy submarines in undersea warfare (the acoustic homing torpedo, perfected at Harvard, comes to mind), and provided critical scientific and engineering support for the Manhattan Project.

A somewhat aging, but distinguished Harvard professor of history, Samuel Eliot Morison, led the wartime and postwar project that produced the 16-volume epic History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II . He was later promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Professor Morisson was documenting, in Harvard tradition, the long view of things, or, in his case, of very great things.

For several decades following the end of hostilities, Harvard faculty members would, on occasion, reminisce with students about their efforts during that formative and highly focused period of national strife. Professor of mathematics Garrett Birkhoff would, if prompted, discuss his work perfecting the equations that Robert Oppenheimer used to calculate the explosive force of the atom bomb. Professor of chemistry George Kistiakowsky would discuss his efforts in designing the conventional explosive trigger for that same weapon.

In another building on campus, Professor of history John Parry would, if asked respectfully, smile grimly and recall two of his ships being blown up by German U-boats and sinking during transatlantic convoys. “And I alone am left to tell the tale,” he once said with a twinkle in his eye. He was checking to see if a curious undergraduate could make the connection to the famous line by Ishmael, sole survivor of the lost ship Pequod in the book Moby Dick .

Yes, indeed… Birkhoff, Kistiakowsky, Parry, and many more. Here were Harvard professors, gifted teachers, who could convey that long view of things to new generations.

Less than six years after the Conant letter of 1941, during the course of a Harvard commencement on June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall publicly announced the creation of a program for the United States to assist in reconstructing a devastated Europe: http://www.mc.edu/campus/users/logue/HIS212/marshall.htm . This program, ably assisted and supported by many Harvard faculty members, associates, and alumni, became known as the Marshall Plan: http://www.hpol.org/marshall . Marshall chose Harvard as the venue to set forth a long view of things.

Certainly, by the mid-20th century, Harvard was a rock of support for the strategic interests and national policies of the United States. In matters great and serious, Harvard exerted its influence.

Harvard in the 1970s: Vietnam

And then came the Vietnam War, which caused things to change in their own way.

By the late 1960s, certain elements within the Harvard community had become hotbeds of campus radicalism. Part of the radicalism was rooted in a broadly based student and faculty opposition to the American involvement in the war in Indochina. Some of the radicalism was merely a manifestation of the same cultural Marxism that was spreading through campuses across the Western world.

By definition, Marxism is mostly concerned with the here -and now. Marxism offers its adherents the prospect of creating heaven on Earth, while eschewing the prospect or promise of eternal reward. Marxism pretends to be scientific and to take a long view of history. But in practice, Marxism is merely an intellectual gimmick, sociological snake oil sold to the proverbial suckers. Seductively, Marxism offers its adherents and agents a philosophy by which they can rationalize exploiting the present while plundering the future.

No, Patty Hearst did not attend Harvard. Nor did Harvard spawn the bomb-planting Weather Underground. But in the 1960s, Harvard was rocked by the cultural Marxist sideshow, manifested by what is best described as the revolt of privilege. At the risk of oversimplifying, during the 1960s, a strain of cultural Marxism infected idealistic children from elite U.S. public and private schools who were enrolled in otherwise great, and rather expensive, colleges. They looked around, felt guilty about their perceived comfort amid a brutal world, and did something cool like join the Progressive Labor Party to ally with oppressed Third World workers. Plus, it was a good way for guys to meet girls, and vice versa.

The revolt of privilege was part of a cultural phenomenon, and for the true believers it took on many aspects of a cult. The revolt of privilege is not unique to the United States, or even to the West in general. The student revolts on campuses of the 1960s represented merely a somewhat violent version of the logic that has always drawn disaffected youth to behavior that is narcissistic and simultaneously self-destructive.

In its extreme form, we can see clearly the revolt of privilege inherent in the modern Islamic practice of jihad. Decades after the events of the 1960s in the West, we witnessed the Sept. 11 hijackers drive airliners into buildings in the name of Allah. And almost all of those homicidal individuals were disaffected rich kids from Saudi Arabia.

The 1960s were also, not coincidentally, the last time in its history when the United States was more or less self-sufficient in energy production, particularly in domestic oil and gas production. Very few people thought about the issue of energy production back then (and there are very few people who have a true grasp of the issues even now, truth be told).

“Chop your own wood, and it will warm you twice,” said a Harvard graduate named Henry Thoreau. A nation with a surplus of energy reserves, and one that can meet its own needs for consumption from its own resources and production, can drive events, and not be driven by them.

A secure oil supply is certainly a national blessing, and can mask many policy faults and political mistakes. More to the point of the 1960s, only a nation that need not overly concern itself with the security of its energy supply can afford, economically or politically, to indulge itself in intellectual fads, whether that fad is the miniskirt, military adventures, or monetarismism.
This also leads to the point that, in its own way, a secure oil supply can be a curse in the nature of a Faustian bargain. People make decisions and policies based on their beliefs (whether true or false) about the sources of their power, political as well as physical. What is really just the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time in history, if not in geological history, is often confused with peoples’ perceptions of their intrinsic worth.

The reality of power as being a function of energy availability is conveniently overlooked due to a sense of personal, if not nationalistic, narcissism and entitlement. Making decisions under these circumstances tends to lead to self-destructive behavior.

Over some period of time, a nation that burns its own oil can live with the political risk of allowing its citizens to burn its own flag, or even the cultural risk of promoting its women to burn their bras. But to all good fortune there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Eventually comes the day of reckoning, another discussion for another time.

An example of energy independence at the national strategic level came in the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War of 1967, in which the Saudis threatened to embargo oil to the West in retaliation for Western support of Israel. President Johnson signaled his request that the Texas Railroad Commission order an increase in oil production within the Lone Star State. This increase in oil production flooded the markets and kept a very low ceiling on world oil prices. The Saudi effort to use an “oil weapon” against the West simply failed.

Harvard in the 1970s: The Takeover

And getting back to Harvard, on April 9, 1969, representatives of the so-called “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS) entered and took over Harvard’s University Hall, the main administration building of the arts and sciences faculty. Numerous deans in the building were roughed up and unceremoniously hustled outside by these youthful vanguards of the impending revolution.

Later that fateful day, the SDS representatives issued a number of demands, dealing with, among other things, the abolition of Harvard’s military-sponsored Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. SDS also issued other demands concerning the rather mundane issue of Harvard’s housing policy, which oppressively segregated men from women by lodging them in different dormitories.

The Harvard president at the time was one Nathan Pusey, by profession a well-regarded professor of classical studies. Pusey was trained, as the saying goes, to take the long view of things. Pusey said that “The idea of some people — that the University is a servile slave of a rotten society is such a deep untruth that I don’t see how anyone coming to Harvard can entertain such ideas.” By implication, the Admissions Committee must have been having a few bad days.

Making reference to the SDS ringleaders of the University Hall takeover, President Pusey said, “In their starry-eyed view, they think they are leading a revolution in America. They’re trying to radicalize all the people. This small group of people has lived in a world of fantasy. I don’t think I can reason with these people.”

In addition to living in a “world of fantasy,” these people had grown up in a world of ever-increasing, always-available energy supplies. Then as now, one ounce of gasoline provided anyone who used it with the energy-equivalent of 10 years worth of solar photosynthesis by a fast-growing deciduous tree. The “starry-eyed” students had come of age and were living in a powerful nation whose own oil production had not yet peaked.

On the evening of April 9, 1969, Harvard’s President Pusey consulted with the deans and other individuals who were key to administering the university. Together, they decided to call in the local Cambridge Police, with the support and backup of the Massachusetts State Police.

At 5:00 a.m. on April 10, about 400 police baton-wielding officers swept into Harvard Yard and arrested the nearly 200 occupiers of University Hall. A number of individuals sustained injuries, including some unfortunate bystanders and journalists who approached too close to observe the melee. While polling showed that much of the population of the United States endorsed the response by the governing body of Harvard, Pusey’s action precipitated a two-week “strike” by faculty and students. The matter became so serious that the Harvard Corp. threatened to close the University.

Within a few days, virtually the entire Harvard community of students, faculty, and supporting employees met on the concrete benches of the Harvard football stadium. For many hours, individuals of every stripe and hue took to the microphones and had their say, in a demonstration of New England democracy writ large. Some speakers were applauded; others were hooted down.
Asked some time later what he would do if he could relive the takeover of University Hall in April 1969, Pusey said, “I would do what I did….The idea that [the SDS protesters] can force their ideas on the university community is hateful.”

Over the next few years, Harvard reverted to some semblance of normality, but things never really went back to the way they had been. The university denied academic credit to its ROTC program, and in consequence, ROTC left the Harvard campus (although Harvard students could, and still do, participate via the ROTC program offered by MIT, a fine school just down Massachusetts Avenue). The university addressed the “housing policy problems” by allowing men and women to live in coeducational dormitories. Harvard and its sister school, Radcliffe, began the formal process of merging.

By the time my freshman class entered Harvard in the fall of 1973 (this was the class that included one John G. Roberts of LaPorte, Indiana), the events of April 1969 were legend and lore. A few seniors and graduate students, as well as a number of faculty, would talk about “1969” as if it was the culminating battle of some great war in which we had not participated because, at the time, most of us were merely finishing up in the eighth grade.

As one classmate later put it, we 1973 Harvard entrants felt a bit like the soldiers in an army of occupation. We had arrived in a strange land, to garrison a conquered territory. We disembarked several years after the fighting was over and the rubble was cleared away.

Whatever was the cause of the previous war, of that siege of the Harvard campus, and whatever its course of conduct, it was not for us to experience except vicariously through the wistful reminiscences of some of the graduate students and younger faculty. And on occasion during the telling of the tale by these correspondents, the events of 1969 were amplified to something between Pickett’s Charge and a Cambridge Abridged Version of the Battle of Kursk.

For most students at Harvard in the mid-1970s, it was a time to buckle down and study hard. Then, as now, Harvard was an expensive school to attend, so we did not want to waste the opportunity. The faculty was demanding, which is a polite understatement. Many professors graded on a curve, those being the days before epidemic grade inflation. My fellow Harvard students were smart and motivated. To do well, just about everybody had to work at it.

Shortly after the school year started, October 1973 brought news of the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, and later the news of a U.S. nuclear alert that was in response to provocative military activities by the Soviet Union. The latter almost resulted in an American nuclear exchange with the Russians. After this event, most talk about a student “strike” over Harvard’s housing policy seemed rather mundane. And I, at least, was rather glad that there were ROTC graduates out in the world, flying B-52s and driving Poseidon submarines.

The Yom Kippur War ended, but in late 1973 and early 1974, the Saudis again attempted to place an oil embargo on the United States. This time things were different. U.S. domestic oil production had peaked in 1970 at about 10.6 million barrels per day, although this was not apparent until several years later.

After 1970, U.S oil production was in a state of irreversible decline, and not in any way sufficient to meet the nation’s daily needs. Thus the United States was importing significant quantities of oil from international sources, a situation that has not changed in the past 35 years. This is, in many important respects, one of those long views of things.

The Saudi embargo led rapidly to the world price of petroleum quadrupling. The U.S. government attempted, through its ponderous and often incompetent bureaucracy, to “allocate” refined petroleum products. These efforts were disastrous, and led to long lines at America’s gasoline stations.

Coupled with this oil shock and disruption to the nation’s energy supplies, the ensuing political downfall of Richard Nixon coincided with a national economic recession. This downturn was of such severity that it even pinched the wallets of many families that could afford to send a child to Harvard. There were, in short, other things on the minds of Harvard students besides the overly romanticized student activism of the previous years.

Harvard in the 1970s: The End of the Vietnam War

When South Vietnam fell to an invasion of North Vietnamese tanks in April 1975, I recall that Harvard experienced what was probably the closest thing to the resurgence of activist sentiments of 1969. Many hundreds of students and faculty packed into the largest auditorium at the science center for a “teach-in” on what had just occurred. One junior faculty member, wearing a “Che”-style beret, stood up and said something along the lines of, “This is a great day in the history of opposition by the oppressed peoples of the world to U.S. imperialism.” There was some scattered applause.

Then, professor Otto Eckstein of the Economics Department, a distinguished scholar and former adviser to President Kennedy, strode to the podium and literally grabbed the mike from the hands of the hapless junior. With lightning in his eyes, Eckstein looked at the previous speaker and said (and I will never forget the words), “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for saying such a thing.” The mostly Harvard audience erupted in a thunder of applause that all but cracked the concrete beams of the building.

And professor Eckstein was not finished with this young academic punk, the target of his unalloyed wrath. “This is one of the saddest days in American history,” he declaimed. “Our nation has made a vast investment of blood and treasure in Vietnam, and we have lost it all. We have lost tens of thousands of precious lives, and spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and staked the credibility of this nation upon our policy. Everyone in this room will be living with the results of this war, and paying its price in one way or another, for the rest of our lives, and probably for the lives of our children.” The room turned silent.

Here was the adult version of Harvard, the Harvard of the previous three centuries. Here was, in no uncertain terms, Harvard at its best. Here was a distinguished faculty member, an adviser to a U.S. president, saying, in essence, “I have had enough of this crap,” and scolding a man who was simply running his mouth defaming his nation. Here was an officer of Harvard, a representative of that Great and Lasting Institution, doing what is, in truth, the heart and soul of the place. He was taking the long view of things.

This was Harvard in the 1970s. These were the days when John Roberts and I, and many others, were navigating our way through its maze. These were some of the waters in which we swam. This was where we learned to take the long view.

To be continued, in Part III.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
August 15, 2006