This article was first published in The American Spectatoron December 13th as “Harvard Must Learn from Churchill and Conant.” Endnotes are added that were not in the original.
The outbreak of anti-Semitism on campuses, and the Congressional testimony of three university presidents including Harvard’s, reminded me of a photo (above). It is from another time—far, far away.
Snapped in Cambridge in 1943, it pictures Harvard President James Conant and a certain distinguished personage. The occasion was the conferring of an Honorary Doctor of Laws upon the British Prime Minister. There was a war on. Harvard and the nation were gripped by serious matters. Anti-Semitism was one of them. But not the only one.
A great Harvard man
James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), was president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953. A chemist, he later became a scientific advisor to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. He served in the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which developed the atomic bomb.
Conant supported Truman’s use of the bomb, which he believed, with Churchill, would save more lives than it cost. Truman gave him the Medal of Merit, President Johnson the Medal of Freedom, President Nixon the Atomic Pioneers Award. He was a great man, devoted to duty, honor, country and his university.
James Conant was a liberal. He favored admitting women and minorities, and ultimately Harvard did. I don’t think he welcomed anti-Semites, although undoubtedly they existed on his campus. He was, above all, devoted to the free exchange of ideas. “Free speech carries with it the evil of all foolish, unpleasant and venomous things that are said,” as Churchill once remarked. “But on the whole we would rather lump them than do away with it.” 
A memorable occasion
On 6 September 1943 Conant marshaled 15,000 at Harvard Yard for Churchill’s acceptance speech—a ringing declaration of what the war was about:
Here now, today, I am once again in academic groves—groves is, I believe, the right word—where knowledge is garnered, where learning is stimulated, where virtues are inculcated and thought encouraged…. But what is this that I discern as I pass through your streets, as I look round this great company? I see uniforms on every side. I understand that nearly the whole energies of the University have been drawn into the preparation of American youth for the battlefield. For this purpose all classes and courses have been transformed [in an] almost round-the-clock drive to make warriors and technicians for the fighting fronts. 
Churchill explained that a nation “cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes…. We must go on. It must be world anarchy or world order.” He spoke of
common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor; a stern sentiment of impartial justice; and above all the love of personal freedom…among the English-speaking Peoples. We do not war primarily with races as such. Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must forever be on our guard, ever mobilised, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat. In all this, we march together. 
James Conant rose to applaud. So did the audience.
“Tolerance for heresy”
Among the Conant Papers left to Harvard was a sealed 1951 letter for his 21st-century successor. Harvard President Drew Faust opened it in 2007. Inside were Conant’s hopes and fears for the future.
“There are many who anticipate World War III within the decade and not a few who consider the destruction of our cities including Cambridge quite possible,” Conant wrote. “We all wonder how the free world is going to get through the next fifty years.” Yet the “prophets of doom” might prove wrong. If so, a future Harvard president would be able read his letter. In that case, Conant was confident:
You will receive this note and be in charge of a more prosperous and significant institution than the one over which I have the honor to preside. [That Harvard] will maintain the traditions of academic freedom, of tolerance for heresy, I feel sure. 
Eighty years on…
“Tolerance for heresy….” There was wisdom in Conant’s words. The commentator Erick-Woods Erickson cautions us not to draw the wrong lesson from the University Three in Congress. In the abstract, he argues, they were correct: “Saying generally ‘all Jews must die’ is offensive speech, but not targeted harassment. Saying, to a person, ‘you must die,’ is harassment.”
The problem, Erickson continued, is that some universities define harassment according to identity groups. If you say such things to X, you are exercising free speech. If you say the same thing to Y, you are offending. “Favored groups get broad protection from harassment and unfavored groups get tight restrictions on what they can say and do.” Mr. Erickson calls this “bizarre.” It is certainly not among our “common conceptions of what is right and decent.”
Is there a more common conception? Well, a college president of my acquaintance, whose campus doesn’t suffer from these upheavals, has one. Every year, he sits down for an hour with the freshman class to discuss how they’re going to get along with each other “The first thing to know,” he tells them, “is that there’s somebody in this room who’s going to come to your wedding, and your funeral. And probably more than one somebody. So you should treat everyone here as if they are potentially that.”
This parallels another common conception we used to call the Golden Rule. So it is an old idea. It might be time to reconsider it. I think James Conant, if he were here, would endorse that. I know Winston Churchill would.
 Winston S. Churchill, Question Time, House of Commons, 15 July 1952.
 WSC, “Anglo-American Unity,” Harvard, Cambridge, 6 September 1943, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VI: 6823.