Conant, Churchill, and the Harvard of 1943

Conant, Churchill, and the Harvard of 1943

This arti­cle was first pub­lished in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor on Decem­ber 13th as “Har­vard Must Learn from Churchill and Conant.” End­notes are added that were not in the original.
AUDIO: Click here to lis­ten to the Har­vard Speech (with a few dis­creet cuts) as it was delivered.
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 Conant in 1932. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.” [1]

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. [2]
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. [3]
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. [4]

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.


[1] Win­ston S. Churchill, Ques­tion Time, House of Com­mons, 15 July 1952.

[2] 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.

[3] Ibid., 6824.

[4] “My Dear Sir: A Sealed Let­ter from the Uni­ver­si­ty Archives Reach­es Drew Faust on the Occa­sion of Her Inau­gu­ra­tion”Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Library Let­ters. 2 (5). Fall 2007 – Win­ter 2008. Retrieved 11 Decem­ber 2023.

Further reading

“Win­ston Churchill: Not Much to Say Today?” 2015.

“The Most Impor­tant Thing About Edu­ca­tion: Churchill at Bris­tol,” 2023.

“Churchill and Lin­coln: Schol­ars Con­sid­er the Coop­er Union Speech,” 2023.

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