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Harvard's Loyalty Oath Still Stings Opponent

Ideology: Ann Fagan Ginger's husband was asked to leave the school as a professor after refusing to sign an anti-communist disavowal in 1954.

April 05, 2001|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For almost 50 years, Ann Fagan Ginger seethed about the choice Harvard University handed her husband. Finally the 75-year-old lawyer from Berkeley wrote a long letter last fall seeking redress from the institution that in 1954 told her husband to sign an anti-communist oath--or pack up and leave.

In a succinct acknowledgment in December, Harvard's Board of Overseers responded that in 1954 the school "took an action . . . that many people today, looking back, would not find appropriate."

Fagan Ginger called that response "basically unresponsive." So she wrote again to Harvard on March 26, reopening deep wounds from a time when the fear of communism was in full force. She demanded more from the university.

"They should have a truth and reconciliation session where someone who did something bad would go up to someone else and say, 'I personally am sorry,' " she said. Fagan Ginger witnessed this technique not long ago in South Africa. Many universities also have made efforts to come to grips with their involvement in the McCarthy era, including honoring those targeted.

Raymond Ginger was a young professor of American history at Harvard when he declined to tell university officials whether he had been a member of the Communist Party. "Ray Ginger, who never did anything except think ideas and write books about [labor organizer] Eugene Debs and so forth," Fagan Ginger said. She also declined to sign an anti-communist oath at that time.

Ray Ginger went on--"not immediately, not easily," Fagan Ginger said--to teach at universities in Michigan and Canada. He divorced his wife, who raised their two sons in California and established her research institute in Berkeley centered on human rights. The Harvard experience hovered over him until, Fagan Ginger said, "he drank himself to death at the age of 51, not an easy thing to do."

Ray Ginger's dismissal from Harvard took place at the height of McCarthyism, a time when congressional investigators already had aimed their zeal at Hollywood and major labor unions, said Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at New York City's Yeshiva University who specializes in that period. Targeting universities as potential hotbeds of radical activity, the investigators summoned faculty members from schools around the country.

Harvard received unfavorable attention when a physics professor, Wendell Furry, invoked the 5th Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee, said Schrecker, author of "No Ivory Tower," a book about universities in the McCarthy years. As a result, she said, the school apparently did some internal housecleaning of its own.

While many institutions launched similar inquiries into faculty activities, Schrecker said "Harvard's was more hypocritical, perhaps," because a high-profile professor like Furry was allowed to remain on the faculty after his brush with the House committee. Like Ginger, most casualties were junior faculty members whose associations with the school were severed quietly, and quickly.

As Fagan Ginger remembered in her September letter to Sharon Gagnon, president of the Harvard Board of Overseers, "I was preparing dinner when my husband came home and said he had been . . . told he would have to take an oath that he was not a member of the Communist Party in order to keep his job."

Three days later--with a 3-year-old and nine months pregnant--Fagan Ginger was on a train for New York while her husband searched for a new job.

In her December response, Gagnon said a search of Harvard records confirmed Fagan Ginger's account of her husband's departure from the school.

"The period of the early to mid-1950s was a difficult historical period," Gagnon conceded. Her three-paragraph letter further acknowledged, "It is also clear that you and your family experienced hardship and anguish as a result, and for that, President [Neil] Rudenstine joins me in extending to you the university's genuine sympathy and regret."

Fagan Ginger has received no reply to the March letter in which she discounted Gagnon's suggestion that "thoughtful people" today might question Harvard's actions almost a half-century ago.

"Doesn't that sound reminiscent of the statements of the good Germans who say today that they didn't quite know what Hitler and the Nazi party . . . were doing in Germany in the 1930s?" Fagan Ginger wondered.

In her newest letter, Fagan Ginger called for the university to "face up to the facts of its past and to issue a strong condemnation of its actions/inactions in the Cold War period."

Terming that potential action a form of reparations, Fagan Ginger said in an interview: "Society is entitled to a piece of paper from a leading institution that says we will not cave in [during] another period of hysteria. I think that's important, to say we've learned a lesson."

A Harvard spokesman termed the Gagnon letter to Fagan Ginger "a sincere expression of regret" and said the school would have no additional comment.

But Schrecker said some schools have labored to heal the injuries from this period.

After firing a man who later became a renowned classicist, Rutgers University invited him back to give a major lecture, she said. The University of Michigan created a lecture series named after the three people who were called up by the House committee and fired, she went on, and the University of Vermont gave an honorary degree to a man it had fired at this time. On the 50th anniversary of its loyalty oath controversy, UC Berkeley held a two-day conference on the subject, she said.

But "Harvard has done zilch," Schrecker said, adding, "Harvard has been quite remiss here."

From her office in Berkeley, Fagan Ginger said she remained hopeful that Harvard would consider taking "some steps" toward a public inquiry.

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