McCarthyism and the Professors
The Academic Mind.
by Paul Lazarsfeld and Wagner Thielens, Jr.
Free Press. 460 pp. $7.50.


This book is an attempt to assess the effects of the McCarthy episode on social scientists in the various colleges. However, McCarthy himself is never mentioned by name (his time of glory is discreetly termed “the difficult years”), and the situation in which his talents found their scope is not discussed. The Congressional investigators therefore appear to jump like diaboli ex machina on professors who were quietly cultivating their academic gardens. Yet the whole drama, and the role of the academic community in it, can be understood only if the two main sources of the popular tide which bore McCarthy are traced.

The first was the reluctance of many Americans to accept our various postwar setbacks in the Far East and in Europe as unavoidable, or as due to American policies which, though foolish, had been carried out in good faith and with the backing of the nation. It was easier to believe “we wuz robbed”—that Communist agents had infiltrated and misled policy-making bodies. Second, some Communists had indeed infiltrated governmental agencies at a time when few Americans realized that they were no less dangerous than the Nazis. By referring to the 1948 Congressional investigation of Communist infiltration as a “red herring,” the Truman administration became the target of strong popular resentment, on which McCarthy soon rode to prominence. Truman, understandably, wished to protect the Democratic record. But there had been carelessness, and his blanket denial of Communist infiltration gave the impression that the government was unwilling to check it. It was this impression which led people to tolerate and even favor some form of lynch justice. Social scientists who had supported the administration and helped to draft many of its policies behaved as Truman did and met the same resentment. And they offered a more vulnerable target to bullying investigators, if only because they were more outspoken.

When Eisenhower succeeded Truman, the red-hunting show kept going for a while longer, but people became bored with it when they realized that, though there had been Communist infiltration, it had had no decisive effect on postwar policies. The issue is now dead, i.e. academic—The Academic Mind resembles nothing so much as a fish left behind by the receding tide. Despite the promise of the title, the authors map only that small, rather untidy corner of the academic mind in which the whole lurid spectacle has been left to moulder. Nevertheless, much can be learned from the book—and not least of all that “the difficult years,” though releasing pent-up emotions, did not teach the intellectual community much. Represented here by the authors as well as their subjects, the academy seems still unwilling to distinguish liberals and radicals from Communists. The matter is no longer in the public eye, but the confusion persists.



How did social scientists fare during “the difficult years”? The Academic Mind tries to answer this question by measuring the degree to which they were, or felt themselves to be, threatened or impeded in their broad academic functions. However, the answer given by the book does not rest on the evidence collected with so much admirable ingenuity. The interpretations favored by the authors seem to me to follow more from the bias they share with their respondents than from their data. I have seldom read anything Professor Lazarsfeld had a hand in without learning a great deal—but here, as so often happens, the dazzling brilliance of his means altogether outshines the results.

No comparable investigation of the academic mind was undertaken in past decades. Hence the authors could at best hope to establish an initial “bench mark” which might be useful if the matter is ever investigated again. Yet Lazarsfeld and Thielens often write as though a professor’s saying “I am more intimidated today than yesterday” proves that yesterday (or tomorrow) he could not have said the same thing. Isn’t it possible, on the contrary, that anxiety about threats to academic freedom increases as the freedom does, and that professors are prone to discount the present in favor of rosier-seeming past or future periods?

Although this difficulty is acknowledged (and then quietly disregarded), the authors never quite resolve the ambiguity of the question they set themselves; it remains unclear whether they tried to find out to what degree social scientists actually were threatened, or to what degree they felt threatened. Far too little weight is given to the possibility that since most social scientists hold left-of-center views, they were likely to feel uncomfortable and perhaps threatened during “the difficult years” simply because right-of-center views had gained an unaccustomed ascendancy.

The meat of the book lies in an unexceptionable index of academic “productivity,” and more questionable indices of “apprehension” and “permissiveness.” The authors find, roughly, that the most “productive” and “permissive” were also the most “apprehensive” professors. “The difficult years,” they hint, were the cause of the apprehension and therefore of an unusual danger to academic freedom.

“Apprehension” means perception or understanding—or fear. The “apprehension index” only registers fear and anxiety, but it is used to suggest that professors were apprehensive because they apprehended a real danger. Yet some professors might have suffered from anxieties displaced onto but not caused by “the difficult years.” The authors briefly ponder the possibility that the more productive professors were more apprehensive because higher intellectual performance may be associated with a higher anxiety level. They were unable to test this, and later the unexplored possibility is altogether ignored, as are all sources of anxiety other than external threats and lack of institutional defense against them. In short, the “apprehension index” is interpreted as though it measures an objective threat rather than the anxiety of those who—rightly or wrongly—feel threatened. It will not do, therefore, to claim that the authors were measuring fear regardless of its source or legitimacy. This plea would strip their work of any relevance to the issue of academic freedom. As Robert Oppenheimer once said, “The answer to fear cannot always lie in the dissipation of the [external] causes of fear; sometimes it lies in courage.”

It is possible, too, that professors classified as “highly apprehensive” magnified their anxiety and concern about the danger they thought they were in in order to magnify their own courage (or minimize their timidity). Lazarsfeld and Thielens do not seriously entertain this hypothesis, although it offers a straightforward explanation for the fact, duly noted by them, that the “highly apprehensive” professors usually said they would volunteer to do just those things they said they were afraid of: join suspect organizations; subscribe to suspect magazines; and protest against exclusion of controversial topics, speakers, and so on. An exceptional person may volunteer to do just what he is “apprehensive” of. (Plato does not report that Socrates—in the face of very real danger—trimmed his sails; but neither does he report him as “highly apprehensive.”) But are we to suppose that college professors are always that exceptional? Should we not inquire whether some, at least, might be cherishing a romantic image of themselves as courageously defying the forces of evil? The question is not even raised in The Academic Mind. The authors wonder whether the defiant intentions of the respondents were carried out. They were. But Lazarsfeld and Thielens never question whether there actually was defiance involved in reading a liberal magazine like The Reporter, or only a fantasy of defiance. (I suspect that on many campuses it took more courage to subscribe to the National Review.) The authors themselves point out that professors believe they are ranked very low in popular esteem, when in fact they are ranked quite high: right after Cabinet members, according to some surveys. Perhaps the professors’ apprehensiveness is as unrealistic as their judgment of their own social status.

One last point about the “apprehension scale”: if the late Senator McCarthy had filled out the Lazarsfeld-Thielens questionnaire, mutatis mutandis, he would have been found at least as “apprehensive” of Communists as Dean Acheson. If the questionnaire were submitted, mutatis mutandis, to Colonel Nasser, he would turn out to be “highly apprehensive” of Israel. How useful is a scale that would label as “apprehensive” (1) a person who wants to play the hero and magnifies a danger so as to advance his own career; and (2) as equally apprehensive a person who realistically apprehends an actual danger and faces it; and (3) a person who declares himself apprehensive of something because he loathes it though he has no reason to fear it? All types were doubtless present among the respondents. No conclusions can be drawn as long as they are not distinguished.



The “permissiveness index” leads to less ambiguous but also less significant results. Professors Lazarsfeld and Thielens decided that only questions establishing the degree of tolerance of Communists and of opinions and personalities considered leftist were pertinent. Of course they are entitled to think so. But to label the resulting scale a “permissiveness index” is awkward and misleading. Had they wanted to measure permissiveness, they might have included items such as “Should Gerald L. K. Smith and William Z. Foster have the same right to make speeches on campus as other political leaders?”1 Their questions measure only tolerance toward the left. And since the authors conscientiously report elsewhere that the respondents were overwhelmingly inclined toward the left, it turns out that the “permissiveness index” measures how permissive some professors were toward their own views when articulated by others. Even a Communist respondent would be classified as “highly permissive”! Of course, most of the social scientists did not share the Communist or pro-Communist views they felt should be aired. Yet their own beliefs were historically more continuous with leftist than with rightist views. The same professors, if tested for it, might turn out to be much less tolerant of rightist than of leftist views. We then might have to classify as “highly intolerant” some of the social scientists now rated as “highly permissive.”

According to the interviews compiled in The Academic Mind, research and publication, too, were impaired because professors turned cautious in the face of threats and attacks; they avoided controversial subjects in the classroom, secretly trimmed reference lists, even eliminated courses in comparative economics and other dangerous subjects, and avoided writing on contemporary history, Russia, Marxism, etc. The respondents do not hesitate to portray themselves and their colleagues as public heroes and private cowards. In their eagerness to indict enemies whom they despised, professors drew a self-portrait which is fortunately as unrealistic, in my opinion, as it is unattractive.

If reticence in dealing with controversial subjects was a fact, a dearth or at least a decrease of research papers and books on Soviet economics and politics and other subjects named as delicate would have occurred in professional journals. My own impression, however, is that social scientists published more work on these subjects during “the difficult years” than before. Nor do I believe that there was less research into Marxism or less teaching of comparative economics than formerly. There is no evidence of the “toning down” of oral and written work that respondents attribute to each other. I am sorry I only have my impression to offer on this point. Here Professors Lazarsfeld and Thielens had a splendid opportunity to verify objectively whether their respondents had been as intimidated as they claimed. Publications, college catalogues, etc., etc., were all available—one could have compared the actual behavior of social scientists with their own account of it. The authors did not do so, yet they present data on “patterns of caution” as though they were certain of dealing with fact and not fancy.

Suppose there actually were less publications on controversial topics. Did professors retrench because they were afraid? In his book on voting behavior, Professor Lazarsfeld found that when exposed to cross currents—e.g., a Democratic family tradition and a new suburban Republican situation—voters tend to withdraw and become non-voters, though they are not intimidated. Perhaps social scientists, inclined to the left, perceived new facts hard to reconcile with their accustomed views and withdrew in a similar manner.

All too often social scientists have failed to draw the distinction between “heretics” and “conspirators” which the authors cite in their work but do not use. Yet the distinction is indispensable for understanding “the difficult years.” Part of the reason these years were difficult for the academic community was because of its refusal to distinguish conspirators from heretics. In turn, part of the public refused to distinguish heretics from conspirators, and pressure was applied to oust both. The public, I think, was confused; but the academic community was also confused.



1 Adapted from a questionnaire of the American Civil Liberties Union.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link